The World's Most Dangerous Book [Part 2] by Alan Watts
Alan W. Watts

1885 Still Life with Bible
---Still Life of the Bible by Vincent van Gogh


[Part 2 of 3 ]

When one considers the architecture and ritual of churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, it is obvious until most recent times that they are based on royal or judicial courts. A monarch who rules by force sits in the central court of his donjon with his back to the wall, flanked by guards, and those who come to petition him for justice or to offer tribute must kneel or prostrate themselves simply because these are difficult positions from which to start a fight. Such monarchs are, of course, frightened of their subjects and constantly on the anxious alert for rebellion. Is this an appropriate image for the inconceivable energy that underlies the universe? True, the altar-throne in Catholic churches is occupied by the image of God in the form of one crucified as a common thief, but he hangs there as our leader in subjection to the Almighty Father, King of the universe, propitiating Him for those who have broken His not always reasonable laws. And what of the curious resemblance between Protestant churches and courts of law? The minister and the judge wear the same black robe and "throw the book" at those assembled in pews and various kinds of boxes, and both ministers and judges have chairs of estate that are still, in effect, thrones.

The crucial question, then, is that if you picture the universe as a monarchy, how can you believe that a republic is the best form of government, and so be a loyal citizen of the United States? It is thus that fundamentalists veer to the extreme right wing in politics, being of the personality type that demands strong external and paternalistic authority. Their "rugged individualism" and their racism are founded on the conviction that they are the elect of God the Father, and their forebears took possession of America as the armies of Joshua took possession of Canaan, treating the Indians as Joshua and Gideon treated the Bedouin of Palestine. In the same spirit the Protestant British, Dutch and Germans took possession of Africa, India and Indonesia, and the rigid Catholics of Spain and Portugal colonized Latin America. Such territorial expansion may or may not be practical politics, but to do it in the name of Jesus of Nazareth is an outrage.

The Bible is a dangerous book, though by no means an evil one. It depends, largely, on how you read it with what prejudices and with what intellectual background. Regarded as sacred and authoritative, such a complex collection of histories, legends, allegories and images becomes a monstrous Rorschach blot in which you can picture almost anything you want to discover just as one can see cities and mountains in the clouds or faces in the fire. Fundamentalists "prove" the truth of the Bible by trying to show how the words of the prophets have foretold events that have come to pass in relatively recent times. But any statistician knows that you can find correlation's, if you want to, between almost any two sets of patterns or rhythms between the occurrence of sunspots and fluctuations of the stock market, between the lines and bumps on your hand and the course of your life or between the architecture of the Great Pyramid and the history of Europe. This is because of eidetic vision, or the brain's ability to project visions and forms of its own into any material whatsoever. But scholars of ancient history find the remarks of the prophets entirely relevant to events of their own time, in the ancient Near East. The Biblical prophets were not so much predictors as social commentators.

I am not in the position of those liberal Christians who reject fundamentalism but must still insist that Jesus was the one and only incarnation of God, or at least the most perfect human being. No one is intellectually free who feels that he cannot and must not disagree with Jesus and is therefore forced into the dishonest practice of wangling the words of the Gospels to fit his own opinions. There is not a scrap of evidence that Jesus was familiar with any other religious tradition than that of the Hebrew Scriptures or that he knew anything of the civilizations of India, China or Peru. Under these circumstances, he was faced with the virtually impossible problem of expressing himself in the peculiar religious language and imagery of his local culture. For it is obvious to any student of the psychology of religion that what he needed to express was the relatively common change of consciousness known as mystical experience the vivid and overwhelming sensation that your own being is one with eternal and ultimate reality. But it was as hard for Jesus to say this as it still is for a native of the American Bible Belt. It implies the blasphemous, subversive and lunatic claim to be identical with the all-knowing and all-ruling monarch of the world its Pharaoh or Cyrus. Jesus would have had no trouble in India, for this experience is the foundation of Hinduism, and the Hindus recognize many people in both ancient and modern times as embodiments of the divine, or sons of God but not, of course, of the kind of God represented by Jehovah. Buddhists, likewise, teach that anyone can, and finally will, become a Buddha (an Enlightened One), in the same way as the historic Gautama.

If the Gospel of Saint John, in particular, is to be believed, Jesus emphatically identified himself with the Godhead, considering such phrases as "I and the Father are one," or "He who has seen me has seen the Father," or "Before Abraham was, I am," or "I am the way, the truth and the life." But this was not an exclusive claim for himself as the man Jesus, for at John 10:31, just after he has said, "I and the Father are one," the crowd picks up rocks to stone him to death. He protests: "Many good works have I shown you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me?" The Jews answered him, saying, "We do not stone you for a good work, but for blasphemy, and because you, being a man, make yourself God."  And here it comes: Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, I said, you are gods [quoting Psalms 82]? If He [i.e., God] called those to whom He gave His word gods and you can't contradict the Scriptures how can you say of Him whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, 'You blaspheme!' because I said, 'I am a son of God" [The original Greek says "a son," not "the son."]

In other words, the Gospel, or "good news" that Jesus was trying to convey, despite the limitations of his tradition, was that we are all sons of God. When he uses the terms I am (as in "Before Abraham was, I am") or Me (as in "No one comes to the Father but by Me"), he is intending to use them in the same way as Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita :  He who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me; I am not lost to him, nor is he lost to Me. The yogi who, established in oneness, worships Me abiding in all beings, lives in Me, whatever be his outward life.  And by this "Me" Krishna means the atman that is at once the basic self in us and in the universe. To know this is to enjoy eternal life, to discover that the fundamental "I am" feeling, which you confuse with your superficial ego, is the ultimate reality forever and ever, amen.  In this essential respect, the, the Gospel has been obscured and muffled almost from the beginnings. For Jesus was presumably trying to say that our consciousness is the divine spirit, "the light which enlightens every one who comes into the world," and which George Fox, founder of the Quakers, called the Inward Light. But the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn't accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss's son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own "I am" is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God. 

When I try to explain this to Jesus freaks and other Bible bangers, they invariably reveal theological ignorance by saying, "But doesn't the Bible say that Jesus was the only-begotten son of God?" It doesn’t? (not, at least, according to Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican interpretations). The phrase "only-begotten son refers not to Jesus the man but to the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, who is said to have become incarnate in the man Jesus. Nowhere does the Bible, or even the creeds of the Church, say that Jesus was the only incarnation of God the Son in all time and space. Furthermore, it is not generally known that God the Son is symbolized as both male and female, as Logos-Sophia, the Design and the Wisdom of God, based on the passage in Proverbs 7:9, where the Wisdom of God speaks as a woman.

"But then," they go on to argue, "doesn't the Bible say that there is no other name under heaven whereby men may be saved except the name of Jesus? But what is the name of Jesus? J-E-S-U-S? Lesous? Aissa? Jehoshua? Or however else it may be pronounced? It is said that every prayer said in name of Jesus will be granted, and obviously this doesn't mean that "Jesus" is a signature on a blank check. It means that prayers will be granted when made in the spirit of Jesus, and that spirit is, again, the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal God the Son, who could just as well have been incarnate in Krishna, Buddha, Lao-tzu or Ramana Maharshi as in Jesus of Nazareth.

It is amazing what both the Bible and the Church are presumed to teach but don't teach. Listening to fundamentalists, one would suppose that if there are living beings on other planets in this or other galaxies.  They must wait for salvation until missionaries from earth arrive on spaceships, bringing the Bible and baptism. But if "God so loves the world" and means it, He will surely send His son to wherever he is needed, and there is no difference in principle between a planet circling Alpha Centauri and peoples as remote from Palestine AD 30 as the Chinese or the Incas. 

Watts
NEXT WEEK: THE CONCLUSION TO “THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS BOOK”

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