I’ve been born again four – no, five times. Most of these were apologies, or restorations following a year of backsliding, or attempts to learn how to speak in tongues at summer camp.
The first time, though, when my older siblings lined up at my bed on the night of my fourth birthday, whispering how I’d go to Hell if I didn’t invite Jesus into my heart – that was when it really took. A shaft of light from the hall fell on my brand-new Children’s Bible, illuminating Jesus the Shepherd holding his lost lamb. I squeezed my eyes shut, clasped my hands together, and prayed:
“Dear Jesus, I repent of my sins. Please come into my heart and let me be saved, so when I die I’ll come to Heaven and not Hell.”
It was as if he put down the sheep, strode off the Bible cover, and picked up my psyche in his arms. Saved isn’t really the word for it. But it does have something to do with redemption.
Jesus stood by through all the times I cursed God, from childhood to adulthood. He folded his arms and waited out the smoky parties, the tangled sweaty orgies, the psychedelic trips, the Battle of the Bands mosh pits, the pot habit. Later on, he smiled indulgently as I began weaving Pagan earth rituals into the fabric of my year. He looked on as I undertook a practise of meditation and yoga. He even remained mute when I went so far as to roundly debate and deny his very existence.
Nope – Jesus won’t go away. It doesn’t matter that I fail to embrace most of the theological dogma surrounding his aftermath (ie. the Christian religion). To my mind, the edifice of holiness constructed around him since he lived and died has less to do with following his teachings and more to do with institutionalising an avatar. It’s the old problem of staring at the finger pointing to the moon, instead of admiring the moon itself.
I’m not a biblical scholar by any stretch, but I haven’t seen many passages in the New Testament where Jesus commands his followers to bow down and worship him. He does utter a load of wacky statements about being the Son of Man and coming again in the fullness of time – but hey, every guru has his cloud of metaphor, right? I don’t presume to know what was going on in the mind of the man; I just appreciate his vision.
Before we go there, though, I have to deal with the question of “the man”. Plenty of folks, experts included, insist there never was a Jesus at all. The time when he was supposed to have lived was a tumultuous time; the Jews were claiming their place in the world, protesting Roman oppression, society was ripe for change, and everyone was on the lookout for a Messiah, a Saviour, a Christ. A million and one religious mystics journeyed the land promoting new versions of the gospel – the inevitable, dramatic rescue of the Jews and their land from enslavement by the Romans. Plenty of people were crucified for subverting the ruling regime during that era.
Jesus could have been a composite of any number of these prophets, and his resurrection may have been mere rumour. In those days, people believed wholeheartedly in acts of God; in fact, their worldview was predicated upon such acts. They didn’t possess an objective approach to natural or social phenomena. Everything that happened was God, or came from God. And it’s entirely possible that several accounts of rebellion could have co-mingled into one story of supreme saving grace.
There’s also the possibility that after Jesus – whoever, whatever he was – died, some of his pals actually did have visions of him, interacting with those visions to such an extent that they believed he was truly present.
Or, heck, while we’re exploring options here, why don’t we put forth the most obvious of all – he really died, and he really did arise from the dead in a miraculous fluke of nature. Nowadays there are still plenty of occurrences that seem to defy the natural order; some people get cancer and then wake up one morning with no trace of a tumour, right?
So, fine. Who knows if the guy was one or many, divine or human? Who knows if he didn’t actually die on the cross, but was whisked away in the night by his friends, barely alive, and then resuscitated. Perhaps he was actually dead as a doornail and his followers concocted an amazing story; it’s not as if there was fact-checking in those days.
Call it a 4-year-old’s gullibility, but to me, none of that matters. My “faith” in Jesus has little or nothing to do with the need to believe certain stories about him. My faith rests solely on his vision for humanity.
Jesus was the first human rights crusader this world has ever adopted as one of its major leaders. His ideas form the basis of everything we consider indispensable to a just and fair society. He openly opposed classism, ageism, exclusionary practises, heirarchy, and sexism. He pointed out repeatedly the equality inherent in all human beings and our rightful need for compassion, friendship, and mercy.
He said that anyone can be a corrupt asshole on the inside, regardless what rituals they follow, clothes they wear, or money they pull out of their pockets to dump into whatever coffers. He said that anyone can have a true and honest heart – prostitutes, beggars and thieves included.
Not only did he say these things, but he actively put them into play by eschewing the existing social order of pure versus impure, and fit versus unfit. He made friends with the most reviled folks in his society, spent time with the disabled and healed anyone who came to him with a humble heart.
If he showed up now, I think he’d scoff at the fact that there’s even been a debate going on as to whether gays should be allowed to be clergy, or to be married, or to be church members. He’d laugh and slap his forehead, point his finger at the moon again, and say “Will they ever get it?”
Then a lot of church people would gasp and shout, “The Second Coming! Jesus is back! Look at his beautiful finger! Worship it! Oh and, by the way . . . gays shouldn’t love each other and they shouldn’t be allowed to teach us anything either. Oh, and we need to develop a communal forehead-slapping ritual.”
See, what we Westerners promote as “liberal values” is, in effect, a couple thousand years of social evolution applied to the shockingly advanced ideas of Jesus. The institutionalisation of sexism, heirarchy, and exclusion, in his name, have been accomplished by people – mostly men – who frankly missed the point. They used his popular message to construct an edifice of power for themselves. Ontological anxiety has always been wielded to control the masses – it’s the story of the ages.
But so is the story of Jesus. The very substance of his ideas has spread like wildfire all over the world. They just make sense. I’m not talking about the theme perpetuated by warring men, of “Convert, or I’ll burn down your village and rape your wife.” I’m talking about his message of compassion.
Jesus’ message involves the concept of rising above, and out of, the pattern of abusing others for purposes of holding onto power. It illustrates the hope that most people have of being safe, respected, and valued regardless of income, sex, race, or station in life. And, it proves that in spite of madness and death – in spite of the blatant misuse of the very terms of his redemptive message, this hope lives on in our hearts and minds.
So, do I believe in God, a puppeteer who manipulates scenes on a world stage in order to prove some Divine Point? No. I believe in God as the story of hope, kindness, and joy that continues to prevail out of the selfish, dead wastes of this world. All the terrible human behaviour just keeps resulting in love, and more love.
That’s the moon.
Is Jesus still in my heart? You bet. And guess what – if you feel any resonance with the concepts of human rights, justice, fairness, and peace, then he’s in yours too.
Like it or not, good old JC is at the heart of Western society as we know it.