Perhaps no person in history has been the subject of so much controversy and debate. It began two thousand years ago, when religious and political powers conspired to brutally execute him. Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically. After that point, agreement is difficult to find; opinions about the life and message of Jesus differ sharply.
My own understanding of Jesus has been a long and winding journey. You might say that I have my own “Finding Jesus” story that has passed through many phases.
I was raised loosely in the Catholic Church, attending Mass most Sundays. I made it through my First Communion and First Confession, but drifted away and did not pursue official Confirmation by the Church. I had no personal interest in God or religion until life’s existential questions began troubling me in my late teens. I first came to know Jesus as “Religion’s Jesus.” I accepted Jesus as my savior and became a born-again Christian the summer before I went off to college. Throughout my collegiate years I was a leader in a Christian campus ministry. Along the way my understanding of Jesus was shaped by traditional Christian teachings, which could be summed up in the Nicene Creed. I was heavily vested in this view for many years of my life, including earning a Master of Divinity degree, and many years as a professional Christian minister and church pastor. I experienced a crisis of faith when I acknowledged to myself that I was empty, broken and unhappy inside despite my religious devotion. I observed this same dissonance in many of the people I led and cared for in my church parish. As a result, I left professional Christian ministry to sort out my spiritual struggles.
The next stage in my understanding of Jesus, I’ll call the “Religion-less Jesus” phase. I knew something was not adding up in terms of my Christian belief-system. Jesus himself said that knowing the truth sets a person free, and yet I was anything but free. Discontented, restless, afflicted, fragmented – yes, but not free. I began deconstructing my Christian belief system. Belief by belief, I questioned and examined every teaching and doctrine. Walt Whitman wrote, “Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.” My own version of Whitman’s sentiment was to re-examine all my Christian beliefs based on the preeminence of love. I used the scripture, “God is love” to scrutinize my dogma. I realize this may sound quite simplistic, perhaps even childish, and certainly unbecoming of a person who studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, and understood the finer points of proper exegesis. But for all my theological sophistication I had no inner peace, and so I decided upon a much simpler method for accessing the validity of my beliefs. It’s at this point of my journey that I began writing books, the first of which was, Divine Nobodies: Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you).
This endeavor of questioning and deconstructing my beliefs resulted in the demolition of my Evangelical Christian belief-system. And yet in all the theological rubble, there was still a Jesus standing there. I could not seem to deconstruct Jesus out of the picture. This left me in a quandary. Jesus had once been necessary as the central piece of the theological edifice I called Christianity. But if I no longer believed in that theological edifice built around him, then who was Jesus and did it really even matter.
This quandary led to a question that guided my spiritual journey for the next few years: Is there a credible way of understanding Jesus apart from traditional Christianity?
My first step in this direction was a chapter I wrote in my second book, Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity. In that chapter, I explore what I believed to be the unreasonable motto of modern Christianity – the WWJD-question: What would Jesus do? I pointed out the insanity of this proposition – binding people to the notion of living as Jesus did while also asserting that Jesus is God, therefore making his life unattainable by mere mortals. This ultimately led to the question: What makes Jesus and me different? Through some theological gymnastics I managed to come up with an answer, which stated that any person could actually do what Jesus did, without compromising the notion of the divinity of Jesus. Phew!
But my explanation in Wide Open Spaces seemed incomplete and for me raised more questions than it answered. It became a splinter in my mind. I devoted my third book, Being Jesus in Nashville, to more fully exploring the premise of the WWJD-question. I did so by devoting a year of my life to test the notion that I was capable of doing anything Jesus did, including the miraculous or supernatural works that are attributed to him. Being Jesus in Nashville is the story of what unfolded over that year and what I discovered. Though I took no specific theological position, I blurred the lines of Jesus’ divinity enough for the comfort of my Christian publisher. I was accused of being a “heretic” who had “abandoned orthodox biblical theology.” The manuscript was rejected and my book contract swiftly cancelled.
This “Religion-less Jesus” phase ended with a paradox. I was more interested in Jesus than I ever had been, but conflicted about referring to myself as a “Christian,” at least not on the terms of my own particular Christian persuasion.
Let me say that I think it is unfair to pit “religion” against “spirituality” as if they are two completely different and unrelated things. There is a robust “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) movement that can sometimes imply that organized religion is devoid of true personal spirituality. I believe this is an unfair criticism, and is not true across the board. I refer to this next phase of my Jesus journey as “Spiritual Jesus” because I discovered a deeply significant and meaningful understanding of Jesus that did not require that I necessarily identify with the institution or organized Christianity.
Jesus himself was a Jew and raised in a family and culture of Judaism. As such, Jesus both affirmed Judaism for its goodness, but also confronted the ways Judaism had been corrupted by the religious establishment. Not to be comparing myself to Jesus, I did imperfectly walk this line myself. On the one hand, the world can thank Christianity for having established and preserved a witness to Jesus down through history. But there are ways I believe that the Christian establishment misconstrued and corrupted the relevance and significance of Jesus, and I explore these in detail in my fourth book, Notes from (Over) the Edge. Then in my fifth book, Inner Anarchy, I offered an alternative way of understanding Jesus, based on a different interpretation of the Jesus story in the Bible. This book was controversial from the start because of the sub-title: Dethroning God and Jesus to Save Ourselves and the World, which I explain in great detail in a FAQ about the book.
During this phase I was heavily criticized on all sides. Some of my Christian tribe criticized, even demonized me for my non-traditional views of Jesus, while others took issue with my continuing to talk about Jesus at all. I have since written several blog posts in attempt to clarify my position, and answer my critics:
I’m not sure I succeeded but I discovered in the process, mainly through private messages and emails, that there are many people who were at a similar place as myself with respect to Jesus – having misgivings about Christianity and traditional Christian theology but not wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The more I pressed into an alternative way of thinking about Jesus, I discovered a universal significance and relevance to Jesus that I have found quite meaningful. In most instances, religious division is based on the premise that someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. Or stated another way, when it comes to the world’s religious, spiritual and philosophical belief-systems, everyone can’t be right. In recent years I have challenged this notion. In my view, virtually any open-minded person can see that despite differences and distinctions among the world’s religions, there is agreement on what I believe to be the most profound level – values such as love, compassion, harmony and the golden rule. I also believe there is much more agreement between science and religion than people may think. In a nutshell, it is my view that all religions, spiritualties, and philosophies (including science, humanism, agnosticism and atheism) can peacefully coexist, enhance one another’s understanding of the universe and life’s existential questions, and find a rationale for building a world that works for everyone.
For my part in this, coming from a Christian background, I am wanting to influence my Christian tribe to shift from a message of exclusivity about Jesus to a message of inclusivity. I don’t believe Jesus came to start a new religion to compete with all the others. I see Jesus as one who lived, demonstrated and bore witness to the truth that humankind has never been estranged from God, and the only issue to work out now is to end our estrangement from one another. Jesus taught that love for God is synonymous with love for one another, and anything less is missing the point and fake religion.
There is no reason why we can’t maintain our own uniquely meaningful ways of understanding God, find and make meaning for our place and purpose in the universe, and express and satisfy our own spiritual or self-transcendent proclivities, without it being a source of division, hostility and hatred in the world.
I have written several blog posts, speaking to this subject:
In recent years I have become more aware of people who would consider themselves non-theists or atheists, and still ascribe significance to Jesus. There are two books by the same name that I read on this subject:
This is a summation of how I have come to understand Jesus. I don’t believe this is a violation of the Jesus in the Bible, nor a rejection of the person Jesus associated with the Christian tradition. Every generation, every Christian denomination, every church, even every Christian “finds Jesus” differently. This doesn’t make one person “right” and another person wrong.” In my view, if love, compassion, harmony and the golden rule are non-negotiable then we can all learn from and appreciate how each of us finds Jesus.
I don't believe it's possible to ever "find Jesus" entirely, or even understand him completely. Perhaps this is why he endures as a person of universal interest and intrigue. Jesus was an interesting combination of paradoxes in terms of who he was and how he lived. He was loving and compassionate. He was confrontational and contentious. He was meek. He was scrappy. He was instructive, nurturing, empowering and inspiring. He was subversive, undermining, inflammatory and a renegade. He spoke of the kingdom of heaven within us. He rebelled against the kingdom of men that oppressed the people. He was a warrior. He was a poet. You really can't pick and choose the parts you like and those you don't. He was all of that.
Jesus might well be the world's most famous missing person. What Jesus was and what was made of him are two different realities. Once you clear away the spin and hype, you discover a lot of remarkable things about Jesus. Jesus died as a political provocateur and disturber of the alliance of convenience between the Roman occupiers and the corrupt Jewish leaders. The Romans did not waste crucifixion on nobodies. Jesus was a somebody. It wasn't a surprise that Jesus was killed, only that he was not killed sooner. Jesus' rhetoric and way of life was a threat to the occupiers and the priestly caste that benefited from it. Jesus spoke of a different kingdom and stirred the hopes of the people. Hope is the energy of revolution. Hope and excitement can disturb the pseudo-peace on which tyranny depends. The truth that Jesus shared and demonstrated debunked the foundational premises on which those religious and political systems were built. Jesus called for people to stop listening to them and start listening to the spirit of truth within themselves. He attacked the credibility of those systems and told people to find their authority inside themselves. Each time Jesus opened his mouth, he was pulling out another wooden Jenga block, making these religious and worldly powers vulnerable and unstable. Jesus himself was no threat—he had no position of religious or political power and wasn’t campaigning to be the worldly president—but his truth made him a one-man wrecking crew. Jesus is the world's most famous missing person because the religion that bears his name worship him as God, and have mostly lost who he was as a human.
Marcus Borg wrote, "Jesus was from the peasant class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a sociopolitical passion to him—like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, Jesus was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that of St. Francis or the present Dalai Lama. And as a figure of history, Jesus was an ambiguous figure—you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat—or you could conclude that he was filled with the spirit of God."
It seems to me that one of the reasons Christianity appeals to people is because Jesus represents a self-actualized person. The idea of Jesus being both human and divine makes him the ultimate expression of any sentient being. Therefore, the idea of "becoming like Christ", or the life/spirit of Jesus manifesting in/through/as us, carries this idea of realizing our fullest potentialities.
Let's say it was possible that you had the specific life/spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the specific life/spirit of Susan B. Anthony inside you. If you did, it would follow that you could possibly become like these individuals. Likewise, the idea is that if the life/spirit of Jesus is within us, we can become like Jesus.
The problem, however, is that Christianity made Jesus a standard of perfection, downplaying and sterilizing his humanity and glorifying his divinity. By making Jesus equal to God, the idea of "becoming like Jesus" is an impossibility since no person is capable of achieving God's perfection, nor has the divine power/attributes to do so. If Jesus was not God, but a highly evolved and self-actualized human being, than it would follow that all people have this same latent potential.
However, the further problem we have is how little we know about Jesus. Even if you take the gospel writers at their word, you still only have a very small number of stories and accounts that were carefully selected to portray a certain image and story of Jesus.
Jesus could be seen as representing a convergence of characteristics and qualities that have universal appeal. Jesus is often portrayed as someone with a grounded humanity and transcendent spirituality; a fearless non-conformist and friend of the outliers and disenfranchised; someone with a sharp mind and a soft heart; a revolutionary by day and the life of the party by night. Jesus is depicted as someone who was merciless when necessary and merciful when no one was looking; a person who could destroy you in a debate or restore you with his compassion, love, and kindness.
We don't really know for sure if Jesus was any of these things, but I think there is something important to learn from the fact that this is who many people want Jesus to be and have faith that he was this.