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Several recent excellent books offer us a contemporary interpretation or reinterpretation of the teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, and Christianity. Among them are Mysticism for Modern Times by Willigis Jager, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning by Steven Patterson, and The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg. Jager is a German Benedictine Catholic monk who was influenced by his study of Zen Buddhism in Japan for six years. Patterson and Borg are American Protestant theologians and members of the Jesus Seminar. Patterson is an acknowledged scholar of the Gospel of Thomas, a fourth century manuscript discovered in Egypt in 1945. And Tolle, who has lived and taught in several countries, might be called a generic spiritual philosopher, influenced by his study of Eastern and Western religious traditions in an effort to understand a radical enlightenment or mystical experience he had following years of depression. This is definitely an intercultural and interfaith group of authors who, I think, offer us a radically different but quite similar interpretation of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Perhaps it is a naive oversimplification, but I think they have independently concluded that the primary message of Jesus was simply: The kingdom of heaven is within, The kingdom of heaven is without, God is within, God is without, God is everywhere, God is all of it, There is nothing but God. And, this is the zinger: We just don’t realize it! In his book, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor,
Joseph Campbell says, “In the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 113) Jesus’ disciples ask him, ‘When will the Kingdom come?’ He replies, ‘It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’" “Not seeing it,” Campbell says, “we live in the world as though it were not the Kingdom. If you see that the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth while others do not see it, the End of the World has come for you, for the world as it was for you has indeed ended. You are not to interpret the End of the World concretely.” Campbell also says, “In addition to being spread upon the earth around you, the Kingdom of God is within you.” He is referring to Luke 17:20-21, “And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God cometh, Jesus answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here or there! for Lo, the kingdom of God is within you.’" The message that God is within, without, and everywhere, that God is everything, and there is nothing that is not God, is the metaphysical and mystical message that Jesus was trying to convey. This interpretation does not diminish in any way the moral and ethical teachings of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, it provides the underlying foundation and rationale for them. Jesus taught that morality and ethics should stem from recognition of the dignity and equality of all beings, regardless of their gender, social, economic, educational, health, criminal, religious, and political status. These were revolutionary teachings at the time and brought Jesus into conflict with civil and religious authorities as a social and political threat. Morality and ethics, Jesus taught, were the natural byproducts of the realization that we are all an interconnected, unified whole, that we are all one, that I am you, that you are me, that thou are that. But, again, it is important to recognize that, in fact, we just don’t realize it. We may acknowledge our interconnectedness intellectually but full realization, enlightenment, or the experience of union with God depends upon intuitive, experiential, and transcendental insight into
the interdependent unity of all beings, of all mental and physical phenomena, of all of creation. Unfortunately, this realization generally escapes us and even feels counter-intuitive because our socialization, conditioning, and past learning experiences have caused and continue to cause us to consciously and unconsciously separate ourselves out from the rest of humanity and from everything else. Moreover, our physiological and neurological limitations prevent us from directly perceiving the interconnected subatomic web of all of reality. And we become afraid, feel isolated and alienated, and fear death as an annihilation of our physical and mental being. We are lost in a “Cloud of Unknowing,” as the 14th Century Christian mystic put it. The illusion of separation is the original sin. The Old Testament - the Hebrew Scriptures and sacred book of Judaism - conveys through stories and prophesies the image of an externalized, patriarchal, anthropomorphic God, a God that is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, a God that is both vengeful and loving, a God that demands respect and fear, a God that tests his “chosen” people and dispenses rewards and punishments according to their obedience and righteousness. The New Testament of the Christians shifts the emphasis to a loving, caring, nurturing God, a God who promotes compassion, peace, and social justice through his “Only begotten Son, Jesus.” Its stories and parables are generally interpreted less literally and more symbolically and metaphorically. Yet, for most Christians, the God of the New Testament remains an externalized, anthropomorphic being who now favors Christians as his “chosen” people, who grants a future heavenly salvation after death only to the righteous, who continues to punish sinners by sending them to hell, and who adds the additional, exclusive criteria for salvation that one must believe that Jesus Christ was the only Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, and crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead Six centuries later Mohammed declared that Jesus was but one in a long line of prophets. Jesus deserved to be revered, but he was not God incarnate and to elevate him to that position was a blasphemous violation of the First Commandment, “That thou shall have no other
gods before me.” (This idea was not new, according to a Jewish friend of mine, who said this has always been a belief in Judaism.) Islam evolved out of Mohammed’s teachings, declared him to be the last of God’s prophets, and asserted that failure to believe this made one a heathen and denied one access to a future heaven. Still, we see in Islam an externalized, anthropomorphic God who dispenses salvation only to the “chosen” few who live and believe in specified doctrinal ways. Perhaps, the “new” interpretation of Jesus’ teachings is an attempt to accommodate, integrate, and overcome the doctrinal differences within the Abrahamic religions, as well as the differences among all of the many religions and denominations that have arisen in the past and will undoubtedly continue to arise in the future. This “new” interpretation can be applied not only to Jesus’ specific teachings but also to the teachings of his followers who authored the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. For example, the crucifixion and resurrection refer not to the literal death and return to life of the physical body but to the death and transcendence of the ego or illusory sense of a self, to the realization that there is no enduring, autonomous, and separate self, to the realization that we are all one. And the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit refers to the exquisitely divine qualities that exist, not only in Jesus, but also within every one of us. Tolle expresses this by encouraging us to disidentify with all of the thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, cognitions, and memories that arise within our consciousness. Our identification with these constitutes our ego or sense of self, binds us to a past that no longer exists and a future that hasn’t arrived, and prevents us from realizing that there is only the now, the experience of the present moment. When this disidentification - not denial or dissociation - occurs, we are continuously and joyously being reborn and born again into each moment, moment after moment after moment. Ignorance leads us to cling to an illusory ego or sense of a self that is in complete control of its own destiny. This illusion clouds our ability to realize our interconnectedness with and dependence upon everything in existence and prevents us from experiencing that we
are but a part of a magical, mysterious, and mystical unfolding of an interconnected, continuously changing universe of physical and mental phenomena experienced in consciousness. When we transcend our sense of a separate self – when we realize there never was and can never be an autonomous and enduring self, simply because everything is interrelated and constantly changing that is when God will be known and enlightenment will be experienced. There is the knowing, the experiencing, and the being but without any “one” or “self” or “doer” involved in this unfolding of creation. Jewish author David Cooper is referring to this continuously unfolding process in the title of his book, God is a Verb. In this contemporary interpretation of the New Testament, Jesus’ primary teaching is that we must transcend our egos and surrender our sense of being separate individual selves in order to realize that we are all interconnected. We appear as individuated entities but are in fact interdependent parts of a unified whole that arises out of timeless, formless, nondualistic pure consciousness or awareness. This pure consciousness is, was and always will be characterized in its manifestation by continuously changing diversity, polarities, opposites, and duality, by what we call creation or reality. When we realize this, perhaps we will understand that when Jesus said, “I and the Father are One,” he was not claiming to be God or the only Son of God. He was modeling the possibility that each of us is capable of experiencing unity, oneness, and union with God. And that God is all of creation, including our moment-to-moment experience of its unfolding. Jesus was telling us that we are living in the Kingdom of Heaven now, but – and this is critical – we just don’t realize it, and until we do, our Kingdom, within and without, will continue to need lots of improvement. His morality teachings are as applicable today as they were 2100 years ago. So, in conclusion, it behooves us all to make the best of it, to live together in community, harmoniously, and compassionately, and to love one another. This is the ultimate expression of God’s will, of God, of enlightenment. And it results, not from the desire to selfishly satisfy or pleasure oneself or someone else, but from the realization that there is no difference between us, that I am you and you are me.
To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “Whatsoever you do unto others, even unto the least of your brethren, you do unto yourself.” ______________________________________________________ *Charlie Day is a retired psychologist who teaches meditation and Buddhism in Des Moines, IA. He enjoys sharing spiritual paths and can be contacted at (515) 255-8398, email@example.com, or www.desmoinesmeditation.org. This essay was initially presented to an Interfaith Book Study Group after discussing the books by Jager, Tolle, and Patterson. 8/8
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