What do Unitarian/Universalists think or believe about Jesus? Has he been abandoned as no longer relative to this era? Some may feel this way, sort of a bygone idea from an outdated past when people supposedly performed miracles of walking on water, healing sick people instantly, and being raised from the dead!
Several months ago, I heard a sermon on YouTube by Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, a UU minister speaking at the “All Souls UU Church” in Tulsa, OK. Her title was, “Stealing Jesus Back!” She claimed Jesus was a good idea, but he had been stolen by historical and religious thieves! The first thief was the apostle Paul, whom she described as too interested in keeping rules rather than teaching “It’s all within you.” The second thievery occurred in the 4th century church, when under Constantine’s orders, after he saw a cloud cross which helped him win a battle, ordered a new Orthodox Holy Roman Catholic Church! He gave it exclusive power to declare the Biblical stories literal and the attainment of heaven possible only by believing them. The third thief was Martin Luther who in the 16th century taught, “Just have faith! Forget about reason.” Rolenz then proceeded to describe how the Unitarian/Universalist Church helped make Jesus available again to all people! But how?
Many discoveries of the past century brought information which shook the faith in many church’s teachings. The Bible’s validity, especially what is called the “New Testament,” can seem quite doubtful to believe when one learns how it came to be. The oldest book about Jesus, Mark’s gospel, has no record of it until 150 years after Jesus supposedly lived, and that only includes half of the book. 300 years later various discovered writings were finally gathered into an officially sanctioned book called the New Testament, made and canonized as the holy word of God. We also know now the first stories about a resurrection did not appear until late in the first century, and that the whole idea of miracles was what John Spong calls, “A Gentile Heresy!”
Beginning my religious studies as a fundamentalist, I soon found the literalness hard to accept, so I later discovered more freedom among Presbyterians. But most of the larger Christian church bodies, including the Presbyterians, still officially teach the stories of Jesus as literal, including the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I finally came to a place where I could no longer accept the literalness. But is there anyway the ideas and stories of Jesus can still be valid and helpful today? Can we actually, as Rolenz says, “steal him back?”
One of the important discoveries of the past century were the Nag Hammadi documents in 1945, found in a northern Egyptian cave by a farmer. Scholars theorize they were hidden shortly after the Roman Catholic Church, in the 4th Century, made Christianity the official religion of the empire. In so doing, teaching the miracles as literal were enforced. One teaching held the physical world was created by God, and heaven was a place we went to after death, if we were baptized and believed. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents help change that. Matter wasn’t real, only Spirit was! The earth and universe were created by an inferior god called the Demiurge, or “lower God.” As such, the earth as mortal and temporary in time, was not created by a loving, eternal God who is Spirit.
This teaching placed many of the early Christians into the status of Eastern religions; Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. They were called “Gnostics,” or “those who understand and know.” The world to them was an illusion of reality, as is our bodies. They appear, and then in time, disappear. These early followers became banned by the Catholic Church. It still remains heresy in the minds of most Christians. The leader of the gnostic church at the time of Constantine was named Valentinus. He also was bishop of Rome and developed a very mysterious and sensual worship to help people reconnect with their Spiritual Self. He used candles, incense, and bells! After Constantine, he was banned but his worship order confiscated, with the elements and teachings literalized rather than seen as pointers and symbols of a deeper dimension. So how can we steal this earlier Jesus back?
We could begin with Jesus seen more as an idea or possible model for thinking and living. We all have these. We have parents, relatives, teachers and politicians. (Well, maybe not so many of the later!) As a child, I got many of my models from comic books and TV westerns. In the 1980’s one of my India teachers told me, “If you are going to have a ‘Jesus idea,’ at least make him as good as the best among us!” And this idea can be enhanced by stories in the Bible, not the least being the so-called “Sermon on the Mount.” Mahatma Gandhi called it the best summary of Jesus’ teachings. Whether Jesus even lived is not that important; it’s the ideals we have which can help guide us.
We all live by ideals, using people to remind us of choices and actions. Yes, we even use political figures! For many if not most, our parents have served as these models, often unconsciously. We also have favorite teachers or authors we have heard and read.
Jesus, to me, represents the universal Idea of Spirit which within us all. From where might these ideas originate? From the Bible, of course. It’s just the way we can choose to look at it.
Jesus taught the Kingdom, the presence of the Spirit of God, as within all of us! It is called by many names; the True or Higher Self, common sense, the “I” or the “I Am” beyond our gender, race and national identities. It is what eastern religions call the “Buddha within,” or the Atman, or the “Deh” in ancient Taoism. It is what the Masonic members call the “Universal Spirit,” a teaching which goes back at least to ancient Egypt.
In stealing Jesus, the church sent missionaries to convert “lost people” in India, Africa, and everywhere. If people in these non-Christians areas rejected their message, taught by the late Billy Graham, they were condemned to eternal hell fire, and often killed, as happened to millions of Native Americans. It became the reason countries were conquered and colonialized in the name of “god,” or Jesus. It became the basis of bloody crusades, crusades to wipe out hopeless unbelievers, including the “new worlds” discovered in the 16th century, populated by heathen natives. According to scholars like Roxanne Ortgiz, it still is being carried out, led by our country. We have the largest military in the world, many times over, with soldiers based in approximately 150 countries! What these “heathens” had, in many cases, was the idea of a universal spirit, “the Great Spirit.”
Gnosticism, or the true idea of “Universalism,” understands life similar to Eastern religions or even our Native American teachings. The Great Spirit is everywhere, always, and timeless. I’ve heard it described as connected to quantum physics, the teachings, E = MC squared. Briefly summarized, all mass or physical elements can quickly be changed from material mass into energy or light. And vice versa. It’s why mystics taught our bodies as just shadows of astral models, an aspect of what Einstein called “the spooky part of the universe.” Only this spirit or energy is eternal and unending. The forms and manifestations come and go. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word, my essence, lasts forever” to paraphrase a line from the Bible.
Jesus taught this Presence or Kingdom is within each of us. We have access this eternal experience by understanding, and then practicing kindness and love in detachment from all things, all mortality. We seek to live a life with lightness and freedom. Exercises such as yoga and meditation, which are booming in our country, help return us to this expansive freedom, as do times in solitude and being in nature.
This was the teaching of Jesus, stolen by the church and given power to establish itself as an exclusive institution of truth and love. The 4th century church made the stories literal, including Jesus’ so-called miracles and resurrection from the dead. As writer and scholar John Crossan wrote, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and are now dumb enough to take the literally!”
Rev. Rolenz was right when she said the UU’s helped bring this ancient understanding back into light during the Reformation period. Free thinkers began to see this teaching anew in newly printed Bibles. Some, like Servetus, were burned at the stake as heretics by the literalists, the Calvinists. The Unitarians came to America and people like Dorothy Dix began handing out copies of the Bhagavad Gita. This ancient Eastern book helps us remember who we are, and how to live life in moderation, peace, and detachment to mortal things.
This view also helps us appreciate parts of the Bible in ways we may have never seen. We can learn to see it as metaphorical. Ancient Psalms like the 23rd become words of gold and peace, describing the good Spirit as a guiding, comforting shepherd. We can see the story of the Resurrection as a “waking up” story, waking up to an eternal spiritual presence which is your True Self.
In the 1980’s, I discovered and helped introduce the contemporary universalist/gnostic book, A Course in Miracles, to Wayside Presbyterian Church. The book came through a brilliant atheist research professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. It remains one of my favorite books for spiritual reminders and comfort.
In a non-literal, inclusive approach, one can learn not to take this life and world so seriously. This world is unfixable, which is hard for social reformers to believe. In devoting the bulk of our religious work to “Social Justice,” we take one step forward and two backwards. An Indian teacher, Tony DeMello, once told me, “If you are detached from this world of form, you are social action!”
Yes, heaven is not a place out or up there; it is a spiritual essence within you. You are heaven, if you but understand and listen for it.
“Tell me not in mournful numbers, life is but a dream!
For soul is dead that slumbers and things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow finds us farther than today.
Trust no future, however pleasant; let the dead past bury its dead.
Act, act in the living present! Heart within and God o’erhead!
– “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Longfellow