Monthly Archives: May 2017

May 25  – Jesus: Part 2- John and the Cosmic Christ

Today’s Post

Last week’s post looked at the earliest writings about Jesus: the beginnings of the ‘New Testament’ as seen in the letters of Paul and the ‘synoptic’ gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke.  We saw how these gospels did not necessarily depict a Jesus who considered himself divine, and instead showed a teacher whose ‘millennialist’ beliefs led him to preach moral behavior in preparation for the ‘coming’.

This week we’ll take a look at the gospel of John, in which Jesus is depicted as not only as divine, but in some way, eternal.

The Second Perspective: John

John seems to have written the fourth Gospel as many as thirty years after Paul, and probably had access to both the letters of Paul and the synoptic gospels.  While the synoptic gospels stressed the teachings of Jesus, his interpretations of the Torah and his millennialist beliefs, John delves into the nature of God and how it could be that Jesus himself was divine.

As we saw last week, Bart Ehrman doesn’t consider the concept of a ‘God-Man’ as necessarily audacious during Jesus’ time due to the many similar and familiar myths of antiquity.  John, however, goes into detail of how Jesus was divine, indeed co-extensive with God, laying the groundwork for the doctrine of ‘the Trinity’ which would emerge later in church history.

With John we see a significantly different depiction of Jesus’ life and death from that of the synoptic gospels.  Some examples:

–          Jesus’ claims to divinity are much stronger, including self-identification with the ‘Son of Man’.

–          There are more stories of miracles, and the nature of the miracles is more supernatural

–          In the synoptic gospels, Jesus hesitates, often even refuses, to perform miracles as a sign of his identity.  He even downplays miracles, and notes that they are also performed by others.  In John, Jesus not only performs miracles frequently, but does so as signs to compel belief.

–          Where Paul sees Jesus as a human who is ‘exalted by God’ as a reward for his sacrifice, John sees Jesus as having been ‘one with the Father’ from the beginning of time

–          Where Paul and the synoptic gospels treat ‘love’ as the correct form of behavior, John goes on to depict ‘love’ as an aspect of God Himself

–          Where Paul identifies Jesus as ‘the Christ’ prophesied in the Old Testament, John goes much further, stressing his eternal kinship with God and introducing the concept of Jesus as ‘The Word’.

The Cosmic Christ

This last new concept in John’s depiction of Jesus is the most important of all.  Not only does it stress a close kinship between Jesus and God, it posits Jesus as eternal, as having always existing even as God has always existed, and being co-responsible for the act of creation itself.

John introduces the idea of Jesus, as the Christ, as “the Word”.  As Ian Barbour says:

“The term word merges the logos, the Greek principle of rationality, with the Hebrew image of God’s Word active in the world.  But then John links creation to revelation: “And the Word became flesh.” “

   With this concept, John locates Jesus as part of the same ontology in which creation itself was effected.  Jesus, as ‘the Christ’, had always existed, along with God, and collaborated with God in the act of creation.  Jesus, in this context, represents the ‘blueprint’ for creation, in the same way that God represents the ‘act’ of creation.  While the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are used to distinguish between these two facets, John doesn’t see this as reflecting an ontological ‘order’ in which one comes from the other, but an ontological ‘equality’ in which they are ‘co-temporal’.

So, in John’s view, Jesus ‘the man’ is simply the inevitable appearance of the human aspect of the ‘word’, the personal aspect of creation as it unfolds.  Jesus is indeed, The “Word become flesh.”

John, Love, God and Jesus

The idea of love is generally addressed as a manifestation of emotion in human relationships.  From this perspective, love is an ‘act’, or an emotion that underpins the act.  John overturns this common approach by identifying love as the very nature of God.  He does not say that God loves, nor even that God loves perfectly.  John says that God is love; that the very nature of God is love itself.  By distinguishing the phenomenon of love from an action of God (found in the many lines of scripture that describe God as ‘loving’), John goes one step further and describes God as love itself, which opens the door to an ontological engagement with God in the act of loving.  From John’s perspective, we don’t love God so that we can earn a position in the afterlife, we love God (and we love in general) because it is ultimately essential to our growth as human persons.

To John, we ‘become’ through a relationship with God which effects our personal growth.

We have seen this passage from John several times, but it’s worth reviewing in light of this week’s post:

”God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.”

The Next Post

We have seen in the last two posts how the person of Jesus has been depicted in the Christian ‘New Testament’, and how this depiction changes over the three (Paul, Synoptic Gospels, John) groups of texts.  Next week we will take a look at how the emerging portrait of Jesus can be seen in light of our search for a secular God.

May 11 – Jesus: Part 1- Paul and the Synoptic Gospels

Today’s Post

In recent posts we have addressed traditional Western concepts of God, and reinterpreted them to illustrate how the concept of a God can be understood from a secular perspective.  We have seen that this reinterpretation does not necessarily contradict the underlying kernels that lie at the basis of these traditional expressions of belief.  In fact, as we have seen in the previous posts on ‘God’, these secular reinterpretations seem to resolve many of the dualities that are embedded in the traditional statements.

We have also looked at the ‘Perennial Tradition’, which sees all religious expression as inclusive of such basic fundamental insights.

This week, we’ll begin to focus our inquiry into the cornerstone of Western theology: Jesus, the basis of Christianity.

The Duality of Christianity

We have addressed many of the manifestations of ‘duality’ that appear in Western theology, as found in Judaism, Christianity and the Greek influences on the continuing evolution of Christianity.  Dualistic concepts such as body/soul, this life/the next, sacred/profane, divine/human, good/evil and many others can be found in much of the ‘holy scripture’ which underlies Western religious thinking.

Such appearances of duality can be found in both the scriptural references to Jesus (the ‘new’ testament) and in the theological development which has continued to unfold as Christianity assimilated Greek thought and became established as an agent for stability in Western society.

These threads of duality have persisted during the evolution of the West, and can be seen as late as the twentieth century in the appearance and inevitable branching of the new science of psychology.  These traces were discussed in the post on the history of psychology ( which pointed out how Freud’s negative theories of ‘the self’ were heavily influenced by the European Protestant emphasis on ‘man’s sinful nature’,  while mid-twentieth century psychology leaned towards a more positive basis.

These contradictions can be seen today in the ongoing tension between protestant fundamentalism and mainstream liturgical expressions of Christianity, as well as the wide divide between the extremes of liberal and conservative politics.

And, as we shall see, another dimension of duality also rose as Christianity began to develop a ‘Christology’, a philosophical approach to understanding Jesus in a universal context, and how this new dimension gave rise to the idea of a “Trinity”.

What Do We Know Of Jesus and How Do We Know It?

The actual dates of the life of Jesus are not certain, and the first person to write about him seems to be Paul, some years after Jesus’ death.  All the other authors of the ‘New Testament’ seem to have come later, so it seems that no one who wrote of Jesus actually knew him but depended on stories which were prevalent in the many new churches which sprung up after his death.  We don’t seem to know much about these different churches other than that they represented a very diverse collective memory of Jesus.  Much of this diversity reflected the duality which was present in the legacy Jewish scripture, (known by Christians as ‘Old Testament’ and by the Jews as ‘The Torah’), but many new dualisms emerged with the new thinking.

The ‘stories of Jesus’ that glued these early communities together all reflected the dualism of their Jewish history, such as:

–          Was God responsible for evil or was the source of evil elsewhere?

–          Was God’s creation ‘good’ or ‘evil’?

–          Was God a ‘loving father’ or a ‘vengeful judge’?

–          Was scripture “God’s Word”, and hence to be followed literally, or a perspective to be refined by the teachings of Jesus?

Then there were the new dualisms:

–          Was Jesus God?  Man?  God and man?

–          What, specifically, was his relation to God?

–          Was he ‘killed by God’ to atone for human sins?

The writings of Paul clearly show the diversity of belief that had appeared in the few years between Jesus’s death and Paul’s writing.  He consistently critiques beliefs found in the new churches, and his New Testament ‘letters’ are lists of instructions for ‘correct’ interpretations.

The First Perspective: The Synoptic Gospels

The first three Gospels, known as the synoptic gospels, by Mark, then Matthew and Luke, seem to have been written some ten years after Paul.  They depict Jesus as a Jewish man who was not considered to be more than a man during his lifetime, who offered often unpopular interpretations of the law of Moses (the Torah), ended up on the wrong side of the law, was condemned for political treason against Rome, was tortured and put to death by crucifixion, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

The synoptic gospels often depict Jesus as a ‘millennialist’, who predicted that God would soon intervene in human history and establish a kingdom on Earth, which would be led by the ‘Son of Man’.

Bart Ehrman notes that the ‘miraculous’ depictions of the synoptic gospels, such as the virgin birth, healing the sick and resurrection, are not uncommon in the many myths of the ancient world, and appear in many stories of other ‘God Men’ born to virgins who ascended to heaven.  He goes as far as to suggest that these events in the synoptic gospels were proclaimed by the post-Jesus church to overcome the shame of the nature of Jesus’ execution as a common criminal, and to appeal to those who followed the ancient myths.

The Next Post

The writings of Paul and the authors of the synoptic Gospels offer a picture of Jesus which emerged shortly after his death, but as we will see next week, many years later a radically different picture of Jesus was to appear.  Next week, we will take a look at this new picture.