Read an Excerpt
Jesus for the rest of us
By John Selby
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2006 John Selby
All rights reserved.
From Christ ... to Jesus
The very first choice we're going to explore is also perhaps the most challenging for those of you who, as children, imprinted strongly on traditional Christian beliefs and dogma. Given the choice, do you want to spend your spiritual life focusing on the theological concept of the Christ as a symbolic belief in your mind, or on the actual experience of Jesus as a living spiritual presence in your heart?
Psychologists have found that you can't hold your focus of attention at the same time on an idea or thought (a past-future function of your mind) and an experience (a present-moment function of your mind). You must choose between beliefs (ideas) and actual inner experiences. Christian beliefs often run contrary to the spiritual experiences that come to us when we focus on our deeper intuitive and mystical realms of being. So, yes, we must choose between holding on to our cherished beliefs about the Christ and letting go of those beliefs in order to fully embrace Jesus in our hearts.
If you're like most people in our culture, you naturally absorbed many images, ideas, and assumptions about Jesus while you were growing up. You probably have a general if somewhat vague sense of his life as a historical figure. You might remember sayings he's supposed to have uttered. You perhaps hold an image of his face, or his body on the cross, taken from drawings and paintings you've seen. And these days, you might have had movie images fried into your brain from a recent almost pornographically violent movie rendition of this man's life and passion.
In our spiritual lives, do these images and imaginings help us encounter the living presence of Jesus in our hearts? My experience has been that all such fantasies about Jesus stand in our way of actually opening our hearts to feel and experience his presence directly.
As you progress through this book, I hope you'll come to see your existing images for what they are – second-hand programming – and begin to shift your attention away from fantasies toward your present-moment experiential connection with what lies beyond the images.
Most of us also have quite an assortment of ideas and concepts, beliefs and philosophies about Jesus not as a spiritual person but as an ideal religious concept called the Christ. These ideas and beliefs likewise can serve to distance you from the actual experience of Jesus' spirit in your life. Quotes from the Gospels can be separated into two distinct groups: those sayings that feel like they come from the human Jesus speaking heart to heart, and those that seem to come from a symbolic ideal Christ, aimed at establishing theological doctrine and religious dogma.
When you focus your mind's attention on Jesus, you'll find that you focus on a vital heart-to-heart experience that is felt in the present moment, right now. When you focus on the Christ, you'll notice that you shift away from experience into the thinking mode of consciousness, as you fixate on religious thoughts that often exist without any feelings or heart engagement at all.
As you'll see especially in the final meditation section of this book, choosing where you aim your mind's attention – toward "experience" or "concept," toward Jesus or the Christ – strongly determines the type of spiritual experience that comes to you, or doesn't. Ultimately, you need to make that choice. Choosing to focus on concepts enables you to remain in the traditional Christian world. Choosing to focus on inspired spiritual experience shifts you into the new era of Jesus, called post-Christian living. Please don't think you have to make the choice now – we're just beginning our exploration.
Finding Jesus – Really
Jesus does seem to have been a historical person who lived and taught and loved and died and who knows what else around two thousand years ago in and around Jerusalem. His eternal spiritual presence ever since has permeated human hearts and souls who have opened to direct communion with him at deep spiritual dimensions of consciousness.
As you probably know, very little can be verified about Jesus the historical man. We know that he did exist and that he appeared before the authorities, but that's about all the mention we can find anywhere outside the Bible. He was a young Jewish man who developed a large following and then was executed, as were hundreds of other young Jewish men in and around Jerusalem two thousand years ago – many of them for leading insurrections and claiming to be the great leader or Messiah who would finally rid Israel of the armies from Rome.
The next fact we know historically is that ten to 20 years after Jesus was killed or otherwise disappeared, various religious groups claiming Jesus as their lord and savior were springing into existence. They got into trouble with the authorities and were therefore mentioned more and more frequently in Greek and Roman historical accounts. It does appear that the historical Jesus was a man who had a radical impact on those who followed him.
He was also a leader whose presence, one way or another, continued to be felt not only by his direct followers, but also by others who learned of his life and teachings and could feel his presence in their own hearts even decades after his death.
Definitely, something of a deep spiritual quality continued after Jesus the man died, and this ongoing spiritual presence continued to touch the hearts and lives of so many that new theologies, communities, and conflicts began to take root, never to be permanently suppressed.
In the next few generations, various written accounts appeared, more than 20 in all that we know of, called the Gospels of Jesus Christ. From these writings, we know a bit of the historical Jesus. And from our own hearts and souls, we know of the spiritual presence that continues. If you haven't felt this direct inner encounter with Jesus in your heart, the meditations at the end of this book will provide you with the opportunity.
Please don't think that this book or meditation method is "pushing Jesus" in any way. I am not a Jesus freak and I do not feel any need to push other people in the direction I am exploring. We all have our paths to explore spiritually. I'm writing this book with zero pressure for those of you who for one reason or another feel an inclination to turn your meditative attention toward the presence that is most commonly called Jesus.
Behold the Christ
Now we come to something entirely different from the historical and spiritual Jesus: the term I finally had to let go in order to embrace my deeper spiritual experience. Jesus almost certainly was not called the Christ when he was walking this earth. The term "Christ" didn't even exist in the language Jesus spoke. It's a lofty Greek religious concept, which evolved directly from the more ancient Hindu concept of Krishna in the Sanskrit language of India. In both of these religious traditions, there developed the idea of a god who came to earth to save us from our inherent animal nature and raise us up into a higher spiritual level of existence. Only after Jesus died did people begin to start to think that perhaps Jesus was the Christ.
When I was at seminary, I studied the four Gospels in depth, looking for final certainty about who Jesus was, and whether he was the Christ or simply had that radical title attached to his memory after he was gone. But the deeper I looked into the Bible, the less I found there of rock-solid veracity.
It's important to note in this context that not a single word that Jesus spoke in his indigenous dialect of Aramaic was written down, at least to the knowledge of biblical scholars. At first, the words that Jesus spoke were passed down only by word of mouth, until someone started gathering these sayings and wrote them down – in Greek.
The first gospel in the Bible to be written down, at least as far as we know, was the Gospel of Mark, usually dated as being penned around 60 to 70 years after Jesus died. Please note that the term "Christian" is never mentioned in this gospel. And only four times in total does the term "Christ" appear, each time very obviously pushing one of Mark's key theological points. Usually, Jesus was referred to instead as the Messiah. This was a genuine Hebrew term quite different from the Greek term "Christ," in that the Jews in Israel anticipated a historical savior who would liberate them from the occupying military forces from Rome.
When crowds shouted to Jesus that he was the Messiah, they most certainly weren't talking about a foreign philosophical concept; they were referring to this very physical human being who was going to lead them into victory against the Romans. But 60 years later, when the story of Jesus was finally written down, in Greek, the term Messiah was cleverly translated as "Christ."
By the time the Gospel of Mark was finally written down, numerous Jesus sects had come into being – each with its own distinct theological opinion about who Jesus was and what his life and resurrection from the dead meant symbolically, from a religious point of view. Let me share with you just one short passage from a very early letter written about the development of Mark's gospel, so you can see how the texts we tend to regard as sacrosanct were actually, from the beginning, being written to push a particular religious party line.
Below is part of a letter by Clement of Alexandria "to Theodore" regarding the origins of the Gospel of Mark. The ancient letter was discovered by Morton Smith in 1958 when he, as a graduate student of Columbia University, was cataloguing the manuscript collection of the Mar Saba Monastery south of Jerusalem:
As for Mark, during the time when Peter was in Rome, he wrote up the deeds of the Lord, not actually recording everything, nor hinting at the mysteries, but instead picking out the things he thought would increase the faith of those being taught. From the things he remembered hearing from Peter, he supplemented his book with the appropriate items. He did not reveal the things which are not to be discussed. He added certain sayings which he knew would initiate the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of the truth.
As noted, even in this first gospel of Jesus' teachings, there is admittedly much left out and considerable manipulation of the text for the specific goal of teaching believers a particular theology. For me, the key words in this early letter about Jesus' recorded sayings are the following: "He added certain sayings which he knew would initiate the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of the truth ..." Which sayings in Mark are these "certain sayings" of Jesus? These are the particular quotes I've done my best to identify in the Gospels that seem most powerful in providing direct access to Jesus as a spiritual conduit into "the innermost sanctuary of the truth."
Selling the Christ
The Gospels written first historically have the fewest mentions of the Christ. The final gospel, John, has the most. The term arises only four times in Mark, and 20 times in John. Rather than focusing on the abstract symbolic Christ, the four books telling the story of Jesus are mostly focused on Jesus not as a symbolic religious archetype, but as a human teacher who told stories about how best to lead our lives.
Jesus really only became the Christ in his death and resurrection – that's when he "proved" his mystical worth and became the core symbol of Christianity. That's when he moved from a heart experience to a heady idea. When I was at seminary, I had to read volume after volume of theological writings arguing about the meaning of the term "Christ" and what I'm supposed to teach people in my congregation to believe in this regard.
But even in the Bible, the entire account of Jesus rising from the dead is mentioned only in several very short, questionable accounts. Of the entire New Testament, less than one page actually describes the core resurrection event and Jesus' transcendent physical appearances after his crucifixion. It's truly amazing that the entire Christian belief system and church are built on such scant accounts.
Jesus was a person who seems to have attained enlightenment and who continues as a spiritual presence to touch our hearts and guide our deeper lives. But Christ as a concept is something altogether different. The Christ is a radically large and powerful concept, because within the concept are the belief and promise that Jesus became the Christ and therein became symbolic as a personal savior sent by God to forever free true believers from their hopelessly sinful natures and enable them to live forever and ever, amen.
That's a giant promise – ultimate liberation from death, eternal freedom from mortality, total protection from evil forces, secure escape from the obliteration of our ego personalities and maybe even our physical bodies ...
Along with such a promise, however, comes a certain ultimate requirement. You must surrender your soul to that belief system. You must bow down to Christ as your Lord and agree to accept all the theological dogma that accompanies the promise. In Christian theology, there's no middle ground. You're either for Christ or against him. From the earliest beginnings of the church, its priests have posited this radical conflict-generating duality. If you don't choose to join their organization and follow their dictums, then you automatically become the enemy. Not only that, you are also condemned to eternal damnation and hellfire.
When one steps back and asks dispassionately why Christianity has become such a powerful force in human history, it's all too easy to answer the question with a negative twist. Christianity has been so successful in recruiting members to its organization because it happens to have the best sales pitch in history – except perhaps for the Moslems, who also throw in 90 virgins when you get to heaven.
In the Christian deal, if only you can talk yourself into believing that you are a hopeless sinner and that some wonderful human being who was half god suffered terribly and died because of you, then, by your act of accepting this whole scenario, you will never have to face the obliteration of your ego.
Everyone's afraid to die, and if you accept the theological dogma of the Christian priests, you sidestep the entire issue of death. Instead you settle into the belief that your personal ego presence is going to go to heaven – where life is eternal and perfect and you can live forever.
There are, of course, other attached beliefs that you also have to talk yourself into – that Jesus the Christ was conceived through God himself somehow coming down to earth and engaging in sexual intercourse with a Jewish girl named Mary, thus creating a unique half-God, half-human being. You must believe that God Almighty has a male personality and is engaged in celestial battle with one of his fallen angels called Satan – who can grab your soul and send you to eternal hellfire if you're not very careful about what you believe and what experiences you allow to come into your mind and heart.
Furthermore, to be a Christian, you need to talk yourself into believing that something that happened two thousand years ago in a culture entirely different from your own directly determines your present-moment fate. You must base your current religious life on just one historical document called the Bible and, in so doing, you must take on the religious heritage of a distant Arab tribe because their Old Testament is considered the Word of God. You must believe that every word written in the Bible is the holy Word of God, and not in any way influenced by the personal beliefs, quirks, and power plays of that book's multitude of historical writers and editors.
If you can manage to swallow all that doctrine (and considerably more), then and only then do you get forgiveness for your sinful nature, special access to the love of Jesus the Christ, communion with your Creator, and a salvation that includes liberation from death itself.
Unfortunately, there's always the lingering doubt in every believer's mind that maybe there isn't really any heaven to go to, maybe when death comes, that's the end. Even more frightening is the fear that your faith isn't strong enough, that the doubts that attack you might overcome you, and then as you fall from grace, the Devil himself will be right there to grab your soul and drop you into the boiling cauldron of Hell forevermore.
That's the ongoing priestly sales pitch that has grown up around Jesus' original teachings and ongoing spiritual presence. That was what I as a minister was supposed to sell and, having been brought up in that faith, I did give it a try. But as I matured and began to explore my own spiritual experience, I found that it all started to make less and less sense to me. My inner experience of Jesus in my heart and soul simply didn't have anything to do with the beliefs about Christ.
Christianity is built on our all-too-human fears of death – and on the priestly promise of escaping death through accepting and supporting (even violently) that particular intellectual belief system.
I am in no way saying there is no afterlife. I have a strong hunch that there is life of some sort beyond death. I'm only saying that it's a dirty trick to lure people into your church by pretending that your particular church holds the only key to eternity.
Excerpted from Jesus for the rest of us by John Selby. Copyright © 2006 John Selby. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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