The figure and teachings of Jesus are too often broken down, adapted, and then shaped to fit people’s own particular needs and desires. Who was the real, walking, talking, preaching Jesus and what lessons can we take from him today?
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
Don’t get tricked into confusing truth with facticity — i.e., facts and figures that seem to prove an “objective” reality. We know little about the historical Jesus — other than that he seems to have actually existed in first century Palestine and created enough anxiety in the minds of his religious and political superiors that he suffered a criminal’s death. Beyond that it’s all speculation, and the “facts” we look for, whether by archeology or textual criticism — are themselves open to speculation. But what is true is PRECISELY the subjective element: Whoever this Jesus may have been, his teaching and his existence in and of itself made such an impact on people that they passed on his story like wildfire and even founded a new religion to carry his teaching to the world. Over twenty centuries, the explosive energy of the Jesus event has changed the world. That much is true.
It’s also true that people continue to meet him in their hearts and in their lives, and over the centuries, creating some of the most remarkable human beings who have been the model of the highest possible degree of what human dignity and compassion are all about. Think about St. Francis... Thomas Merton... Dorothy Day... Mother Theresa... Dag Hammarskjold. For all these people the encounter with Jesus changed their lives and rekindled the flame of human striving. Is this all just massive self-delusion? Or is it the actual working mechanics of how everything that’s really REAL in our lives — love, beauty, hope, forgiveness — always seems to change us from the inside out.
Facts remain facts, but our relationship to them is what reveals truth. So it is with Jesus, and all the great spiritual beings who from time to time visit our planet to awaken us to the vastness of the divine Mystery, and the human heart that receives it. The two are inseparable, and the cure for “delusion” is not facticity, but clear and luminous vision.
That, incidentally, is what the star above the manger in Bethlehem represents symbolically: the clear and luminous vision that can proclaim “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward humankind.” The story is perhaps a legend, but the message is utterly true. And it is the message I wish to each and every one of you goop readers in this magical, mysterious season of Christmastide. Blessings to one and all!
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada. For more of her writing on Jesus, her book The Wisdom Jesus is available on amazon.com
Deepak Chopra replies:
The Nazarene rabbi who wandered the shores of northern Galilee is lost forever as a walking, talking man. He could have taught for as little as eighteen months, the scholars tell us, or as long as three years, as tradition believes. He had brothers and sisters. We know their names, or at least a couple of Gospels mention them. We don’t know why he didn’t go to Jerusalem for Passover except one fatal time. His relationship with Mary Magdalene could have been of primary importance, if the Gnostic Gospels are right.
The reason that this lost figure of history, mentioned only once in passing aside from in the Bible, has been adapted to so many uses, good and bad, is that a second Jesus emerged after the Crucifixion. This was the Jesus of theology, whose teachings became the basis for the Church. Religions have their own agendas. Every teaching in the New Testament has been modified over the course of two thousand years, quite often to suit the purposes of the time. If people today pick and choose among these teachings, they have ample precedent.
Still, that doesn’t solve the dilemma of someone inspired by Jesus who sincerely wants to walk in his footsteps. I was inspired as a child in an Indian school run by Christian brothers from Ireland. But as I grew up and saw the near impossibility of being like Jesus or becoming what he wanted me to be, I came to a new conclusion.
There is a third Jesus, who isn’t the historical rabbi or the creation of theology. This Jesus is a teacher and guide to a higher state of consciousness. The Gospels describe a man who had reached enlightenment, or if that term sounds too Eastern, a man who had become one with God. His fervent wish was to show his disciples how to rise to the same level. That is why he told them “You are the light of the world,” just as he said of himself, “I am the light of the world.” When he performed miracles, Jesus made sure that he told his disciples that they would do works as great as his, and greater.
So the answer to any question about the “real” Jesus is to look within and step onto the path that leads to God consciousness. Every great spiritual teacher has indicated that this is the only way to truth and freedom. Jesus is the teacher in this lineage who has the most prestige in the West, and for that I am glad, particularly at Christmas time.
– Deepak Chopra
Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity
Michael Berg replies:
Almost all spiritual leaders of history are different than what most of us have come to think of them, be it Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, or Buddha. In the case of Jesus, for instance, it’s known that many cultures have their own version of how he looked. In Africa, for example, he is often portrayed as having African features, whereas in North America he typically has North American features, and so forth. In most cultures his physical visage is made to look like the people of that country.
In truth, his teachings, as with his appearance, are often misunderstood.
To understand Jesus, it is important to understand the environment from which Jesus came. As Alfred Edersheim writes in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, “The Galileans are said to have inclined towards mystical (Kabbalistic) pursuits. Among such people, and in that country, Jesus spent by far the longest part of his life upon earth.”
Jesus descended from a long line of spiritual teachers. Therefore, the focus of his teachings was not so much on the physical practices of religion but more on the inner spiritual aspects. That is why he rejected rote observance of religion. He felt that in his time many who were practicing religion were coming from a place of just that – practice, not a process of inner change. This wrought all kinds of corruption and negative interpretations of religion, spirituality, and the understanding of God’s purpose for putting man on earth.
When you look at it from this view, one of Jesus’ important messages was don’t get stuck in the ritual. If you are authentic in your spiritual work, then you are constantly growing and improving on the inside. Never practice religion simply as an external action. The purpose of it all is to bring internal change to become a better person.
In line with this, therefore, was his great focus on the teaching of love and compassion. It is impossible for a person to call himself spiritual and yet have anger and animosity towards another human being. The core of spirituality is non-judgmental love.
Unfortunately, some take religious teachings, and even Jesus’ teachings, and use it as a platform for separation, looking down on people, or instilling fear and self-loathing. Clearly, one of his overriding messages was the Old Testament concept of “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself”. There is nothing a person seeking spirituality can be doing in their lives that leads to anything different than or opposite from this message. Jesus wanted us to understand that religious practice is here to bring us back to this goal.
If this is truly understood, then love and compassion must lead to tolerance. Through his experience as one who went against the status quo, he was both marginalized and persecuted. As a result, he clearly gained a great appreciation for the importance of holding a space for others who have opposing views. He spent his “Light” railing against intolerance and lack of human dignity for those who are different and to those with whom we very much disagree.
What he taught us is that underlying all our spiritual pursuits must be an understanding of human dignity and tolerance for all people. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
During this holiday season, we all have so much we can learn from the life and teachings of Jesus. To be religious or spiritual means a constant process of growing and changing, consistently becoming a better and better person, knowing that none of our beliefs can – nor should they – bring us anything but a growing sense of love, compassion, and tolerance for those whom we love, and, more importantly, for those with whom we disagree.
May all these teachings enable us to experience the great Light and power of this holiday season.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is a Kabbalah scholar and author. He is co-Director of The Kabbalah Centre, www.kabbalah.com. You can follow Michael on twitter, twitter.com/inspiringchange. His latest book is What God Meant.