Jesus and His Religion (or the religion about Him) [3rd of 3 Parts] by Alan Watts
--Photograph by Eugenio Pastor
CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK:
But you see what happens. If you pedestalize Jesus you strangle the Gospel at birth. And it has been the tradition in both the Catholic Church and in Protestantism to pass off what I will call an emasculated Gospel. Gospel means "good news," and I cannot for the life of me think what is the good news about the Gospel as ordinarily handed down. Because, look here – here is the revelation of God in Christ, in Jesus, and we are supposed to follow his life and example without having the unique advantage of being the boss's son. Now, the tradition – both Catholic and Protestant Fundamentalist – represents Jesus to us as a freak! Born of a virgin, knowing he is the son of God, having the power of miracles, knowing that basically it's impossible to kill him, that he's going to rise again in the end. And we are asked to take up our cross and follow him when we don't know that about ourselves at all! So what happens is this: we are delivered, therefore, a Gospel which is in fact an impossible religion. It's impossible to follow the Way of Christ. Alright. Many a Christian has admitted it. "I am a miserable sinner. I fall far short of the example of Christ." But do you realize the more you say that the better you are? Because what happened was that Christianity institutionalized guilt as a virtue. (enthusiastic applause) You see, you can never come up to it. Never. And therefore you will always be aware of your shortcomings, and so the more shortcomings you feel the more – in other words – you are aware of the vast abyss between Christ and yourself.
[Audience member] "You are just setting up straw men and knocking them down!"
You will have your opportunity to speak during the question period, madam. So, you go to confession.... (laughter and applause) ... and if you've got a nice dear understanding confessor he won't get angry with-at you. He'll say, "My child, you know you've sinned very grievously but you must realize that the love of God and of Our Lord is infinite and that naturally you are forgiven. As a token of thanks-giving say three 'Hail Mary's." And you know, you've committed a murder and robbed a bank and fornicated around and so on, but the priest is perfectly patient and quiet. Well you feel awful! "I have done that to the love of God? I have wounded Jesus, grieved the Holy Spirit," and so on. But you know in the back of your mind that you're going to do it all over again. You won't be able to help yourself. You'll try. But there's always a greater and greater sense of guilt.
Now, the lady objected that I was putting up a straw man and knocking it down. This is the Christianity of most people. Now there is a much more subtle Christianity of the theologians, the mystics, and the philosophers. But it's not what gets preached from the pulpit, grant you. But the message of Billy Graham is approximately what I've given you, and of all – what I will call – fundamentalist forms of Catholicism and Protestantism.
What would the real Gospel be? The real Good News is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was THE son of God, but that he was a powerful son of God who came to open everybody's eyes to the fact that you are too. Now this is perfectly plain. If you will go to the tenth chapter of Saint John, verse 30, there is the passage where Jesus says "I and the Father are one." And this is – there are some people who aren't intimate disciples around, and they are horrified! And they immediately pick up stones to stone him. He says "Many good works I have shown you from the Father, and for which of these do you stone me?" And they said, "For a good work we stone you not, but for blasphemy, because you being a man make yourself God." And he replied "Isn't it written in your law 'I have said you are gods'?" (He's quoting the 82nd Psalm.) "Isn't it written in your law 'I have said you are gods'? If God called them those to whom he gave his word 'gods' – and you can't deny the scriptures – how can you say I blaspheme because I said I am a son of God?" Well there's the whole thing in a nutshell.
Of course if you read the King James Bible that descended with the angel you will see in italics in front of these words "son of God," "THE son of God" – "...because I said I am THE son of God." And most people think the italics are for emphasis. They're not. The italics indicate words interpolated by the translators. You will not find that in the Greek. The Greek says "a son of God." So it seems to me here perfectly plain that Jesus has got it in the back of his mind that this isn't something peculiar to himself.
So when he says "I am the way. No man comes to the Father but by ME," this "I am," this "me" is the divine in us which in Hebrew would be called the "Ruach Adonai." This – a great deal is made of this by the esoteric Jews, Kabbalists and the Hasidim. The Ruach is the breath that God breathed into the nostrils of Adam. It is differing from the soul. The individual soul in Hebrew is called "Nephesh." And so we translate the "Ruach" into the Greek "pneuma" into "psyche" [see´kay] or "psyche" [sy´kee]. The spirit – and you ask the theologian what's the difference between the soul and the spirit and he won't be able to tell you – but it's very clear in Saint Paul's writings.
So the point is that the Ruach is the divine in the creature by virtue of which we are sons of, or of the nature of God: manifestations of the divine. This discovery is the Gospel. That is, the Good News. But this has been perpetually repressed throughout the history of Western religion because all Western religions have taken the form of celestial monarchies, and therefore have discouraged Democracy in the Kingdom of Heaven. Until, as a consequence of the teachings of the German and Flemish mystics in the Fifteenth Century there began to be such movements as the Anabaptists, the Brothers of the Free Spirit, and the Levelers, and the Quakers. A spiritual movement which came to this country and founded a republic and not a monarchy.
And how could you say that a republic is the best form of government if you think that the Universe is a monarchy? Obviously, if God is top on a monarchy, monarchy is the best form of government. But you see, ever so many citizens of this republic think they ought to believe that the Universe is a monarchy, and therefore they are always at odds with the republic.
It is from, principally, white racist Christians that we have the threat of Fascism in this country. Because you see, they have a religion which is militant, which is not the religion of Jesus – which was the realization of divine son-ship – but the religion ABOUT Jesus which pedestalizes him and which says "Only this man – of all the sons of woman – is divine, and you had better recognize it." And so it speaks of itself as The Church Militant, the onward Christian soldiers marching as to war. Utterly exclusive. Convinced, in advance of examining the doctrines of any other religion that it is the top religion. And so it becomes a freak religion, just as it has made a freak of Jesus, an unnatural man. It claims uniqueness, not realizing that what it does teach would be far more credible if it were truly "Catholic" – that is to say: restated again, the truths which have been known from time immemorial, which have appeared in all the great cultures of the world.
But even very liberal Protestants still want to say, somehow – so as, I suppose to keep the mission effort going or to pay off the mortgage – "Yes, these other religions are very good. God has no doubt revealed himself through Buddha and Lao-Tsu. But...!"
Now, obviously, it is a matter of temperament. You could be loyal to Jesus just as you're loyal to your own country, but you are not serving your country if you think that it's necessarily the best of all possible countries. That is doing a disservice to your country. It is refusing to be critical where criticism is proper. So of religion. Every religion should be self-critical. Otherwise it soon degenerates into a self-righteous hypocrisy. If then we can see this, that Jesus speaks not from the situation of a historical deus-ex-machina – a kind of a weird, extraordinary event – but he is a voice which joins with other voices that have said in every place and time "Wake up, Man. Wake up and realize who you are."
Now I don't think, you see, until churches get with that that they're going to have very much relevance. You see, popular Protestantism and popular Catholicism will tell you nothing about mystical religion. The message of the preacher, fifty-two Sundays a year, is "Dear people, be good." We've heard it ad-nauseam! Or: "Believe in this." He may occasionally give us a sermon on what happens after death or the nature of God, but basically the sermon is "Be good." But how? As Saint Paul said, "To will is present with me, but how to do that which is good I find not; for the good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do." How are we going to be changed? Obviously, there cannot be a vitality of religion without vital religious experience. And that's something much more than emoting over singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."
But you see what happens in our ecclesiastical goings-on is that we run a talking shop. We pray. We tell God what to do, or give advice as if He didn't know. We read the scriptures, and remember: talking of the Bible Jesus said "You search the scriptures daily, for in them you think you have life." Saint Paul made some rather funny references about the spirit which giveth life and the letter which kills. I think the Bible should be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter. We need it no more because the Spirit is with us. It's a dangerous book. And to worship it is of course a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone. Because you can –– nobody's senses can confuse a wooden image with God, but you can very easily confuse a set of ideas with God, because concepts are more rarified and abstract.
So with this endless talking in church we can preach, but by-and-large preaching does nothing but excite a sense of anxiety and guilt. And you can't love out of that. No scolding, no rational demonstration of the right way to behave is going to inspire people with love. Something else must happen. But we will say "What are you going to do about it?" Do about it? You have no faith? Be quiet. Even Quakers aren't quiet. They sit in meeting and think. At least some of them do. But supposing we get really quiet; we don't think; be absolutely silent through-and-through? We say "Well, you'll just fall into a blank." Oh? Ever tried?
I feel then, you see, that it's enormously important that churches stop being talking shops, they become centers of contemplation. What is contemplation? Con-templum: It's what you do in the temple. You don't come to the temple to chatter, but to be still and know that "I am God." And this is why, if the Christian religion – if the Gospel of Christ – is to mean anything at all instead of just being one of the forgotten religions along with Osiris and Mithra we must see Christ as the Great Mystic. In the proper sense of the word "mystic," not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic – strictly speaking – is one who realizes union with God, by whatever name. This seems to me the crux and message of the Gospel, summed up in the prayer of Jesus which Saint John records as he speaks over his disciples praying that "they may be one even as you, Father, and I are one." That they may be all one. All realize this divine son-ship, all oneness, basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe and the love that moves the Sun and other stars.