Jesus is the greatest heretic to establishment Christian orthodoxy of all time. Jesus was murdered by the religious establishment of his day because they understood his heretical claim that he is God and so are you. Christianity has downplayed the radical nature of Jesus’s message by portraying it as a statement exclusively about Jesus’s identity as a member of the Godhead (the Trinity), instead of a universal statement about the divinity of human nature. Today, the divisive challenge to disciples of Jesus is the same as it was then: Are you willing to forsake community acceptance by coming out and proclaiming the heresy of the gospel, to know yourself as God?
When Jesus made statements like, “I am the Son of God,” “I and the Father are one,” “You are all gods,” and “The Kingdom of heaven is within you,” he wasn’t interested in amassing crowds of people to worship him. He wanted to start a movement with himself as an exemplar that divine daughtership and sonship, union with God, and experience of the divine within is your human nature, your religious freedom and freedom from religious authoritarianism. People were impressed by Jesus because of his humility, not his messianic ego (although perhaps this was also the case to some degree). In essence, Jesus was saying: “I am not special or unique. You can have the same union with God I experience.” If Jesus did accept worship, he did so as a model for recognizing the divine nature within us all, not just within himself. Jesus’ gospel was a theological condensation of a central biblical theme: union with the divine is our birthright because our spirit is the same nature as God’s. There is no better news than this!
But it is not surprising that most Christian institutions to condemn this gospel. Jesus warned all his followers (not just the original twelve) that the normative response to their gospel message would be rejection and hostility from their religious families and communities: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves… Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the orthodoxy committees [local councils] and be publicly beaten in the churches [synagogues]… I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. A person’s enemies will be the members of their own household” (Jesus, Matthew 10, my gender-neutral translation). Jesus was called Satan and a dangerous false prophet by the official Church of his time and he tells his followers they should expect the same kind of response if they are faithful to his message: “The student is not above the teacher… If the head of the house (i.e. Jesus) has been called Beelzebul (Satan), how much more the members of his household!” (Jesus, Matthew 10:24-25, NIV).
To be a disciple of Jesus is to proclaim his message: the marvelous mystery that no human, including Jesus, is special or inferior: we are all gods: “I have said, you are all gods” (Jesus, John 10:34, NIV). This is not an exclusivist message about the spiritual superiority of Christians or the condemnation of all other people and their religions to hell. (In fact, Jesus’ statements about hell were mostly directed towards the unbelieving “Christians” [religious leaders] of his time, not people of other faiths.) Jesus’s message is about liberation from the oppression of religious, political, economic, and intrapsychic authorities who want to usurp human divine freedom and establish themselves as divine monarchs. This is the idolatry of most Christianities which call themselves “orthodox,” portraying God as something they define and dictate to you instead of what you can find for yourself intuitively within. Anyone who does not buy into their dogma is labeled a heretic and cast out, just like their spiritual ancestors did to Jesus: “Woe to you, religious orthodoxy police [teachers of the law and Pharisees], you hypocrites!… So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (Jesus, Matthew 23:29-32).
In one respect I do not hesitate to call myself a Christian; not in a religious sense–I am a follower of Jesus and his message inasmuch as I embrace the egalitarian, liberating gospel of human union with divinity and each other. In another respect to Christianity, I am an atheist: I refuse to believe in or worship their Nebuchadnezzar–the egotistical divine monarch–and I will not worship Jesus as exclusively divine. I will give him the kind of homage he requested; I bow to and honor the divine in him only as a metaphor of my respect for the divinity in everyone else. Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they have full access to divinity in the same way he does, and there is no separation or superiority within spirit: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, NIV).
Yet when Jesus began to wash his disciple’s feet, they perceived this almost as an act of blasphemy, for masters do not revere their slaves. Their religious conditioning had taught them that relationship with God is a master-slave relationship: “Jesus came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:6-9, NIV). Jesus demonstrated that the nature of divinity is not to seek worship as servitude but to revere the divine within others through humility and service. He taught: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than their master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent them” (John 13:13-16, my translation). Jesus acknowledges that he is Rabbi and Lord, but the kind of Lord he is (and we are) is one who bows down to his servants as lords. He states that no servant is greater than her master, but his example of foot-washing ironically demonstrates that in one sense the servant is greater. The worship Jesus models is mutual recognition of divinity through service and love.
The Incarnation of Christ: Union of Divine and Human Nature
But establishment Christianity has substituted a gospel of servitude for servanthood. In so doing it has renounced its most central doctrine: The Incarnation of Christ. By lowering godself to be one of us through human incarnation, God demonstrates that the desire of divinity is union with humanity, not the separation of transcendent kingship. The symbol of Jesus’ Incarnation is perhaps Christianity’s most profound contribution to spiritual life. It is a metaphor for the union of human and divine nature, not some remote theological statement about the utterly separate nature of Jesus. The mainstream Church is in denial of the Incarnation of Christ, though it proclaims itself to be its guardian and sole interpreter. The Church made Jesus God to the negation of everyone else because it is an easy out to look for salvation (Christ) outside of yourself instead of finding it within. We are always searching for idols–false solutions appearing as God–because we have been psychologically crushed through doctrines like Original Sin and Total Depravity, and it is hard to believe and value ourselves enough to see our nature as divinely awesome as it truly is–godliness. We have been taught to be craven, fearing the divine and supplicating ourselves to religious authorities who prey on our weakness and ignorance, effectively establishing themselves as messiahs and making us their spiritual slaves.
Which Gospel Do We Choose?
Did Jesus really teach the gospel preached by most Christians (that God is wholly separate and exclusively accessed through Jesus and his Church) or the gospel I present here? It is impossible to know precisely what Jesus taught. There are many possible interpretations of Jesus’ words and we do not even know which words were spoken by the historical Jesus and which words were inserted into his mouth as theological interpolations by the writers of the Gospels. I do not concern myself in this writing with a quest for “the historical Jesus” (though this is valuable); I am more interested in the narratives of Jesus Christians hold dear as we have received them.
The dirty secret of theology is that every interpretation is an act of de-prioritization and prioritization. There are many divergent teachings contained within the Bible and in order to say anything theological, we have to minimize or plainly contradict some Scriptures and prioritize others. It is even possible that Jesus contradicted himself, or that he viewed himself at times as messiah egotistically and at other times egalitarianly. I choose to prioritize an understanding of Jesus justified by a fair interpretation of many statements of Jesus that I see as life-affirming. I do not claim that this is the only possible interpretation, but I do claim it is better than many others. I also claim that the mainstream Christian portrayal of Jesus is inherently oppressive and anti-spiritual, whether or not it is consistent with certain Scriptures. The Bible is not inerrant, and it never has been. Many of the best prophets of the Bible were heretics to orthodox biblical ideas, and many of the writings of the Bible are arguments against or revisions of earlier writings. Inerrancy is a doctrine created to stave off anxiety, not to preserve truth. It is plainly apparent that the Bible is filled with errors and toxic doctrines created by fallible humans as well as life-giving truths.
It is time for Christianity to expand and grow like the Tree of Life that inspired it. This requires honesty and apology for the wrongs it has done, especially those taught in its Scriptures. It also requires a soul-searching for the heart of divinity, a narrative that contributes to the world instead of condemning it. Christians may choose to preach a gospel justified by the pages of Scripture that gives life, or a gospel justified by Scripture that condemns. The message of Jesus and doctrine of the Incarnation can be a symbol that unites and embraces all humanity and encourages us to find our highest expression collectively–through Jesus and through wisdom wherever in whomever it is found in or outside of religion. Or it can be the crusading religious imperialism of an authoritarian monarch who dominates and erases all other religions and lifts up one tribe of people as a superior spiritual race. Historically, Christianity has chosen the latter.
Choosing the message that divinity is accessible to everyone as part of human nature, whether that understanding comes to us through Jesus or something else, may require great risk for the Christian. This message is anti-orthodox in many settings, for it defies the neat categorization and power dynamics behind much of institutional religion. Though the cost of discipleship may be great, the reward is a quality of life that is eternal: “Anyone who loves their religious tribe [father or mother, household] more than me is not worthy of me… Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Jesus, Matthew 10:37-30, my translation).
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