Monday, March 17, 2014


I think we are seeing competent scholars who are sincere believers such as Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg moving to what many admirers of Jesus are prepared for: the realization that sacred text, including most of our New Testament, are primarily symbolic- not literal and historical. As long as we read these materials as presenting a literal history such  familiar words as ' death , burial, resurrection and forgiveness' remain attached to one historical person, the man Jesus of Nazareth.

By Raphael  @ 1500

But when death , burial, resurrection and acceptance are seen as symbols that lie at the base of humanity's common collective unconscious(which contains the whole spiritual/psychological development of humankind similarly as how our physical bodies contain the entire history of our physical evolution) these internal dynamics become potential real life changing experiences for every human everywhere.

We might begin by realizing that 'the Christ' is a collective eternal symbol for something far more than the amazing human Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus the man is a barely provable historic person but 'the Christ' which that human life had appropriately, because of his dazzling spiritual excellence, projected onto it was and is an eternal truth and goal embedded in every human psyche(soul). I should add that only the Christian tradition will call that ultimate symbol Christ but others will contain a God image similar to it. Valuing symbol as the language of religion is what we are moving toward individually and collectively in the development of religion, certainly in the West. Only symbol can carry such a dynamic force of development for the individual or the collective. It has always been this way but we have lost awareness of such symbolic roots, they have become unconscious to our dominant conventional collective points of view.

This situation speaks to us of how the universal power of symbol(the true language of the origins of all authentic religion) is in a different and higher category of language than anything we humans can try to convert into a one time event in history. But this is what popular Christian teaching and emphasis has tragically tried to do for several hundred years. I've noticed how religious dialogue on Facebook is nearly all about interpreting words of texts rather than desiring and  asking how we might more practically  experience of being  influenced by the eternal symbols of truth which  words can only point to. In my strong conservative religious heritage we had public debates where 'your' own man always won. Word splitting and text quoting , especially the words of the Bible, is not using the Bible as a spiritual resource but as a rather  materialistic ego driven one.

The best I can tell from scripture Paul uses highly symbolic language when speaking of 'death, burial and resurrection.' We generally read Paul through our literal interpretation of the gospels which we should not do to get Paul's intended message.  For one thing the gospels themselves are primarily symbolic and also because all of Paul's authentic writings and likely his death  preceded the gospels gospels being written.

Paul's conversion and witness of Jesus is described in Acts as a 'vision' which  no one else even saw though some were present with him. 'Vision' by definition is a symbolic language, as is 'dream', and  neither refers to literal or only once in history events. So all of Paul's witness is based on his being impacted and transformed by symbol. That is just how powerful living symbol is. Paul surely can still say that 'If Christ is not resurrected' he is miserable etc for it would mean the symbol which he was confronted with did not adequately effect his internal being. From the quality of his life it obviously did.
Saul's Conversion

We can miss much if we make too much of supposed history retrieved from ink and paper, however sacred, and too little on eternal living symbol which inspired words are able to point to or describe. Each of us, as Paul, when effected by living symbol 'is indeed in our own time and space' but we are not left to being affected only or primarily by someone else's time-space experience. I hope my reasoning is clear even if it is strikes you as a very different way of 'seeing' these essential realities.

Western culture has been fully trained for about 400 years to view all things materialistically and not spiritually or symbolic. We act as if vision and dream are 'nothing' today even though the scripture plainly describes Paul's whole conversion process as being based on the power of symbol. There are good and necessary reasons we have got ourselves into this blind alley but hopefully we are seeing our way to a fuller appreciation of scripture by realizing its symbolic nature. That is a hope of mine.

Most people when they hear symbol think 'only symbol' as if symbol is an inferior kind of communication or way to understand deepest reality. It is quite the opposite. I will return to the important example of Saul of Tarsus' conversion experience...According to what is said about him in Acts his whole conversion is based on experiencing a 'vision' or a symbol of The Christ-not something or someone historical or material. Let's let scripture speak to us about our topic. All Paul says himself about his encounter with God is that he was 'taken up into the third haven' and told things that he could not and would not repeat. Can anything be more overtly symbolic than such a description? We have dismissed the central meaning of such passages and their importance as to how religious message is originally and uniquely conveyed.

When someone shows me how that Paul's conversion was not fulfilled entirely by symbolic language to him then only can I agree that the whole group of 'gospel' words including 'death, burial, resurrection and ascension' etc were not themselves once the living symbolic language by which Christianity was given birth. To hold 'death , burial and resurrection' hostage to a one time place in history event rather than something that lives always in the human psyche, awaiting to become conscious, is a loss beyond measure.

I think and hope we are on the cusp of breaking out of that very materialistic way of limiting how the ultimate God gets known most fully in the hearts and minds of humans. I'm very aware of how different this sounds to many of my friends and acquaintances but different is not always less or inaccurate, and sometimes is extremely redeeming. This is how I have come to see our religious texts over the last three decades. They are not generally seeking to relate historical 'one time' only verbal information but something that is too deep and profound for such words. Symbolic language is able to do that and has done so forever. Symbol both ancient and present is the language of the soul, dream and vision.

I bet Moses would have something to say today about the 'burning bush' we so repetitiously figure was a literal event outside of him rather than a living symbol that changed his life from within. And we can go right through the Bible with this transformed symbolic awareness... from our materialistic bias for everything that is 'real' to an awareness of the transforming power of symbol that 'comes ' to the human soul /mind.

Let me stress I do not resent at all anyone who does not share this changed understanding of approaching Sacred text. But I share these thoughts in earnest for anyone's careful consideration, especially those interested in the messages of the Bible and in how we humans connect with God. I cannot  speak with or  for such Bible scholars as Spong and Borg but I think what I am describing fits with how the changes they confess from their first literal/historical  understanding of Bible themes can more consistently be explained and more easily come alive in any of us today. And I know this is the case in my own developmental process.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

SERMON: TRANSFIGURATION... WHAT CAN WE SAY? Matthew 17:1-9 March 2, 2014

What can we say? Perhaps it's best to close ones eyes and simply be open to the impact and mystery such a dazzling image can deliver from out of the ancient past. Here Matthew does not just use reasoned words of persuasion that Jesus shines brighter than Moses and other past Heroes, but he ventures into an imaginative style and creates a strong mesmerizing image- a dazzling Jesus with the ghosts of Moses and Elijah. The author creates a scene where the disciples have what can be called a numinous experience of Jesus. This is Matthew's effort to put in words what is completely beyond words or reasoned explanation. Numinous refers to the dazzling, fearful , joyful and overwhelming sense of the presence of the 'utterly other' or what has always been called God.

Transfiguration   1824 CE.
Numinous experience has always been the foundation of every living religious heritage. But 21st century persons influenced by science and our trusted use of strong reasoning skills may leave little way remaining to take the transfiguration story seriously. It easily becomes a yearly read story at church which we think must be thoroughly 'made up' with no real experience behind it. Or we go the other extreme and say. 'It happened literally just as it says'        ( Some might even claim if a video camera had been there it would have recorded both the images and the sounds just as we read them. But embarrassingly those taking it so literally would likely hesitate to report having had or expecting to ever have such an encounter with the Holy themselves. Such a claim destructively splits off Biblical times as if it were a different world than where we live now.And in the process splits our human  head from our heart.)

Yet I remain convinced there are ways by which modern folks can find it comprehensible that there is real life changing human experience, inner if not outer, being spoken of in this story and many others like it. The kind of experience which leads one, without claiming a 'split world' supernaturalism,   to ' know' they have been in the presence of that which is beyond our materialized world. I choose to refresh your awareness today that such dazzling numinous experiences have been handed down from all cultures by all kinds of people throughout human history. I offer these for you to mull over, consider their meaning and how you might also be strangely moved by such images. I'll read several of these.

On the face these are reported as if they are literal happenings in the real tangible outer world. Yet they also always include a misty, uncanny, foggy, ghostly atmosphere. And they involve a holy fear as well as an indescribable joy and often invest the observer with a grand inclusive love for others and the whole creation. These examples come from among the highest functioning people of their times. Don't we need such numinous experienced people today?

Moses : Exodus 24: 15-18 Notice Moses' encounter with the Sacred is pictured as something going beyond any straight forward command-obey relationship between human and God for it so convinces Moses of a Sacred reality that he naturally seeks harmony with the source of such a vision. The question of belief becomes moot after such an encounter. One senses this kind of powerful motivation for living in such numinous experiences. Is this not greatly needed in our day?
Transfiguation  12th Century CE

Disciples with Jesus. Matthew 17: 1-9 Clearly, Matthew is taking the Moses story as a model and saying that Jesus' connection with God was confirmed by a similar but even brighter event. Even the exalted dead approve. So mesmerizing that the disciples fall down in fear. I have no question that persons present with the human Jesus, as they meditated on their times with him and grieved his death found themselves having dreams and visions of the numinous Holy being fully present in Jesus. Also it is reasonable to ask if the author of this story , as he contemplated his inherited Moses story, found himself drawn into a state of ecstasy and revelation as these word images flowed from him. So the inspired writer has his own numinous experience. Just because something is not in the literal physical world but in a human's inner world takes nothing of the reality and authority from it if one has a broad and solid enough view of reality to begin with.

Falling in Love: The fairly common experience of 'falling in love' should I think be taken as a strong sense of Sacred experience. Charlie Chaplin, like millions of others, writes ' Why are me feet so light? Why are the stars so bright? Why is the sky so blue? ..from the hour I met you?.. The world cannot be wrong if in this world there's you.” Such out of the ordinary ecstatic experience by so many probably says much more about a God of love in our hearts than it does about the beloved partner.

Dante's poetic experiences in Divine Comedy.(13th century)

Other personal reports of ecstatic experience by famous and ordinary people from Marcus Borg's book ' The God We Never Knew”

Dear God of all that is and can be. Grant us an open heart and mind which can at moments catch a strong sense of your glory that was impressed upon those who walked with Jesus. Amen