21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part III – Living Water

John 4:1-46; Malachi 3:1-12

Everyone knows the Sunday school lessons about the Samaritan woman at the well.  The Samaritans were the enemies of Israel, the standard story goes, so for Jesus to “convert” the enemy woman was quite an accomplishment.  To make the lesson even more pious, Jesus magically “knows” that she is not married to the man she is currently living with, and [gasp!] has had five husbands before this one.  She runs away and brings all of her friends back to meet “a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (KJV).  The standard message seems to be that Jesus, like Santa Claus, “knows when you’ve been bad or good,” and certainly this woman must have been some kind of bad to be living with a man who is not her husband, after somehow getting rid of five others.  The proof that Jesus is the Christ is his ability to see through all of our pretenses.  “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (KJV).

The Sunday school interpretation of the confusing stuff in the middle about not worshiping God on the mountain or in Jerusalem skirts the edges of anti-Semitism.  God wants the real Christians to worship him, and always tell the truth.  The test for who is or is not a real Christian is clear.  “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.  God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (KJV).

But the Gospel of John is not about piety.  It is an impassioned and powerful first century argument for a transformed world.  Rather than looking at the gospel in cherry-picked pieces – as the Revised Common Lectionary does in order to support orthodox Christian teaching – consider the interior plan, which only becomes apparent when the gospel is read in its own context.

Water as transformation carries the argument for two and a half chapters.  At the wedding in Cana, water is transformed into wine; Nicodemus – the expert on religion who should know this – is invited to transform himself; Jesus and his disciples baptize more people than the Baptizer; Jesus meets the enemy woman at Jacob’s well and offers transformation (living water); Jesus’ disciples don’t get it (surprise), so Jesus attempts the metaphor of food, which he defines as “doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work” – begun by the prophets, and to be completed by Jesus’ followers; the Samaritans (unlike the pharisee Nicodemus) listen to Jesus and realize that “he really is the savior of the world”; and the sequence ends as it began: “Then he came back to Cana, Galilee, where he had turned water into wine.”

The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century.  Jerusalem was sacked; Temple Judaism had perforce become displaced; competition between the factions that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce.  Much the same as the 21st century, when – as Lloyd Geering proposes –  humanity is in the midst of the transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism.  Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition.  There is a place for John’s story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if the metaphors are reclaimed for 21st century cosmology.

John’s metaphor of water into wine, which frames the vignettes with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.”  To follow the teachings of Jesus means that one’s life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before.  John did not use the metaphor of the refiner’s fire, which purifies, clarifies, decontaminates, as the prophet Malachi claims God’s messenger will do (Malachi 3:1-5).  Malachi was warning the priests of Israel that the representative of God’s covenant was coming soon to “purify the descendents of Levi” who had stopped following God’s rule: “‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerors, against the adulturers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me,’ says the Lord” (NRSV).

John is not satisfied with cleansing and polishing.  John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed (in the apostle Paul’s words “in the twinkling of an eye) – from injustice and death to justice and life: from water into wine.  For 21st century non-theists, this means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.

Just in case anyone thinks that John has made Malachi’s list irrelevant, consider the following update:  political leger demain, sex trafficking, corporate bait-and-switch tactics, union busting, blaming the poor for their plight, and hating anyone who looks, speaks, or acts different from the prevailing population.  Further, if “God” is seen as “Gaia,” we can apply the same list of atrocities carried out against people to the earth itself.  With that understanding, the wrath of God that Malachi invokes with his threat of refinement “until they present offerings in righteousness” can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources.  Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, and unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.

When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion (“food” the disciples knew nothng about), then we can talk about worshiping “in spirit and in truth” in the King James language, or “as [God] truly is, without regard to place” (The Complete Gospels scholars translation).

21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part II – Nicodemus

John 3

The Gospel of John is a narrative, theological proof that Jesus was the Messiah, the One Anointed – consecrated, selected – by God to establish God’s rule – God’s Kingdom – on earth.  The Pharisee Nicodemus illustrates the process by which even leaders in the Jewish communities who rejected the whole notion of Jesus as the Messiah might still come to believe.  He visits Jesus during the metaphorical night of conventional thought in chapter 3.  He reappears in chapter 7 among the temple authorities who threaten to arrest Jesus (John 7:37-8:20).  In that scene, Nicodemus challenges his colleagues to abide by the Law and not pass judgment on someone without first allowing him to speak for himself and establish the facts.  The chief priests and pharisees are not happy with Nicodemus, but they allow Jesus to make his argument.  He says, “I am the light of the world,” which further enfuriates the pharisees, but they do not arrest him because “his time had not yet come.”  Nicodemus’ final appearance is with Joseph of Arimathea, who takes Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:38-42).  John writes that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple of Jesus because he was afraid of the other members of the community.  Nicodemus, “the one who had first gone to him at night,” brings an inordinate amount of “myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds” with which to wrap the body.

An uncritical Christian reading might imply that Nicodemus may still have been holding some doubt about who Jesus was.  While he did speak up for him on behalf of the Law, the contribution of all those burial spices may have signalled a sense of guilt for not “believing” Jesus was the Messiah.  Perhaps Nicodemus did it because he had a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.  If Jesus is going to literally come back from the dead (like Lazarus), it might be wise to do all he can to preserve the body!  Twentieth century Scholar Raymond E. Brown argues that the “brave action of the hitherto timid Joseph and Nicodemus seems to indicate that Jesus, raised up, has begun drawing people unto himself” (The Gospel and Epistles of John, Liturgical Press, 1988).

But suppose Nicodemus’ gesture is part of John’s continuing proof.  Jesus was seriously dead. He was truly executed by the Romans as a terrorist, buried, and as orthodox creed puts it, “descended into Hell.”  Then in an act that defied all religious logic and secular expectation, God raised a crucified enemy of the state from the dead into God’s realm.  Even more subversive, and missed by most commentaries, the action the two pharisees took with Jesus’ body was an outrageous demonstration that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One.  They treated the body of an executed criminal with extravagently greater respect and care than normally due a righteous follower of the Law.

The Gospel of John is fraught with 2,000 years of Christian interpretation that insists “belief” in Jesus’ story means a free ticket to heaven after death, and “non-belief” means an instantaneous condemnation to hell.  It has been the raison d’être for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism, and the destruction of aboriginal and non-Christian societies world-wide.  It has had a greater influence on Western thought than possibly any other biblical narrative.  Reinterpreting the Gospel from the point of view of late 20th and early 21st century Biblcal scholarship requires a willingness to ignore traditional meaning – and of course begs the question: Why bother?

In a recent op-ed published by the Martinsburg (West Virginia) Journal, Sean O’Leary writes about NBA all-American Jerry West.  West came from an abusive, dysfunctional family.  He used basketball as a way to dissociate himself from the terror at home, and became “the ninth greatest professional player of all time.”  O’Leary says that while West was one of the lucky ones, most people caught in abusive situations are unable to get out.  Instead they retreat into booze, gambling, junk food, cigarettes, pain killers, and assorted drugs; and it happens more often in West Virginia than anywhere else.  “The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease control rank West Virginia among the leading states for the prevalence of depression, anxiety-related disorders, and . . . suicide.  We’re nearly five tmes more likely to kill ourselves than we are to be killed by someone else.  And suicide combined with accidental drug overdoses (usually prescription pain killers) kills more of us than even traffic accidents.”

O’Leary calls this crisis “West Virginia’s disease of othe soul.”  It is a disease of the soul because the underlying cause of these problems is never addressed: that is, mental illness, depression, and addiction are seen as character flaws: a lack of self-discipline, a failure of resolve, or even a dearth of religious faith, “traits for which they believe people should be admonished or punished rather than treated.”  That “dearth of religious faith” goes right back to the misinterpretation of John 3:16-21.  Traditional, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians quote John 3:16 as the defining Christian statement of faith:

        For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.  He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds shouldbe reproved.  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.  John 3:16-21 (KJV).

The standard interpretation is if you don’t believe Jesus came back from the dead, you can’t be saved.  Even with the latest translation, the same meaning seems inevitable.  Jesus explains to Nicodemus how it came about that God designated Jesus as his Anointed One:  “In the desert, Moses elevated the snake; in the same way, the Human One is destined to be elevated, so everyone who believes in him can have unending life . . . All those who do evil things hate the light and don’t come into the light – otherwise their deeds would be exposed.  But those who do what is true come into the light so the nature of their deeds will become evident: their deeds belong to God” (The Complete Gospels p. 214).

In order to reclaim this metaphor of the religious leader who came out of the darkness, in secret, to meet Jesus and ask him what he was all about, a few points about the nature of God, and what belongs to God must be understood.  Jesus tries to remind this learned pharisee of what he is supposed to know: that what comes from the spiritual realms is spirit, and what comes from human realms is human.  In order to be part of God’s realm, everyone must be reborn by God’s spirit.  Nicodemus takes this literally, and so has just about everyone else for the past 2,000 years.

In order to be “reborn from above,” God’s spirit must be understood as distributive justice-compassion.  Throughout the Bible, God acts to establish, restore, and keep God’s law: for the widow, the orphan, the slave, and even the animals that reside with God’s people.  Everyone participates in God’s demand for justice.  Whenever the people stray from justice – whether it’s refusing to annilhate the Amalekites, or tricking Uriah so the king can take his wife, or worshiping the idols of the conquerors, God withdraws his support and the people suffer famine, war, and exile.  Whenever anyone follows God’s rule of distributive justice-compassion – whether or not they belong to the original 12 tribes of Israel – God works for them: they win the battles, reap the harvests, abide in their own profitable, peaceful land.  It’s never about belief.  It is always about action: radical, outside-the-box, unconventional, anti-imperial action.

Catholic scholar Sandra Schneiders writes:

        [T]he textual Nicodemus is actually a type of the true Israelite, who progresses in faith from seeing the signs to doing the truth according to the scriptures, to finally confessing Jesus openly as the one in whom the Old Testament finds its fulfillment. . . . Nicodemus is the very type of the truly religious person, who is, on the one hand, utterly sincere and, on the other, complacent about his or her knowledge of God and God’s will.  Such people are basically closed to divine revelation . . . it is only after they have been reduced to the futility of their own ignorance that they can begin the process of coming to the Light not by argument or reasoning but by doing the truth, a process that gradually opens them to the true meaning of the scriptures.  Written That You May Believe p. 119.

So when the people of West Virginia or any state, and their governors and officials and social service agencies, refuse to deal with the underlying disease of the soul, and instead throw desperate people into jail for breaches of law, in John’s language, they are “those who refuse the son [and] will not see life; no, they remain the object of God’s wrath”:  God’s justified displeasure with and active judgment against those who do not obey God’s law.  The strength of sin, writes the apostle Paul is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56) – that is, the conventional law of social organization.  That law does not protect and support the widow, the orphan, or the stranger needing hospitality.  It supports the rich, the bully, and the political patron.

Nicodemus is the model for moving from uncritical belief to doing what God requires and ultimately arriving at the truth.  But as Jesus points out, and as Sean O’Leary laments, that spirit of truth “blows every which way like the wind; you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.”  Transformation can’t be spoon-fed; it has to come “from above.”  Until it does, O’Leary writes, “the statue of [Jerry] West that stands outside the WVU Coliseum will be as much a monument to West’s and West Virginia’s disease of the soul as it is to the athletic achievements it’s meant to celebrate.”

The Gospel of John is far more relevant to sustainable 21st century life than the 19th century anachronisms of Ayn Rand, or the demonstrably failed economic theories offered by neo-conservative presidential politicians, or fundamentalist literalist theologies – Christian or non-Christian.   “God’s rule” does not mean salvation from hell in the next life, but radical fairness on earth in this life.  Radical fairness means distributive justice-compassion in ecological, economic, environmental and social policy; it requires a radical abandonment of self-interest, even to the seemingly impossible point of loving one’s enemies.  Living under God’s rule means subverting the laws governing all aspects of society, and embracing God’s imperial rule, not Cesar’s.  Jesus’ teaching about God’s rule means not only the overthrow of the occupying Roman government of the first century, but the fulfillment or actualization of the law of Moses, and the transformation of what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” itself.

Nicodemus came out of the shadows, out of the darkness of conventional religious and political social expecation.  He later uses the law against those who wanted to discredit Jesus and arrest him.  He finally throws the law in its conventional face by treating the violated body of an executed criminal like a king.

21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part I – Signs and Wonders

John 1:1 -2:25

The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010) breaks the Gospel of John into two parts.  Based on the work of earlier scholars (R.T. Fortna, and U.C. vonWahlde), the Jesus Seminar scholars propose that this Gospel was developed from an earlier, “signs” gospel (similar to Q), which was a theological proof that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah.  The signs were woven into a narrative which included John the Baptist, Jesus in Galilee, Jesus in Jerusalem, the culimination of Jesus’ signs (the Council’s plan; Jesus in the Temple), the prelude to Jesus’ passion, the passion narrative, Jesus’ resurrection, and the conclusion.  Jesus’ miracles include

Water into wine (2:1-11);
An official’s son healed (2:12a:4:46b-54)
A huge catch of fish (2:1-14)
Loves and fish for 5,000 (6:1-14)
Jesus walks on the sea (6:16-21)
Lazarus raised (11:1-45)
A blind man give sight (9:1-8)
A crippled man healed (5:2-9)

The problem with the proof was that the so-called Messiah, God’s own Anointed One, was murdered by the Roman authorities.  Eventually, those who persisted in believing that Jesus was the Anointed One either left the synagogues on their own volition, or were thrown out.  A savior convicted and executed as a terrorist simply did not make sense.  Paul’s arguments to the contrary either did not make the rounds, were equally dismissed as lunacy, or reinterpreted in a way that completely changed what Paul was talking about.  (See, e.g., “Reclaiming the Victory:  Easter Sunday 2011”; see also The Authentic Letters of Paul, Polebridge Press, 2010.)

What became the Gospel of John was addressed to a Greek and Hebrew-speaking community, who saw themselves “as a beleaguered but divinely vindicated minority . . . within the decade or two following the centralized Jewish decision to expel believers in Jesus from the synagogue, that is, during the last fifteen yearsor so of the first century. . . . The author, like the three other gospel writers, is anonymous and only a century later was identified with John, the son of Zebedee (and he with ‘the disciple Jesus Loved’).”  The Complete Gospels p. 207.

The gospel writer wastes no time establishing Jesus, not John the Baptist, as the Anointed One.  The Baptist himself witnesses to the first sign: “I have seen the spirit coming down upon him like a dove out of the sky; that’s the one who baptizes with the holy spirit.  I have seen this and I announce: This is the son of God.”  Within a few paragraphs, Jesus has called his disciples, and claimed even greater signs and wonders to come: “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree?  You’re going to see a lot more than that.”

The Gospel of John is the work of a mystic.  The writer argues for mythos, not logos, from a 1st century cosmology.  He understands the universe as heaven above – from where God rules – the earth in the middle, which belongs to God, and the realm of the dead below the earth, where God and God’s light do not exist. He brings his listeners (or readers) from the dawning of earth’s existence, when Wisdom was there and was what God was, to the genuine light that cannot be mastered no matter how great the darkness.  “The law was given through Moses,” John writes, “mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One.”  That is the whole argument.  The rest is proof.

For 21st Century mystics, the Universe is far greater than anything John could have imagined.  But John’s metaphor still holds power.  John the Baptist assures everyone that he is not the One, not Elijah, and not the Prophet. The Baptist anoints with water those whose hearts are changed; God’s Anointed transforms water into wine.  Wine is a gift from God that “gladdens the heart” (Psalm 104); it is the pay-off for honoring the Lord “with the first fruits of all your produce; then . . . your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:9-10); it is a sign of God’s grace: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55); it is a sign of the restoration of justice:  “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when . . . the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.  I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel . . . they shall plant their vineyards and drink their wine . . . and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (Amos 9:13-15).

The Gospel of John may be a last-ditch effort to preserve Jesus’ message of salvation as deliverance from injustice in this life, not a free ride to glory in the next life.  My colleague in the struggle, John Shuck, is also exploring the Gospel of John with his congregation in Elizabethton, TN. His sermon for January 8 discussed John 1:19-51:

[An] important word for John is world or cosmos.  Depending on the context, it can mean earthly existence, life, or more often than not, it is a word for what [Walter] Wink calls the “domination system.”  Jesus says, “I am not of this world.”  What does he mean?  I do not think he is saying that he is from another planet or from another place like heaven, or that he is of another spiritual incarnation or some spooky notion like that.  It means that he does not conform to the values of the dominant system.

Lest there be any doubt, when I care about Jesus or about the Gospel of John it is not because I care about heaven or hell or reincarnation or resurrected corpses or supernaturalism or any of that stuff.  I think all of that is a distortion of the original impulse of Jesus and of those who caught what he was saying and doing.   We have literalized first century symbolism and thus distorted it.

The historical Jesus and the imaginative creation by John’s Gospel  is an invitation and an exhortation to respond to the “world” by becoming a human being.  I don’t want to be anything less or more than a human being.  Being a human being means that we expose the values of “this world” for what they are—death values.

More than being a “human being” on this earth, John’s gospel calls for a transformed life: water into wine; a temple made of distributive justice-compassion, not gold and stone.  The writer follows the miracle of water-into-wine with the snapshot of Jesus clearing the Temple of the representatives of injustice – perhaps those who do not acknowledge him as the Messiah he claims to be.  “Destroy this temple and I’ll raise it in three days,” he says.  Jesus’ disciples later remembered what he had said, and applied it to the story of his death and resurrection.

But “Jesus didn’t trust himself to them, because he understood them all too well. . . he knew what people were really like” (John 2:21-25).  The writer spells it out in the first few lines:  “Although [genuine light] was in the world, and the world came to be through it, the world did not recognize it.  It came to its own place, but its own people were not receptive to it” (John 1:9-11).

In order to reclaim the Gospel of John for post-modern, secular minds, the underlying bitter feud has to be understood between John’s community of exiles from Judaism and the resurgent, synagogue-based Judaism that survived crusades, pograms, ghettos, and holocausts.  The Gospel is not anti-Semitic, nor is it the blueprint for Christian exclusionary belief.  Like Paul’s letters that laid out his world-changing Christology, it may well be a first-century attempt at crossing the barrier between what is and what can be; between rational, linear argument for change (logos) and mystical, intuitive leaps into transformational possibility (mythos).


Epiphany: More than changing light bulbs

Mark 6:34; Philippians 2; Romans 6

In the November 28, 2011 edition of The Nation, Naomi Klein proposes that deniers of climate change science are not rejecting the science; they are rejecting the order of magnitude of cultural transformation that will be required in order to slow down, stop, or reverse the process.  “This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.”  She argues that progressives and those on the political left are equally in denial:  not regarding the science, but regarding the global paradigm shift in human behavior that climate change demands.  Both sides are operating from deliberate ignorance.  The right is afraid of losing global market share.  The left maintains a naive expectation that recycling, spiral light bulbs, and carbon offsets will solve the problem.

Klein offers a list of political and social solutions (reining in corporations, relocalizing production, ending the “cult of shopping,” taxing the “rich and filthy”), but ultimately what is called for is “an alternative world view to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – this time embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy. . . . In the rocky future we have already made inevitable, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people, and a capacity for deep compassion, will be the only things standing between humanity and barbarism.  Climate change, by putting us on a firm deadline, can serve as the catalyst for precisely this profound social and ecological transformation.”

These are basic spiritual principles arising from a secular, political sensitivity that echo what Lloyd Geering calls for in a series of essays (Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia).  Geering describes a spiritual and religious progression in human consciousness.  Pre-modern people lived in what might be called an enchanted world, in which everything embodied spirit.  This was followed by the so-called “axial age” when people realized there was a difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, which gave rise to the paradigm-shifting concept of one god.  Next came the equally transformational concept of incarnation:  God in Humanity – in the form of Jesus, called the Christ, God’s “anointed one.”  Most Christians stop there.  Preachers talk and believers sing about the Christ being “born in us today,” but the concept seldom connects.  We may live in a post-modern world, but most minds are still engaged in a pre-modern relationship with a personal Lord and Savior, who came to “save us from our sins” so that we can live in heaven forever.  Traditional church-goers hang on to this belief.  Many who have left the church and its dogmas far behind are also often unable to get past the tradition because it stays frozen in a childhood time.

By reclaiming language and reframing the Christian message, progressive (liberal) Christians can make a major contribution to the “alternative world view” that is necessary for the paradigm shift Naomi Klein is talking about.  Perhaps the most revolutionary concept at the top of the list is that the wisdom of the axial age was not about petty sin.  For the prophets of ancient Israel, and the heir apparent – Jesus of Nazareth – “sin” meant injustice, and God’s plan was liberation from injustice.  For the Buddha, “sin” was the human condition of suffering, brought about by attachment.  Salvation meant freedom from attachment to the past and the future; liberation was found by living in the moment.

It should be a short intellectual hop to understanding incarnation as God (the Christ, or as Matthew Fox puts it, the Buddha nature) within us.  But these concepts are far more difficult to grasp than the 10 Commandments – which may be why the story is that Moses smashed the first set out of anger that the people so easily gave up on following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As Lloyd Geering suggests, incarnation goes beyond the dogma of one man embodying God; incarnation means that God is manifested in humanity itself.  Perhaps most profoundly, James Loney, member of the Christian Peace Maker Team who spent six months in captivity in Iraq, learned from the late Tom Fox that “All we have is now . . . The past is a fiction and the future doesn’t exist. . .   [Tom] strained with his whole being to let go of everything – even the hope of release – and just be present to the present.”  Loney describes this experience as “what it means to be born again.  The present moment [is] the birth canal of incarnation.”

The Scholars Version of The Authentic Letters of Paul is a good place to start to reclaim traditional language.  The Scholars have expanded Paul’s original Greek word hamartia (“sin”) into a phrase that means “the corrupting seduction of power.”  In his last known letter, carried to the community his friends had founded in Rome, Paul wrote:

        How then should we respond to our changed relationship with God [as found in the life and teachings of Jesus]?  Should we continue to live as before so that God’s generous favor can become even more remarkable?  That would be ridiculous!  How can we who have “died” to the seductive power of corruption continue to live as if we were still in its grasp? . . . Don’t allow the seductive power of corruption to reign over your earthly life inducing you to submit to worldly desires.  Don’t put any part of your body at the disposal of that power as an instrument for doing wrong, but put yourselves at God’s disposal as people who have been brought to life from the dead and present your bodies to God as instruments for doing right . . . The corrupting seduction of power has a pay-off: death.  God offers a free gift: the unending life of God’s new world in solidarity with the Anointed Jesus, our Lord.  SV pp 224-225.

“Sin” is not about sex, or petty transgression.  “Sin” is about the seduction of power-over others; of the gratification of having what others cannot have.  But beyond individual greed for personal power and wealth lies the corporate, collective “sin” that results from the systems put in place by human societies – what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization.”  The result of basic human need for security, food, clothing, shelter is systems that deprive outsiders of the means to survive and thrive.  That is what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 6:22:  “But now that you have been liberated from the corrupting seduction of power and have committed yourselves to the service of God, what you gain is complete moral integrity and in the end the unending life of God’s new world.”  SV p. 225.

In Mark 6:32-34, just before Mark’s setting of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus attempted to avoid the crowds and get a little rest, but the people found him anyway.  The writer says, “When he came ashore he saw a huge crowd and was moved by them, because they resembled sheep without a shepherd, and he started teaching them at length.”  And what did he teach them?  Instead of sending the people away to find their own food, he told the disciples, “Give them something to eat yourselves!”

In Philippians 2:1-7a, Paul writes to his friends:

        So if you know how uplifting it is to belong to the new community of the Anointed, if you know something about being motivated by love, if you know something about the spirit of fellowship and genuine compassion, then make me completely happy by sharing the same attitude, showing the same love toward one another, and being united in heart and purpose.  Don’t be always thinking about your own interests or your own importance, but with humility hold others in higher regard than you do yourselves.  Each of you should keep others’ interests in mind, not your own.  I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who although he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot.  SV p.186.

Paul says that the servant – as exemplified in Jesus, the Anointed One – has become Lord, not the Emperor.  Far from being a call to an imperial, “holy Roman empire,” Paul’s words challenge people to live the same life Jesus did, in radical abandonment of self-interest, and distributive justice-compassion.

Lloyd Geering brings humanity full circle from the enchanted world of pre-modern people living a seamless existence, not separated from the natural world, to the possibility of a re-enchanted world, in which“secular” means –once-again – earth-centered.  He concludes: “We came from the earth.  We remain creatures of the earth.  The hope of our species for a viable future depends on our mystical re-union with the earth.”

In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Matthew Fox writes:

        It is not enough to celebrate the Cosmic Christ as “the pattern that connects” and the “bearer of coherence” as expressed in Jesus.  There is a real sense in which the Cosmic Christ is not born yet.  Even in Jesus the Cosmic Christ has yet to come to full birth, for those who say they believe in Jesus have scarcely brought forth the Cosmic Christ at all on the mass scale that Mother Earth requires.  One might speak, then, of the already born Cosmic Christ (realized eschatology) who we see only “in a mirror and darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and of the not-yet-born Cosmic Christ (unrealized eschatology) who is the Christ of justice, of creativity, of compassion in self and society that yearns to be born and is eager to be born in us.  “What good is it to me,” Meister Eckhart asked, “if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?” . . . The name “Christ” means “the anointed one.”  All of us are anointed ones.  We are all royal persons, creative, godly, divine, persons of beauty and of grace.  We are all Cosmic Christs, “other Christs.”  But what good is this if we do not know it? . . . We are all called, like the Cosmic Christ, to radiate the divine presence to/with/from one another.  pp. 136-137.

Literalists on the right assure the masses that believing the story guarantees an exclusive right to heaven instead of hell in the next life.  Literalists on the left assure the masses that salvation is easy – all you have to do is buy the right light bulb.  Nobody says anywhere in the Bible that it is easy to live by God’s law of distributive justice-compassion, in radical abandonment of self-interest.  But the biblical writers are very clear that the reward for doing so is profoundly satisfying, here and now.

“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God . . .”  Deuteronomy 28:1-2.

“The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed . . . But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.”  Psalm 103.

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:21-24.

“Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. …

Alone in the Universe?

Charles Krauthammer has signed onto Carl Sagan’s pessimistic conclusion that there is no intelligent life in the universe (other than Earth Humans) because advanced civilizations destroy themselves.  It seems to be the ultimate Cosmic Joke.  As Worf’s son Alexander opined at a Star Trek wedding, “the higher, the fewer.”  Krauthammer – of course – has no time for the theological implications.  He concludes: “Politics – in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations – is sovereign in human affairs . . . Fairly or not, politics . . . will determine whether we live long enough to be heard one day.  Out there.  By them, the few – the only – who got it right.”

I would argue that politics is not sovereign in human affairs. …