I attended three seminaries, earned three degrees in religious studies, including an undergraduate degree from a Bible College. Yet not once was I told about earlier books and scriptures similar to those in the Christian Bible. Today such seems beyond incredible.
In all my earlier Bible studies, preparing for ordination, I never learned about earlier writings discovered in 1945 in a northern Egyptian cave near Nag Hammadi. At Pittsburgh Seminary I heard a few mentions of a writing called “St. Thomas” which was one of the books discovered in Nag Hammadi. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980’s I became award of 70 other gospel writings and fragments. None of these early church writings made it into the 4th Century “canonized” Bible. I wondered “why?”
I discovered these “lost writings” of the early church never mentioned a bodily resurrection of a man named Jesus. In one Nag Hammadi letter called “The Treatise of Resurrection,” resurrection is mentioned but the idea is described as an “awakening.” The letter declares people can see or understand themselves as already resurrected! What did that mean?
On Easter, 1992, I finally offered my first sermon describing the Resurrection of Jesus as not a literal event but as a mythological teaching of spiritual awakening. I wasn’t fired and most people appreciated it. No charges were filed. By this time, I long considered the Biblical “miracles” in the Bible as symbols of spiritual truths.
In 2010, one year after I retired, a science friend of mine sent me a book describing the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Rosetta Egypt. By 1812 linguistic specialists were able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics from the stone that opened up languages dating back thousands of years. In languages of six surrounding countries, a similar story of Jesus’ resurrection in the Christian Bible was found. Each contained a virgin birth at Christmas during the winter solstice and a crucifixion three years later on the spring equinox or what we know as Easter. All were mythological stories teaching the need for human beings to awaken to their eternal Selves!
In our century, these findings became published in important books. One of the first was written by Alvin Boyd Kuhn in 1949, “Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity.” British researchers Tim Freke and Peter Gandy wrote a more recent one, sent to me by my science friend, called “The Jesus Mysteries.” The third one I read came from the hand of a Toronto Anglican theologian named Tom Harpur, “The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity.”
What are my conclusions? Most traditional churches today are dying yet most of them still teach the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Those who seem to be thriving surround the story with state of the art sound and visual systems with modern looking preachers, mostly men, who often shed pulpit robes for jeans and cowboy shirts. They seem ignorant or at least stubbornly resist these recent writings, if known, but give the people a good time amid words of “Jesus still loves and surrounds them.”
Mainline churches mostly ignore the spiritual teachings of symbolism or mythology. Many work to deepen a modern “spiritual experience” by returning to a stricter following of 4th Century lectionaries and books of “Christian Prayer.” Such “renewals” can work for a while, as for myself in the 1980’s, but soon other questions arise.
Many seek to fill the gap with “ethical issues” or social justice. “I’ve been there and done that” too. I support many of what I consider “social justice” issues: equality of sexes, races, anti-war efforts, and a cleaner environment. Yet politics and social issues change and evolve with each generation. One change must soon be redone, upgraded, or reversed. In countries with higher records of equality and standards of living, many which I have visited, despair of life’s purpose with high suicide rates still prevail. The ultimate questions of life and death, in my opinion, are easily ignored, or missed. Such questions as “What is the deeper meaning of life?” or “Who am I? Why am I here? What is death?” are seldom addressed.
An oft-used Greek work for “Resurrection” is ἐγείρω. It means “to awaken.” Awaken to what? To our spirit self, called the Atman” in Hinduism, “deh” in Buddhism, and “Christ” in early Christianity. People in early Christianity called themselves “Christian” meaning “Christ One.”
Awakening is seeing our True Selves as God! Perfect, sinless, immortal, beyond limitations of space and time! How does that make you feel? Well, I have found it works quite well! Wonderful! Freedom! Joyous!
When we fail to remember this identity, we easily, in my experience and observations, become worried, lonely, angry, judgmental, unkind and uncaring. Do I? Absolutely, or I wouldn’t be here. But when I get it down perfect, I won’t! Meanwhile, my “God” concept is One who always forgives. I speak of this ideas often in most of my talks. To me it is the heart of religion, if that is what you want to name it.
Freedom and happiness, which most of us crave, come not just from homes and lives filled with conveniences and gadgets and nice vacations. Yes, I enjoy some of those myself. But the ultimate answers arise from the meaning of my existence: what went on before this person called myself arrived and what happens after the “I self” leaves.
Where and who are the major respected teachers of this spirituality found today? If answers to spiritual questions and meaning are sought, they will be found outside of most organized religions. You can even “Google it” and see for yourselves. Names like the late Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Tich Nhat Hahn, Louise Hay, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhonda Byrne will be found. Where do you find them? They are outside of churches and traditional Christianity. They never attended our seminaries. They never received sacred ordinations! They had personal awakenings, studied in ashrams, retreat centers, took yoga classes or watched NPR fundraising shows!
What do these top teachers have in common? They talk about our Inner Selves, how to awaken to our intuitive minds and inmost longings. They teach how to use our abilities to think and choose as our close, “onboard” faithful friends. They teach yoga and relaxation, meditation and quietness, how to feel connection and oneness with the entire universe, even including those who oppose or hate us.
The tradition Easter Story can also be a way to talk about these ancient spiritual truths. I adapted it for years. It is a story based on astronomy, from those who in ancient times sat in wonder gazing at heavens, receiving visions of deeper purpose and meaning for our short lives on earth. The story begins with the winter Solstice or Christmas. Into the darkest season of the Northern Hemisphere, representing our deepest longings for joy, the “Savior” is born, or we could name it hope or light. It’s a “virgin birth,” meaning we decide for ourselves! Easter, the spring equinox, symbolizes our rising out of darkness, our long winters, to connect with our heavenly or vertical Selves. The cross becomes the triumph of the immortal Self over our mortality.
The Christian story is just one form of the many stories or ways of awakening. Native Americans have theirs, called a “vision quest.” Eastern countries have theirs, The Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching with teachers (Gurus) to help seekers shed the ego and awaken to the immortal self.
Within Easter season, as in all stories, we must remember the stories are only pointers, not absolutes. They are symbols of the indescribable. In India it is said, “When the wise man points the finger to the moon, all the fool sees is the finger!” That’s what literalism tends to do. It argues, debates and hangs on to fingers and then misses the moon.
Thus in this season, may a happy and blessed awakening come to all, symbolized by the opening yellow daffodils, shouting green blades of grass, and the fresh warm breezes of spring!