Monthly Archives: December 2010

Making Christmas Linger

It’s the fashion in today’s America to be done with Christmas as soon as appropriate. Appropriateness varies between individuals and institutions. It is hardly surprising that after the season’s typical stress and hectic rush which many experience during this season, a sizeable number of people  want to rid themselves of “the Holidays” sooner rather than later.

I, for one,  don’t like to see Christmas go. I detest the current appetite among merchants to begin the Holiday season prior to Thanksgiving. Traditionally, the season began with Thanksgiving, and businesses reflected that trend. Now, thanks to factors mostly beyond the public’s control, the season begins as early as Halloween, and in some egregious cases, even earlier. When the season is forced upon us so early, it is not difficult to understand Christmas burn-out. However, because of the current regime, it is as if a great deal of the season’s spirit is spent much before it arrives, and this puts many into the “let’s get it over with” mode. I am not one of those folks.

My feeling is that once Christmas arrives, it should be invited to stay a while, to linger as long as possible. Looking at the season this way, I think that taking down Christmas decor on December 26, or even on January 2, is like asking an old friend to leave your house long before s/he has outworn  welcome. And it should be remembered that Christmas itself has not outworn its welcome. Rather, commercialism has burdened consumers with a too-early Christmas atmosphere, which is not the fault of the holiday itself.

But why, it might be objected, would anyone keep Christmas past New Year’s day? The answer is not strange or difficult to understand:

Christmas Day is only Day One in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Christmas does not end until Midnight of the Twelfth Day after December 25, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. This feast celebrates the “epiphany”, or “showing forth” of the Christ-child to the Magi. To shut down Christmas before the day that marks the Magi’s visit is simple lunacy,  especially in view of the iconic cultural popularity and importance of “the Three Wise Men” for the holiday.

Not only that. For nostalgic and sentimental people like me who hate to see Christmas leave, a full twelve days of Christmas gives us time to enjoy a longer season than is commonly enjoyed, and it permits us to say our goodbyes to the season gently, with appropriate ritual: the tradition is to relish your Christmas right up until very late on the evening 0f January 6, while you indulge in a final indulgence in seasonal music,  movies and treats. Then, after – or even during – this final acknowledgement of the season, you take down the Christmas decor and store it away until next Christmas. That way, Christmas lovers can protract the season as they please, and bid it a fond farewell without major heart-wrenching sensation.

I say, Give me my full Christmas season, from Advent through Christ’s birth on Christmas day, to his Epiphany on January 6. There is no good reason for Christmas lovers to cheat themselves of the full season, despite cultural pressures to do so.

What Christmas Means … To Me

To me, Christmas means several things:

1. A time to celebrate Winter

2. A time to celebrate family and friendships

3. A time to celebrate the Nature-based “Pagan” solstice

4. A time to celebrate the birth of Christ

The only controversial items on this list, of course, relate to religion. Pagans may still constitute a minority in American religion, but they are not to be dismissed. After all, theirs is the oldest Winter celebration known in the Northern Hemisphere. Evergreen boughs are gathered; candles lit; trees are cut down, brought into homes, and decorated … all in an ancient Winter feast which, charmingly, also  anticipates Summer’s return.  As Doctor Who so recently commented, Yule is the time when we acknowledge that we have survived half of the dark months; and now we anticipate, with the sun’s ascendency, the great Greening. Yes, the sun has died on the year’s shortest day. But then it begins to rise again. In the darkest of Winter, Christmas – or Yuletide in Pagan terms – celebrates the sun’s resurrection. For most people who enjoy natural beauty and the change of seasons, Christmas as the Pagan Yule-solstice strikes deep chords of resonance, and all but the most cultish, hard-headed Abrahamists seriously object to it. It needs no deep or detailed explanation or apology.

However, Christmas as a religious celebration of Christ’s birth does not get by so easily in modern American society, bemused as it is with philosophical and economical materialism. A fashionable “new” atheism pounces on the holiday as an irrational, irresponsible reversion to archaic myth. The anti-Christmas sentiment, if not the “war against Christmas”,  is so prevalent that public acknowledgments of Christmas, and even sometimes the well-meant expression “Merry Christmas” are often met with displeasure and uttered in fear of offending  “non-Christmas” people. It has come to the supremely ironic point that celebrating Christ’s birth on the traditionally designated day is looked on as absurd – as an observance, which, simply because it is religious, is necessarily meaningless and silly, and ought to be embarrassing to those who do take it seriously.

I take Christmas seriously. I am not a Christian and have no significant connection to the organized Abrahamic faiths. I celebrate this holiday for all four of the reasons that begin this article. And I do not exclude the Christian perspective. When I – a non-Christian – celebrate the birth of Christ, I celebrate different things, inclusive of but not limited to the following.

1. The birth of a messianic leader, “messianic” in the sense that everyone who does “righteousness” is already participating in a messianic agenda. This dignified ideal of ancient Judaism found its way into Jesus’ sectarian movement and from there into the Gentile-Hellenistic world.

2. The birth of an enlightened sage who would teach a godly form of compassion and wisdom and establish in the world a community for embodying the virtues of his teachings – the founding of a heavenly kingdom on earth.

3. The birth of the Jesus of Nazareth who would embrace all people, but especially the ignorant, ill, crippled,  “sinful” and socially unacceptable, and proclaim that they are the first to enter heaven’s kingdom.

4. The birth of Jesus, whose parables, in Robert Funk’s words, point to a fabulous “beyond” which is nevertheless embedded in the common reality in which we already participate:  Jesus who said, “The Father’s kingdom is spread over the earth, but people do not see it.”

5. The birth of Jesus, whose infancy stories invert common social values and challenge unjust domination systems. If Christians have Jesus as their “Lord”, they cannot also have Caesar as their Lord-Emperor. The implications are obvious: Jesus taught his followers to trust in an ever-present divinity and living Spirit, not human socio-political institutions that all-too frequently exploit the poor for the sake of the rich. Even the infant Jesus, whom the “wise men” of the world once paid homage, was already a threat to Empire, then and now.

6. The birth of Jesus, a Jewish mystic in the stream of mystical Judaism, whose socio-religious reforms were founded in his experience of divine union. “The Father and I are one,” he said, adding “I pray that they all be one, even as you and I, Father, are one.” Jesus was confident that his experience of divine union and hence divine sonship could be shared with and known by others. Hence the second letter of Peter  famously says that Jesus’ work was “to make us partakers in the divine nature”.

7. The birth of Jesus, who like the Buddha, taught a way of death followed by resurrection: “To find yourself, you must lose yourself”; “Take up your cross daily, and follow me”; “To lose your life for the Kingdom is to gain eternal life”. A daily dying to self (the false self or  ego defined as “the anxious, grasping self”), will, in Jesus’ view, result in entry into the Kingdom. Similarly, dying to ego will, in the Buddha’s view, result in entry into Bodhi. For both enlightened teachers, ego is at the root of all discontent, blindness, and selfishness. For both, “salvation” consists in a “dying” to an old self and a “rising” into a new self. Inasmuch as I affirm and value the Buddha’s path, so too do I affirm and value Jesus’ path: the path of ego-transcendence and spiritual transformation.

8. The birth of Jesus, whose spiritual and ethical teachings, if rightly applied, could bring a new measure of real peace on earth. Jesus is not called “the Prince of Peace” for poetic and religio-political rationales alone. If Christians and others practiced what Jesus preached, it is possible that our current society would be far less enmeshed in the final spasms of a fading empire, and more open to sharing with, rather than dominating, the world. And that consideration alone is a sufficiently meaningful to prompt celebration of his birth.

 

 

Having God

The current debate about God’s existence that is so fiercely played out between the “new” atheists and their opponents really masks a deeper question, a question that coincides with a timeless desire: the desire for God.

Beneath the argumentation is a felt need, the need for knowing God, for living in God, for “having” God. Eternal life, says the Jesus of John’s Gospel, consists in knowing God, and knowing God is a consequence of encountering God personally by experience, not by intellection, debate, or second-hand reports. Few people are really satisfied only with a convincing definition of God, or with a convincing debunking of God. What people really want is a living experience of a living God, or the certainty that such an experience cannot be had.

One of my favorite writers, Gore Vidal, who happens to be an atheist, has written words to the effect, “God, or what have you, is not to be found at the far end of a syllogism, no matter how brilliantly phrased.”

Exactly. At the far end of a successful theistic argument, we have merely arrived at the God of intellection, of reason. At the conclusion of a successful atheistic argument, we have merely arrived at the non-existent God of intellection, of reason.  But reason’s God and reason’s No-God both ring hollow.   God, whether established by reason or abolished by reason, is not the God humankind is really concerned with, any  more than a thirsty person is interested in a description of water,  of water’s chemical composition – or of a philosophical confirmation or refutation of water’s existence and nature. The seeker of water wants not arguments about, and images of, water, but rather wants water itself.

So, too, the religious questioner – whether theistic or non-theistic – is not, at base, searching for mind-satisfying proofs of a hidden God’s existence. The spiritual seeker does not want mere knowledge-about God, but rather God Itself, God as God. Short of the validation or invalidation of this “gnosis”, the matter continues to consort with mere mental analysis, intellectual-and-verbal acrobatics, and in that format, is doomed forever to be tossed around within the purview and parameters of the rational intellect. But since intellection cannot convey what the questioner is really after – the immediate knowing of God or the immediate experience of the impossibility of such knowing – the only remaining route is that of attempting to provoke the experience of the knowing of God.

On the principle that the immediate experience of the living God is occluded or hidden from the profane eye of the rational intellect and the ego (defined as the anxious, grasping self), then the experience needs to be sought beyond the intellect and beyond the ego’s narrow confines. In order to “see” God – to perceive, to know, God – a new means of seeing must be employed, a new “eye” or lens must be utilized, one that is appropriate to the spiritual vision of God.

The “eye” of flesh  – the eye of human anatomy, the rational intellect, of science. of sense perception, is not capable of spiritual seeing. For that, the “eye of spirit” or the “eye of contemplation” must come into play.

By analogy: Jupiter’s moons are normally hidden from the human eye. So if one wants to establish the existence and attributes of Jupiter’s moons, one must look through a lens specialized for that purpose, i.e., a telescope.  So, too, with any program that aims to provoke the vision of God: the appropriate lens must be used. The eye of spirit has available to it many lenses, including centering and body prayer, contemplation, chanting, visualisation, and hundreds of meditative techniques and exercises. Only by awakening the spiritual eye and looking through these kinds of lenses that are specific to the spiritual quest can human beings come to an immediate knowledge of the God who is occluded to the profane eye. Only after such personal experimentation and exploration can one at last assay the core quest – the quest for the immediate knowing of Spirit, which lies beyond intellectual argumentation concerning God’s existence and attributes.

Of course, no one is guaranteed success in this exercise which the mystic Osho called “an experiment to provoke God” – that is, an endeavor to tease a response from the Ultimate Intimate and to realize one’s stance in regard to a God no longer occluded by limited perceptual limitations.

But successful or not, once one has performed the spiritual injunctions, done the experimentation, and shared conclusions with others who have likewise adequately performed the test process, one can say that s/he has existentially gone beyond mere word-battles about God and has critically tested the deeper question personally and subjectively.

That is, one can say that s/he has taken the really big God-issue beyond its restrictive, merely dialectical, mental and public arenas and tested it with the best – the only really appropriate – means available. Then one is competent to pronounce on the deep question, the great thirst, that lies behind the word-battles. Then one has addressed the real issue:  one has or has not awakened the eye of spirit;  has or has not successfully utilized the quest’s various lenses; and has or has not experienced the reality and attributes of Spirit. In such a case, one can say that for him or herself, the real issue – the possibility of human beings “having” God through immediate knowing – has been resolved at its existential core, at a level deeper than mere intellection and its attendant “God-battles” can penetrate.

More on a non-Mythicist Jesus

Many foes of the historical Jesus make comments like, “The earliest New Testament books, the non-Gospel letters, etc., do not mention a real historical Jesus,” and “The Gospel story, with its figure of Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be found before the Gospels.”

When the original premise is false, the entire syllogism fails. The Epistles and other New Testament books do mention a historical Jesus (a Jewish “holy person” recently executed in Palestine/Judea), although that figure is frequently not their primary concern. Therefore, the claim that Jesus as a historical person does not appear in non-Gospel scriptural texts is false and the rest of the argument fails.

But it does speak volumes that the Mythicists soemtimes tend to delete/omit historical Jesus references in their discussions of the issue;  their verbal and mental acrobatics attempting to make plainly historical Jesus references into plainly UNhistorical Jesus references are unconvincing, to say the least.

The real issue – about which none of the Mythicists have persuaded me – concerns what the scholarly consensus considers as the seven authentic Pauline letters, in which Paul mentions his personal knowlege of Jesus’ own brother and other intimate eyewitness disciples of Jesus and his ministry. That Paul mentions these “Pillars” in a mostly sardonically critical light satisfies the Criterion of Embarrassment and strongly argues for the early existence of historical Judean Jesus-believers and therefore implicitly for a historical Jesus.

If  one wishes to establish the Mythicist program beyond a reasonable doubt, one must successfully complete four separate tasks:

1. Prove that all non-Gospel historical Jesus references are really NOT historical Jesus references; and

2. Prove that all of Paul’s letters – including the seven authentic letters – are not authored by Paul and are not authentic references to a historical Jesus and his historical followers.

Further, to address the claim, “The Gospel story, with its figure of Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be found before the Gospels”:

1. The first issue is that  Mythicism itself frequently works to falsify that statement. Examples of god-men, demigods, god-heroes, great spiritual figures who who exorcise, heal the sick, work wonders, die sacrificial deaths, teach wonderful things, confer experience of God, ensure immortality for adherents, are persecuted, rise from the dead,  who come from and then return to God, etc.,  are replete in non-and-pre-Christian societies. If the Mythicist Jesus is only one more example of these figures, then obviously his essential story can – and according to Mythicist principles – indeed  must be “found before the Gospels”.  This internal contradiction is one which some Mythicists seem reluctant to address.

2. The second is that cross-cultural anthropology has proven that religious “seers” and visionaries, exorcists, divine union mystics, “god-realized” and/or “Enlightened”  people, wonder-workers, healers,  holy people,  shamans, magicians, religious sages, social prophets, charismatic mediators, and revitalization movement founders are real, documented human religious types. It can be cogently argued that Jesus was one of these figures. That being so, there is no a priori need to leap to Mythicism to explain the cross-culturally documented features of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Mythicist Jesus is a most implausible figure. Yet, should Jesus be convincingly imbued with Mythicism, as a Jungian-Campbellian,  I and people like me would still be left with the inherent profundity of Jesus Myth, despite the loss of the Historicist Jesus: a pleasing case of having one’s cake and being able to eat it too.