Last week I begun a short series about Jesus with a discussion of the historical Jesus. Today I am going to talk about the 'personal Jesus' which many Christians experience, and next week (and maybe the week after as well) I am going to discuss Jesus' message(s). Both of these discussions are, for practical purposes, completely detached from historical questions. The personal Jesus is about psychology and personal spirituality, and any message of Jesus is obliged to stand or fall on critical examination regardless of whether he existed or who he was. So to those who were offended last week that I had reduced such a powerful narrative, critical to so many people, to a question of evidence and history, my apologies and I hope I make up for that to some extent in the next weeks.
I have seen dozens or hundreds of atheists, in debate with Christians in particular, flabbergasted by the iron grip that faith has upon people, apparently regardless of any quantity or quality of evidence and reasoned argument brought against it. We must always pause when we find ourselves proclaiming, "I don't know how anyone can think that!", because we are only proclaiming something about ourselves - that there is a thing that we lack understanding of. One hope I have for this sermon is to help non-religionists understand the power that a personal god has over someone.
In short the hold that Jesus has over a Christian, leaving aside habit and peer group pressure (which clearly play their roles), is to do with the personal relationship many Christians have with their 'god' Jesus. I don't make this proposition smugly, as if I have figured out the big secret. I am speaking of personal experience. For I have known Jesus as 'my personal saviour', years ago when I was a teenager. I understand the existential reality of Jesus to a believer, how Jesus helps a believer in everyday life, and how painfully difficult it is to turn one's back on that relationship.
As I discussed in 'Prayer', there is a function in the human brain which the ego can develop and converse with, which I have called the IF (Imaginary Friend) function, and it has real benefits - possibly evolutionary benefits, originally. The Christian relationship with Jesus is far from unique. Krishna is another god worshiped as a personal companion, and the practice of prayer and supplication to Jesus is the link modern Christians have with ancient pagan worship as well. The ancients all prayed and sacrificed to named personal anthropomorphs, a practice which Judaism had spent centuries attempting to reject. In terms of psychological mechanism, ancestor worship is also no different, in this view.
To ask a Christian to deny their personal god, especially if they have developed the relationship for some time, is to ask an addict to give up heroin. To many 'born again' types Jesus is not only 'saviour' in an abstract sense but the being who actually saved them (from depression, addiction or just the unsatisfactory meaninglessness of it all). Jesus sustains them each day, watches over them and makes it possible to sleep at night. As someone to talk to Jesus is, in ideal at least, forgiving, non-judgemental, kind and endlessly patient. To judge the implicit ignorance in this perspective is fine, but we should also acknowledge that humans are very complex, dependent on networks of familiar humans as well as networks of familiar neurones, and stakes can be high.
If there is such a thing as 'IF' in our brains and it is a useful function at all, and not something that needs to be repressed, then it follows that we should take some care as to what we put into it. For myself, also as discussed in 'Prayer', I did begin to commune with it again some years ago, not as 'Jesus' this time, but as an unnameable, transcendent 'All'. For me the practice is extremely helpful, and I credit it in part with helping me find a way from depression to a place of much greater contentment and purpose (whilst avoiding a whole lot of supernatural crap). But to any atheist readers, beyond making such statement as honestly as possible, I will not try to convince you of the practice. I will take responsibility only for putting the idea there on the table between us. You can find your own reasons to pick it up, if you do.
But to Christian readers, firstly I want to say that I understand. I really do understand how real and unarguable Jesus is to you. So much so that I fear that this effort is vain. But there is a way to a transcendent, universal (non-idolatrous) God, through your man, that does not involve cold turkey. Jesus, according to your text, offered himself to you as a way to 'the father'. Ask him to show you the way ("and it shall be given"). I note that Jesus preached no 'trinity', which was developed a long time afterward, and had no conception of anything but one (Jewish) transcendent god. Jesus may have referred to his 'father', but he also referred to us all as God's children. And it was Jesus' footsteps we are asked to follow in, not God's; we are asked to follow them to God. Finally, there have been many Christians in history, including early Jewish Christians, that saw Jesus as saviour without seeing him as God. It's just plausible that the Roman Church got some of those massive repressions of 'heresy' wrong, after all.
I am obliged, unfortunately, to further confuse the issue with a digression because obviously the term 'father' is completely inadequate today as a term for a transcendent god. It's quite clearly a metaphor, in that no one thought that God inseminated their mothers (Jesus's aside). And it's an understandable metaphor (as are the terms 'Lord' and 'King') in a society that knows only patriarchy and monarchy as sources of power and authority. In short 'God' was gendered male because power was gendered male.
It was still a mistake for that ancient reason, idolatry. As soon as God is gendered we have the beginnings of carved features in our conception of God, which mocks God and will divide us every time. But at least, in the ancient world, it was understandable. In an age when monarchies and patriarchies no longer dominate the social landscape, "Father", "Lord" and "King", even as metaphors, have become grave limitations on our conception of the divine. Let's note as an aside that "Mother" is not philosophical progress, but merely reaction.
I have a lot of respect for those I call "Christians". The quotations are to indicate that the term requires definition before we might say whether we have any respect for it or not. Many feel obliged to remind us of the hypocrisy that Christians are capable of, or the innumerable horrible, bigoted and violent episodes in church history. But I also note many Christians speaking up for decency and tolerance, for gay marriage for example, and for refugees, and against war and corruption, clearly motivated by their religion. And I see them helping people in need.
I'm thinking that perhaps there is a sort of objective, technical definition of 'Christian' that we might use, as Jesus appears to suggest when he states that we "shall know them by their fruits". According to this text (Matthew 7), self-identity - whether a person actually calls Jesus, "Lord, Lord" - is not a basis for defining what a Christian is. It's what they do which defines them, which might make Mahatma Gandhi or even Christopher Hitchens more of a Christian, in this technical sense, than many who give themselves the title. This definition will have to wait till next week, when I try to grapple with Jesus' philosophical contributions - his message - but for now I want to note that my respect for the Jesus cult is real even as I wish more Christians focussed upon Jesus' message rather than esoteric theology, miracles or Jesus as a substitutionary blood atonement for our mistakes.
Yaweh ('being'), Allah ('the god'), Vishnu (the supreme being in Hinduism) and many other names, ancient and modern, all struggle to mean the same thing, and if they don't we should be worrying about why. All of them are 'the god', the totality of all being, the universe itself, Everything. Oddly, "no god", or "nature" also means the same thing.
The thing is, I don't want anyone to stop praying or attending their House of worship. This entire project rests on the conviction that religion is extremely important to all of us. The House of Every doesn't mind which gods you pray to, with the critical proviso that all of our anthropomorphs are but temporal motes compared to Everything, and Everything, the single God over all humanity and all of our other gods, is unnameable, ineffable and transcendent. As I explained in Lao Tsu and Moses, when it comes to idolatry Every is self-confidently smug rather than jealous. But the proviso doesn't seem unreasonable and, if we are to worship at all, if religion is to renew its creative positive contribution to social life and hence survive into a new age it is, frankly, essential.
Everything, thank you for the wealth of story we have with which to seek wisdom and direction. Bless us in our pathways this week, for whether we have conversation with Jesus, Buddha, Mary or Cristiano Ronaldo, there is only one of you and you are the only one to whom every one of us is subject. Bless my readers with the wisdom and discernment to profit from my own words, however wise or foolish they are. And help us all to do thy will. So be it.