What a strange contradictory world we live in. Or perhaps it might be more pertinent to say what strange contradictory beings we are!
We live in troubled times. There is armed conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East. The state pf our economy is parlous and many Australians are facing real cost of living pressures. Our government has fallen for the contrived disaster conjured up by the climate catastrophists and their ill-informed response is leading us to energy issues befitting a third world country. Then on top of that we are having to endure natural disasters like cyclones, bushfires and floods. This is hardly the context to underpin a merry Christmas.
Yet wherever I go I see smiling faces and am greeted cheerily. There is something about Christmas that enables most of us to temporarily put aside our worldly cares.
Perhaps the explanation is a simple (perhaps cynical) one. We are distracted by the Christmas festivities, the celebration, feasting, drinking, exchanges of presents and so on. Perhaps our nostalgic memories of childhood are stirred by the sight of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Like poor old Scrooge the memories of Christmas past remind us of joyful experiences. Maybe these pleasant distractions take our minds off our current woes.
Or maybe for those brought up in the Christian tradition, it re-energises spiritual connections. The Christmas myth brings to them understandable solace. They take comfort from the fact that a loving God, so they are taught, sacrificed his own son so that they might be forgiven their sins and thus attain eternal life. (This has always seemed to me a convoluted way of bestowing forgiveness on humankind for someone who is reputedly omnipotent)
Now you would probably appreciate from my past essays that I am not a Christian believer. Nevertheless I would contend that modern Western society owes a huge debt to Christianity. Although the roots of our democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, our culture has been shaped by Christianity. The works of the Renaissance artists, the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins m the glorious music of J S Bach and so much more have been inspired by Christianity.
It is perfectly understandable for Christian believers to conclude that the feelings of goodwill that emerge at this time of the year are due to the religious significance of this time when the birth of Jesus is celebrated. They feel vindicated by their faith and share the fellowship of like believers.
And I would have to admit that Christmas is a rather pleasant time even for a disgruntled, old reactionary like me. Despite not being a Christian, the Christmas story can still bring a lump to the throat and the songs and carols from my childhood fill me with pleasant nostalgia. The only downside is having to listen to blokes in skirts with dubious authority moralizing and to have a foolish new monarch make a banal speech being presumptuous enough to lecture us on morality and our impending doom because of global warming.
Anyhow you all know how the story goes. God so loved us that he sent his Son to live with us in human form to die for us with the object of saving us all from sin. The Christmas story concerns the birth of Jesus to fulfil that obligation.
For 2000 years the West has been dominated by the idea that Christianity is sacred and unique. The various forms of paganism that flourished prior to Christianity have come to be despised, in contrast, as superstitious, idol worship.
Most of us have little knowledge of the pagan religions beyond perhaps the Greek myths we learnt at school. We have been persuaded by the early Christians, who were trying desperately to gain a footing for their new religion that the beliefs of their pagan competitors were at the best primitive or at the worst inspired by Satan. In trying to differentiate themselves from the pagans, they highlighted their differences and brushed over their similarities.
Yet the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, pointed out that underlying all the mythologies, Christianity included, was “the same anatomy”. In many belief systems there is the story of God who becomes man and who subsequently dies but is resurrected. (Does this sound familiar?). In Greece it was Dionysus, in Italy Bacchus, in Egypt Osiris, in Asia Minor Attis, in Persia Mithras. In their writings about such matters the classical scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy refer to the mythical godman using the combined name “Osiris-Dionysus”.
History tells us the Greek, Herodotus, sometimes called “the father of history”, journeyed to Egypt some five hundred years before the birth of Christ. Here, on the shore of a lake on the Nile he witnessed a huge ceremony celebrating what he termed “the passion of Osiris”. Sometime later, Pythagoras spent 22 years in the temples of Egypt becoming an initiate. After his return to Greece, his disciples inspired by Pythagoras’s Egyptian experience, transformed a minor God, Dionysus, to the equivalence of Osiris with a similar mythology of miracle birth, death and resurrection.
So the story of a God who became man and so on was quite prevalent in the Middle East by the purported time of Jesus.
Let us return to the Christmas story. The pagan godman in many instances also experienced a virgin birth, just as the Jesus myth portrays. Attis’s mother is the virgin Cybele. Adonis’s mother is also a virgin, Myrrh (an interesting name that occurs in another context in the Christmas story). Dionysus’s mother is the virgin Semele.
The early Roman Catholic Church was quick to distance itself from these pagan connections. However, it is striking that the Christian apologist, Justin Martyr who lived only a century after the assumed death of Christ wrote,
In saying that the Word was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, we introduce nothing beyond what was said of those called the Sons of Zeus.
It is interesting too, that neither the Gospels of Mark nor Paul refers to the virgin birth. Paul writes that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” which hardly sounds miraculous at all. Nor indeed does the Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas (discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and thought to predate most of the New Testament Gospels) mention a virgin birth. And John seems to have dismissed the virgin birth story and on two occasions in his Gospel refers to Jesus as the “son of Joseph”.
Some biblical scholars speculate that as Christianity came to dominate in some of the areas where paganism previously prevailed, it usurped some of the elements of the pagan mythology to facilitate the attraction of pagan converts.
The conventional myth has Jesus being born in a stable. However in the gospels the Greek word translated as stable is katalemna which according to Freke and Gandy can alternatively be translated as temporary shelter, or cave. In mythology the cave often represents the womb of mother earth. Dionysus and Mithras were both purported to have been born in caves.
Some of the mythical godmen were believed to have been born on either January 6 or December 25. Indeed early Christians argued over whether Jesus’ birthday was one or the other. Whatever the date it seems quite likely that it was chosen to be the day of the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, which signals the turning point of the year and the returning of the life-giving sun. Due to the precession of the equinoxes this date has changed over the centuries from January 6, through to December 25 and now to December 22. The winter solstice was the time of a number of pagan feasts and it is likely, as in many of the other aspects of the Christmas story, Jesus’ birthday was also stolen from pagan tradition.
Now it would seem that the early Christians appropriated pagan mythology for their own use iin formulating a new religion.
The ancient Greeks taught us that there were two tools we could use to understand the world, viz Mythos and Logos. Mythos is an indirect method involving the use of parables, stories, metaphors and analogies to uncover the truth. Logos is the direct approach using logic and reason to rationally construct a picture of the truth. Unfortunately these two approaches have been misunderstood largely resulting in Mythos being discounted and Logos dominating our thought processes in the modern world.
Today we use the word “myth” in a derogatory way. When we call something a “myth” it is synonymous with calling it a lie, a falsehood –indeed something misleading. But in the classical sense a myth is not meant to be believed in a literal sense but is a device for revealing the truth in an indirect way.
In Buddhism it is written:
The Blessed One thought,.
“I have taught the Truth,
But simple as it is, the people cannot understand it.
Therefore I will tell them stories.”
I have written many times that it seems to me that the essential truths of Humankind are largely taught through the medium of parables and metaphors. This seems true in almost every culture. In Western literature of course many of our so-called “fairy tales” have embedded in them deeper meanings. Most of you are familiar also with Aesop’s Fables, and the Tales of the Arabian Nights which are stories with lessons and hidden meanings. Then there are the parables associated with various religious traditions, such as the parables of Jesus and the Sufi stories about Nasruddin. All these have underlying tuition and themes that are instructive to us. Indeed Jesus is purported to have said
I will open my mouth in parables. I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. (Matt. 13:35)
Most of these stories are part of long oral traditions. Before the advent of printing, the accumulated wisdom of societies was passed on this way.
Stanford University’s Robert Ornstein (psychologist, researcher and writer) writes:
The aim, of course, in esoteric tradition is to receive unfamiliar information. Teaching stories purposely contain certain especially chosen patterns of events.
He maintains that the repeated hearing of the story allows these patterns to be reinforced in the mind of the person hearing them. Since many of the events are improbable and unusual, repeated hearing of the story begins to create new constructs and conditions the mind to be more receptive to unusual and sometimes seemingly illogical ideas. (One might conjecture that this oral tradition helps establish what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”.)
Then there are the allegorical writings in more modern times of authors such as Jonathan Swift, Cervantes, C S Lewis and H G Wells. They created improbable, metaphorical devices to uncover truths about the human condition. The genius of their art is that they attract readers who would be repulsed by having to read a moralistic treatise that put these truths directly to the reader.
As I wrote in a previous blog sometimes the truth can’t be approached directly. In seeking to teach in this way we are trying to engage something other than the intellect. If this was not so we could propagate the message by just saying, “Be kind. Beware of Hubris. Don’t let an exaggerated sense of self distort your view of the world. Don’t pin your hopes for happiness on the acquisition of material wealth. ….” Or whatever.
Because exhortations to reform our moral stature are seldom effective, these storytellers use strange tales and improbable stories to inveigle us to reexamine our motives and habits. We might ask how does such a device work?
I would conjecture that this strategy allows us to receive unfamiliar and often confronting information that traditional communication techniques would not allow. We are encouraged to suspend normal belief structures when we read or, perhaps even more importantly, listen to such stories. The stories take the mind along unfamiliar and non-linear paths. It is then not necessary to “understand” the stories in the usual intellectual and rational mode.
The tension between these two ways of knowing (Logos and Mythos) was very much present in the early days of Christianity.
In the formative decades of Christianity the traditional propagators of the faith were literalists who insisted that the gospels revealed the literal truth about the life of Jesus.
But another movement arose whose adherents were opposed to this notion and maintained that the gospels were parables designed to lead us to a higher truth. These were the Gnostics.
The two different approaches could be categorised in this way.
- Blindly accept religious dogma
- Believe that the gospels are literally true
- Desire a fixed canon of scripture which is true for all time
- Want us to believe what they believe in order for us to join their cult
- Believe their religion is the only way to the truth and consider all other beliefs to be in diabolical error
- Believe that the important thing is to “wake up” and experience Gnosis for ourselves
- Interpret their teachings as signposts pointing to the experience of awakening
- Use symbolic parables as an aid to “waking up”
- Understand that all books contain the words of men (see below).
- Want us to think for ourselves (knowing this is the only way to experience personal Gnosis)
Most of the horrors associated with religion can be attributed to those that hold the Literalist point of view. These evils have not occurred because the perpetrators were bad people, but because they were in the thrall of some very bad ideas. This aberration is not solely a Christian one, of course, but can also be found in Islam, Judaism and elsewhere. It is not hard to connect the false notion of Literalism with the atrocities we are currently seeing propagated by fundamentalist Islam. And indeed it has been Literalism of various religious varieties that has resulted in supposedly divinely sanctioned violence over the centuries throughout much of the world.
Fundamentalism manifests itself in many different ways but irrespective of its religious background it can be reduced to one very simple, flawed idea viz. that sacred scripture is the infallible word of God. This results from a very simplistic way of circular thinking. The Fundamentalist holding his religious tome declares, “Everything in this book is literally true.” And when challenged how he might support such a dogmatic statement, he replies “Because it says so in the book!”
As Freke and Gandy write:
No sooner than humans begun writing than God Himself started publishing. Literalism’s big idea was born. God writes books. He might occasionally use a secretary, such as Moses or Muhammad, but nonetheless he likes to communicate with his subjects via the written word. A new genre called ‘sacred scriptures’ was created. Sacred scriptures are special and off-limits to the kind of criticism that might be applied to any other pieces of literature.
Now all that was well and good when countries and religions were insular and parochial. But it caused great problems once the peoples of the world became more mobile and inquisitive. Wherever one culture rubbed up against another it soon became apparent that there were many competing belief traditions. This meant that people began encountering different sacred scriptures attributed to many gods saying different things. By definition only one of these religions can be true – but which one? Well the most common answer was of course, “The one I belong to!”
There are many instances in history (and unfortunately even in current times) where the Literalists, not wanting to have their preferred version of sacred scripture challenged, have suppressed or destroyed competing texts. It is a sign of their own vulnerability of belief that the Literalists are not prepared to confront opposing ideas. One of the cleverest strategies designed to avoid having their core ideas challenged was adopted by the Catholic Church which persisted in delivering the scriptures in Latin so that their inconsistencies would not be challenged by the laity.
These so-called ‘sacred scriptures’ have held us in their thrall too long. They are dangerous documents and those Fundamentalists that hold them as the inerrant word of God are just engaging in another form of idolatry.
Now then, as we saw, the Gnostics believed that the truth did not reside in holy scriptures but these were tools guiding us to experience Gnosis. Unfortunately the Literalists took such scriptures as the literal truth. (This is another manifestation of the Buddhist admonition: When the sage points to the moon the fool sees the finger!)
The good Dr Phil drew my attention to a quote from the American Theosophist and author, Alvin Boyd Kuhn who wrote in his monumental work, The Lost Light:
Little could the ancient mythologists and sages have foreseen that the “fabulous narrations” which their genius devised to cloak high truth would end by plaguing the mind of the Western world with sixteen centuries of unconscionable stultification. They could not possibly imagine that their allegorical constructions to dramatize spiritual truth would so miscarry from their hidden intent as to cast the mental life of half the world for ages under the cloud of the most grotesque superstition known to history. Nor could they have dreamed that the gross blindness and obtuseness of later epochs would cite these same marvellously ingenious portrayals as the evidence of childish crudity on the part of their formulators. Who could have suspected that a body of the most signal instrumentalities for conveying and preserving deep knowledge ever devised by man would become the means of centuries of mental enslavement?
That is a fine summary of the long march from Gnosis to Literalism.
You might wonder what is the nature of this Gnosis? By it’s very nature Gnosis can’t be described – it must be experienced. (Remember that Lao Tsu told us, “The Tao that can be described is not the true Tao”.)
In my reading I have come across a few writers that seemed to hae experienced Gnosis. Let me share some of these with you, not to somehow define Gnosis but to guide you to your own experience.
Let me share with you a passage from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Memoirs:
A kind of waking trance I have frequently had, quite up from my boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has generally come upon me through repeating my own name three or four times to myself silently, til all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was almost a laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.
It seems an extraordinary thing that a man might experience such a revelation. It turns out that such experiences mightn’t be as rare as you think. Let me share with you a little known poem, Vacillation, by William Butler Yeats, the Anglo-Irish poet and dramatist.
My fiftieth year had come and gone
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
As I intimated, experiences such as those shared by Tennyson and Yeats are not as unusual as one might think. The Oliver Hardy Research Centre in Oxford recorded hundreds of such accounts. In case you think that such experiences are confined to poets, here is another from an ordinary commuter, quoted by neuroscientist, Guy Claxton, from his book Voices from the Dark Room.
Vauxhall station on a murky Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God! The third class compartment was full. I cannot remember any particular thought processes which might have led up to the great moment. For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up in some tremendous being with a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. In a few moments the glory had departed – all but one curious lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment. I seemed to sense the golden worth in them all.
The Vedantic teachings of the early Hindus might help us make sense of this.. Vedanta is based on two simple propositions:
1. Human nature is divine.
2. The aim of human life is to realize that human nature is divine.
Such a teaching is far removed from the concept of “original sin” which forms the platform for the Abrahamic religions with all the trappings of guilt that come with it.
In essence it is a similar message to that propagated by the Jesuit, Anthony de Mello. In his fine little book Awareness, de Mello wrote,
Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.
In that sense spirituality is the most practical thing in the whole wide world. I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship but spirituality – waking up, waking up!
Just like the teachings of Vedanta, de Mello is urging us to wake up to our own inherent divinity.
Ken Wilber, American theorist and writer on transpersonal psychology, puts it this way:
There are only two general stances you can have in relation to the Divine Ground: since all things are one with Ground, you can either be aware of that oneness or you can be unaware of that oneness. That is you can be conscious or unconscious of your union with the Divine Ground: those are the only two choices you have..
So there you have it. Whilst I can’t believe in the existence of a historical Jesus I can believe in the Ground of Being; I can believe in Consciousness; I can believe that at our spiritual depth, you and I share in this Divine Essence and that our separation, as Einstein commented, is an illusion. Our path back to unity is the Hero’s Journey; the story of the prodigal son, the fading of Atman into Brahman – and of course, the realisation of the Christmas myth.
The polymath, theologian, Albert Schweitzer, wrote:
There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forth publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven on earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another.
Now for the Literalists the demise of the historical Jesus might seem a great disaster. This challenges the very foundation of their religious beliefs. But to those who understand the essential truth in the Christmas myth, it does not rely on historical validation. The myth perpetuates and sustains an eternal spiritual truth that was never supposed to be dependent on the existence of a special historical figure.
The great English historian, Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History wrote:
Behind the figure of the dying demigod there looms the greater figure of a very God that dies for different worlds under diverse names – for a Minoan world as Dionysus, for a Sumeric world as Tammuz, for a Hittite world as Attis, for a Syriac world as Adonis, for a Christian world as Christ. Who is this God of many epiphanies but only one passion!
When we properly understand the Christmas myth, Jesus is not an historical figure but an analogy for Everyman. Just as in this myth he purported to be the “Son of God”, part of the divine is hidden in all of us. Reidentifying with this divinity and coming to the realisation that in this respect we are “All as One” seems to be the purpose of this spiritual journey we have all embarked on.
The pagan philosopher Sallustius commenting on the myth of the Mystery godman Attis (the Hittite version of Jesus) wrote:
The story of Attis represents an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event in the past. As the story is intimately related to to the ordered universe, we reproduce it ritually to gain order in ourselves. We, like Attis, have fallen from heaven; we die mystically with him and are reborn as infants.
Similarly the story of Jesus is not a description of historical events. It is a myth –but as I have suggested earlier that does not mean that it should be discounted. Many of our most important truths are conveyed via Mythos. Relating Jesus to historical events mires us in Literalist dogma. But everything changes when we view the sacred Myth as an allegorical teaching device as did the Gnostics. Understanding the fabulous revelations of this subtle teaching technique opens us up to Gnosis and hopefully to be able to discern some eternal truths about our spirituality.
And then, perhaps, the feelings of goodwill and kindness that seem to permeate our society at the time of Christmas might be pervasive all year round!