Where Jesus Appears: Interpreting the Post-Resurrection Narratives

Resurrection. Rising from the dead? Empowerment? Continuing presence? Mythology? I’ve grown rather bored as of late with the historical quests for who Jesus really was. It’s tiring, really. One scholar says this, the other says that-next thing you know, Jesus hasn’t been deconstructed but shattered. Of course, that is somewhat exaggerated. I’ve definitely gained some valuable insights into who Jesus was and what he stood for. What I want to do now is move away from the historical criticism dimension and towards the metaphorical/literary approach. I would like to study the texts not for historical truth but for the value beyond the reductionists’ snare. As a start, I want to return to the Resurrection, not in terms of whether or not it was bodily, but what it tells us about the meaning of Jesus.

Jesus’ death should have ended his movement. That’s what happened, that’s what happens. Revolutionaries from the marginalized realms of society almost always contain the lifeblood of the movement. They are the standard, the incarnation of hope, the essence of the resistance. Yet in decapitating the head of the Jesus movement, Roman authorities unleashed a hydra that spread and grew in strength. Something was amiss. This is both a theological and historical question: Why did Jesus’ followers continue and grow, in contrast to the many other marginalized groups who have clashed with authority in the history of the world? I don’t intend to deal with this question directly in this post. Instead, I will focus on how Jesus’ life and message was internalized by his followers. Perhaps this will clarify future examinations of that question.

dawnLet’s now turn to the post-Resurrection narratives, starting with Matthew. Matthew is quite terse.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

I find this anecdote to be the most illuminating in Matthew’s recounting. Think in a Jewish context of the imagery of the mountain. Moses spoke with God on top of the mountain.

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites…” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (Exodus 19:3-6, 9).

I emphasize the Moses connection because from the start of Matthew’s Gospel, he compares Jesus to Moses. Take, for example, the accounts the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and Jesus’ flight from Herod. In the former, the Israelites escape the Pharaoh in Egypt and go to Canaan. In the latter, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt to avoid tyranny in Palestine. Jesus, then, is to be a liberator. But there’s a problem. Unlike Moses, Jesus wasn’t able to lead the Israelites on a long journey into the wilderness, away from bondage. Instead, he is killed. Matthew, then, is not so much concerned with the Resurrection as a triumph over death as he is with developing a profound truth: Moses never left. The Jews are always waiting for either divine or prophetic intervention but then don’t recognize it. They have a defeatist attitude, a sense of saying “no” to life. The Pharisees and Sadducees don’t deconstruct the system that oppresses them, but long for a future day when some powerful figure will. Those are the doubters mention in Matthew’s verse above-not doubters in his Resurrection (in the ancient world, the realms of earth and death were intimately connected), but in whether they have the ability. Matthew is turning this on its head. Jesus was the spark, but now is followers realize they have the ability to tend the flame of this new kingdom of freedom and community. And just as God does when speaking with Moses, he reminds them that he is always there, to the “end of the age,” the end of the age of oppression, when a new type of world will come forth.

Luke’s account uses a different angle. His narrative of the road to Emmaus is, for me, the most profound account of Jesus after the Resurrection. It is an account of communal mourning and compassion, breaking bread even in sorrow. According to Luke, the two disciples encounter a stranger whom they are unable to recognize in their despair. They allude to prior hopes that he was the redeemer-notice how the onus is on Jesus just as traditional Jewish thought placed the responsibility on some great intervening person or force. They discuss some other matters as the day progresses.

“As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28-35).

These verses reveals how Jesus’ followers saw him, how he continued to be among them. Jesus is found in hospitality and welcoming the stranger. But, even more important, it is the breaking of bread, the sharing of the meal where Jesus is most pronounced. In the meal, life is nourished and friendship may be cultivated. The meal is about community, loving your neighbor, participating in something more than oneself. The focus should not be on the figure of the stranger as Jesus rather, Jesus is to be found in the act itself. That is where the realization occurs.

The cross leaves us, as it did with the original disciples, with a feeling of loss. It is a moment of total deconstruction. Everything that gives comfort appears to fall away. Yet the Resurrection tells a different story. It reveals how the evils that Jesus stood against are the ones that crumble. For in the crucifixion, we are left with uncertainty and anxiety, but also new freedom. The Resurrection is our encounter with this freedom, showing us how we can turn what we thought was lost into a call for action, a call to dismantle that which stands against love, courage, and freedom. It is not about beating death, but embracing life.

Thoughts on Suffering and Peace

Well a lot has happened since my last post. Unfortunately, I can’t use blogging as an excuse to not do homework or study for the SATs… Anyways, I’m back, and since Easter was just last weekend, I figured it was as good a time as any to discuss suffering (and peace).

Before continuing, I want to stress that I don’t intend for my posts to (necessarily) have any rhyme or reason. If I contradict myself or appear to evolve, it’s because I’m simply discussing new insights. For me, guides to “truth” are no longer static entities.

buddha

As I have discussed before, Christianity has a suffering problem. Many atheist writers have come up with sound logical arguments against God’s existence using the problem of evil. The larger theological problem, as I see it, is that Christian theologians have boxed themselves into a corner with God. Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, described this issue in depth. In the west, God became a deity of philosophers. The ability to redefine God paved the way for Protestant theologians to proffer new images. The many denominations of Christianity today attest to the often unacknowledged malleability of God.

Perhaps, in an effort to solve this theological conundrum, Christianity could find value in two unlikely sources: Buddhism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Buddhism is dedicated to overcoming suffering within a non-theistic framework. Achieving a state of peace and bliss, nirvana, involves release from ideas. The Christian God, as it is usually discussed, is an unsystematic medley of ideas and concepts. In discussing nirvana, Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh said:

And that is why Nirvana is not something that you get in the future. Nirvana is the capacity of removing the wrong notions, wrong perceptions, which is the practice of freedom. Nirvana can be translated as freedom: freedom from views. And in Buddhism, all views are wrong views. When you get in touch with reality, you no longer have views. You have wisdom. You have a direct encounter with reality, and that is no longer called views.”

In a Christian context, FORGET EVERYTHING YOU WERE EVER TOLD ABOUT GOD! Or at the very least, don’t take symbolic language literally. Applying this Buddhist framework is truly radical, but it’s sound advice. Think about views and notions. They are individual and self-based, based in the ego. Our individual views are the foundations for our prejudices and biases, and thus cause our suffering. They prevent us from seeing in a pure light. And as Hanh has repeatedly emphasized, they serve as the justification for religious wars and deaths of countless people. Removing our views would open up our eyes and allow for us to interrelate in a less judgmental and selfish manner.

Now how can Jacques Lacan, a heterodox Freudian psychoanalyst, offer any help in solving Christianity’s theological problems? Lacan spoke of a three-part framework: the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. Contemporary theologian, Peter Rollins, has discussed this framework’s relation to God in some detail:

“We treat someone at the imaginary level when we see him or her as fundamentally like us. In other words, they are someone who we can admire, love, hate, be jealous of etc. This is relatively easy to understand as we’re broadly aware of the way we exist in competition, or solidarity, with those around us….

In traditional theological circles God operates more on the Symbolic level. Here God is not named as such, it is claimed that what we say about God reflects ourselves and that we must speak of God as “beyond being,” “ground of being,” or in some other way that avoids the idea of us “speaking of ourselves in a loud voice” (Karl Barth). It is claimed that there is an ineffable reality to God that cannot be penetrated; yet this impenetrable God exposes us to ourselves.”

In other words, the Imaginary is narcissistic and egotistical, while the Symbolic relates more to the customs and rules of a culture. At the Symbolic level, for Lacan, God is the Other, an illusory structure of existence that pervades our consciousness. Thus, as a societal structure, it is subject to change.

Yet similar to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, and release from ideas:

“The Real is a rupture. The Real cannot be imagined or symbolized, it does not occupy a place, and yet it takes place. The Real is a crack within our existing political, religious and cultural configurations, a resistance that prevents systems from claiming absolute knowledge. It is a destabilizing event that threatens to disrupt the balance maintained by our ideological commitments.”

Perhaps understood in this way, the experience of Christianity could be freeing and able to reduce suffering.

“Why are you happy?”

“Why are you happy?” my bishop asked me last night. That question was the culmination of what was a casual conversation about life. I stared at the wall, unsure of how to respond. My words couldn’t be superficial, yet they couldn’t be obnoxiously verbose, either. “I am conscious of living,” was my response. The conversation then turned to love and gratitude as being the ultimate expressions of a utopian world. Yet the question then became, do we reject the negative or embrace it? thoreau

After the conversation ended, I realized where I had first heard of the idea of being “conscious of living.” It was a speech I have referenced before, David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” Regardless of beliefs, it seems true that “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” or at the very least, the truth we can know is this reality, this existence. I have found that when I coast through life, unaware of those around me, absorbed in some meretricious pleasure for a period of time, I am actually miserable. From a religious perspective, being absorbed by the concept of an afterlife may be beneficial for hope, but should it distract us from the truth of this life? What happens if the eventual reality one conjures up is, in fact, a false, idolatrous hope, or as the philosopher of Ecclesiastes would put it, a “chase after the wind?” That is why when my bishop asked why I am happy, the answer was immersion in the mystery of this life.

But then there is the other question: whether or not we should reject the negative. For some time now, I have been inspired by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both seem to offer insights into this question. Job is usually interpreted as a commentary on why we suffer, but I think there is more. Otherwise, the answer would be that we suffer because God and Satan make a wager on whether or not we will crack under pressure. Job, as I have come to appreciate it, discusses why the righteous suffer, and contrasts itself with the traditional idea that the righteous will prosper and the wicked face destitution. At the end of the book, Job has an experiential conversation with God. Rather than the traditional monarchical image of God as a king who hands out reward and punishment, God emerges as the ever-present and transcendent force behind the mysterious wonder of existence. Job states:

“I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (Job 42:2-5, KJV).

How does this answer the question of the righteous suffering, and challenge the conventional wisdom? Well, in this case, there is no sense of inherent justice. God is awesome and full of wonder, but we are the ones who must accept the injustices of existence. It is up to us to embrace and respond to the negative aspects of life affirming the marvel of existence. When we retreat from life, misery can consume us, however when we are conscious of living, negativity can be overcome.

Ecclesiastes answers the question similarly and more directly. According to Qoheleth, the philosopher of the book, we chase after different idols of fulfillment, trying to make sense of life and create ultimate, unfettered happiness. This is wrong, however. By accepting the difficulties of life, we may immerse ourselves in it. Happiness, in the eyes of Qoheleth, is relative to the negative. As with Job, we can create a real sense of joy out of life’s despairing moments and injustices.

“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, KJV).

So I reaffirm my answer: I am happy because I embrace life in all of its joys and sorrows, and I try to live consciously, immersed in this world as the one truth I am sure is real.

Where I Find Beauty in Christianity

I would not call my father an ultra-deep religious thinker, at least not openly. He has been a church-going Catholic for over five decades, just like his parents and their parents so on and so forth. Yet even in his quiet devotion, he has come up with some gems over the years. One such pearl of great price is his emphasis on religion and beliefs being personal and determined by the individual first and foremost. That will serve as the basis of this post. However, as a corollary, I think beliefs should involve the input of others, so I encourage comments as a way of stimulating thought and inquiry.emmaus

Christianity is, for me, rooted in the present. At the same time, it is also rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. I try not to get caught up in the death of Jesus, because although that has played an important role in much of Christian history, I don’t think it captures the essence of the “Jesus movement.” In contrast to the Stoic resignation which had enabled the socioeconomic and political domination of a small percentage of elites, the message of Jesus was one of nonviolent action. The kingdom of God is a reality for the present, for the here and now. Unlike the Maccabees of a century earlier, the power of the Jesus movement and its ability to last would be based on its inclusiveness, justice, compassion, and focus on living intimately with God in this life, rather than violent revolt which provided only a temporary solution.

While I hold the physical life of Jesus in high esteem, I keep the resurrection just as close to my heart. I choose, however, not to view it as a climax because that connotes finality. I find little satisfaction in viewing the resurrection as an event which took place on a single day, in which the body of Jesus walked out of a grave. I am unable to relate to such an occurrence. Most likely, the disciples fled while Jesus was on the cross, his body was buried amongst other crucifixion victims, and he was left alone. Yet it is that situation that demonstrates the power of the Jesus movement. Most other disciples, when their leader had died, would have abandoned their dream of radical change. The disciples of Jesus however, as days, months, and even years went by, realized that it was more than a man who made the movement. The kingdom was waiting to be unleashed, and the presence of Jesus was inscribed forever on their hearts. The resurrection is much more powerful than a body rising from a grave. It is an experience which can be partaken of even today. The despair the poor, socially marginalized disciples had to overcome is testament to the dying and rising that occurs everyday. Despair is the closest we can come to death, meaninglessness, and emptiness; rather than stoic resignation, the resurrection calls for us to conquer despair. The resurrection is a courage to overcome the forces which bind us in this life. I try to embrace it. That, for me, is the crux of where I find beauty in Christianity.

This powerful experience could only be described in metaphorical, physical language. The stories the Gospel writers used are powerful expressions of the meaning of the resurrection. Perhaps the most common symbol is Jesus as the paschal lamb, sacrificing himself as a ransom for atonement. While this may be one image which has been developed more than others, it is certainly not the only one. However, its meaning extends into the heart of Jewish Christianity in the first century. No longer would the bonds of sin and legalism hold back anyone from the God accessible to all.

A favorite of mine is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This captures the despair which the disciples must have experienced. Two of them are walking and meet a man (Jesus) whom they do not recognize. They sadly recount all that as happened, but the man encourages them, saying it was all meant to happen. As they eat the disciples recognize the man as Jesus, and he vanishes. It concludes by stating how they recognized him in breaking bread. The meal is integral to Christianity. It represents friendship, openness, and acceptance. Those virtues are representative of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Even early in his mission, it is emphasized that Jesus opened up the table to all who desired. This story is at the heart of Christianity, and the call to courage and action manifested in the resurrection.

During this holiday season, I am immensely grateful for my Christian upbringing. I am also thankful that I have been able to explore and, as my dad has said, make my beliefs personal.

Eternal Life: Leaving the Mystery A Mystery

one with god

It seems that for as long as mankind has been externally and internally conscious, there has been speculation about eternal life, or an existence beyond this current state of being. Our recognition of finitude has naturally led us to posit various ideas of the afterlife and/or immortality. From ancient literature to Swedenborg to blogposts today, fascination with the mystery of mankind’s potential is clear.

Interestingly enough, much of ancient Jewish literature before the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE had little to do with life after death. Sheol was simply a place where just about everyone ended up. The focus was on this life. Take, for example, Qoheleth, the philosopher of Ecclesiastes, who concludes somewhat depressingly, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” and that life is often a “chase after wind.” Yet all was not lost. We could still live fully in this life, an ideal which he captures by stating that one should “eat, drink, and be merry.” I am not encouraging constant partying, however metaphorically, that ideal emphasizes the value which can be taken out of this life. The Jewish apocalyptic genre changed Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, such as in Daniel which touches upon the resurrection of the dead. At the period when Daniel was written, Hellenistic thought was influencing Jewish doctrines, and a transformation began to occur. The timing was ripe for new conceptions of God, the adversary, and the afterlife, all of which would become more objectified.

Christianity, of course, has led to vivid depictions of the afterlife. During medieval times and especially in response to the Enlightenment era, Christianity became a religion focused on the afterlife. Dante Alighieri’s lucid descriptions of heaven, hell, and purgatory is perhaps the most well-known example, however others, such as the mystic Meister Eckhart contributed to the images as well. As I mentioned earlier, Emanuel Swedenborg wrote widely publicized descriptions of the afterlife, with some of his ideas perhaps even influencing Joseph Smith.

The point of this brief historical discussion is to illustrate how much the mystery of eternal life has influenced the speculative thought of mankind. In keeping with this tradition, now seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts.

The short answer is that I don’t know what any state of post existence may contain. Though I may be unsure of its exact nature, I like to believe that there is eternal life. Yet the most I am willing to say is that when I die, I believe it will be into the immanent and transcendent, accepting and sustaining God at the ground of my current state of being.

Eternal life can be experienced even now. What is eternity, but the confluence of time without time or limits; paradoxical on paper, but such are the limits of language. I would like to speculate on the exact nature of that which is beyond existence but language prevents me. I digress. The blessings of eternal life in this existence can be attained by overcoming the powers which serve to bind our actualization and fulfillment. As the theologian Bruce Epperly has written, the ultimate goal of life in terms of achieving fulfillment is growth in God, or as Paul wrote, growth through a life in Christ.

The Christian message should not be focused on the afterlife, as that leads to a focus on creeds and requirements. The Christian life should be one of cultivating a relationship with God in this life. With any relationship, there are ups and downs. In our imperfection, we may be unfaithful. Eternal life, however, cannot be distorted with images of reward and punishment in the form of eternal joy for some and torment for others. The imperfections of our finitude will never render us cut off from God, though we may be estranged. As I must include Paul Tillich into this post somehow, we can always accept that we are accepted. God as love means that God accepts us, trying to unify all that is, and working to bring about our individual and collective fulfillment. Our existential despair can be overcome not just as an individual, but also through experiencing the joy of others as they strive to grow and actualize themselves. The offer of acceptance and the ability to grow is, to modify Paul’s statement in Romans, limited to neither Christian nor Jew, atheist nor believer, rich nor poor.

(https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/everlasting-life-a-progressive-perspective/)
(http://www.marcusjborg.com/2010/03/17/agnostic-about-the-afterlife/)
(http://mysticalseeker.blogspot.com/2007/10/borg-and-afterlife.html)

Miracles Reappraised

I feel as though my prior, cursory treatment of spiritual experiences and the miraculous was inadequate, especially since it only addressed healing. In this post, I will seek to define a miracle, lay out modernist/philosophical objections, and conclude with a postmodernist/perspective-based model of miracles with God in the panentheistic sense being assumed.

The courage of being even in despair.

The courage of being even in despair.

What is a miracle? Assuming a theistic deity, a miracle today involves a God who intervenes from “out there” (outside of the universe?) in order to alter apparent laws of nature. The interventions occur randomly, often appearing to have little rhyme or reason; but more on this in a moment. Thus a miracle today consists of outdated perceptions of deity, in which accruing God’s favor through supplication is the primary vehicle for effecting a miraculous occurrence.

The modern era has yielded scientific and philosophical objections to this concept of a miracle. Scientific objections include a Newtonian-based reality in which the universe operates mathematically and is therefore closed to intervention. That is the primary reason for the emergence of deism in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a God of science. Although the Newtonian worldview has been challenged, the idea that there are scientific laws in the universe still retains a level of legitimacy. Beyond laws of nature, the problem of the potentially infinite vastness of the universe poses another problem to traditional ideas about miracles. From where does God intervene? As I alluded to earlier, is it outside the universe? How distant is God? Such is the problem with the theistic emphasis on divine objectification and transcendence, rather than a balance between immanence and transcendence. Finally, and perhaps most critical, is the philosophical problem of evil. Why does God let people suffer continually? How can God help some while letting others suffer? Though it has been stated before, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen without preventing millions of deaths? What about the genocide in Darfur today? Perhaps the words of the Epicurean Paradox will summarize best the conundrum of the theistic deity:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Perhaps then, the miraculous needs to be reappraised and understood differently. In this sense, phenomena deemed inexplicable due to the boundaries of science and the modern worldview are instead seen as “marvels” (see Crossan, “Birth of Christianity”). The postmodern understanding which I propose sees the miraculous in light of both the modern worldview and the power of perspective. In illustrating the power of perspective, the late author DF Wallace recounted a story of an atheist and a believer:

“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was, was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

In sum, the miraculous is in the eye of the beholder. However, I believe this dichotomy can be transcended. For one thing, God as both immanent and transcendent addresses the problem of where God is located. To illustrate this concept of the divine, I use this analogy (I think Marcus Borg has used it as well):

All that is (ie all that is part of being) is represented by a circle. God is represented by a larger circle which surrounds the first one.

This also addresses the issue of the Newtonian worldview. Marvels occur within the creative structure of being. In other words, the Newtonian world is merely the product of being itself. As I discussed in a prior post, they come about in moments of grace in which a person experiences the power of the divine through courage (which I use synonymously with faith).

The problem of evil also becomes irrelevant, as instead of the onus being placed on God to act as we endeavor to manipulate through prayer and other methods of gaining favor, the onus is on us to courageously move beyond all anxiety and experience the divine within; or, in a different sense, we experience the full potential of our humanity. With the theistic understanding, God interfered with free-will. However, with a panentheistic understanding, our free-will both enables us to experience (and exude) the divine, and, unfortunately, make us responsible as agents of suffering and tragedy. One who choses the latter option has surrendered to the despair of existence and only serves to spread it on to others. Natural tragedies as well are the unfortunate products of the structure of being. Suffering is a part of existence. Yet an immanent God is always within and around us when we suffer. We have the ability both within and without of ourselves to overcome 1) the negativity of anxiety and 2) estrangement from the divine throughout. That is the meaning of a participatory Kingdom of God, in which we transcend the perceived limits of ourselves to overcome the evils which appear to dominate.

Healing: Saying Yes to Life

What is healing? It seems like a simple enough question. Healing is what happens when a doctor prescribes medicine and recovery follows. Healing is when a religious figure blesses a person and God intervenes to make them physically healthy again. I reject those meanings; the first is too simple and the second is based on a misconception of the nature of healing by faith.healing

As I have made clear in prior posts, I reject the theistic understanding of God, in favor of God as the ground of being, immanent and transcendent, engaged in a relationship with each of us. This God cannot be defined or fully grasped, but can be related to in Martin Buber’s I-Thou sense of the divine-human encounter. With the traditional understanding of deity, the problem of evil enters into the realm of faith healing. If a God within the structure of being, a God who is up there or out there, created the universe and, more specifically, earth, how can this allegedly intervening deity manifest itself in certain instances and not others? Wouldn’t it seem as though this God arbitrarily picks favorites? Thus, healing miracles in the traditional sense must be abandoned as part of an older worldview. A new way of viewing their revelatory nature must be revealed.

Faith healing is the resolution of an existential crisis. When we are sick and suffering, we often arrive at a point of despair; despair about life and a loss of the will to fight. The certainty of despair over fate and meaninglessness, which is the root cause of suffering, provides a shelter from the unfortunate realities of existence. Anxiety becomes a haven, yet at the same time, we are saying “no” to life. The power of healing within each and every one of us is rooted in our ability to give ourselves up to the grace of God. By this I mean that we say “yes” to life, overcoming the anxieties of existence. We have, as I have mentioned before, “the courage to be,” the courage to accept the negative components of existence into our own being. The faith aspect of healing has nothing to do with beliefs, but in accepting the reality of our relationship with God. Through this faith, we can become whole again, and the root causes of our illnesses can have no power over us.

A brief interlude: It is important, as John Crossan has pointed out, to distinguish between an illness and a disease. An illness is healed by what I described above, while a disease strictly refers to a physical ailment. The healing of illnesses can sometimes lead to the healing of diseases, but faith healing in and of itself is not directed towards disease. Although, physical suffering becomes less potent as the affirmation of life brings joy and peace. In this way, we can forget our suffering, as it ceases to be of primary concern.

The version of faith healing as outlined answers two questions posed by the modern worldview, namely: the problem of evil (as discussed above) and disruption of the so-called natural order of the universe. Both are answered by the realization that healing involves an act on the part of the person suffering, rather than through an intervention by God. God as the power of being cannot and does not intervene contrary to perceived laws of nature within this model. God does not intervene for specific people, but becomes manifest through the healer as the victim becomes responsive to the natural presence and reality of God as the core of their being.

The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

Dont-look-at-fingerThe dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.

Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.

While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?

First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.

Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:

“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”

Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.

The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.

*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.

Finding Meaning in the Resurrection

In my inaugural post, I briefly discussed my struggles with Christianity and how I came to (and continue to) terms with it. I have always enjoyed the traditional story of Jesus. As I grow older, I often become nostalgic around the holiday season, recalling memories of past Christmases. Unfortunately, I can no longer hold to what I perceive is a romanticized view of the birth of Jesus, although I still find value in it.* With this preface in mind, I continue to what I have come to understand about the resurrection.

I do not believe the body of Jesus resuscitated, and he walked out of his tomb. I see too many problems with the traditional historical narratives, both intra- and extra-canonical.† Rather than get into a lengthy discussion of Biblical exegesis and historical reconstruction, I will skip right to the point. What does the resurrection mean to me?

Above Us Only Sky

The resurrection lies within us, not above us.

Jesus embodied hope to his followers, who were primarily made up of social outcasts and dispossessed peasants in Galilee; although eventually, some educated scribes in Jerusalem evidently joined the movement. He advocated radical social change, yet with non-violent means. He was not apocalyptic in the sense of the coming kingdom of God, but instead advocated the view that the kingdom of God was here on earth waiting to be unleashed. The Kingdom of God, in that case, was a transcendently divine mandate for the followers of Jesus to strive for. In this sense, I would argue that Jesus emphasized a God who, as John Crossan put it, is “epiphanic,” working and manifesting itself through people, not intervening for people, or episodic. Jesus’ death created a conundrum for those who viewed him as the Messiah, God’s chosen servant on earth. As the oral stage of transmitting stories about Jesus developed, so did understandings of Jesus himself, as followers searched the Hebrew Scriptures and sought ways of testifying of the power of his message through interpretive narratives. Today, most scholars hold the view that the birth, Passion, and resurrection narratives developed last. In that sense, they were the magnum opus of the evangelists who were putting the oral stories into written form.

If that is truly the case, why not just say the evangelists were liars, telling fictional stories as theological apologetics? Because that misses the point. The resurrection of Jesus lies in the empowering of disciples to live by a mantra similar to what John Spong once stated, “Whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.” When Jesus died, the disciples fled; the movement was on the brink of collapse and the new hope found in Jesus almost blew away. Yet it didn’t. It is at this point that I think the Holy Spirit and the resurrection go hand in hand. The ruah (breath in Hebrew) personified the message of Jesus and brought itself back into the minds of his disciples, who realized a new consciousness, or reality, had been born (perhaps even unleashed). It is, as Spong said, “Christpower,” flowing then and flowing today. It is a rebirth into the kingdom of God on earth within and without. It is letting an old way of living die, and being born again into the fully human life of Jesus, who embodied what an experience of God, the sacred could be; an eternal mysticism, which can be partaken of now and forever.

A bodily resuscitation was simply a later interpretive device, emphasized by Paul and later Luke. However, as John Dominic Crossan pointed out, Paul’s attempt to defend a bodily resurrection led to creative attempts trying to defend a dualistic philosophy (1 Cor 15). Understood without Paul’s influence, the resurrection of Jesus could be seen as monistic, in which the spirit, or transcendent divine, within each of us is empowered to live, to be, to uplift, and to serve. Using the words of the late Paul Tillich, the resurrection gives us “The courage to be.” For me, that is where I find hope and meaning in the resurrection.

I conclude with a paragraph taken from the preface of Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity:

In the light of all that, the title of this section should be not “The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” but “The Fleshly Resurrection of Jesus.” I tend to use those words interchangeably, but Paul most certainly did not-and it is now clear why he would not. When, therefore, he says that “flesh and blood” cannot enter the kingdom of God, a gulf of sensibility opens up between him and Jesus…. For Jesus, anyone incarnating divine justice on earth was “flesh and blood” entering the kingdom of God. Paul is also in contradiction to the declaration in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The “Word”-Logos, in Greek-is the intelligibility of the world, the rationality of the universe, the meaning of life, as revelation of the Divine Mind. And John says that Word became not just body but flesh, not just the special-effects body of standard Greco-Roman divine visitations, but the one and only flesh and blood of full and normal human existence. The Word became flesh; that is to say, the divine meaning of life is incarnated in a certain human way of living.

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*Raymond Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” is perhaps the most comprehensive modern study to date. Brown focuses primarily on the theological motivation and meaning behind the narratives, rather than their historical value.

†See the work of John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality and Jesus for the Non-Religious; John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, and The Birth of Christianity; Robert Funk/Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?; other scholars such as Marcus Borg have studied the Passion and Resurrection narratives extensively, as well; for a brief summary, see Borg’s blog-http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/16/the-resurrection-of-jesus/

Coming to Terms with Mormonism, Christianity, and God

There is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

There is more than one path to the top of the mountain.

For as long as memory permits, I have, until recently, considered myself a staunch orthodox Christian. Although I still reside in the midst of my teenage years, my ability to identify with typical problems of adolescence has disappeared in the past year. Introspective examination into the past several years has shed light on my true immaturity and close-mindedness; an immaturity which, although I still sometimes long to live in unreality, is in its final days.

To clarify, I am speaking strictly in terms of religious belief. Until I began critically evaluating my view of Mormonism, religion, and God itself, I had seen my place in existence as organized and clear-cut. However, to paraphrase and extend neurologist Kevin Nelson’s idea of the self, I have come to realize that being is similar to Picasso’s portraits, fractured, unorganized, yet somehow binding into a coherent whole.

When I had first learned about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the missionary lessons and social environment seemed packed into a neat, conservative package. Perfect. I was baptized in April 2009, and although I was not an overly-enthusiastic member at first, I gradually became more and more enamored by the seemingly impenetrable certainty offered by the church. However, 2012 brought challenges from unlikely sources: (1) a conservative Protestant friend, (2) a history textbook, and (3) History Channel. In summary, the inquiries of my friend, the subject of Mormon history being brought up in class, and a History Channel special on archaeology piqued my curiosity. I began spending hours online, reading old articles from FARMS, devouring the Maxwell Institute website, and developing a short-lived addiction to FAIR. Hugh Nibley became a temporary idol. However, the faithful answers were not wholly satisfying, and soon after, I started to read critical material, as well as posts from various forums. I could go on for hours recounting the saga of my faith crisis, but to keep a long story short, after reading dozens of books, spending an unhealthy amount of time online examining both scholarly articles and primary sources, and not receiving the same confirming answer to prayers, I came to the conclusion that strict orthodoxy was untenable.

This was new territory. If my orthodox faith in the LDS church could fall apart, what of Christianity in general? Reflecting my pattern of research during my exploration into early Mormon history, I began with intense scripture study, prayer, and lots of apologetics, especially from William Lane Craig. However, as before, those answers were not enough to satiate my hunger for knowledge and truth, whatever it was (and is) and wherever it may have been (and may be). I read Bart Ehrman’s books, which, ironically, I had first heard of in a debate with Dr. Craig. Then I moved on to theological and philosophical books by authors such as John Spong and Paul Tillich. During this time, I drifted between various forms of theism, agnosticism, and deism; similar to the Book of Mormon’s “-ites,” I called myself all sorts of “-isms.”

It was not until relatively recently that I heard about the Community of Christ, at least by that name. The Reorganized Church was only referred to on rare occasions, and never beyond an offhand comment during Sunday services. The Community of Christ intrigued me when I first looked into it. What I once would have looked at as a liberal, radical, and reform-minded (God forbid!) church, now is an object of fascination. Although I still have deeply ingrained roots in religious conservatism, it became apparent months ago that continuing such a course would leave me without any sort of belief. With the urging of John Hamer, I joined the John Whitmer Historical Association, attending my first conference several weeks ago. It was an experience I shall not soon forget.

How have I come to terms with Mormonism, Christianity, and God? While enumerating all that I have learned and now hold close would occupy a book, there are several especially important lessons. First, I no longer believe certainty is equivalent to truth. Truth must be sought after continually, and I think Socrates put it best by stating, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Second, religious liberalism is not the satanic force I once thought, but rather is an invaluable vehicle for understanding, learning, and being respectful of others. The theologian Krister Stendahl once stated that holy envy, or the admiration of other belief systems, is essential to interdenominational understanding, and ecumenismfosters that idea. Finally, I believe more than ever that, even in a rational universe, God is there, within each of us.