Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Loving God

In the first few centuries after Jesus' ministry on earth, many different versions of his teachings, and varying understandings of them circulated, among whom only very gradually the precursors of later "Christianity," as a somewhat coherent religious whole, emerged. One way that early Christianity often sought to distinguish itself was in the concept that theirs was a God of Love, as compared to the Old Testament with its Vengeful, Jealous God. This seemed to be the clear message of Jesus' teachings, whith their focus on forgiveness, and on "seek first the Kingdom," all of which was clearly about a loving God, who would receive his lost sons with open arms, as in the parable of the prodigal son.

From what we know of that early history, there are no signs whatsoever that Jesus ever attempted to set himself apart from Judaism. By all accounts he was identified as a Jew, and saw no reason to change that, even if his teachings and his ministry might have relevance beyond the confines of Judaism. It was his followers after his death who sought to take his message to the world in which to some degree the Jerusalem community under Peter was focused on the Jewish world, while Paul was focused mostly on the gentiles - and they represented some of the major early factions, though by no means the only ones.
The fact that the Gospel according to Matthew was placed first in the NT canon once it became defined (ca 400CE), was purely and only in order to establish both the historical foundation of Jesus' authority and clothe it in the venerable tradition of Judaism, while at the same time proving once and for all why his teaching was superior to that tradition, which he was a part of and never abandoned himself. That relationship was forever after expressed in the notion of a New Testament that de facto was supposed to supersede the Old Testament. Luke and Acts were written by a companion of Paul's and served mostly to justify Paul's ministry and interpretations, as well as the subsequent developments of the early community. John is much later and has lots of other influences that require in depth discussion of their own, meanwhile Mark is the simplest, cleanest story that really should have come first.

But the most interesting is perhaps the Gospel which is now recognized to have pre-dated the others by at least 10-15 years, The Gospel according to Thomas. Notably absent is any talk of crucifixion and resurrection, eucharist, and other Christian ritual and theology; that is to say, nearly everything we are taught makes Christianity what it is, is not there. Notably present in the first statement is that understanding what Jesus teaches is the key to the Kingdom: "Whosoever discovers the interepretation of these sayings will not taste death." (Translation Marvin Meyer, "The Gospel of Thomas.") All of which lends gravity to the consideration that all the elements of what we consider to be Christianity, and which popular culture believes was founded by Jesus, was actually made up after his death, and is based on (mis-)interpretations of his life and teaching by others. And the historical parade of interpreters was of course headed by Paul, who was the architect of putting "Christianity" in Jesus' mouth, as well as the architect of setting it apart from Judaism. Researchers now are seriously considering that the form of some Jesus quotes in Thomas may be "more original" than what we have in other sources. (c.f. Bart D. Ehrman in "Lost Christianities")

One of the major themes was the difference between the more "gnostic" disciplines, and the Pauline community as the emerging "proto-orthodoxy." And while the Thomas Gospel has been called Gnostic, some researchers correctly identify that it really is not. Reading history critically one would have to say that gnostic Christianity was an accretion of the teachings of Jesus with other mythologies and beliefs, which simply put greater emphasis on the fact that the truth was within all of us as "gnosis," and generally emphasized more inner development, rather than external practice. Notably, to the Gnostics the relationship with God was an inner affair, while in mainstream practice we miserable sinners had to rely on the intermediation by layers of priests, ultimately under the Pope, as the Vicar of Christ--the substitute teacher who would be in place until the second coming (whenever that might be). In other words, Jesus was no gnostic in the religious-historic sense of the word, but Christian gnosis emphasized more the inner development and psycho/spiritual significance of Jesus' teachings, compared to those groups who eventually formed the church, which focused more on external religious practice. The careful reader of GoT almost has to conclude that the only consistent interpretation of it is as a non-dualist thought system, and indeed today "The Disappearance of the Universe" (DU) lays a strong link between GoT and ACIM.

We might also note how in some healings in the Gospels, Jesus tells people not to talk about it. In the Course there is a lot of emphasis on teaching by doing, not by telling, as in: "3 Teach not that I died in vain. 4 Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you." (ACIM:T-11.VI.7:3-4) and we might note a passage like:
"
2 He needs our voice that He may speak through us. 3 He needs our hands to hold His messages, and carry them to those whom He appoints. 4 He needs our feet to bring us where He wills, that those who wait in misery may be at last delivered. 5 And He needs our will united with His Own, that we may be the true receivers of the gifts He gives.
" (ACIM:W-154.11:2-5)

When we reflect on this, we may consider that perhaps the sending out of the apostles, as we know it in the Gospels, was a little different than we have been taught traditionally. It is very clear that our job is to get the ego out of the way, and to let the Holy Spirit c.q. Jesus do the speaking through us. It pays to re-read Mk. VI:6-13. In the 11th verse Jesus says to the apostles "And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when you depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet [for a testimony against them]." (I would suspect that the words in square brackets are a later addition to what Jesus really said.) And verse 12 continues: "And they went out, and preached that men should change their mind." (Note that the Greek word "metanoia" means "changing your mind," exactly like the English usage in the Course. It does not mean "repent," as it has often been translated - it was merely given that meaning by later Christian theology.) It should be clear that the emphasis is not on: convincing others that certain stories, theologies and beliefs about Jesus are right, and "better." Instead, the emphasis is on changing our mind. Just like it is in the Course. The emphasis is also on not wasting your time on convincing anyone. Surely a very different message than what we are to see later in Acts, and the letters of Paul, and later Christian practice with its emphasis on proselytizing, not to mention holy wars.

And here in this transition is where we might think again about the meaning of a Loving God, who surely would not instruct us to go tell the neighbors we are right and they are wrong. For surely Jesus taught (and teaches) of God as a Loving Father, however he also did not ask us to beat the neighbors over the head with ideas about him. Besides reading these quotes from Bible and Course, we may also think about our own practice of the Course. How often haven't we bothered others with our experiences with the Course, when they're not ready to hear. And the Course is very clear that it is our job to accept the atonement for ourselves, however, we are to leave it to the Holy Spirit when our brother is ready to accept the atonement for themselves. In other words convincing anyone of anything the Course says, is not what Jesus asks us to do, nor did he 2000 years ago.

Here is where things went horribly wrong very early. Jesus asked Simon the Doubter, to become like a rock, so he could build his church on it. Surely this was another parable, and meant that Jesus encouraged Simon to change his mind and to have solid faith in the Holy Spirit -- much like the Development of Trust (see the Manual for Teachers) in the Course. For we all waffle like Simon did, as long as we have a split mind and are going back and forth between ego and Holy Spirit, but we become Peter, the rock, whenever we make up our mind once and for all for the Holy Spirit, and on that Trust, Jesus' church is built, the oneness of the sonship which he teaches. He did not set Peter up in the real estate business, nor ask him to go proselytize and just gather unwilling people together.
And as we learn today with the Course, to bother anyone with information, if they are not ready to listen, is always an attack. Yet early Christianity went on the attack with their heavy proselytizing.

In looking back at that early Christian period, we see a theology emerging, a religion, which sets itself up a) separate from Judaism (because it is superior), and in general it is superior to both Judaism and Gentile religious practices (Roman Gods), as we see in the missionary zeal which develops. The energy behind this kind of proselytizing is "I'm right, you're wrong." And very much did it become denigrating to Judaism. In other words, as Christianity evolved from the earliest "following of Jesus" by the apostles in their daily life, into a proselitizing and gathering of souls, ultimately more and more by getting them to accept certain concepts about Jesus (in what ultimately became the Nicene creed), it became aggressive. And its supposedly loving God demanded the sacrifice of his own son, in the concept of vicarious salvation, as emphasized in the Pauline theology about him, and in his name a new religious institution was slowly being created, which battled it out with other religions, and ultimately "won" out under the Emperor Constantine. Constantine's victims might not have viewed his mysterious new God as all that loving...

The point is that the ego took over, and as always sees the problem outside. I.e. I project my own doubts outside, and I see some poor bastard who doesn't get it yet. Convincing somebody else that my idease are right, is somehow supposed to magically make my faith stronger. We are more psychologically astute today, and we can see that not only is it an attack on a brother, but it is really rooted in doubt about what it is we believe in the first place - it is a process of shouting over our own doubts, and has nothing to do with becoming the Rock that Jesus asked Simon to become. More in general by changing the emphasis from our own inner search for that relationship with our Internal Teacher, and ultimately teaching "only that I did not die, by demonstrating that I live in you," and thus living Jesus' teaching of the atonement in the world, towards an external process of convincing others of dogma about God and Jesus, we have made ourselves into an attacker, hardly a teacher of love and forgiveness. Reading just a few pages of Paul's letters will clarify this issue.

Some critical passages in the Course which can shed light on this are the following:
"
This is not a course in philosophical speculation, nor is it concerned with precise terminology. 2 It is concerned only with Atonement, or the correction of perception. 3 The means of the Atonement is forgiveness. 4 The structure of "individual consciousness" is essentially irrelevant because it is a concept representing the "original error" or the "original sin." 5 To study the error itself does not lead to correction, if you are indeed to succeed in overlooking the error. 6 And it is just this process of overlooking at which the course aims.
" (ACIM:C.in.1)
and
"
You may complain that this course is not sufficiently specific for you to understand and use. 2 Yet perhaps you have not done what it specifically advocates. 3 This is not a course in the play of ideas, but in their practical application.
" (ACIM:T-11.VIII.5:1-3)
and
"
This is what is really meant by the statement that the one responsibility of the miracle worker is to accept the Atonement for himself. 3 The teacher of God is a miracle worker because he gives the gifts he has received.
" (ACIM:M-7.3:2-3)

Contemplating these paragraphs carefully makes the distinction very clear. It is only by doing the inner work ourselves of constantly choosing the miracle, that we can be a conduit for the forgiveness and love, for the atonement, to our brothers, because we can extend the love to them, or rather because the atonement can then be extended to our brothers through us, since our ego is out of the way. That may not be in words, or at least not explicitly so. This is very different from the Christian tradition of proselytizing, in which we take beliefs we don't fully grasp ourselves, except we think they sound good, and we go and convince others, and somehow we believe that if we convince a lot of others, this makes our religion better than the next one, or will get us a spot in heaven. But this is what has led to is religious wars. We need to understand that the very thought of proselytizing is an attack. And for sure anytime we try foist our newfound happiness on anyone who is not ready, we can feel it, and we'll be reminded again that our only job is to accept the atonement for ourselves.

So by and large then the early followers did hear Jesus right that God was a loving God, except they immediately turned that into an attack on their brothers for not believing in that God, instead of understanding we all believe in that God. In the popular understanding, although some Gnostic sects were pretty sophisticated in their explanation of the Creator God, the God of Genesis, who made "Heaven and Earth" (duality, the manifest universe), there was not the foundation in psychology which the Course has today, which made it possible to be totally clear how that God is a projection of the ego's thought of separation. In other words, we all believer in that Creator God, as long as we buy into dualism. So, by projection, it was seen as the God of the "Jews," of "them" of the non-believers. On top of that they started arguing amongst themselves about if this message was only for Jews or also for gentiles, or if gentiles should convert to Judaism first, and so on. Jesus taught Religion as consistently practicing in our own life the reflection of the universal truth that God is love and forgiveness. We made it into a religion at war with all the other religions of the world. The Course provides the way back out of this hell towards the inner practice, which by the consistent practice of forgiveness it will lead us to:

"
The holiest of all the spots on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love. 2 And They come quickly to the living temple, where a home for Them has been set up. 3 There is no place in Heaven holier. 4 And They have come to dwell within the temple offered Them, to be Their resting place as well as yours. 5 What hatred has released to love becomes the brightest light in Heaven's radiance. 6 And all the lights in Heaven brighter grow, in gratitude for what has been restored.
" (ACIM:T-26.IX.6)

Now that is the foundation stone of his church, which Jesus talked about to Simon Peter.


Copyright, (c) 2005, Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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