“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” Mark 16:6-7 (NRSV)
Most of us here today probably believe in evolution. Evolution, when normally thought of in regard to humanity, relates to the evolution from a cell, to a fish, to an earth crawler, to ape, and to an upright human with the ability to self-reflect. Human evolution began from a primate around 85 million years ago evolving to our homo erectus ancestors of Africa 500,000 years ago. All of this occurred on our small little planet which had earlier, about 4.5 billion years ago, exploded into existence off another planet. Of course, there are other variations and estimates but you get the idea.
Most scientists also believe we are still in the process of physical evolution. We know our mental development evolves over the few years of our lives. The idea of electricity evolved rapidly in the past years since Franklin flew his kite into a lightning bolt. Our mental and spiritual ideas also evolve. Mine evolved over my lifetime and continue to do so in retirement.
Raised on a farm, I began regular church attendance around age 10 when my grandfather was killed on a farm tractor accident. I was fascinated how the Baptist preacher knew so much about spiritual matters; where my grandfather now resided and how the rest of us could join him someday. Later I went to Bob Jones University where I tried to learn more about God and how we could please and know Him. I was taught the stories of the Bible were not just stories or myths but actual history; the creation of the universe occurred in just seven days in 4004 B.C.E., Moses delivered the Hebrews across the opening Red Sea, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and the sun stood still for Joshua. I went on to a Baptist Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan where teachers allowed me to evolve more in asking questions about my heretofore understandings of spirit. I was introduced to new writers and other denominational thinkers. After quitting in 2 ½ years, I ended up with Presbyterians at Pittsburgh Seminary from where I graduated in 1971. Since then my evolutionary journey has continued with many questions. In 1987 San Francisco Seminary gave me a grant to visit and study in some ashrams in India. There I became more aware of Eastern religions and philosophy rather than my familiar Western ones.
Needless to say, my journey has been wonderful and rich, of which I am grateful. My evolution, however, was not been without opposition and at times anger. The Baptists refused to ordain me. After my “India experience” some Presbyterians became angry and upset with some of my “evolved conclusions.” I hoped that in retirement, I could coast and stop “evolving” and just let questions rest until my mind “slept in death!” I felt a deep satisfaction and peace from my journey.
But the evolution hasn’t stopped. Soon after retirement I became aware of new writings questioning the history of essential Biblical events. I had known about “demythologizing” Bible stories years ago. My new, post-retirement journey began with the recommendation to read a book by British scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The recommendation came from a scientist friend who had graduated from Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He had worked as a researcher for General Electric and at Princeton University. I read their books “The Jesus Mysteries” and “The Laughing Jesus”. I shared their ideas with some clergy friends who introduced me to more such writings from Anglican scholar Tom Harpur (“The Pagan Christ”) and the classic studies by Alvin Boyd Kuhn (“The Shadow of the 3rd Century: A Revaluation of Christianity”). There were others. I offered one for discussion here at 1st Presbyterian. What these books and others suggested quite convincingly to me was that the stories of the Bible were not originally meant to be actual historical events. They were stories describing spiritual journeys of people from several eastern Mediterranean countries going back to Ancient Egypt.
Several Bible stories were shown to be quite similar. The were all based on an understanding of the Lunar calendar with birth stories of a great Avatar or God Person at the winter solstice, born of a virgin, having 12 disciples, performing miracles of healing and even of raising the dead. The God Person in these stories also became very unpopular with religious and civic authorities, underwent a trial and was killed. Yet after three days, the God Man arose from the dead, appeared to his followers and after a few weeks, ascended into the sky.
What I came to conclude is strong and plausible evidence reveal the story of Jesus as a Jewish version of these same earlier stories. I also could find no hard evidence of a historical person named Jesus. The Bible stories thus did what earlier stories had done; describe in mythological and allegorical language the spiritual journey of the human soul or spirit. We are born into the darkness of the world, the Winter solstice, and with the light of understanding our dualistic nature, can awaken to our Spirit Selves, represented by the Spring Equinox at the Easter event.
Mythologies, or stories, were classic ways to describe the “indescribable” and unseen world. They were methods to express dreams and visions of many people along the way. Many, including those in our contemporary world, also have what are called “paranormal” or transcendent experiences or visions. Indeed, most mortals express a belief in some kind of 6th sense beyond the visible world experience. We all have dreams and visions. The Biblical stories were ways to teach the experience of this transcendent sense.
Other religions also have their stories, from the Islam Koran to the Eastern Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching. In more recent times people have read of the spirit world through books by such authors of Helen Blavatsky in “The Secret Doctrine,” Helen Schuman who scribed “A Course in Miracles”, and Neale Donald Walsh with his “Conversations with God.” Native Americans also have rich stories of the origin and purpose of our lives using so many objects of nature as teachers. To me it’s amazing that although different in form, the basic content of all is similar in essence.
So what difference does it make? Can one find inner peace and love toward others and still believe in a literal history of the Biblical events? Of course they can, but I have grown to believe it is harder for me to take Biblical stories as literal history in contrast to a belief in the stories as myths and allegories.
A belief in the literal history of Biblical stories forces one to base beliefs in events which always have obvious scientific questions and doubts about their authenticity. Throughout history science and religious orthodox belief have been at odds. Scientists have been imprisoned and killed for pointing out that the earth is not the center of the universe but revolves around the sun with other planets in one of many such solar systems of the universe.
Literal historical beliefs force us to be more judgmental toward others. If you accept the traditional, literal view of Jesus dying on the cross, shedding his blood to atone for your sins and rising from the grave so you can go to “heaven,” then you may be kind to others but in the end, as the church has taught, if your friends do not accept this literalness, they go to an eternal, literal place called hell. It’s a harsh and brutal doctrine, portraying the idea of God as being a conditional, angry, and brutal entity.
A literal view also forces one to believe his or her confession and obligatory forms of worship are the only true way. Those who don’t pray, worship or believe and follow this are judged inferior. Healing, forgiveness, peace and joy are based on making right confessions, as created in the 4th century under the Roman Emperor Constantine. If you question such confessions of literal events, or drift from the explanations, you become guilty of heresy and are in danger again of excommunication and hell fire! So one’s life is more likely lived in constant guilt over not loving enough, staying true enough, and remaining separated from the doubt casters and outside unbelievers.
On the other hand, reading of these stories as myths or allegories leads to a more readily acceptance of their wonder and mysterious nature. The stories point beyond the literal and physical to the mystical, transcendent, and sixth sense dimension. By making the stories literal, Tom Harpur says we play right into hands of atheists who seek to deny any dimension other than the physical one based on, I believe, outdated 17th century scientific laws. Literalness tends to dissociates from normal logic and reason used in our lives.
The mythical understanding also understands the presence of the divine potential in everybody. Spirit or transcendence is a universal presence. Rather than seeing only a small, select group loved by God, we see every one as a bearer of the Christos or Divine potential within. Love is present everywhere.
To be awakened to this presence is the meaning of Resurrection and the Easter Story. The word resurrection “literally” means “to awaken,” from anastasis. The story of death, despair and inward guilt, is relieved by the awakening to our God selves or as the Bible says, our “Sonship” with God the Creator Father.
The mythical understanding thus helps us to see the universality of the Divine potential whatever the name, method or form. The test becomes the acceptance of love for one’s self. Form becomes secondary. In the popular Buddhist movement, much inspired by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, people access this inner experience simply by becoming silent in meditation or in slow, conscious movements of yoga, walking, or Tai Chi. There is no orthodox form or method but it is experience based on an understanding of the potential of Spirit in all.
The ancient Hebrew Psalm goes, “Be still and know I am God!” (Ps. 46:10) It portrays a God who says, “Give me your hearts and not sacrifices.” It says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;” (Jeremiah 31:33) It has Jesus teaching the summary of the law as loving God, the unseen but felt entity, with all one’s heart, soul and mind, and the neighbor as oneself. It has Jesus teaching the simple truth, “The kingdom or Presence is at hand; it is within you.” The mystical element can easily be seen in all scriptures, but to literalize its stories as actual history creates great mental and reason stress adding more guilt to already wearied minds and hearts. The allegorical or mythological view opens up the Bible to be a beautiful story of the struggle to discover, accept, and live expressing loving transcendence.
Reading the Easter story from a non-literal, mythological viewpoint allows it to burst forth as a rich portrayal of our heart’s longings. The cross represents awareness of eternal life intersecting with our horizontal earth bound existence. Jesus becomes the story of ourselves, dying to ego in pain and suffering yet arising anew to glory and freedom. The raising of Lazarus is the reawakening to Divine love from an apparent sleeping or nonexistent transcendent Entity.
The apostle Paul, one who only knew Jesus from a vision, referred to many others who also had a similar vision. Not by confessions, not by approved forms, but in what have been called “visitations” and mystical visions and appearances, which continue on today in lives all around us.
Kabir, the brilliant mystical poet of the 1500 century wrote, “Hiding in the cage of the visible matter is the invisibly life-bird. Pay attention to her; she is singing your song!”
In the east it is also said, “When the wise man points the finger to the moon, all the fool sees is the finger.” The scriptures are the fingers to the moon of transcendence. Taking them literally tends to keep the mind and focus off the moon of Glory onto a finger.
May the awakening to Spirit, Life, and Transcendence be felt among us on this day of Easter awakening, and may in all our stories and traditions, awakening be enhanced and deepened in love for our Selves and others as part of Eternal Oneness in all.
Talk offered on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, at the 1st Presbyterian Church, West Seneca, NY.
Further Reading and Studies:
“The Pagan Christ” by Tom Harpur (2004)
“The Jesus Mysteries” by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (1999)
“A Rebirth of Christianity” by Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1961)
“Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity” by Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1949; the most difficult to read but most rich in contributions.)