The Quest for Jesus:
Two Radically Different Understandings

Steve Thompson

Delivered on September 21, 2014
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County

This morning I am going to broadly contrast two very different understandings of Jesus which lead to two very different versions of Christianity. In doing so, I will make a number of claims about Jesus and the early history of Christianity. Some of these claims will be obvious, but some will not be. Since this sermon will be at a high level, I will not have time to provide any evidence for these claims. But the claims I make today will be elaborated on in the Bible study lectures that I plan to offer starting this fall.

Over the centuries there have been many disputes over who Jesus was, what he advocated, and what Christianity should be. Despite the many denominations and the wide variety of beliefs that exist about Jesus today, the varieties of Christianity in the early period of its history far exceeded those of today. About 300 years after Jesus lived, Constantine, for political purposes, enforced a unity on Christianity, but it quickly fell apart, with further divisions erupting ever since; most obviously in the Protestant Reformation, but also in numerous lesser but significant ways over many centuries. Today there are perhaps as many Christianities as there are Christians, but I am going to simplify matters by speaking about its two polarities.

If asked to identify just two versions of Christianity, some people would say Protestant and Catholic, while others would say fundamentalist and mainline. But the two polarities I identify are (1) fundamentalism, and (2) mystic. The actual numbers of people in each is so widely lopsided that most people fail to recognize mystic Christianity as even existing.

Broadly speaking, the distribution of people in the Christian spectrum includes the fundamentalists who know what they believe and believe what they do based on the Bible as the literal word of God, the silent mainline Protestants who believe in the Bible, but scarcely read it, and who arrive at their beliefs by applying common sense, and Roman Catholics who are taught to believe what the church tells them, but, at least in the US, increasingly do not. There are also progressive Christians who are close to the mystic end of the spectrum. So to simplify, I will speak of fundamentalist Christianity as one polarity, and as mystic Christianity as the other polarity. But clearly there are many people in between who draw some of their beliefs from one polarity and some from the other.

I wish to strengthen the hearts and minds of progressives and others who lean toward mystic Christianity, and wake up those who do not.

There are many ways to label groups of Christians, some of which also encompass many of the people in the middle. For example, one name is Trinitarian Christianity, which includes almost all Christians. In fact this name is seldom used because most people assume all Christians are Trinitarian, which in case you do not know, means God in three parts: God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The counterpart of course is Unitarian Christianity. I like to call myself a Unitarian Christian, which I hope at once declares that I endorse Jesus, but do not consider him to be God. But I don't know if the term Unitarian Christian really gets that point across or not.

Let me give you some more names, since the naming itself tells us something about the two versions and thus serves the purpose of this sermon.

One name I find appropriate for Trinitarian Christianity is Paulinity, since Paul is the chief inventor of this Christianity, despite the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity arose centuries after Paul died. Many Christians today do not know that Paul invented Christianity, but his influence on what Christians believe certainly exceeds that of Jesus. Many just assume that Paul taught what Jesus taught, but that is not true. The fact is that Paul was not a disciple of Jesus, never met Jesus in person (he only saw Jesus in a vision). That is quite astounding: the chief architect of Christianity did not know Jesus personally and never even heard him preach. In fact, Paul had begun a campaign to extinguish Christianity before he had his vision.

Furthermore, Paul actually had a longstanding and bitter feud with the disciples of Jesus. This feud is briefly mentioned in the NT book of Galatians, and it gives the impression that their disputes were minor and quickly resolved. But that is not so. One of the series I am offering to teach is about this important feud between Paul and the disciples of Jesus. I will base the lectures on the book St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, by Michael Goulder.

One nice feature of the name Paulinity for this version of Christianity is that it reminds us that it is just Paul's understanding, not that of Jesus. Paul got some things right, some things wrong, and is rather difficult to understand on many issues. An assessment of what Paul actually believed is much more difficult than first appears, owing to the later developments of Christianity that have much more influence on how we understand Paul's writings than people realize. Indeed, much of what Christians believe today is not in the Bible or the teachings of Jesus, but was invented in the centuries following his earthly life. Increasingly, I am seeing that how we read Paul is heavily influenced by these later developments, so the name Paulinity is not fully accurate, but it does have significant justification.

Another insightful way to distinguish between the two polarities is to say that the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god whom we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion of Jesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did. I will say more about this later.

One of my favorite authors is Robin Meyers. His message, eloquently delivered in his wonderful book Saving Jesus from the Church is succinctly summarized in the book's subtitle: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus. This book gives example after example of the two polarities I am talking about. Let me give you a few of his gems:

One group understands faith as intellectual assent to believing in church doctrine, dogma, and creeds; the other sees faith as a way of life. One group has a streak of anti-Semitism, and somehow ignores the fact that Jesus was a Jew; the other understands that one can only understand Jesus as a Jewish man living in a Jewish context. One emphasizes the Bible itself; the other emphasizes the message of Jesus and how he lived. One group is enthralled with the idea of reward and punishment, and the idea of there being no final judgment terrifies them; the other group believes there is no final judgment and that is fine with them.

One group continually deals with a crisis of faith triggered by the need to believe the unbelievable; the other is confident in an open search for the truth. Meyers quite rightly says many confuse certainty with faith. I believe the fundamentalists starting assumptions point them in the wrong direction, and they deny the common sense that could get them on the right course of understanding.

Regarding an open search for the truth, based on my own study, it is clear that a great deal of scholarly material is available about the how the Bible was written, how it is not to be taken literally, and how early Christianity was split over many theological issues. Sadly this very important body of scholarship largely fails to reach the people in the pews because the vast majority of clergy ignore it, ensuring a continual propagation of ignorance. In a comment that I simultaneously find to be both sad and humorous, Meyers, who is both a pastor and a professor, writes that many in academic circles actually think of the majority of the clergy as clods.

Fundamentalists celebrate the death of Jesus and fail to realize how this emphasis negates his life and teaching; progressives emphasize his life and teaching.

Fundamentalists tend to focus on converting others; progressives focus on loving others. Fundamentalists have original sin as a pillar of their belief; progressives have original blessing. One group sees the unfolding of events as the fall, original sin, and redemption by an external savior. Instead, the mystic group sees enlightenment, wisdom, spirituality, and transformation.

Meyers accurately ties the belief in original sin to its burdening its followers with shame, helplessness, and entrapment. In contrast, the fruits of original blessing are joy, connection to creation, and personal responsibility. The hope of the first group is to escape the huge hole they find themselves in once they adopt the idea of original sin, and they look for an external savior to do this for them. The adoption of original blessing by the second group makes that a moot point. The first group worries about attaining a place in heaven after they die where they will not incur God's wrath. The second group realizes that this is to be taken for granted here and now, and that the real message of Jesus is about how to progress from this starting point.

One group emphasizes the external reward of heaven; the other group sees the intrinsic reward of inner peace. The goal of the fundamentalists of just getting into heaven easily leads to the stagnation of one's spiritual development and callousness toward others, whereas seeing Jesus as a living example of the transformative power of love is life changing in the here and now.

The first group is obsessed with the question of their eternal destination; the second group understands that a good and loving God could never condemn anyone to hell. Or as Bart Ehrman so succinctly says, for some people, Christianity is fire insurance, so they will not burn in hell. What I would add is that they are wasting their premiums.

Thus what is a question of great angst for the first group, which they try to cover up with much talk of being saved, is a moot point for the second group. In their desperation to avoid God's wrath, the first group grasps for anything they can cling to. They distort mystic ideas in the Bible by taking them literally, thus missing the boat on the real meaning. This is especially true of the Gospel of John, as John Shelby Spong makes clear in his very insightful book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

Meyers points out that the church's Nicene Creed is all about what to believe, but in contrast, the Beatitudes of Jesus have nothing about what to believe; but instead are about what to do.

Fundamentalists worship Jesus, but the other group understands Jesus to be the role model of what each of us can become. Those who worship Jesus fail to realize that they are putting him on a pedestal separate from us, thus putting him out of reach. In doing so, they reduce their participation to a passive activity, closing off any thought of becoming what Jesus is, eliminating the challenge to perform any self-sacrifice on their part. They reduce the transformative power of love into a simplistic I believe, thus eliminating any real aspiration of transforming their lives. They seem to have overlooked Jesus' comment to his disciples that whatever they have seen him do, they can do also.

Meyers discusses the fact that one group cuts themselves off from the truth, taking stances against science, the search for the historical Jesus, and genuine biblical scholarship. They act as if faith is more pure when uninformed and wrongly see critical thinking and reasoning as threats. To see intellectual progress as a threat is a tacit admission that their faith is flawed. They fail to see themselves as modern day Pharisees. In contrast, mystics see intellectual honesty as an asset toward understanding Jesus, and understand Jesus as showing a way of life, a path to follow, that requires a conquest of one's ego.

There is a great deal to learn in one's spiritual journey. I believe there are great truths in the world's major religions as well as in the writings of modern spiritual teachers. As a result of joining this church, I have been introduced to the writings of Eckhart Tolle and Don Miguel Ruiz, and both have enriched my life. Because Christianity has been so distorted for so long, there is much to say about how the Bible has been misunderstood, and why it is just wrong in places. But equally true is the fact that there is much good in the Bible and Christianity which has been obscured for a variety of historical reasons. For those raised in a church, eliminating the false ideas and negativity and properly understanding the Bible is a critical first step in rejecting original sin and replacing it with original blessing, which sets the stage for one's spiritual development.

This fall I will offer several series of Bible studies that will hopefully help people in understanding this: I will cover topics such as how the gospels were written, how they were influenced by historical events, how they are to be interpreted, why they say what they do, why they are not to be interpreted literally, etc. These topics will help you understand Christianity and thus its role not only in our personal lives, but in the culture and politics of our country.

In addition to the Bible study lectures I will offer this fall, our group will listen to and discuss the audio recordings of Andrew Harvey, a man who is very intelligent, articulate, and passionate. He is very new to me, and I am not yet able to endorse all he has to say, but I can promise you that he will challenge you with his profound message, which is one of imitating Jesus to effect a personal transformation. The plan for our group is to alternate between my academic lectures on the New Testament and early Christian history, and Andrew Harvey's very spiritual message of attaining a personal union with God.

For me and others in the second polarity of Christianity, Jesus is neither the third member of a trinitarian God, nor a sacrifice for human sin, but is instead a fully human man who is both a messenger of God's great love and a role model we can imitate. Jesus shows us what we can become. Jesus exemplified what Andrew Harvey calls the divine human, which, regardless of whether you like the term or not, means the fully conscious, loving, joyful person each of us can become if we follow the path Jesus took in his earthly life. I have only recently begun to hear Andrew Harvey's message, but already it is clear to me that he takes Christianity to a whole new level. I am interested in learning more about his very spiritual message.

What I see occurring in our country today is that the fundamentalists are misrepresenting, even outright distorting, Christianity. Their often backwards understanding is reflected not only in the writings of many progressive Christian authors, but even in the titles of some books, such as Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bruce Bawer's Stealing Jesus, and Meyer's Saving Jesus from the Church. But much worse than providing motivation for book titles, fundamentalist Christianity is preventing many, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, from seeing what Jesus was really all about. This idea is reflected in the quote I selected from John Shelby Spong, Christianity is like a swimming pool. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end. The vocal nature of the fundamentalists has allowed them to convince most people that their version of Christianity is the only one. What I am telling you today is that it is not. Progressive and mystic Christianity offer a positive understanding of God and life that surpasses anything I see anywhere else.

I hope many of you will join our group this fall, starting this Wednesday evening, as we swim into the deeper waters of the pool that is Christianity.

Copyright © 2014 Steve Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

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