There was one well-known mystic who wished to help others achieve the union with God that he had reached; and he went from town to town trying to explain those things which had been revealed to him, saying such outrageous things as: “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.” and “The kingdom of God is within you” and “I and my Father (God) are one.” As you are no doubt aware, he was executed for saying these things.
Shortly after Jesus was killed for saying these things, it became okay for Jesus, but certainly not okay for anyone else to say. The line of thinking which became mainstream Christianity went essentially this way: (1) no human can be divine; (2) well, okay – Jesus was, but no one else. As usually happens, people began to focus on the person and not on the message. People found it easier to believe in Jesus than to believe Jesus. Was Jesus a Christian? Did he accept himself as his own personal savior? I don’t think so. In a ludicrous historical accident, the religion of Jesus became the religion about Jesus.
What we today call Christianity was in essence invented by Paul. Paul was to Jesus as Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes – he was the press agent, the salesman. If not for Paul, it is not hard to see that Jesus would be as little-known as Simon Magus is today. Both led small religious groups which hinged on certain magical powers each was supposed to have possessed. Each asked their followers to give up their possessions and families to follow him, and each expressed a direct and special relationship with God. Both Jesus and Simon Magus were what we would today call cult leaders.
But why did Jesus’ message survive? Certainly marketing played a large part; but there was also a core message to Christianity which found ready acceptance during the first few centuries A.D. This message, which was a combination of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Neo-Platonism, was tied together with a thin thread of actual facts about Jesus, and turned into a religion which the world was ready for. The question of whether it was accepted because people were ready for it or if it was created as a belief that people were ready to accept is a toss-up.
To see why the world was ready for Christianity, it is convenient to think of a civilization as going through stages of life much as a person does. There is infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, old age, and death. Now apply these stages to what we call Western European civilization, which was born during the first centuries A.D., experienced childhood during what we call the “Dark Ages,” entered puberty with the Renaissance, and matured over the last several centuries. Western Civilization is now entering its old age, when thoughts turn to mortality and subsequently to spirituality. We can see this in the current resurgence of interest in matters of religion. Fundamentalism, interest in native American religions, Eastern religions, and the so-called new age movement are examples of how people are now searching for a spiritual connectedness to the universe.
But what does this have to do with the birth of Christianity? Christianity was born during the death of the Greco/Roman Civilization. It hit the right cords with the mood of the people at the time – it was the right answer at the right time.
It’s important to note here that just because I think Christianity survived because of proper timing, doesn’t mean that I discount it’s spiritual value. I used to, but I don’t anymore.
The problem is that when we say “give me that old time religion” we are talking about the adolescent version of Christianity, most of which is of no use to a mature civilization. What we need is a return to a Christianity of a mature culture – that of the first several centuries A.D. It was during this time that the concept of the incarnation – that is, the concept of Christ, was developed. The term Christ, which means “anointed one” is an adjective, like “carpenter”. “Jesus the Christ” means “Jesus the Anointed One”, much like the phrase “Jesus the Carpenter” would mean. Jesus was a Christ, not the only one, any more than he was the only carpenter. The incarnation of God in man was exemplified by Jesus, not defined by him. By deifying Jesus, we avoid having to live up to his example.
That Jesus did not believe himself to be the only Christ is beyond question. During the last supper “scene” in the Gospel of John, Jesus is praying to God and says (of his disciples) “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” In Mathew he is quoted as saying: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” And we all know that “the Kingdom of God is within you.”
Accepting the incarnation as an historical event is one thing; understanding its symbolic content is another; living it’s meaning is yet another.
The Mass was developed to celebrate the possibility of union with God through the use of symbols and metaphor. Seen from the standpoint of an adolescent, of course the original masses look like hogwash; but seen with the eyes of a mature adult, the richness of the symbolism is evident. It always surprises me that someone who can carry on a conversation about the power of crystals, or angels, or astrology with a straight face can also dismiss the symbolism of a Catholic Mass as ludicrous. Viewed as objective reality, all of these things are ludicrous; but viewed as symbols of something much deeper, they may not be.
Protestantism never understood the depth of the symbolism in the Mass. Alan Watts wrote about this:
“…the (symbolism) is like a nut – a shell containing hidden fruit, a hard, concrete symbol embracing a spiritual truth. To extract the truth the nut must be broken – with reverence and respect, because without the shell’s protection the fruit would never have grown. The task of Protestantism was to break the shell, though because the Protestants did not fully realize this and did not know about the fruit inside, the job has been inexpertly and irreverently done. They have hammered away with gusto; they have cracked the entire surface; they have taken whole chunks of the shell right off, and, having thrown some of them away, have taken the rest into a corner and there tried to piece them together in a different form. But the fruit has not interested them. Protestantism has simply broken up the system of symbolism, reduced it and re-formed it, and, in these later times, has practically discarded the whole thing. The time has come for us to attend to the long-neglected fruit.”
To serve the spiritual needs of a mature civilization, a religion must be equally mature. Just as we outgrow the use for the religious symbols of our own childhood – Santa Claus and bogeymen – a society as a whole can outgrow its “traditional” religious symbols. The danger is when we outgrow these symbols but find no replacements. For our current culture, religion must necessarily be mystical. As Alan Watts (again) wrote over twenty years ago: “A Christianity which is not basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism.” Sound familiar?
A religion which does not seek union with the fundamental driving force of the universe is not a religion at all – but simply, and disappointingly, only a philosophy. And a philosophy is woefully inadequate as a basis for living a life. No one ever charged into battle yelling “Give me phenomenology or give me death!” Fundamentalist leaders know intuitively that religion is much more powerful than philosophy, and they make use of this fact every day in their national broadcasts. They fulfill a need, however poorly. Others flock to various concepts under the banner of neo-evolution or integral beliefs. All of this is very sad to me, since the answer is and has been under our noses the whole time. You see the truth, but you close your eyes.
By thinking that we have exhausted the substance of Christianity simply because almost no one teaches it the right way is truly a sin. There is a great deal of power in Christianity, specifically Christian mysticism, if we open ourselves to it. If we think even for a moment that we can discard two millennia of spiritual inspiration because we didn’t like our childhood priest or minister, we run the risk of throwing out the baby with the holy water.