Thursday, November 6, 2003

The "Sacrifice" of Jesus

From the time I first began to think critically of Christian theology (which would be about the time I was in high school), the idea the Jesus was a "sacrifice" for the sins of mankind made no sense to me, and I was pleased finally to read a theologian who agrees with me. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg discusses different ways of seeing Jesus and talks about the "priestly story" of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and redemption. He also admits that the priestly story is the principal metaphor of the Christian church, which he believes is a mistake for several reasons, one of which is that the story does has no logic to it. "The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible…. To many people, it simply makes no sense…."

And I am one of the people for whom the story makes no sense.

The crucifixion of Jesus is often compared to the story of Abraham and Isaac, but I can't understand how or why God would sacrifice His own Son. To whom was God offering a sacrifice?

A sacrifice is a quid pro quo. In chess (or war), you sacrifice a pawn to capture a knight. In cabalistic religions, you sacrifice an animal to gain the favor of your gods. In each case, there are rules or realities that require that one thing be given up to gain something else. Why was it necessary for God to give up His Son? What rules or realities bind God? Why could God not forgive our sins without killing His own Son?

And what did God accomplish by that sacrifice? What did the life and death of Jesus accomplish that could not have been accomplished in any other way?

Or perhaps the sacrifice was not by God, but by Jesus. (See Hebrews 9:11 and following for examples of this metaphor.) Jesus would then have been sacrificing something valuable to Himself, His own life, in exchange for the salvation of the world. But a sacrifice must be pleasing to God, so we are back to the same question, which is why God would want His own Son as a sacrifice.

And in what way was the life and death of Jesus a sacrifice? If Jesus was resurrected and still lives, then there was no sacrifice at all, because nothing was lost. Or was it the fact that God was made man, and lived and died as a man, that was the sacrifice? But what is so awful about living and dying? The rest of us still live and die, and no one claims that any of us are living and dying for the sins of the world.

If you believe that Jesus was the only Son of God, and that God is all-powerful, then you must also believe that the death of Jesus was part of God's plan and what God wanted. So then you have to find a reason for God to kill His own Son, and the idea of a sacrifice is probably as good as any. Except that it makes no sense.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The False Dualism of Wisdom

In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg begins one chapter with a generalization that surprised me. He said that all great teachers of wisdom teach that there are two paths, the path of wisdom and the path of foolishness. I think that this was an unfortunate generalization, both because I think it is wrong and because it was not necessary to his presentation.

At a very literal level, the generalization is wrong because it describes a one-to-one relationship. One path to wisdom, and one path to foolishness. I don't know that there is ever only one path to wisdom, but even if there were, there would still be millions of different paths to foolishness. (See, for example, the Book of Ecclesiastes for the point of view that everything is foolishness.)

Looking beyond literalness, the generalization still implies a dualism that may exist in traditional Christianity (e.g., good v. evil, God v. Satan, and Heaven v. Hell), but may not necessarily exist in other thought systems. For example, Taoism may divide the universe into competing forces (the yin and the yang), but it does not label one "good" and the other "bad." In fact, much of Taoism is devoted to achieving a balance of contrasting forces, and to eliminating concepts like "right" and "wrong."

Similarly, A Course in Miracles differs from traditional Christianity in rejecting the whole notion of evil. What we call "evil" is, according to the Course, nothing but an illusion of our sick or fevered minds. The Course also states that love is so all-encompassing that it can have no opposite. More to the point, the introduction to the Course also rejects the notion of different paths. It states that the Course is a required course, and that "free will" only gives us the opportunity to decide when to take the lessons, but not the curriculum itself. In the thought system of the Course, there is only one path, and our choice is not among different paths, but between taking the one path or none at all. Or, to use the metaphor in a different way, there may be different paths, but only one destination. What others might call the "path to foolishness" is what students of the Course would call a longer and more difficult path to the same destination.

The reason that there is only one destination is God's grace. God's grace only admits of one destination, and that is salvation. We can choose the path we take, but we can't alter the destination.

Monday, October 27, 2003

The Shock of Jesus

In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg points out a decisive difference between Jesus and the prevailing Jewish culture of his day. The prevailing Jewish culture was based on attaining holiness, which Borg refers to as a "purity system." The ministry of Jesus was based on the compassion of God, which is why Jesus associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, cripples, and other "impure" persons. Borg uses this difference to illustrate the political impact of Jesus's teachings, which contradicted much of the social and economic structure of his times.

This description of Jesus, and the contrast with prevailing Judaism, is consistent with Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus, but Mitchell makes a slightly different theological point. Mitchell agrees that Jesus's associations with "the wicked" were shocking to the Pharisees, but not for the reason we usually assume. The popular current view (or at least what I was taught in Sunday school) is that Jesus believed in forgiveness while the Pharisees did not. So Jesus was willing to associate with sinners because he wanted to redeem them and convert them, while the Pharisees did not want to redeem sinners and opposed Jesus's efforts. Mitchell says that this is nonsense.

Even the Pharisees believed in forgiveness and believed that God would forgive sinners. However, in order to be forgiven by God, a sinner must first repent. It may also be necessary to do a form of penance, or perform cleansing rituals, in order to be purified again. (Borg suggests that some sinners were beyond redemption, chapter 3, n. 16.) In any event, a sinner might be accepted back into society, and might be forgiven, but first the sinner must repent.

What is shocking about what Jesus did is not that he went among sinners, urging them to repent, but that he went among sinners and did not urge them to repent. He accepted them as they were, no matter how unclean, and ate with them and socialized with them. In this respect, Jesus is like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, because when the son returned after living in sin and degradation and shame, the father did not consciously "forgive" the son and then welcome him home. Rather, the father immediately welcomed his son home and showed his son his love by celebrating his return, without even ever asking if the son was sorry or regretted what he had done.

And therein lies the shock (and problem) of Christianity. We are not asked to love sinners in order that they might repent and be saved. We are simply asked to love sinners. Period. And continue to love them as they sin.

Which is very shocking. (And very difficult.)

Friday, October 24, 2003


One of the turning points in my life came one day while doing the lessons from A Course in Miracles. Of course, I can no longer be certain exactly which lesson it was, but it was fairly early in the lessons and I think it was lesson 37, "My holiness blesses the world." That lesson begins with:

"This idea contains the first glimmerings of your true function in the world, or why you are here. Your purpose is to see the world through your own holiness."

The instructions for the day were for four exercise periods of three to five minutes each, during which you would first repeat the idea of the lesson ("My holiness blesses the world.") and then spend a few minutes blessing anything (or anyone) you might see or think about, with your eyes open or shut. (Thinking to yourself, for example, "My holiness blesses this chair.") The lesson also suggested that "It is particularly helpful to apply it silently to anyone you meet, using his name as you do so."

It is that last suggestion that changed my life, because as I went through the day, my holiness blessed the checker at the grocery store, the person who held the door for me (or for whom I held the door) at the post office, the people driving past me on the street, and everyone else I thought about during the day. And everyone changed that day, and no one has been the same since.

It was as though a light had been turned on, or a curtain raised, and I could see people for the first time. Before, I could see their faces, hair, arms, and legs, but now I felt I was seeing the real them, that I could sense their inner thoughts and inner essence. And everything I saw was good. They were all kind, loving, gentle people, true children of God. True, one of them might seem rude or indifferent at the moment, but that was a slip, a mistake, which might happen because they were busy or distracted or preoccupied with some troubling thought. Fundamentally, they were all good people, and I loved them all.

And I'm happy to say that, when I am in my "right mind" (a phrase from the Course), I can still see only the "Inner Light" in those around me (a Quaker phrase), and not the darkness. And I still like to go through the day at peace, surrounded by loving people, and blessing them all with my holiness.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Obeying God

In A Testament of Devotion, the Quaker writer Thomas R. Kelley talks about "holy obedience" to God's will. But is it possible to do anything but God's will?

Years ago, I told one of my spiritual teachers that I was "allowing" things to happen as God wished. His response was, "What makes you think you have a choice?"

In this respect, I am reminded of the story of Jonah, who was called by God to go to preach in Nineveh, and promptly got on a boat traveling in the opposite direction. There was a storm, Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish. After three days, the fish spat up Jonah onto dry land, and then Jonah went to Nineveh.

So, God gives us a choice: We can do it the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.

The introduction to A Course in Miracles presents a similar theme, because it describes the Course as "a required course." Only the time at which you take it is "voluntary."

"Free will does not mean that you can establish the curriculum. It means only that you can elect what you want to take at a given time."

So, you can go to Nineveh first, and then get eaten by a fish, or you can get eaten by a fish and then go to Nineveh. But you still end up in Nineveh eventually.

Our choice is not between doing God's will and not doing God's will. Our only choice is whether we are going to be happy about it. We can trust in God and enjoy our lives, or we can be dragged by God along through life, kicking and screaming. That's our choice.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Finger or the Moon?

There is a proverb or saying in Zen Buddhism to the effect that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.

This saying (or metaphor) comes up in several contexts, but the recurring message is that the words or teachings of Zen are not the same as Zen itself. So, it is sometimes said that, when the student finally sees the moon, there is no longer any need for the pointing finger.

I recently gained a new appreciation for this metaphor during a Quaker retreat on "spiritual formation." In a session on learning to listen, the leader of the session pointed out that all of the words we use to describe our spiritual experiences are only metaphors for the experiences, and that the words themselves are often inadequate. To listen to the spiritual experiences of another person, we must therefore learn to look past the metaphors and work to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other person. We must look to find the moon, and not be distracted by the pointing finger.

For many years, I did not use the word "God" in my own discussions of my faith, because the image of the "God" I learned in my youth was not the God I wanted to talk about now. In the Sunday School of my youth, I envisioned God as an old man sitting on a throne in the sky, passing judgments on humans and intervening in events on earth to favor the "good" and punish the "evil." I do not think of God in that way now, either in terms of his appearance or his actions.

A turning point for me was when I realized that other members of my Quaker meeting had the same misgivings about the meaning of the word "God" that I had. When I realized that the word "God" itself was just a metaphor for whatever it is that we revere, and that many people were struggling with their own understanding of "God" and were aware that not everyone else shared their ideas of God, I started using the word again. I decided it was all right to use the word as a short-hand for something that most people knew was more complicated than a single word could easily convey, and that enough people understood "God" as a bundle of ideas and not a fixed thing.

All of which illustrates the problem of communicating between different faiths and different cultures. The words we use for some of the most important ideas in our lives are based in metaphors, and not dictionary definitions. When we hear another person speak of God, or Allah, or the Tao, or Buddha, or even Jesus, we should try to see the moon, not the finger.