Category Archives: spirituality

Worship, Prayer, Angelomorphology, and Jesus’s “Deity”

Trinitarians typically claim that NT (New Testament) references to people “worshiping” Jesus or “giving Jesus worship” prove that the NT thinks that Jesus is God.

However, it appears doubtful that the NT actually depicts people as worshiping Jesus in the Trinitarian/”God” sense.

The Bible uses “worship” not only to designate creatures’ subordination to God, but also uses the term to indicate reverence to kings, officials, prophets and other kinds of holy people. Thus in the Gospels, where it says ” ‘X’ persons worshiped Jesus”, it likely means only that they gave him high reverence, but the Gospels never imply that such people worshiped Jesus as God. Not only did Jesus explicitly exclude himself from the Godhead in John 17:3 (“You, Father, are the only true God“), he also said that he HAD a God, worshiped a God, and ascended to God. But of course God does not have a god, does not worship a god, and cannot ascend to himself.

Not even John’s “DoubtingThomas’s” expression to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” necessitates the notion that Thomas was worshiping Jesus as God.

The story is not about some issue concerning Jesus’s supposed deity. It’s about Thomas not having witnessed the risen Jesus, and his telling the disciples that he won’t believe until he sees with his own eyes. The context, therefore, is not Jesus’s purported deity, but rather about Thomas’s unbelief.

The risen Jesus then appears and grants Thomas permission to probe his execution wounds, after which Thomas declares his faith, not in Jesus as God, but in GOD as Lord. That is, Thomas is rendering worship to the Father by whose will Jesus has been raised up. So the Thomas story is often misunderstood by Trinitarians to be about Jesus’s supposed divinity, whereas it is really about Thomas’s lack of resurrection-faith.

Had Jesus wanted to be worshiped, surely he would have openly encouraged the practice. Yet, in the Gospels, he never does.

And had early Christians worshiped Jesus as God, NT prayer would typically, frequently, be expected to address Jesus as God. But it never does.

NT prayer is only addressed to the Father, “through” or “in” Jesus, or “in Jesus’ name” – but never to Jesus as God. The Maranatha prayer – “Come, Lord” – is addressed to Jesus not as God, but rather as Messianic Lord, and is a hopeful request that he return soon. In Luke-Acts, Stephen’s outcry to Jesus that Jesus accept Stephen into heaven is not a prayer to Jesus as God, but again, simply to Jesus as Messianic Lord. In John’s Gospel Jesus says that the disciples can ask anything in his name and he/and/or the Father will grant it: again, this is a form of petition to God – in Jesus’s name, as the Messianic Son – not to Jesus as as some kind of an ontological “God”. Hence, according to the NT texts, Jesus was never given divine worship, for the simple reason that the first Christians did not regard him as ontological God.

So, to reiterate, it seems that that no one in the NT ever “worshiped” Jesus in a Trinitarian sense. The Bible uses “worship” in describing adulation directed to God, but it also uses the term in describing veneration of heroes, judges, prophets, kings and holy people. Nowhere in the NT is worship directed to Jesus as God, but only to the Father.

And the same principle applies to NT prayer – in the NT, no one prays to Jesus as God . On the contrary, they pray only to the Father, “through Jesus”, “in Jesus”, or “in Jesus’s name”. The “Maranatha prayer” is the disciples’ simple request to Jesus Messiah to return “soon”. In Luke-Acts, Stephen’s prayer that Jesus receive him into heaven is, again, a prayer to the Son of Man standing next to the Father. Etc.

The NT contains no worship of Jesus as God and directs no prayer to Jesus as God. That’s because the NT does not consider Jesus to be God, but rather to be the pre-existent celestial archangel who by his incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection was elevated above all other angels.

If at first it seems strange to view Jesus as an archangel, the NT itself seems to confirm the notion, especially in its portrayal of Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin, where he promises his judges that they will see the heavenly “Son of Man”, coming with the clouds in great glory, accompanied by “Power” (the living Presence of God). This pre-existent heavenly figure appears in the book of Daniel, in a heavenly “presentation ceremony”, where the Son of Man approaches the throne of “the Ancient of Days” (God). It is no surprise, therefore, that Caiaphas the Jewish high priest was said to have torn his robe and charged Jesus with blasphemy for claiming to be the cloud-dwelling celestial Son of Man.

Once Jesus’s own pre-existent, celestial Son of Man christology is delineated and clearly viewed, it becomes clear that Christianity had no need of a Trinitarian “Son” – for the simple reason that Jesus, as an “incarnation” of the heavenly Son of Man, already functioned as a divine Son on earth as well as in heaven.

Moreover, the NT also says that Jesus was  given the divine Name and was charged with divine judgment. Which conception also happens to dovetail with the Jewish Bible’s depiction of the pre-existent-heavenly “Great Angel of Israel”, who bore the divine Name and executed divine judgment on the ancient Israelites.

The NT Jesus therefore represents a kind of conflation between the Great Angel and the Son of Man. So, to put the case flippantly, “Who needs a Trinitarian Son when in Jesus we already have God’s chief assisting Angel and the celestial Son of Man?” In these circumstances, a Trinitarian Son seems only to be an arbitrary, unnecessary, redundant and distortive addendum to an original Jewish, monotheistic christology.

Finally, to recap:

In the NT, Jesus was never worshiped or prayed to as God or as the Trinitarian Son. Moreover, in the NT, Jesus claims to be the heavenly Son of Man – the archangelic pre-existent figure who lived in the clouds of heaven, and who also shared certain exalted traits with Israel’s Great Angel.

Therefore, pragmatically speaking, no ontologically divine Trinitarian Son need (or should!) be superimposed on Jesus’s original Jewish-monotheistic claim to be the Son of Man both in heaven and on earth (“So that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” – Mark 2:10).

“Jesus-as-God” christology is most accurately viewed as a foreign, “paganized” Gentile, Greco-Roman category which the “post-Apostolic” Church Councils imposed upon an original Jewish-monotheistic christological assertion.


Baptism and Faith (“Alone”)

Christianity took over the notion of Jewish circumcision as an initiatory rite, and substituted baptism in its place. In the NT, it is baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” which causes the participant to be “in” Christ in a special kind of way. Not only that, Pauline baptism seems to be sacramental – that is, it is a ritual which is participatory – with the acolyte undergoing a spiritually real “dying and rising with Christ”.

Moreover, some NT texts imply that the foundational gift of the Spirit itself is given through baptism – the first and most noticeable example being that of Jesus himself, who when he was baptized by John the Immerser in the Jordan river, received “the Spirit Like A Dove”, who functioned as a tutelary guide, drove Jesus into the wilderness for his ordeal of prayer and fasting, and finally impelled him into his mission and his selection of disciples. Clearly, unlike Jewish circumcision, according to the NT, Christian baptism is far more than a mere initiatory, welcoming custom or tradition.

So it would appear that the NT recognizes baptism as a real, active agent of God’s immediate power, presence, and transformative grace.

So the question here is how sacramental baptism fits or does not fit with another NT conception, namely, that of salvation by grace/faith, defined as a sheer, unearned gift from God. Is there a tension between :

1) Baptism’s sacramental (salvation by works/rituals) aspects as conferring grace and Spirit on the recipient;
… and …
2) The (non-works) salvation-by-faith injunction?

I myself have not yet formulated a holistic answer to this question. Perhaps a reader might care to suggest some ideas.

Fundamentalism: Christianity as a Mixed Bag

Much is currently made about Christian intolerance and condemnation of non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs and religious groups.

The fact is that there are differing kinds, formats, and expressions in Christianity.

It seems to me that most complaints center around one Christian sector, which might be called “apologists”, and which I usually identify as fundamentalists.

The main issue is that fundamentalists believe that they have an absolute mandate, an immutable commitment, to a literalist reading of the Bible, to church doctrine…and most important, to their own salvation – a salvation which is automatically threatened when they entertain any concept outside of the strict party line. For them, to entertain any “heretical” belief, no matter how briefly, and even for the “best” of reasons (i.e., the conversion of non-Christians), is to jeopardize their salvation. A sign of weak faith. And weak faith leads to backsliding and the likely potential of “falling into Satanic error”. Thus, fundamentalist Christians have an in-built defense mechanism that forces them to commit to dogmatic assertions, on pain of eternal damnation. It is, therefore, not surprising that they cannot be dialogued with in a rational discussion. Their dogma and ideology prevent that happening from the get-go.

But of course, fundamentalists are a small but vocal sector in the total framework of general Christianity. There are plenty of progressive Christians in “emergent” churches who utterly disparage biblical literalism, “witnessing”, condemnation of non-Christians – and who at the same time embrace critical biblical scholarship and the allegorical, parabolic nature of Christian sacred literature.

It’s a mixed bag, and it is not objective to uncritically make sweeping generalizations which identify all Christians with the fundamentalist subset.

We are not “Special”, but…

There is nothing special in / or about / the universe. The universe itself is not special. Nature is nothing but an amalgam of mindless cycles of force. The cosmos is not sentient – not even aware of itself. The universe does not have, and is incapable of having, a point of view about itself or about any of its parts. In that respect, the cosmos resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s blind idiot god, Azathoth.

Just as the cosmos has no sentience and no point of view, so, too – of course – it has no feelings about the fate of all the countless, hapless sentient beings who are caught up in its maw of grinding gears.

So who in their right mind would want to be significant in such a universe? Just to claim the false honor of being “the first among unequals”? The cosmos doesn’t care, so why should we? Carl Sagan actually went on the lecture circuit giving speeches about “Man’s Insignificance in the Cosmos” – as if he somehow thought that while man is meaningless, man nonetheless lives a life set against the “meaningful” backdrop of the cosmos. Which, of course, is patent nonsense. If the cosmos is meaningless, then – because we are part of the cosmos – we, too, are meaningless in-and-to the cosmos. Which means – because meaning is not inherent in the world – we must, through admirably fussy and elaborate self-hypnotic legerdemain, “create a meaning for ourselves”. Meaning is not like the treasure buried in a field, but rather an act of the imagination, and a rebellion against meaninglessness. Nothing more.

There are no social hierarchies in nature – no higher or lower levels on a status chart (at least until one sees them nascently emerging in a few of the non-human “social” animals). No status, no importance, no significance accrues to the cosmos or anything it contains. Thus, statements affirming man as insignificant in the cosmos are just as inept as saying the opposite – that man does have significance in the cosmos. Both propositions are all-too-human projections of human hierarchy onto a non-human framework.

So not only are we not the apple of the cosmic eye. More: the cosmic eye (which has no “I” – see what I did there?), sees nothing, perceives nothing, knows nothing about us at all. It is utterly indifferent, and cuts no creature any slack whatsoever, aging, injuring, sickening and killing us without discrimination, pity or awareness.

Or to invoke Sagan, if we are indeed “star stuff that has become aware of its own nature and taken hold of its own destiny”, and the cosmos realizes itself in us, then it’s all been for naught, because the cosmos-in-us looked in a mirror and found only dull meaninglessness. And people think that the issue of human importance in THIS cosmos is a worthy consideration?

We are all ephemeral dust motes in an unconscious and uncaring universe, a universe in which there are no “better” and “worse”, no significant and insignificant. Thanks to that, we’re all Spam In A Can, with no cosmic nurse to care for us or save us at the last minute. For that, on this planet, we only have ourselves. And what a terrible job we’ve done with that.
As if it matters in any case.

“Unless”, that is. Unless there is a “helping” reality operating behind, beneath, or beyond things for our benefit. Unless there are salvific systems that connect us to a Sacred Transcendent. Unless the Sacred Transcendent has compassionately sent us a raft from its shore. A saving act which is, in fact, found in Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism.

Although Shin does assert that this universe is “samsara” – that is the place of eternal causal chains that result in craving, inadequacy, discontent, blind passions and other “slings and arrows” – still, Shin proclaims a “way out”, even while we partake in samsaric life. The raft from the Other Shore is available to suffering sentient beings. What is this redeeming “vessel”? It is Shinjin, the “no strings attached”, free, unearned gift of perfect faith, delivered straight to us from Amida Buddha in his Pure Land.

If we but have faith in Amida, He will embrace us without fail, take us to his Pure Land, and spark our Buddha Nature in that other realm, after which we ourselves will be Buddhas. But who could have such a faith? The answer is: no one can have such a faith – unless their karma has ripened to the point that Amida’s grace is sparked in them. They do not create that perfect Shinjin. Amida, in His compassion, simply supplies it to them as a free gift. It can’t be generated by us, because we are still samsaric beings (whom Shin calls “bombus”), who are incapable of it. Nor can we earn it. Nor can we attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land by any human act or attitude, no matter how good and worthy.

Rather, we only enter the Pure Land because Amida Buddha’s grace providentially permits it to happen. Thus, in the midst of samsara – the meaningless, insensate cosmos – we find ourselves already with one foot in the Pure Land. This doesn’t mean that we are Enlightened. It means that our faith has settled and we are in the state of non-retogression – a kind of smooth, sure path toward posthumous Buddhahood.

So, paradoxically, the unconscious, indifferent, samsaric universe – thanks to the redemptive power of Amida Buddha’s grace – has now become the very crucible in which we seek and find Him, and where He embraces us with the unearned gift of Shinjin. We don’t assign meaning to an empty universe. Rather Amida Buddha’s unimpeded Light permeates and makes holy, makes sacramental, the very universe which, before we entered the Transcendent, appeared to be without any spiritual value. Amida gives the world a spiritual value. Which is transcendent grace in action. Whether or not we are special within the samsaric universe, we are loved by a transcendent, infinitely compassionate non-samsaric Being. What more could one ask for?

My Journey into Shin Buddhism

Even as I was leaving Christianity I still knew that I would always be religious by nature, so that I would probably always “believe” in the Sacred Transcendent in one way or another. So quite naturally I read comparative religion, Eastern religion, New Testament scholarship, and the ideas of “modern” sages like Krishnamurti, Osho (yes, I know he’s controversial), Ramana Maharshi, Ken Wilber, Alan B. Wallace, Adyashanti, some Ram Dass, etc. I also had the privilege of having been taught by the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg who had a great influence on my thinking. I also delved deeply into Carl Jung and “depth” psychology.

During that process I discovered that I was a panentheist (not pantheist). I found that I could “have a deity” Who did not need to be a creator, intervener, or judge in order to be real, and Whose real “power” and “activity” functioned as a transforming Presence in the soul/my deepest subjectivity. A God who is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent). That is, the Absolute of the mystics, of the Gnostics, of divine union and communion. Not a acting as manipulator of matter, but rather as an “invitational” (not coercive) activity within me.

And during that process I came across a wise, compassionate article about “good Christians” whom the media and the general culture have a tendency to despise. It was written by the Buddhist sensei Jose Tirado, who is of the Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist school. I then looked into Shin and found that it fit like a glove. Its Amida Buddha, although not a deity, nonetheless shares several functions in common with the panentheistic notion of a non-creating sacred Source, and also with the mystical notion of a sacred Ultimate working with us “from inside”.

So I converted to Shin about 9 years or so ago. I am a solitary practitioner and attend no Hondo or local Sangha. I just keep up with the practice of Nembutsu recitation – Shin’s only official practice, which is simply a prayer of thanksgiving: “Namo Amida Butsu” / “I take refuge in Amida Buddha”. Other than that, I keep reading Shin books and visit Shin-related websites – that’s my “church” these days. One of the most helpful teachers in the Shin universe is John Paraskevopoulos –…

– whose work has been most beneficial to my journey in Shin.

While Shin practitioners remain “bombus” – samsaric beings led by blind passions and spiritual ignorance – and who do not become Enlightened in this life – they have also received Amida’s unearned gift of perfect faith called “Shinjin”. Shinjin is Buddha Nature that will be sparked, vivified, and caused to blossom at death when we take birth in the Pure Land.

So that is my personal story of my path from Christianity to Jodo Shinshu.

“God”: Immanent and Transcendent

From my Western/philosophical Panentheist point of view, “God” (the ultimate infinite compassionate Reality) is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent), which to me simply means that everything unfolds in God’s presence.

It doesn’t mean that God is a spy, a judge, a bedroom-or-bathroom invader.
It doesn’t mean that God is a creator who is morally obligated to intervene in material processes for reasons known only to “Himself”.

What it does mean is that the universe is in God, and God is in the universe. Hence, “pan” (everything) is “en” (in) “theos” (God). If memory serves, it was St. Augustine who made the illustration of Panentheism wherein the world is represented as a water-soaked (“God-soaked”) sponge, floating in an infinite sea (which is also God). God is in the world, the world is in God.

However, the current God-debate is more often than not constricted to the theology of supernatural theism, which posits a kind of sky-father deity “out there”, who, as a creator, maintains and intervenes in the world. That, however, is an arbitrary view. Saying that God – in order to be real, to BE God – must be a creator, is as inept as saying that the moon must be made of green cheese, or it doesn’t exist.

One application of this concept is Jesus’s teaching about the fall of sparrows, “birds of the air”, which happens naturally without any intervention by God. The point is that the fall of sparrows and humans does not happen without context, in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs in the loving presence and awareness of God, the God who, precisely because “He” is not the creator or maintainer of the world, and does not intervene in its processes. Spying and miraculous intervention are simply not part of God’s “job description”.

So in actuality, it can be said that God does absolutely nothing as relates to the construction and maintenance of the world, for the simple reason that such activity is not in God’s nature to do so. Against the traditional view, God is neither “mighty” nor “All-Mighty”.

God is not “Doing”. God is “Being”.

But this does not mean that God is impotent or powerless. It only means that  God does not materially relate to or act upon the world.

However, that does not mean that God is inactive – because the presence of God does act in our deep subjectivity as a catalyst toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. This is the God-experience of mystical union and communion  which is not about miraculous physical intervention in the world or in the human body, but rather about the manifestation of God’s presence in the souls of sentient beings.

Once one becomes aware of the inner presence of God in oneself, one no longer has to entertain the idea of, or has a need for, a creator deity “out there” who supernaturally intervenes in the material universe. Because one already “has” God in the only place it really counts – the human soul, the human heart. God conceived as a transformative inner presence trumps God conceived as a mechanistic, intervening creator deity. The person him or herself is the locus of God’s activity. The material world spins on, following its own self-directed laws without divine intervention.

An additional comment from a Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist framework, from which this blog hopes to operate:

Jodo Shinshu’s “Ultimate” – Amida Buddha – is not a creator deity, but rather the highest celestial primordial Buddha. Just as with the non-creating God conception, Amida does not intervene in the material world – first because he did not create it and bears no personal responsibility for it, and second because his effulgent grace causes the salvific reality of Shinjin – “perfect faith” – to arise in the deep subjectivity of sentient beings.

Shinjin is a free gift from the Sacred Transcendent. That is why Shin calls it “a raft from the Other Shore” – a vehicle that makes landfall softly and unbidden and that carries us across the ocean of samsara, all without any effort and self-power practice on our part. Our own Amazing Grace. Not a God, but rather the Buddha whose grace ensures the vivifying sparking of our own aspiration toward Buddhahood. Where, in his Pure Land, our own Buddha Nature finally blossoms and we begin to do the selfless work that enlightened Beings do.

Torah-Observance Not Difficult

It is a particularly Christian failing to condemn the Jewish religion and its Law as a burden that was – fortunately for Christianity – removed by Jesus’s supposedly atoning sacrifice on the Cross. However, the Torah itself disagrees.

The Law was not “hard” for practicing Jews of ancient Judea. They considered it to be “just what the Doctor ordered”. The notion that at the time of Jesus and before, that Judaism had become “legalistic” is a canard. Granted, legalism as practiced by the Pharisees is real, but at the same time is an obvious abuse of Law-observance.

Yahweh, the Jews’ own god, had this to say about observance of the Law and its ease of carrying out, not as a burden, but as a gift:

Deuteronomy 30:11-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Offer of Life or Death

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…

It was Paul, and later, John, who came along claiming that the Law was a burden, and worse, that Jesus’s supposedly “atoning” sacrifice had invalidated the Law.