Sometimes, I miss the bells. They came from the carillon in the belfry of St. Irene's Catholic Church about a mile and a half from the home I grew up in which was located in the rural town of Warrenville, Illinois. Although they were so far away, the wind usually carried their melody easily across the distance, and it wasn't hard to tell what time it was at any point in the day because they played what is known as the Westminster chime on the quarter hours.
The quarter hours would progressively add segments so that you just needed to hear how much the tune had progressed to know exactly how much time had lapsed. On the hour, you'd hear the whole tune followed by the deep bongs that counted from one to twelve, respectively.
At the age of nine or ten, I had a favorite climbing tree behind our house. It was an oak that stood about thirty-five or forty feet high, and I knew every major branch all the way to the top. During the summer, I'd climb it a couple of times a week, going up until the smaller branches would support my weight only if I spread out, belly down, to let them cradle me. Then, I'd lie there and look out over the fields across the railroad tracks that bordered our property. I could see an irrigation windmill and farm houses, and I'd hear all the country sounds that were somehow less vivid on the ground: The constant buzz of insects, dozens of different bird songs, and the far away whoosh of occasional truck traffic out on the highway.
And as I rode the branches as they swayed languidly in the wind, the bells from St. Irene's would chime like a melodic counterpoint to this incredible symphony that I was the only audience to—and I felt connected to everything in a way that I wouldn't understand as holy until I was much older and had the conceptual framework to put it into words.
Eventually, I'd descend back into a world in which my sense of connection somehow failed to be anywhere as vivid—but one that I nonetheless struggled with for years to make it as real to me as that tree was. You see, St. Irene's was my church, and being raised as a pre-Vatican II Catholic, I knew my life was never going to be good enough for the God that my soul knew in those branches so high above the ground.
Back then, as a kid, God the Father was pretty much like my old man—tough, quick to anger, and ready to meet out punishment for offenses given. Of course, God's retribution carried far greater consequences—consequences that seemed only fair and just given that a) he was, both by definition and the words I recited in my prayers, "all good and deserving of all my love," and b) he'd already had his own kid crucified so he wouldn't have to send me to Hell—if only I'd just follow the rules.
Of course, there was a cosmic sort of Catch 22. It turned out that I was born sinful; it was my nature to be so, and I was never going to actually be worthy of any mercy God wanted to toss my way. I could only get around my dilemma was by appealing to Him through his Son—the resurrected carpenter who'd gone up to Heaven and was still suffering every time I sinned. No wonder his Daddy was eternally ticked off at me.
So, I tried to buddy up to the Son in the only ways the Church told me were acceptable. I'd regularly attend Mass, confess my sins, and swallow down the body and blood of the Christ. This would get me into Heaven—eventually. Again, there was another catch. It seems that even though I'd do penance after each confession, I was still building up a lot of punishment time in Purgatory—a place just a notch above Hell but whose tortures were of finite duration—finite relative to eternity, that is. I couldn't really know how long my after-life sentence was going to be, but I did know that I could earn indulgences for saying certain prayers—ten years off for a "Glory Be," a hundred for an "Our Father," and so on. I knew that if I said "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph" in a sincere way, I'd get three years of credit in Heaven, so every night I'd pace back and forth in my room saying the name of the Holy Family a hundred times. Armed with this kind of creative bookkeeping, I figured I'd have a real shot of being with Jesus in a much shorter time than I might otherwise be entitled to.
Unless, of course, I died with a mortal sin on my soul. Such transgressions included grand larceny, murder, and self-abuse. By the time I was in full adolescence, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. On any day but Sunday—and then, only when I was at Mass—impure thoughts of girls trumped my fear of God every time. For this, as a mature adult, I can only say, “Thanks, Mother Nature!”
My relationship with the Almighty pretty much started going the way of Santa Claus and the Boogey Man. Jesus—who had never had much more of a function than a half-baked intermediary to his Father—was rapidly becoming irrelevant as I increasingly found ways to avoid taking Communion. Then I went to college, took Philosophy 101, and discovered that God was dead. What a relief! Off the cosmic hook, at last.
Except that now I wanted payback for the lies and guilt trips and wasted opportunities to do more making out with my girlfriend during my senior year in high school. So, I started reading about the Bible—as history, as literature—in an effort to debunk all the nonsense I'd been told it said. You see, as a Catholic, I was never encouraged to actually read more than a few sections of it. Baltimore Catechism Number Three was my pre-Confirmation guide. But now, I wanted to know for myself what the Scriptures really said—all of them—not just the parts conveniently selected to literally scare the Hell out of me.
Thus, my atheist phase began. During my late teens and early twenties, I delighted in arguing about religion with any and all who thought they could take me on. I was (in my own mind) morally invincible, and I made friends with people who had similar beliefs. We created our own religions and made them as flexible as necessary to annoy our adversaries. While I was in the Army, I had my dog tags changed to list my religion as a Baalist—a worshiper of the Old Testament spirits of nature known as Baals. I figured that would just torque off a chaplain or two.
Then I went back to college—as a hippie, of course—and found everyone turning back to Jesus. The musical "Jesus Christ, Superstar" had become a hit, and Jesus freaks were everywhere. I especially liked the music, and since the score didn't draw theological conclusions, I could really enjoy listening to it. It was, I figured, a good retelling of an otherwise timeworn story. Almost as good as Kazantzakasis' novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ" or Schoernfeld's non-fictional hypothesis "The Passover Plot."
In my mind, Jesus had become totally de-mystified, and as such, not very culturally relevant to me. Besides, I was into meditation, so if other people wanted to waste their time getting born again, why should I care?
That was in the beginning. Then there was a morning and an evening and a Watergate. And another morning in America and the Reagan Revolution. And yet another day and the Moral Majority, a Focus on the Family, and the rising of the religious right. And by then, twenty years had passed, I had raised children, and Jesus was suddenly relevant to my life again in ways I could never have guessed he would be. The Christ had become the weapon of choice for my socio-political adversaries.
Of course, my own spiritual framework had evolved during this time. Somehow that tree of my childhood had never left me. That feeling of connectedness—while still very rare in my life—would occasionally intrude into my awareness at times and in ways that made my declaration of atheism somehow ring hollow. Well, you try standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at midnight at Cape Hatteras—witness nothing but water lit by phosphorescent plankton, stretching out as far as your eyes can see until they seem to rise up meet the clouds of stars so thick that you expect the soft summer breeze to stir them into shifting patterns and shapes while the only sounds you hear are the break of the waves and the rustle of hundreds of tiny crabs scurrying across the beach—and tell me you're an atheist.
Experiences like that led me to an upgrade my personal religious conviction to that of official agnostic. But even that didn't work for long. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to understand God in an entirely different way—one in which the literalism of the Bible had no part. I began to know God as a process.
In theology—slash—philosophy jargon, the construct of God as a being or an intellect that exists is known as ontology. Most mainstream Christian religions encompass this idea within the confines of their creeds. But, as a Methodist minister friend of mine explains when he tells his parishioners—much to their surprise—that he doesn't believe God exists, it’s because the word exist comes from the Latin "ex" meaning "out of" and "stacio" referring to a physical condition. How can God come out of something unless He was created or fashioned by something else?
Now, for me, the greatest joy I have found in being a Unitarian-Universalist is that I am part of a religious community that not only doesn't put creedal demands on me, but which provides emotional support for my own spiritual development—a development which—while it may have much in common with other people who think and feel about the cosmos in ways similar to mine—is still as uniquely my own as theirs are to them.. Therefore, my understanding of God as process is very much in sync with our stated principles—all of which echo my personal belief in existential humanism as an integral part of that process.
So, as the use of Jesus as a weapon of discrimination by people calling themselves Christians has increased to the point that it is impacting so negatively on our mainstream American culture, I have personally felt it necessary to attempt a better understanding of this First Century man and the movement that adopted him as its focus. In the process of doing so, a funny thing happened on the way to my death: I discovered that I really am a Christian.
Now that may come as a surprising statement—and a seemingly contradictory one—given the background and content of my own belief system as I've described it, but once I had sorted through the socio-political and mythological components of this religion that came to be known as Christianity, it seemed apparent to me that all of our basic Unitarian-Universalist principles are very much at the core of—or have been extrapolated from—what Jesus, the man—the teacher and idealist—was probably driving at before he ran afoul of the authorities.
In conducting my search for personal truth, I began with a dissection of the Jesus myth. To do this, I needed to grasp how this idea of Jesus as the Christ came into being and how it has been interpreted for over two millennia. I went back to a clue that a Jewish friend of mine, who was an art history major, once pointed out to me. The two major themes that have developed in the art surrounding Jesus have been those of the Conquering King and of the Good Shepherd. It's pretty easy to see that the king model came first, and some basic understanding of Judean political dynamics of the 1st Century C.E. tells us why this view would have emerged fairly quickly. After all, it goes to the heart of what the Messiah—God's Anointed One (which is what the Greek word Christ means)—was perceived to be.
Okay, so to get that, I'll have to give you Hebrew history in two and a half minutes. Here goes: The people who saw themselves as God's chosen were tribal and united only loosely by some overlapping religious beliefs and customs that became common enough to provide a cultural identity. They were held together through the necessity of standing against their enemies, but they weren't much of a cohesive nation until Saul started consolidating power and became a king, only to be quickly replaced by David who built the tribes into a viable nation situated at the crossroads of Mediterranean, Egyptian, and mid-Eastern trade routes. This was about 1000 BCE. David's son, Solomon, was also a strong king, and he built the 1st temple, which became a national symbol of God's divine approval of His chosen people.
But things deteriorated over the next couple of centuries—prophets predicted the fall of the nation because of its ungodly ways—and sure enough, the Babylonians conquered them along with most of the rest of the region. The Babylonians had a policy of taking huge numbers of captive peoples back to their homeland—what is now mostly present-day Iraq—where they were kept as a kind of servant class. A couple of hundred more years passed, and as the Babylonian Empire declined, the Hebrews were given the chance to go home. A great many of them did, and eventually, they resettled their ancestral lands and rebuilt their temple.
Unfortunately, they were still at the center of a trade-crossroads, so when Alexander the Great started his campaign, the Chosen People got conquered again. During the 2nd Century BCE, the Jews revolted and threw out the Greek oppressors, giving us Hanukah—a holiday since made famous in the United States thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But independence was, once again, short-lived, because the Romans stepped in, plunked down some legions, and installed Herod the Great as a puppet king, thereby setting the stage for Jesus.
The Hebrew prophets had, from even before the Babylonian Captivity, been regularly predicting that a leader would come—a descendant of David—who would restore the kingdom to its former glory. By the end of Herod's reign in 4 BCE, claimants for the honor were already starting to appear with some frequency. There were reasons—obvious to us now from the historical perspective of two by-gone millennia—why the Jews were never going to have a chance to make this happen, but at the time of Jesus' appearance on the scene, there were enough people wanting to believe it could happen that the Jews would eventually risk the revolt that led to the Diaspora—the scattering of them as a people.
Now, there were some idealists of that time who felt that the Kingdom of God—an actually earthly kingdom—would be ushered in through the spiritual—not military—efforts of God's anointed emissary. The nation would become an example of how to live within the framework of God's laws, and that example would transform the world. By the time of Jesus' birth, many components of these two concepts—that of the restored political kingdom and that of the earthly example leading to a nation steeped in God's law—had merged to varying degrees among rival religious and political factions. This is why John the Baptist was doing his thing in the Jordan and why many people thought he was the Messiah. And there were others, most of whom, like John, were put to death for perceived acts of sedition.
So, where did the historical Jesus fit into all this? Was he politically motivated? Merely a preacher who got in over his head? Or a was he a devout Jew who dared perceive himself as the appointed emissary of the Almighty?
The simple truth is: Nobody knows for sure—nor are we ever likely to unless some hitherto undiscovered documents should come to light in the future. All we have to go on are a few liturgical writings (which is most likely what the Synoptic Gospels are)—some letters primarily authored by a frenetic and seemingly tireless religious visionary named Paul—and a few non-Biblical contemporary references to a man named Joshua who was put to death for treason and whose followers had elevated him to the status of a god. So, from a purely historical perspective, Jesus remains somewhat obscure.
Of course, there are speculations we can make—conclusions we can draw—based on historical, archaeological, sociological, and theological evidence—facts and/or logical extrapolations that can allow us to pierce the veil of mythology and give us some reasonable understanding of how this carpenter's son came to be regarded as the alpha and omega of a catholic church that eventually fragmented into myriad factional components.
But these kind of mental exercises will naturally lead us to secular conclusions—conclusions that are often incompatible with a literal interpretation of Scripture. And for the fundamentalist who desperately requires a religious world in which all answers to life's questions are concrete, any ideas that challenge Biblical literalism must be rejected out of hand, no matter how obvious their truths may be. The creedal framework of the true believer simply cannot support anything that challenges the comfortable and comforting notion that he or she is part of the community of the saved. Saved, mind you, from the fiery wrath of Jesus' father who'd gladly send you to Hell for an eternity of torture and pain if you dare reject his son. Yet, all it takes to be a part of this community—to become one of God's new Chosen People—is to be born again—to surrender one's will to a Christ who requires his followers to be aggressive in their proselytizing, limited in their tolerance for human differences, and wary of intrusions on their faith by a world that is perceived to be, by its very nature, hostile to the only religious point of view they deem valid: Their own.
This version of Christianity is inexorably splitting mainstream denominations apart, and it has reached near-crisis proportions for many of them. Now, if this was simply some internecine squabble that would eventually resolve itself either by the contenders kissing and making up or by one of them leaving in a huff, it would hardly matter to any of the rest of us. But, unfortunately, the fortress mentality generated by these religious reactionaries has increasingly spilled over into the political arena to the point where it has begun to impact on national and foreign policies in ways that are exacerbating both national and global tensions.
After all, if a basic premise of your belief system is that Armageddon is at hand—and that it is something to be looked forward to by those who will rise to Heaven in the Rapture—then any deterioration in human affairs which might lead to a global war centered in the Middle East is to be both expected and welcomed. After all, it is only during such a conflict that Jesus the Conquering King will ultimately defeat the antichrist.
Balanced against this extreme fundamentalist version of Christianity is a more moderate—and somewhat more traditional view of the faith—that of Jesus the Good
Shepherd. This is a more loving Jesus, a Son of God for whom the sins of the world were willing paid for by the sacrifice of his own life. According to this Christology, we are commanded to love each other, to follow the Ten Commandments, and to treat our neighbors with respect and dignity—even the ones we don't particularly want to associate with. And we're supposed to do this because Jesus, in his capacity as God the Son, has told us to. And while these teachings are of utmost importance, the fact is that we probably won't fully implement them because we are not as perfect as Jesus was. The best we can really be expected to do is give it a good try, and if people continue to suffer from war, poverty, and disease—even if changing our attitudes and lifestyles might improve their condition—well, which of us can be held personally responsible for such complicated things? Maybe we could try a little harder, but who's got the time? We're only human, after all. So, we ask for God's forgiveness a lot and count on our acceptance of Jesus' divinity to secure us a place in Heaven.
So, 21st Century American Christianity presents us with a choice: Jesus the King or Jesus the Shepherd—what'll it be? Heaven or Hell—which do you choose? For God or against—the call is yours. In the black and white world of fundamentalism, the options are simple. But, for people like me, those very questions are all wrong. It is as if Jesus, like his forebears under the Babylonians, has been taken captive. But this time he has been turned into a golden idol, a god with two faces, one judgmental and the other benevolent. And the demands of his captors seem to be that the rest of us submit to their increasingly imposed authority over both our public and personal lives. More and more, we find ourselves feeling like strangers in a country we thought we knew. And we find ourselves asking, like the question in the psalm: How, then, shall we sing a holy song in this strange land?
For me, the fact of the matter is that I don't need either of those Jesuses. I don't want my faith limited by inflexible and unforgiving creedal boundaries. I don't want the bells of my childhood—the sounds I heard—that I felt Ideep in my soul; as that process that is my soul— I don't want those vibrations that washed through me as I lay at the top of a tree—to fade into nothing but memory. I refuse to allow those sweetly singing chimes to be muffled by a Biblical literalism that posits a Father God who alternately rewards his children like a Santa Claus and terrorizes them like the Boogey Man.
So, for people like me, the question becomes: Dude, where's my Christ? Or maybe even more precisely: Do I even need one?
Well, let me give you the obvious answer to that last query: Quite simply, no. Jesus the historical and mythological figure holds no particular spiritual value for me. I have long understood that I no more need a concrete deity to live a full and complete life than Dumbo needed a magic feather in order to fly. But what I do need is metaphor.
As I have said, I have come to understand God as a process—an infinitive, as it were, in which the God part is the to and the descriptor part is the state of our own actions or being. To care for; to be aware of; to touch with compassion; to empathize; to love. Can you hear God in the to? Can you feel the completion of God in what we contribute to the verb?
But, once again, this is merely metaphor—and yet, how else could our finite and limited minds otherwise grasp a reality so profound that, at best, it is only perceived in unnamed and unnamable feelings?
And so it was that in contemplating the metaphor that I found myself, at heart, a Christian. Had I been raised in another culture I might have come to the same point by way of Krishna, or Buddha, or Allah. But my experience was with a 1st Century visionary who, according to the few records we have, taught that the greatest thing we could do was love each other. The best attitude we could pose was one of humility. The greatest feat we could perform was to care for another's needs.
"As you do unto the least of these," he is purported to have said, "you do unto me."
Finding ways to love the people you have reason to hate; putting the spirit of justice above laws that attempt to limit comfort and dignity to a selected few, transforming our selfishness into sharing, acknowledging ownership of resources as a privilege that demands responsible stewardship, refraining from judging each other, accepting every person for who and what they are and unconditionally acknowledging their worth. Well, if Jesus wasn't a Unitarian Universalist, he ought to have been.
Jesus obviously understood the concept of metaphor—that's why he spoke in parables. Whether or not he thought he was going to be successful in bringing about radical changes in the political environment of his day is anybody's guess. The gospel references about his understanding of the Messiah's role and the extent to which he attempted to assume it are murky and distorted at best. But that he perceived and understood the dynamics of the God-process in human interactions is quite clear. He preached it and lived it, and, by doing so, ultimately touched the hearts and minds of those who knew him in profound and life-altering ways.
John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark and author of numerous books on matters pertaining to Biblical scholarship, refers to a phenomenon he called the Christ-force. If Jesus the man, the human being who delivered such a dynamic message during his brief tenure here on earth, was perceived by so many to be someone in whom they felt they had met God (and to be fair, it is obvious that more than a few of his contemporaries did sense something in him and in his teachings that was powerful and that reverberated with the ring of truth), then it is in the continued application of those same teachings that we can still feel God at work.
The Christ force—the God process: that which we know as love and caring and compassion extended to each other—that which is found in our commitment to honoring the interconnected web of existence—that which is had by the completion of ourselves through our sense of community—not just in our churches, but as a world-wide, global nation governed by principles of equity and justice for all is with us.
Dude, where's my Christ?
In the reality of that metaphor, as alive to me as that God of process, that God of presence, that I first learned to hear in the sound of the bells.