Monthly Archives: May 2017

Mythicism, Resurrection, and the Historical Question

Let’s begin with the Mythicist claim that the earliest Christian writers – Paul and other Epistle authors, had no concept of an earthly Jesus, but only a concept of an eternal, heavenly “Son” figure unconnected to the purportedly historical Gospel Jesus. However, Jews in Jesus’ time did have a concept of body-soul dualism, and a belief in congress between mortals and non-corporeal spirit beings, among which beliefs was that the eternal Son was known via scripture and revelation – but not necessarily as a human being who had recently lived on earth.

For example, there is the account of Saul bidding the Witch of Endor to summon up the spirit of Samuel. Now if Samuel had not been called up as a spirit or soul, how then could he have been called up at all?  Jews believed that the righteous would only be raised up bodily on the last day at the general resurrection, but of course, this had not yet happened, and Samuel was not excluded from this condition. This almost coerces us to think that Samuel manifested to Saul as a spirit entity, not a physical body. The whole concept of Sheol demands some kind of a spiritual survival, no matter how minimal and subdued. People in Sheol had a dim consciousness, but had not yet received a resurrection body. The same holds true for Jesus’  reference to dead people dwelling in Abraham’s Bosom – where conscious beings live, but not in-or-as-bodies – again, because of the simple fact that the general resurrection had not yet occurred. And it is assumed in Jesus’ promising the “Good Thief” on the cross that “this day you will be with me in Paradise” – obviously Paradise was a repository for the souls of the dead, at least until the last day when the dead would be reunited with their former bodies.

Jews also “peopled” heaven with non-bodily figures who could be perceived in spontaneous mystical experience, or achieved through a practice of  “ascent to the heavens”. Paul himself expresses body-soul dualism when he says he ascended to heaven, “whether in the body or out of it, I do not know”. Thus for Paul, his own consciousness was separable from hisbody and could have experiences – even revelations – that are separate from physical sensation and data transmitted through the senses.

Jewish non-bodily thought can be found in any number of particular situations, e.g., Herod’s belief that Jesus was “John the Baptist – returned”. Obviously Herod was thinking of the Baptist’s spirit, surviving in the afterlife for a brief time, and then “incarnating” or even possessing Jesus. Both Jesus’ friends and foes insisted that he “had” – i.e., that he possessed, or was possessed by – a spirit. His friends called it the Holy Spirit, and his enemies called it Beelzebub. In those days, the spirits of the dead could also possess the living (and this type of possession is the most common in Judaism to this day in the form of the dybbuk). In any case, physical resurrection cannot be fit into the “Jesus is the return of the Baptist” scenario. Nor does it match the concept in the books of Maccabees, which invokes prayer for the dead, an idea that presupposes that there are conscious souls in the afterlife.

It is important to know that, pertaining to Christian origins, we are not talking mainstream theologies,  but rather with idiosyncratic sectarian ideas, such as the notion that Jesus’ resurrection was merely the first “rising” in preparation for the general resurrection, and as such, it signaled that the end times had begun. The Jewish elite never persecuted “the Twelve” et al for believing that Jesus had been raised – they may have considered it a strange idea, but they didn’t condemn it as heresy. The question before us is the nature and quality of resurrection as it applies to the specific case of Jesus and primitive Christianity.

Regarding  Jesus’  “bodily” resurrection, the Gospel narratives are ambiguous. If the risen Jesus was a resuscitated corpse, then all of his appearances should have been reported as being bodily. But they aren’t. His “body” does things that no body can do: it can levitate, bilocate, appear and vanish at will, disguise its form, and pass through solid obstructions.

The Gospel resurrection appearances are a mix of physicality and non-materiality … but Paul’s risen Christ is completely non-corporeal. Paul’s Christ doesn’t look like any person – on the contrary, He is only a light and a voice – and of course from then on, an indwelling Spirit. Paul never sits down with Christ to break bread as in Luke’s Emmaus account, or probe His wounds, as in the Johannine “doubting Thomas” narrative. That’s simply not Paul’s Christ, even if Paul acknowledged some kind of prior earthly existence for Him. For Paul, the heavenly Christ apparently eclipsed Jesus of Nazareth, to the point that Paul rarely if ever mentions the Nazarene.
Relative to Mythicism’s claims, opponents remind us that the Epistles are not biographical texts, so of course we wouldn’t expect them to say much about the historical Jesus. I don’t really buy that argument, because since Paul and the Epistle authors were preaching a celestial Son revealed in the hearts of believers (Paul: “God was pleased to reveal his Son IN me”), they would have needed to cite – and cite frequently – the heavenly Son’s direct connection to the purported existence of Jesus the Galilean carpenter – if such a tradition preceded the Epistles. And the more citations, the better the buttressing of the supposed connection between the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Son.

But the Epistles – whether Pauline or not – don’t give any hint of their cosmic Christ being meaningfully connected to the so-called historical ministry of a human Jesus. They make no citation of foundational themes such as the Sermon on the Mount/Plain; no mention of Jesus’ cures and exorcisms; nothing about Jesus forgiving the woman who washed his feet; no mention of Jesus’ “Parables of the Kingdom” which are acknowledged by most scholars as the most distinctive aspect of Jesus’ teaching; no mention of the calling of the disciples, whether in Galilee or in Judea; nothing about Jesus’ own foundational experience – his baptism by John in the Jordan; no mention of Pilate, Judas, Peter’s cowardice; no reference to the scene of the Beloved Disciple leaning back on Jesus’ breast at the last supper; no Mary Magdalene; no Lazarus; no Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, etc., etc. ad infinitum.

How much more effective their preaching would have been, had they buttressed their mystical, non-material Christ with examples from his earthly career. But there are virtually none. (Paul, at most, seems to think that Jews of his own generation were being persecuted as punishment for crucifying the Lord in Sion/Jerusalem; and he also mentions that Jesus’ mission had only been to Israel [an idea that is supported by the Gospels], just as Peter’s was to the Jews and Paul’s was to the Gentiles. But beyond very minor “nods” like these, the Epistles do not bring the ministry Jesus and his world-changing message into their argumentation.)

Again, how much more effective their efforts would have been had they said things like, “Brethren, we are blessed to have seen His glory in visions, and to know him in our hearts. But how fortunate are those who knew Him according to the flesh, who felt His touch, heard his words, and traveled with Him throughout Judea. Seek out their testimony and learn from them”. Or, even better yet, had they said things like, “You have suffered much from lack of meat, wine, and shelter. We are the poor. But take heart from the example of the Lord, who when he was still on the earth, like us, thirsted, was hungry, and had no place to lay his head”.

Had Paul and the Epistle writers actually possessed a store of extensive knowledge about the historical Jesus, surely they would have written multiple texts in the vein of the above two examples. But they didn’t. This implies one of two things:

Either they deemed Jesus’ earthly ministry, acts, wonders, and teaching as unimportant (at least in contrast to the importance of the cosmic Son);

or there was simply no actual record of a historical Jesus for them to consult and quote – hence his example wasn’t there to be cited.

Otherwise, they would have cited his earthly example almost ad nauseam as the originating, reliable buttress for their heavenly Son teaching. But they don’t. And to me, this is not just a remarkable lack. It is a Screaming Silence.

I’m not a Mythicist, but this Silence is deep and dark. A few Epistolary peeks into-and-about Jesus being recently crucified in the capital, preaching only to Israel, etc., are simply not enough to effectively penetrate the great Silence.

Thus, if Jesus did most of the historical things recorded in the Gospels, why did virtually none of these crucially important things make it into Paul and the Epistles? As already mentioned,  the Epistles weren’t trying to be biographical documents. But even so, their utter separation of their cosmic Christ from the purported historical existence of the Galilean sage – on whom the visionary revelations are traditionallly assumed to be based – is, for me, jaw-droppingly astonishing.

God as an ‘Object’ of Experience

Although it has become something of a cliche, the statement “Experience trumps faith” represents a high religio-spiritual concept.

For example, any amount of scientific knowledge about a particular brand of candy bar may “explain” the candy bar’s material facets, but it is only by tasting that we can personally, subjectively, truly, know if the candy bar is sweet. All prior assumptions, even when based on scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients, come under the category of “faith” or “faith-about”. That is, even exhaustive material-scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients may at most permit us to say that it probably will taste sweet, but only the criterion of actual tasting is the one thing that can bring the candy’s sweetness (or lack thereof)  out of the realm of mere intellection into the realm of personal experience, personal consciousness, and personal truth. Similarly, then, the proposition that spirituality is truly a “Way of Knowing” – a way of “gnosis” is, in my view, quite true and valuable for religion.  Jesus himself claimed that Eternal Life consists in “knowing” the heavenly Father and the Son whom He sent (John 17:3) – and not a matter of merely having faith in God as Something or Someone “out there”, Which can only believed-in, but not really, directly, experienced. Only by such direct experience can we taste of the manna and know that it is sweet indeed.

Philosophical proofs and evidences for the existence of God, Spirit, the human soul, etc., are not irrelevant or unimportant. But, in my view,  they ought to be secondary supports for an original, ineffable experience of Spirit. The wordless experience should come first, and its intellectual supporting structures and definitions second. Or at most, the intellectual structures might act as “lures” whose main purpose would be to lead the questioner into the ineffable experience of the divine – into prayer, contemplation, centering, or whatever name we might give the process (and its accompanying states). For instance, of what real use is faith vis-a-vis the Catholic sacrament of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? If Jesus is not, or cannot, be known in this – the most intimate of sacraments – then one wonders what the point of it is; if, in fact, this were the case, the Catholic communicant may as well just switch over to “sola fide”, Eucharist-free Protestantism. That is, one’s experience of the Real Presence had better be “Real”, and not something to merely be believed-in or believed-about!

Scholars such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, as well as “Great Sages” such as Ramana Maharshi, Bodhidharma, the Taoist Masters, “God (or Self-) Realized persons, and countless anonymous indigenous shamans globally, in varying ways of expressing the thought, claim that spiritualities are indeed “Paths of Knowing” and “Technologies of the Sacred”.

This kind of knowing differs from scientific and philosophical ways of knowing in that it refers the questioner inward, not to the external world (science) or to mental/intellectual considerations (philosophy), but to the human soul and its relationship, interactions, and its potential merger with God (“gnosis”). As such, these spiritualities function as “lenses” or sacraments through which God is “seen” (perceived) –  that is, known inwardly through immediate experience, whether direct or mediated. This experience, obviously, sidesteps the question of prior belief or unbelief, because its only requirement is to have an open mind, and is therefore available to believers and atheists alike, as the following hopes to illustrate.

Following the work of the American philosopher Ken Wilber, we might try to interest atheists in this “Direct Experience” approach to (spiritual) knowledge-acquisition:

1. The Injunction:  If you want to know ‘X’, then DO ‘Y’. If you want to know if Jupiter has moons, look through a telescope – if you want to know if its night time, look out a window; if you want to know about God, look through the appropriate lenses (e.g., meditation, contemplation).

2. The Experiment:  Put the Injunction to the test. Look through the lens; do the meditation. Take notes.

3. The Conclusion:  Collate and preserve all the aspects of the Experiment. Then compare notes with others – i.e., those who have already, adequately performed all the three steps. This is a form of “peer review” which places the three steps into a responsible social context.

If this three-step knowledge-acquisition process is valid, then it is one that can be carried out by believer and unbeliever alike. There is no prior “faith burden” or “unbelief burden” to come between the participant and the experiment. It is fair-minded and invitational. This “test” is open to all – and therefore, atheists, as well as believers, may consider themselves equally invited to participate.

= = = = = = = = = =

(Notes from a Shin perspective:)

It would seem that Jodo Shinshu adherents are at least partially exempt from this process, for the simple reason that they do not so much typically rely on a three-step process (or any other) of inquiry, but more on a non-intellectual but experiential “Calling” from Amida Buddha, issued from His Presence on “the Other Shore”. It is as if the great “Raft” from that shore has arrived at our feet … unbidden. Our mysteriously-received Faith is at once “faith-full” and experiential.

Amida’s Call has been issued and has pierced our heart with its love-laden arrow. Our only reply to this gift is to voice, verbally or mentally, our simple, sincere “Thank-You” as phrased in the Nembutsu. Amida has enabled us to sidestep the three-step inquiry, without our having to strive with its inherently self-powered methods of searching.

Namo Amida Butsu.

Materialists, the Human Soul, and Introspection

One issue I’d like to bring up is the question of how to communicate the idea of non-material reality to those who claim that matter is a universal fact of being, a stance, which by nature, cannot allow for the existence of, and evidence for, spiritual realities, entities, and “realms”.

In claiming that only matter exists, materialists let themselves off the metaphysical hook, because they a priori  dismiss evidence for non-material realities. They talk the liberal, open-minded approach – you know: “I’m open to believing if you show me the evidence”. However, since evidence for the non-material is itself non-material, the atheists cannot and will not accept such evidence. Which, in a negative sense, makes them the “winners” because they live in an air-tight dialectical bubble, where nothing from “the outside” can reach them and shatter their worldview. So, how to reach them, since there is no argumentation they will accept?

Perhaps one angle of approach would be to attempt to address the fact of their own non-materiality, i.e., their own mental functions and their subjective selves.
At first, they will no doubt protest that the self is nothing but a product of neurological function. The reply to that, I think, would be to ask them to introvert, to “look inside” not only at the fact that they are conscious, but also to examine the contents of their consciousness. At that point, it should be easy to show how utterly different mental life is from the brain – and the first thing they will discover is that they won’t find anything like a brain or a body within the field of their awareness.

The brain is a three-pound skull organ, whose purpose and functions are well-known. And none of those functions demonstrably constitutes the creation of a mind or mental contents. At best, there is only a correlation between the two, but not an identity. On principle, “Like begets like” – so the brain might perhaps beget more brain – but never a non-material, subjective self. Moreover, the brain is not “about” anything, whereas the psyche is “about” everything under the sun, including the experience of its own – non-material – contents. Therefore, to claim that brain equals mind, self, subjectivity the qualia, personhood, etc., is to commit a category error of egregious proportions.

One suggestion for mental introversion would be to have the experimenter realize that he or she is the observer – that is, in and as a non-material self, he or she can realize that the body and the myriad objects witnessed within the stream of the introverted consciousness are simply things that exist outside the observer, and are therefore not the observer him–or-herself. This will bring the realization that the observer – the soul, the self – is not material and is not part of the passing objects that stream by in front of the observing self. Rather, the observer is the non-material consciousness that merely – simply – witnesses the passing sense impressions and mental phenomena, and therefore, because it is not identifiable with such material-world phenomena, is not a material category – not a body and not a brain.

So, if materialists could be weaned from their naive “Brain equals mind” / “We ARE the brain!” perspective, simply by having them empirically discover, via introspection, that the exact opposite is the case, their materialism might weaken – and weaken to the extent that they would begin to make intellectual room for God, the Spirit, and the human soul.

I think that this hands-on, empirical, experiential approach would have at least as much success as pointing materialists to books, websites and philosophical ruminations, on the principle that experience trumps mere intellection or “belief-in”. That is, giving a person real fishing equipment to catch real fish is more pragmatic than merely telling a person about fish and how to catch them. Introspection could function as the unbeliever’s rod and reel, with the Catch being as big as their net could handle.

These considerations also seem to at least in part successfully dovetail with certain categories in Jodo Shinshu – namely the experiential reality of the non-material Transcendent as postulated by Masters Shinran and Rennyo and interpreted so well for us by scholars such as John Paraskevopoulos, D.T. Suzuki, Harold Stewart, and others. “Our” Transcendent – “our” Amida Buddha and his gift of Shinjin – are our very own experienced, unmediated reality of “the Other Shore” – from which our “Raft” of salvation has sailed to us for our benefit.