Jesus and the modern seeker

It may take an act of great will to see past the relics of tradition to something new.


I first encountered Jesus when I was a child. I’m not sure what my Presbyterian Sunday School teachers intended for me to learn, but I can remember the image I formed of him. He was white (like me) and had brown hair, which was long, straight, and impeccably groomed, as was the beard that covered his thin, nearly gaunt face. His teeth were white and perfect; his eyes were a piercing blue and a little sad. His body was thin and wiry; his hands were soft and his fingers long. He wore a white robe that covered him down to his sandaled feet.

The Jesus of my childhood spoke softly, moved gracefully, and was always calm and gentle. He never raised his voice and never had negative feelings like anger, fear, jealousy, or self-doubt. He never even had a negative thought. Pure in word and deed, he was “perfect, as [his] Heavenly Father was perfect.” He always knew the right thing to do and did it without hesitation. He was kind and good, compassionate to all, yet detached, unearthly. Jesus was something more than human. Jesus was held up to me as a role model, yet I knew his was a role no one else could ever hope to play. I knew that I, at least, would never be good enough.

This Sunday School image remained essentially unquestioned even when, on my circuitous path to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I had stopped believing in its literal truth. Even when I came to question everything else about his story, this Sunday School image—the perfect person, the saint, the God-man—continued to influence my thinking. This was the first Jesus I knew, but hardly the last. In fact, in my late thirties I set out on a quest to see what it might mean for a religious seeker in the twenty-first century to have a relationship with him.

I first encountered a different Jesus when I was an older youth. The musical Godspell and the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar brought an entirely new Jesus to light—a Jesus who laughed and got angry, a Jesus who doubted and made mistakes. I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in which I encountered a Jesus who was not God, who was instead an instrument of the divine will. And Kazantzakis’ Jesus was not a willing instrument either: This thoroughly human Jesus so desperately wanted to avoid his sacred destiny that, as a young man, he sought to offend God by using his carpenter’s skills to make the crosses on which the Romans were crucifying zealot Jews. Surely something so horrendous would make God give up on him. It didn’t, of course, and the story unfolds in both familiar and surprising ways. But this was a different Jesus, one I could more easily relate to.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I spent several years in what came to be called the “clown ministry” movement. I traveled from church to church, an itinerant nondenominational preacher sharing a vision of Jesus quite different from the one on which I’d been raised: a Jesus whose hair was matted, whose robe was stained, and who preached from a boat. We clown ministers emphasized the humanity of Jesus. A Methodist colleague talked about Jesus as a “hunk,” reasoning that he must have had pretty well-developed muscles to wield the carpenter’s tools of his day. A Catholic priest friend offered the radical image of a laughing Jesus who played with children. We preached Jesus the Jester, Jesus the Child, Jesus the Holy Fool.

Yet even as I embraced this ever more human Jesus, my childhood conditioning haunted me. The more human Jesus became, the less divine he seemed, making the foundations of Christianity seem less solid. I talked a good game, but fundamentally I was unable to free myself from the older images. I was trapped in what seemed an insoluble dilemma: Either Jesus is the Christ as preached by the church, and worthy of my devotion and worship, or he was just a man from antiquity, and I must go my own way. I remember the Easter service at which I realized that the words being spoken no longer held any real meaning for me; I was aware only of the quality of the “performance” and had lost any sense of depth of experience. Eventually, as happened with so many in our culture, I broke with the tradition of my youth and declared that I was no longer a Christian. It seemed that this tradition, this man, had nothing to teach me.

And yet . . .

I have never been entirely free of this figure from my past. The religious tradition in which I was raised still has power for me. The stories of my youth continue to echo in my mind and in my heart. In recent years I have become increasingly aware of something missing—a deep and true connection to life, a sense of wonder that I once took for granted. The more I have drifted from my Christian roots and the further I have gotten away from my “old friend,” the more I seem to have lost the connection and wonder that were once a part of my life. This is what set me on my quest, searching among those roots to find what I have lost.

I wanted to find out whether there is an option between accepting what I now see as unacceptable—the image of Jesus taught to me as a child—and the only other choice I’d ever known—to reject the whole thing. Is there still another Jesus, one who won’t strain my credulity yet who can still command my respect and perhaps even my devotion?

We are a society of seekers. Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” apparently believing the words spirituality and religion to be not only distinct but mutually exclusive. People go to church seeking community, or because they feel they “should.” But when it comes to feeding their souls, many Americans go to retreat centers, into the woods, or almost anywhere but to the churches and synagogues in which they were raised. While polls report more people saying they attend church today than did ten years ago, mainstream Christian denominations are in decline. Somewhat ironically, however, many people who do come back to some form of organized religion after having rejected it do so to expose their children to religious instruction—the same instruction, oftentimes, that they spent years rejecting and that they no longer believe!

People today strive to find meaning in their lives with no clear sense of where to turn for help. The retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, addresses much of his written work to such people. He writes about these “believers in exile”:

We are not able to endure the mental lobotomy that one suspects is the fate of those who project themselves as the unquestioning religious citizens of our age. We do not want to be among those who fear that if we think about what we say about God, either our minds will close down or our faith will explode. We are not drawn to those increasingly defensive religious answers of our generation. Nor are we willing to pretend that these ancient words still have power and meaning for us if they do not. We wonder if it is still possible to be a believer and a citizen of our century at the same time.

Many of us answer this question with a resounding, “No!” We turn for spiritual sustenance to Sufi poetry, Buddhist sutras, Wiccan chants, or the mysteries of chaos theory rather than to the Bible, as if Christianity were uniquely irredeemable. We are willing—even eager—to listen to the teachings of Tibetan lamas, Hindu avatars, and Mexican shamans, yet hesitant—even resistant—to open ourselves to the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets or the Christian Gospels. When it comes to Christianity, many of us have not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, but also have tossed out the tub, shut off the lights, and walked out of the house, locking the door behind us.

I understand these hesitations. When I began thinking about Jesus again, I realized I was afraid. After all, I’m a Harvard graduate, a product of the rational, skeptical, secular, and (cynical) modern world that says that all this religion stuff—and Christianity in particular—is really a bunch of sentimental, superstitious hogwash. Shouldn’t I, especially as a Unitarian Universalist, be beyond all this? I know the dangers: the history of oppression and persecution in the name of the Church, the authoritarian impulses of the religious right, the superstitious and anti-intellectual and just plain bigoted behaviors of many who call themselves Christians.

And I’ve read Joseph Campbell: Don’t I know that the world’s religions have all been attempts to express, in the language of myth and metaphor, what we in today’s world have learned through psychology and science? Religion is all well and good for our kids, we say, and it provides something around which a community can gather—but doesn’t every thinking person know that the rest is . . . well, when you get right down to it, kind of silly? Shouldn’t I be ashamed of myself for even thinking about taking it seriously?

All this ran through my mind and froze my heart when I approached what I have come to recognize as the Mystery. A paralyzing fear confronted me whenever I got too close to opening myself up to the sacred in any kind of intentional way: It was there at the Zen Mountain Monastery; it was there with the Brothers and Sisters of the Way; it sneaks up on me at ministers’ meetings; it waits for me in my office. I’m afraid of what others will think. A colleague once spoke of his reluctance to tell his committee on ministry about his decision to try beginning each day with prayer. I know how he feels. When I sit down on my cushion in the morning to pray or meditate, I hope nobody sees me. I’m afraid someone will ask what I think I’m doing.

And I’m a minister! I’m someone who’s expected to “be spiritual,” to take this stuff seriously. If anybody could get away with prayer and meditation, with taking time to study and contemplate scriptures, it should be me. Yet I am coming to recognize just how deeply I have internalized my culture’s skepticism, how completely I have taken on the modern worldview. How hard it must be for others in my congregation who feel this yearning, this hunger, this calling to engage life at its deepest and most profound.

And so, five years after my ordination, I started exploring my religious roots with some fear and trembling. It seemed foolhardy to reject an entire religious tradition, especially when it has so powerfully shaped the development of our culture and, for many of us, our lives. We should be able to cut through the dross of Christianity to find the gold. More than 150 years ago a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Theodore Parker, delivered a landmark sermon entitled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he wrestled with this same issue:

Now the solar system as it exists in fact is permanent, though the notions of Thales and Ptolemy, of Copernicus and Descartes, about this system, prove transient, imperfect approximations to the true expression. So the Christianity of Jesus is permanent, though what passes for Christianity with Popes and catechisms, with sects and churches, in the first century or in the nineteenth century, prove transient also. . . . Let the Transient pass, fleet as it will . . . God send us a real religious life. . . .

For many today, discerning the “transient” from the “permanent” will require a re-evaluation of the religious tradition in which we were raised, a re-evaluation that will border on a rediscovery. Letting go of past associations is not easy. Old patterns are deeply etched, and it may take an act of great will to see past these relics to something new.

So why bother with this effort? Why try to redeem Jesus and the Christian tradition? Why not simply seek new sources from which to feed our spiritual hunger? A Japanese Buddhist once asked an American aspirant why he was so interested in her religion. “You come from America,” she said. “Your roots are in Christianity.” She referred to the principles of macrobiotics—eating what is native to your environment rather than artificially adopting a foreign diet—and suggested a religious parallel: If your roots are in Christianity, develop your understanding of that tradition; don’t seek your religious nourishment from distant lands.

I have found this to be good advice. Something about Jesus, something about his message, has called to people for over two millennia; something about him may have called to you once. It might be worth looking with your own adult eyes—and heart and mind—to see what might be there.

So let’s begin with the basics, as I did when I started my quest. If Jesus was a real human being who lived in Palestine about 2,000 years ago, and if, as most scholars agree, the Christian New Testament is not a journalistic reporting of his life and deeds, then those who want a fresh understanding of Jesus must first strive to find out what can be known about the historical figure. What, if anything, can we know about the man who was, in his own language, Yeshua ben Miriam, Jesus son of Mary?

While Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, he began the project of cutting his Bible apart and pasting into a notebook the pieces that, to him, made sense. In this way he hoped to discover the “real” Jesus. He wrote of this exercise:

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and, roguery of others of his disciples.

The beginning of the intellectual movement known as “the quest for the historical Jesus” is usually dated to the late 1700s when Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s suggestion that a distinction could—and should—be made between what Jesus said about himself and what the Gospel writers said about him was published. This led to a distinction between what is commonly called “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” Hundreds of books and articles appeared through the early 1800s focused on uncovering the man behind the myths. The guiding assumption of these early investigations was that the authors of the Gospels wanted to report about the life of the man from Galilee but were not particularly accurate reporters: Being of a “simpler age,” the Gospel writers were too quick to see magic and miracle, and thus distorted the record they intended to leave for future generations.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many theologians came to believe that the Gospels could not provide any useful historical information at all: They were understood to be essentially mythic tales woven to express the central religious ideas of their authors. Theologians argued that even if we could get good history from the Gospels, knowing the Jesus of history is relatively unimportant; what matters is knowing the Christ of faith. But the historical principles developed by these earlier scholars had laid the foundations for modern biblical scholarship—and using the tools of anthropology, archeology, and textual analysis, scholars today know a great deal about the world Jesus lived in. Academics and seminary-trained ministers have long taken much of this historical work for granted, yet they have not often shared it with the people in their pews.

Even with the best methodology, of course, scholars will never be able to determine with complete certainty what Jesus, the historical person, was really like, but they can at least make well-educated guesses. And what do we learn from studies of the ancient world and the Gospels, using the principles of modern scholarship? Who is the Jesus we encounter? Certainly not the white European Jesus with the blue eyes and flowing blond hair. Perhaps the most important—yet frequently overlooked—fact is that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew. He was, by all accounts, steeped in the scriptures of Judaism, and he practiced the faith of his people. His early followers were, for the most part, other Jews, and it is clear that at least his earliest understanding of his mission was as a spiritual renewal of Judaism. He did not set out to create a new religion but rather to renew and reform the tradition in which he had been born. He wanted to bring his people closer to their God.

What else can we know or deduce about the historical Jesus?

We know that Jesus lived about one hundred years after Rome had spread the Pax Romana into his homeland. Most of the people in the Roman Empire—some 80 percent of the population—lived at a subsistence level. The Roman social system was shaped like a pyramid, with the emperor on top, supported by retainers who were supported by merchants, traders, and others, who were in turn supported by the work of the vast majority of the people. This lowest stratum of the population made the Pax Romana possible, but at tremendous cost. As Stephen Patterson put it in The God of Jesus, “Rome slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.”

There were more immediate and brutal costs, as well. Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Roman General Varus quelled a peasant uprising in Palestine by attacking the cities of Galilee and Samaria, selling their inhabitants into slavery and publicly crucifying 2,000 of the uprising’s leaders. Shortly after Jesus’ death, all the people of the nearby towns of Gophna, Emmaus, Lydda, and Thamma were sold into slavery because they had been slow to pay their share of the Judean tribute to Rome.

This was the world in which Jesus lived, and we can be sure that this environment affected him.

We can be sure, too, that within the birth stories of Jesus there is at least a nugget of truth, although as they come down to us they are clearly the stuff of myth. Almost certainly, for instance, Jesus was poor. You would expect his chroniclers to have invented an auspicious birth, a birth that marked him from his beginnings as a person of power, worthy of respect. They tried—there are all those angels, and magi, and gifts of gold and myrrh—but the Gospel writers apparently had no way of getting around the fact that Jesus was born to poor parents. He was not a Siddhartha Gautama, overcoming the “obstacle” of inherited power and prestige to become the enlightened Buddha. Jesus of Nazareth knew poverty and oppression; he understood suffering from firsthand experience.

The story of Jesus’ parentage also seems to contain some truth. According to the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus returns to preach in Nazareth his neighbors call out, “is this not . . . the son of Mary?” If Joseph had been Jesus’ father, Jesus would have been called “son of Joseph”; that he was called “son of Mary” in the earliest of the Gospels strongly suggests that the identity of Jesus’ father was at least in question.

We can also be sure that an intimate, personal relationship with God was part of the makeup of the historical Jesus. He lived in a time when people believed in a world of Spirit, and it is clear that Jesus was, in the words of Marcus Borg, a “Spirit-filled person.” That Jesus was Spirit-filled might appear so obvious as to be redundant, yet that quality is rare enough today as to be worth mentioning. The historical Jesus was so in touch with the sacred that he seemed to be “as one” with it.

It is also clear that an intimate connection with Spirit flowed through the historical Jesus in acts of healing. All of the Gospel writers agree that Jesus was known as a healer; the few independent sources that make reference to him attest to this as well. Again and again, we read stories of Jesus’ healing work and of crowds coming to him specifically for his ability to heal. He was not unique in this; history tells us that many people in Jesus’ day were known for their ability to heal, as there are people with this gift today.

Yet, to see the historical Jesus as a purely “spiritual” person with no connection to the “real” world would be a mistake. Such a split would have been unthinkable to a first-century Jewish mind; no world existed apart from the world of God. When Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of God” he was making a religious point but also an explicitly “political” reference. The Greek word that is usually translated as “kingdom” is basileia, which in just about every other ancient text is translated as “empire.” In Jesus’ day there was only one empire: Rome’s. To speak of an empire of God was to guarantee comparison with the empire of Rome, a comparison that would not have been flattering to the Romans. Thus, even Jesus’ religious message carried political overtones. Considering the political environment in which Jesus lived, the biblical historian John Dominic Crossan believes that one of the few facts of Jesus’ life we can be sure of is that he was executed by Rome as a political criminal.

The picture that emerges of the historical Jesus is of a young man who knew firsthand the weight of oppression, yet who also experienced a deep and unshakable connection to that creative, dynamic spirit called God. He knew himself to be in relationship with God and felt himself called to be not only a voice but also an embodiment of that holy reality that he saw so clearly. Others saw it, too. In the words and deeds of this itinerant preacher, teacher, and healer, others were able to see God as if face-to-face. He sought a renewal of the religion of his day, yet ultimately the political dimensions of his vision were seen as a threat by the Roman establishment and he was put to death.

This is what we can know of the Jesus of history.

The portrait of the person who emerges from the quest for the historical figure is deeply moving to me: a young, passionate, “God-intoxicated” person who believed so deeply in his principles and ideals that he was willing to suffer and die for them. It also seems undeniable that the vision and, in some senses, the life of this remarkable man did not end with his death. Those who had been with him felt an ongoing presence that they understood to be his; they continued his work in his name.

But, twenty centuries later, does it make sense for religious seekers to talk about having a relationship with a first-century religious teacher?

We can begin by acknowledging that Jesus must have been, first and foremost, a human being like any and every other human being who has ever lived. The difference was the depth of his faith—his trust—in God, the intimacy of his relationship with the divine, and the clarity of his awareness. When he is remembered as saying, “The Father and I are one,” he was talking about a union that is more clearly described with the words, “The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” The man we know as Jesus was so in touch with the sacred as to be as one with it, yet he was ever and always a human being.

He was a God-intoxicated man who offered others a living example of what it is to live in God’s basileia, what it is to live in God. But one must dig through a great deal of tradition that obscures this image in the same way that centuries of dirt and soot obscured da Vinci’s fresco of The Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Having grown up within the Christian tradition, I can easily see its faults and failings, yet I am determined not to lose sight of its beauties and truths for all that. As I have reconnected with my Christian roots, I am moved by those who, without giving up their reason, gave over their hearts to this man from Nazareth; I have been reminded how I once gave my heart also, and have been led to wonder why I ever took it back.

For this man—like Siddhartha, like many saints and sages since—offers a Way. Interestingly, this was the name Jesus’ followers first claimed for themselves: Before they were “Christians” they were “people of the Way.” In his life and teaching, even in the way his life and teaching are interpretively remembered in the Gospels, Jesus offers a vision and a challenge. Still, I do not believe that the call to “follow” is a call to worship the man who issued it. It is, instead, just what it appears to be: a call to follow him, to follow his path, to live as he lived.

One thing that stands out about Jesus—both as he is remembered in the scriptures and as he is rediscovered by scholars—is his radical freedom. Jesus lived a life in which the distinctions between rich and poor, holy and unholy, righteous and sinner, male and female, became increasingly meaningless. The lines of division that we humans draw became invisible for this holy man. Reflecting on this aspect of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The life Jesus lived, the life he calls us to follow, is a life unbound by expectations—either of oneself or of others. The life Jesus lived, the life he calls us to follow, is a life that is truly, and in all ways, free.

“Seek first the kingdom of God, all else will follow”: This is not merely an ethical path but a supremely spiritual one. It is a call to see the world as alive with divinity, ablaze with the sacred. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Divinity School Address, “[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was miracle, and all that man doth.”

There are, of course, consequences to living in such intimate union with the sacred. Such a life is in direct opposition to the values of our “me first,” acquisition-centered culture. It is a life that puts “success,” as the world measures it, far down the list. It is a life that cannot accept the status quo, as long as current conditions keep anyone from reaching their full potential. Such a life can be uncomfortable and is sure to be misunderstood. Yet none of the great teachers have invited us to travel easy roads, promising a journey without hindrances or dangers. Jesus is no exception. It is important to remember that he doesn’t just call people to follow him, but to “pick up their own cross” and follow.

The life of the man named Jesus offers us an example, a model of how we can live, yet it also becomes clear that Jesus was and is more than an example. There were many holy men and healers in Jesus’ day, as there have been many since. Yet something about this human being has kept his name and his story alive for 2,000 years. And Jesus is not just a remembered figure; for many today he is experienced as a living presence. In some way beyond comprehension, beyond facile explanations, the spirit of this God-intoxicated man lives on; and, if his life offers us an example, his living spirit can offer us sustaining strength. In fact, one might say that this is the heart of the Christian promise—that this man who lived in first-century Palestine, and in some mysterious way lives on, still welcomes all who respond to his call to follow, still points to a vision of God’s rule made real, and still offers healing to those who have need. Creeds and catechisms aside, this is the heart of Christian teaching. This is the permanent; all else is transient.

Adapted with permission from Teacher, Guide, Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World, copyright © 2003 by Erik Walker Wikstrom (Skinner House Books).

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