Quaker Universalist Conversations

Who is Jesus for me?

Bringing Jesus out of the shadows

Who is Jesus for me?

Many of traditional Christianity’s tenets seem harmful to me, such as the idea that Jesus had to die on the cross for us to be forgiven for our sins, that the death of one eliminates the sins of many. Much evil has resulted from this perversion of his message. It has led me to call myself a Christian in the sense of “primitive Christianity.”1

Vine

I believe in a spirit, an essence, a God who/which is experienced as within us and apart. This God moves us toward love, kindness and fairness, and can be experienced as a sense of unity or as a sense of disunity, of “ill-ease,” with ourselves and others.

I believe every moment I have a choice of what to do or say in the next moment, arising from the situation in which chance and my prior choices have placed me. The right choice in any moment will move toward love, kindness, and justice, and with it a sense of peace in myself and with others – “happiness.” I believe Jesus was “sent” by God in the sense that he walked fully with God – acted out of that place of love at all times, fully lived as we are meant to live. He was our model for all we are capable of being and doing.

George Fox, the “founder” of the Religious Society of Friends, understood this and was said to preach for “perfection,” claiming we could in fact live as Jesus taught. Our sense of ill-ease comes from not living from that place. We humans are designed to live from that core of love and justice, and we feel unity with God when we are living that way. When I pray or meditate, trying to reach that core/center, I am more likely to recognize and act according to God’s design, so in that sense God is a personal God.

"Christ of the Breadlines," by Fritz Eichenberg

I think Jesus had the impact he did because he was showing us what kind of attitude and behavior makes us right with the world, how the world and we really work.

  • He taught that God can be known by experience more than by intellect.
  • He taught that God, the sacred, the spiritual dimension, is accessible without the mediation of priests and institutions.
  • He taught that God is compassionate and that relationship with God does not depend on our meeting particular requirements. He tried to open his listeners to unconventional, radical ways of seeing life and God.

Jesus used the metaphor of the heart a great deal in his teaching. He said we have “hard hearts.” For ancient Hebrews, heart (לֵב, lev) was associated with the whole human psyche, not just emotion. It was like a level of self “below” feeling, thinking or willing. It is the condition of the heart that matters. A hard heart is associated with not hearing, not seeing, not understanding. It has no sense of awe, lacks compassion. It is as though we have a thick layer of crud around the deepest part of our self. We need to make our hearts soft, open and receptive.

Our celebration of Christmas at its core is the recognizing of Jesus in the birth of a baby. Babies awaken the sweetness in most of us, cause our hearts to soften, to open. Watching many of the faces at my Quaker meeting’s nativity pageant recently made that evident!

Vine

Perhaps there is another element worth mentioning in this, as Barbara Brown Taylor so eloquently describes in her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (2006). In her words:

"Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith," by Barbara Brown Taylor (2006) I think I finally heard the gospel. The good news of God in Christ is, ‘You have everything you need to be human.’ There is nothing outside of you that you still need—no approval from the authorities, no attendance at temple, no key truth hidden in the tenth chapter of some sacred book. In your life right now, God has given you everything that you need to be human.’…

While there are clearly many different ways to be human, and not all of them praiseworthy, it remains possible to see Jesus not as the founder of a new religion but as the exemplar of a new way of being human—a new Adam, in the language of the apostle Paul—who lived and died with such authentic faith in God that he gave his followers the courage to try to do the same thing.

For obvious reasons, they could not sustain this alarming freedom for long, so they turned the faith of Jesus into the religion about Jesus and the rest is history. In a quip that makes the rounds, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came. (p. 219)

Finding the Religious Society of Friends in my 20’s was a miracle for me. Given the trajectory of my spiritual journey, after visiting just about every faith congregation in Greater Boston, I found this Meeting.

And here I am 46 years later.


Note & Image Source

1 The phrase “primitive Christianity” was popularized by Quaker William Penn in his 1696 book Primitive Christianity revived in the faith and practice of the people called Quakers (London: Printed and sold by T. Sowle). A digital text of the book is available through Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership.

In addition, Inner Light Press has recently published a pair of books, the first a modern translation of Penn’s 17th century English by Paul Buckley, and the second a reflective work by Buckley. See a review of both books in the November 2018 issue of Friends Journal.

Image: “Christ of the Breadlines,” Fritz Eichenberg (1953). Raised a non-religious Jew, Eichenberg (1901-1990) fled Nazi Germany in 1933. After exploring Taoism and Zen Buddhism, he became a Quaker in 1940. A friend of Dorothy Day, he contributed much art to The Catholic Worker, as well as to The Nation and to the Pendle Hill Pamphlets. [Digital image from Jim Forest on flickr.

Comments

I very much like the idea of Primitive Christianity. I actually prefer viewing pre-Paulian Christianity when it was practiced by simple people who had direct contact with Jesus. Paul was an intellectual who refashioned it into a religion which eventually caught the attention of a Roman emperor—and then all the harm began: the creation of an enormous bureaucracy staffed by celibates. You know the rest.

Thanks for this, Friend Tim.

I personally have a different take on Paul, informed partly by John Dominic Crossan's The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon.

Paul was only an intellectual in the sense that he was a Pharisee, a student of Torah. However, his audience was “the nations” (i.e., the people of the non-Jewish Greco-Roman world). He therefore borrowed familiar Greco-Roman cultural and religious memes to help them understand and internalize early Jesus faith for those outside of the Jewish tradition.

Only a few of the Pauline letters are written by the historical Paul, and these tend to be the most radical, welcoming women, slaves, people of all backgrounds.

  • First Thessalonians (c. 50 AD)
  • Galatians (c. 53)
  • First Corinthians (c. 53–54)
  • Philippians (c. 55)
  • Philemon (c. 55)
  • Second Corinthians (c. 55–56)
  • Romans (c. 57)

A second and third generation of writers “borrowed” Paul's name to lend authority to their progressively more conservative—and eventually reactionary—patriarchal and authoritarian works.
Blessings,
Mike