This is my final post in this series. I hope you have enjoyed reading and discussing the posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them. As I conclude the series, there are two final questions that are on my mind: How could we have gotten Jesus so wrong and what is his relevance for the world today?
How did we get him so wrong?
The portrait I have drawn is obviously nothing like a traditional portrait of Jesus, even though it is largely inspired by our earliest and best record of his teachings in the Sayings Gospel Q. So if this portrait is somewhere in the ballpark of the real story, then we naturally are left wondering how the traditional picture could be so far off. There is, after all, an unbroken continuity between us and Jesus, via the oral traditions passed down by his disciples and the written gospels that were based on those oral traditions. Given that continuity, how could we have gotten him so wrong?
There are probably many answers to this question. There is the brevity of his ministry, which may have lasted as little as one year. There is the fact, as I mentioned in week 4, that he, like Socrates, stirred something so deep in his followers that it became hard to separate out the real man from what he had stirred within them. There is what’s called “the Rashomon effect,” which comes from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie, in which four eyewitnesses tell their startlingly different versions of the same rape and murder. There is also the tendency in human nature toward what I can only call hero worship, for want of a less derogatory term, which could go a long way toward explaining the seismic shift that scholars have observed in which, as Rudolf Bultmann put it, “the proclaimer became the proclaimed.”
There is one factor, though, that in my mind virtually guarantees that Jesus would have been profoundly misunderstood. This is that, as many of his teachings make plain, he taught an alternative vision of reality that turned upside down conventional assumptions and values.
We expect religious teachers to essentially say, “More obedience, more piety, follow the old truths. You know what’s right, you just need to do it—or else.” That’s a message we understand. It rests on a framework that is already deeply embedded in us. But Jesus brought in a whole different framework. He taught of a God who showered his blessings just as much on the sinner as on the saint, a God who didn’t divide people into the categories of approved and disapproved. This different God was the basis of a different world based on unconventional values, a world that we were invited to enter and live in. This world was so utterly contrary to the familiar that wherever it entered it did so in the form of radical reversal. Everything turned upside down. The sick were suddenly healed. The excluded and degraded were honored. Enemies became friends. The dead arose.
He didn’t, therefore, simply stay within the old framework and say “Obey it better.” He asked us to enter a new framework. He asked us to make a fundamental shift in our perception. The difficulty of this, of course, is that one’s fundamental framework is the basis for all of one’s perceptions and feelings and behavior. Everything rests on it. How, then, does one shift to an entirely new framework? At least, how does one do it successfully, without great confusion, misunderstanding, and inadvertent retention of the old?
I am intimately familiar with this problem. I have been teaching A Course in Miracles for thirty years and this is the same problem that its students face. The Course asks us to step into its alternative vision of reality, which entails an entirely different set of values and perceptions, and which enters the familiar world in the form of radical reversal. And despite the fact that we have 1200 pages of clear teaching, confusion and misunderstanding are rampant among students, not just in the details but in the basics. As human beings, we interpret everything we see on the basis of our current framework, and so when we are presented with a new framework, we naturally interpret it from the standpoint of our current framework. This throws us into an uncertain no man’s land between the two frameworks, in which they become confused and melded. The confusion is so great that we don’t even know where we are—how close we are to the new side versus how stuck in the old.
Actually, I don't think it's as innocent as I'm making it sound. I think what I'm describing is the visible evidence of unconscious resistance. Our basic framework works to protect itself at all times, and it does so very effectively. And so just as the ruling elites in Jesus' day sensed the threat that he posed and moved to extinguish that threat, I think the same dynamic plays out within our individual minds. The ruling power structure in our minds quite aptly senses the threat that his message poses and moves to neutralize it. I think this happened in the minds of his earliest followers and I think it has continued to happen in all minds that are exposed to his message—ours included—to this day.
Based on my experience with A Course in Miracles, then, it seems obvious to me that once Jesus called us to undergo such a fundamental revolution in perception, he was bound to be thoroughly misunderstood. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been different.
What is his relevance for us today?
Once we step outside of the traditional view of worshiping Jesus as the only begotten Son of God who died for our sins, it is easy to see Jesus as having merely historical value; study of him matters because he is an important part of our history.
Or, if we are spiritually-oriented, we might see him as relevant because he actually stood for truths that we ourselves believe in. That’s how I saw him back in my Edgar Cayce days—he taught oneness and reincarnation, just like Cayce did. You see this approach in many places. Those into Christian mysticism see him as teaching their truths. Those into Eastern enlightenment see him as standing for their journey of awakening. There is no doubt that it is empowering to have Jesus now on your side, rather than against you. It is healing to reclaim him as your own.
In my eyes, however, his relevance for us today is quite different from any of the above views. I believe that he came to convey a truth that, to a significant degree, was unique to him, a shining truth of paramount importance, a truth that our world desperately needs but cannot see through the thick layers of fog. Through Jesus that shining truth entered our world in a way that it had never done before. It briefly shone with piercing brightness, yet as might be expected, the fog moved in to snuff it out. And then, in a brilliant move, the fog appropriated him as its own, thereby sidelining his truth. And so that truth was to a large extent lost from view, buried in the mist.
We still need that truth. We need it just as much now as then. It is just as radical now as it was then. It’s not as if in the intervening centuries we have grasped it and outgrown it. It still towers high above us. For we still love those who love us. We still defend ourselves when attacked. Rather than lovingly giving our attacker twice what he tried to take, we still try to give him a double dose of his own medicine. Our society is still riven by fault lines of hatred, still divided between those who matter and those who don’t. And we still see God as justifying it all. As I quoted Huston Smith saying, “H.G. Wells was evidently right; either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say.”
And so his message is not a historical curiosity from the ancient past. And it is not a comforting reaffirmation of truths we already believe in the present. It is a beacon that shines to us from a distant future, calling us forward.
It is easy to think that, if this message has been mostly lost for two thousand years, it’s simply too late now. And maybe it is. Maybe this message will have to reemerge in a new form, one that is less encumbered by centuries of encrustation. However, I feel that I see indications of another process playing itself out.
It is very interesting to me that the twentieth century saw a number of developments that could be interpreted as a rebirth of the truth about Jesus. There was the discovery of the revolutionary social implications of his teachings that I sketched in week 7—the line of thought and activism that runs from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. There is the field of Jesus scholarship, which for two hundred years has tried to separate the real historical figure from the Christ of faith, and which, for all its shortcomings, continues to make, I believe, absolutely vital contributions. There is the scientific study of the Shroud of Turin, which I believe was the burial cloth of Jesus (despite the 1988 carbon-dating that is now widely seen as discredited). The Shroud contains a record of everything that happened to Jesus in the crucifixion, in forensic detail, and its image is possibly a photographic imprint of the resurrection, yet it was impossible to truly study it before we possessed twentieth-century technology. We couldn't even properly view its image before the invention of photography. And there was the publication of A Course in Miracles, which claims to be written by Jesus and which, in my view, contains his unique essence and genius, only expressed in twentieth-century terms.
All of these developments involve conceptual tools and methods, and in some cases physical technologies, that were simply not available to us until recently.
If one is open to the idea of a higher plan, one might be tempted to see evidence here of a plan through which the shining truth that Jesus represented, after being hidden for so long, is gradually coming to light. It’s as if the truth he brought to this world is so crucial that, rather than being allowed to stay hidden in the fog, it must be recovered, even if it takes us thousands of years.
Perhaps, then, it is not too late. Perhaps various strands of his light are slowly emerging from the mist, developing, and heading toward an ultimate convergence. Perhaps one day we will actually arrive at the foot of that beacon that has been shining to us from far in the future.
If this is a process that is actually going on—and I would dearly like to believe it is—then, based on what I sketched above, it is a process in which people from all over the world and from different eras have a part to play.
The question is: What is our part?