There was a time when I was a conservative evangelical minister, fervently believing in the complete historicity and literal factuality of the Gospels, and accepting therefore the historical, traditional, orthodox, Christian interpretation of them. I don’t regret that, because it means that I know about this way of seeing things – I’ve been there – and it meant a great deal to me at that time. But books I wouldn’t have opened then, about up-to-date historical, literary, critical scrutiny, now have a place on my shelves, as do accessible books on philosophy, quantum science, analytical psychology, comparative mythology, buddhism, mind and consciousness etc. Honesty and integrity demanded changes in my beliefs. One key change is that my beliefs must continue to be open to further change. Buddhists are right, I think, in what they say about “attachment”.
Does this mean that Christianity, and Jesus, now have little or no meaning for me? Far from it, in my view (though perhaps not in the view of others). I see Jesus as a 1st century, Palestinian, flesh and blood, Jewish believer whose lifestyle, and whose understanding of the priority of the ‘spirit’ over the ‘letter’ of the Jewish Law, were a challenge to the religious ‘status quo’ of many in his day. That lifestyle and these teachings continue to be a challenge, as I see it, to any person who thoughtfully and reflectively reads through the pages of the Gospels.
Rather than go down that road in this post, however, I want to address what I see as the ‘heart of the matter’ in Christianity – the significance of the cross. If you read my blogs, you’ll know that, in general terms, I take the essential form of the language of religion to be myth, just as that of science is maths. Both require ‘interpretation’. I wouldn’t disagree that the Gospels have, within them, a measure of factual, historical background, but it’s impossible to definitively ‘filter’ out how much. To my way of thinking, that’s also, ultimately, ‘beside the point’.
The ‘point’, for me, is the impact and associated meaning of what I read and this, in my view, has less to do with ‘beliefs’ than with ‘values’. So, yes, Jesus died on a cross outside Jerusalem in the year 30, but some of the interpretations that have been attached to that event down through the years no longer, if taken literally, have much in the way of relevance and meaning for me – but with one key exception.
I view the cross in the ‘light’ (as I see it) of the myth of “the one who gives his life for the many”. This is one of the human psyche’s deep, archetypal images, and it has given rise to innumerable, world-wide and time-spread stories about dying and rising gods. For me, the symbolic image of Jesus,with his arms outstretched on the cross (hence the Salvador Dali painting above) is a movingly powerful symbol of ‘unconditional love’, which I regard as Christianity’s greatest gift to the world, paralleling that of Buddhism’s ‘compassion’.
My journey to where I now am, began in a surprisingly unexpected way. For some reason or another, although a resolutely Protestant minister, I chose to read a beautiful, insightful, deeply moving book, “Unconditional Love’, written by a Roman Catholic, Jesuit priest – John Powell. Thinking about that since, has almost convinced me that that there are indeed ‘book angels’, who know what we need to read, and when. This taught me a lesson I’ve tried always to remember – that I should never automatically, prejudicially, dismiss or ignore books, articles, videos and/or people with views different from my own. That, in itself, has to be a simple, low-level, requirement and embodiment of what ‘unconditional love’ includes. With space vanishing, I’ll say more about John Powell, unconditional love, and the cross of Jesus, in my next post …..
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