I grew older. I visited many cathedrals, watched midnight mass on Christmas in the Vatican, led by the Pope. I met many sincere, thoughtful, questioning Catholics and Protestants. I saw that they have their fundamentalists, and we have ours. And I learned that the real, believing kind of Christians had as much disdain for the Easter Bunny and Christmas Tree as I did. Perhaps even more, since, after all, it was their religion that was being degraded.
And I learned that I had a Jesus problem. I could accept Islam, despite its contemporary distortions; had no problem with Hinduism, even with all the gods, even with Ganesh and his elephantine visage. I embraced Buddhism as my own path, at least as expressed in its Western, Unitarian/Reconstructionist form. And I read John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi; I learned from Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing, the Pearl author and C.S. Lewis. But mainstream, ordinary, Ned Flanders Christians - I still couldn't get it. And definitely not Jesus himself, the man, or the god, or both.
Like many Jews, I started to solve my Jesus problem by returning to Jesus himself. Most mainstream Jews, in my experience, have a deep private scorn for Christian dogma, to the extent they think about it at all. They respect "their religion" and have no desire to convert or repress Christian people, but I've seen that, privately, they have at least as much contempt for the faith itself as I had. However, many Jews do not. They see Jesus as a radical rabbi, with profound insights, whose teachings were simply distorted by his followers. Indeed, if you pick up a Christian Bible and read only the lines in red, this reading is borne out quite well. As many scholars have observed, Jesus appears as a radical reformer of the Jewish religion, someone who inverted accepted hierarchies and sharply criticized the corrupt institutions of the Jewish establishment. He attracted a small following, alienated every authority figure in Judea, and was crucified by the Romans with the glad cooperation of the Jewish power base. Yes, he does call God "Father," but so do Jews, every day, when they say the words "Avinu Malkeinu," our father, our king. There are the miracle stories, but it's easy to read them as emendations meant to persuade; some of them seem to be metaphors.
In short, Jesus was a teacher, both great and misunderstood.
All of which is well and good, but too distant from Christianity itself to satisfy my own desire to somehow make the religion coherent. Although more subtle, it was really just an elaboration of the "Christians have got it horribly wrong" position. In a way, it was an extension of it. Not only do they have it wrong about God and the nature of the universe, they even have it wrong about their own Bible. Jesus talked about ethics and reform, and within a hundred years the Church fathers were preaching hellfire, trinities, and immaculate conception.
The persona of Christ seemed the critical issue. Was he a human teacher, or was he some kind of man-God? If the former, then the whole soteriology of Christ dying on the cross to save all of mankind was preposterously wrong. If the latter, well, I suppose anything is possible, but one can at least begin reading the Christ stories as a series of tales about enlightenment.
In contemplative circles, there is a tendency to see all the world's great religious teachers as essentially possessing the same awareness, which they translate into the different idioms of their respective cultures. There are at least two reasons for this. First, there is the striking affinity among them, not in the na´ve sense of all mysticisms being exactly the same but in a near-perfect congruity between what is today seen as the core truth of reality (some call it "cosmic consciousness") and the teachings of all of the world's enlightened masters, whether they lived in Australia, Palestine, or Greenland. Shamanistic visionaries journey to the spirit-world, contemplatives experience the unity of all - and it always gets translated down to people who don't really want to change their lives, but want to somehow participate in religious magic. And so we get both religious diversity, and trouble.
The second reason I think contemplatives today tend to read all religious teachers in the light of contemplative experience is the experience itself. Mystical knowledge is profoundly certain. Not certain of anything, and in fact radically skeptical of any dogma, or indeed any claim about the nature of the world. But certain in and of itself, as a direct perception of reality. Doubts arise, and can be noticed for what they are; rational arguments come up, and can be played with for a while. But they are all held within a great, deep knowing. There is a rock-like quality to the silence of the desert (whether geographical - I've just returned from four days in the desert myself - or psychological). Jewish liturgy calls God "tzur goaleinu" and "tzur yisrael" - the rock of salvation, the rock of Israel. It is dangerous to attach this rock-like certainty to any particular position or principle, but it does exist, and I think for that reason contemplatives just know that other people must have had a similar experience. It's too right not to be universal.
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