Today, I’ve decided to respond to some of the ideas inherent in an article posted to the ABC’s excellent “Religion and Ethics” page. The astute reader will notice that I am not really responding to the stated thesis of “What’s Love Got to do with It? The Politics of the Cross” by Stanley Hauerwas, but more to the the underlying assumptions. These are often shared by dogmatic religious types irrespective of whether they are Christian, Islamic, or something else entirely. Indeed, one could easily extend this analysis to all sorts of secular “isms” and insanities.
Christ on the Cross by Rembrandt
(Image courtesy of The Louvre)
The crux of Hauerwas’ argument is probably as follows: “Is it any wonder that Jesus was despised and rejected? Is it any wonder when the church is faithful to Christ that she finds herself persecuted and condemned? Yet if such a church does not exist, the world has no alternative to the violence hidden in our fear of one another.”
Jesus and the Church are not one and the same. If one reads the Gospels properly, it can be seen that Jesus was a failed human being, much like the rest of us. He lost his temper and he got violent (John 2:14-17). He lied (John 7:6-10). He cursed – literally (Mark 11:12-25)! He made false prophecy (Matthew 16:28). He was intensely resentful of those who didn’t believe his message (Matthew 11:20-24). He arguably invented the “thought crime” (Matthew 5:27-28). He never claimed to be “100% God and 100% man”.
Like many mystics before and after (including myself), Jesus was aware of his own Divinity and aware that there was another way, but found it difficult to live the life to which he was called. It is simply impossible to translate all of the nuances, subtleties and contradictions of Transcendent Experience into the mundane reality of the “monkey suit”.
By way of example, the Church is often a controlling, secretive, dogmatic organisation that has, since its creation by Roman Emperors sought to wield political influence of the most sordid sort. Its history is less about “an alternative to the violence” and more about the exercise of brutal, aggressive power and sometimes farcical zero sum politics. It is condemned, not because it is “faithful to Christ”, but because it is anything but faithful to the highest ideals to which he aspired.
The modern Catholic Church continues to protect child molesters within its ranks and avoid taking responsibility for the great evil it has committed. With a celibate (although clearly not chaste) clergy, it is obsessed by the sexual choices of others. Until the recent arrival of Pope Francis, its main focus has been on two issues that Jesus never even mentioned: Homosexuality and abortion. Other Christian Churches are rarely any better than the Roman variety.
Hauerwas’ essay is evidence enough of the failure of both Jesus and the Churches that have hijacked his life and teaching for their own purposes. The writer finds himself incapable of letting go of the rigidity of Dogma and the zero-sum thinking of religious absolutism and so has to shoehorn the life of Jesus into the story he wishes to create. I can’t help but suspect that only a person of great insecurity, or lack of imagination would need to posit that “the world has no alternative” to his view of reality and that only his prophet is a true representation of an Infinite Divine. As if the Infinite contained only one path, or had only one story to tell!
Blessed (or perhaps cursed) with visions of Infinite Divinity beyond normal comprehension, it is far too easy for the mystic to become trapped in grandiosity and ego. When Jesus claims that “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, Pilate rightly retorts, “What is Truth?” (John 18:36-38). In doing so, he is engaging not with cynicism, but with a question that is fundamental to any understanding of reality and one which the Church and other spruikers of dogmatic certainty would rather you simply didn’t ask.
Jesus accepts his mystical understanding as truth and lacks the wisdom to question that “truth”. He fails to understand that it is a truth for him alone and that it is impossible to communicate a genuinely spiritual experience to another: The first Disciple, is always the first Heretic. 2000 years later, the real Jesus is well and truly lost in time, while modern revisionists claim to know his very thoughts and to be able to divine his ultimate purpose!
The truth is that an honest examination of the whole life of Jesus, as described in the Gospels, represents a conundrum only to those who imagine him to be something he wasn’t. Yes, he was Divine, but only to the extent that we are all Divine. More importantly, for both good and ill, he was as human as us and the greatest lessons that we can learn from his life are lost if we forget this.
Matthew tells us that his last words on the cross were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46), clearly demonstrating that rather than being “100% God”, this was a man who was experiencing the disillusionment and loss of faith as his mystical ideas and imaginings clashed with the brutal, painful, terrifying reality of his impending death. Those words were not spoken by a god about to realise his grand plan, but by a frightened man faced with the real possibility of oblivion and the collapse of everything that he had held dear in his life.
Jesus’ last words on the cross, his failed prophecies and his frequent demonstrations of hubris, should give a warning to those of us who share his mystical journey: The “Truth” that we glimpse within the heart of Transcendent Experience, is often not literal truth and we should resist the urge to impose our reality on those around us, lest reality bites back.
If we pretend that Jesus was God, then we are forced to deny his human failings and waste time and energy on apologetics that deny the plain truth of the Gospels. If we recognise that Jesus was only human, we are freed to accept him as he was. We can open our eyes and our hearts to the truth of his story and realise that history has been replete with mystical voices who have called us to a better way. Even more exciting, we can see the life of Jesus as an invitation to engage with our own Mystical journey and to connect with the Divine Reality that lies within the heart of each of us.
The ideals of compassion, mercy, love, justice, tolerance, sacrifice and courage (among others) are all present within the story of Jesus. But so too are they present within the lives of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius and thousands of other people throughout the ages. When we attempt to impose our reality on others, we inevitably destroy these very virtues, because when we believe ourselves right, and all others as wrong, we stop listening and deny empathy to the “other”; we become incapable of expressing the values we claim our God represents to any but our own.
Rather than working to prove our God’s “Truth” above all others, we should be working to connect with those who share our values and who share our vision of a better world irrespective of how their culture might happen to have packaged those truths.
I firmly believe that people of good will can find a win-win solution to the ills of our world and create a future of peace and harmony. But nothing sabotages good will and creates evil so quickly as the belief that everyone must conform to our view of reality and that people are evil and beholden to Darkness, simply because they believe differently.
The struggle between Light and Dark occurs both within and across cultures.
It is only by letting go of our own rigidity and by empathetically embracing the Divinity of others that we will ever be able to achieve the peace and prosperity that the people of our planet so rightly deserve.
PS: Happy Easter!