Category Archives: Spiritual Experience

Cosmic Child Abuse

I don’t judge you. I leave that to a wrathful, angry God to do.

— Ned Flanders to his wayward neighbor, Homer Simpson

“The Cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse — a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.”

When I penned this statement, as part of the text of The Lost Message of Jesus, I had no idea of the debate that it would ignite or the controversy it would stir…. Though the sheer bluntness of my imagery shocked some, I contend that, in truth, it represents nothing more than a stark unmasking of what I understand to be the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind the popular theory of penal substitutionary atonement … [that] I readily concede, is currently regarded as orthodoxy within modern evangelicalism…. I believe it to be biblically, culturally and pastorally deficient and even dangerous. (Chalke 2008: 34-35)

(….) I grieve over the depth of the damage that has been, and is being, done through the distortion, misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the purpose of the cross under the label of “penal” substitution…. N.T. [Wright] states, for instance, “it … is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.” In my opinion, he is right once more…. I believe it is better to abandon the use of the term [“penal” substitution] altogether and restate the truth in fresh ways. (Chalke 2008: 35)

(….) Inadequate doctrines of atonement lead to distorted understandings of God and humanity and result in an immature engagement in community and wider society.

But if erroneous theology leads to dysfunctional missiology, is there any connection between the public’s almost universal perception of certain elements of the church as judgmental, guilt-inducing, censorious, finger-wagging, bigoted, and self-righteous and aspects of its theology of the cross? And if, as historian and scholar David Bebbington claims, one of the four pillars of evangelicalism (which together are known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral) is “crucicentrism”, or cross-centredness, why is it that our culture now views the death of Christ as no more than some kind of ancient myth or irrelevant religious event? Perhaps one factor is that our thinking about the cross has become distorted and thus our presentation of it is inadequate to engage the hearts and minds of our contemporaries both within and beyond the church. (Chalke 2008: 36)

(….) Though often represented as a much older formulation, penal substitutionary theory, as it is understood and taught in many evangelical churches today, rests largely on the work of the nineteenth-century American theologian Charles Hodge, who, building on the work of John Calvin’s legal mind, argued that a righteous God is angry with sinners and demands justice. God’s wrath can be appeased only through bringing about the violent death of his Son. Joel Green and Mark Baker demonstrate in their book, Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross, that, whereas supporters of penal substitutionary theory tend to quote the writings of various church fathers and early Christian writers to bolster their claims, their conclusion is more easily understood as an anachronistic “reading back” of modern views onto ancient texts, particularly into the work of Anselm of Canterbury. (Chalke 2008: 37)

(….) However, the supposed orthodoxy of penal substitution is greatly misleading. Although as a theory it is not as old as many people assume, it is actually built on pre-Christian thought. This is a point pressed by Professor George Eldon Ladd in A Theology of the New Testament: “In pagan Greek thought the gods often became angry with men, but their anger could be placated and the good will of the gods obtained by some kind of propitiatory sacrifice. Even in the Old Testament, the idea of atonement as the propitiating of an angry deity and transmuting his anger into benevolence is not to be found.” The emphasis on Yahweh’s apparent appetite for continuous appeasement through blood sacrifice, present in some Pentateuchal texts is to be understood in the light of later prophetic writings as a reflection of the worship practices of the pagan cults of the nations that surrounded the people of Israel. However, the story of Israel’s salvation is the story of her journey away from these primal practices towards a new and more enlightened understanding by way of Yahweh’s self-revelation. (Chalke 2008: 38)

(….) Indeed, one of the challenging questions for those who hold a penal substitutionary view of the atonement is the fact that Jewish prophets of the eighth century BCE were clearly already moving beyond this concept. Thus, to defend the theory of penal substitution by arguing the meaning of this or that isolated biblical text ignores a deeper truth. The resonance of the scriptural witness, the overall flow of the narrative, and the unravelling story of salvation all speak with a different voice. So it is that, today, even the most orthodox Jewish teaching and practice has long since abandoned blood sacrifice. There is simply no Jewish scholar anywhere in the world who understands the sum content of the Old Testament text as an ongoing demand for propitiatory blood sacrifice. (Chalke 2008: 39)

The greatest theological problem with penal substitution is that it presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution for sin that flows from his wrath against sinners. The only way for his anger to be placated is in receiving recompense from those who have wronged him, and although his great love motivates him to send his Son, his wrath remains the driving force behind the need for the cross. (Chalke 2008: 39)

If we follow Hodge’s understanding of the atonement, it is Jesus’ death alone that becomes our “good news”. This approach reduces the whole gospel to a single sentence: “God is no longer angry with us because Jesus died in our place.” Indeed, that is exactly why evangelistic presentations based on penal substitution often do not even bother to mention the resurrection: for them, it serves no direct purpose in the story of salvation. (Chalke 2008: 39)

Ironically, what Hodge most neglected was to let Jesus speak for himself. It is difficult to see how penal substitution fits with the words or attitudes of Jesus. For instance, if the whole gospel centres on Jesus’ death, what was the good news he told his followers to preach (Luke 9:6) before the crucifixion? And if God needed to a sacrifice to placate his anger, how could Jesus forgive sins before his sacrifice had been made? In fact, why did Jesus preach at all? The rest of his ministry was ultimately unnecessary if it is only his death that makes things new. Surely we cannot embrace a theology in which Jesus’ entire thirty-three-year incarnation could be reduced to a long weekend’s activity. (Chalke 2008: 39)

It is interesting to note that in Jesus’ own explanations of his Father’s relationship with mankind, the story of the prodigal son, the father is not presented as angry or vengeful or as seeking justice and retribution; instead, he simply runs to greet his wayward child, showers him with gifts and welcomes him home (Luke 15:11-32). The father in the parable is wronged, but he chooses to forgive in order to restore a broken relationship there is no theme of retribution. Instead, the story is one of outstanding grace, of scandalous love and mercy. How different it would read if penal substitution were the model of atonement offered. (Chalke 2008: 39-40)

In addition, we can note Jesus’ teaching on anger (Matt. 5:22) and retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42). Is it not strange for Jesus (God incarnate) on the one hand to teach “do not return evil for evil” while still looking for retribution himself? Similarly, would it not be inconsistent for God to warn us not to be angry with each other and yet burn with wrath himself, or tell us to love our enemies when he obviously could not quite bring himself to do the same without demanding massive appeasement? If these things are true, what does it mean to “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)? If it is true that Jesus is “the Word of God”, then how can his message be inconsistent with his nature? If the cross has anything to do with penal substitution, then Jesus’ teaching becomes a divine case of “do as I say, not as I do.” I, for one, believe that God practices what he preaches. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. (Chalke 2008: 40)

So, what of God’s anger? The most profound theological truth expressed in the whole of canon of Scripture is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Bible never defines God as anger, power or judgment; in fact, it never defines him as anything other than love. Love is not a quality that God possess but rather is his divine essence itself his essential being. And more than that, the Bible never makes assertions about God’s anger, power or judgment independently of his love. God’s anger is an aspect of his love, and to understand it any differently is to misunderstand it. (Chalke 2008: 40)

Every father will be wronged by his children; it is a simple fact. All of us who know the joy of raising children also know the pain of their rebelliousness and yet no parent who loves their child ever seeks retribution for wrongs done to them. Parental anger, when it is motivated by genuine love, cannot be violent or destructive. Though in Scripture we read about God’s various attributes, in truth, they are never more than repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves. The reality of God’s wrath is never in dispute. But only in light of our understanding of God as the perfect father can we begin to see that the objects of his burning anger are not his beloved children but the evils, attitudes and behaviours that ensnare and seek to destroy them. (Chalke 2008: 40)

(….) Penal substitutionary theory betrays Jesus’ attempt to root out the tendency of religion to lead to violence by inventing a theology of his death that is in direct opposition to his teaching. If the church could rediscover a deeper understanding of the cross, we could once again speak with prophetic power to a global society caught in the grip of the lie that violence can be redemptive. The church’s inability to shake off the great distortion of God contained in the theory of penal substitution, with its inbuilt belief in retribution and the redemptive power of violence, has cost us dearly. As the world struggles to find a way out of the chaos resulting from the doctrine of “might is right” and “he who has the biggest guns wins,” there is now an opportunity for the church to live out its commitment to the ethic of non-violence or “assertive meekness” demonstrated by Christ throughout his life and ultimately authenticated by his cross and resurrection. Jews, Muslims and Christians alike have to face up to the truth that their holy texts can be interpreted violently. Will our Christ-centered faith be part of the world’s answer or part of its problem? (Chalke 2008: 41)

But a commitment to penal substitution also raises other ethical concerns. Indeed, it is open to the charge that it does little more than reflect the nineteenth- and twentieth-century culturally dominant values of individualism, autonomy and consumerism. Thus, the primary purpose for the cross becomes its instant “cash value” for the individual. by “praying the prayer”, I am immediately moved from the wrong side of God’s legal ledger to the right side. The great transaction is done. And what is more, not only am I no longer guilty but I can also cling to the belief that “once saved, always saved”. My eternal destiny is guaranteed. Penal substitution offers instant forgiveness without challenging basic day-to-day moral behavior. It separates salvation from discipleship by disconnecting the way that Jesus lived his life from his saving work. (Chalke 2008: 41-42)

(….) “I don’t judge you. I leave that to a wrathful, angry God to do,” thunders Bible-thumping, churchgoing Ned Flanders to his wayward neighbor, Homer Simpson. Of course, many Christians learn to live with the dichotomy caused by an uncritical acceptance of penal substitutionary theory. On the one hand, they believe in God’s grace and goodness, but on the other, they believe that one of the central acts of their faith is bound upon in his vengeance and wrath. The only way they cope with this tension is to dismiss it as “a divine paradox”. However, for their friends and the rest of the world, it is simply a massive contradiction, the “elephant in the room”. (Chalke 2008: 42)

Since my book was published, and in the serious theological debate that has followed it, some have sought to readdress their definition of penal substitution. I have witnessed various attempts to redraw, redefine, recast, remodel and rehabilitate the theory as “not really as violent and retributive a concept as The Lost Message of Jesus suggested”…. [I]n my view, what we need is not a reworking [“penal substitution theory lite”] but a renunciation. Why? Because even the most sophisticated and gracious attempts to nuance penal substitution have, in the end, failed to communicate anything other than a distorted view of God at a popular level. (Chalke 2008: 42)

(….) On the cross, Jesus does not placate God’s anger in taking the punishment for sin but rather absorbs its consequences and, as three days later he is raised, defeats death. It is the resurrection God which finally puts the Victor in Christus Victor! So it is that in and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection God confronts and dethrones the powers of evil. (Chalke 2008: 44)

(….) The cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he did not commit. Rather than a symbol of vengeance or retribution, the cross of Christ is the greatest symbol of love and a demonstration of just how far God the Father and Jesus his Son are prepared to go to prove that love and to bring redemption to their creation. (Chalke 2008: 44)

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MEANING OF THE DEATH ON THE CROSS

Although Jesus did not die this death on the cross to atone for the racial guilt of mortal man nor to provide some sort of effective approach to an otherwise offended and unforgiving God; even though the Son of Man did not offer himself as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of God and to open the way for sinful man to obtain salvation; notwithstanding that these ideas of atonement and propitiation are erroneous, nonetheless, there are significances attached to this death of Jesus on the cross which should not be overlooked. (Urantia Book 188:4.1)

(….) When once you grasp the idea of God as a true and loving Father, the only concept which Jesus ever taught, you must forthwith, in all consistency, utterly abandon all those primitive notions about God as an offended monarch, a stern and all-powerful ruler whose chief delight is to detect his subjects in wrongdoing and to see that they are adequately punished, unless some being almost equal to himself should volunteer to suffer for them, to die as a substitute and in their stead. The whole idea of ransom and atonement is incompatible with the concept of God as it was taught and exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. The infinite love of God is not secondary to anything in the divine nature. (Urantia Book 188:4.8)

(….) This entire idea of the ransom of the atonement places salvation upon a plane of unreality; such a concept is purely philosophic. Human salvation is real; it is based on two realities which may be grasped by the creature’s faith and thereby become incorporated into individual human experience: the fact of the fatherhood of God and its correlated truth, the brotherhood of man. It is true, after all, that you are to be “forgiven your debts, even as you forgive your debtors.” (Urantia Book 188:4.13)

(….) The cross of Jesus portrays the full measure of the supreme devotion of the true shepherd for even the unworthy members of his flock. It forever places all relations between God and man upon the family basis. God is the Father; man is his son. Love, the love of a father for his son, becomes the central truth in the universe relations of Creator and creature—not the justice of a king which seeks satisfaction in the sufferings and punishment of the evil-doing subject. (Urantia Book 188:5.1)

LESSONS FROM THE CROSS

(….) The cross makes a supreme appeal to the best in man because it discloses one who was willing to lay down his life in the service of his fellow men. Greater love no man can have than this: that he would be willing to lay down his life for his friends—and Jesus had such a love that he was willing to lay down his life for his enemies, a love greater than any which had hitherto been known on earth. (188:5.7)

(….) Make sure, then, that when you view the cross as a revelation of God, you do not look with the eyes of the primitive man nor with the viewpoint of the later barbarian, both of whom regarded God as a relentless Sovereign of stern justice and rigid law-enforcement. Rather, make sure that you see in the cross the final manifestation of the love and devotion of Jesus to his life mission of bestowal upon the mortal races of his vast universe. See in the death of the Son of Man the climax of the unfolding of the Father’s divine love for his sons of the mortal spheres. The cross thus portrays the devotion of willing affection and the bestowal of voluntary salvation upon those who are willing to receive such gifts and devotion. There was nothing in the cross which the Father required—only that which Jesus so willingly gave, and which he refused to avoid. (188:5.11)

We know that the death on the cross was not to effect man’s reconciliation to God but to stimulate man’s realization of the Father’s eternal love and his Son’s unending mercy, and to broadcast these universal truths to a whole universe. (188:5.12)

Challenge and Riposte

You shall not portray your teacher as a man of sorrows. Future generations shall know also the radiance of our joy, the buoyance of our good will, and the inspiration of our good humor. We proclaim a message of good news which is infectious in its transforming power. Our religion is throbbing with new life and new meanings. Those who accept this teaching are filled with joy and in their hearts are constrained to rejoice evermore. Increasing happiness is always the experience of all who are certain about God. (153:3.10)

(….) The Master displayed great wisdom and manifested perfect fairness in all of his dealings with his apostles and with all of his disciples. Jesus was truly a master of men; he exercised great influence over his fellow men because of the combined charm and force of his personality. There was a subtle commanding influence in his rugged, nomadic, and homeless life. There was intellectual attractiveness and spiritual drawing power in his authoritative manner of teaching, in his lucid logic, his strength of reasoning, his sagacious insight, his alertness of mind, his matchless poise, and his sublime tolerance. He was simple, manly, honest, and fearless. With all of this physical and intellectual influence manifest in the Master’s presence, there were also all those spiritual charms of being which have become associated with his personality—patience, tenderness, meekness, gentleness, and humility. (Urantia Book 141:3.4)

Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a strong and forceful personality; he was an intellectual power and a spiritual stronghold. His personality not only appealed to the spiritually minded women among his followers, but also to the educated and intellectual Nicodemus and to the hardy Roman soldier, the captain stationed on guard at the cross, who, when he had finished watching the Master die, said, “Truly, this was a Son of God.” And red-blooded, rugged Galilean fishermen called him Master. (Urantia Book 141:3.5)

The pictures of Jesus have been most unfortunate. These paintings of the Christ have exerted a deleterious influence on youth; the temple merchants would hardly have fled before Jesus if he had been such a man as your artists usually have depicted. His was a dignified manhood; he was good, but natural. Jesus did not pose as a mild, sweet, gentle, and kindly mystic. His teaching was thrillingly dynamic. He not only meant well, but he went about actually doing good. (Urantia Book 141:3.6)

1.2. Acquiring Honor: Challenge and Riposte

Challenge-riposte describes a constant social tug of war, a game of social push and shove. Challenge-riposte is a type of social communication, since any social interaction is a form of communication. Someone (source) sends a message by means of a culturally recognized channel to a receiving individual, and this produces an effect. The source here is the challenger, while the message is a symbolized thing (e.g., word, a gift, an invitation) or event (e.g., a slap) or both. The channel of communication is always public, and the publicity of the message guarantees that the receiving individual will react, since even non-action is publicly interpreted, either as a riposte or a loss of honor. Consequently, challenge-riposte within context of honor is a social interaction with at least three phases:

(a) challenge in terms of some action (word, deed, or both) on the part of the challenger;

(b) perception of the message by both the individual to whom it is directed and the public at large; and

(c) reaction of the receiving individual and the evaluation of the reaction on the part of the public. (Neyrey 2005, 29)

The result is a highly stylized interaction which contains the following elements:

Typical Elements in a Challenge-Riposte Exchange

1. Claim (often implied by action or gesture)
2. Challenge
3. Riposte
4. Public verdict

The challenge-riposte interaction begins with some claim to enter the social space of another (for what follows, see Bourdieu 1966). This claim is always a challenge, and may be positive or negative. (Neyrey 2005, 29-30)

Cosmic Laughter

In 1494, just before the onslaught of the Reformation, Sebastian Brandt, a conservative Roman Catholic scholar living in Basel, looked at the reeking vice and folly of the church of his day and wrote Das Narrenschiff, a Ship of Fools. As the prologue tells us, “One vessel would be far too small / To carry all the fools I know.” Brandt’s veritable floating tub of dolts and sinners heads for an unknown destination, a land of Fools, and functions as a harbinger of an imminent schism. Eulogized as divina satira, divine satire, Ship of Fools catapulted Brandt into the ranks of Dante, at least among the Germans. (Lindvall 2015, 1)

— Terry Lindvall (2015, 1) God Mocks. NYU Press.

If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.

Yiddish Proverb. Cited in Lindvall (2015, 3) God Mocks.

The Jesus movement very early on exchanged the vision for the visionary. Those first enthusiastic followers were enthralled by the world Jesus encapsulated in the parables and aphorisms, but, since they were unable to hold on to the vision embodied in those verbal vehicles, they turned from the story to the storyteller. They didn’t know how else to celebrate the revelation. They turned the iconoclast into an icon. (Funk 1996: 10-11)

(….) The quest for the historical Jesus is an effort to emancipate the Galilean sage from the tangle of Christian overlay that obscures, to some extent, who Jesus was and what he said, to distinguish the religion of Jesus from the religion about Jesus. That quest has been under way since the eighteenth century, when the first critical scholars asserted their independence from ecclesiastical control. It has continued unabated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Funk 1996: 31)

(….) Jesus was a comic savant. He mixed humor with subversive and troubling knowledge born of direct insight. That was also the technique of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, who might also be described as comic savants. A comic savant is an intellectualbetter, poetwho is redefining what it means to be wise. That is the real role of the court jester: tell the king the truth but tell it as a joke. Jesters consequently enjoyed a limited immunity for their jokes. New truth is easier to embrace if it comes wrapped in humor. (Funk 1996: 158)

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When someone slaps you on the right cheek,
turn the other as well.

If someone sues you for your coat,
Give him the shirt off your back to go with it.

When anyone conscripts you for one mile,
go along for two.

These admonitions give the appearance of being a series of particular cases that call for corresponding legal precedents. But, in fact, they parody case law and legal reasoning.

A blow to the right cheek would require a left-handed slap, which would be intended not to injure but to humiliate. The left hand was not used publicly in Jesus’ society, since it was used for unclean tasks. At Qumran to gesture with the left hand was punishable by ten days of penance. So a backhand slap to the right cheek was an insult delivered from a superior to an inferior, as Walter Wink has so brilliantly shown: master to slave, husband to wife, parent to child, Roman to Jew. Its message: Get back in your place. Don’t put on airs.

To turn the other cheek under the circumstances was an act of defiance. The left cheek invited a right-hand blow that might injure. The master, husband, or parent, or Roman would hesitate. The humiliation of the initial blow was answered with a nonviolent, very subtle, but quite effective challenge. The act of defiance entailed risk; it was symbolic, to be sure, but for that reason appealed to those who were regarded as subservient inferiors in Jesus’ world.

A coat was often given as surety for a loan or debt. The poor could lose their coats under such circumstances, but only during the daylight hours; at night, according to Deuteronimic law, the coat had to be returned since the truly destitute might have nothing else for warmth. Jesus’ injunction was to give up both coat and shirt. In a two-garment society, that meant going naked. Nakedness was frowned upon, to say the least. Again, according to the Manual of Discipline, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally exposing one’s nakedness when taking one’s hand out of one’s robe called for thirty days of penance. Exposing oneself to a companion needlessly drew a penalty of six months. Jesus combined humor with a call for a serious infraction of the social code.

Roman soldiers were allowed to commandeer Judeans for a mile’s march to assist with gear. More than that was forbidden. To comply with a conscriptive order meant subservience; to refuse meant rebellion. Imagine the consternation of the Roman soldier when confronted with a Judean offer to carry the pack a second mile.

These examples all refer to real problems, real circumstances. The responses, however, are not prescriptive; they are suggestive of a behavior that undermines the intent of the initial act. (Funk 1996: 155)

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Casting Off Body-Mind

The Understanding of One’s Personality

Unlike a thing, that is usually regarded as existence that is a means, a person is regarded as existence with the self as its own end. This is especially clear in Kantian ethics, which has given a philosophical foundation to the modern notions of personality, freedom, and responsibility. Kant distinguishes things and human personality, and insists that while things can only have value as existence that is a means, human personality has dignity and grace as existence with self-purpose. Although a human being can be used as a means, at the same time he or she must always be treated as an end. In the Kantian framework, this superiority of people over things, and end over means, should not be overcome. Thus Kant talks about the “Kingdom of ends” as the community of personality. Viewed in the light of Dōgen, this Kantian notion of personality not only is limited by anthropocentrism but also is not completely free from reification of the human self. In Dōgen, people are not essentially distinguished from other beings, but are grasped as a part of the realm of beings. People and other beings are equally subject to impermanence, or transiency. Although only people who have self-consciousness can realize the impermanency common to all beings as impermanency, they can overcome the problem of life and death only when they can overcome the transiency common to all beings. In Dōgen both suffering and emancipation from it are grasped on this transanthropocentric dimension. Hence Dōgen’s emphasis on the simultaneous attainment of Buddha-nature for self and others, and for humans and nature. In this simultaneous attainment, each person becomes an occasion or means for the others’ attainment just as each person realizes his or her own attainment. Here self-awakening and others’ awakening take place at the same time. While maintaining one’s individuality in terms of self-awakening, one serves as the means for the awakening of others. This dynamic mutuality takes place not only between the self and others, but also between humans and nature. This is the reason Dōgen emphasizes, in the “Bendōwa” fascicle, that

trees and grasses, wall and fence, expound and exalt the Dharma for the sake of ordinary people, sages, and all living beings. Ordinary people, sages, and all living beings in turn preach and exalt the Dharma for the sake of trees, grasses, wall, and fence. The dimension of self-enlightenment-qua-enlightening-others basically is fully replete with the characteristics of realization, and causes the principle of realization to function unceasingly.20

This mutual help for enlightenment between humans and nature, however, cannot take place insofar as humans take only themselves as the end. As Dōgen maintains:

To practice and confirm all things by conveying one’s self to them, is illusion; for all things to advance forward and practice and confirm the self, is enlightenment.21 (Abe 1992, 32)

The self must be emptied, for all things to advance and confirm the self. Accordingly, “to forget one’s self” is crucial. To forget one’s self is nothing other than body-mind casting off. And when body-mind are cast off, the world and history are also cast off. If body-mind are cast off without the world and history being cast off, it is not an authentic “body-mind casting off.” Further, “body-mind casting off” is not something negative. It is immediately the cast-off body-mind, that is, the awakened body-mind that is freed from self-attachment and ready to save others. In the same way, the casting off of the world and history, which takes place at the same time as the casting off of body-mind, is not something negative. It is directly the cast-off world and history, that is, the awakened world and awakened history, that “advance forward and practice and confirm the self.” (Abe 1992, 33)

Such are the implications of the notion of the oneness of means and end when the notion is applied to the understanding of one’s personality and its relationship to other persons and other things. Here we can see Dōgen’s challenge to the contemporary issues of ecology and history. The crucial point of this dynamic mutuality between the self and others, and humans and the world, is to forget one’s self, and one’s body-mind are cast off, is self-awakening-qua-awakening-others fully realized. This is not the “Kingdom of ends,” but the “Kingdom of dependent origination.” (Abe 1992, 33)

20 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 136.
21 Shōbōgenzō “Bendōwa” The Eastern Buddhist, 133.

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Laughing Buddha: Jesus as Messiah

The Jesus movement very early on exchanged the vision for the visionary. Those first enthusiastic followers were enthralled by the world Jesus encapsulated in the parables and aphorisms, but, since they were unable to hold on to the vision embodied in those verbal vehicles, they turned from the story to the storyteller. They didn’t know how else to celebrate the revelation. They turned the iconoclast into an icon. (Funk 1996: 10-11)

One of my most memorable adventures as a cultural intermediary occurred about twelve years ago when I translated for a Christian colleague who was visiting the monastery in southern India where I was living. He was there working on a translation of a Buddhist text, and I volunteered my services as interpreter. One day, in the course of his conversations with one of the senior scholars of the monestary, it came up that he was a Christian, and my teacher asked him to share some of his beliefs. My friend chose to focus on Jesus’ identity as messiah. As I finished translating the words of my colleague, my teacher broke out in a fit of laughter, much to my embarrassment. He then proceeded to question his interlocutor in a kind of pointed and unabashedly adversarial way that is typical of the Tibetan monastic debate courtyard. There ensued a lively exchange, but when all was said and done, my teacher’s basic question was this: How can the death of one individual act as the direct and substantive cause for the salvation of others?

Behind this interreligious impasse there are of course operative several Buddhist doctrinal presuppositions that are in marked contrast (at times even in opposition) to those of traditional Christianity, not the least of which is the Buddhist vision of what constitutes liberation.

Several corollaries to the Buddhist view of liberation are especially relevant as responses to the Christian confession of Jesus as messiah. (1) Each of us is responsible for our own lot in life. We each cause our own suffering, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own liberation. (2) Our salvation is not dependent on any one historical event. Specifically, our salvation is not dependent upon the appearance of any one personage in history. True, the actions of others can help us or hinder us on the way, but no action (or lack of action) on the part of another individual—whether human or divine—can seal our fate, either as regards salvation or damnation. (3) Soteriologically, there is no end to time, no time after which sentient beings will suffer, and thus long will there be the possibility of their liberation. (4) No being has the capacity to decide whether or not we will be saved. Salvation is not granted to us, or withheld from us, by some external force. It is self-earned. (5) No single action on our part can instantaneously cause our liberation. What brings about salvation is not mere belief or faith, even a faith that is sustained throughout en entire life. Certainly, it is not the instantaneous belief in something (e.g., the belief that Jesus is Lord) that brings about salvation, but the long and arduous process of radical mental transformation, which requires more than simply belief.22

Together these various tenants make it impossible for Buddhists to accept a messianic creed of the traditional Christian sort. Jesus may have been an extraordinary human being, a sage, an effective and charismatic teacher, and even the manifestation of a deity, but he cannot have been the messiah that most Christians believe him to have been.23 (Gross et. al. 2000, 27-28, José Ignacio Cabezón, A God, but Not a Savior, Iliff School of Theology.)

22 I am not unaware of the fact that in the history of Buddhism there have been movements that challenge this notion of the nature and path to salvation. Especially important to mention in this regard are certain schools of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. But again, I remind my readers that I am speaking here principally from an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist doctrinal perspective.

23 Of course, if the Jesus Seminar is right, than Jesus did not make this claim of himself. See Funk et. al, The Five Gospels, pp. 32-34.

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It is well known within the comparative religious studies field that there exists a phenomena whereby a founder reveals a teaching of experience and after passing another teaching about the founder develops in the minds of those who are tasked with creating the social institutions that perpetuate the founder’s teachings. It is the teachings of the founder distinct from the teachings about the founder that are important and often lost in historical time until recovered through critical religious scholarship. This of vs. about distinction is important. The teachings of Jesus are distinct and separate from the teachings about Jesus that developed after his death. The atonement doctrine which in light of modernity is nothing more than divine child abuse was a doctrine developed after Jesus lived, taught, and died and is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he revealed them through his life and teachings as exemplified in his many parables. The same can is found in the life experience of Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit/Devanagari: सिद्धार्थ गौतम Siddhārtha Gautama, c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE) and many other religious teachers. Similarly the teaching of Honen Shonin were modified by Shinran Shonin’s teachings which were adapted by Rennyo Shonin’s teachings and so on it goes.

It may well seem to you that the gospel of Jesus did not include all that is high and holy in the Christian gospel as we know it. All those magnificent, transcendent, Christian beliefs seem absent from the original gospel of Jesus his “gospel” may seem minimal by comparison with the gospel! Missing from his gospel are not only where he came from (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”), but also what he came to do. Where, after all, is “the saving work of Christ”: dying for our sins, rising on the third day, appearing to the apostles resurrected from the dead? These are, after all, the gospel about Jesus, which you, understandably enough, believe and cherish. But if you really are committed to Jesus, then you should be committed to the gospel of Jesus, which is what I have written this book to try to help you see and understand: the “good news” Jesus offered people during his public ministry. (Robinson 2005: 225)

Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; p. 225.