Sunday, January 29, 2006

Revisiting Jesus and non-dualism

A couple of posters, "anonymous" and James Butler, have taken me to the whipping post in the comments section of my last post on the historical teachings of Jesus, link as follows:

I have only a Clintonian defense to mount on the specific charge that I am guilty of imposing a non-dual interpretation upon the scanty "rorschach inkblot" that is the historical Jesus, which puts me in the same boat as Paul and so many others who project their own particular wishes and desires onto "Jesus", usually without much evidentiary basis. To parse what I said, let's look at what I wrote:

I'd suggest you're not going to understand the kind of process Jesus in all probability actually taught by studying the Bible carefully, or accepting it on faith. Nor will one find it by doing biblical scholarship. The best thing to do is study the great non-dual traditions of spirituality, east and west, to get a sense for what the true threads of Christian spirituality actually are. There's a tremendous amount of literature, Christian and non-Christian, which can help you out.

Okay, I'm guilty as charged. But at least I've qualified my statement by saying that I am simplying trying to identify the threads of Christian spirituality that are actually true. I use the word "true" not in the scholarly sense, but in the spiritual sense. In other words, there are threads of Christian teachings, found even in the Bible, which to me are true, which represent something that is true about religion, God, etc. These threads of truth are also found in various other religious traditions, including the non-dual traditions of India.

It's a non-scholarly leap, I grant you, to suggest that these true threads are genuinely linked to the historical Jesus, when we don't know for certain that they are. People do tend to read into Jesus whatever they feel is "true" about Christianity, and look upon the "false" elements of Christian teaching as an outside interposition, such as Paul's contributions. And yet I am far from being the first to point out that several threads of Christian mysticism, including aspects of both the Bible and the unofficial and suppressed books of early Christianity, have a decidedly non-dual flavor to them.

I think it would be absurd to make the kind of specific claims that Yogananda does, that Jesus taught a specific yogic path similar to his kriya yoga, but it's really not very far-fetched at all to suggest, as many have, that Jesus was actually an esoteric realizer with a decidely non-dual slant whose esoteric teachings were last to a significant degree and replaced by the Pauline teaching of salvation. I don't want to go into a detailed analysis of the texts, but it's not hard to find the non-dual thread that runs through the Gospels, even if it doesn't dominate them in a manner which could sustain an wide tradition. But there is a tradition of non-dual mysticism in Christianity which goes back to the earliest times, and which is tied closely to the neoplatonic mystical tradition as well, which is itself derived in large part from the contacts the Greeks had with the eastern traditions of religion, both before and after Alexander's conquests. While knowledge of the historical Jesus is impossible to confirm, the presence of these elements in early Christianity is undeniable. How they got there is the question.

Were they the result of Jesus himself being exposed to these eastern teachings? This is not unlikely, if Jesus was as cosmopolitan and eager to engage in spiritual discussion as the biblical account suggests, where it mentions that at age 12 Jesus was already debating the priests in Jerusalem. Whether that story is apochryphal or not, it is certainly true that Palestine was the gateway to the east for the entire Greek empire, and the religious teachings of India had travelled many times over through that part of the world, and vice-versa for Greek teachings travelling to India. Alexander's conquests ran all the way to India, and his soldiers not only brought back eastern teachings, they opened trade routes to India which remained active in Jesus' day and age. Not only were Indian teachings well known and influential, but so were Egyptian, Persian, Zoroastrian, and Babylonian religious ideas. Philosophically minded individuals such as Jesus could have become aware of these ideas and made use of them. Whether Jesus did or not is speculative, but some of these ideas clearly made their appearance in teachings ascribed to him.

Which brings up the other possibility: that non-dual eastern teachings infiltrated the Christian tradition after Jesus' death, in the same manner that the Pauline teachings did, by Christian proponents who had strong leanings in that direction themselves, and who imposed such ideas on the historical Jesus after he died. In this scenario, the non-dual threads of mysticism we find in the Bible, in the non-biblical gnostic and other early teachings, were attached to Christianity by followers who wished to promote their particular religious bent using the symbol of Jesus as their vehicle. This is entirely possible, even probable. It simply doesn't exclude Jesus himself from being of that religious bent himself.

The other theory, that Jesus simply travelled to India himself, received these non-dual teachings directly, and came back teaching a popularized version for the public, and a secret esoteric version in private, is also possible, but highly speculative.

For my part, what I was recommending to Goldeneye is that at the level of religious practice, it's better to go for spiritual truth rather than trying to be true to the historical Jesus. I think analysis of the historical Jesus is necessary only to deflate the Pauline delusions about Jesus, which have been conflated with historical accuracy only by tradition, not by real evidence. Once the Pauline Christian tradition is set at the same level of credibiltiy as any other interpretation, one can simply examine the various threads of Christian tradition on their spiritual merits, rather than they historical authenticity. In evaluating spiritual teachings, historical authenticity is almost irrelevent. If the teaching is true, it's not that important how it came about, whether it really originated from Jesus, or was gloamed onto it from some interloping source. The important point is that the teaching be true. What if Jesus wasn't a realizer at all, and his original teachings were bullshit? It's much better to follow the neoplatonic mystical thread of Christianity from Plotinus on through Dionysius the Areopagite to Meister Eckhardt. It would even be better to follow the ACIM book, even if it was just made up out of nowhere, since it contains many good and true teachings.

The truth is that the Christian tradition has many, many threads in it, and not many of them probably originated with Jesus, but many do have truth to them. Some are better than others. The non-dual thread in these teachings can certainly be found and emphasized if one is liberal with the sources and traditions, and one is probably very safe saying that's the "true" Jesus. One just can't be certain from a historical point of view. But what is Jesus at this point anyway other than a symbol for God in a human context? The historical Jesus is lost to us, what we have is the spiritual Jesus, and that spiritual Jesus is up for grabs. Those who claim to have the historical Jesus on their side have to face the historical evidence, and that is one of the biggest problems with Pauline Christianity, which has wedded itself to the historical Jesus, and now faces huge gaps it can't explain. Better to simply align oneself to the best in the Christian tradition, such as this non-dualist thread I'm talking about. I think it's not just a fair guess, but probably the best guess at where the historical Jesus actually stood in the scheme of things. But we'll never really know. And I'm fine with that. It's just that Christians seem to care alot about it.

The ACIM view is a bit strange to me, all things considered, in that most of the people who are heavily involved in it really feel its important to them to believe that the source of the text literally is Jesus himself, who dictated the book to this irascible Jewish psychologist in New York. The voice of the book makes that claim quite directly, and leaves it open to people to care if it's true or not, and believe it or not. As voices go, I have to say I find it far more believable than the voices of the apostles in the New Testament, but that's not saying a lot. The point is that for Christians, like Daists, there is a strong compulsion to have an historical vehicle for the Divine, and to have one vehicle who is the central and most important vehicle of the Divine, and that they be involved with that guy, rather than some other guy of lesser importance. Nevertheless, I don't find the ACIM to be any less legitimately a reflection of the historical Jesus than the Bible is, and like I say, probably even more so all things considered. But then, I'm not opposed to using Jesus as a rorschach, as long as one does so consciously and with good intentions. The problem with most Christians is they do so unconsciously, and with unconscious intentions.


JB said...

'Scool. I pretty much agree with everything you said here, and as usual you say it better and generally unpack it more than I would've. The tendency to ascribe self-generated stuff to realizers of yore is a funny one, isn't it? Seems universal, from the Paulines to the Mahayanists to the neo-Pagan types. And then there's Joseph Smith with his golden tablets, and the Tibetan tertons. Pragmatic, tho, in terms of propagating the meme.

Goldeneye said...

Why couldn't Jesus be normal like everybody else? I remember in Yogic cirlces those who took the "I could call on 1,000 legions of angels" to its farthest point. "Jesus was a yogi. He felt no pain on the cross despite what historical records say. And through yogic powers he rose from the dead." I would ascribe the Resurrection to God's power, not yogic training.

By all accounts Jesus was a unique kind of man--authoritarian and definitive. That can come from a relationship to God that resembles those with mental illnesses. Only Jesus handled his mental illness with impeccability (probably because he knew he was the Son of God). This idea was reflected in Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ. I would add, in closing, that the teachings left in the gospel records are pretty clear as to what Jesus wanted to get across, and that BY's involvement in yoga has led him to conclude things New Age about Jesus and Christianity that just aren't true.

Goldeneye said...

Just a PS here. I believe Jesus' relationship with "The Father" to be very different from the eastern mystic's relationship with The Mother. Just a quick check up: Jesus suffered greatly the thought of his beating and crucifixion. A Yogi would have gone off to a cave and sat full lotus not sweating any of this. My outrageous assertion that Jesus was mentally ill has to be understood in this context. Some mentally ill people think they have a bee-line to God. They hear the voice of God and have miraculous experiences. So did Jesus. But Jesus was told by God that he was his only Son. This further expands our understanding of the relationship between God and Jesus which was essential. Jesus always referred to the Father and insisted on doing his Will to perfection. This all sounds impossible to us but not to the "crazy" Jesus. Now when I refer to mental illness (as we have many key examples of madness untreated in history) I am referring (in the PC way) to a CHEMICAL CHANGE IN THE BRAIN. We don't have medical evidence that Jesus was "mad" but everything points to it. As I said earlier, in the Last Temptation of Christ Jesus feels a terrible pain in his head (the seat of God-Consciousness) and hears voices that torment him. I certainly don't believe in the story but it offers an interesting idea about the human being Jesus. That Jesus was unusually authoritative should not be attributed to his greatness as a sterile spiritual master but rather should be attributed to this close relationship to God built on mental contact with him.

Some mentally ill people are as disgusting to stomach as prematurely enlightened Buddhists. Their excessive religious ferver is indicative of their chemical change in the brain. But since they don't know how to control it like Jesus did they often appear to be know-it-alls who are obsessed with an other-worldly reality. Jesus was unique. He handled his condition with impeccability most likely because of God's Will that he be without "sin".

Goldeneye said...

PPS There are two other explanations. Jesus was either enlightened (like the eastern masters) or he was like a computer, a perfect and unique person.