Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Who Was Jesus/Buddha/Krishna? Part III

My grandmother was my first piano teacher. Later, I had many piano teachers, but there came a day when my grandmother said "You need a really good teacher. I wish you could study with Bomer Cramer." I presented myself to Mr. Cramer and he agreed to take me on as a student. Cramer had been a child prodigy when my grandmother had first heard of him. He himself had studied with Henry Levine who in turn had studied with Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest composers and pianists of the 20th Century. Studying with Mr. Cramer was in a way like studying with Rachmaninoff because I received a direct, personal transmission of his style and technique which I could not have got in any other way (which is not to say I was capable of exhibiting everything I was taught.) Mr. Cramer had two nine foot Steinway grand pianos in his studio. He would sit at one and I at the other and he would play along with me. It's impossible to explain the kind of communication that takes place under such circumstances, but the student would sense and imitate the teacher's tempos, phrasing, timing nuances and dynamics in an instantaneous double performance. Many things can only be learned through such a direct transmission of an ongoing tradition from a teacher to a student. This is a phenomenon well understood by musicians, athletes, and dancers as well as religious mystics. It's not something that can be learned from a book because more is involved than mere intellectual activity or visual observation. The student physically takes part in the learning experience and is guided by the physical presence and actions of the teacher.

There is no doubt that both Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) were actual historical persons. They lived 500 years apart and were about the same age when they stepped onto the world stage. Krishna is a much more complex figure out of a tradition several thousand years older and is probably a synthesis of several historical and legendary figures in ancient India. There are many points of similarity in the teachings of all three which have been transmitted to us through the writings of their followers but to be a disciple of any of the three involves much more than reading the sacred texts. Discipleship requires being part of the community of transmission, submitting to the authority of a teacher of the tradition and a lifetime of study, prayer and spiritual discipline, something that cannot be obtained by listening to a sermon or dharma talk or attending a yoga class once a week.

Even though there are many similarities in the teachings of these three figures, the similarities end there. The theology and the world view that shapes the theology of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian is vastly different. But it is true that the saints of each tradition are virtually indistinguishable in their persons and activities. Saints in all religions have a profound respect and love of all people regardless of national, religious, racial or cultural differences; they have strong, resilient personalities and a positive, joyful and creative openness to life and the future; they practice forgiveness and reconciliation in the midst of strife; they are non-judgmental and non legalistic. None of them would profess to have an exclusive and inexhaustible claim to the truth but all of them would express a humble understanding of the transitory and incomplete nature of all human knowledge.

Last week, when I wrote about following Jesus around, I ended my imaginary conversation with him with an open question about resurrection. Resurrection is the biggest problem in Christian theology for modern man. It also was the biggest problem for Jesus' contemporaries. It is a concept totally incomprehensible in terms of history or the scope of the world's knowledge. When I was in my twenties, I went to my pastor and told him that although I was strongly drawn to the church, I couldn't honestly accept the resurrection stuff because it was contrary to my common sense and everything else I knew. In many religious traditions, I would have been escorted to the door or patronizingly evangelized. Jack McGee did neither of these things. Instead he told me I might be interested to learn that many Christian pastors also struggled with the idea of resurrection and that in no way meant I didn't belong in the church. I was very welcome. He also is the first one to tell me that there are many pathways to God; through the heart, through the hands, through the intellect. He assured me God would be there for me whatever path I chose and to trust the process.

I haven't followed either Buddha or Krishna around so anything I say about them comes out of books I have read. What I have learned so far doesn't contradict anything I have learned about Jesus. It is all a vast mystery, like how in the world anyone can play all the Concord Sonatas at one time from memory (I heard Fred Fisher do it) or how it is one person can could die a terrible death and the whole world would be saved. In the gospel of Mark after Jesus cries out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," the first post Easter confession of faith, "Truly, this was the Son of God" was made by the Roman centurion who had just put him to death. Forget everything you have learned from the church, theology, Sunday School or wherever because in large part, Christians are no better than anyone else in understanding Easter, resurrection or salvation and furthermore, more often than not, believe, speak and act in ways totally contrary to the gospel. The confession of faith which the Christian tradition teaches is the one that leads to salvation did not come out of any religious tradition or from a disciple of Jesus but from a Gentile unbeliever. The confession was not the result of any biblical studies or spiritual discipline and it was made before any resurrection had taken place. In other words, we may understand that it was God/Allah/Jehovah/Whoever that created faith in the heart of a person who had no other access to the faith he confessed and it happened immediately after the commission of a murder. We may further understand that whatever happened on Easter morning, whatever truth or enlightenment or salvation is, it is something done by God, not by us, and is available to every single person on earth, living or dead (in whatever aspect) regardless of their religion and not as the result of any activity on their part whatsoever, but even in spite of it. And furthermore, it is a gift of God given to gentile Roman centurions, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians alike and no one has to convert to receive it.

So, who is/was Jesus anyway? We may be forgiven for asking since his disciples didn't figure it out either. But Jesus himself helped us out with this one. He told people who were questioning who he was,

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."(John 10:37ff)

It's not what we say, it's what we do. It's not whether or not we can believe in the resurrection, it's whether or not we believe that we can be resurrected. That's what faith is all about.

Saturday, May 25, 2002

Who Was Jesus/Buddha/Krishna? Part IV

One of the most important and transforming events of my life was a three week trip to Europe in my early 20's. One of the highlights of that trip was the opportunity to visit some of the world's greatest art museums. I came home enchanted by Vermeer and the Dutch Masters and the French Impressionists in particular. Two very different styles of painting from two very different perspectives.

Most people would agree that what constitutes art covers a great range of human activity and that there are many different styles as well as mediums that properly can be called "art". It's no different with religion and spirituality. Once we have made some very broad and highly generalized observations, there is a vast amount of human thought and experience that legitimately falls into these categories. Yet many people who would easily recognize that there are many varying styles and mediums of art that are valid expressions and deserve to be called "art" and that a person could legitimately be equally attracted to more than one type of expression, these same people are nevertheless quick to claim that there is only one valid religious experience and that is their own variety to the total exclusion of any other viewpoints.

It all has to do with what we call "truth" and the fact that most people believe there is only one "truth" that is valid for all people at all times in all situations. After all, if there is more than one "truth", how do we know which one really is true. No one would claim that Renoir's style of painting is more true than Vermeer's style. Why can we not also accept that a Muslim's understanding of what is true about the transcendent is as valid as a Hindu's or a Christian's, but from a different perspective arising out of a different history and different experience. In religion, we make pictures with words instead of paint or clay. The words are not "things in themselves", but symbols representing thought patterns arising from different cultural and historical perspectives. The ones that have endured over the millennia are those that have "rung true" for many people based on a similar cultural and historical experience and understanding.

Eastern thought has an easier time dealing with a fluid concept of reality than western thought. Western thought produced the scientific revolution. A logical sequence from point A to point B that results in point C. But the history of religion and spirituality even in western thought is not nearly so neat. Many points of view have been represented, in fact, from a philosophical standpoint, Greek Stoicism which strongly affected early Christian theology has a lot in common with eastern asceticism. But the purpose of this web site is not to compare different theologies, but to explore what we share in common. We are arguing for tolerance and understanding. In the process, we might all come away loving both Vermeer and the Impressionists. It is possible to learn from Jesus, Buddha and Krishna all three and not compromise any of our beliefs. In fact, I would like to claim that if we discover any contradictions in the teachings of these three persons, we have fundamentally misunderstood what they were teaching. Does that mean they all are alike? Not at all. Each has something different to offer, but they do not contradict. Does that mean that each of these three is the same as the others? Not at all. Each of them is to us something different.

It's a bit like reading an art review. Some years ago John Rosenfield, music critic for the Dallas Morning News said, "The best commentary about music is silence." Same goes for art. Have you ever read anything written by an art critic that actually made you feel differently about a piece of art you already had seen? Same goes for theology. It's a commentary based on a perspective that happens after the fact. If you want to know about Krishna, read the Gita. If you want to know something about Buddha, read the Sutras attributed to him. If you want to know about Jesus, read the Gospels. Forget the theology. No contradictions. You'll find yourself saying, "Ah!"

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Encounter: Who Was/Is Jesus, Buddha, Krishna? Part II

A few weeks ago while on a retreat, I sat beside a small lake early one morning in the middle of a pine forest in East Texas and engaged in a fantasy. I imagined that a man was standing beside the lake looking out over the water not far from me. He'd been fishing and after a time he turned and started walking slowly in my direction carrying his rod and tackle box with him. When he was within speaking distance, he paused, and though he was an ordinary looking man, as I looked at him I realized he was Jesus. I imagined that I offered him a place beside me on my bench and that we sat there together silently looking out over the water. After a time had passed, I turned and asked him, "Who are you, anyway?" He didn't answer, but I thought his eyes smiled as he glanced at me briefly and then he looked again out over the lake and we both continued to sit in silence.

The historical Jesus, the man who was born in a small Palestinian town 2000 years ago the son of a poor carpenter and who lived thirty something years and was finally executed as a criminal, is dead. After that, there is much disagreement and continuing controversy. Even during his own lifetime there was no agreement about who he was and after his death, many doubted what his friends said about him. During the few years of his public life recorded in the gospel accounts and in the years following his death, many titles or names were given to him. Those titles had their origin in the cultural and historical environment of which he was a part and are not comprehensible to people today except from within the theological framework of the Christian church; Son of David, Son of Man, (his own name for himself) Lord, Son of God, Lamb of God, Redeemer, Messiah.

"Who do you say that I am?" That was Jesus response to Peter's question. I could tell you many things about myself. I could send you my resume and photos, write an essay, answer questions from a panel, submit to psychological testing and fill out questionnaires. None of those things would reveal who I am. The only way you can really know who a person is is to be in a relationship with that person on a daily basis over a long period of time. See how they react in various situations, get their opinion, observe their behavior, interact with them in work, family, social settings. No single answer can satisfy the question, "Who are you?" because answer to who I am, who you are who he is is going to depend on what you or I invest in the relationship and where you or I are coming from. Often we do not even understand ourselves, much less another person. But I can say who you are to me and you can say who I am to you insofar as our experience together allows.

In the first chapter of John, two of John's disciples saw Jesus walking by and followed him. When Jesus saw them following him, he turned to them and said, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." Even after being with Jesus continually for the next two to three years, his disciples still were confused about who he was. He created controversy wherever he went for his defense of the marginalized in society and for violating the religious laws of his days. The Roman government accused him of inciting insurrection. Another time, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. Jesus' answer was, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Matthew 11:4-5) In Jesus' first sermon at Nazareth early in his ministry, he said this about himself, quoting one of the prophets.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

Several years ago Time magazine devoted its cover story to "Who Was Jesus?" Many people were interviewed for the story; novelists, historians, philosophers, church leaders, theologians, poets. All of them had different answers. A prophet, a social activist, a teacher, a great moral leader, a rabbi. Interestingly, only one person of the many interviewed and quoted gave the definitive orthodox answer given by the Christian church for all its history and that answer was given by a Mormon. Jesus is the Son of God who was crucified, died and resurrected on the third day who is come to save the world. That is a theological answer that can only be given intelligibly from within the context of the Christian church and it is fascinating that, at least in this article, the church was unable to give it. That is because the church itself is in turmoil today over the question, "Who Was Jesus?" which probably accounts for her struggle on many other fronts.

Today one part of the church has focused so exclusively on the post-Easter titles given to Jesus as a kind magical incantation that bestows immunity against the world's problems and guarantees a reserved seat in heaven that it has virtually ignored his life and teachings. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!" as if believing, like Alice in Wonderland in six impossible things before breakfast is all it takes. But what does it mean to "Believe in Jesus"? The other part of the church is embarrassed about the "cultural baggage of Easter" and resurrection talk and has focused almost exclusively on social ministry and self-improvement as the way of faith. But Christians certainly don't have a monopoly on good works and self-sacrifice, not self-improvement has always been the center of all religious discipline, Christian or otherwise. And that doesn't address the fact that for all Jesus' life and teaching and good works, he was rejected by even his own friends and died a criminal and outcast from both religion and society. Not much of a reward. His good deeds died with him, like Caesar's if nothing else happened, just one more good moral man.

So the only way we are going to know who anyone is is to follow them around. "Come and see." Then each of us has to answer the question for ourselves and each of us is going to have somewhat different an answer. If we follow Jesus around, we are going to find ourselves in situations where we are challenged to sit on the side of the marginalized of society, those whom the world rejects. We are going to find ourselves at odds with the religious and political establishments of our day, at odds with anything that measures itself by the standards of popularity, material well-being and power, at odds with the powers and principalities, wherever they may be. If we walk too closely behind him, we may also find ourselves marginalized because we just don't fit in and he told the disciples that unless they were willing to give up everything, absolutely everything, they couldn't follow him and they had to be willing to carry their own cross as he carried his and to be sure and count the cost before they made their decision.

In a repeat episode of NYPD, Detective Andy Sipowitz is trying to console an aged friend who is distraught because his wife is dying of cancer. Sipowitz tells him that he never did believe in God, but he has lost both his son and his wife and recently Sipowitz has had a dream in which he was talking to his son. He tells him that somehow, he believes he will see his son and wife again, he doesn't know how, but somehow he believes this is true. This is probably as close as any of us ever will come to understanding anything about resurrection. A deep and abiding sense, a hope against hope that, in spite of anything and everything, in spite of all our failures and losses, the last word is not in, everything will be redeemed and forgiven and somehow we will know peace and joy once again.

At the end of the story in John 21 when Jesus made breakfast for the disciples by the lake after a night of fishing, Jesus had some final words for Peter as they walked together beside the lake that early post Easter morning.

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:18-19)

In my fantasy by the lake that morning, I imagined that after the man sat silently beside me on the bench for a time, he got up and before he left, he turned and said, "Don't ask me to try to explain that part about the resurrection to you now. You'll only understand that after your own resurrection."