Monthly Archives: January 2009

Paul and Christianity

If by “founding” is meant the creation of a movement single-handedly, Paul did not found Christianity.  Christianity as we know it is fundamentally an invention of the Fourth Century.  Until its concretization under Constantine and subsequent emperors, Christianity was a collection of varied movements deriving their basis in Jesus’ person, mission, and teaching and the “kerygma” or early preaching of those claiming historical roots in Jesus himself.  These groups received their respective Jesus-data from cherished teachers (and sometimes, they claimed, directly from the Holy Spirit).  That is to say, Christianity was not so much founded as it evolved.  Paul was only one – though an important one – of its midwives.

Without doubt Paul founded communities based on his vision of the gospel, and his authentic letters give a sense of his desparate struggle to keep them in conformity with his teachings.  Yet Paul mentions many other teachers, some of whom are helpful, others who are inimical, to Paul.  Paul’s missionary activity did not take place in a vacuum, and he was just one, not the only, “founding father” in early Christianity.

Paul’s primary nemesis paradoxically was the original group of Jesus’ followers who were operating out of Jerusalem after the crucifixion.  Having known Jesus during his lifetime and experienced him as “risen” in their native Palestine, they occupied the pinnacle of dissemination of information about Jesus.  It was these, Jesus’ Jewish disciples, with whom Paul had the most intense conflict.

From Paul’s own letters it would seem that the primary issue of contention with Jerusalem concerned the Jewish Law and its observance.  His christology – with its vision of Jesus as the self-emptying heavenly Adam-Christ, raised to the judgment seat at God’s side – seems entirely Jewish, if sectarian.  Not so Paul’s attitude toward the Law.

Jesus and his Judean disciples were in all likelihood observant of Torah, at least within their sectarian definitions of Torah, and within Jesus’ personal Torah-interpretation.  In one form or another, they were “zealous” for the Law.  But, like their mainstream Jewish confreres, they were not unreasonable in their application of it to converts.  For both mainstream Judaism and the sectarian Jesus movement, Gentile proselytes need only practice the so-called “Noachide” laws in order to join the Israelite community.  Jews, of course, would always continue to be Torah-observant.

Acts 15:1-33 details, from author Luke’s point of view, how the Jerusalem disciples under James (Jesus’ brother) permitted Gentiles to enter the Jewish Jesus movement without becoming Torah-observant Jews.  As with the macrocosm of standard Jewish practice, in James’s group, Gentiles would enter as “Noachides” while Jews would remain Torah-observant.  Paul broke with this provision to which (Luke says) he had given his whole-hearted agreement.

Luke (Acts 21: 17-26) says that the Jerusalem disciples had heard rumors that Paul had been telling his Gentile congregations that Torah, by virtue of Jesus’ grace,  was no longer valid, even for Jews.  This of course flew in the face of James’ decision in Acts 13.  Paul in his own letters attests that this was indeed the case:  Torah is defunct (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 3:13, 10, 24-25) for both Gentiles and Jews (including native Jewish followers of Jesus).

Christianity was not founded by Paul, but Pauline theology turned out to be a particularly apt vehicle for Gentile Christianity:  not only were Gentiles excused from Law observance (thanks to the Noachide rule), but now since (according to Paul) Torah was a dessicated shell, it was irrelevant to salvation.  Gentiles need not trouble themselves over it, especially in view of the fact (thanks to Paul) it was no longer valid even for its progenitors and heirs, the Jews.  Thus a “lawless” New Covenant was ripe for selecting and application.

The selector was the monarchical episcopacy, the network of bishops whose authority and efficient communication systems adopted, shaped, and ultimately enshrined Paulinism as its own.  From now on, Christianity would be a form of Paulinism admixed with Johannine theology and Greek philosophy.  Paulinism would be received along with the primary Christian catechesis.  The original doctrines of James and Jesus’ first Jewish disciples would be relegated to marginal groups such as the Ebionites, Nazoreans, Elchaisites and others.

The adoption of Paul’s thinking and its general application to the church was the foundational moment, or rather the series of such moments – unfolding over decades – that coalesced the Christianity we are familiar with.


A Question to Shin Buddhism

Salvation in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism is enlightenment.  Enlightenment is the mutual unfolding of Amida Buddha in us, and us in Amida.  Amida issues the salvific call, and from within us, makes the reply.  Thus, Amida’s grace is all-sufficient for our salvation;  Amida’s “Other Power” vitiates our “Self Power.”  We are by nature incapable of attaining salvation.  We can, of course, deepen our awareness of the Call through meditation and a practice specific to Shin called “Deep listening.”  But beyond these considerations, Shin is mute concerning the issues raised in other traditions by the role of mystical experience as a means of spiritual gnosis.

Central to most religious groups, at least in their origins, is the achievement, entering into, nondual consciousness, or divine union mysticism.  This is the kind of mysticism found in Jesus when he declared “The Father and I are One” and “When you see me, you see the Father;” when the Buddha entered the nondual state of Nirvana, when a shaman becomes a vehicle for the Spirit, when one of the early Sufis, gesturing to his garments, stated “There is no one inside this cloak but God.”  Sometimes this is conceived as union with a personal deity, or with an impersonal spirit, or some kind of ultimate reality.  The essential factor is a nondual awareness that is directly expressed in and by this experience.  Yet it is exactly this very primary, basic feature that is missing in Shin.

Shin claims that Amida is the life and light of the universe.  Amida is at once Amitayus, Infinite Life, and Amithabha, Infinite Light.   Moreover, Amida’s Light is called “unimpeded.”  As such, Amida and Amida’s attributes are panentheistic, to apply a theistic term to a nontheistic religion.  Panentheism sees the divine as being “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent).  These are exactly Amida’s attributes.  Amida is beyond the cosmos, yet permeates it.

This being the case, it is almost de rigeur that Amida’s infinite light and life ought to be experienced globally, historically and cross-culturally.  If Amida’s relation to reality is truly panetheistic, or better phrased, panendharmic or panenbuddhistic, then it is almost demanded that Amida, too, should be experienced in a nondual or divine union mysticism.  Again, though, Shin makes no such claim.

One would think that Amida’s universality would lend itself to these other religious manifestations.  For instance, it might be said – from a certain perspective – that Jesus was an expression of Amida, as exemplified in his compassion and his claims that a merciful “Suchness” abides in the world.  Or it might be said that the nondual experiences of mystics, Eastern and Western, are valid encounters with Amida – Amida’s Voidness, Amida’s Non-Existence, Amida’s Compassion, Amida’s non-segregation from our enlightened selves, etc.

If Shin eschews these, the bedrock mysticism of so many other traditions, its universality would seem to be an incorrect claim.  Does Shin really ask its adherents to turn a blind eye to the obvious truth, holiness, harmony, and pragmatic workability of those other traditions at whose center nonduality lies?  Surely, if Amida is a universally present divine factor, then those who have claimed to encounter a universally present divine factor should be listened to and their testimony examined in the light of Shin’s panendharmic principles.  To fail to do so would isolate Shin, as well as make it an anomaly in the most negative sense of the word.

A Faint-Sung Hero

We are accustomed to thinking of John the Baptist as “the Forerunner,” the one who announced the coming and prepared the way for the person and mission of Jesus Christ.  However, it is clear that at one time Jesus and John were considered to be at least equals, with John sometimes even seen as the superior figure.  The Gospels give some hints of this dynamic.

All the Gospels acknowledge that Jesus came to John to receive John’s “baptism for the remittance of sins.”  It was not the other way around:  Jesus came to John, John did not come to Jesus.  At the very least, this implies that Jesus knew of John’s work, approved of it, and desired to make a public decision in support of John.  It may also imply that John was John’s mentor.

One of the most striking attribtues of early Christianity is its practice of baptism.  Had Jesus not approved of baptism, it is nearly impossible to explain the ritual’s universality among primitive Christian groups.  As the late Morton Smith pointed out, when Christianity is viewed from a baptismal perspective, there is a linear development of baptism starting with John, running through Jesus as a (short) middle term, and ending with Paul.  Therefore it can be said with some probity that Jesus was a conveyer (and developer) of a ritual initiated by John and promulgated by Paul.

The Fourth Gospel (the Gospel according to John) certainly associates Jesus with the Baptizer, particularly in the first three chapters.  It not only brings them into contact, but it says that Jesus began his own baptismal ministry separate from John’s.  Eventually, says the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ baptizing ministry was winning more followers than John’s.  In apparent response to this, and perhaps out of respect for John, Jesus moved his ministry to another region.

Many of us are aware of the narrative of Baptizer’s death as an anti-Herodian, beheaded by the ruler through the machinations of Herod’s wife and his bored stepdaughter.  Beyond that, and his brief mention as “the Baptizer,”  John is absent from the Gospels and virtually swallowed up by history. But his legacy lives on in Jesus’ own baptismal doctrine (well-attested in John’s nocturnal scene of baptismal dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus), and in Paul’s insistence on the ritual’s centrality for Jesus’ followers.  Even today there remains a baptismal sect, the Mandeans, who count John as one of their major saints.

John’s historical importance in ancient Judean religion was that he successfully set up a rival alternative to current atonement practices.  There were many things a Jew might do in order to succor divine forgiveness, but many of them were associated with the priesthood and Temple in Jerusalem.  The priesthood had by Second Temple times gained hegemony over sacrifice. John’s ritual was free, and open to all who could travel to the place of administration, the Jordan River in southern Judea.  It provided a cheap alternative to the sacrificial system offered at Judaism’s cultic center.

In consequence, John was so popular that his baptism was remembered specifically as “John’s baptism” – a nomenclature which set it apart from the several standard (and sectarian) kinds of baptism available at the time, and which forever ensrhined his name as a great innovator on his people’s behalf.  Jesus himself referred to John as the “greatest-born” human being.  The Baptizer has been obscured by the figures of Jesus and Paul, but without him, Christianity would be missing its foundational sacrament.

An Important Distinction

A movie soundtrack was traditionally considered to be a strip along the celluloid that carried sound.  This included the film music.  Music written for movies was called a film score, i.e., it was an orchestral work, sometimes with choral accompaniment, written specifically for a film.  Hence we might see film music albums self-described as “Original Film Score composed by” or “Original [musical] Soundtrack from the film…”  In most cases the movie soundtrack, the original film score, was just that – music written for a film, either directly transferred to album form, or (as famously in the case of Henry Mancini) re-recorded and placed in a more “listenable” format for an album.

For decades, this was the norm.  A film score was specially written for a particular movie, and written (usually, with some exceptions such as popular or jazz musicians or “big names”  like Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein) by film musicians.  The film composer composed for film – an obvious if not redundant phrase, but one to be held in mind in any examination of motion picture music since the late 1960s.

As the old Hollywood studios broke up, so did film composing.  Great studio musicians such as Alfred Newman, Miklos Rosza, Franz Waxman and others, nearing retirement, began to make way for a new generation which would include Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.  But along with new names and techniques in the film scoring business, also came woeful economic times and innovative ideas.  These factors combined to severely modify the face of movie music.

Studios, looking for less expensive ways of providing film music other than hiring a composer, and directors with surprisingly little interest in film scoring, began to mix extant popular music with the film score, sometimes to the extent of replacing any original scoring with pop music.

Gone – or at least in hiding – were those golden days when a film musician, as an artist, would add his (infrequently her) brush strokes to the completed film.  The subtlety and nuance of writing and orchestrating for the screen was moved to the back burner in favor of easily-procured and cheaply obtained pop music.  Thus, the soundtrack survived as the celluloid strip, and it survived as music from a film.  What did not survive, except in mutilated form, was film scoring.

So too movie soundtrack albums were still produced, but this time without a composer’s name in their credits – simply because the soundtrack had no composer.  The composer was replaced by a team of director, music editor, and music-buyer.  The use of pop music rather than film score, of course, helped sell the movie to audiences who liked pop music.  Obviously, it helped the popular musicians whose music was inserted into money-making movies.  Sometimes, in a nod back to the age of dinosaurs, a popular musician might even be asked to write pieces for the film.  Sadly, thought, this pale phantom was not true film scoring by the customary definition.  It was popular music written by a popular musician in hopes of boosting movie revenues, the musician’s career, and album sales.

Traditional composers staggered through this wasteland during the late 1960s, enriching the musical world with such classic scores as Goldsmith’s remarkable, much-respected work in Patton.  But then, in the mid-and-late 1970s, John Williams came on the scene with his scores for Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman: the Movie.  Regardless of one’s opinion of William’s musicianship, his place in motion picture history is firm.  Nearly single-handedly, Williams brought the movie soundtrack _as_ film score back into public awareness, and back to the attention of directors and record companies.  At last, music tailored to film, written by film musicians, began to enjoy a renaissance.

Reflections of the golden age began to take on a living reality and importance.  The film score had returned, enjoying its rightful power to draw audiences, making a successful move back into the record stores and radio stations.  The important distinction between film scoring and the use of purchased, pre-packaged popular music was noticed and positively responded to.  Long may this state of affairs continue.

Magical Traits in the New Testament

The work of the late Morton Smith and others has revealed many parallels and points of similarity between ancient magic and the New Testament.  A short enumeration includes:

Like a magician, Jesus acquires a spirit – he “has” (possesses, or is possessed by) a spirit.  His enemies call Jesus’ spirit “Beelzebul” and his friends call it “a” or “the” holy spirit.

Jesus’ spirit drives him into the wilderness, where, like shamans, he undergoes an ordeal of prayer, fasting and temptation.  He is tempted by another, evil spirit, identified in the Gospels as Satan or the Devil.  By virtue of his spirit, Jesus overcomes tempation and emerges from his wilderness retreat imbued with a sense of mission.

Jesus, like a magician, now has the power to make anyone he wishes to follow him.  He can drive out evil spirits by the power of his spirit.  He can even exercise power over other spirits remotely.  Jesus can still storms, raise the dead.  Moreover, like magicians, Jesus has the power to communicate his skills and his spirit to others.

Like magicians, Jesus can provide miraculous meals, he can walk on water, turn water into wine, ascend to heaven spiritually, ascend to heaven physically on a cloud, and can penetrate solid barriers.

Jesus has precognitive power and the power of metamorphosis (the “transfiguration”).  He reveals supernatural beings to his disciples.  He has an inner circle of special disciples.  He claims to be united to a supernatural being and to be that being’s foremost spokesperson.  He “breathes” his spirit on his disciples and transfers his essence into bread and wine (called “placing” in shamanism).

Jesus performs miracles.  Many he performs in secret, telling the recipient not to reveal the event.  He cures by touch and manipulation, sometimes using a salve of dirt and spittle.  He instructs his disciples in prayer and fasting before they emulate his exorcistic work.

There is Gospel evidence that Jesus was thought to have acquired a spirit during his baptism by John in the Jordan during which he had a vision of the heavens opening, the descent of a “spirit like a dove,” and a divine voice acclaiming him “Son.”  Beyond this reference Jesus and the Gospels are generally silent about his authority.

Jesus never discloses the origins of his spirit, and he fends off questions of his authority’s ultimate derivation.  Had he been a standard prophet, he would have likely invoked the standard Hebrew formula by which to express his mission:  “Thus says the Lord.”  But Jesus never invoked normative prophecy in support of his authority.  This silence opened him to charges of sorcery and magicianship, which were used as accusations against him during his life, and against his follwers in later decades.

An objective investigation of the historical Jesus must therefore take into serious account many aspects of his work and teaching which have points of contact with ancient magic.  Seeing Jesus in this context does not necessarily limit him to a magician’s role, but it does immerse him in the category of ancient wonder-workers and exorcists.

Between two Worlds

A world of eternal Spirit; or a world of materiality, suffering, death.  The ancient Gnostic Christians opted for the spiritual world, a realm they did not identify as the standard Christian heaven.  The Spirit realm, according to the Gnostics, is an utterly transcendent sphere centered on an utterly transcendent God.  The Christian heaven and its God were far too hylic, far too corporeal, for the Gnostics, who considered themselves to be pneumatic, or spiritual beings whose true home was in the transcendent domain of the Other God, whom they named the Abyss, the Silence, the Profundity.

Most Gnostic sects condemned the world as the creation of an ignorant, arrogant deity they called the Demiurge.  Some Gnostics identified the Demiurge with Yahweh, Judaism’s creator-deity, whom they conceived as an upstart godling who created the material universe.  He was a creator – of an inferior, pain-filled world –  but he was not the true, transcendent God the Gnostics held to be supreme.

Contrast this spirit with the famed cosmos-piety of the Greeks, the vision of Yahweh’s world as “good” by Jews and Christians, and the nature-love found in many “pagan” systems and folk beliefs.  For these, the beauty of the world, the harmony of the celestial lights, the fecundity of the soil, the blessing of the rains, the marvelous regency of life and its mysteries of birds, animals, the bounty of the sea, the puzzle of meteors, the eternal pattern of day alternating with night, the moon and its phases, and so many more features of a living world, were a source of wonder, reverence, and veiled meaning.  One thinks of the simple but deep mystery of the sacred grove with its holy springs, or the god-touched mountain top, the lovely visions of goddesses and demigods so frequently associated with such places… the “genius loci” which imbues certain special places with an enigmatic, supernal beauty.

Yet that very world – impermanent and full of pain and struggle, a sometimes-beautiful slaughter house- is where we, as embodied creatures, live.  Its cyclic rhythms are full of death, disease, dismemberment.  The Gnostic vision confronts these hylic elements, despises them, and points to the True God’s non-material realm as our only true refuge and home.

It is hard not to acknowledge that both conflicting views contain truth.  Can we recognize and accept the reality of  both a non-material realm of radiant spiritual joy, with its non-creating but supreme Reality… and at the same time a material world which, though full of suffering, still conveys its own heart-rending splendor and hidden meaning?

I don’t have the answer to that question, but my guess is that the person who does, has found the key to real happiness.

Gore Vidal’s “Messiah”

In this novel from the early 1950s, Gore Vidal sets forth a picture of what a modern messiah might look like.  Interestingly, as the novel was being written, a new American religion was birthing under the midwifery of L. Ron Hubbard – Scientology.  There are no obvious parallels between Vidal’s fictional religion and that of the “discoverer” of Dianetics, but the coincidence is interesting if not amusing.

Vidal’s novelistic messiah is John Cave, a former mortician who, in a flash of insight, realizes that death is the preferred state to life.  That conviction, coming on him with the force of revelation, prompts the young man to share his realization with others.  Surprisingly, they listen, and even more surprisingly, they think others should, too.

Why?  Because Cave’s earnestness, coupled with a timeless mystical power (which Vidal modernizes as a kind of natural hypnotic talent) immediately persuades audiences that his message is valid.  Not only that his message is valid, but that, somehow, he himself _is_ the message.  His penetrating gaze (normally veiled, hooded, or sheathed), when turned on individuals or crowds, penetrates through all intellectual considerations, questions and doubts.  To see and hear Cave in action is at once to believe – and to be united to him on a deep personal level. It is to know that no thing/nothing is good, that death is no thing, and therefore that death, which is no thing,  is good.

A tightly-knit organization, operating as a marketing company, soon forms around John Cave.  The product?  Cave himself – and his teaching, his “Word.”  Thus we have Cavite, Inc. and Cavesword.  Ultimately, when people – convinced in Cave’s utter probity and under the sway of his live television broadcasts – begin to kill themselves, we have Cavesway: suicide husbanded by state of the art psychiatry and the best-available, most advanced euphoric life-ending drugs.  Humankind, at least in the West where Cave’s broadcasts are widely disseminated, has embraced death over life.  In an ironic contrast to Jesus Christ  – the bringer of “eternal life,” – Cave (though he shares the same initials) is the keeper of death’s gate, and the Way by which to enter therein.

Some few, however, manage to resist Cave’s power – and one resister belongs to Cave’s inner circle.  This is Eugene Luther, who in an obvious reflection of his ecclesiastical counterpart, speaks out against the new suicide cult.  He has hit upon the key element that neither Cave nor his followers are willing to confront:  Cave, death’s messiah, is also by definition and function death’s lover.  He must make love to death, mate with it.  That is, he himself must commit suicide, or repudiate his message.  To be Cave, he must take Cavesway unto himself.

This is, of course, the story’s climax (to remain unspoiled here for those who have not read the novel).

The tale of Cave, the modern messiah, his dark mesmerism, the foundation of a world-changing religion, would all tend to make a grand motion picture.  The only problem – perhaps insurmountable – is the technology utilised by Cavite, Inc. to put Cave across to millions – television.

What was logical for Vidal when writing in the ’50s has, with advances in computer technology, become quaint and nearly obsolete for modern society.  One might imagine the Cavites eventually producing some telecasts, of course, but what about the capabilities of the home, business, school – the ubiquitous – PC, in all its rapidly changing forms?  With the right direction, one can easily imagine Cave and his message “going viral” within a very short time.  The novel gives the Cavite mission almost three years to spread through the world.  Surely today’s communications systems would reduce that time by a ludicrous degree.

Still, the book is worth reading for its mordant wit and its delicate balance between satire and genuine, heart-rending drama.  It makes a fine companion piece toVidal’s other supremely religious novel, “Julian,” about the “apostate” Emperor who attempted to keep paganism strong in the face of a burgeoning Christianity.  In addition the interested reader may consult  “Creation,” “Live at Golgotha,” and “Kalki.”