Jesus and His Religion (or the religion about Him) [1st of 3 Parts] by Alan Watts
--Photograph by Eugenio Pastor
Some years ago I had just given a talk on television in Canada when one of the announcers came up to me and said "You know, if one can believe that this universe is in charge of an intelligent and beneficent God, don't you think he would naturally have provided us with an infallible guide to behavior and to the truth about the universe?" And of course I knew he meant the Bible. I said "No, I think nothing of the kind. Because I think a loving God would not do something to His children that would rot their brains."
Because if we had an infallible guide we would never think for ourselves, and therefore our minds would become atrophied. It is as if my grandfather left me a million dollars: I'm glad he didn't." And we have therefore to begin any discussion of the meaning of the life and teaching of Jesus with a look at this thorny question of "authority." And especially the authority of Holy Scripture. Because in this country in particular [the USA] there are an enormous number of people who seem to believe that the Bible descended from Heaven with an angel in the year sixteen-hundred and eleven, which was when the so-called King James – or more correctly Authorized – version of the Bible was translated into English.
I had a crazy uncle who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true including the marginal notes. And so whatever date it said in the marginal notes, that the world was created in 4004, B.C., and he believed it as the Word of God. Until one day he was reading - I think - a passage in the book of Proverbs and found a naughty word in the Bible. And from that time on he was through with it. You know, how Protestant can you get?
Now, the question of "authority" needs to be understood, because I am not going to claim any authority in what I say to you, except the authority – such as it is – of history. And that's a pretty uncertain authority. But from my point of view the four Gospels are I think to be regarded on the whole as historical documents. I'll even grant the miracles. Because, speaking as one heavily influenced by Buddhism, we're not very impressed with miracles! The traditions of Asia – Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and so forth – are full of miraculous stories. And we take them in our stride. We don't think that they're any sign of anything in particular except psychic power. And we in the West have by scientific technology accomplished things of a very startling nature. We could blow up the whole planet, and Tibetan magicians have never promised to do anything like that.
And I'm really a little scared of the growing interest in psychic power because that's what I call "psycho-technics." And we've made such a mess of things with ordinary technics that Heaven only knows what we might do if we got hold of psycho-technics and started raising people from the dead, and prolonging life insufferably, and doing everything we wished.
The whole answer to the story of miracles is simply imagine that you're God and that you can have anything you want. Well you'd have it for quite a long time. And then after awhile you'd say "This is getting pretty dull because I know in advance everything that's going to happen." And so you would wish for a surprise. And you would find yourself this evening in this church as a Human being.
So, I mean, that is the miracle thing. I think miracles are probably possible. That doesn't bother me. And as a matter of fact when you read the writings of the early fathers of the church – the great theologians like Saint Clement, Gregory of Nissa, Saint John of Damascus, even Thomas Aquinas – they're not interested in the historicity of the Bible. They take that sort of for granted but forget it. They're interested in its deeper meaning. And therefore they always interpret all the tales like Jonah and the whale. They don't bother even to doubt whether Jonah was or wasn't swallowed by a whale or other big fish. But they see in the story of Jonah and the whale as a prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ. And even when it comes to the Resurrection of Christ they're not worrying about the chemistry or the physics of a risen body. What they're interested in is that the idea of the resurrection of the body has something to say about the meaning of the physical body in the eyes of God. That the physical body – in other words – is not something worthless and unspiritual, but something which is an object of the Divine Love.
And so therefore I'm not going to be concerned with whether or not miraculous events happened. It seems to me entirely beside the point. So I regard the Four Gospels as on the whole as good a historical document as anything else we have from that period, including the Gospel of Saint John. And that's important. It used to be fashionable to regard the Gospel of Saint John as late. In other words, at the turn of the century the higher critics of The New Testament assigned the Gospel of Saint John to about 125 A.D.. And the reason was just simple. Those higher critics at that time just assumed that the simple teachings of Jesus could not possibly have included any such complicated mystical theology. And therefore they said, "Well, it must be later."
Now, as a matter of fact, in the text of the Gospel of Saint John the local color, his knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem, and his knowledge of the Jewish calendar is more accurate than that of the other three writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And it seems to me perfectly simple to assume that John recorded the inner teaching which He gave to His disciples and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the more exoteric teaching which He gave to people-at-large.
Now, what about them, the authority of these scriptures? We could take this problem in two steps. A lot of people don't know how we got the Bible at all. We Westerners got the Bible thanks to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church and members of the church wrote the books of the New Testament. And they took over the books of the Old Testament which even by the time of Christ had not been finally decided upon by the Jews. The Jews did not close the canon of the Old Testament until the year 100 A.D. – or thereabouts – at the Synod of Jamnia. And then they finally decided which were the canonical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and embodied them in the Masoretic Text, the earliest copy of which dates from the tenth century – early in the tenth century A.D.. The books to be included in the New Testament were not finally decided upon until the year three hundred and eighty-two – A.D. again – at the Synod of Rome under Pope Damasus. So it was the church – the Catholic Church – that promulgated the Bible and said "we are giving you these scriptures on our authority and the authority of the informal tradition that has existed among us from the beginning, inspired by the Holy Spirit."
So you receive historically the Bible on the church's say-so. And the Catholic Church insists, therefore, that the church collectively, speaking under the presumed guidance of the Holy Spirit, has the authority to interpret the Bible. And you can take that or leave it. Because obviously the authority of the Bible is not first of all based on the Bible itself. I can write a bible and state within that book that it is indeed the Word of God which I have received. And you're at liberty to believe me or not. Hindus believe that the Vedas are divinely revealed and inspired with just as much fervor as any Christian or any Jew. Muslims believe that the Koran is divinely inspired. And some Buddhists believe that their Sutras are of divine – or rather Buddhic – origin. The Japanese believe that the ancient texts of Shinto are likewise of divine origin. And who is to be judge?
If we are going to argue about this – as to which version of the Truth is the correct one – we will always end up in an argument in which the judge and the advocate are the same person. And you wouldn't want that if you were brought into a court of law, would you? Because if I say that, "Well, thinking it all over I find that Jesus Christ is the greatest being who ever came onto this Earth," by what standards do I judge? Why obviously, I judge by the sort of moral standards that have been given to me as somebody brought up in a Christian culture. There is nobody impartial who can decide between all the religions because more or less everybody has been in one way or another influenced by one of them.
So if the church says the Bible is true it finally comes down to you. Are you going to believe the church or aren't you? If nobody believes the church it will be perfectly plain, won't it, that the church has no authority. Because the people is always the source of authority. That's why de Tocqueville said that the people gets what government it deserves. And so you may say "Well, God Himself is the authority!" Well, how are we to show that? That's your opinion. Well you say "Well, you wait and see. The Day of Judgment is coming, and then you'll find out who is the authority!" Yes, but at the moment there is no evidence for the Day of Judgment, and it remains until there is evidence simply your opinion that the Day of Judgment is coming. And there is nothing else to go on except the opinion of other people who hold the same view and whose opinions you bought.
So really, I won't deny anybody's right to hold these opinions. You may indeed believe that the Bible is literally true and that it was actually dictated by God to Moses and the Prophets and the Apostles. That may be your opinion and you are at liberty to hold it. I don't agree with you.
I do believe, on the other hand, that there is a sense in which the Bible is divinely inspired. But I mean by "inspiration" something utterly different from dictation, receiving a dictated message from an omniscient authority. I think inspiration comes very seldom in words. In fact almost all the words written down by automatic writing from psychic input that I've ever read strike me as a bit thin. When a psychic tries to write of deep mysteries instead of telling you what your sickness is or who your grandmother was, he begins to get superficial. And psychically communicated philosophy is never as interesting as philosophy carefully thought out.
But divine inspiration isn't that kind of communication. Divine inspiration is, for example, to feel – for reasons that you can't really understand – that you love people. Divine inspiration is a wisdom which it's very difficult to put into words. Like mystical experience. That's divine inspiration. And a person who writes out of that experience could be said to be divinely inspired. Or it might come through dreams. Through archetypal messages from the collective unconscious, through which the Holy Spirit could be said to work. But since inspiration always comes through a Human vehicle it is liable to be distorted by that vehicle. In other words, I'm talking to you through a sound system. And it's the only one now available. Now if there's something wrong with this sound system whatever truths I might utter to you will be distorted. My voice will be distorted. And you might mistake the meaning of what I said.