Nominal Christians think of the life of Jesus as being paradoxical. According to the myths which are typically misread as historical narratives, Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin and when he came of age, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and he heard the voice of God bless him. Jesus grew up and taught a radical message of peace, performed numerous miracles, started a church that flourishes to this day, and was resurrected after his physical death. His life is supposed to represent a pivotal intersection between the supernatural heavens (which we know of now merely as places in outer space) and the fallen world of Earth. Christianity thus follows the patterns of deification and mythologization that are familiar not just to all historians, but to anyone who’s coped with the loss of a loved one by confabulating and concluding that the dearly departed was the greatest father, mother, husband or wife for whom anyone could have asked. When dealing with a horrific experience, we often enter tunnel vision; far from soberly accepting the statistical fact that none of us has everlasting significance, we glorify those in whom we’ve been emotionally invested, to avoid the awkwardness of having wasted our feelings on something so transient and ultimately inconsequential as another human life.
The Axial Age
Much of the historical context of Christianity was deliberately destroyed by the established churches. Those who rejected the party-line myths or whose deviant form of worship pointed to a larger earthly milieu were demonized and persecuted, their texts burned and their movements wiped out. Then the Church lost its autocratic power as a result of the Age of Reason which began with the Renaissance. And now we’re poised to see, indeed, that the contemporary enlightenment in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries CE wasn’t the first of its kind. It was indeed a re-birth, as indicated by the word “Renaissance,” which means Revival. The most illuminating part of the historical context of Christianity is what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Period. As he writes in The Origin and Goal of History, that was the uncanny “period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being.”
The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato—of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.
Jaspers describes what is new about this age in existential terms: “man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and of his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence.” The cause of these revolutions, says Jaspers, was “reflection. Consciousness became once more conscious of itself, thinking became its own object.”
So this ancient period of enlightenment was both spiritual and philosophical, and a word that encompasses both aspects is “existential.” We might compare, then, the two historical awakenings, the ancient Axial Age and the modern one, by noting that the latter leaves less room for spiritual, psychological or social growth, because its catalysts were advances mainly in technoscience, in an instrumental affair that only presupposes rather than justifies certain ideals. After the medieval Dark Age, reason was wedded not to the self-awareness of Byronic loners but to industrialists. (Romanticism was a movement of counter-Enlightenment in the early 1800s.) Instead of a mass flowering of spiritual insight, Europe and the Americas devised new forms of population control that were made possible by developments in economics and public relations. Instead of efficacious modern religions we had “ideologies” such as the Nazi or Communist utopias and the American Dream of Liberty.
That, though, makes for a larger point of similarity between the two periods of existential enlightenment. As Jaspers wrote,
The age that saw all these developments, which spanned several centuries, cannot be regarded as a simple upward movement. It was an age of simultaneous destruction and creation. No final consummation was attained. The highest potentialities of thought and practical expression realized in individuals did not become common property, because the majority of men were unable to follow in their footsteps. What began as freedom of motion finally became anarchy. When the age lost its creativeness, a process of dogmatic fixation and leveling-down took place in all three cultural realms. Out of a disorder that was growing intolerable arose a striving after new ties, through the re-establishment of enduring conditions.
Thus arose empires of conquest in China (Tsin Shu hwang-ti), India (Maurya dynasty), and the West (Hellenistic and Roman empires). “Everywhere the first outcome of the collapse was an order of technological and organizational planning.”
That which had collapsed as a result of rational enlightenment was the “Mythical Age, with its tranquility and self-evidence.” What the Frankforts call the mythopoeic naiveté of childhood innocence was suspended by the Axial Age of Doubt. Those prehistoric, that is, prehumanistic and regressive myths had codified prejudices and superstitions that had held together tribes and kingdoms since the end of the Paleolithic Era. Once the conventions were questioned, because of the dawning of hyperconsciousness, the multitudes could no longer take their existentially inauthentic modes of life for granted. At least, they had to defer to the newfangled spiritual and philosophical elites whose knowledge and experience were subversive and might have led to mass panic if the majority had had firsthand access to them. The Axial Age liberation was thus relatively short-lived, but there was a long-delayed aftershock after the Dark Age: the Rebirth of Reason, beginning in the 14th C. And arguably, the creative spirit of that latter age has likewise left us in the last century, and we “postmodern” or “post-postmodern” relativists and cynics now absurdly wait for Godot, knowing that no mythical narrative can sooth us.
In any case, my concern here isn’t with this comparison or even with the strangeness of the Axial Age’s synchronicities. Instead, my point is that Christianity can and should be understood in light of the Axial Age. There were, in fact, three indisputable lines of influence from the Age in question: the Jewish prophets, whom the early Christians read in the Septuagint; Greek philosophy which had spread to Galilee, for example, having been recycled by the Roman Republic which had conquered that region in 63 BCE; and Persian (Zoroastrian) and Indian religions, which had also spread to multicultural Rome and thus to Judea due to Alexander the Great’s conquests. Those conquests led, for example, to a spiritual reinforcement of the Greco-Roman Mystery Religions, which had already paralleled Indo-Iranian religions as a result of their likely common origin in a Proto-Indo-European culture.
(On this latter point of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism, see Samuel Angus’s The Mystery Religions: “Alexander translated into reality what Greek philosophy had fitfully advocated. He first broke down national barriers and set the nations free for international relationships.” That cosmopolitanism “reached its apogee in the Roman Empire” and was accomplished “by Alexander’s deliberate policy of intermixing diverse populations; his studied fair treatment of all peoples under his sovereignty; the commercial activity which was stimulated by opening up new fields of enterprise and by putting millions of hoarded Persian bullion into circulation; by religious tolerance; and in a conspicuous manner by providing the first universal tongue for the whole civilized world in the Greek Koine” (16-17). For example, in the second century BCE,
The Great Mother won her way to popular favor immediately [in Rome] and her worship whetted the appetite of the Romans for emotional cults. Rome’s interface in the affairs of the East, more energetic after the defeat of Carthage, brought her armies and merchants and officials increasingly into contact with that [“orgiastic and enervating”] type of religion of which the Great Mother was the first example. The thousands of Orientals who traveled westward brought their mystery-gods with them. The multitudes of slaves from the East not only formed private religious associations, but became propagandists to their Roman masters (35).
And the appetite was there in the Roman Empire because Rome’s state religion “was cold and formal and, from the Second Punic War, had become an instrument of government in the hands of the nobility. Those entrusted with its administration, while recognizing its social value, no longer believed in it. Its observation was very perfunctory; its ceremonies were often neglected” (33). Luckily, thanks to the Axial Age awakening, there was a surplus of spiritual energy in the East.)
The Wisdom Hidden in Christianity
Where is Axial Age enlightenment to be found in Christianity? Esoterically, that is, covertly and with much official opposition, in various respects: from Judaism, the earliest Christians would have absorbed the many tales of the prophets’ zealous adherence to morality, where “morality” would have meant obedience to God’s commandments. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Hebrew word for “prophet,” navi, derives from a root word that means “hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself ‘open.’” Hollowness in this case entails, first of all, renunciation of worldly things, an ascetic withdrawal from natural and common social life, such as occurred in the Essenes’ community. But hollowness would have entailed also a highly cerebral frame of mind, a philosophical obsession with self-analysis, abstract thoughts, and the objective, impersonal view from nowhere that facilitates what would have felt like possession by a muse (or by an “angel of God”) that guides the intellectual’s ecstatic contemplations. A modern paradigm here is Descartes’ simulated renunciation by way of doubts about everything from mathematics to the existence of an external world. But the ancient world was full of wandering, homeless seers who had no possessions and who thus tried to save themselves from madness by occupying their mind with elevated pursuits. Thus, the character Jesus is depicted as a prophet in the Mosaic mold. His Sermon on the Mount resembles Moses’s issuing of the Ten Commandments, and as the Jewish prophets condemned disbelievers on behalf of God, warning that God would destroy them, Jesus preached that those who rejected his message would be punished in hell.
Fundamentally, though, the Axial Age influence via Judaism is apparent in the radicalism of Jesus’s message. Like the other Jewish prophets’ ravings, Jesus’s subversive socialism, pacifism, altruism, and single-minded devotion to an unnatural deity are unworkable in daily life, because Christianity is based on the spiritual elites’ distaste for natural processes in general, which they considered profane, fallen, or illusory, and the masses are natural creatures, unfit for existential transformation, for an emptying of the soul of all worldly attachments. By contrast, the biblical Jesus wandered the desert and was tempted by Satan, but held fast to his otherworldly ideal. This refusal to compromise with the ways of lesser reality, such as with the conventions of Pharisaic Judaism which Jesus used as so many foils against his purer interpretation of God’s will, is an unmistakable sign that the essence if not always the details of the mythical narrative of Jesus’s life derives from tales of the exemplary prophets and ascetics from the Old Testament as well as perhaps from the mind-altering Upanishads and from lore of the Buddha and of Zoroaster.
Then there’s the Greek influence via Saint Paul. Alexandrian cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Paul’s teaching that Jesus was a Jewish prophet whose message was nevertheless for all gentiles, and that the latter needn’t obey Jewish customs to be Christian. Judaism was parochial whereas Jesus’s message was universal. Zoroastrian dualism is likewise apparent in Paul’s Gnosticism, which was covered up by the founders of Catholicism, and in Marcion’s cosmic dualism which so captured the spirit of early Christianity that his church rivaled Catholicism for centuries. Rather like the ancient Greeks, Zoroaster taught that what we perceive as reality is a stage in a titanic struggle between forces of absolute good and evil. (In Greek mythology, Zeus and his allies battle Cronos and the Titans, so that justice and harmony would triumph over disorder.) Our great purpose is to participate in this struggle and to side with the supreme god Ahura Mazda who will triumph over the evil Angra Mainyu at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation carries over Zoroastrian apocalypticism, and Christianity’s demonizing of the Jewish figure of Satan—who by tempting us was originally just doing his job as a skeptic—meant that Christians had adopted Zoroaster’s absolute morality and dualism.
Marcion taught that Yahweh, the supreme god of Judaism, is obviously not Jesus’s god, since the Jewish scriptures depict Yahweh as a jealous and vengeful tyrant whereas Jesus’s heavenly father is a fount of grace and forgiveness. From the modern historical perspective, we can appreciate that the reason for this discrepancy is that, far from issuing straight from the mouth of God, the Jewish scriptures were redacted by bitter priestly editors, among others, who read their fanatical moralism into their legends so that they could retroactively condemn the Canaanites’ polytheism and profligacy. In any case, Marcion’s emphasis on the true god’s alienness, which is to say on his unnaturalness, and thus the radical mysticism inherent in the Axial Age revelations are implicit in the celebrated incoherence of the official Christian conception of God as being both just and merciful, and of the triune model of the Godhead in which Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all the same but different. Gnostic fatalism persists in the non-Jewish Christian notion that while we should long to be saved from the fallen plane of nature, we can do nothing to extricate ourselves, because the natural world is metaphysically, existentially a prison; only grace from beyond can free us from our fate of everlasting torment.
Most importantly, though, the core Christian idea that Jesus was a dying and rising god-man who saves us when we identify with him derives from the older realization that there is no god higher than any instance of fully-awakened self-consciousness; the true god lies within. In the Upanishads, God alone is ultimately real, but God amuses itself by pretending to be a plurality of creatures and material objects. Enlightened individuals purify their awareness so that they can perceive those pluralities as being illusory, whereupon they identify not with their ego or their material possessions but with Atman, their essential self whom they now realize is identical with the Supreme Being Brahman. Through gnosis, the knowledge that saves from the cycle of reincarnation, Brahman awakens to its identity and so the apparent man or woman turns out to be the same as the ultimate power in the universe. The deity comes to the mortal individual who then is united with that deity. Although there are no anthropomorphic gods in this system, in Daoism, too, the individual is united with supreme reality, with the Dao or the way of the universe, by wu wei, by effortless, spontaneous action as opposed to the selfish kind brought about by the self-defeating illusion that a mere mortal can resist the forces of nature. Like the Star Wars Jedi, the Daoist sage lets the Force flow through him; again, the supreme power comes to the lost, deluded individual who dies to her lower, ephemeral self to become one with that power.
The Mystery Religions also taught that each person can become immortal like God, that we can thereby be saved from the prison of phony reality. The Mysteries were secret rituals designed to deliver a mystical experience of oneness with a deity. In 3.2 of The Mystery Religions, Angus shows that “common to all the Mysteries was the faith in communion, or identification with God.” This was achieved in various ways, such as through ecstasy or enthusiasm brought about by vigil, fasting, whirling dances, or hallucination. “In ecstasy the devotee was lifted above the level of his ordinary experience into an abnormal consciousness of an exhilarating condition in which the body ceased to be a hindrance to the soul.” And “Enthusiasm was the immediate ‘inspiration,’ or replenishing of the personality by the deity”; that is, the individual was “possessed” by God, by way of some mental derangement, so that the individual’s personality subsided, allowing the initiate to speak for the deity in revelations from prophetic dreams and visions. Instead of merely deferring to maniacs, however, “the great mystics made ethical considerations a prerequisite condition for a true enjoyment of these religious privileges.” As did the Zoroastrians, the Mysteries maintained that the mystical experience has a moral dimension; the point was that hyperconsciousness leads to wisdom and to progress in life.
Besides those two forms of divine union, there was deification or apotheosis, the initiate’s literal transformation into a deity. For example, according to Angus, there was “the God-Man conception, which, rising in the East, and advancing from vague intuitions and impalpable premonitions, and assuming diverse forms, modified all ancient pagan and even Christian theology.” The Mysteries conceived of deification in three interrelated ways: “mystic identification with the tutelary [divine guardian],” “endowment with deathlessness and transformation into the divine substance,” and “the divine indwelling, by which the material man became spiritual.” As Angus points out, the second form is apparent in the sacramental meal (the Eucharist), which Christians took over from the Mysteries, while the third form “was so conspicuous in the mystical aspects of Paulinism, and still more in the thought of the Fourth Gospel.”
This is why Saint Paul frequently speaks of being “in Christ” or “in the Spirit” and of “Christ in you,” and why the Gospel of John has Jesus speak of “the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” Indeed, in John Jesus exhausts the many possible ways of characterizing a close relationship to God. For example, he declares, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (12:44-45), “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken” (12:49), and so on and so forth. Likewise, the mystical version of Christian eschatology, according to which people won’t be able to say “‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), hints at a more general presence of God. And just compare those sayings with the Discourses of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived from 55-135 CE in Rome and Greece: “You are bearing a God with you though you know it not. Do you think I mean some external god of silver of gold? It is within yourself you carry him, and you do not perceive that it is he whom you profane by impure thoughts and unworthy actions. If even an image of God were present you would not dare to act as you do, but when God himself is within you, hearing and seeing all, are you not ashamed of such conduct and thoughts, ignorant of your own nature?” (II.8).
Angus shows also that in addition to the notion of the devotee’s “marriage” to God, an image found also in the New Testament’s talk of the Church as the bride of Christ, the Mysteries often counted on the union happening through “sympathy” with the deity.
In the sacrament the communicant witnessed and participated in the sorrows of his tutelary as a step to participation in the triumphant issues [i.e. in immortality]. The Oriental gods were not passionless and joyous abstractions of personifications: they were beings who suffered and rejoiced, struggled and conquered, died and rose again, and in these respects came nearer to the experiences of man. This fellowship in the deity’s sorrows as a means of ensuring the deity’s fellowship in man’s sorrows and of attaining apotheosis was a comparatively new idea in the West, which, once introduced, gained a powerful hold on the imagination.
Angus is talking here of “the idea that the repetition of the deity’s passion must precede fellowship in his resurrection.” For example, “In the Greek rites of Eleusis the devotee contemplated and entered into the trials of Demeter in her sorrowful quest for the lost Persephone.”
Plainly, at the very least, the Christian story of Jesus’ death and resurrection could have evoked the same sort of sympathy in the Christian devotee. Hear Paul in Gal. 2:20 declare, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Faith somehow puts Paul on the cross with Jesus! Indeed, Christian “faith” in Christ is little more than such sympathy or fellow-feeling for Christ’s depicted miseries. For Paul, who said Christians are justified before God regardless of whether they obey the Jewish Law (Rom. 3:28), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation by His blood through faith” (Rom. 3:23-25, my emphasis). Notice the incongruity of specifying in this theological formula how the details of a certain act of human sacrifice rectify our sins, and then of adding that all those details—the grace, the gift, the public humiliation, the redemption, the propitiation, the spilling of holy blood—must be channeled to the Christian “through faith.” Apparently, Jesus’s death itself wasn’t enough to save anyone from the fallen realm. Without faith, or confidence in the power of Jesus’s death plus the expected groveling and thanksgiving to God so frequently displayed by Christians from time immemorial, Jesus’s death and resurrection would presumably have been inconsequential, according to Paul. The Christian must believe in the god-man to be saved by Christ and made immortal in a “spiritual body” after resurrection—just as the Eleusinian initiate had to suffer along with Demeter in Hades to ascend with her, or as the follower of Orphism had to suffer with Zagreus to be reborn with him, or as the Roman soldier had to be awed by the strength of Mithra and to ritually reenact his struggle to ascend with him to the heavens.
Mel Gibson’s torture-porn version of the gospel, The Passion of the Christ, is premised on the American Christian’s capacity to sympathize with the travails of her imagined god-man. This is why Gibson strived for realism by having the characters speak in Aramaic or Latin, and why he emphasized or exaggerated the Roman soldiers’ torture of Jesus and the violence of crucifixion: he shrewdly understood that postmodern Christians are hungry for a spiritual experience even though their religion is decrepit, and he provided the stimuli for that catharsis. Christians could be awed by Jesus’s sacrifice for humanity, because by seeing a graphic presentation instead of merely listening to the same tired words uttered in church, they could feel both sorry and thankful for Jesus’s suffering and thus be all the more confident in their salvation. The movie functioned like a work of virtual reality, bringing the god-man to the initiate—only, because the Christians in question were postmodern Americans, not enlightened elites from the Axial Age, the existential lesson was altogether lost on them, the “spiritual” experience being more like a spectacle consumed for momentary, salacious entertainment.
The upshot is that Christianity bears the marks of the Axial Age’s spiritual and philosophical insights. This isn’t to say merely that universal, perennial wisdom can be discerned in Christian theology, with the aid of hermeneutic tricks or projections. The elements of Christianity themselves are clearly descended from the advent of hyperconsciousness that occurred around the world some centuries before Jesus is said to have lived. Again, what had happened was that philosophical inquiries and a heightened form of self-awareness replaced blind obedience to elders and traditions, at least for the intellectual elites. Instead of allegories and superstitions that were so many instruments in the class war between the wealthy and the poor, as in the stagnant Roman state pantheon, religious texts became records of existential exploration, metaphysical investigations proceeding from an authentic commitment to rationally-obtained knowledge. Instead of tolerating dogmas that upheld unjust societal power structures, intellectuals asked profound philosophical questions and wrestled with the possibilities. In their moments of intensive self-awareness, they discovered that purified human nature is perfectly divine. Immortality isn’t granted merely to the high-born by the fiat of inscrutable deities; the universal God of the Philosophers replaced all petty tribal gods, and everyone could know God merely by knowing themselves. Detachment from the profane world was needed to purify the mind, to prepare for the existential reckoning, and the result was ambivalence towards outer nature as the spiritual revolutionary became absorbed with the inner world. The metaphor of the dying and rising god-man, inherited from agricultural myths that celebrated the cycle of the seasons, took on existential importance as the spiritual elites realized that, owing to our capacity for unlimited self-awareness, human nature is especially divine, so that our cycle of abandoning our deluded egos and rising to existential authenticity deserves our full attention. In short, the Axial Age was driven by an ancient humanism, and Christianity is essentially a version of that universal wisdom. Indeed, as Jaspers suggested, the existential, psychological aspects of Axial Age insights account for the similarities of the pre-Christian revolutions, if not for their timing.
Christian Suppression of Axial Age Wisdom
Paradoxically, however, the essence of Christianity has been irrelevant to most Christians. Christianity as we currently know it is distinguished not by its wisdom but by its official cover-up of perennial wisdom. Far from carrying on the tradition of Axial Age humanism, the Catholic Church sought to contain the existential insights, to hide them in plain sight. To begin with the more widely known examples, the Church persecuted Gnostics as heretics. Marcion was the first “heresiarch” and was opposed by Tertullian and excommunicated. The Gnostic Pauline epistles were interpolated (e.g. 1 Thess. 2:14-16 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35; the anti-Judaism runs against Alexandrian cosmopolitanism and the misogyny against Gnostic feminism) and supplemented with official forgeries (2 Thess., 1 and 2 Tim., Titus, and likely Colossians and Ephesians) to soften the Gnostic message. The pagan religions that were more open to the Axial Age revolutions were eventually outlawed by the Roman Church and destroyed in the practice of Christianization, that is, of forced conversion to Christianity. This happened especially under Emperor Theodosius I, spurred by Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and later under Theodosius II. The sacred sites of the Mystery Religions were desecrated and destroyed in 396 CE by Arian Christians when they sacked Rome. Then there’s the structural effect of the Catholic hierarchy, which not only separated the laity from their god but that insulated the Church leaders from the laity, allowing its priests and bishops to abuse their power after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion. These flaws led to the Protestant Reformation, although Protestant individualism still doesn’t capture the Axial Age insights, as I’ll show in a moment.
The principal part of the cover-up, though, is Christian literalism. The heart of theistic humanism is that all people are divine, that God is fully within each of us. Christianity separates God from humanity by reinterpreting the very metaphor of the Christian god-man that’s supposed to illustrate how we can each be born anew in a higher state of consciousness. Instead of assuming that Jesus was a ghostly, visionary figure, as the Docetists believed, catholic Christians maintained that Jesus was a particular man who lived during a certain number of decades in Judea, Galilee, and Jerusalem. Instead of treating Christ as a heavenly figure like the other divine heroes, Jesus is historically situated and thus isolated from the vast majority of his followers. The more time would pass since the alleged historical life of Jesus, the more irrelevant Jesus would become to the daily experience of Christians.
The Church addressed this and attempted to accommodate the earthly need for religious experience, by positing that Jesus was resurrected after death, whereupon he inhabited a magical body that wasn’t bound by space or time. However, no sooner had Jesus been reborn and therefore capable of appearing before Christians at any point in history, but the New Testament declares that the risen Jesus ascended to his heavenly station at his Father’s right hand side (as in the false ending of Mark) and will return only in the End Time when the kingdom of heaven will wash away the corrupt world, as in the Book of Revelation. Why, you may ask, does Luke end by saying, “When he [Jesus] had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (24:50-51, my emphasis)? Why couldn’t the risen Christ remain longer on Earth? Indeed, couldn’t he have blessed everyone on the planet with a personal appearance? Did he have to leave right in the middle of his blessing, as if to diminish the value of religious experience? The interpolator of Mark may imagine that the reason was that the Father needed Christ to be the power that enforces his will throughout Creation, that being the significance of the “place of honour at God’s right hand.” This would be nonsensical, of course, because Heaven would be eternal, so the Father wouldn’t have been waiting impatiently for Christ to return to him. The more obvious reason is political: as Elaine Pagels points out in The Gnostic Gospels, the trouble with a risen Christ figure is that he could undermine the authority of everything the Church does in his name. No sooner might the Church issue a law than someone in the countryside could report bearing witness to a criticism voiced by none other than the risen body of Jesus. That spiritual anarchy would have been intolerable to an earthly religious institution, and so the Church had to historicize and contain the risen Christ just as it contained the life and death of the god-man Jesus.
The temporalized risen Christ wouldn’t have satisfied the laity as the generations passed, and so the Catholic Church, that is, the most ambitious church in secular terms invented the Holy Spirit as the third person of the trinity of gods. According to Acts, the Spirit came upon the apostles, clarifying their understanding of Jesus’s mission and allowing them to accomplish miracles. Once again, the humanistic, egalitarian implications of the Spirit abiding in each faithful Christian would have been counterproductive for the purpose of sustaining an earthly institution. So the Catholic Catechism, for example, is careful to contain the Gnostic, humanistic implications, with this Jesuitical qualification: “Because we are dead or at least wounded through sin, the first effect of the gift of love [through the Holy Spirit] is the forgiveness of our sins. The communion of the Holy Spirit in the Church restores to the baptized the divine likeness lost through sin” (734, my emphasis). How does this work? With the ungainly metaphor of the Church as Christ’s body, with the risen Jesus himself as the head of this body and the Holy Spirit as its animating force and personality. Thus the Church can get away with conceding that “The Spirit manifests the risen Lord to them, recalls his word to them and opens their minds to the understanding of his Death and Resurrection”, because the Church insists in the same paragraph that “The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (737, my emphasis). Thus, the full, ponderous metaphor: “Because the Holy Spirit is the anointing of Christ, it is Christ who, as the head of the Body, pours out the Spirit among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world. Through the Church's sacraments, Christ communicates his Holy and sanctifying Spirit to the members of his Body” (739). In short, “The Church is, in a phrase used by the Fathers, the place ‘where the Spirit flourishes’” (749). Spiritual anarchy and humanism are thereby forestalled, because the Spirit’s manifestations must be processed by the Church hierarchy.
The grotesque image of Christians as members of the body of Christ that’s animated by the Holy Spirit functions not as a way of empowering Christians to be fully divine themselves, but as another scheme for degrading them. Instead of being divine in their rational autonomy and capacity for hyperconsciousness, Christians are compared to cells in an organic body, imprisoned once again but this time in that which is alleged to be the body of the risen Lord—even though that “body” is obviously just an institution made up of human members who devise rules and regulations in buildings they themselves erect, and even though the “risen head” of this body is obviously nowhere to be found. Like a cell that can only perform its evolved function or be rejected by the rest of the body as dysfunctional, a Christian can bear only the “fruits” deemed acceptable to the Church hierarchy or be driven out as a heretic. Infamously, the early fruits of modern science were judged anti-Christian and so were condemned. Christian humanists were excommunicated or burned at the stake. And those Christians who passed muster lacked precisely the qualities that make for divinity: rational autonomy, the freedom to learn the truth, to empower yourself and thus to overcome the truth if it offends, by creating a new truth. Whereas a Catholic is supposed to be saved by her involvement in this bureaucratic rigmarole, she’s missed the point. Reduced to a cell in a body politic, she serves double-dealing earthly masters such as the priests who around the world literally and systematically prey on the young and who are sufficiently educated to understand the esoteric doctrines they’re tasked with suppressing. Those who are potentially human gods, according to Axial Age wisdom, are turned into functional servants, locked into the very body that was supposed to have taught them how to be divine, by the examples of self-awareness, altruism, and asceticism displayed by its incarnation in the life and death of Jesus! The irony with which the instrument of salvation has become one of doom is staggering. The Catholic Church isn’t a beacon of spiritual revelation so much as a methodical withholding of perennial humanism and a brazen conspiracy against the fulfillment of our potential.
The main doctrinal difference between the western and eastern churches offers a tantalizing clue in this context. Catholic theology is arid and scholastic, emphasizing the philosophical aspect of its Axial Age heritage, while the Eastern Orthodox Church prizes “theoria,” which is contemplative prayer for the sake of achieving an epiphany (theosis), an experience of God. Notice the similarities between this element of Eastern Orthodox theology and the Mystery Religions, for example, as indicated by this summary: “In Eastern Orthodoxy deification (theosis) is a transformative process whose goal is likeness to or union with God. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of katharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria (‘illumination’ with the ‘vision’ of God).” Still, both churches suppress the humanistic thrust of Axial Age enlightenment. The Eastern Church misinterprets the experience of unity with God as one of joining with a preexistent deity. For example, while Saint Athanasius says, in On the Incarnation of the Word, “He [God] was incarnate [in Jesus] that we might be made god” (54.3), he takes this to be a process in which Christ paves the way for our deification, whereas the Jesus narrative must be only metaphorical if we can perceive ourselves to be fully divine. “Union with God” is a theistic euphemism for the atheistic revelation that we’re identical to gods, that any creature capable of self-awareness and thus of understanding and re-engineering everything under the sun is as actually divine as any being could be in approximation to the palpably fictitious gods from our religious myths.
As for Protestantism, the reformers shook off the corrupt Catholic hierarchy, but not the Christian canon which was formed by the founders of that very church in opposition to the more individualistic Gnostics. Indeed, Protestants idolize the Bible and fail to appreciate that if humans wrote those texts, contrary to the pitifully deficient demonstrations of inerrantists, and those texts are spiritually magnificent as the Protestants believe, we must be all the more divine. Protestants could have added to the Christian canon, incorporating Gnostic or other “heretical” myths, but they hewed close to the dictates of their captors like victims of Stockholm syndrome, merely tidying up the Catholic canon, eliminating the deuterocanonical works. Moreover, Protestant individualism is a compromise with nonspiritual, secular agendas. Protestants are supposed to think for themselves instead of relying on a paternalistic institution, and this self-reliance fits all-too well with the social Darwinian fear that it’s every man and woman for themselves, that society is powered by a market in which competitors struggle for domination. Instead of busying themselves with existential self-exploration, Protestants developed passive-aggressive excuses for self-destructive business practices. While mouthing “All glory to God!” the Protestant relishes the chance to compete in the godless economy to show her worthiness of being saved, to a deity that, for some reason, is supposed to be impressed by anyone’s earthly success. This absurdity reaches its nadir in the “prosperity gospel” of American hucksters like Joel Osteen, by which point Protestantism shades off into a parasitic self-help philosophy for duped consumers.
Riddles Wrapped in an Enigma
At least two questions remain. First, if the early power-hungry “Christians” were bent on suppressing Axial Age insights, why did they leave any trace of them in their religion? Why didn’t they put together a rival theology that had nothing do with our deification? The answer is that the Axial Age insights were no mere lines written here or there that could be so easily bypassed. We’re speaking here of the ancient birth of philosophy and of humanistic religion that shook the foundations of the social orders. Moreover, all spiritual energy at the time depended on the works of those Axial Age prophets and ascetics. In a world in which entertainments were scarce, improvements of myths were treasured. With no television to show the passive multitudes their myths in tangible form, the ancients had to rely on their imagination and on ceremonies that had to pay off in some rapturous revelation to compensate for the superficial silliness of such low-tech means of pursuing their life’s purpose. Thus, were the founders of Christianity to have ignored the Axial Age, their theology would have had precisely no mojo and the Church would have lacked staying power. The Catholic Church’s fiendish genius was in suppressing the subversive insights into the nature of our existential authenticity, by hiding them in plain sight.
Second, am I endorsing the religions that honoured rather than hid their Axial Age origins or developments, such as Hinduism or Buddhism? Not really. Although the Eastern religions generally are closer to the Axial Age than are the Western ones, I side with Jaspers in concluding that the Axial Age centered around a revolution in self-awareness and that, compared to theistic religions, humanistic philosophy, especially the “existential” kind that deals forthrightly with the glory and the agony of free creatures, is the more direct means of informing us about that revolution. This is so precisely because the latter are liable to be bastardized in the literalistic misinterpretations, as happened not just in the case of Christianity but in the exoteric forms of all the major religions, including the Eastern ones. In fact, I know of no adequate conception of our place in the universe. Modern existentialists such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Jaspers provide pieces of the puzzle that had been lost to the mainstream religions, but no one fully understands what sort of world would include creatures that can transcend it. We stand as anomalies within an anomaly, and so no one but the most revered and otherworldly interlopers can have seen us for what we truly are.