Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

March 16, 2008: “Was Jesus Too Liberal? Too Human? Too Divine?”

A Rare Book

A collector of rare books ran into an acquaintance who told him he had just thrown away an old Bible that he found in a dusty, old box. He happened to mention that Guten-somebody-or-other had printed it.
“Not Gutenberg?” Gasped the collector.
“Yes, that was it!”
“You idiot! You’ve thrown away one of the first books ever printed. A copy recently sold at an auction for half a million dollars!”
“Oh, I don’t think this book would have been worth anything close to that much,” replied the man. “It was scribbled all over in the margins by some guy named Martin Luther.”

Of a saint it used to be said each time he left home to go and perform his religious duties he would say, And now, Lord, goodbye. I am off to church.

Who was Jesus? Well never know. We can only intuit. We can only know who Jesus was or even is for us. By whose authority did he teach? He wasn’t credentialed, after all; indeed he never wrote anything down and we don’t even know whether he could read. Was he son of God as one of the triune God of orthodox Christianity? If he was the Messiah , as the Jews hoped for, why didn’t he usher in the kingdom of God? Or did he?

We worship this morning in a church of heresy, the Arian or Unitarian heresy of saying that Jesus was human and the trinity is a metaphor at best. A Spanish priest and physician, Michael Servetus, who was the earliest discoverer of how the blood flows in our bodies also read the Holy Scriptures and found no teaching by Jesus of the Trinity, nor of the atonement, that Jesus died for our sins. He was burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva Switzerland. Traditional Christianity is defined by a certain belief about Jesus and how he relates to God. Indeed, it is the creeds, either the Nicene, Apostles or the Athanasian which purport to be the confession of faith for Christians. The Athanasian Creed, by far the longest and most complex is believed to be the best definer of the Trinity, and ends with these words This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.

Belief, right belief, of course, in those creeds that challenge the modern mind certainly and talk of ways of thinking that are ancient, that present day Christianity seems to try to mold into a receptacle much too small to contain the radical, much too liberal teachings of Jesus. Jesus, I will argue then becomes an idol of God, a personification of God who, it is said, loves us, and walks with us, is our friend and lives in our hearts.

None of the creeds, however, talk at all about the great and universal teachings of the mystic prophet, Jesus. For Jesus is also part mirror; that is, he is a reflection of us-of our hopes, but also our prejudices. And Jesus also tells us to get rid of our mirrors of ego and selfishness and our dependence on traditional beliefs which are holding us back from going forward, from being transformed into a new reality.

Yes, Jesus is too liberal, yea, too much of a religious individualist, that he threatens the institutionalizing of the religion that grew up after he died.

Was Jesus too human? Yes, there grew up around him after his death beliefs that overshadowed his humanity and attempted top invent his divinity, as happened with Buddha.

Was he too divine? Yes, after his followers bestowed divinity upon him and made him as part of the triune God, his humanness was discouraged, and the ancient, still heard rumor of a love affair with Mary Magdalene, perhaps even a marriage was squashed by the church as blasphemy.

I think that’s why the great theological musical and then movie Jesus Christ Superstar continues to be so popular among many people who would not consider themselves Christian, but love the teachings and the inspirational humanness of Jesus. More than any of the movies, except perhaps, The Last Temptation of Christ; Superstar shows us characters that are real humans, not Sunday School cutouts.

Stephen Mitchell, in his great book, The Gospel According to Jesus, argues for a human, deeply inspired and inspirational mystic prophet. Interviewed in Psychology Today, he says: People have put a message in his mouth that’s antithetical to what he felt with all his heart. He talks about the kingdom of God being here and now. Yet at the end of Mark the risen savior says, If you believe in me you’ll be saved, if you don’t believe in me you’ll be damned. This verse has been responsible for more human suffering than any single verse in history That ending is not in the earliest manuscripts. It only appears a few hundred years later. As Thomas Jefferson said, these later teachings simply cannot come from the same mind that gave us the authentic teachings.

Mitchel as asked what the real message of Jesus was and he replies: Simply this: that the love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present. Jesus left us the essence of himself in his teachings, which are all we need to know. We want to know much more about him, of course. What did he look like? Was he married? Was he ever in love? Why is the emotion that informs Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness so intense, so filled with the exhilaration of forgiving and being forgiven? I feel it must have come from a profound personal experience.

A human Jesus, perhaps too human, too liberal, was converted, recreated into a God, upon which certain beliefs, i.e. creeds, would define once and for all; those who questioned or did not believe the creeds were sure to burn in Hell. If Jesus were fully divine, then being crucified was easy since he knew he’d be coming back in three days. But if Jesus was fully human, just think what it took to get through all that; maybe the last temptation was to be politicized and to become a terrorist for God. Who could have blamed him?

The Gospel means good news, it obviously wasn’t written by Jesus, and scholars tell us that it wasn’t written by his disciples by that name either. In fact, we don’t know who wrote the Gospels, though scholars tell us that each were written fro a different audience, one for the Jews another for the Gentiles and so forth. They are not factual history but what scholars call faith histories.

Jesus Seminar scholar, Marcus Borg, writes in his book, MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is, and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoke of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition.

It also should be said that there’s no such things as saying Christians believe this or that, but only some believe, because there are countless heresies, sects, denominations, divisions, schisms and have been from the time after Jesus died. Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar and other liberal interpreters of scripture are considered heretics by the more conservative, so we might say that Christianity has a spectrum of beliefs, and that I still think it would be interesting to slip truth serum into the communion wine, then as folks to recite the various creeds. Another ongoing controversy has been over whether one is saved by belief in creeds, or by living a good life in deeds.

How we view Jesus has more to do with us than it does with him, our religious views formed from family, culture, yea especially institutional religion. In the liberal Christina seminary I attended we had a reform Rabbi as an adjunct faculty to teach a course on Judaism. Almost his first words to us, to prevent the issue from coming up, was for Jews, Jesus is NOT an issue. In other words, he didn’t want anyone to try to convert him and he would not talk about Jesus to bother any of the orthodox among us. Most, if not all of Jesus teachings could be found in Judaism, out of which, Jesus himself came, of course.

Who is Jesus for me? He is part of my religious history brought up in the Baptist, then the Congregational church. I never understood the Trinity, but always revered Jesus as a prophet of the heart as well as social justice and a teacher of what Buddha would call Right relationship with God. As my religious views and inspirations evolved in my religious search through all religions and mythology and psychology anthropology and sociology as well as theology, the idea of a supernatural Coach, Judge, Father then Mother figure shifted as well. For me, the word God herself has metamorphosed into the great spirit of love and life, the religious and/or spiritual dimension for or of which I continue to search.

The good news for me is not about salvation from a bad afterlife, but that there is a religious dimension into which all can enter and learn to truly, deeply and humanly love one another, neighbors and enemies, and yes loving ourselves, to help save the world from starvation of both body and spirit, injustice, poverty of the body and spirit, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism and anything else that limits the ability to live and love life to its and our fullest. Jesus teaches a love ethic that I think goes beyond the religion founded in his name, but perhaps despite his teachings. How could the Inquisition of the church occur besides the gentle teaching of radical forgiveness and love of one another?

Jesus teaching that the kingdom of God is within us might be the most important teaching if we realize that his view of the kingdom of God was a world of peace, love, and justice, which we all have the potential to create, and indeed is crucial if the world is to be saved. Religion/God/the transforming power or spirit of love/ all within us yearning to be connected to the outer world and to each other, so that the unity of spirit can be realized. One does not need a belief in a supernatural being, but can connect with those who see God/Love/Spirit/ At-one-ment, differently, like speaking another language at a time when the world needs us to speak in a language understood by all!

The Catholic theologian Hans Kung, in his book, Christianity and the World Religions, has developed a universal approach to Jesus, and has become unpopular with the orthodox Catholics.

“At certain specific moments in time,” he says, “the figure of the prophet emerges and breaks clean from the continual flow, or better, the prophet wades into the sluggish stream of religious history and tries with all his might to change its course. If he succeeds, he joins the company of those ‘leading individuals’ who have set the standard for their religions by which the centuries to come will all be measured…. Jesus undoubtedly spoke, prayed, struggled, and suffered from the standpoint of an ultimately inexplicable experience of God, presence of God, certainty of God, indeed on the strength of a oneness with God as his father….Here, in Jesus, something more than Moses, more than the prophets made its appearance.”

Jesus is not just prophet, and that’s a religious designation itself, but also a mystic who finds a direct relationship with the divine; indeed he is said to incarnate God, to make God human as it were.

Elaine Pagels, author The Gnostic Gospels, said that, Gnostic Christians around 50-150 CE spoke of seeing Jesus as one through whom the divine was manifested, and through whose example and teaching they could hope for similar enlightenment. The Gospel of Thomas-Jesus said, if those who lead you say you, -the Kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the sky will get their first. If they say, It is in the sea, the fish will get there first. Rather the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the children of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty…

Jesus speaks of seeking for ourselves, not accepting religious doctrine or dogma or authority unless it makes sense to us religiously in our hearts and mind. Like the Delphic oracle that said Know Thyself. Jesus teaches us to seek, not to be satisfied with traditional doctrine.

Religious writer, Sam Keen, and former Presbyterian Seminary professor turned doubter, in his new book which has a title sounding very Unitarian Universalist-like: Hymns to an Unknown God: Awakening the Spirit in Everyday Life, says:
My life is the text within which I must find the revelation of the sacred.
It is an agnostic approach, not being sure it is possible to know God or to understand what or who God is or isn’t.
Spirituality or the soulful path, Keen writes, s the quest to discover our higher selves and explore the depths, to allow ourselves to be moved-animated-inspired by that sacred no-thing that keeps us human, the Unknown God within whom we live and move and have our being but may never fully comprehend…
Spirituality is comfortable with an unknown God. That is, one does not have to believe a certain way to experience the spiritual. It sure helps to be open-minded about our possible agnosticism, just as we must be open-minded if we have a theistic approach.
The animating principle in a human being is the spiritual instinct, argues Keen, the impulse to go beyond the ego to explore the heights and depths, to connect our individual life with something beyond the self, something more everlasting (even if ever-changing) than the self. Ultimately, our self-esteem comes from our discovery of a purposeful source of deathless meaning that transcends the self.

We cannot see the kingdom of God within us until our eyes are opened to see beyond ourselves; we are blind until we are healed by the miracle of awareness!

Most Biblical scholars teach in mainline Protestant seminaries that we have no records of anything written down about Jesus until Paul, who of course, never new Jesus alive, and his first writings were about 20 to 30 years after Jesus died. Most of the non-Pauline literature, the Gospels, etc. were not written until after 70 AD, when the Temple and the City of Jerusalem was destroyed when Rome put down a Jewish uprising. And when Christianity became the state religion in the early 4th century under the emperor Constantine, it change radically again, and became an integral part of church and state which continues to this day in almost every country.

Jesus, it was said, taught with authority like one of the priests or scribes, yet was a humble carpenter. It is that very mysterious authority with which we may still preach today. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God within us, and render under Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God, internalized religion in a new way now available to anyone with the ears to hear and the eyes to see. Just as Buddha taught that all is suffering and the secret is to let go of all desire, Jesus taught that one could live through any horrendous experience with the inner strength of love and the sense that we are all one, all connected. Jesus did NOT teach that if you followed him, that is followed his teaching, not necessarily his body or what would become the church which purported to be found on his name, everything would be all right, that you’d never fell pain or despair or depression or anger or hatred. His use of the word Abba when he prayed to God was also radical, because it was like saying Daddy, instead of the more formal and cold, Father. I will argue that he meant it to make God him, her,or itself human! But that was too liberal, you see, too human. It still is for many people. Jesus, like we ministers are called to do, comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.

I’m still not sure what he meant by eternal life or by salvation, though he never preached that his death would be a sacrifice so that a seemingly insensitive Father God would pardon our sins, because at the heart of Jesus teachings is about a new kind of forgiveness. Not that he atoned for a sinful humanity, because Jesus does not teach about original sin; that was thought up by St. Augustine in the fourth century! Perhaps it is to give up the fear of death, that something of us survives. Remember that he was teaching often against his own religion, which he felt had become institutionalized to the point of losing the agreement with God and His commandments. One could say the same thing with Mohammed and the culture of his time, but the world needs a new Mohammed of monetarism, dare I say it, a liberal Islam.

I will argue that there is a confusion about Jesus, still today, about whether he is human or divine, because we all long for Mommy or Daddy to take our hand and keep us safe from all harm, and that has never been possible with any religion or deity, because we must all die someday. Jesus doesn’t love me, this I know, but he teaches me to love, the bible tells me so.

Those questions- was Jesus too liberal? -We ought add- Too conservative? Too human? too divine?- are within us when we sense our own religious authority. In India, the idea of a guru, teacher, master, is not credentialed or even ordained. One cannot attend Guru seminary, though someone did point that the name sounded out is Gee, You Are You, or of course Unitarian are Universalists etc. No, gurus are teacher s who feel they have become at least somewhat enlightened and the true test is whether they can gather followers, students, but that at a certain time, the followers need to leave behind their guru and become their own!

We might say it this way. Jesus was Love incarnated; God and Love are the same, and we all have the potential for incarnating love as well. Therefore an atheist may incarnate love and need not quibble about whether love exists materially or simply experientially. Our job, our mission impossible, should we decide to accept it is to live lovingly and help the world live lovingly as well. Jesus IS us, at least our potential. We can change the world into one of love, freedom, food, jobs, and justice for all-that’s what we might mean by having a saving message of good news. Jesus told me so. Shalom, Salaam Melikum, Peace, Amen, Blessed BE, the end

Various Lords Prayer Interpretations

The Lords Prayer for Unitarian Universalists
(from the Booklet of Prayers for UU Children, White Plains Community Church)

Giver of Life, who is in and beyond the universe,
we would speak your name with thoughtfulness.

May we follow the laws of peace and understanding
here on earth as the stars obey the laws of the heavens.

May there be food for all that none go hungry.

When we have been unfair, unkind, or thoughtless,
give us the courage to say we are sorry.
Help us to be forgiving when others hurt us.

Give us the strength to do what we feel is right
and to turn away from whatever hurts ourselves or others.

For the wonder, the beauty, and the goodness all around us,
we give praise and thanks. Amen.

The Lords Prayer reinterpreted by Parker Palmer, Quaker writer and teacher-

Heavenly mother, heavenly father,/ Holy and blessed is your true name.
We pray for your reign of peace to come,/ We pray that your good will be done,
Let heaven and earth become one.
Give us this day the bread we need,/Give it to those who have none.
Let forgiveness flow like a river through us,/ From each one to each one to each one.
Lead us to holy innocence/ Beyond the evil of our days,
Come swiftly Mother, Father, come!
For yours is the power and the glory and the mercy-/ Forever your name is one.

(One Possible New Translation from the Aramaic Language

  • translation by Neil Douglas-Klotz from his book “Prayers of the Cosmos”)

Oh Creator, Father/Mother of the Cosmos and all that is, Focus your light within us, make it useful; Create your reign of unity now
Your desire becomes our desire, For as you are in all light, so you are in all forms.

Grant what we need each day in bread, and insight, and understanding.
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of other people’s guilt.

Don’t let surface things delude us, but free us from that which holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will, and the power and the life to do, and the song
that beautifies all. From age to age, you renew all things.
Truly power to these statements may they be the ground from which all my actions flow.

My dear friend and colleague, Rudi Gelsey, has reworked the Lords prayer and translated it into our language, ours being the universal and the unity, partly using the original Aramaic and partly from his Soul:

“Father/Mother, who art the energy of love,
Dwell in our hearts and in all realms.
O Thou, who art the breath of life,
may Thy desire prevail everywhere.
Guide us and support us day by day.
Forgive us as we forgive others.
Do not let us be diverted from the purpose of our lives.
Help us live in depth and in the present,
that we may be filled with divine wisdom, power and love.”

Lords Prayer translated by A. Severance

Spirit of love of all ages, times, names and religions,
May your name be so holy
we don’t have to debate it;
May the peaceable kingdom come for all religions
and let loves will be done
here on mother earth as well as the universe.
Help us to feed one another
food of the spirit and of the belly;
let us remember
that since we wish to be forgiven of our faults,
we must be forgiving of others,
Help us overcome the temptation
to treat people or the earth herself
in harmful ways , for our selfish desires,
for love and justice is the kingdom
the only good power,
and the glory of the interdependent web of life
of which we are a part.
May we remember this
for all the generations of the earth to come.
May there be Peace.

Amen, Shalom, Assalamualaikum