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LIVING IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN NOW

Charles Day*
www.desmoinesmeditation.org & click above on “More from this Publisher”

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,

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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, charlesday1@mchsi.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