The Third Way, 51: Saviours and Salvation, 7 – The Jesus Story, 3

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Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year.  Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated.  Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed.  The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months.  Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way.  For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two.  For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and a having ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.

If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified.  As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet.  But… sooner or later … there is always something.  “Stuff happens!”  Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff.  Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it.  As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.”  It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.

Shall we be “as those who have no hope?”  Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand.  Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”.  It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).  But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)?  After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha  and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.

Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.

Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts.  Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.

Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist.  Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet.  If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome.  Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it.  “Why are we/am I here?”  That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks.  As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based.  Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer.  Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is.  What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.

The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story.  This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.  Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality.  It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”.   Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this.  By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.

But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist?  Where does it come from?”  (Usual answer: “Nowhere!  It just is!  It just came to be!  It is just always coming to be!”)  And on to, “Why am I here?  What does it mean that I am here?  Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning?  Like I should have meaning?  Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”

And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all?  Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?”  Etc., etc, etc.

As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”

The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth.  Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”?  How do we weigh the competing claims?

The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother.  Just choose one and go with it.  When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”

The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.

As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another.  From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.

For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus.  And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions.  Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century.  And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be.  Just prove its history is false, and voila!  

But first, we must first hear/read the story.  Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua.  Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means.  At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.

It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”.  But no one comes to a quest unbiased.  All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held.  We all have presuppositions.  

Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus.  The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here.  I offer these:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

The Third Way, 11: Imagine

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“Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will live as one

John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

John Lennon’s most famous song is an anthem, almost a lament, for the fading dream of the Sixties Counterculture.

John Lennon and The Beatles remain iconic almost fifty years after their break-up.  Sir Paul McCartney remains a superstar in his own right, the only one of the “Fab Four” to have aged gracefully and remained a credible voice in the culture.  The cultural legacy of this legendary band is probably impossible to compute.  Their creative genius inspired many in everything from hair styles, clothing, musical innovation, to aspirations to make the world a better place.  At times, they provoked great controversy.  Many tales were spun of their supposed nefarious schemes to drag youth into drugs and eastern religion and promiscuity.  None of these ravings proved real.

For many “back in the day,” John Lennon was the real group rebel, the ‘bad boy.’  After all, was it not Lennon who brought about the end of what many have considered the greatest popular music combo of all time?  Didn’t he forsake his first wife and childhood sweetheart and take up with Yoko Ono, a wailing Oriental anarchist-poet, thus sowing bad feelings among his fellow Beatles, who much disliked Ms. Ono and sympathized with his abandoned first love?  Didn’t he want to take the group down a road of ‘countercultural radicalism’ and activism, which he modelled by his peripatetic “naked bed-in for peace” crusade?

The Beatles were the most salient symbol of the flux and turmoil of the Boomer Generation.  They were the master minstrels of the age.  Their early idealism and optimism was followed by a search for deeper meaning.  They playfully explored alternatives to the Establishment formula of ‘good job/career/get married and have a nice life, and do religion in the traditional way.’  It was a time to question, to challenge norms, to seek greater meaning and make love and peace.  The old ways had produced two world wars and brought no peace.  They had generated crass materialism as an answer.  Ironically, the Beatles as icons of challenge and change were multi-millionaires many times over, fêted, celebrated, and knighted, but, somehow, they symbolized the search for a new way of ‘being real.’

John decided he would actually take up that challenge and seek the missing deeper meaning.  Yoko was his guide and mentor.  George had found it in Krishna and attached himself to Guru Mahesh Yogi.  In contrast, Paul was no mystic or great idealist.  He was a professional entertainer who saw his mission in offering people relief from their stresses and burdens.  Ringo wanted to find his own way, and not just live in the shadow of John and Paul.  The band broke up like a bitter divorce, citing ‘irreconcilable differences.’

John’s answer was to shuck all mysticism and spiritual ‘mumbo-jumbo.’  Reality is this world as we have it, the only one we can know, and we are destroying it and threatening to kill ourselves with our hatred.  He wanted to be an apostle of peace.  When The Beatles were at the peak of their popularity he had once cheekily said, “We’re more popular than Jesus Christ.” Half-believing his own propaganda, he would travel the world as a living demonstration of the gospel of ‘Make love, not war.’  The anthem was “All You Need Is Love.”  In this, his diagnosis was partially right. 

In seeking the true ‘point of departure’ for finding a better way forward than the dead-ends of moribund Christendom and illusory, evolutionary, materialist Progressivism, love is indeed an essential element.  It is also the oft-professed core of Christianity, which declares that the Creator’s most essential characteristic is ‘love’.  (“God is love.”)

Other religions, theologies, and philosophies speak of love, and even of God’s love.  We cannot here engage in an extensive philosophical, ideological, and theological comparative analysis of all these worldviews.  Neither would it be helpful to resort to a polemical tirade about the superiority of one system over another.  As a writer, and in fairness to the readers of this little effort at dialogue amid the factional shouting of our time, I openly confess my own position as a long-time follower of Jesus.  I am not an especially good disciple of ‘the Master.’  I am simply striving to achieve more clarity about who we are, where we are, why we are in a mess, and what we can do about it.  I invite others to likewise seek clarity.  Maybe then we will have better “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Back to John Lennon and what he represents as an icon of our age.  We know that ‘Sir John’ was murdered by a deranged man seeking his Andy Warhol moment of notoriety.  He was much lamented and mourned by millions of fans and the cultural glitterati of the sixties and seventies.  His death was also symbolic—the end of a sort of Don Quixote quest to idealistically set the world to rights by symbolic windmill tilting.  Lennon did not, as the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) put it, “Go gentle into that good night.”[i]

But the world has not changed.  War rolls on; dictatorship, avarice, and leaderly deceit still crush and suborn.  The wealthy manipulate and coerce and control, and revolutionaries find power intoxicating and become oppressors in their turn.  The human heart remains a fickle and slippery thing.  Good impulses are overcome by subtle selfishness masquerading as altruistic motives.  Unless …

A prophet of olden times once said, speaking for the living Creator who named Himself I AM, “In that day I will put a new spirit among you.  I will remove from [your] bodies the hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh … as for those whose hearts go after the heart of their loathsome things and disgusting practices, I will bring the consequences of their ways on their own heads …. make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit …. I take no pleasure in the death of anyone …” (Ezekiel 11:19, 18: 31. 32a, The Complete Jewish Bible )

In every age and nation and among every people group, we have walked for millennia under the mastery of the old ‘heart and spirit of stone.’  The modern and postmodern West’s solution to this is completely illogical, despite its arrogant claim that it is the polar opposite.  The West has taken to denying that the heart and spirit even exist and saying that only stone exists.  We are told that somehow the stone can and will ‘evolve itself’ into a new sort of substance that will overcome the perpetually overpowering urges of the old. 

John Lennon was once the icon of the West’s errant fancy, saying that, somehow, love is the answer and we just need to love, and that we have the power to love this way within ourselves.  The Icon John Lennon, a tragic figure of quasi-martyr status, was succeeded by others, among whom is Stephen Hawking.  Hawking was no sentimental dreamer, but a man absolutely dedicated to the primacy of reason, logic, and the scientific method.

Like everyone else, Hawking found it much more difficult to live by his convictions than to promulgate them.  In the conclusion of A Brief History of Time, Dr.Hawking stated, with extreme reluctance, that the best answer, the simplest answer, the most efficient and logical answer to the evidence of the origin and nature of the cosmos and that very mysterious phenomenon called time, is GOD!  But, unable to digest his own conclusion, he declared that “we no longer have need of that hypothesis.”  He went on to make a very religious creedal statement that he had absolute faith in science that some time, someone would find the missing pieces in the puzzle and the “God-hypothesis” would lapse into its rightful place—a curious relic of an earlier age of credulity.

These examples reconfirm that, as we have seen demonstrated over and over now, the current path of our society is a dead-end.  Neither can we return to the old ‘Christendom’ model which finally expired in the 1960s.  Nor can we reasonably expect that by mere wishful thinking and a more determined effort we can progressively ‘fix this.’  We need a new way to move out of our morass.

We must go (return) to the departure point we have finally begun to glimpse through the fog of malaise and despair.  “Remember your Creator,” as Solomon said.  We must finally turn our faces to the Creator and become humble, admitting we desperately need a new heart and a new spirit, both individually and collectively. 

Our next questions are, “How do we get there, and what do we do when we do?” 

To be continued …


[i]  Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”:

                First stanza: Do not go gentle into that good night

                                       Old age should burn and rage at close of day

                                       Rage, rage against the dying of the light.