Christianity - Jesus' religion or the religion about him?
Christianity - Jesus' religion or the religion about him?
Confessions of an Evangelical Refugee
God. Just the word itself evokes...provokes...attracts...repels. It is just a word. A noise. Too many claims have been made. "God" wants goodness, God wants light, God wants mayhem, God wants a clean fight...God wants peace, God wants war, God wants famine, God wants chain-stores, God wants sedition, God wants sects, God wants freedom, God wants Semtex...God wants shrines, God wants Law, God wants crusades, God wants jihad, God wants good, God wants bad..." (Roger Waters, "What God Wants" from the Amused to Death CD).
Relinquishing all claims to God's support for my own religion and desires, what I want is, for lack of adequate terms, to be in harmony with what it all is. In harmony with the God beyond my conceptions of "God" - complete union:
A fish cannot drown in water,
A bird does not fall in air.
In the fire of creation,
Gold doesn't vanish: the fire brightens. Each creature God made
Must live in its own true nature;
How could I resist my nature,
That lives for oneness with God?
-- Mechthild of Magdeburg
Whether we believe in God or Tao, (i.e., is God a being or the Ground of Being?), personal or impersonal or transcending either one, we want to be in the Way flowing with this.
"I don't believe in God," the alienated person cries. Well, describe this God you don't believe in and I probably don't believe in that either. But it's just a mental construct anyway, a mental idol. So, what is the reality, if any, beyond the word? One might declare "God is Light Unbearable." Yes, but God is also Unfathomable Darkness. "God is the Father." Yes, and the "mother" bringing into existence and nourishing all things. The "King of Kings and Lord of Lords Most High." Well, then what was God before there was an earth and humans with kings and kingdoms and lords? What is God before God said "Let there be light?" Unfathomable darkness, vast, subtle, perfect, deep, silent. Unutterable. Beyond existence and non-existence:
St. Dionysius, in his treatise to Timothy said:
As for you, beloved Timothy...quit the senses, the workings of the intellect, and all that may be sensed and known, and all that is not, and is. For by this you may unknowingly attain, in as far as it is possible, to the one-ness of Him who is beyond all being and knowledge....But take heed lest the profane hear - those, I say, who cling to creatures, and imagine in themselves that nothing is beyond being, beyond existences, but suppose themselves to know Him "who maketh darkness his hiding-place".
We live in a time when the designation "Christian" has become somewhat distasteful to the general public and even to many Christians. This is because a certain sector of it has made too many thoughtless declarations about what God is like, violent assertions about what God wants, and too many shallow proscriptions and prescriptions about what it means to be a Christian. Much of the Protestant fundamentalist movement in America has become a branch of Christianity that, for the most part, no longer understands itself, while at the same time thinking that it represents all true Christianity. Consequently, there are many of what I call "evangelical refugees" floating around trying to figure out how to believe in what comes across as an ancient Near Eastern blood-religion trying to find its identity in a world of television, space travel, quantum physics, automobiles, suburban neighborhoods, modern medicine, and market shares. I think the modern agnostic looks at the Christian and his religious conceptions much the same way a Christian might look at a "superstitious" Shinto household that has a little grimacing idol above the front door to repel evil spirits. And in a society based on democratic values, the Christian often thinks he or she must believe that the universe is a monarchy, with God in the role of a beneficent tyrant-king of the ancient Near East. Its easy to forget that all such images of God are just that - images.
Fortunately, many other Christians have the confidence to be intimately involved with other faiths. Instead of a sort of spiritual imperialism that, like all imperialistic powers feels threatened by other ideas, these Christians see something that lies beyond all religion, and allows, even compels open, loving dialogue with other faith traditions. Without such investigation or friendship we either tend to assume other insights are all wrong (at least where they don't agree with ours), or at best, condescendingly damn them with faint praise. This is not the confidence of faith; it is just fervent clinging to the hope that our understanding of the universe will prove true. Faith, on the other hand, is trust in what actually is, whatever it may turn out to be. When you are aware of the God beyond all images of "God," all truth is God's truth.
To the degree that Christianity has been allowed to become a book-religion, it has forgotten that with the Gospels, the old "age of the letter" has passed, and the "age of the spirit" has come (St. Paul). As Adolph Deissmann says in Light From the Ancient East (Baker, 1978), "It began without any written book at all. There was only the living word-the gospel, but no gospels. Instead of the letter there was the spirit. The beginning, in fact, was Jesus himself."
The writings of the New Testament arose from Christians' own experiences of the Spirit of Christ in various contexts, and were not written as another Bible or a reference book for static dogma or moral pretexts. The written records of early Christians' experiences and understanding of Christ can check against error and total subjectivism, but misunderstood, they can become dead, static dogma instead of living, direct experience. For the deluded mind a thousand books of scripture are not enough. For the awakened mind, even a single word is too much. - Zen Saying.
Christianity, in America at least, has become associated too much with a lifeless type of moralism, and issues of politics and legislation, and not enough with true spiritual life. We seem to think that if we can just do all the right things, everything will be all right and the world will be cured of its ills and that's the Kingdom of Heaven, or will at least bring the kingdom of heaven. So, the religious "right" might really know they're Christian if they can be against "unchristian" things. And Christianity has become largely understood, even by Christians, as a faith against everything else: against "the world" and worldliness, against other religions, even against the self. Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers about a seminar in which the Zen master D.T. Suzuki expressed some amusement about this aspect of Christianity. Suzuki stood up and said, "God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion!"
It seems as long as we're sin-conscious enough, we can identify ourselves as Christians. A good friend of mine, a minister, used to do a funny imitation of the "holiness movement" of his boyhood. Screwing his face into a righteous scowl, he'd declare, "Bless God, I don't swear, drink, smoke, spit or chew or go with those who do, and I don't play cards, dance or go to movies!" Conversely, we could add the positives: "I go to church regularly, tithe, vote for every "family-values" legislation I've been told is right, and even my minivan is sanctified by a chrome fish." And it's a wonder that so few have noticed that in the life and teaching of Jesus in the gospels, this exaggerated sin-consciousness is peculiarly absent -- except among the religious fellows whom Jesus corrects for missing the point, or for their hypocrisy. But today also, the question is rarely considered as to whether living for such distinctions really has anything to do with compassion for your fellows or delight in God. Often it comes from clinging allegiance to an abstraction, a code of "Christian conduct." Dead. But the problem really reminds me of the man who ran up to Jesus, fell to his knees and said, "Good Rabbi, what must I do to gain eternal life?" Jesus raised up a question mark against his notion of goodness and gave him what Zen Buddhists might call a koan:
"Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Jesus continued: "You know the commandments: Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bear false witness; Do not defraud; Honor your father and mother." The man said, "Rabbi, all these have I kept since I was a boy." And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "There is one thing you lack: go, sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have heavenly treasure; then come and follow me." When the man heard this his face clouded over and he went away sick at heart, for he was a man who had large estates. And Jesus looked around at his disciples and said, "Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
What is good? Jesus ignored the man's claims to following an abstract code and asked the man to do one thing based on true compassion instead of moral conceptualism. He was also asking him to empty himself of all the stuff that is not eternal. You want to know eternal life? A camel doesn't get through the eye of a needle unless it becomes nothing. Jesus told his followers: "Unless your righteousness is deeper than the righteousness of the scribes [copyists of the written religious/moral law], you will never enter the kingdom of God."
There is no real way to practice a Christianity that has become destitute of its deeper, or mystical, element. We are left with shallow Jesus-imitations but without daring to or knowing how to really live in his freedom, love, confidence or mind-heart. Preaching has largely been reduced to endless refinements of the exhortation to be good or about what is "surely to be believed." There are of course, notable and happy exceptions to this blah picture. Thomas Merton is a wonderful example. This Trappist poet-monk did much in his quiet way to help modern Christians return to their deeper roots; he also had a respect for and friendly dialogue with eastern meditative traditions like Zen, and the Taoist wisdom of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. See Merton's The Way of Chuang Tzu in the recommended reading page here. Also recommended is his book, Contemplative Prayer with introduction by the Zen poet and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Also, the World Community for Christian Meditation has opened for many the practice of Christian meditation and the work of John Main, OSB, and plays a beautiful role in the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. They have given me permission to link to their site:
For an example of some of the beautiful exchanges taking place between Christians and Buddhists, please see their article here, and for the profound friendship between the WCCM and the Dalai Lama here. The Rev. John R. Mabry illuminates essential core elements of the Christian faith in his treatment of the Tao Te Ching and shows how its wisdom closely parallels Jesus teachings. Mabry's insightful approach gives Christians the Gospel afresh - more compassionate and more universal and more relevant than we have typically imagined.
These meditative traditions remind us that God, by whatever name/term you use, is beyond any of the notions or conceptions of that name. Robert E. Kennedy, author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, discusses this in relation to contemplative prayer (excerpt here). This should not surprise us; the ancient Hebrews knew the importance of YHWH, the unpronounceable or unnamable name. You see, names are just concepts, not the reality. When one speaks of "God" it is a noise, a concept, a notion, an abstraction, not the reality. Just as you cannot get wet in the word "water," neither can you get saved in a concept or notion of God. Nevertheless, we cling to the notion as a mental idol. The Reality is beyond what we can talk about. As soon as we begin to talk about God, it is no longer God we are talking about. Lao Tzu knew the same in relation to Tao, and opens with: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal Name." Tao means "word" or "way" (among other meanings) and is the term used in a translation of the Gospel of John into Chinese to speak of the pre-existent Christ: "In the beginning was the Tao…" Here we have a Word that is out of the grasp of language; it is a life lived, the logos ["word" in Greek] made flesh, dwelling among us: the eternal became temporal, the transcendent became immanent. Not static, written, or dead, it is not able to be contained in thoughts, it is Life itself manifesting in flesh. Brian B. Walker's translation of the above verse from the Tao Te Ching is instructive to Christians if we use the word God where it uses Tao:
Tao is beyond words
and beyond understanding.
Words may be used to speak of it,
but they cannot contain it.
"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought." - Basho
Even personal experience does not contain the fullness of the Reality experienced. That is, our experience of a walk in the woods leaves out a lot of the actual things happening in that walk. And when we create an idea of that experience, the idea is only an approximation to that experience. Then the language or words we use to communicate it are in turn only an approximation to this idea. The mistake is in thinking that reality is limited to what we can describe in words. But what we say is far, far removed from the reality itself. A Hindu poet called Brahman: "Thou before whom all words recoil." Clinging to the words is delusion, even if they are helpful or "Christian" terms. Is there a way beyond this clinging to notions about God? Yes. Meditation is the unclinging state of mind that encounters this Reality and finds no words adequate to define it. In this regard, the Christian can read The Cloud of Unknowing, a famous but anonymous work on the mystic nature of union with God. "Mystic" or "mysticism" conjures nutty images in today's culture, but here we're using a specific meaning: direct experience with that which transcends words, notions, or ideas. Historically such Christians were treated as a glitch in the tradition and routed out or condemned. The following is a quote of Alan Watts in his introduction to his translation of The Theologia Mystica of Saint Dionysius, regarding the institutional Christianity's suspicion of mystical experience: This is strange - in that Jesus himself, if we are to credit The Gospel of John, was most undoubtedly a mystic, in the strict sense of one who has realized union with God. But in becoming the religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus, Christianity separated itself from the basic insight of its master, and regarded him as a bizarre deus ex machina in the plot of history. In asking its followers to go by his life and example, it denied them access to the state of consciousness from which that life proceeded by insisting that Jesus alone was God incarnate, and that God cannot be in us in the same way it was in him. But a man so uniquely privileged cannot serve as an example for others. Christianity thus became an impossible religion which institutionalized guilt in failing to be Christlike as a virtue.
St. Dyonisius disposes of all possible rational descriptions of "what God is like" as mental idols; what is left is direct union with God, beyond concepts. Watts likens this to "scraping a painting of a sun in a blue sky off a window so that the actual sun may be seen..." This is the true sun beyond our religious images and culturally conditioned terms. Compare Paul Tillich's phrase, "the God beyond God. In my own Christian experience words and culturally-Christian concepts became too obviously limited to approach the Unnamable, and prayers become more like sighs, or silenced intent, words falling short. When I heard of the Hindu poet calling out to "Thou before Whom all words recoil," I heard someone of a different culture and understanding have the same experience I have regarding the eternal or transcendent. Ironically, it is in Zen practice that I have come to a more natural expression of my Christian faith, and have come to find out this is far more common than I had imagined. The dialogue between the two is readily available, both from the Christian tradition and the Buddhist (see the Interreligious book page for a few examples).
In closing, I'd like to pass on a story. One of Zen master Gasan's monks visited the university in Tokyo. Returning, he asked the master if he had ever read the Christian Bible. Gasan replied, "No. Please read some of it to me." The monk read from the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew. After reading Christ's words about the lilies in the field, he paused. Master Gasan was silent for a long time. "Yes," he finally said, "Whoever uttered these words is an enlightened being. What you have read to me is the essence of everything I have been trying to teach you here!"
So, what am I, a Christian, a Taoist, or a Zen Buddhist? They're all labels, that is all. No term contains the essence, which is better glimpsed in the Zen master Yung-chia's Song of Enlightenment:
You cannot grasp It;
Nor can you get rid of It.
In not being able to get It, you get It.
When you speak, It is silent;
When you are silent It speaks.
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