This morning I finally took Halley for our morning run again, now that my wife is able to get around the house with her walker. After a hiatus of over a week, the difference in sunlight at 5 AM here north of the 47th parallel is astonishing. Our route has no street lights, and contains many stretches where no house lights are visible. Halley and I can barely see each other in the darkness.
But looking up — oh! Millions of stars. Stars that most people in the United States haven’t been able to see for decades. In the city, you can look up from a dark area and see Orion, or maybe Ursa Major or a planet or two. But out here where the light pollution glows only faintly over the horizon towards Seattle, the stars cover the sky like dust.
You can easily imagine how, with a couple of thousand years’ less pollution and science, simple shepherds might think each star was a divine being — a bright soldier in the vast Heavenly Host. And if one star, unseen before, shone with singular brightness (like the supernova of 4BC) — might that not be the Messenger of the Lord (the word for “angel” in both Hebrew and Greek means “messenger”) bringing good tidings of great cheer: that the Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans and that foul Idumean Herod was finally born?
Of course, the account in the Book of Luke was written down more than half a century (at least) after the birth of Jesus, and it contains some striking historical mistakes. Many scholars think that this story, along with Matthew’s account of the wise men and other passages, were embellishments added to the story of the life of Jesus as it was passed down over the years. But I’m not certain that they don’t echo actual events, even if the interpretation and some of the details of those stories may have been molded to the teller’s purpose. The ancients were always watching the heavens for signs, and Judea at the turn of the era was more than ready for a Savior.
Aside: I’ve linked to passages from the New International Version of the Bible, which has sometimes been criticized for its evangelical ties. IMHO, it’s the most accurate translation that isn’t slavishly literal. In other words, it faithfully renders the original into modern English. But I might be biased: two of my college professors worked on the translation.
It’s difficult to form a solid opinion of Jesus the man by reading the New Testament, though many attempt it. You’re only given his picture as seen by mostly (if not all) second-generation followers. By then, the theology that had accumulated around that singular life heavily colored the stories. And yet, these are the only records we have, apart from some fleeting accounts that are no nearer to the source.
No other figure has become so transfixed upon the cross of western civilization as Jesus. At the junction between the ancient, Medieval, and modern world-views, and the cross-over between Eastern and Western thought. He moved the mission of Messiah from political independence to the “kingdom of heaven“, which is “within you” — creating in one instant the great monastic preoccupation of the Dark Ages. He had only contempt and disinterest for the established religious and political systems, and IMHO anyone who promotes a political or religious agenda “in the name of Jesus Christ” dishonors that name no less than those who used Nietzsche to justify Nazism — maybe more.
And sometimes Jesus had insights that wander outside the usual systematic theology, like the parable in Matthew 20:
When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.
Not a happy prognosis for the newly exorcised, but nevertheless a principle that seems to apply over and over again, from addictions to politics to relationships to dieting to software design: getting rid of the bad only helps temporarily, and in the long run makes things worse, unless you can replace it with something better.
OTOH, perhaps this parable in particular indicates that Jesus had more of a connection to the politics of his time than Christianity cares to admit. The New Testament takes great pains to downplay the Zealot angle — maybe too much. One way to interpret the parable above: “you got rid of the Greeks and the Romans took their place. What do you think will happen if you drive out the Romans?” What draws me to this interpretation is the statement that follows the parable: “That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” But perhaps this is just another example of the general applicability of the parable’s principle.
As I was writing this, I noticed that Shel Israel reposted some thoughts today on his religious heritage. I hope you’ll be patient with these rambling musings of mine a bit longer.
Monthy Python’s Life of Brian (as quoted by Kent Newsome ) comically demonstrates how, once he’s promoted to divinity, literally anything becomes possible to believe about a Messiah. But not only from ignorance.
The blood on the Shroud of Turin (if it was on the shroud) has been tested as type AB. For many, this is proof that the Shroud is a fake, because type AB blood has not been found in graves older than about 1000 AD. It’s thought to be a mutation that occurred relatively recently in Eastern Europe with the admixture of European type A’s and invading Tartaric type B’s. Though not everyone agrees. It’s an interesting coincidence (?) that the blood on the Sudarium of Oviedo is also AB — less than 2% of the human population has that blood type.
But doesn’t it just figure that Jesus would be type AB? The least resistant immune response. The highest dietary tolerance of any blood type. Often characterized as the most spiritual. And, of course, the most inclusive. Could Jesus’ radically new teachings be merely the sublimated expression of (for his day) a unique biological makeup?
Another view: if you start from the notion that everything proceeds from God’s will, then Christ’s AB blood type becomes just another expression of his all-inclusive human nature. That is, the divine intent precedes the physical embodiment. I’m not saying that this is the right interpretation, or that there even is a right interpretation. It has more to do with the significance that you place on two somewhat competing ideas:
Phenomena are the result of cause and effect relationships that can be, for the most part, repeated and analyzed
Phenomena carry a spiritual significance that overshadows the mechanics of their operation
I think it’s possible to hold both of these ideas, provided you acknowledge the limitations of each. As I’ve discussed before, I believe that cause and effect form a human concept that helps us describe and predict our world, but the concept falls apart at the edges of our experience. Like our perception of light and sound, we only get part of the spectrum. Limiting what we are willing to experience to that which can be explained in our intellect cuts out a large part of life, unless we have the hubris to believe that the piece of meat in our head perfectly mirrors reality.
“Spiritual” may simply refer to a kind of understanding that transcends language and cause/effect. As such, trying to pin it down with words is like so many pins in a butterfly’s wings. You might be able to study it, but by then it is no longer the same thing. Even the characterization of “spiritual” in this paragraph is, by definition, inadequate. And of course even a purely spiritual experience must be limited to our human ability to appropriate it. So, we have to be wary of sophisticated systems of belief or disbelief. The shelf life of religious concepts is exceptionally short. Yet most believers consume this produce well after its expiration date. Too much trouble for the vendors to acquire fresh.
Halley and I cross the boundary of our property. Glowing between the trees, the lights of home. For a moment, this could be any moment in the last 100,000 years.