The Christ – The New Testament’s Adam and Eve Story
Most people now readily accept that the story of Adam and Eve is myth and should not be taken literally. However, despite all the Scriptural scholarship to this effect, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that the story “affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man.” (#390) The reason for this stubborn blindness to reality and to the Church’s own scholarship is simple: the story props up a theological worldview that gives the institution power and authority. The story of a God who withdrew friendship, the story of humanity exiled from God because of sin form the basis of the institution’s claim to have unique access to that God and to his forgiveness. The story has formed, and continues to form, the basis for the institutional Church’s understanding of why it exists.
Disbelief in literal understanding of this story took a long time coming – and is still resisted, as the Catechism attests.
Jump now to the New Testament and lo and behold we have a story that mirrors the Adam and Eve story in so many ways: “the Christ” story. Again we have literal belief in a God who disconnected from humanity; a story abut humanity lost in sin. Again we have, on the basis of this “Christ” story, institutional claims to unique access to God – and to “salvation”.
But “the Christ” is as much a myth as Adam and Eve. It’s a theological construct shaped in a worldview that is given no credence today. Jesus had no concern for the issues the proponents of “the Christ pushed into prominence. His concern was for this world and how humans urgently need to get their act together. Jesus was never “the Christ” figure. If he thought at all about being “anointed” for a task, it was about preaching “good news” to affirm, uplift and challenge people. He had no belief in a God withholding forgiveness or friendship. He certainly would have been aghast at the idea that God’s forgiveness was conditional on some “redeeming” act. He showed no interest in the Greek religious focus on access to the heavenly realms. And it would seem, from respectable scholarship, that the idea of “the Christ” had no place in the minds of the Jewish followers of Jesus in the first decade after he died.
So, when will we get to general acceptance that the Christ-religion (as I now prefer to call Christianity) has side-tracked people down the wrong path the way the Adam and Eve story side-tracked people for centuries? Don’t hold your breath would be good advice. The history of the Christ-religion in its institutional leadership throughout the centuries has displayed far more emphasis, brutal and fearful at times, on correct thinking about the Christ and on the Church’s power to condemn people to hell than on Jesus preaching the beatitudes.
“The Christ” has been cemented in creedal, doctrinal statements, never to be questioned. It’s the biggest mistake this religion ever made because it is all so far removed from anything Jesus gave his life for.
It’s time to purge our Gospels from “the Christ” influences on their writers decades after Jesus died and get back to what Jesus really preached.
As some responses to the last blog pointed out, intuition in itself, yet alone when identified with divine revelation, is a very broad reality, very difficult to tie down. It is a reality that needs to be tested if people are not to proclaim recklessly that the judgments, decisions or actions based on their intuition or the inner voice they hear stand above any critique.
So, how might we test intuition, revelation, the divine voice embedded in every human?
As I wrote in the previous blog, Jesus believed the same divine reality within him was in the people listening to him. He not only wanted to set them free from whatever restricted or strangled that reality within them, he also gave clear guidance for how anyone might recognize that divine reality in themselves and in others.
You are not to be proud-hearted, elitist, exclusive, or to set yourself over others.
You are to mourn with those who mourn.
You are to work for justice; you are to be of service to others.
You must be neighbor to all. You must be inclusive of all people.
You must never be violent or seek to dominate or rule over others.
Your intent must be pure, free from seeking power and prestige.
You must be willing to stand up for what you believe.
Believe that the kingdom of God is here, within and among you; it is in your hands and in your power - and it is your responsibility - to bring it to expression in the human community.
There are some clear implications from Jesus preached about the kingdom of God. On the one hand, people are to be set free from any belief that they need middle management to bring the presence of God to them, On the other hand, no one should think of themselves as bringing that presence to others; Jesus never ministered to others under that delusion.
There is always the possibility of self-delusion when someone wants to follow the promptings of their inner voice. I suggest that the criteria Jesus used create an objective benchmark and prove an excellent checklist for anyone wanting to evaluate, integrate and act on what they have heard from within.
When we start to think about divine revelation as giving expression to a reality within all people rather than coming from a God external to humanity, scripture becomes problematic.
Consider how much of scripture, heralded as divine revelation, fails the criteria of Jesus dismally. Think of one ethnic group claiming to be uniquely the people of God and how divisive and elitist that claim is. Think of a new religious movement claiming to have exclusive access to the dwelling place of God. Think of women being suppressed and not having a voice in society. Think of a God ordering violent actions. Think of cultural norms and man-made community laws elevated to the laws od God. Think of punishments listed in the name of God for violations of these laws. Think of adherents to a religion who generally believed that God could not possibly be near the likes of them. Think of the idea that humanity was said to be dead in its sins, disconnected from God, and in need of a savior figure for redemption. And think of one of the most foundational ideas in our scriptures, that God resides in the heavens above the earth.
Much of what is claimed to be divine revelation is a man-made system of community control. It is not inclusive of all people. Rather it serves the claims of unique religious institutional identity, and of power and absolute authority - in the name of God. Should we be surprised that Jesus thought it all needed a total makeover if the kingdom of God was to be established? Perhaps we should not be surprised that it took less than a century for the insights of Jesus to be pushed aside in favor of a grandiose theological schema that created a new religion which eventually claimed absolute control over people’s access to God and over their thinking and religious practice. All in the name of divine revelation, of course.
Theology also becomes problematic when we consider revelation in a new way.
Consider the criteria of Jesus. This is not theology. You cannot take this teaching and turn it into doctrine. It is not tied to a particular time in history. It is not dependent on a particular worldview. It is not limited to one cultural or ethnic group. No one has control over these insights. They express a universal truth about humanity and how we should live. They are true for all time.
The prophets spoke a similar message, as did men and women in other places and cultures throughout human history. Here, I believe, is genuine revelation, the human expression of a divine voice or presence embedded in all of us, speaking of possibilities based on co-operation, compassion, care and respect for all.
Now consider the writings of Paul, held up to Christians as divine revelation, and as such, never to be questioned. There is, however, a fundamental difference between Jesus and Paul that needs to be noted in terms of ‘revelation’. Paul gives us ideas, a big picture of reality as he understood it in the first century. His teaching can be, and was, turned into doctrine. His teaching is reliant on a religious culture and on a worldview that are not ours today. As such, it does not stand the test of time. Paul’s teaching led a new religious movement to articulate a theology of disconnection from God and a Christology about Jesus who became the Christ figure who redeemed humanity from that disconnection. It led to a new religion claiming unique access to God in and through belief in the risen Jesus.
And this is divine revelation never to be questioned?
No, it is not. It is human thinking trying to make sense of religious questions and ideas at a particular time in human history. It should be respected as such, because at any time in history we are challenged to make sense of our relationship with God with the data we have on hand. But I would want to understand revelation as something more timeless, as a reality like a stream running through all human history, a stream that everyone in every place and every time can dip into and find what is timeless wisdom about how we humans can give best expression to the divine within us all.
I think Jesus wanted all his hearers to strip off and swim in that stream.
Vatican II never questioned the traditional understanding of revelation. It is most likely that no bishop since Vatican II has questioned it either. It is truly an amazing state of affairs that given the extraordinary wealth of scientific knowledge showered upon us in the past fifty years, that no voice has been raised or has been permitted to be raised in the Catholic Church suggesting it is time to rethink how divine revelation works. And I do not want to suggest that Catholicism is alone in this.
The traditional understanding of revelation requires belief in a God, external to our world, who intervenes from wherever this God is thought to be located. As recently as 1992, The Catechism of the Catholic Church presented the world with the understanding of God wanting to compose the sacred books and choosing certain men to write whatever he wanted written and no more (#106)
In the worldview of more than two thousand years ago, the prophets heard their heavenly-based God 'speak' to them the message God wanted his people to hear. The prophets spoke with certainty and intensity:
Thus said the Lord God to me.
This is what the Lord God wants.
The Lord of hosts has sworn.
Woe to the rebelliousays the Lord.
For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel.
Thus says the Lord God is repeated over and over in some of the prophetical books. (e.g. Jeremiah, chapters 30-32)
Today when we are not imagining God as an external heavenly deity, but rather as the mysterious source and sustainer of everything that exists, present and active everywhere, we are challenged to turn our understanding of revelation upside down or back to front, or better, from out to in. In other words, we should consider that the 'voice' the prophets heard did not come from an external source, a God in the heavens, but from internally, from the mysterious source of all, present, embedded, active within them, as it is in every human.
Another phrase that some of the prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Micah, use, may help us embrace this shift in thinking: The Word of the Lord came to me. Today we can imagine that the teaching, the path to be followed, came from personal reflection, from a moment of sudden insight, or in one of those waking from sleep moments when something dawns with surprising clarity or from a deep inner conviction or 'knowing' as in 'I just know, do not me how, that this needs to be done or I need to do this.'
The word we commonly use for this phenomenon is intuition, a way of perception and knowing that is like an inner voice, an inner guidance. Carl Jung wrote that, 'Intuition enables us to divine the possibilities of a situation.' Perhaps we could play with his words and say, 'Intuition enables us to know the divine possibilities of a situation.'
From this perspective we can see that 'divine revelation' is within all of us. We can move from the traditional understanding that it comes from an external source and that it is granted to a privileged few or a privileged group. This thinking, of course, is not acceptable to the institutional custodians of 'divine revelation' who consider they have a God-given mandate to let the world know the thoughts and opinions of an external deity.
Jesus knew better. He knew what was in people. He wanted to free people from whatever prevented them from knowing what he knew and experienced. Only with such freedom could 'divine possibilities' ever shape the future of humanity.
Albert Einstein wrote, 'The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.'
If we could learn to understand 'divine revelation' in the way suggested in these paragraphs, religion could regain, treasure and promote the sacred gift, and help all people come to know what Jesus wanted everyone to know: the 'divine voice is within all of us.
Theology always starts with people trying to making sense of the prevailing worldview. The Hebrew people, in the centuries before Jesus, started their theology in the worldview which they had inherited from people who had lived centuries before 'the Hebrews' came into existence. It was a worldview of gods and mythical stories about how humanity came into existence, and stories that attempted to explain death, suffering and evil.
The Hebrew people developed their understanding of a Supreme Heavenly God from these foundations and also from the need to shape their own unique identity. So they gave us The Hebrew Bible.
The early Christians, being Jews, naturally built their understanding of salvation and the role of Jesusin it, in light of the Hebrew Scriptures and its understanding of God. As Christianity developed, it added to this understanding the notion of humanity disconnected from the heavenly God.
Consequently, all Christian doctrinal statements about Jesus' role in human affairs dealt with how he was able to re-establish connection with God and win access to God's heavenly dwelling place.
In the 21st century, theology should start over again. It should start with the effort to make sense of the prevailing worldview. It is no longer a worldview dominated by gods and mythical stories about how humanity came into existence.
If we held in abeyance all the theological ideas developed in that old worldview and used the contemporary worldview as the starting point for theological reflection, what might emerge as we contemplate the reality of a universe with billions of galaxies?
If we want to believe in a Mysterious reality we call God, what does scientific data suggest about where this Mystery is, and about how this Mysterious reality operates throughout the universe?
If we let the data speak for itself, I cannot imagine that we would draw from it the notion of a localized deity overseeing the universe. Rather, the data would more likely lead us to acknowledge that this Mystery is present and active everywhere .
The good news to be drawn from this starting point is that there can be no disconnection from this Mystery! Disconnection makes no sense. What data could possibly lead us to seriously entertain notions of disconnection from the Mystery that charges and holds in existence everything that exists!
What data about the origin of planet Earth and how life developed here could possibly lead us to take seriously any story of a 'fall' from a state of paradise when humans emerged! There is no such data.
The new, contemporary, starting point for theology would lead us firstly to the good news of a Presence active everywhere. It would lead us to deep appreciation of this Presence manifesting in human form on this wonderful planet. It would provide us with a story that includes everyone, regardless of race, culture or religious beliefs.
This start to theology would turn upside down Christianity's proclaimed need for a savior to reconnect with an overseeing deity, to win forgiveness from this god for our sins, to save the world, and to become the focal point for the future unfolding of the whole universe.
What, then, of Jesus? If we follow this starting point, as I propose to do in future blogs, we can discover what Jesus really was about and why his message is so affirming, empowering, challenging and important today.
I find myself amazed by many Catholic theologians who consider themselves immersed in the "new universe story" or in "evolutionary consciousness". I'm amazed at their readiness to make huge leaps from the scientific data they are considering, and wonder of wonders, are able to land with clear statements of belief about the Trinitarian nature of "God" and/or with statements about "Christ" as the focal point of evolutionary development, or about "Christ" as the Reality drawing the whole universe into some sort of completion.
It's time to say in non-theological terms, "Give me a break!"
Rather than reading Catholic/Christian doctrine/beliefs into this incredible data we have at our disposal, we should be serious, thorough, honest, and open about allowing this new knowledge to take us where it will.
But this is not happening.
Instead, most Catholic theologians I read impose onto the data preconceived and highly respected notions of Revelation, of a personal Deity, of a trinitarian God, and of a Christ figure who saved the world.
Is it not possible - maybe even likely from the data - that all those preconceived, prepackaged and never-to-be-questioned notions being brought to the data have no relevance anymore?
Is it not possible - maybe even most likely from the data - that we need to articulate a totally new story, a new understanding, about the Ultimate Mystery that gives birth to the universe, about what it means to be human, and about Jesus and ourselves as human expressions of that Ultimate Mystery?
I sense that we have barely begun this necessary and wonderful task of theological exploration. We are far too concerned with putting new data into old wineskins.