June 23, 2009

The collision of the finite and the infinite. Or, What Jesus was trying to tell us.

In my year-plus listening to nightly sermons at the conservative Union Gospel Mission, it is not frequent that I have been so impressed with a sermon that there's been something I've taken to heart.

I've been very impressed with the performances of various preachers, including, especially, Jimmy Roughton and Tom Mooney. Both of these fellows are very organized with what they come to tell the congregation. They have something to say; they can talk without mumbling and fumbling and ever losing their place. There's an arc to what they say, with their case building and leading to a cascade of important points. Beyond that, Roughton and Mooney are mightily charismatic (and I mean that, fully, in a good way). Each is bursting with talent, bigger than life, and convinces us of his true-hearted belief in his spiel.

Pastor Brett Ingells of Vacaville Bible Church, more than anyone, does impress me with messages he delivers that are stirring and have a clarion ring of truth about them. His wonderfully prepared and delivered messages invariably pierce my heart. Other preachers, too, from time to time "get their game on," with sermon messages that are fresh and profound.

Still, I haven't been motivated to consider Christianity as saying anything to me to cause me to embrace it, on the whole. Pastor Brett has said some wonderful thinks about being profoundly open hearted and forgiving and loving toward those who are still "of the world." [Almost all the other UGM preachers are quick to use worldly folk as subjects of ridicule and disparagement.]


Recently I read this scruffy little book I found at the public library, called The Gospel According to Us: On the Relationship between Jesus and Christianity by Duncan Holcomb. In just about every way, the book looks foolish and amateurish. The title is poorly chosen, the cover is silly and the foreword and first section didn't impress me. Then, the second section got me interested. And from the third section on, I was smitten.

What the book did for me, someone who was raised outside religion, is it takes a step back and shows me the whole of what Jesus and his disciples were like and what Jesus, if you look at everything he said, was trying to do. It was a means for me to see the forest for the trees; to understand what the picture was when the pixels where assembled.

An important first element in the understanding the book gave me was to see Jesus's general connections with everybody. Including, to my surprise, the much-derided [by the mission preachers] Pharisees. Quoting Holcomb in his book:

Strange to say, Jesus seems to fit in with the Pharisees better than any other group. ... Like the Pharisees, Jesus believes in a loving Father who will bring his children resurrection and eternal life. Like them, he scorns animal sacrifice. Like them, he preaches an ethical code that transcends all other loyalties, even loyalty to country. Like them, he believes that the children of Abraham are sent as a blessing for all peoples of the earth.
Of course, Jesus and the Pharisees differ with respect to the poor. Quoting Holcolm:

The "poor" constitute a broad segment of society that includes shepherds and prostitutes, beggars and day laborers, fishermen and itinerant craftsmen and a great variety of the immigrant, homeless, harried, diseased, and disabled. These are people who live precariously, who eat what they earn each day, who in war or famine are the first to die. they're accustomed to insult and injury, plagued by frustration, anxiety and disease, disdained by civil authority, deprived even of the hope or consolation of religious faith. They are the ones the Pharisees call "the rabble, who know nothing of the law," and whom Jesus calls "the poor in spirit." They simply don't have the time nor money nor disposition to observe properly the intricate and resource-consuming practices of orthodox Judaism (Fasting is a sacred act, you see; starving is a profane one.) Most of them can't even read the holy books, the great code of the Jewish faith. The verdict is unhappy but, in the Pharisees' judgment, inevitable: "They are the damned."
But why does Jesus preach mostly to the poor? And what is his message? It begins with a values system that is markedly different (1) from the Pharisees, (2) that in modern-day America, and (3) that of the UGM preachers. Jesus has a complete disinterest in money.

Quoting Holcolm:

[Jesus] pays no mind to the financial dealings of his shifty treasurer (coincidentally, another money-obsessed peasant named Judas). He never gives alms to the poor. He refuses to arbitrate between two men contenting an inheritance. He cares not at all that the fine oil a woman uses to cleanse and anoint him was very expensive. When Jesus does mention money he turns its face value upside down: in his stories money isn't treated even as a dependable measure of material value. This of the parable of the talents, of the dishonest steward, of the laborers who worked all day in a vineyard. The monetary values here are all skewed, and our first reaction is that someone has been treated unfairly. How can a servant with one talent be expected to do as much, or even obtain the same interest rate, as someone with five? ...
Jesus explains his worldview very carefully, says Holcolm. The Pharisees, with their great interest in outward behavior, have things backward. For Jesus, it is what comes out of a man that is his fruit, that either defiles him or is the merit of his being.

What Jesus was trying to tell us.

Jesus was trying to tell us, explains Holcolm, that we avoid being condemned by not condemning others. "In an astounding conceptual coup, he applies the fundamental principle of law – reciprocity – to the law itself. In this way he attempts to break the vicious circle of sin and condemnation and guilt, once and for all."

And yet, to do his 'work,' Jesus most certainly does condemn the condemners, but from a meta-position of rising above the fray and rising above his human self. Kierkegaard, following in Jesus's path, as an imitation of Christ, would, eventually, go from being judiciously non-condemning to being condemning of condemners. [Note that Jesus often sees himself outside himself. Being ego-less, he, on occasion, speaks in the third-person, in "witness mode." It is from here, the meta-position, that he condemns.]

Finite and Infinite

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern." ~William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Quoting Holcolm:

Sense tends to suggest that this tangible, visible, tastable, quasi-controllable world is all that really is, or at least all that really matters. There can be no sensory window on the infinite, since "what is flesh is flesh, and what is Spirit is Spirit." (Of God Jesus baldly tells his listeners "His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen.") We're unable to understand or assert our control over an infinite realm, so it's not surprising that we might prefer our own, and simply ignore the "radical" questions, those of spirit and truth. But Jesus wants at least to call to his listeners' attention their act of willful blindness. ...

Our spirits yearn to be liberated; our egos suppress the craving. Jesus is condemned by the religious classes for wanting to break out of the dull round of reason, to offer something more than just himself and the apprehensible world, to point beyond himself and it, to teach an infinite message instead of a finite one.
Re charity

Jesus never once mentions the material value of the work done for people by charity, the common justification for such efforts offered by Christians and agnostics alike. His unique emphasis is always on the benefit to the giver. We often do lip service to this sentiment, but Jesus actually appears to believe that it's a greater blessing "to give than to receive." So what is the blessing provided by giving to others? How does it enrich us? It's hard to say. There are no miracles where Jesus turns lead into gold. In fact, he never construes physical wealth as a sign of blessing.

What shall I do?

Near the book's end, Holcomb tells the story in Luke 10 when a lawyer asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus is amazingly clever, here, Holcomb avers: beyond what Luke realizes! Jesus turns things around and asks the lawyer, "How do you read it?" The lawyer answers rightly and is praised: "Love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Then, the lawyer asks "And who is my neighbor?"

In response, Jesus tells a story where a Jew is beaten and bloodied and is then aided by a Samaritan. The parable, then, casts the Jewish lawyer as the Samaritan! It is the Jew, in the story who receives the aid. You should love your enemy so thoroughly that you identify with him as yourself!

The New Covenant, "Love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" is, then, a single statement with only one part: You identify with Everyone, and make no distinction between yourself and others. Holcomb calls this New Covenant the "Love Commandment."

Writes Holcomb,

How should I act? How should I threat those around me? Well, how would I like to be treated? Look within yourself, Jesus suggests, and nowhere else. The Love Commandment thrusts us into a moral universe in which we have to make the determinations of what to do, how to act. No one else, not even God, will do that for us. (Jesus often refuses to do so for the disciples: "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?") There are no prescriptions provided to us by the Love Commandment, because it's not a traditional standard of law. If fact, it's not really "law" at all, but a way, a sign, a method of relation. Jesus points out what should have been obvious to us from the beginning -- that a moral code can make sense only within the context of our relation to one another. He tells people to act in accordance with the central human dynamic composed of Self and Other, I and Thou. Treat others based on how you want to be treated. Love others as much as you love yourself.


Mumon said...

"In an astounding conceptual coup, he applies the fundamental principle of law – reciprocity – to the law itself. In this way he attempts to break the vicious circle of sin and condemnation and guilt, once and for all."

This is a true insight - both because it's true what you wrote here, and it's an insight...

And having just blogged on the 20-somethingthith chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it brings to mind yet again the odd connection of this sutra and Christianity.

I don't believe the hoo-hah that Jesus visited India or what-not; and it's possible that "Jesus" as a historical figure may not have existed, and certainly not as in the gospels. But the intriguing thing to me is that the Lotus Sutra contains "pieces" of what later evidently found their way into the gospels. One obvious bit is the Lotus Sutra contains its own Prodigal Son myth. In the Lotus Sutra, unlike in the gospels, the son works his way back in to his father's good graces without knowing it's his father into whose graces he's working, and profits far more than if he hadn't been prodigal in the first place.

The other area which I now see is the self-referentiality of the sutra itself.

Interesting. Never thought of that. Probably sends chills up fundamentalists' spines.

Mumon said...

Oh, and the "reason" as to why these similarities exist is simple:

The Roman empire was far more culturally porous than it later became, and Buddhism was likely not unknown there, but when the book burnings began Buddhist literature was likely in the piles of burning scrolls.

Pablo Antuna said...

Nice post. I've been raised as a Christian and and never thought that way of what Jesus taught.

I was born in a Christian cage, and was raised in it. Later I came out and began exploring other beliefs (and many times start to follow them). Now I try not to follow any man nor religion. Like what this article said, I try to judge by myself.

It is refreshing to look at Christianity from this point of view, without the fundamentalist presuppositions. Jesus' teachings surely have more value than what Christians believe.

Pablo Antuna
Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes

Tom Armstrong said...


Thanks, as always, for your kind comments.

I think that whether Jesus was influenced by Buddhism or not, directly or indirectly, is interesting, if more research might lead to more knowledge about it. In any case, I think the insights of Buddhism are "out there" and would be found by an enlightened person if his gnosis isn't colored by the pre-existing dogma that a person is attached to. [I figure 'Buddhism' is uncolored enlightenment.]

Joseph Campbell found a lot of similarities between religions, especially so as things get weighty from the more-profound insights relating to mysticism.

I'll want to check out your Lotus series, and especially as it relates to the so-called Prodigal Son. The prodigal son thing gets a lot of attention in Homeless World, since, obviously, the community is the very definition of being "the rabble" the Pharisees disparaged.

Tom Armstrong said...

Thanks, Pablo. Indeed, Christianity as seen by the Gnostics or from some liberal definitions are what's really interesting, I think.

Conservative Christianity is much the screwy Pharisee position of our time: Rigid to the point of operating in direct contrast to the spirit of Jesus's message.

Mumon said...


My post:

here, (the Nichiren folks have perhaps a more user-friendly translation.)