Friday, August 23, 2019

The Meaning of Christianity

Christianity is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood religion, because its Western form has systematically covered up its deepest message. To see how this has happened and to understand the implications of Christianity’s central story, consider that anyone interested in this religion has to answer a fundamental question: Do you identify more with Jesus Christ or with the other people in the gospel narrative, that is, with the Pharisees or Romans, with Jesus’s human family members or followers, or with a contemporary version of some such group?

The Deeper Meaning of Christian Literalism

Catholic and Protestant Christians are forced to answer that we’re more like the other humans in the story than like Jesus. This is because of how Western Christianity developed from an early stage of its history, namely from the challenge presented by Gnostics, Marcionites, and Docetists, some of whom believed Jesus’s human form was an illusion. Specifically, what would become official Christianity literalized and historicized the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The mainstream Church affirms as dogma that God really did come to earth and incarnate in a particular mortal body at a certain time and place, now two millennia removed from us. Just as the calendar splits up history into the periods before and after Jesus’s supposed birth, the Church says there’s Jesus, the one and only begotten god-man, and then there’s everyone else. The literalization of this story is simultaneously the distancing of Jesus from the rest of us. Precisely because God-as-Jesus actually lived as a particular person in time, according to the Church, that figure must obviously be spatiotemporally separate from all other human individuals. This is just to apply the principle of haecceity, or thisness, to the people in question, just as we might say that if a leaf existed in first century Palestine, with various other individuating properties, that leaf must be something other than every single other leaf.

With that straightforward differentiation in mind, reflect on the premise of the Christian narrative. God came to earth to live with the creatures he created, and what happened? Those creatures were so far from living up to God’s standards, so blinded by mundane and sinful matters that they rejected Jesus—and thus God—in all possible ways. His family rejected him, thinking him mad; his fellow Jews saw him as a blasphemer and conspired to have him arrested by the Romans; the Romans tortured and executed Jesus as a trouble-maker; and Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand his message and abandoned him, fleeing to avoid similar reprisals from the Jews and Romans. The crucial assumption in Christianity is that God’s creatures couldn’t recognize God even when God was right in their midst. And the narrative clearly means to universalize that point, since it’s not as if people in any other part of the world in any historical period have been especially righteous such that if the equivalent of Jesus appeared to them they would have recognized the miracle and celebrated God. No, the New Testament assumes that all people are equally depraved in comparison to Jesus.

Now what might be inferred just from that information? If God’s creatures are so hostile to him that they would eagerly abandon him and even slaughter their creator at the first opportunity, this suggests that something somewhere has gone badly wrong. As the Gnostics were to interpret the message, the created world is distant from God because God isn’t the creator. We’re spiritually blind and lost to sin, because we’re slaves to the will of an unholy creator, of the abomination of an incompetent, vain, and tyrannical demiurge or intermediary between us and the Supreme Being. Laying aside the Gnostic speculations, we can infer from the above Christian assumption that nature is at least an antispiritual domain, which means that any spiritual visitor of nature would become an outcast. The literalizing of the Christian myth concentrates sacredness into a particular entity, leaving the rest of the universe profane by comparison. To be spiritual or godly on the disenchanted earth is to be antinatural, to go against the flow of creation-by-natural-becoming. If Jesus was one such spiritual being, he was naturally spurned as a hostile invader from another realm, threatening the natural order. And if we attempt to wed the assumption in question with theistic premises, we end up with some incoherent theodicy familiar to philosophers of religion. What would be so great about God if God allowed the demiurge to create such a flawed domain? Or how could such a God be more directly responsible for creating a world that would nail God to a cross?

Of course, the Western Church contends that God came with a plan to undo this disaster, to redeem sinful humanity by dying as a sacrificial offering for himself or to pacify another of God’s three personalities. What may look like a fine proof of atheism—the assumption that spirituality is irrelevant to nature, since as indicated by the Gospel narrative, any of us would be blind to a perfect form of spiritual magnificence or would gladly torture and destroy any perceivable shred of that perfection for casting us in such poor light—is rescued as a theistic proof. This theological extrication of Christianity’s assumption of human blindness to God looks like so much fiddling with Ptolemaic epicycles or shifting of the deckchairs on the Titanic. The unreality of this maneuver becomes apparent when we think of God’s alleged motive for sacrificing himself in that way. The motive is famously presented in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God wanted his creatures to demonstrate their unworthiness even to the point of killing him, because they’re his favourite creatures. God loves us and so his mercy competes with his dedication to justice. Laying aside the logical defects of Christian theodicy, by all rights God should leave his creation to rot or should punish us all in hell for being like those other people in the Christian story, for being so ready to nail Jesus to the cross. But our Creator loves us, sinners that we are.

Here, alas, the Church’s literalization of its myth takes its toll. Remember that if only Jesus were properly divine, because God came to dwell in only one member of the human species, all other people would have to be spiritually inferior to God. And the story lays out how wide is that abyss. Thus we must ask why God loves us or what such a statement about God’s motive could possibly mean. It goes without saying that human creatures would be vastly inferior to the creator of our universe. So God’s loving a human person would be like a human loving a flea. Wouldn’t a person be reviled as creepy for degrading the notion of love by proclaiming his love for a flea? Now add to that elementary unfitness of God’s love the Christian’s moral condemnation of humanity: exchange the flea, that is, with something like a virus. Could you love a virus? Suppose you could inject your mind and personality into a microbial form, like God supposedly did with Jesus. Imagine you could turn yourself into an antibody so that viruses would necessarily oppose you, and ask yourself whether you could or should love those viruses under those conditions.

Notice how crucial is this question of a higher being’s love for vastly lower beings, since if the goal were to redeem those beings God could always just create a better universe. By definition, God has the power and the time to do so. Likewise, if we wanted to improve on viruses and we had the biochemical wherewithal, we could simply eliminate all viruses and create superior microorganisms, such as ones that aren’t such patent freeloaders producing a multitude of diseases. The mainstream Christian reason why God doesn’t just wipe the board clean and start again is that he loves this world, the very one that’s so flawed that Christianity itself says its inhabitants would prefer to torture their maker than to welcome and worship him. Under the circumstances, however, God’s love looks creepy, which is to say somehow misbegotten or not what it seems.

The key to unraveling this muddle is to ask what kind of love could be on offer. The kind that’s most compatible with the concretization of the Christian myth and with its literal separation of God from humanity is pity. God could reasonably be said to pity such lowly creatures who don’t understand their situation, that they’ve been created by a wonder-working deity who expects them to obey his moral commandments. But dig a little deeper, noting the inadequacy of Christian theodicy, and you begin to wonder whether God wouldn’t pity us just for being so far beneath him, spiritually speaking; no, he’d have to pity us for having been made by him. As Jack Miles explains in Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, the Christian God appears to take the blame for our sin, for his having bungled of the act of Creation. Whether God created nature directly or emanated the demiurge that did so, some such flaw on God’s part would have accounted for the corruptibility of Adam and Eve, for example, or for our tendency to express our animal instincts.

That’s why God would willingly die on the cross, not so much as a sacrificial punishment for us but as a punishment for him. God would have incarnated as a man to show not so much what he expects from us, but that he understands that any such alleged expectation would be monstrous. As a man, God would have finally learned how unfair and absurd the prospect is of there being a God above life on earth. And God would have demonstrated that recognition by dying a horrific death, by chastising himself for being a monstrous God, for having created imperfect creatures and demanded perfection from them. Needless to say, this self-destructive deity wouldn’t be God in the traditional sense; more likely, this “divine” character in the story would symbolize God’s nonexistence, since the point would be that if God did exist, under the circumstances (the flaws of Creation), God would have to arrange for his nonexistence by doing away with himself.

The meaning of Christianity, then, on this mainstream, literalistic interpretation of its core myth is that Christianity dissolves into incoherence. There just is no core religious message left, but only a series of specious, hand-waving distractions. The story’s premise, that the Creation rejected its Creator, doesn’t sit well with the exoteric theology that’s supposed to distract from the more obvious, naturalistic and atheistic implication. Instead of God loving the equivalent of fleas or viruses; instead of his insisting on both mercy and justice; instead of his having three forms, one of which, the Son, intended to die to placate another, the Father; and instead of his being responsible for the flaws of Creation that would have given rise to the need for such atonement, in the first place, we can infer from God’s evident alienation from nature that God might as well not exist, as far as we’re all concerned. God is hidden from nature and would become an outcast in human society, because nature operates on its own principles and we’re natural rather than spiritual creatures. This is the deepest meaning of the Western, literalistic interpretation of the Christian myth that were God to become one and only one human, all other humans would reject that incarnation.

Apotheosis and Inclusive Christianity

Recall the question that sparked the forgoing analysis: Do you identify more with Jesus or with everyone else? The Western Church says it’s blasphemous to identify with Jesus, since that Church meant to use Jesus as a weapon to gain power over people in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, or to justify the Church’s allegiance with Rome, beginning with Constantine, that being the very Rome that supposedly murdered God (as Jesus). What if, instead, you say you identify more with Jesus? That interpretation would imply that the Christian story needn’t be taken literally, that Jesus could be a symbol of our spiritual potential, a model for our personal growth, or an instrument that secured our divine opportunities. This was the answer supplied by the Gnostics and by the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to them, the point isn’t to deny that Jesus existed or that some Jewish victims of Roman oppression were righteous and might as well have been hyperbolically identified with God; rather, the point is that everyone has that capacity to transcend nature’s limitations and reach a spiritual mode of life. To say that we have that capacity is to say that we have a divine nature or potential.

Similar to Jains, the Gnostics said Jesus came to remind us that our souls are sparks of divinity and that we’re blind to our divine origin because we’re being held captive by the universe of natural forms. The Eastern Church maintains that God arrived as mortal Jesus to reestablish our divinity or union with God, by uniting the divine and human natures. God became a human so that all humans could become God. This Church shares with the Western one the affirmation of God’s incarnation as a single man, but whereas the West adds to that the Pauline rigmarole of God’s need to pay for human sin, the East focuses on the goal of deification or theosis, the prospect of becoming identical to God. Once Jesus accomplished his work, we were no longer separated from God. Now we need only identify with Jesus, making use of the Eastern Church’s therapies or theoria (means of illumination) to see clearly and strengthen our faith. Note that by literalizing the story of God’s incarnation as Jesus, the Eastern Church maintains the separation of Jesus from everyone else, but this becomes a hierarchy of divinities, with Jesus alone as the Hypostasis of the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and other humans as potentially made divine by that Second Person’s existence and uniting of the two natures. On a spectrum of the political utility of the Christian myth, the Eastern Church stands between Gnosticism and the Western Church, since the latter is the most hypocritical and the Gnostics are the most elitist, the least compromising, and thus the least capable of institutionalizing their message.

A third, more radical version of this kind of Christianity is suggested by John Allegro’s interpretation of the Gospels as psychedelic metaphors. According to Allegro, Christianity developed from fertility cults that featured the use of entheogens, or hallucinogenic plants, and that the New Testament speaks of the fly agaric mushroom allegorically as the figure of Jesus. Jesus stands for the shamanic power of entheogens to drive home an ecstatic experience of our common divinity, since anyone can ingest a psychedelic plant and have the comparable out-of-body experience in which you feel as though you’re dying, leaving behind the false or fallen world of nature, travelling to the higher reality of the gods, and then resurrecting or being brought back to earthly life as the drug’s effect wears off. From Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross,
To the mystic, the little red-topped fungus must have seemed human in form and yet divine in its power to change men and give them an insight into the mysteries of the universe. It was in the world, but not of it. In the New Testament myth, the writers tried to express this idea of the duality of nature by portraying as its central character a man who appeared human enough on the surface but through whom there shone a god-like quality which manifested itself in miracle-working and a uniquely authoritative attitude to the Law. (152)
This shamanic Christianity is explored further in Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy and The Psychedelic Gospels.

In any case, whether it’s Gnosticism, the Eastern Church, or what Terrence McKenna called the Archaic Revival, inclusive Christianity avoids the problem of incoherence only to dissolve itself in another way. Given the inclusive interpretation in which everyone can be like Jesus, not just by verbally and superficially accepting him as our lord and saviour but by discovering our inner divinity, Christianity pales in comparison to the older inclusive religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, and shamanism itself. Christianity becomes a Jewish or Greek philosophical gloss on much older traditions, and Christian dogmas become secondary, at best, to the ecstatic realization of the full meaning of personhood (of the divine potential of any self-conscious, autonomous, rational being), a realization which would be universally available. Of course, hardly anyone masters that self-perception, largely because of the sinister role of Western Christianity, but also because of the influence of secularism and the idolizing of reason, money, sex, and power. We’re also animals, after all.

This, then, is the meaning of Christianity in general: the religion either obstructs spiritual or existential development—such as by handing out wine and cookies as phony sacraments, instead of providing a psychoactive substance—or else the religion gets out of the way to foster inner growth and self-realization. And you can tell which version you’re dealing with by determining how the sect would answer that question of whether we ought to identify with Jesus Christ or with everyone else in the Gospels. Are we gods or are we akin to the dunderheaded, antispiritual characters in the New Testament narrative, such as the treacherous Pharisees or the power-hungry Romans? Are we capable of being enlightened or are we just blind, sinful creatures that are easily exploited by Archonic predators such as by the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches?


  1. good reasoning that dissolves into blah when you mix in the mushroom fancy. allegro is NOT a serious source, don't get into that bullshit, clear thinking and bullshit don't mix well.

    1. How is Allegro not a serious source? He's an expert in the field. I don't follow his philological argument, so I'm agnostic about his theory of Jesus as the personification of the magic mushroom. That's an extreme theory that would have to be supported by extraordinary evidence. Again, I don't understand the evidence, so I don't subscribe to that particular theory. But from my reading of the Allegro controversy, he wasn't exactly treated fairly by the scholarly community.

      Most scholars in NT studies are committed Christians, so it's not hard to see how subversive interpretations of the religion would be sidelined by the "authorities." And which is more ludicrous, Allegro's proposal or the traditional Christian one (that Jesus performed miracles, was God incarnate and was raised from the dead, etc)? Occam's razor favours the likes of Allegro's theory.