Chapter 11: On being a follower of Christ (2)

Towards a more effective interpretation of the language of the Bible

On confronting Christ's assertion that he was fulfilling scripture when he said, "The Spirit of the Lord ... has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, ..." [Luke 4:18], what do people make of this? How precise is their understanding?

I see clearly, after some reflection, that all this is an example of theme and variation; it alludes to just one central point in several ways: the sinfulness (ignorance) of our mind. The terms 'prisoner', 'blind' and 'oppressed' are all metaphors for unskilfully conditioned mind. The sentence is not a statement about worldly hardships of the lower evolution, i.e. it is not intended to make any political statement about the physically blind or socially oppressed. The freedom Christ preaches transcends such circumstances.

Unfortunately, this is as far as I'm aware not properly understood. (In fact, most of Christ's contemporaries failed to understand the intended meaning! 1) Yet Jesus was quite forthright as to his real and deeper purpose when he healed a cripple:

Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Your sins are forgiven."
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves. "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..." He said to the paralysed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God."

[Luke 5:18-25; see also Matt 9:1-8]

In the above situation, the freedom came in the response of the healed cripple. It does not in itself make the affected person free from sinfulness, (see for instance Jesus's encounter with a woman tried for adultery, whom he saved from being stoned - [John7:53-8:11])

Current society (A.D. late 20th century), overwhelmingly humanist in outlook, is largely unable to handle such metaphor owing to a great emphasis on materialistic matters - this is the push-button age with its unambiguous rationalised labels of microscopic detail; talk is of individuals and society rather than, to take the Buddhist terms, True Individuals and the Spiritual Community; the lower evolution swamps the Higher Evolution.

In such a setting we are losing our ability to focus clearly on language that is elegant and mystical. In a desperate attempt to preserve it pretty well as it stands (which, I feel, cannot work), the messages are simplified, diluted, sentimentalised and falsified. There is truly a potential crisis of massive proportions if this problem is not properly dealt with.

I perceive that Christianity has, principally with respect to the Bible, two choices in moving forward for renewal and development.

The first choice is to try to rediscover the symbolism of metaphors and myths and the awesome mystical effect it has had in the past (and still does, to some extent, today). For this we would have to establish metaphorical and mythical images - symbolic of the Higher Evolution - in our contemporary setting. The subjects for these images would have to be carefully chosen, with the potential to uplift. We could look around at various issues on the international agenda and seek the positive aspects from which we could create a suitable starting point.

This has already been done in the form of 'Creation Spirituality' which affirms in most reverend fashion the sanctity of the Earth and many other things. It is asserted that we need to rediscover the sense of awe by recognising the preciousness our environment. There is a reference to a cosmic Christ which works throughout nature. All this has been certainly given a contemporary framework.

In view of the current bleak outlook on this planet, there is certainly a need for a much more responsible attitude towards the environment - we really must take far far more care.

But I fear that this approach has already got bogged down in the lower evolution and, having lost a sharp focus on mind, has become inadequate; recall that Christ did not immerse himself in the topical issues of his day - the justness or otherwise of the rule of Rome was of no import in his teachings. He was only interested really in saving people from their sinfulness - not the state of society or any part of this world ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" [Luke 20:25]).

To try to see a good way forward, we must look to what is happening to the treatment of Eastern religions. We see that the epics of Ramayana and Mahabarata remain as wonderful allegories and sources of spiritual inspiration, but the attention is more on the scientific spiritual philosophy of their Vedic scriptures, and in particular on their treatment of mind. Throughout, the emphasis is on their validation by experience, especially in regular meditation 2.

All this is being endorsed by modern science - the universal insubstantiality preached for thousands of years has been demonstrated by quantum physics; the expositions of layers of subconscious mind are being verified by Western psychology.

In consequence, many Westerners are approaching Eastern religion, and especially Eastern meditation with growing confidence.

Thus, I arrive at proposing my second choice which has two elements. Christianity should firstly really enhance the role of meditation and prayer (where awe is experienced in abundance), using Eastern techniques to give it a better structure. Second, much greater attention should be given to the nature of mind, relating the main concepts of the Bible to mind in the manner of the East. Christian psychologists and psychotherapists may be well qualified for this. When all problems are solved inside our minds then there will be no problems outside! 3

Hence, it has come as a delightful surprise to me to behold that this introspective approach had been adopted by some early Christians (i.e. including some living at the time of Christ) - the Gnostics. In fact, Eastern spiritual philosophy has been expressed remarkably explicitly in the 'apocryphal' Gospel of Thomas, in language I find less metaphorical than that of the Synoptic Gospels:-

(I've used Elaine Pagel's, 'The Gnostic Gospels' ( [attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas 45:30-33 in the Nag Hammadi Library 126, (New York 1977).]

(ii) The need to overcome false dualistic view

'Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, "These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom." They said to him, "Shall we, then, as children, enter the Kingdom?" Jesus said to them [disciples], "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and female one and the same ... then you will enter [the Kingdom]."'

[Gospel of Thomas 37:20-35 in NHL 121.]

(iii)The poverty of the physical body

'Jesus said, "If spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [the spirit] has made its home in this poverty [the body]."'

[Gospel of Thomas 38:33-39.2 in NHL 121.]

We do well to heed such fundamental advice, much cherished by the Gnostics. However, it should be understood that the mystical symbolism relating to their esoteric methods, which is found throughout their texts, is not useful to our contemporary setting: this tantrism relies for its effectiveness on ongoing lines of transmission, which have likely disappeared long ago or else are confined to a handful of remote communities. Any critical investigation into these descriptions of method is therefore pointless.

If we are to be realistic, then at some stage something like this monumental change of emphasis will have to be made since the retention of our present restrictive religious traditions is, as I've tried to indicate, proving spiritually ineffective. However, we needn't mourn at the demise of this heritage, for such detachment can enable us to focus better and become close to being one with God.

As a start to the renewal of interpretation, I offer my views on two doctrines: those of sin and of the Trinity. I shall be bemused if, when you've read the following, you still feel that there remain in your mind incontrovertible differences.

The Doctrine of Sin

Having discussed the Resurrection, it behoves me to express my views on the paramount doctrine of sin. I, like most people, am conscious of sin, restricted by sin and suffer through sin. However, one must not conclude that since we are human we shall always sin - for this is to get stuck in the lower evolution; and this negative view leads to complacency. Our true 'nature' is spiritual; is of God, and not enslaved by conditionings.

To realise our true nature, we must gain a clear idea of sin. I hope that the next section may thin some of the clouds that veil understanding of this fundamental doctrine.

Redemption from sin in Christianity and Liberation from ignorance in Buddhism

[Definition: sin = a set of certain unskilful conditionings which are deeply ingrained in someone.]

From this definition, all concepts to do with sin can be expressed equivalently in Buddhist language. I've deliberately paired paragraphs below to show that this is the case.

In Christianity, through the doctrine of 'original sin', man is said to be sinful; that is, human beings have become separated from God. For me, the Old Testament account of Adam and Eve is merely an allegorical myth to describe how it happens that humans are sinful; it is not to be taken literally.

In Buddhism, man is said to be ignorant; that is we have lost touch with our Buddha nature. There is a myth to explain how this came about, very similar to that of Adam and Eve, but it is not stressed for I've only just learnt of it on asking my mother 4!

In Christianity, owing to our sinfulness, we possess sins and hence commit acts of sin.
In Buddhism, due to ignorance, we have delusive passions and hence perform unskilful karma.

In Christianity it is said that Jesus preached 'the forgiveness of sins' (really, I'm sure, the forgiveness of sinfulness) through union with God; and hence Eternal Life in God's kingdom. The way to God's kingdom is in prayer.

In Buddhism, the Buddha taught the liberation from suffering (due to ignorance) by breaking down the barriers of duality, into anatta. The way to realisation of anatta is in meditation.

On 'The Forgiveness of sins'

To 'forgive a sin' means to remove completely some unskilful conditioning, though not the root ignorance. It is said that Jesus gave his disciples the power to forgive sins (John 21:23) - a truly remarkable ability - which, in Buddhism, may be described as tantric. Further, it is quite likely that many other esoteric teachings were given to the disciples and are not recorded. As far as I can tell, these are all but lost - does the Pope have, for instance, the power to heal as did St. Peter? This very sad loss may well explain much of the apparent deficiency in Christianity today. 5

In the absence of such tantrism, each individual must look to find God within, and so guidance is needed on meditation and prayer, and on the subsequent outlook on daily life. The instruction which is available at present is poor, especially when one penetrates beyond the most basic levels.

Going for refuge in the Trinity

I was alarmed to hear at Mass one day, "No-one knows the mystery of the Trinity; ... you should just accept it as doctrine."

This is a highly subjective statement which is indicative of the poorest side of institutions: it unintentionally invites 'blind faith', an unquestioning credulous approach which, I'm relieved to say, has started to be challenged during this century.

Certainly, the Trinity may never be adequately explained intellectually, but it is the essential duty of a Christian to seek to know it! We Christians may even say that we take refuge in the Trinity - for we make the sign of the cross with great frequency; the Trinity encapsulates the essence of Christianity.

To make the sign of the cross quickly, unmindfully and without due reverence is therefore a gross display of one's sinfulness. It really is a negation of the divine grace within us.

But how do we make more than intellectual rice pudding of the Trinity? For myself, I have developed in my mind's eye three projections - one for each of 'God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.' Being experiential I warn that I cannot relate them properly; each person has to gain a feel of his/her own witnessing.

In 'God the Father' I experience as best as I can as in (i) of Question 2, Chapter 7; this is characterised by an expansion of mind. In 'God the Son' I bow to acknowledge the role of Christ in my life, characterised by being humbler in heart. And in 'God the Holy Spirit' I experience as best I can the light of insight, which I often characterise by visualising specks of intense light of the saints, say, radiating throughout the universe and then from within me. For someone like myself who is not one with God, all this takes a lot longer than 2 seconds!

It is said that Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. There are similar aspects to taking refuge in the Trinity; the extent to which they are equivalent is a matter for the individual to find out.

Ritual

To cross oneself in the manner I described is an example of ritual - a procedure which when performed mindfully can act as a catalyst for spiritual experience, but when performed unmindfully becomes superficial and a waste of time.

Rituals are commonly performed regularly and frequently. As such, depending upon the quality of practice, they may steadily enrich our lives, providing strong spiritual foundations, or become trivialised - regarded as pretty ceremonies or even tedious duty. We must be vigilant at all times to ensure worthwhile practice.

Rituals are performed widely by virtually everyone, so let us explore one of them, which is itself comprised of many rituals - the Roman Catholic Mass ...

Footnotes

  1. Of course, political oppression etc. are however sinful acts. ^
  2. A fine illustration of this approach to the Indian Vedas is given in 'Journey to Joy (an Introductory Guidebook to Siddha Meditation)' by Robert Shiarella. ^
  3. At present, references to subconscious mind are too obscure in Christian teachings and increasingly so at deeper levels, so that if during contemplation something untoward emerges from the subconscious then so very few Christians will have the means to cope and hence such 'contact' is subsequently avoided, which does not get rid of the problem! Good one-to- one counsel is required here. ^
  4. The story of Adam and Eve is an example of how the language of the Bible is inadequate. Actually, it has some very meaningful interpretations, as evidenced by the Sri Yukteswar, the guru of Paramahansa Yogananda (see e.g. 'Autobiography of a Yogi') ^
  5. I have since been happy to discover that the power of healing is growing fast within the Church and that many extraordinary healings are being worked. If I were to talk about Christianity in a future book, then I would devote a significant part to this.

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