A young man loses his wife while their baby escapes without injury. In abject grief he reaches out to a friend for solace. What words of comfort are even possible? How can Jesus repair and renew these lives in this world?
Author Bruce Chilton begins in the everyday. He shows how following Jesus not only repairs shattered lives, but renews them. While no broken life is ever simply reassembled and although there is no magic going back to the pristine, repair and renewal will empower us to truly live and love again. But our path requires something from usmindful practice of Jesus' teachings about the soul, spirit, kingdom, insight, forgiveness, mercy, and glory.
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The Way of Jesus
To Repair and Renew the World
By Bruce Chilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Each and every one of us is earth.
Earth is not merely the planet we live on, or the environment we live in. Earth's seas flow in our veins, earth's soil nourishes us, and earth's minerals frame our bones. Our species survives by the same organic power and complexity that enables eagles to fly and whales to sing.
Knowing who you are as a living being begins with recognizing two apparently opposite truths at one and the same time. The book of Genesis puts both these truths in poetic, prescientific language. "You are dust," Yahweh says to the first man in the primordial garden, "and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). But when Yahweh formed this man from dust and water, Genesis also says that "He breathed into his nostrils breath of life, and the man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:6-7). Dust we are, but dust that has been watered, shaped, and animated by a power larger than any that is known from human experience.
Genesis understands humanity as a torn condition, limitation paired with an inkling of immortality. Knowing that we are limited comes with the awareness of a force deeper, stronger, and more enduring than we can aspire to be.
Contradictions are not easy to live with.
Holding in balance the two truths of the Soul, its limitation and its sense of immortality, is among the greatest challenges a human being can face. It is easy, and a frequent human failing, to try to pass oneself off as more powerful than is truly the case, to evade the truth of limitation. From the worst tyrants of human history to the petty bullies who have ruined the lives of countless families, the drive to pretend to more control than one can really exert is typically and tragically human.
Equally typical is the opposite response: the despair that expects nothing but the short life one has been allotted until the inevitable death comes. This advice is explored in the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most challenging works in the Bible, "I have seen all the works done under the sun, and look—all are vanity and chasing after wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14). A similar attitude is expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre, the twentieth-century Existentialist: "When you live alone you no longer know what it is to tell something: the plausible disappears at the same time as the friends. You let events flow past; suddenly you see people pop up who speak and who go away, you plunge into stories without beginning or end."
Both the desire to dominate events and bleak despair arise in the emotional lives of many people and are woven into the events of human history. If human capacities were infinite, domination might seem plausible; even then, what would happen when two infinitely capable human beings disagreed with one another? If all we had to say about life, on the other hand, is that it is difficult and then ends, then despair would have to be recommended.
Western philosophers have made careers out of attempting to reduce the ambivalence of the human Soul to one alternative or the other. Between Friedrich Nietzsche's ideal of the superman and Sartre's recommendation of living with a sense of emptiness, there seems little to choose. But other thinkers, especially from the ancient world, have understood that the Soul is ambivalent by its nature. Authentic wisdom involves coming to terms with both human mortality and the human aspiration to eternity.
The term "soul" in Hebrew (nephesh) can also be translated as "breath" or "life" or "self," depending upon the context involved. The word takes its root, as do the analogous terms in other ancient languages, in the fact that we breathe. In the myth of Genesis, Yahweh infuses breath into Adam's being. People instinctively know that breathing is an absolute requirement of their lives, yet what we breathe in and breathe out is both inside us and outside us, beyond our control. The very act of breathing is both an unconscious and a conscious action, a response that volition can only partially control.
The dichotomy of the Soul, as both a limited identity and yet brushing up against what is eternal, is like the paradox of breath, which involves a small sack of air in a sea of comparatively limitless atmosphere. No wonder human beings, who are capable of self-awareness, desire logical answers to the question of who they are. How can we be finite while we have a sense of what is infinite and eternal?
Sometimes people attempt to choose either limitation within the world or superiority over the world as the true root of the complexity of their lives. Logic naturally wants to reduce events and problems to simple causes. Yet sometimes simplicity distorts more than it explains, and experience shows that seeing people on only one side of the dichotomy between limitation and eternity is a deceptive distortion. To be human includes living with the paradox of being both limited and transcendent, unpredictably vulnerable and strong at one and the same time.
Perhaps the greatest sage of the human Soul was Lao Tsu, a sixth-century B.C.E. Chinese mystic who taught of what he called the "Tao," or the path of life. He said:
The universe is everlasting.
The reason the universe is everlasting
Is that it does not live for Self.
Therefore it can long endure.
Therefore the Sage puts himself last,
And finds himself in the foremost place;
Regards his body as accidental,
And his body is thereby preserved.
Is it not because he does not live for Self
That his Self is realized?
In this case as in many others, the genius of Lao Tsu lies not in his inventiveness but in his capacity to distill the wisdom of many centuries and cultures into a single, clear insight. What he says represents the wisdom of the ancient world in aggregate. Although the specific view of the Soul or self varied from culture to culture (and within each culture), the wonderful fragility of human being in its pilgrimage toward eternity remains a staple of ancient religious inheritance.
Jesus knew about this primordial inheritance principally through the Judaism of his own culture. But his native Galilee was also shaped by powerful influences outside of Judaism. The Roman occupation of Galilee, begun during the first century B.C.E., brought Greco-Roman culture to Jesus' world. Centuries before that, conquest by the imperial powers of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the successors of Alexander the Great, as well as trade with cities as far away as India and China, made Galilee a crucible of religious ideas. At the same time Galilean Jews resorted to their Judaic inheritance—in oral form, since they were illiterate for the most part—in order to withstand absorption by Rome.
In his thinking about the Soul, naphsha' in the Galilean Aramaic of his period, Jesus assumed the inherited wealth of ancient religious wisdom. At no point does he offer a basic definition of what naphsha' is, because his disciples already understood that. We need to know what they knew about the Soul to appreciate Jesus' teaching.
Jesus presented his own, acute version of the wisdom of Lao Tsu, insisting on the power of selflessness. His teaching grew darker over time, as conflict with the political authorities in Jerusalem became acute and he realized that death at the hands of the Romans might come to him in the shameful, degrading form of crucifixion. But Jesus' words signal to his followers that even the most disgraceful of executions can open the way of life (Mark 8:34, translated from the Greek text): "If anyone wants to come after me, deny himself and take his cross and follow me!"
After this challenging call, Mark's Gospel has Jesus add that "Whoever wishes to save his own life, will ruin it, but whoever will ruin his life for me and the message will save it" (Mark 8:35). That puts the same underlying wisdom in more general, abstract terms. The Gospels often use repetition and paraphrase to convey Jesus' difficult teachings. In the case of these two sayings, a single truth, that the self needs to be lost for the self to be gained, is expressed as an imperative, to take up the cross, and as a proverb, about how to save one's life. These are teachings designed for meditation and careful incorporation into life, not just for quick learning or routine acceptance. Those who put Mark's Gospel together from oral sources show us that they appreciated Jesus was speaking on the basis of common ancient wisdom, such as Lao Tsu also articulated, with a deep engagement with the quest to discover the true resources of the Soul.
Both Jesus and Lao-Tsu vehemently challenged the way many people through the ages have preferred to see their Souls. It would be an enormous consolation if, in the midst of all the changes and anxiety and pain of this life, each of us could think of having within us a spark of eternity, a changeless nucleus of ourselves that no power on earth could take away. From time to time during its history, especially during the Middle Ages, that was how Christianity presented the human Soul, enabling poets such as Dante to describe the journey of men's Souls in either hell or heaven, depending upon their deeds. In either case, Dante portrayed the Soul as an indelible possession.
Dante, together with other medieval thinkers, showed the influence more of Stoic philosophy than the Christian religion. Stoics from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (during the second century) to Boethius (during the sixth century) conceived of the Soul as a vital spark, a calm within the storm of life in which a wise man could seek refuge. The idea of the Soul as inherently immortal remains current today and derives from our primeval past, just as the apprehension of the Soul's fragility does.
Between those two alternatives, however, both Lao-Tsu and Jesus came down on the side of the Soul's fragility, its inherent transience. Lao-Tsu spoke as a philosopher, Jesus as a prophet. But that difference between them in no way implies that Jesus was not coherent in his message about the human Soul. Rather, with great variety of metaphor and wording, he hammered home a persistent message: the Soul was destined to be lost; only radical means could rescue it.
Jesus' challenge comes across in several of his most vivid and memorable statements, about the first being last and the last being first, about his purpose and the purpose of any disciple—to serve rather than to be served, about becoming child in order to convey the power and presence of God. Each of these principles is repeated, tailored to suit its particular position in the Gospel and the passage in which it appears. The ability to bring his grounding themes to bear in a variety of circumstances, but always in ways that insisted on our common humanity, constituted a profound and persistent element of Jesus' teaching.
Jesus did not teach a message of unrelieved pain, or of self-denial for its own sake. The fact of the Soul's fragility could become the gateway to breakthrough, as he says in the Gospel according to John (12:24):
Unless a germ of wheat has fallen to the ground and died, it remains alone.
But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
John's presentation sums up the same principle that comes to expression in the earlier Gospels in varying ways.
Sometimes in Christian history, Jesus' teaching—clear and repeated though it is—has been ignored by those who say that they have faith in him. There is no reason to suppose that the distortion of his message has been deliberate in every case (although examples of deliberate, self-interested manipulation are all too well known). Men and women of genuine and deep faith can easily confuse the fashions and ideologies of their own communities with the truths that Jesus taught. Jesus himself lived in a cultural margin, without access to the power of Rome or to the privileged status of the priests in the Temple. Precisely because he was powerless, he could see the world without the distorting lens of those whose vision is warped by the self-interested desire to see their values, their way of life, their philosophy, elevated to the level of immutable, divine dogma.
The deviation of medieval Christianity from Jesus' teaching into Stoicism provides one example of that warping influence, but the tale of distortion carries on until our time. Time magazine published a cover story about what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, the beliefs that (1) God wants believers to be rich, and in particular that (2) if you give money to God, God will see to it that you will receive more money. Time reported that 61 percent of American Christians believe the first statement, and that 31 percent of them believe the second. Numbers of that kind need to be used with caution. People interrupted in the midst of shopping or other activities are not likely to answer a pollster's questions with great care. Time's numbers nonetheless suggest that the Prosperity Gospel has found resonance among Christian believers in the United States.
Preachers of the Prosperity Gospel in Time's report are by and large more likely to be found on television than in pulpits. The economic situation of televangelists is pretty straightforward: because their medium is expensive, they need to raise a great deal of money in order to broadcast. The most effective means to achieve that aim is to exploit their obvious advantage—immediate contact with people who watch television. A television broadcast can easily reach a large viewer base; even a small broadcast area will compete for the attention of more people than can be fit into almost any local church. Televangelists are driven economically to reach widely with the least common denominator of faith, and they have no financial incentive to dig deep into the commitment of their viewers, or to verify the theology they use to win a bigger viewership.
Viewers whose level of commitment is low or marginal in no way harm a televangelist. All he or she needs to do is convince enough people to give sufficient money—directly or by means of advertising—to meet his or her expenses and generate a profit. In fact, insofar as turning on a television set and sending in a donation is easier and cheaper to do than setting out for church each Sunday ready to contribute enough to keep the congregation going, televangelists can exploit a market advantage.
This market advantage among relatively uncommitted viewers can be improved, if the claims of the Prosperity Gospel can convince viewers that by giving money they will earn profits. In effect, each televangelist can conduct a pyramid scheme, in which his or her prosperity advertises the advantage of giving generously to his or her ministry. Provided enough people respond to meet expenses, the operation means greater wealth for him or her. Whatever you think of the theology involved, it should work for the preachers who promote the scheme, and so it has.
The commercial profit offered by the Prosperity Gospel helps explain why televangelists have also invented a Prosperity Jesus, who promises rewards to those who obey him. Sometimes the appeal of this Jesus has to be wrestled out of the Gospels with little care for what they say. Take this example: "Jesus seldom attended funerals. When He did, it was to arrest death and stop the ceremony."
The logic behind this claim is as tortured as it is superficial, relying on the assumption that, except for those few cases when Jesus performed the most memorable of his healings, he never participated in the simple duty of burying the dead, which the Torah of Moses commands. Worse, proclaiming a Gospel without pain contradicts Jesus' teaching, repeated in the pages of the New Testament, that service is the gateway to life, rather than selfaggrandizement. As a result, Prosperity preachers are easy targets for theologians—or, for that matter, people who read the New Testament carefully— especially when they are renowned for expensive cars, cosmetic surgery, and designer clothing.
The fact that a target is easy, however, does not make it the right target. The appeal of the Prosperity Gospel is rooted, not so much in the skill of its preachers—who rely on standard methods of merchandising—but in the feeling of desperation among many Americans. Most of us at least some of the time already experience life as a burden, plagued by anxieties in regard to how we can make our way in a competitive world or face illness or cope with the uncertainties that come with our complex economic environment. At those times, Jesus' call to take up your cross and follow him just sounds like an additional, painful burden. The Prosperity Gospel falsifies Jesus' teaching, but its bold appeal to what worries many people most means that it is more attractive to them than the more accurate, but less comforting, message that comes from scholars of the New Testament.
Excerpted from The Way of Jesus by Bruce Chilton. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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