A Sunday Sermon from a Local Pagan
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
The historical Jesus Christ of Nazareth was a rabbi and a radical social activist. He was a flawed being like the rest of us. He sat among and listened to the teachers in Jerusalem and taught through parables, of the kingdom of a divine god, but he himself was mortal. He asked followers to love their enemies, love their neighbours as they love themselves. Yet there was nothing either meek or mild in his rebuke of the Pharisees or Sadducees, his brazenly consorting and supping with prostitutes, his throwing out temple money-changers, his criticism of the great socioeconomic injustices going on around him, his emphasis on the need for equality and justice, that the rich must be brought down, and the poor raised up, his reaching out to the abandoned and castigated, against prevailing customs, prejudice and tradition.
Christ understood what he was up against—that ‘the children of light are nowhere near as shrewd in doing good as the children of darkness are in doing evil.’ He was not merely a religious threat to other sects but a political threat to the great powers of the time. His teachings have carried through to today in the activist churches during civil rights protests and BLM. His activism has encouraged many to realize that human beings have the capacity to do the impossible. But as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us “that part of Christ’s nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it were our own.” In the hearts of many (myself included) he was a rabble-rousing social justice activist whose love for the powerless and oppressed was made concrete in his defiance of the powerful who despise the poor and profit from the misery of humanity.
As strange as it may sound, whether Jesus Christ ever actually walked the earth as a flesh and blood man (or woman!), as dark-skinned or light-skinned is not really that important in the context of what I said above. What is crucial is that we can be enlightened, transformed and inspired by his words of love for the downtrodden and his passion for justice. It is true to say that there is little archaeological or other physical evidence for Christ's actual existence as a person. Then again, there is great academic controversy over whether the historical Socrates as depicted by Plato existed, or whether Buddha was really a person, or whether Shakespeare wrote all those plays! What is important, in the end, is whether these latter ‘persons’ and texts can still speak to us in a meaningful way; whether they still have the capacity to inspire us to strive towards a more loving, just and caring world.
As for the rest, as for the institution of the church, as for the miracles, the resurrection, the virgin birth, a transcendent omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good God in heaven—well, these are all very comforting and consoling—but they are beliefs that do not tolerate doubt, and stand over and above human experience, being and knowing. There are, indeed, many sophisticated, esoteric theological-eschatological arguments that attempt to make such beliefs appear meaningful, albeit not terribly plausible: God as transcendent, God as immanent; immanence and transcendence as mutually determinative; God as comprehensible through reason; God as incomprehensible to human reason.
If Kierkegaard is right, the institution of religion, the taken for granted beliefs, the doctrines and arguments you hold up as ‘proof’ of God’s existence, are all of less importance than what sort of life you live. Faith was, for Kierkegaard, in its own sphere—a domain to which you either assent to absolutely, or just say ‘no’ to. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son. He had no rational proof that God spoke to him but said ‘yes’ absolutely: “During the time before the result, either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stand before a paradox that is higher than all mediation. The story of Abraham contains, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical. As the single individual he became higher than the universal. This is the paradox, which cannot be mediated. How he entered into it is just as inexplicable as how he remains in it. Faith is a marvel, and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that which unites all human life is passion, and faith is a passion.” (Fear and Trembling).
But if Kierkegaardian faith is the teleological suspension of the ethical, if it demands I kill the child which I love in the name of a God I have neither known nor experienced, then I shall say ‘NO’, absolutely, to such faith. When I see the pain, suffering and misery in this world, my faith that love, in the end, is more powerful and can triumph over evil and hatred, might indeed qualify as a suspension of the empirical, and even of the rational—but a suspension of the ethical? By no means! It is, instead, the essence of the ethical, at the heart of human, moral being-in-the-world, with and among others. There will be those who say you cannot have the one without the other—absolute faith in the transcendent Judeo-Christian God and an ethical comportment based on love are inextricably woven together.
I say that 2000 years of Church history teaches otherwise—in the religious wars, the violent imposition of Christianity on indigenous peoples, residential schools, the belief in the dominion of humans over nature that led to a de-valuing and exploitation of the natural world. The message of love for others and shepherding of the earth is realized not through, but despite Judeo-Christian history and the institution of the church—indeed those who preach a gospel of love and care for the earth, for social, economic, racial and gender justice are more likely to be seen as pagans and heretics than the zealously faithful.
In the end there is much wisdom and beauty in biblical parables. But the bible is also a text filled with homophobia, xenophobia, racism and violence. It is a text like all great religious texts—the Koran, the The Tipitaka, the Bhagavad Gita, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Quran and The Hadiths, The Tanakh and The Talmud, The Dao De Jing—which are historically, linguistically and culturally situated. These great works are filled with profundity, with wisdom, rich in symbolism and abundant in prejudice. They cannot be read literally, but must be read closely and critically so that we may derive from them both ethical enrichment and activist inspiration. Like all great texts we can choose to live by their best teachings, without at the same time, acceding to the prejudices of the times in which they were composed.
I also think the earth-bound stories, metaphors and wisdom of Indigenous peoples around the world are, in our present day, even more crucial. They tell us that we simply cannot continue to treat the world as a mere thing for human pleasure or individual profit, but must begin to see it as a beautiful and fragile being, the very condition of possibility for all living things—something to be revered, cared for and protected, for the sake of all those to come.
In our present time of plague and looming climate catastrophe it is not Judeo-Christianity, nor any of the other ‘big’ religions that inspire me. Rather it is the metaphors, the allegories and the stories of our indigenous brothers and sisters which captures reality on the ground. They speak not of a transcendent god, but tell of an earth thinks, has eyes, listens, speaks; they teach that to live well is to honour, respect, protect and sustain our beautiful mother earth, to resist the path of greed, egocentrism, individualism, hatred and racism, to come together as a caring community, to build a new world that begins in social justice and reciprocity.
“From the realms of the human world, the sky dwellers, the water beings, forest creatures and all other forms of life, the beautiful Mother Earth gives birth to, nurtures and sustains all life. Mother Earth provides us with our food and clean water sources. She bestows us with materials for our homes, clothes and tools. She provides all life with raw materials for our industry, ingenuity and progress. She is the basis of who we are as “real human beings” that include our languages, our cultures, our knowledge and wisdom to know how to conduct ourselves in a good way. If we listen from the place of connection to the Spirit That Lives in All Things, Mother Earth teaches what we need to know to take care of her and all her children. All are provided by our mother, the Earth.” (Assembly of First Nations)