(The following is a summary of a talk I gave August 11, 2013, for the Capital District Humanist Society in Albany, NY.)
Doubts and questions have always been a part of my life. No doubt I inherited much of this from my parents. From my mother I inherited a deep desire and longing for what I would call “spirituality”. Her ancestors were long associated with religion and the search for truth. From my father, I inherited a constant desire to ask “why”, to find a better way if possible to live. My mother’s family came to this country to practice their religious beliefs with freedom from persecution. My father’s family seemed to have come to this country from Europe in order to escape religion and its strict rules!
Thus from a young boy I had questions regarding religious issues. When my grandfather died in a freak tractor accident in 1953, my mother suddenly became “saved” or “born again”. I was told if I expected to see my grandfather again, I too must undergo this “conversion.” Prior to this event, we seemed quite detached from any organized religion. At 10 years old, I was the third of five children at the time. Afterwards, religious discussions, arguments and emotions seemed to reign in our farm family home and life.
In my senior year of high school I decided to learn more about religion so on advice from an older brother and a local minister, I attended Bob Jones University. I wanted to learn the “Greek language,” among other things, to see for myself what the “original” manuscripts said. I discovered there were hundreds, even thousands of them in various parts. Each page of my Greek Bible had numerous footnotes of various translations. There was no original!
In 1965 I went on to a Baptist Seminary to study more language including Hebrew. I gained more unanswered questions. A student one day asked, “Didn’t the whole story of Jesus come out of the Babylonian Captivity period of the Jewish people, and they just adopted it into what we now call our tradition?” The professor politely answered, “We won’t go there.” In my last year of the three year program, I quit and went to work as a machinist.
Soon I found myself in dialogue again with more liberal Methodist and Presbyterian ministers. My wife and I joined the Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and within two years, we moved to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to “get more answers to my questions.” I completed requirements to be ordained a teaching minister in 1971 and pastored two nearby small churches until I moved to Hamburg, New York in 1976 where I remained a pastor for 33 years. During those years, parishioners and colleagues helped raise more questions and ideas I never heard before about the Bible and the Jesus story. In 1987 I studied in India through a grant from the San Francisco Theological Seminary, a part then of the Berkley Graduate Union. I found myself in a whole new religious and spiritual world. The Hindu and Buddhist I discovered do not have written copies of the “inerrant” Word of God. They have stories and experiences of meditation to gain wisdom and “proof” of spiritual truths. In India I found teachers who spoke of the Bible as “Historical Mythology,” a blend of the two with much liberty taken with the historical parts.
When I returned I learned about the 1965 “Jesus Seminar” where top scholars, mostly from traditional backgrounds, questioned the history of the Bible. At the time they felt the authentic words of Jesus were only about 25% of those written. Today it’s somewhere around 10%. I then heard the 1990 series of interviews with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyer on the power of mythology. I began to integrate some of these ideas into my ministry of teaching and counsel. The response was much better than I had anticipated and until I retired in 2009, I continued to build my ministry around a new kind of spiritual openness and inclusiveness. I gave sermons at Christmas and Easter on the mythology of these stories. People seemed grateful and supportive. In 2006, our congregational was the only one to have helped sponsor the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Buffalo!
After retirement and weeks of rest, my friend, Malcolm Muir, present with us today who lives nearby in Troy, recommended writings to me by British scholars, Tim Freke and Peter Gandy. They wrote various works on the mythology of the Jesus stories. (The Jesus Mysteries) I shared these with a couple colleagues who suggested I read more with Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity). In time I was asked to lead prayers and give talks in various Presbyterian area churches, and even in the nearby Unitarian/Universalist congregation. I soon accepted an invitation to work part time for a nearby small congregation.
In April, 2011, I wrote a letter to the Buffalo News in response to a front page headline published shortly before Easter; “Why the Masses Are Leaving Mass?” My letter was published the Sunday after Easter in a special section called, “Another Point of View”. It challenged the normal answers, (…more friendliness, more peppy music, more visuals and technology, etc.) and called for honesty in addressing the nagging questions many people have about the historical literalness of the Bible stories including those surrounding Jesus.
It seemed a firestorm erupted shortly afterwards! I was publicly chastised and scolded in an area public meeting among my colleagues and friends. It was recommended I no longer ever be allowed to speak or teach in their congregations. I left in shock and awe, wondering, quite naively, where dialogue and conversation had gone? These ideas were similar to then outrageous questions and ideas I experienced in the 1960’s. But for the most part, we talked about them and changes came in due time. I offered to share classes for discussion in yearly educational events; I never received any replies. I did receive charges to have me removed from all teaching positions with my license as a Presbyterian minister to be revoked. After participating in various hearings and committee investigations, I was told all charges were dropped about one year ago. Actually I received them while here attending your meetings with Malcolm on our way to attend the Pumpkin Hollow Theosophical Society event featuring Stephen Hoeller, an international expert on early church Gnosticism.
I also read recently New Testament Scholar Bart Erhman’s book on Jesus. (Did Jesus Exist?) He has become a featured speaker in some denominational circles as he seeks to prove a historical person named Jesus actually lived on earth in the 1st century, CE. However, Dr. Ehrman does not believe Jesus’ teachings and surrounding stories are actual history. He calls them myths which grew up around the man. Erhman, once a Bible thumping fundamentalist himself, now states he is an atheist, or agnostic at best.
So what is the myth and why might people believe the whole story is part of one? You will discover there are six different Eastern Mediterranean stories which have strong similarities to the one surrounding Jesus. They go back thousands of years to ancient Egypt where they also had a godman, or avatar, named Osiris. In Greece their similar godman was named Dionysus; in Asia Minor, Attis; in Italy, Bacchus; in Persia, Mithras. After the 3rd Century, BCE, they all were referred to as “Osiris-Dionysus.”
How are these stories similar? Each avatar was born at the Winter Solstice from a virgin mother. Each avatar or godman had 12 disciples; each one performed various miracles including the raising of the dead; each rides into the major city on a donkey while crowds wave branches of praise; each is condemned by religious and government authorities and killed but in three days, on the Spring Equinox, rises from the dead; after a period of identifying himself with his followers, each ascends back into heaven. Each one also left a meal in which his followers remember and celebrate his life and works with ritual bread and wine, symbolizing his body and blood.
Each of these stories were seen as myth. Each of these stories depict our own experiences in coming to earth to discover our True Self, our Higher Identity as a Divine Being. Birth by a virgin at Christmas depicts birth here being our choice to come into the darkness of earth, of taking on a mortal, separated, dualistic manifestation. As we awaken to our Higher Self, we raise up out of the darkness of despair and guilt of duality and share the experience of oneness with the world, symbolized by the twelve disciples representing the twelve solar systems known in those times. Each “miracle” reveals an awakening principle but in time, religious and traditional authorities often hate and despise the threat to their “systems” and structures of security. So the avatar, symbolic of ourselves, is murdered but rises again in three days. Three days represents our descent into deep despair and loneliness at times of rejection, symbolized also in the ancient Jonah story. But then we arise anew, at the Spring of life, the horizontal level of this life intersecting with the vertical transcendent, heavenly one. This resurrection becomes our awakening to a deeper consciousness and being.
In the early centuries of our era, the Christian group most closely identified to these stories were the Gnostics, those later banned and persecuted by the 4th Century church and ever since, which literalized these stories and events. The Gnostics, meaning “to gain knowledge and understanding,” were those who awakened to their Higher Selves, gaining abilities to endure the pain, criticism, and rejection of many, facing their mortal deaths with hope and anticipation.
Can these stories or myths make any difference in our lives today? Many of us believe they can. They can become a way for us to gain a liberation from the mortal natures of our bodies and the passing world and universe surrounding us. Can one find this in the more traditional teachings of the 4th century, making the miracles and resurrection literal events? Yes, I’m sure some do but it appears much more difficult. Teachers speak of a very personal God, of being able to raise the body from the grave after a long sleep, living forever as a very exclusive group of elected ones from out of all the earth. It seems very narrow and polarizing, portraying a God Creator idea as very harsh, brutal and depressing. In the mythological view, we grow to see ourselves as living in a kind of dualistic dichotomy, of being in the body yet not of it. In time we can learn to identify with our Higher Spiritual Selves, our Oneness with Divinity, and find liberation.
A wonderful book to me which helps reinvent and reinterpret traditional Bible stories and terms into non-literal ideas is the recently channeled book, A Course in Miracles. Taking similar language to early Christianity, it removes the exclusive, literal interpretations into idea our minds can more adapt to similar words used in the Christian tradition. It even has meditations for mind training for each day of the year.
There are many other choices and ways as well. A kind, compassionate, self-giving atheist, agnostic can experience the same liberation. The catch becomes when we become fundamentalist, judgmental, and damning of others who are trying to follow their paths. The ways of the Eastern Religions, so popular today and so helpful to people as myself, can be very kind, liberating, compassionate ways toward freedom and peace. One need only understand his or her Higher Identity, or Something beyond dualism, and spend time meditating upon it and living with kindness and compassion to all people, including in time an increasing awareness, to all sentient beings.
The “proof” of any system or belief practice then becomes peace, kindness, forgiveness and love. Such ideas and feelings become notions, hunches, unbound by strict rules and boundaries. A spiritual sense of love comes not from learning and reciting various creeds or doctrines but by experience. The sages of old and their descendants of today, do not teach strict and hard rules but help create experiences and places people can go and do to find such awareness.
Thus my short summary and perhaps introduction to the presentation on the Jesus Myth. Taking them literally, unhappiness, guilt, a constant critical spirit and mind seem much more likely. Taken as myth and sources of meditation and pondering, these stories, and many more, can help open doors to liberation, joy, freedom and deepest of all, love.