“Earth and the great weather move me,
have carried me away,
and move my inward parts with joy.”
—Eskimo woman shaman,
(as quoted by Rasmussen)
Jesus Christ is the central figure of the Western world, or at least a very close second to Steve Jobs. In any case, everybody knows who Jesus is.
And yet, no one knows who Jesus is. Secular historians agree with the Gospels that—whatever else was true—he astonished those who encountered him. The early Catholic Church was equally flabbergasted. They couldn’t decide if he was God or man, so they shrugged and said, “Both. Somehow.” Even many modern atheists and agnostics sense that there was something special about this guy, that he was something more than just a really good person.
We cannot know what a panther is by watching it pace back and forth in a cage. We’d need to see it roaming in the jungle. It’s the same with Jesus. The specialization of Western culture—the way we divide up reality into religion, science, spirituality, history, psychology, intellect, emotion, the subjective and the objective—has been helpful in many ways. But these enclosures haven’t helped us appreciate the fullness of Jesus. Jesus feels radiant—and mysterious—because he is. He can’t be kept inside our convenient containers. He can’t be torn from the fabric of reality and studied in isolation. He invites us to experience something more than that.
I wasn’t raised Christian. While I was growing up, I’m not sure either of my parents even uttered the word “Jesus,” except in surprise. Not that they had anything against the man. He just wasn’t on their radar. We didn’t go to church or read the Bible or pay any attention to those who did. Those types were just babbling away in the background about faith, love, and hellfire. My friends then and since have also considered it a given that Christianity has little to offer anyone with a functioning brain and a high school diploma.
When I first read the Gospels on my own, then, sometime in my twenties, I had the sense I was discovering a secret. How amazing that I could feel that way about the most famous person in Western history! Jesus flared and glowed like a campfire in the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But I didn’t talk about this feeling with anyone. My friends would think I was a Christian nutjob. And I wasn’t about to join a group of actual Christian nutjobs. Christianity was little more than a cartoon to me. But not Christ. The claptrap and artificiality that I associated with priests and churches felt utterly disconnected from the man who blazed through the Gospels. Like the difference between a day in a classroom and a day in the woods.
I’ve since come to feel that it isn’t just classrooms. Jesus doesn’t belong in any of our tidy, fluorescent-lit, modern boxes.
Even my sheltered twenty-something eyes could see that Christ wasn’t a Christian in spirit. But neither was he in name. The first semblance of what we now call Christianity only emerged decades after Jesus died, slowly taking complex form from the ideas of people who never met him. Nor do the Gospels encourage us to believe that starting a religion was high—or even anywhere—on Christ’s bucket list. The word church appears only twice in the Gospels, both times in passing. And even then, it’s not really there. Church is a highly suspect translation of the Greek word ekklesias, which simply meant ‘a gathering of people.’ There is nothing in the Gospels or anywhere else that suggests Jesus was concerned with setting up an organization, establishing a structure, writing down rules, or writing down anything at all. More to the point, the laborious project of a church makes no sense given Christ’s central message: the imminence of the kingdom of heaven.
But Jesus wasn’t just a super nice guy, either. He wasn’t, in other words, simply a charismatic teacher with a strong moral message, as many non-religious humanists believe. Decent, intelligent people often like to imagine Jesus this way—shorn of all mystery and supernatural shenanigans. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to slice up the New Testament with a razor, cutting out all references to miracles, resurrections, and other tomfoolery, which he believed had been added by priests “as instruments of riches and power to themselves.” He then pasted together—into what became known as The Jefferson Bible—what he believed was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” True, perhaps. But Jefferson’s razor—a perfect metaphor for the analytic Western mind—also slices the flesh from Jesus and leaves us just the bones. Modern scholars disagree a lot about Christ, but they all agree on one thing: he was perceived by everyone of his time, including his worst critics, as a powerful healer and miracle worker. Faith healing, indeed, has always happened and still does—whether through a placebo in a medical trial or under a sweaty tent in the Philippines. As for his other miraculous deeds, they are no more amazing than those attributed to Indian yogis for centuries or attested to by thousands of everyday people from the dawn of civilization to the present day. Like many modern sophisticates, Jefferson was in the habit of ignoring anything that wasn’t scientifically explainable, since science was by definition the only thing that could be real.[*] Jefferson, along with many a modern intellectual, wanted the ethics teacher without the witch doctor.
If we can’t inflate Jesus to the grandiose status of the founder of a religion nor shrink him down to nothing more than a simple moral exemplar, can we call him a spiritual teacher? This gets closer to his essence. The problem here is the fluorescent-lit room we call the “spiritual.” We tend to feel that word as ethereal, unearthly, and lacking any version of human genitals. In our spirituality classroom, you should neither get angry nor sexually aroused, lest you be sent to the principal’s office with all the other unevolved students. The Jesus of the Gospels, though, shows no inclination to distance himself from emotion, the pleasures of wining and dining, or from the lepers, prostitutes, fishermen, tax collectors, and other dusty denizens that teemed in all their imperfect earthiness around him. Jesus went everywhere: into streets, synagogues, private homes, and the wilderness. If Jesus taught spirituality, it wasn’t the kind that required a clean yoga mat.
So, who was Jesus?
If I experienced the Jesus of the Gospels as a kind of fire, to his early followers he must have felt more like rain.
Some people are like that. They come in all walks of life, with different predilections and skills. Some nurture and hone their gifts, some mishandle them, some ignore them. No one knows why this or that person comes into this world so overflowing. They are just graced. They have charisma. Some are spiritual teachers, some are entertainers. Some are artists, athletes, or political leaders. These people radiate something. They shine lights into darkness. They show us what is possible. They do not, in Ralph Waldo Emersons words, “go where the path may lead,” but “go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”: Robin Williams, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Malala, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr., Joan of Arc, Albert Einstein, Siddhartha Gautauma. Some are saints. Many are not. Such gifts can bring trouble to an insufficiently developed personality. Tapping into that power can go to the heads of those who don’t fully understand its source in the universal ground of being. Traditional societies recognized some such people as shamans.
Depending on which translation you read, Matthew 7:29 tells us that people were “astonished,” “amazed,” “stunned,” when they heard Jesus teach. For he spoke “with authority and not like the legalists they were used to.” Even more than his words, though, it was Christ’s miraculous healings that got people’s attention. This wasn’t someone who dropped a coin in the cup of a beggar as he hurried by to a speaking engagement. This was a man who stopped in the dusty street, laid his hands on a smelly, sunbaked leper, and healed him. Jesus brought rain you could feel on your face.
And even more than our own, Jesus’s world needed rain. The poor and the sick always struggle. In Christ’s time, though, there were no safety nets, no charitable organizations, no governments that even in theory protected the equal rights of its people. When the Jewish peasants of first century Judea looked to their masters above, they could expect nothing but the pitiless fist of Rome and a largely corrupt Jewish elite of wealthy priests and landowners who either exploited or ignored them. Often these two overlords were enmeshed in both official and unofficial symbiosis. Nine out of ten people in ancient Palestine were poor peasants living at the subsistence level, heavily taxed and often in debt. If you ran out of food or had nowhere to live, well, that was your problem.
And it wasn’t only the politics. Whether Jewish or Roman, the reigning worldviews of Jesus’s time tended to steamroll over the most vulnerable humans. Ancient Romans, like the Greeks before them, took it as given “that by a necessity of their nature [men] always rule when they have the power.” According to historian Donald Kagan, our classical forbears saw the world as “a place of intense competition in which victory and domination, which brought fame and glory, were the highest goals, while defeat and subordination brought ignominy and shame.” For Romans, inequality “was thought to be natural or at least inevitable.” With the exception of a few powerful personalities, women were second-class citizens with no political sway. Even Jesus’s native Judaism—with its rich moral traditions—subordinated women, stoned blasphemers to death, permitted slavery, and venerated a God who could order the slaughter of the women and children of those who stood in his righteous path. According to the Torah, sickness and deformity weren’t just physical afflictions but indications of impurity before God. Cripples could go only so far into the holy temple in Jerusalem, while lepers were forbidden to have any contact with the rest of society.
If you were sick, there was some hope for a cure. As long as you could afford it. Money bought you not just the best healthcare, as it does today, but the only healthcare. Healers, exorcists, and miracle-workers “were skilled and fairly well-paid professions in first-century Palestine.” Once healed, though, you could be looking at another pile of shekels. Jewish law required elaborate and costly ritual cleansing for those hoping to be let back into God’s good graces. Not coincidentally, these rituals also resulted in wealthy, well-fed temple priests. The Law of Moses required a healed leper, for example, to scrape together two clean birds, some cedarwood, crimson yarn, and hyssop. One bird was to be sacrificed—the meat was kept by the priest for that night’s appetizer—while the second bird was to be released. The cedarwood, yarn, and hyssop were to be dipped in the first bird’s blood, which also had to be sprinkled on the head of the leper. Seven days later, after shaving their head and bathing, the leper was required—in a land often ravaged by famine—to bring in two male lambs without blemish as well as an offering of choice flour mixed with oil. The priest must sacrifice both lambs—and once again set the meat aside for his later enjoyment—then smear the lamb’s blood in specific spots on the leper’s body and sprinkle the oil over his head seven times. As historian Reza Aslan writes, “Only after all of this is complete shall the leper be considered free of the sin and guilt that led to his leprosy in the first place; only then shall he be allowed to rejoin the community of God.”
Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t think you’d ever left the community of God. Neither was he out to make a buck—or a name or a career. He didn’t care how poor or sick you were, or how invisible or impure to the powers that be. Perhaps most shockingly of all to the sensibilities of his culture, he also didn’t care if you were a woman. To Jesus, everyone was simply a human being.
That was unprecedented. And life-giving. The twentieth-century Spanish poet Antonio Machado imagined that we each “have a garden entrusted” to us in our souls—a garden with the potential to bloom under the right conditions. In the aridness of the brutal, patriarchal landscape of his time, Jesus watered seeds that lay dormant in the souls of those “with ears to hear.” Seeds of self-recognition: ‘This powerful, charismatic man cares about people like me. I matter in this universe. Me: a peasant, a woman, a prostitute, a cripple, a leper, a slave.’
Rise & Fall
This was a kind of weather that evoked more than the usual small-talk. And in Jesus’s day, the operative word was talk. When he was alive, and for the first decade or so after his death in about 30 CE, there were no official writings, at least in part because hardly anyone in the lower classes of the ancient world was literate. Nor were there any of the other official things that go with writing things down. No codification, no rules, no hierarchies, no priests, no churches. There were just “amazed,” “astonished,” and “stunned” people gathering together—people who’d experienced Jesus himself or people who experienced Jesus by way of his closest disciples.
Christ had not only dazzled these disciples with his teachings and miracles, he had taught them to perform miracles as well. After Jesus’s crucifixion, many of those closest to him took to the streets and roads and continued healing their fellow Jews, while proclaiming their belief that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah. This inspired band included members of the famous twelve apostles, headed by Peter and Jesus’s brother, James. Like their master, none of these men had a new religion called Christianity in mind. They were, emphatically, Jews. And they wished to remain so. In their minds, in fact, Jesus had fulfilled the fondest hopes of the Jewish people.
It's true the apostles were putting a significant twist on Judaism. But having your own ideas about being a Jew was nothing unusual for the times—or for any time. Judaism has always been open to self-critique, commentary, interpretation, and change. Jewish scripture itself canonizes a small army of prophets who have fiercely berated the chosen people for going astray in various ways. By Christ’s time, largely in reaction to the Roman occupation that had been infuriating and humiliating Jews since 63 BCE, various schools of thought, sects, and attitudes had emerged. Some Jews cozied up to the Romans, some resisted. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes all espoused their versions of Judaism. All manner of ideas ran like electrical currents through ancient Palestine about what kind of man the hoped-for messiah would be: a prophet of the kind the Torah chronicled, a liberator in the Moses mold, a royal ruler who will recreate the kingdom of David. A slew of men had arisen in Jesus’s time claiming to be messiah. Whether wonder-worker or military leader, they all promised a glorious victory for the Jewish people. That they all failed in disgrace—usually in the form of execution—was proof that they could not have been the real messiah.
Crucifixion was as disgraceful an end as there was in first-century Judea. The idea behind the punishment was humiliation. And behind that, deterrence: ‘Thinking of defying Rome? Think again.’ Crucified rebels were like first-century billboards for the absolute power of the Roman empire. They were always therefore prominently displayed—on hills, in theaters, at crossroads— “anywhere where the population had no choice but to bear witness to the gruesome scene.” To get their money’s worth from the advertising space, the authorities left the corpse up as long as possible, until it was “eaten by dogs and picked clean by the birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a heap of trash.” For Jews, crucifixion was not only graphically horrific and degrading, it was theologically condemned. According to the Law of Moses, anyone crucified is “under God’s curse.” (Deuteronomy 21:23).
To the Jewish authorities therefore, the apostles’ claim that Jesus was the messiah was absurd on the face of it. Not only had he failed—like so many others—to make so much as a dent in the armor of Roman rule, he had been executed in the most shameful, unholy manner imaginable. Barring a sex change, Jesus could not have been further from the glorious savior his people had been dreaming of.
And yet, people believed—by the thousands. Something powerful was happening. As if a great stone had been dropped in the waters of the ancient world, something was rippling outward from a nobody peasant whose mission to usher in a “kingdom of heaven” had apparently failed in utter humiliation. The ripples moved through his disciples, beyond to their fellow Jews, and later, to the Gentiles. How could this disgraced, feckless hick inspire such passion and faith?
There is no getting around the central explanation—one that Western historians can’t rationally explain but almost all agree on. Yes, Jesus spoke with compelling power. But it was healing the sick and the lame, driving out demons, and raising people from the grave that drew the massive crowds while he was alive. And after his crucifixion, it was his reappearance—in the flesh—to his closest followers that filled them with such zeal. Today we have a word for these kinds of phenomena—a word that our serious intellectuals choke on, for fear of ridicule. It has tawdry, sensationalist associations. Only the gullible or the uneducated believe in it. And yet there is near-unanimous scholarly consensus that Christ’s contemporaries viewed him as just this: supernatural.
There is no other way to explain the phenomenon of Christ’s following while alive, and the absolute conviction of the apostles after he was crucified. Even skeptical historians are forced to conclude that something strange took place. Reza Aslan, for example, has devoted a book to stripping Jesus of his gentle, spiritual image, arguing instead that he was primarily a fierce political crusader, bent on rebellion against the state. Still, Aslan concedes,
Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony… It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.
Another non-Christian scholar, Professor Paula Fredriksen, has said,
I know in their own terms what [the apostles] saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus… I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.
The impact on Western history of attested miracles relating to Jesus didn’t end with Christ’s deeds, his resurrection, the fervor of his disciples, or their ability to heal in his name. The apostle Paul’s relentless preaching and later the emperor Constantine’s legalization of the faith were arguably the two greatest factors in the success of Christianity. Both men were converted when they experienced dramatic visions of Jesus. Supernatural phenomena were the jet-fuel of the Jesus phenomenon.
All this hocus-pocus is hard for many modern Westerners to swallow, and it’s therefore mostly played down or ignored. Quieting storms and multiplying fishes were among the things that as a young man, raised in an atheist family by a scientist father, I discounted outright. Like Thomas Jefferson, I regarded the supernatural shenanigans reported in the New Testament as patent myth—ridiculous fairy tales that could only appeal to the minds of children or idiots desperate to avoid facing the eternal void that awaits us all. Clearly, they had been fabricated by Christ’s followers to make Jesus look like a superhero. When my dog died, she stayed dead. I had never seen a supernatural phenomenon, nor had anyone I had ever talked to. None of my teachers or textbooks ever gave so much as an ounce of credence to their reality. The supernatural was simply delusional.
I have since looked around more. I’ve come to realize that for all our “liberal” education, and our success using science and math to create technological wonders, we in the modern West live in a certain kind of bubble as surely as the most remote jungle tribe lives in a different kind of bubble. I’ve come to realize that modern Western culture, which prides itself on an objective, open-minded outlook on the world, in fact severely filters reality and ignores massive swaths of human experience—experiences that our intellectual authorities rule out automatically and without serious inquiry. Our conventional institutions—our schools, universities, hospitals, governments, and news agencies—all discount (or laugh off) worlds of phenomena that if earnestly explored would blow our rational minds.
This may seem impossible to many intelligent Westerners who see themselves as well-educated and cosmopolitan. Haven’t we looked at everything—and heard from every yahoo and whack-job on the internet—and not found a shred of convincing evidence that some “other world” exists? Surely, we would have heard about any proof of this world by now with all our probing and searching and exploring.
The answer to that objection lies in a central truth that spiritual teachers like Jesus all point to: Perception is not neutral. Our experience of the universe depends on our particular consciousness. This is true at both the individual and collective levels. We always experience the world through a certain complex of filters, most of which we are unaware. Our biology is only the most obvious of them: We are built to register but a tiny portion of the vibrations and particles that bombard and caress us from both inside and out. That dogs can hear sounds and smell odors we can’t is only the tip of the iceberg. We live intimately with invisible beings who come and go in astronomical numbers without our notice, from the workings of our sixty trillion cells to the billions of tiny particles called neutrinos that stream through us every second.
The other filters on our consciousness are more subtle. They are usually easier to see in others than in ourselves—a truth Jesus made both graphic and hilarious in his image of a person trying to remove a speck of dust from another’s eye without first removing the plank from their own. Our behavior is one of these more subtle filters. When we hold certain beliefs, we behave in ways that reinforce those beliefs. Our reinforced belief then encourages yet more of the behavior that further reinforces the belief, and so on. Such vicious circles can keep even the most intelligent and respected people imprisoned in fishbowls which they mistake for the universe. The Oxford biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, for example, has no doubt intensively explored the literature on genetics and evolution. He is therefore qualified to speak to all its richness and subtlety, as well as all the evidence for its validity. We can safely wager that he has not devoted the same number of hours to investigating the voluminous, complex, and compelling literature relating to the paranormal and supernatural, the modes of perception in animistic tribes, the success of shamans, the experiences of mystics, or the miraculous phenomena associated for millennia with Eastern yogis.[Dawkins is no different from anyone in this regard: his behavior—his choice of what to sincerely explore—affects his beliefs. These beliefs then limit what he will sincerely explore. Regardless of how many books someone has published or PhDs hang on their walls, no one can investigate all available information or human experience in equal depth. We only have so many hours in a day. In the ocean of reality, we can only do a deep dive in certain places.
But even then, we are wearing our own particular scuba mask—a lens tinted with the color of our habits, beliefs, agendas, and expectations. Even when two people are looking with the same human eyeballs in the same place, they can both see different things. This phenomenon, dubbed “inattentional blindness,” has been demonstrated strikingly in psychological experiments in which one’s expectations or focus causes them to miss what is right on front of them. Entire cultures can be conditioned to literally see different things from one another. This insight made a deep impression on the linguist Daniel Everett, who spent decades living with a group of Pirahã in the remote Amazon. The Pirahã are a resolutely pragmatic people who don’t believe anything they, or someone they know personally, has not witnessed firsthand. They believe in certain spirits, then, only because they see them. In his book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett describes an incident in which the entire village was excitedly pointing at a spirit on the riverbank that he could not see. Everett reflects,
I could never have proved to the Pirahã that the beach was empty nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it. As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely, we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another's views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahã, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.”
Everett’s insight likely explains why belief in spirits of some kind has been a matter-of-fact part of every culture in the history of humanity, except ours: It’s not because all humans were deluded morons until we invented college. It’s because our culture encourages us to practice only certain kinds of perception and modes of consciousness and to dismiss others as crazy.[But Everett’s insight is also one that no Westerner, regardless of intelligence, could arrive at without significant prior effort. Everett, for example, had to pull up stakes on a comfortable life in the US for the inconveniences and dangers of an extended stay in the remote Amazon. Similarly, to be convinced of the validity of other worlds requires some determination—some initial seed of belief or sincere desire. This is also a truth emphasized in the wisdom teachings of those like Jesus. You’re not going to get an English major to take a Calculus class. Nor are you likely to convince Richard Dawkins to spend a decade with the Pirahã. Christ put it this way: “Those with ears to hear, let them hear.”
But the preparing of the soil needn’t be some dramatic act or arduous task. The sincere seeker requires nothing more than an open mind. Even faith as small as a mustard seed, Jesus told his followers, “when it is grown becomes greater than all other herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” Our beliefs—so small as to be invisible—create worlds. One thing leads to another—and grows bigger.
Seeds had been planted in my own youth for believing there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by Richard Dawkins. While I may have ruled out religious magic, I was fascinated by a couple of other bizarre worlds. I had heard about quantum physics, for one. Here was something even stranger than walking on water; and yet it was being taught by professors in every physics department on the planet. In fact, it was Western science’s most successful and powerful theory about the nature of the physical world—borne out not only by mountains of evidence, but by all our digital technology. Quantum physics tells us that all matter actually consists of waves that are spread across the universe. Those unfamiliar with the subject may want to take a year or so to absorb that last sentence. I can assure you it is the consensus of modern physicists, despite the fact that for unknown reasons humans cannot perceive these waves—or “fields”—directly. We tend to see regular old chairs, trees, cars, and husbands. But hidden behind the apparently separate objects of our familiar world, there is, in the words of Cambridge physics professor David Tong, a “harmonious dance between all these fields, interlocking each other, swaying, moving this way and that way.”According to the latest science, then, we not only walk on waves, we are waves. Everyone is familiar with the other strange world that fascinated me growing up, or at least with their own version of it. Dreams—so exuberant, weird, and resonant—could saturate my being in a way that made words feel like dead flies on a windowsill. No mainstream philosophy I encountered ever seemed to do justice to the convention-wrecking bizarreness of quantum physics or the irreverent, personalized magic of the world I wandered through like an Amazon jungle every night. Starting in college, I felt sympathetic vibrations for my wonder in the exuberant images of poetry, mythology, and the depth psychology tradition begun by Carl Jung.
Then, while wandering through a Berkeley neighborhood one Saturday afternoon in my thirties, I hit the motherlode. I happened by a yard sale and there I picked up a book. It was called Seth Speaks. Seth is not a person as we think of people. He is, for lack of a better word, an “entity” that spoke through a writer named Jane Roberts during the sixties and seventies from a little apartment in Elmira, New York. Roberts channeled Seth, while her husband, a painter, took notes. Both were intrigued yet skeptical at first, wondering if “Seth” were nothing more than some unconscious part of Roberts. I was drawn to the unassuming presentation and lack of sensationalism in the book. Beyond getting the material out to the world, Roberts and her husband weren’t looking to toot their horns or cash in. No ads, fads, podcasts, talk shows, or book tours ever trumpeted Jane Roberts. If anything, she and her husband seemed keen to make their books harder to read with their meticulous footnoting, asides, contextual observations, and cross-referencing.
But more than the modesty of his channel, it was the material Seth delivered that stopped me in my tracks. He spoke, in the words of the Gospels, “like one with authority”—with a vast and sometimes amused calm that was palpable to me. I’ve always resonated with the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno’s contention that “philosophy is a work of integration and synthesis, or else it is merely pseudo-philosophical erudition.” Seth offered Unamuno’s kind of philosophy. He included everything—art, religion, science, psychology, emotion, health, personal fulfillment, our everyday experience, and the supernatural—and in the process ignored almost all our conventional boundaries. The realms of reality he tried to describe in a tone often reminiscent of a science textbook—the complexity, the immensity, the strangeness—astonished me. But I also somehow recognized it. I knew that I should be astonished when I found truth. And I knew that I shouldn’t understand it all. Seth both answered, and left room for more of, my wonder. He confirmed what I’d been sensing since childhood: that reality—life, existence, the universe—is dazzling so far beyond human comprehension that our entire vocabulary is like a grain of sand on its beach.
That a similar power—or personality, or spirit—comes through the four Gospels after two thousand years of human meddling is yet another Christ-related miracle. The layers of obfuscation and uncertainty that lie between Christ and the religion that claims his name are reminiscent of the famous pile of mattresses between the pea and the princess.
For starters, our four canonical Gospels were written in Greek, whereas Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic. This means any quotation of Jesus in English is a translation of a translation. Where English versions of the Gospels use the word “sin,” for example, the Greek word was almost always hamartano, which meant something closer to a mistake, or just “missing the mark.” Who knows what Aramaic word Jesus himself used. Further distancing us from the source, the Gospels were all written between thirty and eighty years after Jesus died by unknown authors who had never met the man. The versions we now have of each Gospel were pieced together from multiple copies, none of which were in complete agreement with any other, and all of which were themselves several generations of handwritten copies removed from the originals. Over the centuries, imperfect human scribes made hundreds of changes, some by accident and some in service to theological and social agendas.
Nor were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the only Gospels on offer. The four we’ve gotten used to were handpicked by early bishops from a larger pool of Gospels that most Christians never get a peek at. There were also numerous epistles, acts, apocalypses, and other Christ-related writings that didn’t make the final cut into the book that would receive the official stamp of “The New Testament.”
Far from falling out of the sky into the hands of delighted clergymen, our New Testament developed over 300 years of intense debate from a hotbed of diverse, passionately-held beliefs about Jesus. Between about 60 and 400 CE, certain determined church leaders slowly hammered out an orthodoxy—or literally “right opinion”—and cast other beliefs into the infernal pits of heresy—from the Greek hairein, “to choose.” Well-intentioned or not, men such as the bishops Irenaeus and Tertullian were keen to unify, limit, and standardize what historian Elaine Pagels calls the “enormous diversity” of beliefs that Jesus’s presence inspired in the ancient world. Various Christologies—or what we could call “theories of Jesus”—developed. Marcionites believed that the angry God of the Old Testament was a different God from the loving one that Jesus represented. Adoptionists believed Jesus was born human but was adopted by God at his baptism. Docetists believed Jesus was purely divine and only appeared human to mortal eyes. Arianism held that Christ was born from the Father and therefore distinct from and subordinate to God himself. Gnostic Christians, armed with their own Gospels, tended to see Jesus as primarily a spiritual symbol for their personal reunion with a divinity inherent in themselves as well as Jesus. People calling themselves Christians believed in as many as 365 different gods. Many encouraged prophesying and speaking in tongues, believing that an authentic Christian contributed their own original visions, myths, and interpretations to a kind of on-going mystical tradition. Some groups, following Christ’s lead, allowed women as much participation and authority as men. The idea that there was one original church that has since branched into many sects couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, there were many sects that were squeezed into one church (which later re-splintered to some extent). If Jesus was rain, his earliest admirers were like various species of wildflowers exuberantly sprouting across the ancient world.
The apostle Paul was official Christianity’s first and most zealous gardener. That he had never met Jesus didn’t dampen his ardor in the slightest. Paul was the kind of person who, once convinced of the righteousness of something, gave that something his all. Originally a devout Jewish Pharisee, he had a blinding vision of Christ that converted him from a ruthless persecutor of Jesus’s followers into their tireless standard-bearer.
If Paul was familiar with the unconventional teachings of his Lord and Savior, you wouldn’t know it from his writings. Beyond the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul barely mentions Christ’s words or acts in his now-famous letters to the Galatians, Romans, and other early Christian communities. Just a decade or two after Jesus’s death, Paul was already less interested in the mysterious wisdom that Christ taught than in achieving a harmonious unity among Christ’s followers. Paul believed the unruly cats of the early Jesus movement needed herding. Towards that end, he often did his best in his letters to muster a fatherly patience as he counseled a cast of characters that included fornicators, gluttons, and tomboys.
Whereas the Jesus of the Gospels moves easily among the oddballs and outcasts of the ancient world, Paul’s attitude is more prickly, if earnest. In the service of his own ideas about good behavior, Paul offered grand, easy-to-understand exhortations in a tone that was sometimes loving, sometimes condescending. Where Jesus offered graphic, arresting parables and sayings that often challenge listeners and upend simplistic morality, Paul offered vague generalities: “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” or “Those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, [God] will give eternal life,” or “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ.” What does having “faith in Jesus Christ” mean exactly? Um, you’d have to ask Paul.
Paul ladled the goopy sauce of his grandiose declarations over the meaty subtlety of Christ’s insights. There is much to admire in Paul’s message. This was the man, after all, who wrote the deeply beautiful words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Scholar Thomas Cahill notes that Paul made “the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible and the first one ever to be made in any of the many literatures of our planet.” But Paul’s original sauce consisted largely of the empty calories of his high-blown proclamations—the slogans of a new religion that Jesus himself didn’t appear interested in. Already, the meaningless, oppressive soundbites of the Catholic Church were taking shape: ‘Jesus died for your sins!’ ‘Believe in the resurrection and be saved!’
Paul’s concern with unification, standardization, simplification, and authority was the beginning of an attitude that has been central to the Christian church ever since. The emphasis would never again be on Jesus’s teachings—these required too much personal reflection, interpretation, and daily practice—but on a kind of zombie-like faith in Jesus himself. What it meant to actually practice that faith—how to think, what to do—would be answered by whoever was wearing a pointed hat that year. With the well-intentioned Paul, Christianity was on its way to becoming less a source of wisdom than a cult.
When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 CE and legalized the faith, the Christian cult needed to put on some fancier clothes. Constantine had seen some sort of Christ-related vision that he believed had carried him to victory against a competing emperor. Suddenly—miraculously—the supreme ruler of the land was not a persecutor of Christians but a Christian himself. Practically overnight, churches and their bishops went from state scorn to state sponsorship. Tax breaks were granted for official Christian organizations; government money flowed for the construction of magnificent cathedrals; bishops were given legal authority to try cases between Christians.
But there was a problem. What exactly counted as “Christian?” You can’t have a Roman emperor believing in a religion that doesn’t itself know what it believes. That’s embarrassing for an emperor. Nor can you hand out tax breaks to every freak-show claiming to be a church. To make the faith official, the faith had to be defined. Thus, Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in June of 325 CE, essentially telling church leaders, ‘I like you guys, but get your shit together.’ Their travel, lodging, and sumptuous meals provided by the emperor, an all-male cadre of about 300 bishops debated for weeks to decide what everyone should believe about Jesus. After a final vote at the end of the summer, Constantine had his verdict: Jesus was, by a show of hands, “the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” Any other ideas “the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” Disagree with the bishops at Nicaea, in other words, and you got canceled—by God. A few decades later, another council of bishops agreed on a version of the Bible closely resembling today’s, in a process that tended to reflect the antisemitic, misogynist, and other social and theological biases of the times. The fundamental ideas of what we think of as Christianity had been etched in stone in the same way governments pass legislation. Paul’s gentler, more informal call for harmony was made both more explicit and stricter. At the moment Christianity became official, it became political.
The image of powerful men at grand banquets legislating matters of the human soul is about as far as you can get from Jesus. But there we are. It would be seventy more years before the Roman empire, under Theodosius, took Constantine’s approval of the church a step further by outlawing Christianity’s competitor, paganism. Now it was politically dangerous not to be a Christian and the religion became fully intertwined with the empire. Directly beholden to the state, bishops received various perks and positions of power, such as ambassadorships, while they in turn often influenced political figures. Once embodied by motley bands of enthusiasts gathering in people’s living rooms, Christianity had been called up to the majors and was playing ball. As Rome was being Christianized, Christianity was being Romanized—learning how to wheel and deal, becoming properly hierarchical, and adorning itself with all the pomp and finery required to wow a populace. As the Roman empire declined, the new structure of Christianity remained, providing both a touchstone and a haven for Europeans through the Middle Ages and beyond (largely through monasteries, at first).
Ironically, hiding out inside a conventional institution with imperial backing may have been the only way for Christ’s message to survive. Had worldly men with their worldly concerns for organization and power—men like Paul, the bishops Irenaus and Tertullian, and the emperors Constantine and Theodosius—not encased Jesus in the armor of authority and paraded him through the centuries, the tender flesh of his message might have been torn to pieces by a million different interpretations within a few years of his death. As it is, miraculously, we can still crack the cover of the New Testament as if folding back that armor, and bear witness to the beating heart of the most loving and vital personality in the history of the West. If Christ was a pearl, Christianity perhaps has been his oyster.
For, as it turns out, the church fathers didn’t do too badly in their selection of the Gospels. Scholars are unanimous in believing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be among the earliest, if not the earliest, Gospels of Jesus. Yes, they’ve been tweaked in places. An ending was added to some versions of Mark’s gospel, a little insertion in Luke’s. Here and there, the wording was likely changed to align the text more closely to what was becoming the officially sanctioned view of Jesus (emphasizing, for example, Mary’s virginity or Jesus as “son of God”). Given how much editing, selecting, deleting, translating, and copying has gone on under the influence of orthodox authorities, it shouldn’t surprise us to find some evidence for their version of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels. That evidence doesn’t need much explaining. Bishops and rulers liked the message: “Christ is God, born from a virgin, who died for your sins. Believe in him and be redeemed. We’ll fill you in on the details.”
It’s the other material in the Gospels that needs explaining. It’s Jesus’s actions, parables, and sayings that defy misogyny, authoritarianism, and conventional wisdom. It’s the words and deeds that confound simplistic thinking—those that are irreverent, spontaneous, mysterious, and even absurd. It’s the stuff that would surprise a young man like me who opened up the Gospels expecting to find a cartoon. That all this stuff remains in the Gospels—despite its potential to embarrass popes—means it was simply too powerful to leave out. Whoever wrote about Jesus, even if they heard about him second-hand, couldn’t not write those things down. And even those in power couldn’t bring themselves to delete them.
What is all this “other material” that needs explaining?
Jesus is vital, for one. Incredibly tender, yes. A healer of the sick, a comforter to the poor, the outcast, the vulnerable. But he is also fierce. He gets angry. He may “suffer little children to come unto me,” but he doesn’t suffer hypocrites or nitpickers—or any “brood of vipers” who miss the forest of divine love for the trees of human rules and regulations. In contrast to the stuffy disapproval that Paul tries to sugarcoat with polite diplomacy, Jesus doesn’t try to hide his emotions. His channels are open. He flares when he flares, and then it’s over. Unlike so many well-intentioned people, Jesus doesn’t seem to carry resentment around and then need to compensate for it by proving how nice he is. He’s not passive-aggressive; he’s active-aggressive. Jesus’s spiritualty is not wispy and vague. It’s fully integrated into his powerful personality. His aggression is in the service of truth.
Along these same lines, we can say that Jesus is not interested in abstractions. He appears to agree with the visionary poet William Blake that “whoever would do good to another, must do it in minute particulars: General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer.”[****] We see this most strikingly in his many encounters with sick or otherwise afflicted people. He is not too busy to heal you, whoever you are, when you present yourself with your specific, selfish request: “I just want to feel better.” He responds with warmth in the moment, not with moral calculations. Mark recounts how a woman dribbled expensive oil on Jesus’s head to honor him: “A few of those present were indignant, ‘Why did she waste that oil? She could have sold it for more than 300 denarii and given the money to the needy.’ They went on scolding her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you give her such grief? She did something special for me.’ ”
Rules and regulations are abstractions too. While they can be helpful, Jesus insists they be seen in the context of something greater—the human heart. Three of the four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s disciples being upbraided by Pharisees for picking grain to eat on the sabbath, something prohibited by Mosaic law. Jesus tells them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” In another instance, Jesus is aroused to both compassion and anger when he heals a man’s paralyzed hand on the sabbath and then gives an earful to the nitpicking Pharisees who are watching and waiting to pounce on any technicality.
If morality means holding back a bad urge and “being good” regardless of how we’re actually feeling—then Jesus was not that interested in morality. The changes he spoke for were deeper than the bland concepts we all know how to pay lip service to. A rule is an embodiment of this superficial definition of morality—an external constraint or band-aid on the unwanted. When an adult, for example, tells a child to say they’re sorry and the child repeats the words, a social ritual is performed—a ritual that allows business to carry on as usual but moves nothing within. Jesus saw no need to flout rules unnecessarily. Asked if Jews should pay their taxes to Rome, he said yes, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” Rules, in other words, keep things civil so that we are free to focus on what’s important: what’s happening in our heart. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus tells his followers, “You have heard it said long ago, ‘Don't commit murder. Anyone who does will be damned.’ Well, I'm saying that anyone who gets angry with his brother will be damned.” A few lines later, he says, “You've heard it said long ago, ‘Don't commit adultery.' But I say that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is not arguing that we somehow peer into another’s psyche like thought-police and then string them up if we find anger or lust. He’s pointing out that the things we don’t want to happen—in this case, murder and adultery—have their origins within us as feelings. He’s pointing to this inner landscape as the realm where real change takes place.
It has been clear for two thousand years where our superficial approach to bad behavior has gotten us. Human depravity is so ubiquitous that most people see it as inevitable—a relentless force that can never be subdued, only condemned and punished over and over and over. But Jesus isn’t interested in playing whack-a-mole with evil. He taught and embodied an approach that goes to the source. “On earth as it is in heaven” can be read in this context not as an abstract religious statement but as a psychological truth: We can’t help but manifest in the visible outer world the true state of our invisible inner world. Christ echoes the same idea elsewhere: “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed,” and “A good tree won't grow bad fruit and a bad tree won't grow good fruit.” Does anyone really ever hide their anger, lust, or insincerity? Does a forced apology fool anyone? Jesus’s impatience with our perpetual bullshit is understandable. Who, after all, do we think we’re kidding?
Graphic images like fruit trees help Jesus avoid other ways that we modern Westerners like to kid ourselves. How easy to get lost in a forest of cerebral philosophy only to emerge with nothing but a vague feeling of superiority and a PhD. Jesus preferred stories that cut through artifice and awaken a deeper knowing. We can, I think, accept most of Christ’s parables as authentic, for they tend to have the ring of the unconventional, if not the surprising and mysterious. It’s hard to imagine any straitlaced priest inventing them for the sake of keeping his flock in line. Aesop offered those kinds of stories. In one of his fables, a grasshopper plays while an ant works to save up food. When the winter comes, the grasshopper sees his mistake. The fable is simplistic and the moral obvious. It’s clear that Aesop’s calculating brain has constructed the story for a calculated end.
Christ’s parables are different. They are sometimes simple but rarely simplistic. They don’t lend themselves to predictable moral lessons. They seem to spring from somewhere under the brain. In one, the owner of a vineyard hires workers at one denarius for a day’s work. Later, with only an hour left in the workday, he hires more workers for the same pay. The first workers gripe: “You’ve made those latecomers equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner reminds them, “Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius?... Or do you begrudge my generosity?” In another parable, a father forgives the prodigal son—who spent all his money “in wild living”—while the responsible son grumbles. The grasshopper and the ant this ain’t.
Teaching the rewards of hard work is not, it turns out, anywhere in Jesus’s lesson plan. He doesn’t walk around ancient Palestine pitching in with the peasants to dig wells or carry stones. He does the opposite. We hear how he beckoned to two sons in the middle of helping their father mend their fishing nets to come follow him. We hear of a certain Martha who gripes about doing all the work to serve Jesus and other guests while her sister sits adoringly at Jesus’s feet: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone?” asks Martha. “Ask her to help me.” Jesus answered her, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Elsewhere in a similar spirit, Jesus explains that feasting, not fasting, is the appropriate behavior as long as he’s around. This is, after all, the man who turns water into wine, not vice versa.
Generosity. Abundance. Gifts given freely. Cares and worries let go. A kind of divine nonchalance illumined by love. Everywhere, this is Jesus’s message. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, reminds them of how he “worked night and day so as not to be a burden” when he stayed with them. (Paul set up shop as a tentmaker wherever he went.) By contrast, Jesus freely accepts hospitality. He needn’t prove his generosity; he seems to be generosity itself. He’s not embarrassed by a woman who expresses her love by washing his feet. He receives the gift graciously—and later will himself wash the feet of his disciples. He’s not looking to gain brownie points the way so many of us do by pointing out how busy we are or how ‘insane’ work has been. Jesus preserves his sanity by staying open to something more expansive than the scarcity-consciousness that most of us scurry around in and call living. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he tells his disciples. “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink… or what you will wear… oh, ye of little faith.”
Faith. Apart from his message of love and abundance, no idea is more central to the Jesus of the gospels. Nothing else matters—not hard work, not worry, not illness, not obstacles, not even death itself—if you have faith. Food, wine, clothes, health: “First seek the kingdom of God… and all these things will be given to you.” It’s perhaps Jesus’s insistence on faith—so absurd in the light of what we think we know about how the world works—that is hardest for an intelligent modern Westerner to swallow. It all seems so clearly wrong. “Ask and it is given?” That kind of idiocy would disqualify you from a modern philosophy department as quickly as crucifixion disqualified you from messiahship in ancient Palestine. Every day in practically every person on the planet, we appear to see evidence against Jesus’s so-called wisdom. Money doesn’t pour into my house through a hole in the roof because I’d like it to. I get up and go to work. My boss signs my paycheck, not “my Father in heaven.” Is the most powerful, charismatic, and compassionate person in the history of Western culture really spewing such nonsense?
In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, we might be tempted to argue that Jesus didn’t really emphasize the power of faith—that it was grafted on by his apostles or by church authorities later on. But this doesn’t fly. The importance of faith is too embedded in Christ’s character, too woven throughout his words and the stories told about him. It’s also too absurd. Jesus insists on faith to such a degree that it would appear to be positively embarrassing to his followers. How do you keep a straight face when telling someone that a buddy of yours controls the weather? This and other equally ridiculous stories had to stay in the accounts of Jesus because they were authentic. They were confirmed by multiple—if now unknown—early witnesses and thus in multiple early Gospels. There was no getting around them. The way the church handled such extraordinary deeds was simple: ‘Jesus is God. But you’re not.’ According to the bishops who gathered in Nicaea in 325, Jesus performed miracles because he is “true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” But folks, don’t try this at home.
The church, in other words, moved “faith” into the stratosphere: ‘Leave amazing events to the professionals. You can just gawk.’ That’s all well and good, as long your congregation doesn’t read the Gospels. Because Jesus taught otherwise. Declining to take credit, he repeatedly tells those he appears to have cured of afflictions, “Your faith has healed you.” When he calms the storm that panics his disciples on their boat, he doesn’t say, “Look what I did!” He asks his companions, “Where is your faith?” I can hear him adding, “Have you learned nothing from hanging out with me?” In another story, his followers marvel at a fig tree that withered after Jesus cursed it. He tells them, “If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
But wait a minute, you might be thinking. In some places, doesn’t Jesus elevate himself onto clouds of glory far above the rest of us? Doesn’t he spout grandiose claims that he is “the Light and the Way?” Only if you discount three out of our four Gospels and choose to believe only one of them. In neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke does Jesus refer to himself as the son of God or any form of deity requiring reverence. In fact, to the bafflement of scholars and the potential embarrassment of bishops, he often refers to himself in these Gospels as simply “the son of man.” Only the Gospel of John inflates Jesus to cosmic proportions. John stands apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they “see similarly” who Jesus was. The scholarly consensus is that John is a later work, written several decades after the Synoptic Gospels by an unknown writer keen to raise Jesus to an exalted status worthy of exclusive, even blind, devotion. John was likely written around the same time as another gospel with equal claim to authenticity, but which was rejected from the New Testament. Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of Christianity, it’s easy to see why. The Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945, sits comfortably alongside the Synoptic Gospels, but goes even further in emphasizing each seeker’s responsibility, intuition, experience, and divinity. Where John points upwards, locating Christ with God in heaven, Thomas points inside, locating Christ in our own consciousness. Thomas takes as his theme a statement that Luke attributes to Christ: “The kingdom of God is within.” It’s little wonder that Thomas’s Gospel was declared heretical and dangerous while John’s became the favorite of so many early church authorities.
We tend now to hear Christ’s “faith” in the preachy way found only in John and then megaphoned by the church—at once vague, oppressive, and absurd. For so many modern intelligent people, this renders the idea utterly irrelevant. When “faith” is only trumpeted inside the walls of a church, it can’t resonate with our daily experience, modern physics, or the insights of other powerful thinkers and traditions. We don’t have to discount our experience in a pew in order to explore what Jesus was getting at when he talked about “faith.” But we don’t need to stay in the pew either. We can go where Jesus went—everywhere.
“Seek and you will find,” urged Jesus. As I sought, I found resonance with Christ’s teachings in the words of that entity who spoke through Jane Roberts from her own little Nazareth in lower New York State. Instead of faith, Seth uses the word beliefs. His central message, when all is said and done, is this: “You create your reality.” Our beliefs, according to Seth, don’t just affect our lives in the way most people would probably agree they do—guiding us towards certain experiences which further reinforce our beliefs, which then guide us to even more of those experiences and so on. According to Seth, our beliefs literally construct our lives. Desire plus belief equals manifestation in the world: real, physical manifestations—the kind you can eat, drive around in, and sleep with. This idea has been popularized as the law of attraction: We get what we focus on. Not, mind you, what we pretend to focus on. Just as saying the words “I’m sorry” without meaning it doesn’t fool the person you’ve upset, saying “I am wealthy” without feeling it doesn’t fool the universe. Christ put it this way: "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men… But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
If we want to learn from Christ instead of worship him, we’re better off examining our beliefs than proclaiming our faith. We have all kinds of beliefs—or articles of faith if you like—that stand in the way of what we want. I can say I want to be rich, but if in my heart I associate wealth with superficiality and greed, then I am at odds with the desire. I am, in a sense, a hypocrite. This idea explains something else Jesus says, reported by all three Synoptic Gospels and twice in Matthew: “Whoever has, more will be given to them; whoever has not, even what they have will be taken away.” These words have sounded un-Christlike to many ears. Instead, they’re central to his message. They are a description of the way our thinking forms our reality. If you believe in abundance, you meet with more abundance. If you believe in scarcity, you meet with more of that. To be sure, Christ’s statement is a simplified summary of what in practice is more nuanced and complex. Our beliefs are a complicated spiderweb of many elements that collect both the positive and the negative flies of our experience. To catch more positive flies, Seth recommends taking a sober inventory of our ideas about ourselves and about reality and dropping ones that don’t serve us.
The word “belief” brings us down from the clouds of “faith.” It helps us make connections between Jesus and other people, traditions, and disciplines down here on planet Earth. But even the word “belief” still has an abstract, pie-in-the-sky ring to it. Can we go a step further in demystifying what Christ meant by “faith” (or whatever Aramaic word he actually used)? What are beliefs really—in the most immediate sense? Are they anything more than thoughts we keep thinking? That insight might help us recognize the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson as another kind of gospel—one that contains the verse, “You become what you think about all day long.” (How many people who want to, say, lose weight, actually think about being at their ideal weight all day long?) Let’s add the Gospel of Heraclitus too. Around 500 BC, the Greek philosopher was already preparing the Western psyche for Jesus with gnomic gems such as, “Unless you expect the unexpected, you will not find it.” Around that same time, tradition has it the Buddha told his disciples that “phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.” Our own modern medicine testifies to Christ’s message by its recognition of the power of the placebo effect, which must be controlled for in any valid medical study. Thousands of people who heal themselves of supposedly incurable illnesses also shout, “Amen!” Even our nuts-and-bolts Western physicists are glimpsing circumstantial evidence that mind affects matter in their discovery that the ghostly act of observing the world affects the world. Faith, belief, thoughts, expectation, the state of our heart, even looking at something—they may not be matter, but they do matter.
If Christ’s teachings are not so much moral commandments as descriptions of how reality works at the deepest levels, it shouldn’t surprise us to hear echoes of those teachings everywhere. Nowhere, though, are the echoes louder than in the ancient canyons of Eastern wisdom, particularly in the tradition of yoga. Far more than just twisting the body into various postures, yoga in the broader sense refers to the practice of an ancient “fundamental yet sophisticated science” to “activate your inner energies to such a vibrant and exuberant state that your body, mind, and emotions function at their highest peaks.” Christ-like miracles have been attributed to Indian yogis for centuries. Many eyewitnesses, for example, tell stories of the healing, clairvoyant, and other astonishing powers of Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, India, who died in 1961 after a lifetime marked by the simplest living, providing for the local poor, and no interest whatsoever in money or fame. The amazing feats of Eastern masters are often strikingly similar to the well-known ones attributed to Jesus, from directing the weather to walking on water, manifesting food, healing afflictions, seeing the future, being in two places at once, and bringing people back from death. Other stories from India will surprise Western ears, while still echoing the more general spirit of Jesus. It is said, for example, that when Nityananda decided to carve 43 caves into a hill as a kind of meditation retreat in the town of Kanhangad, he helped revive the depressed town by hiring local workers to help him. No one, though, could figure out where he was getting the money to pay them:
At the end of day, when [the] laborer’s went to ask for the daily wages He would point at a stone and say, “Your wages are kept under that stone. Go and take it.” Beneath the stones currency notes would be found. Interestingly everyone used to get exactly the deserved amount in proportion to the work done by him or her. At times Nityananda Baba would take the currency notes out from his loincloth to pay his employees. The laborers were surprised.
Nityananda, like Jesus, often ran into jealousy, suspicion, and small-mindedness. If those interviewed by Swami Vijayananda are to be believed, some people complained that Nityananda “is constructing [caves] in the government land without any official consent. He is distributing money to the entire town. What is the source of this money?” A British official named Mr. Gowne was summoned. Vijayananda’s account is worth quoting at length both for sheer delight as well as its resonance with the stories in the Gospels.
“What is the source of funds for the payment made by you?” enquired Mr. Gowne. “From the currency note press,” Bhagawan Nityananda replied with a teasing smile. “Currency note press? Where is your currency note press?” questioned Mr. Gowne, growing more curious. “In the entire world,” said Bhagawan. “Oh, is that so?” Mr. Gowne questioned, pointing at a lake nearby. “Then it must be there too. Am I right?”… “Yes.” Answering with a firm brevity, Bhagawan Nityananda took a plunge in the lake inhabited by dangerous reptiles like snakes and crocodiles. Gowne got confused. Within a few seconds Bhagawan emerged from the lake and threw damp wads of cash in front of Mr. Gowne. The skeptical officer Mr. Gowne packed the currency notes and sent them to the government bank to test if they were genuine or fake. It was proved that the currency notes were indeed genuine and were printed by the government authorized press. This experience made Mr. Gowne an ardent devotee of Bhagawan Nityananda.
The above story is but one of too many to list in the chronicles of Indian spiritual masters. Paramahansa Yogananda’s classic Autobiography of a Yogi is probably the best known account, but there are many more.
Sometimes such phenomena flicker into official Western awareness. Time magazine reported in its June 1952 issue on Yogananda’s ability to control his pulse in each wrist separately and his prediction of the exact moment of his death onstage (officially from a heart attack). Time quotes Mortuary Director Harry T. Rowe as saying, “No physical disintegration was visible… even 20 days after death… [His] case is unique in our experience.” NBC, ABC, and the BBC all reported on studies carried out in a hospital in Ahmedabad, India that appeared to confirm holy man Prahlad Jani’s claim that he didn’t eat, drink, or defecate (a claim made for other yogis through the centuries). The CIA has officially declared that remote viewing—seeing things that are beyond conventional eyesight—“works with remarkable precision” and that remote viewers “can be used in conjunction with other intelligence sources throughout the DoD intelligence community.” Echoing both Eastern yoga masters and claims that Christ taught his disciples to heal, the CIA reported that remote viewing is a skill “inherent to every human to some degree,” and “through proper training can be developed to a person’s potential.”
Those Westerners who immerse themselves for extended periods in cultures that cultivate other human potentialities have often recorded experiences that our culture deems crazy. Daniel Everett didn’t witness the spirits that his Pirahã hosts did in the Amazon jungle, but he was convinced that the Pirahã did. Other Westerners do report seeing things they can’t explain with their Western brains. Immersed with a group of Bayaka in the Congo, musicologist Louis Sarno witnessed the forest spirits, or mokoondi, dancing with the tribe. During her fourteen years living in Tibet, the European Alexandra David-Néel encountered several apparitions known as tulpas, and even reported creating one herself.
In the context most of us are conditioned by in the West, all these supposed events sound like the sheerest malarkey. Eastern masters emphatically disagree. In the words of Paramahansa Yogananda,
A “miracle” is commonly considered to be an effect or event without law, or beyond law. But all events in our precisely adjusted universe are lawfully wrought and lawfully explicable. The so-called miraculous powers of a great master are a natural accompaniment to his exact understanding of subtle laws that operate in the inner cosmos of consciousness.
Jane Roberts, said something similar about her experience channeling Seth: “It’s as if I’m practicing some precise psychological art. One that is ancient and poorly understood in our culture.”
But there is a sense in which Eastern masters agree that paranormal events are bullshit. For awakened beings, they are simply not the point. They can even lead people astray. During his forty days in the desert, Jesus is said to have been tempted by the devil, who says something to the effect of, ‘If you’re all that, then jump off this cliff.’ Jesus declines, quoting the Torah, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.” When doubters demand he give them a public sign from heaven, Jesus responds, “Only a wicked… generation demands a sign.” Swami Muktananda reports that his master, our lake-diving friend Nityananda, hit him hard with a stick when he started practicing paranormal “tricks.” Not because they were fake, but because they were fleeting and unhelpful. Paranormal displays and supernatural events can be like an acid trip—not a good idea for the psychologically unprepared. Yes, they can provide dazzling glimpses of human potential or realms beyond our current understanding. But such signs—known in India as siddhes—should be taken as inspiration not to fly off cliffs, but to start our journey on foot, one step at a time. In the literature of Eastern spirituality, one notices the masters walking a line themselves, sometimes performing siddhes in order to instill a sense of the sacred or help someone, and at other times refusing to be a dancing monkey for the masses.
But “performing” siddhes is the wrong word. It’s more as though such acts arise from a master the way perfume arises from a flower. Muktananda writes, “Superficial siddhes acquired by artificial means are worthless, but those that come of their own accord to a great being are beneficial.” The difference is that beneficial siddhes are aligned with something greater. You could even say they are that something greater. And for that matter, so is the yogi. Central to the yogic conception of the universe is its Oneness.
This is where words and concepts fall away. Christians had good reason to struggle with articulating who exactly Jesus was. Just a man? God? A son of God? God and man at the same time? Nityananda would answer, “Yes.” But the West doesn’t know what to do with that answer. We’re used to things being spelled out in explanations and systems of the kind Constantine wanted the bishops to come up with in Nicaea. But even with its official Nicene creed, the Catholic church didn’t really explain anything. The mystery of the Trinity—the Three that are also One—remains. It gestures at something beyond explanation—something that itself contains our very urge to explain or understand.
But Jesus went further with his Oneness than the church was willing to go. In the beautiful, heretical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus fully proclaims his divinity: “Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” But he fully proclaims your divinity too—even if you don’t know it yet: “When you come to know yourselves… you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.” In the words of Nityananda, the most Christlike figure of modern times, “This universe is infinite and it is your own Self. The world is not separate from you and you are not separate from the world… This is devotion, and this is worship. Dwelling right within you is your own Lord.”
If we think of areas on the planet as parts of a human body, we could say Western culture is the brain, and, in the words of Swami Vijayananda, “Spiritually speaking, India is the heart of the entire world.” Non-dogmatic spirituality is much more woven into Indian culture than it is in ours. We could call this kind of spirituality simply a recognition of other realms that are every bit as legitimate as the single physical realm our Western brains acknowledge. Dreams, channeled beings, forest spirits, deities, other levels of consciousness. All cultures, including the pre-modern West, accepted these “other worlds” as a matter of course. Being unfamiliar with these spiritual realms, we tend to do what all humans do when they are unfamiliar with a subject: we cartoonify it. We treat it, that is, as a simplistic thing. Jazz, for example, is an immense jungle of complexity—teeming with beauty and nuance, along with thousands of personalities, stories, and subgenres within subgenres. As a non-fan, though, I just call it a lot of noodling. This is the tendency many otherwise open-minded Westerners take with regard to the paranormal as well as to the thousands of years of spiritual exploration that has gone on India.
But the spiritual world is at least as complicated as jazz. It is not populated, as I once thought, solely by frauds, idiots, and cherubic gurus chanting naïve slogans of peace and love. Because of this complexity, spirituality is not necessarily a realm to be entered lightly or at least without some instruction. “Be as innocent as doves,” Jesus advises his disciples, “but wise as serpents.” There are perhaps as many spiritual traps, pitfalls, hacks, and hucksters as there are earthly ones. Jesus is canny about such “demons.” When you begin meditating, for example, a lot of shit can come up. Jesus seems to be getting at this when he explains in Matthew,
When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it goes through the desert 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 person is worse than the first.
When you scrub a pot, the water usually gets even dirtier before it gets clean. One needs a kind of fierce determination—a serpent wisdom—to see the process through to the final rinsing. And even then, there will be more pots to clean.
But all that pot cleaning does get easier. Yes, Jesus was realistic, but he was also optimistic. He told us that reality is good. That’s the gospel—literally the “good news”—in a nutshell. It is the miracle beyond all miracles. Life, the universe, can be trusted. The sun comes up. Water flows from the faucet. Our hearts pulse quietly on and our cells do a trillion things per second to keep us alive. None of these are of our making. Jesus said look around; everything’s like that. It’s all a gift. “Which one of you,” he asks, “if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?... If you then, who are flawed, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”
Above all, Jesus urges us to trust that father in heaven. He asks us to trust that something bigger—even bigger than Amazon—is delivering the goods. Yes, our participation is required, but not the kind our culture encourages. The participation Jesus teaches is not struggle and work. It is not the frenetic physical effort most of us believe is necessary to make our dreams come true. It’s an invisible participation. Something private. It’s a turning of the mind towards allowing, an internal surrender to something infinitely tender that is also who we already are: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” To counter that this advice is absurd, given all the bad outcomes in the world, is itself a step away from the trust Jesus encouraged. It is a refusal to try practicing Christ’s advice, which is the only way his advice makes sense. Paradoxically, that refusal is also an affirmation of what Christ taught, for it is also a statement of belief. It is to believe that our beliefs don’t matter. And it is to live in a world where that appears to be true.
Nothing I say, though—or indeed, Christ says—will change the mind of someone not sympathetic to my argument, someone who’s just not going to go there. I can only report from my experience just as atheist Richard Dawkins reports from his. No miracles in my life come to mind to dazzle you with. And yet, as I write this, I feel suffused by a kind of glowing, a gratitude, something that borders on bliss, a marveling at my life—where it started and where it is now. Through the guidance of teachers like Jesus, Seth, and others, through the love of friends and family, through the self-examination of journal-writing, and through meditation, I feel myself both radically transformed from what I was, and more fundamentally who I am than ever before. My sense of the richness of nature that I felt as a child has deepened and flowered. My connections to people have grown fuller, more tender. My writing has become more satisfying, as if I am wandering into more rooms in a mansion. Central to that transformation has been the touchstone of trust in the unfolding of a kind of secret order—or a trust that itself creates the order. Central too is the realization that the love I’ve been looking for is the love that wants to come through me.
Jesus taught that the foundation of the universe—the very universe itself—is divine in the best sense of the word. Our birthright is love, joy, and freedom. And the freedom part is no joke. We are so free, we can pretend we aren’t. We are so free, we can hate ourselves and others and accept suffering and frustration as our lot. But those ideas are what Jesus called, not “sin” (a mistranslation of the Greek), but missing the mark. And his answer was not that we “repent,” but that we do what the original Greek word meant: simply change our minds. We can come home, like the prodigal son, to the truth—or what Jesus called, “the Father.”
I bet, though, that he would have called it “the Mother” if he hadn’t already been introducing enough radical spirituality to ancient Palestine. The Mother, after all, is a more apt metaphor for that common ground of being from which we all spring—that wholeness that Jesus insists can be trusted to provide for us and that Eastern wisdom takes as a given. Indeed, it seems to be the metaphor favored by the first—and presumably most natural—people. As far back as 30,000 years before Christ, evidence suggests a primordial goddess was the central deity of human veneration, and goddesses thereafter mixed freely with gods in all cultures across the globe. By the time Jesus was born, though, the Western world was already galloping well on its way towards the cowboy masculinity that reached its zenith with the atom bomb: The one true god of Jesus’s culture was a confirmed bachelor, not only uninterested in a divine wife but actively hostile towards the idea.
But it seems we’ve been missing her lately. Especially since the sixties, our analytical Western brain has more and more felt a yearning to marry the intuitive Eastern heart. Dazzled by our technological toys, our bachelor sensibilities thought we might do just fine without her. Many are discovering, though, that however cleverly we chop up and manipulate the physical world for our convenience, something impossible to define is missing in our souls. Call it wholeness, union with the divine, meaning, deep satisfaction, or just joy—seekers are finding a taste of it in the wisdom traditions of faraway places like India and Tibet. But I don’t think we have to pack our bags to find what we’re looking for. With the right ears, we can hear the same sweet song humming in the wellsprings of our own beautiful, flawed religion.
My most recent book is Wholeness in Pieces: Spiritual Aphorisms for Greater Life.
[*] For more on the ubiquity of supernatural and other perplexing phenomena, see my book, The Science Spell: Essays on Why Science Can Coexist with Spirituality. [†] These are the people that come to mind given who I’ve been exposed to. You can surely add more to the list. [‡] Joan of Arc is an instructive parallel. Joan was a nobody peasant in northeastern France when a vision of St. Michael surrounded by angels inspired her to undertake a three-hundred-mile journey through enemy territory to the royal court. There—astonishingly—she convinced a king to place her at the head of an army. Her subsequent victories turned the tide for France against the occupying English in the Hundred Years War, as Joan transformed “a dry dynastic squabble… into a passionately popular war of national liberation.” [§] The blind-spots and downsides of the technological success of the Western rationalistic outlook are being more and more recognized, in comparison to more wholistic, soulful, feminine-friendly approaches. Many are pointing out that the dominant culture we are so accustomed to is but a small island that is, in the wider human context, WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rational, Democratic. [**] See the essay “Country Bumpkins,” in my book, Of Geometry & Jesus, for more on our limited perception. [††] These particles come mainly from the sun. [‡‡] See the essay, “The Science Fiction,” in my book, The Science Spell, for further exploration of this topic. [§§] See the essay, “Country Bumpkins,” in my book Of Geometry & Jesus, and also The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. [***] They could not be converted to Christianity, nor do they recognize numbers, since no one they know has ever directly experienced Jesus or, say, the number six. [†††] Even in the face of that intellectual skepticism, about 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts and 20 percent claim to have seen one. (See: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/10/28/do-ghosts-exist-41-percent-americans-say-yes/8580577002/) [‡‡‡]See Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. [§§§] This is the first part of what is called The Nicene Creed. [****] Hollywood agrees. Many villains in movies—such as corrupt CIA officials—are willing to kill innocents now in the service of some abstract “greater good” to come. We all sense that the right choice is never to sacrifice the human beings in front of us for some glorious-sounding concept. [††††] The Gospel of Thomas was one of many early Christian writings found in a large jar in Nag-Hammadi, Egypt by two peasant farmers in 1945. [‡‡‡‡] The Greek word used in Matthew 13:12 and again in 25:29 is περισσευθήσεται, which means to “super-abound” or be in excess or superfluous. [§§§§]“Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts we keep thinking” is a phrase often used by Abraham, a wisdom source channeled by Esther Hicks. [*****]See the essay, “What You See Is What You See,” in my book The Science Spell, for more about quantum physics. [†††††] Vijayananda, like Nityananda, has dedicated his life to spirituality, service, and humility. [‡‡‡‡‡] Jesus echoes this idea of a precisely adjusted universe when he tells us that God keeps track of every sparrow and counts the hairs on our heads. [§§§§§] Most English translations use “evil” where I use “flawed,” but I believe my version is closer in spirit to Jesus’s teachings.
. News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduction by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1980, p. 257 . Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Oct. 12, 1813, available at https://tjrs. monticello.org/letter/297 . Matthew 7:29, Gospel: The Book of Matthew, translated by Thomas Moore, Skylight Paths, 2016., p. 41 . See Zealot by Reza Aslan, or Sakari Häkinnen, 2016, Poverty in the first century Galilee, HTS Theological Studies, vol.72 n.4 Pretoria 2016, http:// dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i4.3398. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php? script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400046. . Thucydides 431-411 BC, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.105, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, Available at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0105%3Abook%3D5%3Achapter%3D105 (Accessed Feb. 23, 2021) . Donald Kagan 1998, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (Free Press) p. 96 . Häkinnen, 2016 . See, for example, Samuel 15:3 . Reza Aslan, 2016, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 1822. . Reza Aslan 2016, Location 1865. . Reza Aslan, 2016, Location 3514 . Reza Aslan, 2016, Location 2172. . Reza Aslan, 2016, Location 2487. . See, for example, the Seeking Truth blog available at https:// www. seekingtruth. ph/uncategorized/is-there-any-evidence-for-jesus-miracles-yes-a-whole-darn-lot/ . Reza Aslan, 2016, Location 2723. . Justin Bass, 2020. “What Skeptical Scholars Admit about the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.” ChristianityToday.com. Available at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/april-web-only/justin-bass-bedrock-christianity-resurrection-appearances.html. (Accessed August 7, 2022) . Daniel Everett 2017, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, Audio version, Tantor Audio, Ch. 2, 05:00. . David Tong, “Quantum Fields: The Real Building Blocks of the Universe – with David Tong.” The Royal Institution [Video] Youtube. Feb. 15 2017. 37:10. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNVQfWC_evg. (Accessed Jan. 14, 2021) . Miguel de Unamuno. The Tragic Sense of Life, 1954  (Dover Publications), translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch. Chapter 1. Available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14636/14636-h/14636-h.htm (Accessed Jan. 13, 2021) . Bart Ehrman, 2016, “Who Counts as a Christian,” Available at https:// ehrmanblog. org/who-counts-as-a-christian/ (Accessed August 7, 2022) . Galatians 3:28 . Thomas Cahill 2000, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Random House Audio) [Audiobook] Ch. 4, 25:36 . Mark 14:3-9, Gospel: The Book of Mark, translated by Thomas Moore, Skylight Paths, 2016., p. xxx . https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus . “Yamakavagga: Pairs,” The Dhammapada, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu 1997. Dhammatalks.org. Available at https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Dhp/Ch01.html (Accessed May 23, 2020) . https://isha.sadhguru.org/yoga/  https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,822420,00.html  Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi (Self-Realization Fellowship) (p. 375). Self-Realization Fellowship. Kindle Edition. . Jane Roberts The Magical Approach: Seth Speaks About the Art of Creative Living, Forward by Robert F. Butts [Audiobook Version], (Brilliance Audio, 2019), Introduction: 00:13:38. A Seth book was one of those books that made me feel like a country bumpkin suddenly afforded a dazzling new view. There are many Seth books, some more accessible than others. For those unfamiliar, The Nature of Personal Reality or Seth Speaks may be good starting places.  P. 9