|by Richard Smoley|
To be honest, we've been a little bit nervous about doing an issue
about Christianity. We know we have many readers who are either
uninterested in the subject or may even have some active aversion to
Nevertheless Christianity is worth addressing, not only for the sake of thoroughness - for after all we have done issues on far more recherché subjects - but because it remains the central fact of our civilization, and it is the tradition in which most of our readers were raised, whether or not they are happy about this.
As is well known, C.G. Jung said that when his patients were through with analysis, he would try to return them to the religion in which they had been raised; they would achieve the greatest psychic wholeness that way. He was no doubt right to say this, but, I'd suggest, this idea needs some modification for our day. Times have changed greatly in the half-century since Jung, and not all of us may be able to go back to whatever version of Christianity we were acquainted with when young. I do think, though, that one needs at least to make peace with the tradition one knew as a child, whether or not one can return to practicing it. So for most of us, Christianity is worth exploring, if only for this reason.
Well, then, what is esoteric Christianity? Judaism has the Kabbalah. Islam has Sufism. Christianity has - what? Does the Christian tradition have an esoteric core like the other two great Abrahamic faiths?
I believe that it does, and its essence can be easily stated: It is simply that the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ is not merely an external act of salvation but depicts the journey each individual soul must undergo. (Theodore J. Nottingham's article in this issue develops this theme further.)
This is not a new idea; it has been expounded many times in many ways since the journey to Golgotha. In sum it means that the ordinary condition of human life, which is dominated by the ego or the conditioned identity, must pass into one where the Self, or the higher nature, is the ruler.
This isn't a question of salvation from sin. The fallen condition to which we are heir is not a matter of simply having done something (or many things) wrong, but rather comes from the fact that a part of us - the ego - that should be the servant has taken over as master. (This is one meaning of Christ's parable about the servant who lords it over the other servants when the master is away.) In the Gospels Christ spends much time berating the Pharisees, and it is clear that esoterically, the Pharisees are not members of a particular sect but rather those who believe that being good and following the rules are adequate substitutes for transformation.
Much more can be said about these ideas, but you may find yourself complaining about what they leave unsaid. What about what theologians like to call the "Christ event"? Do these esoteric interpretations and the like mean that Christianity has no literal force?
As often happens, it depends on whom you talk to. Those who regard the "Christ event" as being ultimately symbolic would tend toward the Gnostic viewpoint. They may not necessarily deny that Christ lived and died or even rose from the dead, but they would say that the fact of its happening is not of fundamental importance. What is crucial is to experience these events represent in one's own being; this is gnosis.
Those of a more orthodox cast insist that the fact that Christ lived and died and rose again are of the very essence of the matter. Symbolism is all very well, they say, but Christ is literally the axis mundi, the meeting-place between the divine and the physical realms; his redemptive act changed the fate of humankind. To claim that this is merely symbolic is not only wrong but impious.
Between these poles lie any number of views. The Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner claimed that "the Mystery of Golgotha" reversed humanity's subjection to the dark forces Steiner called Lucifer and Ahriman. (Steiner's ideas have inspired a movement called the Christian Community, which Sara Draper investigates in this issue.) The channeled materials published by Alice Bailey portray the Christ not so much as a person but as a supernatural entity who takes the form of different avatars throughout human history. A Course in Miracles, supposedly channeled from Jesus himself, poignantly calls the crucifixion "the last useless journey" and says it was not the agony on the cross that saved humanity, but the resurrection, by proving that it is possible to vanquish the world of illusion.
There are many more perspectives (and I am acutely aware of the many omissions we have been obliged to make in an issue of this size). Reconciling them is not an easy matter; for my part, all I can say is that I can see an enormous number of Christians, past and present, esoteric and exoteric, who experience the story of the Gospel in mutually contradictory ways. The late Romanian scholar Ioan P. Couliano (or Culianu), in his book The Tree of Gnosis (reviewed in GNOSIS #27), even argued that these multiple views were a necessary working out of all the theoretical possibilities: Christ as God, Christ as man, Christ as God-man, and so on.
If Couliano is right, it suggests that Christianity is not merely one single strand of truth, lovingly preserved by the Orthodox or the Gnostics or the fundamentalists or what-have-you in the face of all those nasty heretics, but the sum total of responses to Christ's life and teaching. And if so, there would be room in the Christian faith for all of them - particularly if it is, as it claims, the religion of love.
Many esotericists have called Christianity a mystery religion like those of Greece and Egypt. This too is understood in various ways. Steiner thought it meant that what had been enacted in the mysteries as ritual was with Christ enacted in public, as a historical fact. G.I. Gurdjieff thought Christianity was heir to the esoteric teachings of prehistoric Egypt. And the great anthropologist J.G. Frazer, in his classic work The Golden Bough, suggested that Jesus was yet another version of a god whose saga depicted the cycles of the vegetative year.
For my part I can't see that such things are the essence of the matter, if only because it is hard to believe that the Christ of the Gospels would care a great deal about rites and rituals - particularly ones that would have been quite alien to the pious Jew that he was. Rather I think esoteric Christianity can be understood in a simpler and more universal sense.
As I see it, the Gospels are preoccupied by two central themes. In the first place, there is the call for inner transformation ("Seek ye first the kingdom of God"). There is also the command to obey a higher code of ethics than is required by the mere letter of the law ("Love thy neighbor as thyself").
These two ideas do not immediately seem to have a great deal to do with each other, but I think in fact they do. How, after all, does one undergo the "death" of the ego and the "resurrection" of the Self? What is the "second birth" that this requires?
I don't think it is necessarily a matter either of sacramental observance or of "accepting Jesus into your heart" as evangelical Christians imagine it. Instead I see this transformation as being intimately connected with following the ethical teachings, the commands to love God and one's neighbor. No one of any religious persuasion could carry out these prescriptions ("Resist not evil"; "Love your enemies") without having undergone the "second birth" that is the death of the personality and the revivification of the higher Self. It may even be that the very attempt to put these teachings into practice causes such a transformation.
If this is so, then Christianity is, as has sometimes been suggested, that greatest of paradoxes: a mystery religion that is completely public. Its secrets cannot be boiled down to intricate mystical practices or complicated cosmologies. These have been and probably will always be part of the Christian tradition, and they are no doubt of great value, but they are supererogatory - as are the piles of creeds, doctrines, and theologies that have grown up around Christ's teaching.
Fans of the "quest for the historical Jesus" may greet the naïveté of my comments with an amused smile; for, after all, haven't we learned that the Gospels are just a network of myths concocted by the "Jesus community" as a means of cementing their ideology? Please try to forgive my recidivism, but at this point it seems to me that the "historical Jesus" has become little more than a Rorschach blot for the imaginations of the professors. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi texts tell us little or nothing more about the historical Jesus than we knew before, and I personally do not feel any more by the current deluge of books, each of which attempts to sell its version of the "real Jesus." It's always possible that archaeologists will unearth new information - and I hope with all my heart they will - but until that happens, we are left with the Jesus of the Gospels. And in many ways that is more than enough.
© copyright 1997 by Richard Smoley and GNOSIS Magazine
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