Mining the Legacy of Religious Thought

I invite you to place yourself in the position of a precocious child who, without secular or religious preconceptions, looks at the history of the human race over the last five thousand years, and asks the following question: What lasting values have religions contributed to human life?

Seen though that child’s innocent eyes, we might recognize that religions, with all their flaws, have generated several powerful ideas without which our collective life would be impoverished. I would add, as a matter of personal observation, that the enduring quality of these Great Ideas is neither accidental nor arbitrary, any more than the discovery of the wheel, or the evolutionary development of the eye can be discounted as one time accidents of nature.

The Great Ideas of religion have survived because they were based on the deep, authentic insights into universal moral reality in exactly the same sense that the wheel and the eye represent authentic insights into the universal principles of engineering.

Over time, religious communities have incorporated these Great Ideas into effective belief systems that include and support the fundamental ethical precepts on which civilization is founded. Each of these ideas has demonstrated immense life-affirming value. Even secularists can reasonably worry about whether civilization can long survive without the underlying support provided by religiously grounded moral belief.

This is why religion remains vitally relevant to the 21st century human condition even for the non-believers who, after all, will suffer the consequences of moral free fall with everyone else.

Among the Great Insights that religions have contributed to our species, I find the following six to be most significant to our long term survival:

  1. The perception, common the Buddhist insight and the testimony of religious mystics for several millennia, that when one’s individual ego is stripped bare of its narrowness and self limiting preoccupations, we discover the deep underlying commonality of all being.
  2. Boundary crossing compassion, the common moral wellspring of Buddhism and Christianity.
  3. Overlapping individual being and ultimate being, first described in the Vedantic/Hindu as the “atman” and “brahman,” and echoed in Judaism’s creation account of human made in G-d’s image.
  4. Our access to the individual/divine dialogue, that intimate, inspiring, and challenging relationship with Ultimate Being that is preserved in Judaism and exemplified in the life of Jesus.
  5. The promise of eventual, ultimate justice, the common theological expectation of the three Abrahamic religions- Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
  6. The possibility of redemption/rebirth during life, a notion that is rooted in the Christian experience.


What was Unique to the Jesus Event?

Once upon a time, early in the first century C.E., a Palestinian Jewish holy man, a Hassidim, an itinerant Rabbi from a tiny Galilean coastal village, emerged within the contentious world of Roman-occupied Judea to become an immensely popular figure in the region. Some of his fellow Jews saw him as their Messiah, the liberating King of the Jews, who would simultaneously challenge the corrupt rule of the Herod dynasty and take on the pagan occupation of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ actual challenge was at once more subtle, his title more ambiguous, and his impact more far reaching than that. His murder at the hands of the occupying Roman authorities was the most spectacularly failed execution in history.

Jesus’ appearance in history was a signal, history changing event. I believe that the Jesus Event was as significant to the development of civilization as the domestication of fire. It simultaneously represented the incarnation or emergent exemplar in our reality of each of the great universal religious insights I’ve just identified. And (this is the key to the “value added” part) it represents an invitation to our species to engage in an ongoing process of recovery. For me, this process began with a clean-sheet-of-paper, a re-evaluation of all of the “givens” that surrounded the life and teachings of the Christianity’s Prime Mover.

My own path of inquiry has led me on a continuing process of intellectual, introspective and spiritual recovery, in part:

(1) Of Jesus’ life and teachings as part of Judaism’s ongoing development as a world religion;

(2) Of his crucifixion and the ensuing events within Christianity as part of the eternal challenge to arbitrary authority;

(3) Of his presence at a unique time and place as the carrier of the seeds of a social and cultural transformation that is ongoing more than 2,000 years later;

(4) Of some of the humor and subtlety of his message;

(5) Of the muscular, heroic underlying stance of his teaching, especially as it relates to evil;

(6) Of the palpable authenticity of the divine presence in his life, suffering, death and eternal reappearance to the world;

(7) Of the raw fact of his appearance among us as an Intervention, an in-breaking within actual human history of the divine person, the full implications of which have yet to be fully expressed.


Recovering the Humor & Subtlety of Jesus’ Message

If we are to take seriously the promise that G-d loves us, then it follows that G-d has a sense of humor. After all, who could love Homo Sapiens without a combination of tears and laughter? Would it be such a surprise to discover that the Son came fully equipped with the Father’s sense of humor? Surely Jesus (Jeshua) was a funny and loveable Being.

My confession: I’m weary of the tendentious, over-the-top serious, even surreal, portraits of Jesus. We are suffering from a poverty of portrayal. This was a singularly charismatic, immensely popular figure, one happily consorting with whores and tax collectors, one preaching generosity of spirit and inspiring selfless love. You bet he was also funny.

Jesus’ wit was subtle and multi-layered, sometimes sharp as a razor, on other occasions soft as a gentle quip. I suspect that we are missing Jesus’ most endearing qualities because the Gospels tend to present a Gentile portrait of a Jewish male. It sometimes seems as if we were left with an icon drained of all humanity. His rabbinical genius, Jewish humor and authentic vulnerability, when limned against the power of divine integrity, would have been so startling, inspiring and compellingly memorable that the events of His life would have survived forever in the collective species’ memory, even without that spectacularly failed Roman execution.

I would love to see a scriptural archeology project aimed at recovering the full range of the embedded humor and subtlety of the entire corpus of Jesus’ teachings. But that project is beyond the scope of this work (and probably beyond the recovered record). But there are hints about what such a project might eventually yield….

A Humor Recovery Project

(Would that we could do more.)

I think we can discern examples of his Jewish humor buried under the layers of all that serious prose. This is possible because the layers are thinner in some places than others, and the gift of Jewish humor is still a living part of our culture. After all, Jesus was a Jewish male and some things never change…


Jesus taught that it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the “eye of the needle”. I believe he was deliberately mixing some of the following images for humorous effect:

(a) The image of a huge dromedary passing through a tiny aperture… an obvious impossibility, and a critique of the self-satisfied, self-important persons of the world that would have been softened by its comic overtones.

(b) A reference to the “eye of the needle” as the smaller doorway to Jerusalem when the larger double gates were closed. According to a legend that has been extant for several hundred years, this was an entrance that required those who were riding camels piled high with goods to dismount and lower the profile of their burdens before passing under the barrier. [The term “eye of the needle” for that legendary gate has been applied to a real Jerusalem gate within historical memory. As with any attempt to recover truly ancient usage, we don’t have definitive proof of the first century “gate” account.]

(c) The “eye of the needle” as a colloquial reference to a rigorous course of religious study (presumably of the Torah). This is something well beyond the capability of any beast of burden. Again, this idea has surfaced in fairly recent discussions and the supporting scholarly evidence for it is thin. Still, I’m charmed by a particularly comical image. Imagine a famous rabbi greeting a class of Bar Mitzvah candidates: “Who will be my star pupil?” the Rabbi asks. Then he looks at Levi, Joseph, Aaron, David, and … Drommy, the drooling camel….

(d) The Aramaic/Greek puns. The Greek word for camel, kamilos, would have been taken from the original Aramaic word gamla which means both camel and rope. Some scholars have noted the similarly pronounced Aramaic word, kalma, which means vermin, gnat, or louse. Try getting that through a needle’s eye.

From time to time, the Rabbi Jesus was confronted with his fellow Jews’ reluctant accommodation to the occupying Roman authorities. One day, a devout, practicing Jew vented his frustrated at the tax collectors who supported the profane occupation of Israel. He asked Jesus: “Rabbi, must we keep paying taxes to this pagan empire?”

We can imagine Jesus looking very thoughtful. Then smiling wryly, he asks his questioner for a coin. “So!” He holds up the Roman coin (Mark describes a drachma, but it could also have been the copper/bronze as). “Whose picture do you see?”

“Caesar!” the questioner says.

Then we can imagine Jesus pointing at the fields, the sky and the people gathered around him. “Whose picture is on these things?” [Knowing nods follow.] “Just so… Give to the Lord God that which is his…” You can imagine the rabbi’s eyes twinkle as he added, “…and give to Caesar…” [He returns the coin to his questioner with a wink.] “…that which belongs to Caesar.”

On another occasion (in Mathew 16), Jesus was sought out by a committee of local religious leaders who were curious whether this popular itinerant rabbi could be a “true” prophet. A leader asked him, “So, if you’re such a great prophet, can you show us a sign from heaven?”

“Heaven?” Jesus looked up at the sky, squinting. “You read the signs from heaven all the time. I imagine you noticed the red sky last evening? That was supposed to be a sign of today’s fair weather. But this morning the sky was red and a storm was gathering.”

But it was a sunny day and Jesus smiled and shrugged. “Reading the signs of weather in the sky is easy compared to reading the signs of our times.”

“What signs are those?”

“You well know the evils of this adulterous generation. So you have to ask?”

Jesus’ questioner looked puzzled.

Jesus put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “What sign did God give Jonah?”

“Jonah?” The Rabbi’s question had caused a thoughtful smile. “Jonah fled to sea because he refused to hear the Lord’s request of him. But a great storm came up; Jonah was cast overboard; was swallowed by a fish; and spat out on dry land after three days.”

“So you still need to ask?”

A Common Sense Recovery Project

(Let’s not forget the practical context…)

Jesus can be readily distinguished from the Buddha and many other sages and avatars of religious thought by his specifically human ethical engagement with the real world. Nothing in his teachings lends reasonable support for the notion that human concerns are equal to those of animals and plants, much less the perverse notion that they are in any way subordinate to them.[1] And nothing supports the notion that the pure spirits among us are to forever retreat to a quiet place and ignore the world.

In recent years it has become fashionable to portray Jesus as the supreme exemplar of a trans-moral, “non-judgmental” pacifism, one for whom robust moral judgment is supplanted by a New Age fog of “good will”. In this post-modern construct, Jesus becomes the perpetual excuse; his teachings are distorted to obliterate the requirement that we amend our ways and make amends (when possible) to those whom we have wronged.

Do note: By pacifist, I’m not referring to one who simply prefers a state of peace in human relations. In that sense, most soldiers most of the time are pacifists. [Although even in this respect, we need to carefully note Jesus’ announcement that he was not placed among us to bring “peace-as-acquiescence” but that his very word would sow discord, dividing parents and children, sister and brother, and so on.]

I gladly acknowledge and respect the position of personal pacifism. Indeed we tend to expect such gentleness of spirit from our spiritual mentors. But even our gurus need guards.

By pacifist, I’m referring to the relatively recent notion of uncompromising non-violence as universal policy.[2] This is the extreme stance that abjures forcible self defense and counsels us to confront even criminal assault with flight at best, passive acceptance at worst. I can identify several biblical sources for this perverse notion. I believe all of them represent a distortion of Jesus’ core message, founded in dissociation from the context of the original wrong. These passages have been misused to impose unreasonable constraints on the appropriate and sensible response of any potential victim to criminal aggression:

The injunction to love one’s neighbor as one’s self cannot reasonably be construed to mandate nonresistance to an actual assault, especially if one’s neighbor is in the grip of an evil mindset. After all, were I in the grip of evil mindset, I would want to be prevented by any force necessary from carrying out an evil act. To prevent me would be an act of love.

Moreover, this simple injunction to love cannot reasonably be construed to bar capital punishment. The love one’s neighbor rule first occurs in Leviticus 19/18. Recalling that Jesus is quoted by the Gospel’s as not abrogating, but fulfilling the Torah law, we are reminded that Leviticus sets out a whole series of prohibitions that include the following injunction: “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death.” Lev. 20/9. Clearly, the injunction to love one’s enemies, means to love one’s competitors, not those miscreants whose aberrant acts make them agents of “Satan”, i.e., of evil incarnate. [The question of capital punishment as public policy is a complicated one, left to another work entirely. Suffice it to say, that Jesus is on record opposing the stoning execution of an accused prostitute, not the execution of serial murderers. Opponents of capital punishment who are relying on Rabbi Jesus for moral authority need to be reminded of his proposed fate for those who would harm innocent children: Better that they are thrown into the sea with a millstone about the neck!]

The advice to “turn the other cheek” when slapped represents a specific strategy to be used by Jesus’ disciples who were enjoined to travel the Roman roads to proselytize their fellow Jews. Because this subversive activity took place under the very noses of Roman soldiers, Jesus’ disciples were expected not to provoke the soldiers, but to get quickly on to the next village and spread the word.[3]

We can accept Jesus’ central teachings that counsel us to be generous to those in need. But his injunction to respond to someone (think of a Roman soldier) who “asks” you to carry a burden for one mile by carrying it instead for two miles reveals something more. As some have suggested, it may also be a clever civil disobedience stratagem. For the ubiquitous Roman soldiers whose superiors forbade them to impress local labor to carry their burdens for more than two miles, to “go the extra mile” risked getting these soldiers in trouble.[4]


Without a doubt, Jesus the man was a loveable trouble maker, a complex, brilliant figure who lived in an ongoing and fruitful state of tension with the divine. I suspect that little record is preserved of his childhood because his divine calling hadn’t matured into a recognizably active divine presence. We first meet him in the Gospel accounts as an adult in whom his putative cousin, John the Baptist, himself a charismatic religious figure, saw profound evidence of divine attention. The emergence of the divine person became unmistakable when Jesus execution failed to extinguish his persona.

As a force in history, Jesus/Jeshua began a Jewish Rabbi, who referred to himself as the “Son of Man”, a title that placed him on a level with Moses and Isaiah. The claims of his status as THE Jewish messiah were at once understated and overstated. His description as the Son of God was at once consonant with Jewish tradition (alternately the appellation given a holy man or the messiah) and as code for much more. I see Jesus’ description as divine son as signaling a moral authority that was sufficient to inaugurate the radical universalization of the Torah. Recall that the Rabbi Hillel, when called upon to summarize the Torah, simply recited a version of the biblical injunction (Leviticus) to love one’s neighbor as a summary of the entire corpus of the law. [All the rest is commentary. Go and study!] The gospel of Luke (10:25-37) captures a similar encounter with Jesus. [An inquirer asks “Rabbi, what does is required of me to have eternal life? Jesus recites the Shema – “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind” and adds the injunction from Leviticus “Love your neighbor as yourself”.]

I interpret the image of Jesus’ divine Sonship as a reference to his incarnation of the shema. Indeed, we can discern with hindsight that a primary goal of Jesus’ life-in-history was to incarnate that universal religious insight in order to make it available in a concentrated living form to all the nations. Therefore in one sense, Jesus’ life was the incarnation of all that was best in the Jewish religious tradition, and in another sense, his life, death and rebirth empowered the core message to jump sectarian boundaries.

His life, ministry, teachings, unjust execution and resurrection to his followers were destined to radically change the notion of messiah itself for about one billion humans. By making the notion of a divinely anointed liberator available to all (gentile and Jew alike) Jesus-as-Christ was able to transform history itself.

Like the precocious child in my first paragraph, I believe that all authentic world religions contain, express, and propagate certain universals (in the form of norms, ethical principles, and life stances). These universals are mutually consonant, reinforcing, and consistent with the underlying moral schema of the non-relativistic secular moral systems that support civilization in the best sense of that word.

I also believe that there are specific elements within Jesus’ life and teachings (some of which still need to be “recovered”) that embody the universals less well developed or expressed in the common discourse. In effect, the world has yet to fully appreciate the “value added” by his presence among us. Recovery of the messages and embedded truths implicit in the Jesus Event is ongoing.”


The traditional Christian religious narratives recount Jesus’ teachings, healing ministry, the circumstances of his crucifixion and resurrection, typically adding Paul’s letters as a coda.

The larger context is missing. The larger story is unfinished.

Even secular scholars acknowledge that the life of this single holy figure inaugurated a set of social changes that affected the very course of civilization. Many traditional Christians tend to miss this large scale context.

The impact of Jesus’ life and ministry is extraordinary on several levels. Recall that the Gospel accounts center on a single three year ministry in first century Palestine, followed by the attempts of the Apostle Paul and the rest to carry the message further. Two millennia later, the scope of the transformation process is staggering. And the changes are ongoing.

This raises several questions of equal interest to spiritual and secular students of the human condition: How did this ancient event drive the subsequent social transformation? How do we explain the portability of this singular ministry? How do we explain the huge scale of its effects?

There is a deceptively simple answer from the Christian community: “God did it.”

I’ve found it helpful to think about this whole topic as the “Jesus Event”, much as we might describe the great dinosaur extinction 66 million years BCE as a great day for the mammal community. It does compare with the major transformative moments in our species’ history and prehistory: Imagine if the discovery of fire or the development of bureaucracies or the prediction of the seasons could be dated and correlated to a single revolutionary figure in each instance.

Those secularists who acknowledge the importance of the Jesus Event tend to describe it an accidental (concededly benign) social mutation, one in which a single human life became a powerful catalyst for a multi-millennia social revolution. I believe the Jesus Event was a divine-mediated moral transformation in the human condition. Yet to really “get” this Event, we need to explore its implications.

God did what, exactly?

We have several clues. As I will develop in the next section, Christians and secular humanists alike can benefit by viewing the Jesus Event through the lens of the addiction recovery experience. Human civilization has long suffered from its own addictions — to the pursuit of power, to wealth, mean spiritedness, class divisions, shallow fame, narcissism, social position and empire. I will be making the case that the Jesus Event was an intervention directed at the human condition.

Not every one responds to an intervention the first time. The Jesus Event inaugurated a process of human liberation. The transformation of human culture was immense, and incomplete. Ever since Jesus walked the planet, our species has been in denial or recovery. The inauguration of profound, benign changes on this scale is never accidental.


The Twelve Step rehabilitation program was a remarkably powerful innovation in human transformation, originating in mid-1930’s New York as a result of the collaboration of AA co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith with Episcopalian Rector Sam Shoemaker and others. The handprints of the faith based community, particularly those shaped by the Christian experience, are all over the Twelve Step model. Spiritual elements remain explicit or implicit in all of Twelve Step’s many variations.

Addiction intervention and Twelve Step rehabilitation are topics covered in typical seminarians’ education, but too few deacons, priests and pastors have enjoyed hands-on experience with the actual intervention-rehabilitation process. This is unfortunate because those who witness a successful drug rehabilitation process from start to finish are much changed by it. We all benefit from the ministry training of those who spend time ministering to the sick and dying—the one ministry that remains relevant to all of us who will get sick and die. But the recovery ministry is powerful and informative on several deep levels.

Why is the rehabilitation experience so transformative, especially to those who witness at least one success? The success stems from the deeply universal nature of the model itself. Addiction rehabilitation closely tracks the intervention, resurrection, liberation, rebirth model central to the Christian perspective. This model was a profoundly important innovation in human moral repair. I believe it reveals an important lesson about the relevance of the Christian message to the human condition of the 21st century.

In a classic intervention, a man or woman addicted to alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, or narcotics (it’s a large and growing list of powerful psychotropic chemicals) is surrounded by a group of familiar faces — family, friends, and co-workers — and is pressured to recognize the addiction and to “get help”. If the intervention takes, the addict enters a recovery program (usually the twelve step model or a variation) and begins the arduous process of liberation from chemical addiction. Many fail at this, but, many, many succeed.

In my early years as a public defender I was a libertarian where most drugs are concerned. “Who are they hurting?” was the motto of the day. Then I saw the damage. It is now very clear to me that drug addiction is a tenacious form of chemical slavery. The “chains” in chemical slavery sometimes show up on a brain scan. Drug addiction is also “character poison”.

Achieving liberation is problematic in psychotropic chemical addictions, because the addict needs more than a mere change of mind. The addict’s very neural pathways are often altered in a way that liberation is rejected as an unwanted invasion. The volitional centers of the brain are directly affected. It’s as if abolitionists were to intercept the slave ship, break open the hold, offer to sever the chains holding the slaves, but find no volunteers.

Those who have seen the rehabilitation process will attest to two features common to nearly every successful recovery program:

  1. The success stories tend to take place against backdrop of authority, the classic “rule-consequences” model.  Participants are made aware of real world consequences for failure, often including criminal sanctions and loss of family.  I’ve witnessed a powerfully successful model, called the “drug court” -- it originated in Oakland in 1990. This model, developed by an Oakland Judge of my acquaintance (Jeff Tauber) and an addiction medicine specialist (Dr. Alex Stalcup), has been replicated in more than a thousand courtrooms across the country.  It succeeds partly because rehabilitation is supported by the prospect of penal sanctions for failure.  But the court’s sanctions are part of design to liberate, not destroy. The court does not intend to give up on the addict, and the sanctions are calibrated accordingly.  The addict is often tested, often fails, is always held accountable, sometimes gets jail, is then retested, sometimes fails again, and so on, but is encouraged and rewarded for progress. At several drug court graduations, I’ve seen the absolutely amazing, recurring and moving spectacle in which the judge comes down from the bench and the prosecutor from behind counsel table to hug the defendant.  I’ve seen tough guys cry.
  2. In successful rehabilitation cases the recovering addict almost always credits a higher power. As I began attending graduations in the recovery community, I witnessed that credit given over and over again.  The credit was always heartfelt and simply expressed, as “I couldn’t have done it without…” The higher authority was rarely linked to a particular theology, but the underlying legacy of the Christian rebirth model is implicit. Many times I saw a simple eloquent gesture, the forefinger pointed skyward, with a grateful smile. It seems that Ultimate Authority is a powerful element in addiction recovery. And that this element persistently operates whether the program is explicitly religious or nominally secular. 

There is a lot more to be said about classic intervention, but now I need to return to that First Intervention.

Recall the vision of G-d in Genesis, as the One who liberates. “I brought you out of Egypt…”

Addicts cling so fiercely to their bondage that even their threshold recovery requires a powerful force. Like the point of a fulcrum, an intervention is the focus and point of amplification of all the energies needed to pry a single trapped human being out of isolation and denial. Actual release from the confinement of chemical bondage is harder still, employing all the practical tools of recovery – counseling, group sessions, monitoring and accountability coupled with the spiritual tools pioneered in Twelve Step programs.

In the current century, one in which the hold of religious tradition has been profoundly weakened among the intelligentsia, people cling with the fierce, self destructive attachment of the drug addict to the pursuit of power, wealth, mean spiritedness, class divisions, shallow fame, narcissism, social position and empire.

These insights prepared me to recognize the First Intervention for what it was. Once this idea occurred to me, I was fascinated at how the little clue the immediate participants had about the length of the recovery time frame, and how utterly transformative this intervention was intended to be. They were like unconscious parts of a divine instrument hinged on a great fulcrum, a lever that was to move the very human condition to a new level.

The First Intervention took place under Roman rule in Judea during the First Century C.E. and the process of our recovery is barely underway.


Once this idea got into my mind, several insights followed. For years, I’ve been trying to get my mind around the developing, elaborate theology and liturgy of Christianity, to grasp how all this could really connect to the originating narrative of Jesus’ life. I began with the understanding that Paul took the core message (and some of the worship forms) of the early Judaic congregations who had accepted Jesus as Messiah, and carried it across cultures. In Paul’s singular act of proselytizing universalization, a splinter sect of Judaism became a huge world religion.

We flash forward many centuries later to find Christians carrying their banners in opposition to slavery. We can hardly doubt the moral authenticity of their position. But slavery was an institution whose fundamental legitimacy was not challenged in the 1st century by Jesus or anyone else of note, so deeply interwoven in the culture had it become. So Christians found themselves relying on Christ as authority to challenge an institution he, himself, did not.

It seems the larger story of Jesus’ teachings, execution, and return to humanity as the resurrected Son of God left so many implications to be worked out. New vexing issues arise constantly, well outside the First and Second Century understanding, yet developments and innovations in Christian ethical thinking continue to emerge.

How many times have we heard the question, “What would Jesus think?” More trivially, “Would Jesus drive a Hummer?” I found that analysis unsatisfactory.

So where, I thought, do all these “innovations” come from?

Those of us with a theological perspective tend to understand the developments in Christianity in the centuries that followed Jesus’ ministry as the subtle handiwork of a creator who guides and inspires receptive followers to understand the implications of the original message. This notion cut close to the answer, then….

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to see concert of “All Rise,” a work by Wynton Marsellis that combines orchestra, chorus and jazz combo, integrating the jazz, gospel and classical music idioms.

Before the concert, a musicologist pointed out that the composer had worked out the problem of integration of jazz improvisation and classical notation by using the “call-response” form so common in the African American Sunday worship experience. The formal, written music for the classical orchestra and chorus was the “call”, and the less structured, more in-the-moment restatement of the theme by the jazz combo was the “response.”

I was suddenly struck by a new thought. We’re that jazz combo.

In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we had the call. All the subsequent developments in human culture are the response. I believe that our creative adaptations of the original message are divinely mediated in subtle ways.


I am indebted for a wonderful parable told during a sermon I heard given by the Right Rev. Mark MacDonald, Episcopal Bishop of Alaska. He is charismatic, spiritual leader with Native American roots in Minnesota, and a fine gift for story telling. Alaska is blessed to have him.

Bishop Mark described his visit to a cranberry farm in his home state of Minnesota. The cultivated cranberry plants, he was told, are extremely fragile, requiring constant careful nurturing. “What are those?” he asked, pointed to a patch of very hardy looking growth outside the cultivated area. “Oh those are cranberry plants too. Those uncultivated ones are hard to kill.”

He went on to explain (in good humor) how the Christian message is much like those cranberry plants, struggling within the cultivated domain of the church, but flourishing and hardy outside the tender care of …he smiled… the clergy.

He talked about the power, vitality and hardy growth of Christian models that flourish outside any church. His example was the vitality and growth of the Twelve Step recovery programs as a form of Christian engagement without benefit of clergy. These recovery programs have proliferated, driven by the need for recovery from the bondage of addiction, even as many formal congregations have declined.

As he spoke, I thought about the creeping secularist erosion of the overt spiritual elements in drug recovery programs[5]. With the success and increased visibility of the drug court model, the tendency for many in government and the legal community to distrust faith based organizations has begun inhibit many recovery programs. God is being forced to go underground, again, I thought.

And then I thought about the stubborn reliance on a higher power by those who had experienced the bondage of addiction first hand. The addicts know.

I think there are a number of reasons that informal, home grown versions of Christian worship, engagement, and ministry tend to be more vigorous and prolific than many of those confined to consecrated buildings.

In the recovery communities, I note that the Christ-rebirth theme is so inherently powerful as a therapeutic model that the explicitly “Christian” elements can be reduced to an unstated subtext, without hurting the success rate. In fact, the absence of doctrinal underbrush (see my next to last section), allows the core message to find access points in minds that otherwise might reject the approach altogether.

There is the chardonnay vine factor. Vintners know that some grape plants make superior wine only when they are stressed by placing them in challenging soil. I think of the intensity and durability of the many worshiping communities that flourish underground in the places where Christianity is repressed.

And there is the “Tevye” factor. Let’s never forget Jesus’ Jewish heritage included a tradition – that his life fully exemplified – of direct, unmediated access to G-d, through a dialogue with the Father. Recall the character, Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, and his dialogues with G-d. Jesus intensified this Jewish tradition inviting, by example, an ongoing personal dialogue with the Father, unmediated by clergy.

Overcoming the almost ineluctable tendency of religious organizations to monopolize spiritual access is part of the early protestant experience, and is fully consonant with Jesus’ own example.

Finally, I’m reminded that home grown versions of Christianity are always need-driven, bottom up, and emergent. As in the recovery communities, they tend to be therapeutic adaptations, shaped by the originating human pain, bondage, isolation, and the relationships that form to overcome these things.


Christians agree that Jesus incarnated God but divide in their understanding of what that means, really. My own view is that the adult Jesus incarnated the most essential aspects of the divine nature that were needed for the Great Intervention.

For most of the non-Christian world, Jesus is known as a healer. This is a clue. Disease in all its forms represents a loss of integration. In Jesus, we are allowed to glimpse the divine and the broken in one person. [I come back to this topic later in the “Doctrinal Underbrush” section.]

Back to my question: What did Jesus incarnate? Of all the enlightened attributes exhibited by Jesus, I sense a single, divine core. I believe that Jesus incarnated the core divine message in a way that reaches us across the intervening millennia. The nature of this message explains both the call and the long, drawn out nature of the human response.

We’ve had that message from the earliest recorded human spiritual experiences. The message is carried by the reported numinous experiences of the mystics. From earliest recorded time, holy men and women have reported contact with the numinous level of reality. Their reports are all remarkably consistent. They were in contact with the essential unity of all being.

Jesus evidenced first-hand knowledge of this unity of being because he incarnated that aspect of the divine consciousness. The Intervention that began with his life acted like a divine acid loosed into the world, dissolving all the arbitrary barriers between beings, barriers of wealth, class, gender, power, and circumstance –an ongoing, unfinished process. Unity of being implies an ethic of wholeness, integration, and healing. And healing leads to engagement with a broken reality.

In this way, Jesus incarnated the divine integration of being and reacted during his ministry to the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and intolerances of those who failed to see that integration. Jesus was healer and a trouble maker because he was incarnation of the divine integration of being.


The achievement of integration and healing lead us directly to liberation.

For long, dark centuries, Jesus’ fellow Jews suffered as an oppressed people, waiting for Emanuel, their liberator, the Messiah. In biblical tradition, divine being is identified as Ultimate Liberator. Recall that in Genesis, the divine announcement in the Torah begins with the reminder – “I am who led you out of bondage;”

So the hoped for Messiah is to incarnate the liberating aspect of the divine persona. In the tradition of Jesus’ people (the tradition he and those around him would have taken as a given), the role of supreme liberator has always been at the heart of the divine nature and of their messianic hopes.

Jesus’ execution and resurrection conferred a universal Messianic power, one that reverberates down all subsequent ages. In various forms it still causes all tyrants to tremble. Jesus’ fellow Jews long suffered under the brutal rule of the “First Reich,” the Roman Empire, a socio-political juggernaut that had developed such overwhelming economic and military power, and such effective bureaucratic methods that it threatened to contain civilization to the very end of time. Gibbon has implied that the spread of Christianity set loose cultural forces that took down the Roman Empire more effectively and permanently than any combination of armies. In my view, this could not have been a mere side effect of Jesus’ ministry.

So the core message of Christianity was a simple, subversive one of unstoppable power. Just as Jesus, the Son, was in one-to-one relationship with Abba, the Father, the one true Lord of Creation, so could be all those who followed Jesus’ example. The resurrection of Jesus’ being to his immediate followers and his “eternalization” as an extension of the deity-persona was the clearest possible sign of the ultimate limitation of power suffered by all morally bankrupt leaders: His relationship with Abba (and the moral authority that flows from the divine-human relationship) could not be severed even by execution.

The core message that threatens all tyranny is simple: That same relationship and authority are available to the lowest among us. No tyranny can withstand a population who finds ultimate moral authority in this way. Jesus’ life, execution and resurrection have loosed a divine brilliance, the light that exposes the false authority of all who claim that sheer power makes them legitimate.


Most spiritual paths tend to bump into doctrinal obstacles. God knows my path has continued to do so, somehow not quite upending my sense of the reality and ultimate importance of the journey itself.

One of the reasons for the power and success of the informal, out-of-church versions of Christianity is the very absence of doctrinal underbrush. If Christianity is to thrive, it needs to be able to separate the essential from the non-essential, and to leave lots of breathing room for doctrinal differences about the non-essential. The American Episcopal Church is a good example of a work in progress in this respect.

Aside from some doctrines that are irrelevant from the therapeutic community perspective (like the virgin birth of Jesus), the thorniest underbrush clusters around three related doctrinal issues: Jesus as God, Original Sin, and the Crucifixion as a Substitute Sacrifice. What follows represents my personal reflections on these thorny issues.

Omnipotent, omniscient Son?

I’m not personally able to see Jesus’ essential incarnation of the divine nature as a total power incarnation in the moment. I just can’t treat this funny, brilliant, courageous, sometimes cranky, and always loveable holy personage as identical to his Father, endowing Jesus-as-son with all of the traditional superpowers of the God as Father, ultimate deity, creator of the universe, maker of heaven and earth. It rings false to me, and it violates his essential “son-ness”, his humanness, the very quality that connects him to us and, through him, to the divine.

Various accounts in the Gospels suggest Jesus was not omniscient. He struggled with the implications of his calling on the desert. Jesus wept when he thought Lazareth had died; and he despaired on the cross as if abandoned. We can find these and other frailties endearing. They tie us to Jesus as a fellow human, and suggest that, through him, the divine nature experiences intimacy (read integration) with our own suffering and failings. Many theologians argue that Jesus’ human limitations represented kenosis, a divine self limitation or emptying. I prefer to think that the essential deity-nature was brought to a natural life in Jesus, with all the limitations, including developmental ones, of a life that begins as a baby. [6]

Each new generation gets to choose its metaphors. I choose to see the perennial dilemma of Jesus-as-man and Jesus-as-divine through a 21st Century lens: The human form presents God with a certain failure of “bandwidth.” Jesus, born of Mary, ran as much of the divine “program” (the numinous “operating system” of deity’s persona) as could ever run on a 1st Century human “platform.”

Jesus’ foreshadowed knowledge of his coming death and resurrection relates (in my reading) to the end of the Temple as the locus of Jewish worship and to his ascension to the “right hand of the Father”, a demonstration of the promise of resurrection.

Original Sin?

This has always been a problematic notion in the popular mind, now more than ever as the secular consciousness grows in influence. Those who have not yet fallen into the trap of moral relativism recognize transactional sin (not necessarily by that name) and understand the need to deal with the human guilt debt from cumulated transgressions of ultimate moral law, in effect the weight of our sinful acts. But the popular notion of Original Sin as a sinful state, i.e., an unearned condition, something attributed to human nature itself, is rejected by almost everyone not steeped in the older traditions (and is rejected by many who were… sometimes with religion itself).

We “common people” of the current era are no longer willing to accept original sin as related to the sexual act of procreation, or worse still, to the perverse notion that, even at the innocence of babyhood, we humans are born inherently wicked. A lot of ink has been expended on the doctrine that original sin flows from the Geneses account in which Eve disregards God’s warning, and eats of the tree of knowledge.

And fewer and fewer people outside the strict religious traditions actually accept these descriptions of original sin. Of course, most of us understand that we are all born “selfish”, in the sense that in the immediate context of a helpless baby, the will to live is raw, urgent and unqualified by altruistic impulses. But we love new life and intuitively grasp that is would be grievously wrong to have designed babies without the will to live.

In the recovery community, sin is generally understood as a condition of separation from God. This is not only good theology (and we are to thank the Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s early influence for the prevalence of this notion in Twelve Step thinking), it neatly clears away a lot of doctrinal underbrush.


It would be well for the church in all its forms to do some brush clearing. For my part, I believe that we humans are inherently like the deity in whose image our consciousness was shaped (i.e., not wicked, not evil); and that our resemblance is both incomplete and complicated by our freedom to be evil. Therefore I am able to understand “original” sin simply as an inherent and original human condition, an incapacity shared by any conscious being born into space-time, needing but lacking moral knowledge and spiritual development. In this sense, original sin describes an initial, i.e., original but curable, separation from the divine spirit.

I much prefer the understanding of Jesus’ life message as an invitation to a moral and spiritual rebirth that refutes any notion of original sin (perhaps as in the Rev. Mathew Fox’s notion of “original blessing”), and invites us to free ourselves from the weight of transactional sins, without vitiating the obligation to make amends. I suspect that the essence, if not the impact, of this part of the message would have been the same with or without the Roman execution. So what was added? Jesus’ post-execution triumph carried a special message of ongoing history-changing power. His resurrection to his followers would inspire all later generations to overcome evil tyrants, even by laying down our very lives. This could not have been an accidental or incidental effect.

Was Jesus a Substitute Victim? With many other Christians I have difficulties with the notion of substituted sacrifice, the doctrine that Jesus freed humanity from sin by dying on a Roman cross. I still have not been able to locate a passage in the Gospel accounts where Jesus is portrayed as actually teaching that his death on a Roman cross was to be a one-time expiation for human sins, then and thereafter. [I know that some would say I’ve just done a caricature of the basic doctrine, but that caricature is the popular understanding and is the underbrush.]

In one of the most brilliant books ever written about the meaning of Gospel accounts, (Jack Miles’ “CHRIST: A Crisis In The Life Of God”) we are treated to the entire Gospel narrative as seen though a different contextual lens. Crisis becomes the concluding book in the larger story of deity’s self transformation (Miles’ Pulitzer winning, “GOD: A biography”).

From the liberating warrior God who must (but somehow not always does) respond to the prayers of His people when the cause is just, the bible’s deity self-transforms into the suffering God who wins by losing.

Miles presents a complex, deep and moving account (beyond any summary), one achieved “simply” by taking the biblical narrative as a character study worthy of the greatest literature. God, having cursed Adam and Eve, having flooded the world, having allowed his chosen people to suffer defeat as punishment, having liberated them from Egypt, decides never again to use his unlimited destructive power to achieve a mere temporal victory.

Referring to the Roman repression and the crucifixion of the messiah, Miles tell us …

“So he broke his promise. He allowed himself and his people to suffer a still more catastrophic defeat; but before that doom descended, he joined them, suffering in advance all that they would suffer, and creating out of his agony a way for them to rise from the dead with him and return to paradise, bringing all nations with them.” (Crisis, pp 262-263)[7].


Call response, divine integration and world messiah are the mutually coherent aspects of the First Intervention. Because Jesus’ life was historically real and historically transformative, the Jesus Intervention operates well beyond the simple myth stories of ancient human provenance.

I would never suggest we marginalize the formative myths of any authentic religious experience. The myths that stubbornly endure in human history are really archetypal, formative structures of consciousness which have emerged as part of the dialogue between human nature and the divine nature. In this sense, they transcend mere story. Most of them represent instantiated formative metaphors of great significance, capturing and explaining our understanding of some of the core truths of existence. The most powerful and enduring human myths are narrative containers for embedded universals whose lasting significance and ultimate utility to our species are carried and illuminated the surrounding story line.

Even as a formative myth, the Jesus Intervention would be an irreplaceably valuable part of the human wisdom “data base.” But this narrative, to be sure one that has been interpolated with mythic elements, actually was history. I now believe that, just as Jesus’ illuminating narratives, the parables, were historically rooted stories, selected for didactic purposes, the actual Jesus Events and the narratives and variations that followed constitute the corpus of a divine mediated parable. This story is unfinished.

But the original Jesus Event was an actual, multi-level, real-world occurrence. On one level, it was a major historical transformation: We were given a magnificent example of single holy man who lived out (and ultimately universalized) the deep Jewish religious myths about the Son of Man / Messiah. The Jesus Event confirmed the moral order as supreme over regents and the “common” people alike.

The Jesus Event so altered the human experience, that social organization, human relationships and the conduct and development vector of civilization were thereafter never again to be seen in the same light.

On another level: In Jesus’ ministry, the divine consciousness was displayed as awake (incarnated) in one human consciousness, and through a single holy life, the fact of divine loving attention entered history as an active, palpable, leavening presence.


On still another level: The Easter transformation of Jesus mortal life into non-mortal life became the defining Event through which the Ruach, the Holy Spirit (as loving, divine attention), became fully accessible to the “common” people. Millions and millions of individuals have been profoundly affected by this ongoing presence.

Moreover, the Easter transformation vividly modeled the possibility of individual recovery, renewal, and rebirth. An engine of immense social change has been released into the world. It is, above all, an engine of recovery and liberation.

It will always be Easter …..


Alameda, CA

10-20-05, 3-2-06 & 3-1-07

For permission to use this text, please contact:

Jay B. Gaskill

Attorney at Law

[1] This view, consistent with Genesis, is not anti-environmental, nor even anti-animal, since all of creation is to be cared for by humans. But it does put the environmental issues squarely in human terms, in which the Christian concern to avoid displacement of Native American peoples, for example, is a major moral issue, looming over marginal concerns like the displacement of disease bearing mosquitoes or rodents from areas where humans are endangered. Human concerns are paramount in Christianity.

[2] Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel has written extensively about the conflict between comprehensive pacifism (which he rejects) and moral responsibility. [See First Things May 2004 # 143, “World Order: What Catholics Forgot”.]

[3] This view was advanced by Bruce Chilton, in Rabbi Jesus, among other scholars. See Bruce Chilton

Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography, The Jewish Life and Teachings That Inspired Christianity Doubleday 2000 ISBN 0-385-49793-8

[4] I’m indebted to the Rev. Stina Pope, a California Episcopal Priest, for this interesting insight.

[5] This is becoming an overt attack in many instances, based on the church-state “sanitary wall” theory. I note the views of the “Rational Recovery” movement who believe that spiritually based recovery programs promote weakness. But the numbers don’t lie. Twelve Step recovery programs and recovery models with essentially the same elements are more widely successful than all the other efforts combined,

[6] Christopher Moore’s comic masterpiece, Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Perennial 2003), makes this case indirectly, and succeeds as many “straight” Christian accounts do not, in making us care about Jesus as a human carrying a divine burden.

[7] “GOD, A Biography” by Jack Miles 1995 Alfred A. Knopf, also Random House & Vintage Books ISBN 0-679-74368-5. CHRIST: A Crisis In The Life Of God 2001 Random House ISBN 0 434 00737 4. Miles, a former Jesuit priest, is now a lecturer and author.

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