30 Apr 2012, 5:21pm
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[holy daze] blessed are the cheesemakers

Easter has passed. Ascension Day (May 17th) has not yet arrived. Right now in the church calendar, Jesus is spending 40 days (and, presumably, 40 nights) on earth, post-resurrection, before ascending bodily to heaven… or Heaven? See, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. So, I googled “what was jesus doing between easter and ascension?” and found this useful pdf which gave me a more useful starting point than, like, reading the entire New Testament. Since it’s three weeks after Easter at the moment, I started with the Jesus sighting (forgive me, I am imagining binoculars) that occurred then — “4th [appearance] to group, to ‘The Eleven’ on appointed Mount in Galilee” according to the pdf. Matthew 28:16-20 and 1Corinthians 15:7b. Here’s those passages from my partner’s copy of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, College Edition (I sold mine back to the bookstore at the end of our required humanities course) –

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountains to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

…then to all the apostles.

Well, all right. I wasn’t totally sure where to go from there (and to give you an idea of where I’m starting from, it took me a minute to figure out that there were eleven disciples instead of twelve because, oh yeah, Judas probably wasn’t hangin’ out with them anymore), so I backed up and started at the beginning of Matthew. Which, judging by my partner’s heavy annotations, I was probably supposed to read in college. So I suppose I’m deviating already from the script I thought I’d established for this project, but I suppose that’s sort of the point.

Here’s the thing. Us Unitarian folks, we like to think of ourselves as drawing from diverse religious traditions and the works of many spiritual teachers throughout history, including Jesus. The general consensus among UUs seems to be that Jesus was a great teacher or a radical rabbi, walkin’ in sandals in the desert preaching brotherly love and peace and forgiveness and so on. When I think of Jesus, I picture the actor from Monty Python’s Life of Brian who gives the Sermon on the Mount while Brian and co. make tongue-in-cheek comments. (”I think he said ‘blessed are the cheesemakers!’” “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” “What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is it’s the meek who are the problem!”)

But the Sermon on the Mount also includes some less-than-meek bits, it turns out. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” et cetera. Yikes? I mean, who hasn’t committed adultery in his/her heart? This is one of the things that has rubbed me wrong about religion my whole life — the idea of sin, the idea that we are broken and in need of fixing or saving. I have preferred to believe that humans are good, generous, kind, et cetera — not that there are not problems in the world (there are many), but that those problems exist because our society and culture has made it increasingly difficult for us to live the way we are “supposed” to be living. I mean, I have been sort of a primitivist.

A friend of mine linked to this interview with Karen Armstrong (whose excellent book The Case for God I read last year), from which I quote below:

What religions emerged during the Axial Age?

From about 900 to 200 BCE, the traditions that have continued to nourish humanity either came into being or had their roots in four distinct regions of the world. So you had Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

You’re saying all these different religions developed independently of each other. But there was a common message that emerged roughly around the same time.

Yes. Without any collusion, they all came up with a remarkably similar solution to the spiritual ills of humanity. Before the Axial Age, religions had been very different. They had been based largely on external rituals which gave people intimations of greatness. But there was no disciplined introspection before the Axial Age. The Axial sages discovered the inner world. And religions became much more spiritualized because humanity had taken a leap forward. People were creating much larger empires and kingdoms than ever before. A market economy was in its very early stages. That meant the old, rather parochial visions were no longer adequate. And these regions were torn apart by an unprecedented crescendo of violence. In every single case, the catalyst for religious change had been a revulsion against violence.

So what was the spiritual message that rejected violence?

First of all, they all insisted that you must give up and abandon your ego. The sages said the root cause of suffering lay in our desperate concern with self, which often needs to destroy others in order to preserve itself. And so they insisted that if we stepped outside the ego, then we would encounter what we call Brahman or God, nirvana or the Tao.

(Underline emphasis mine.)

My belief that it’s not me who’s broken, but my culture, is a pretty egotistical one. Which belief is true doesn’t necessarily matter, I think… the question is really: which belief will better serve me and my culture / my world? Don Miller touches on this in Blue Like Jazz

I told her how frustrating it is to be a Christian in America, and how frustrated I am with not only the church’s failures concerning human rights, but also my personal failure to contribute to the solution. I wondered out loud, though, if there was a bigger issue, and I mistakenly made the callous comment that racism might be a minor problem compared to bigger trouble we have to deal with.

“Racism, not an issue?!” she questioned very sternly. [...]

I was doing a lot of backpedaling at first, but then I began to explain what I meant. “Yeah, I understand it is a terrible and painful problem, but in light of the larger picture, racism is a signal of something greater. There is a larger problem here than tension between ethnic groups. [...] I’m talking about self-absorption. If you think about it, the human race is pretty self-absorbed. Racism might be the symptom of a greater disease. What I mean is, as a human, I am flawed in that it is difficult for me to consider others before myself. It feels like I have to fight against this force, this current within me that, more often than not, wants to avoid serious issues and please myself, buy things for myself, feed myself, entertain myself, and all of that. All I’m saying is that if we, as a species, could fix our self-absorption, we could end a lot of pain in the world.” (pages 40-41)

Earlier in the book he writes a little bit more about what he’s talking about: sin nature.

“I have always agreed with the idea that we have a sin nature. I don’t think it looks exactly like the fundamentalists say it does, ’cause I know so many people who do great things, but I do buy the idea we are flawed, that there is something in us that is broken. I think it is easier to do bad things than good things. And there is something in that basic fact, some little clue to the meaning of the universe. [...] Sometimes, I think, you know, if there were not cops, I would be fine, and I probably would. I was taught right from wrong when I was a kid. But the truth is, I drive completely different when there is a cop behind me than when there isn’t.” (pages 17-18)

But I do think this explanation is missing something: empathy. I think that children’s capacity for empathy can be encouraged, but I am not convinced that empathy itself is something taught. I think it is something fundamental to our humanity, that has helped our species survive and propagate on even the most basic evolutionary level. We don’t do bad things because we will be punished if we do, sure — but also because, on a deep and fundamental level, we feel the hurt of others. (The problem is, as I hinted at above, that our culture rewards sociopathic behavior and places sociopaths in positions of power and leadership.) The interview with Karen Armstrong, to which I linked above, continues this way –

You say one of the common messages in all these religions was what we now call the Golden Rule. And Confucius was probably the first person who came up with this idea.

All these sages, with the exception of the Greeks, posited a counter-ideology to the violence of their time. The safest way to get rid of egotism was by means of compassion. The first person to promulgate the Golden Rule, which was the bedrock of this empathic spirituality, was Confucius 500 years before Christ. His disciples asked him, “What is the single thread that runs through all your teaching and pulls it all together?” And Confucius said, “Look into your own heart. Discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse to inflict that pain on anybody else.” His disciples also asked, “Master, which one of your teachings can we put into practice every day?” And Confucius said, “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” The Buddha had his version of the Golden Rule. Jesus taught it much later. And Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said the Golden Rule was the essence of Judaism.

But what if these teachers were the first to articulate the Golden Rule because, before that, it didn’t need to be articulated? I don’t know enough about the Axial Age to say what other major cultural changes might have been going on. And clearly, my ego continues to resist the idea of sin nature. But my life would be more full, more fun, and more useful to the people, the earth, and the ecologies I care about if I procrastinated less, if I took better care of my health, if I kept in better touch with my friends. So why don’t I do all of these things? Am I broken? If I were, what would it mean to be fixed or saved?

[this entry was originally published on april 30th, 2012, at holy daze.]

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