Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Tao of Jesus: A Spiritual Analysis of the Gospel of John

"There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao. It flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things." --Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


The Word

Heinrich Zimmer said (as Joseph Campbell was so fond of quoting) that the best truths can't be spoken and the second-best are misunderstood. This quotation sums up my spiritual analysis of the Gospel of John (and I'm afraid this is going to be one of those essays in which the thesis is stated over and over again with different examples). The Tao is the name for the former (can't be spoken, beyond all words) and Jesus' words are the latter (misunderstood, attempting to express inexpressible through metaphorical words and actions).

To explain what I mean, I'd like to walk us through the book of John, the most spiritual of the gospels, beginning with its cryptic opening:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

You can see already that we're dealing with concepts that are difficult to explain with words. It is no accident that the word Word (sometimes translated as Logos) is used, as both a proper name and a concept, attempting to explain what Jesus is, re-writing (or at least clarifying) Genesis to declare that "in the beginning" Jesus created the world and was apparently the subject of "Let there be light." And lest we begin thinking that these things are physical (and how can they be, since the Word is described both as being "with God" but also God himself?), John writes that those who accept the Word/God become "children of God, who were born, not of blood... but of God." So we're not talking about bodies. We're not talking about "the world" as a planet. We're talking about the inner life, otherwise known as the spiritual life.

On the other hand, John is constantly blending these spiritual words with things that are "worldly" indeed. Jesus Christ is a specific, presumably historical human in this book, and -- throughout -- Jesus can't seem to decide if he's a full-blown Taoist guru attempting to explain the unexplainable or if he's a reformer of Judaism, beholden to those traditions while desiring to make them less dogmatic and more spiritual ("The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ"), even if it requires him engineering his own literal and metaphorical death.

The schizophrenia of this book might be due, in part, to the retro-fitting of the more established Christian religion (this book wasn't finished until about 100 years after Jesus lived, and of course everything was gathered second-hand, at best) into what may have once been a more pure Toaist-like (or at least Eastern or mystical) teaching, one in which "God" is not an actual entity but only a symbol of the transcendent, a name to help us experience things we can't understand. But, tempting as it is to use this to explain the inconsistencies in Jesus' teaching (Western vs. Eastern, legal vs. mystical), I have to admit that Jesus seemed to have his feet in both worlds: the spiritual and the literal/physical/historical. So I will tackle both as they occur.

If you want to see what a pure version of Taoist teaching looks like, look at the first chapter of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching: "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things. Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding."

Note the similarities but also the contrasts between this and the opening of John. "God" may be a good simile for the Tao, but John claims that the Word/Jesus is God, something named, something that "can be told." And while Lao Tzu says that darkness within darkness is the gateway to all understanding, John says that the Word defeats this darkness by being the light. One offers truth only through a passive uncertainty, while the other offers truth through a rather specific entity. One thing is agreed upon by the two sources, however, which is that the Word did create everything, since "naming is the origin of all particular things." Before the Word, there was the Tao (a name for the unnamable), and nothing but it, but through the Word came everything else.


John the Baptist said that he baptized with water in order to let the Messiah reveal himself to Israel, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In this situation, the water is used as a transition metaphor, a metaphor that clarifies an even deeper metaphor. The water is a symbol of a rebirth (your mother's water breaks and you are born) and it helps the baptized one transition into the difficult-to-comprehend metaphor of being baptized with the Holy Spirit. The latter is an impossible thing to visualize (unless you're willing to picture it as a dove landing on you), but to be baptized with water can be both visualized and enacted. So the material ritual, being dunked in the River Jordan by John, awakens the body to a future spiritual baptism, an ineffable one.

Do understand: the water baptism is an actual, physical act, but its purpose is to prepare the way for something that is not physical at all. The River Jordan could have just as easily been a swimming pool or a fish tank. It could have been something other than water, and the metaphor could have been something other than childbirth. John the Baptist, for example, may have chosen to have his disciples wriggle their way through a low and narrow cave in order to put them in a spiritual state. (Try it to see what effect it has on you.) He could have had them hold their breath until they passed out and were re-awakened. The specific metaphor is not as important as the end result, which is to train the body to accept things beyond the body.

New Names

At this point, Jesus begins collecting disciples and renames Simon as "Peter," which means "rock." So he's giving out symbolic names (as Yahweh did before him), but also continuing the rebirth imagery. Everything old has to pass away in order to get his disciples thinking in a brand new way (though, as you'll see, getting them there isn't as easy as performing these symbolic tricks).

The Son of God

John the Baptist and the disciples recognize Jesus as (and call him) "the Lamb of God" or "the Son of God." Everyone knows that "Lamb of God" is a symbolic name (since Jesus was a human, not an animal), but the "Son of God" description is often taken literally, at least more literally than "Lamb of God." I'm not saying that believers think that God has a penis, but maybe they do. (Ask a Christian if it makes a difference if you call God the Heavenly Mother and see what answer you get.) Later we will see that everyone can become sons of God, just as everyone in Buddhism can become Buddhas, not only Siddhartha Gautama.


Water Into Wine

The first miracle, Jesus changing water into wine, is reported as a story that actually happened, not Jesus speaking metaphorically. As readers, we are meant to believe that the transition was an historical fact. Nevertheless, there is still a spiritual meaning behind the act, and -- again -- it is one of renewal. The parallel to John the Baptist vs. Jesus repeats. Water (John) and wine (Jesus): wine being not just something that sustains life, but that enhances it. Wine also intoxicates, alters consciousness, which is what Jesus is attempting throughout the book. The book uses this miracle as a "sign" to get his disciples to believe in his power, but the spiritual significance is more relevant for a reader seeking transcendence than the magic trick performed.

Cleansing the Temple

Religions usually begin as life philosophies or metaphorical ways of explaining mysteries of nature and humanity, but after a few generations they quickly devolve into literalized dogma that can then be exploited to make money for those in charge. The old practice of paying a priest money so that he will pray your loved one out of Hell is a good example of this. Hell might have originally been thought of as an inner condition, but once it gets connected to a literal, physical place (the "underworld" of old), and once rules are standardized for how to get thrown into it or avoid it, priests and other opportunists can cash in. This is what was happening in the temple in Jerusalem where Jesus found animal sacrifices being sold, and this is why Jesus becomes so angry, drives the animals out with whips, and destroys the money tables.

Jesus seems to be angry about a few things. One is that the idea of sacrifice has lost all symbolic meaning. Sacrificial birds or cattle are bought easily by a consumer and make a quick buck for the seller. Where, really, is the sacrifice? This is like paying someone else to give something up for you for lent.

He is also upset that the temple is no longer "holy." I don't mean anything supernatural or magical by that word: just "set apart." You can be a consumer anywhere, all day long, but holy places are set aside to escape those things. (Think of a quiet, stained-glass cathedral or maybe a little bench in a forest glade.) So when temples or churches are used to conduct business as usual, when they become strip malls, what's the point of them? No doubt people seeking holiness feel like destroying Christian bookstores (and churches) that sell T-shirts parodying (I think this must be the proper word) brand name slogans and logos like "Got Jesus?" instead of "Got Milk?" or "HisWay" for Subway Sandwiches or (my favorite) "Heavenly Divine Son" for Harley Davidson... or chocolate crosses sold for Easter... or crucifixion nail replicas... or whatever you find in those places that are so ridiculous they seem like they must be satire but aren't.

On an even more spiritual level, the temple cleansing is about cleaning up the commercial glut clogging up your own holy self. As we learn in this chapter, the body is a temple, and if it is only filled with this kind of crap, the inner Jesus would do well to turn over the tables inside you.

The Body as a Temple

Jesus was full of puzzling non sequiturs, and one of his earliest in this book was when he was asked why he did what he did in the temple. His answer was, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Those around (and who can blame them?) assumed he was talking about the temple they were standing in, saying, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But, John explains, Jesus was talking about his body and his future crucifixion and resurrection. Of course, even John may have missed his point, but my current point is that when Jesus is asked a direct question, he usually responds with a somewhat-related-but-indented-to-distract-from-the-question spiritual metaphor. It's as if he doesn't have time for real life, so when a real life question is posed, he changes the subject while seeming to keep it.



This famous chapter (containing John 3:16) concerns Jesus speaking with Nicodemus -- a Pharisee and leader of the Jewish people -- and it is another example of Jesus speaking spiritually and others (Nicodemus, in this case) taking him literally. Nicodemus admits that Jesus must come from God because of Jesus' "signs" (miracles). Jesus says that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again (or "anew" or "from above"). This is the rebirth imagery that we're so familiar with by now, but Nicodemus asks, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Haw haw. This comedic misunderstanding of figurative language is something that every Christian reader recognizes (often the subject of sermons), and yet the lynchpin of much of Christianity is embedded in this same conversation (eleven verses later, in verse 16) and taken just as literally as Nicodemus takes it. (More on this soon.)

Note that Jesus brings up "the kingdom of God." Again, is God a literal king on a literal throne? Is there a literal kingdom? Is it to be "seen" with literal eyes? Jesus goes to on to say that one can only enter the kingdom by being born of the water and Spirit. "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." Jesus then explains what may as well be the Tao, or "The Way," using the wind metaphor ("wind" and "spirit" having the same word in Greek): "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes." The idea of following the Tao or the Way is to be passive and surrender yourself to it, that it will take you where it should. The water metaphor is to "go with the flow." Jesus asks Nicodemus, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" It's difficult to tell is Jesus is being sarcastic or if he's just naive in his belief that his mystical language should be easily understood by those not trained in it.

After being (perhaps) faux-surprised that Nicodemus doesn't understand him, Jesus goes on to declare that no one understands him, concerning both "earthly" and "heavenly" things. He then says "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man." Christians, believing in an actual place called Heaven, argue over the meaning of this verse, whether anyone is currently living in a place called Heaven or not. But what is "heaven"? Literally, heaven is just the sky. Metaphorically, it's a place up above, separate, holy--not earthly, everyday, mundane. It's not a place. It's "inner," "spiritual," a state of mind... and all the rest of the words I can use to attempt to describe things without words.

Once upon a time, one could think of a literal god as living in the sky because we hadn't been there. This is why God used to be able to live in heaven without anyone questioning it. But now we have been to the sky, to heaven. We've got airplanes flying up there, and we've got rockets that have gone beyond our atmosphere, our "firmament," into outer space (which no one then knew existed). There aren't gods living on Mount Olympus either. So once we figured out that God couldn't live in heaven, the sky, we put him in "Heaven": a place apparently in some alternate dimension that you cross into after you die. It was taking things literally that eventually caused the literalists to be non-literal, since this new alternate dimension "Heaven" isn't the literal heaven, the sky. If the figurative had been understood, we wouldn't have this problem.

Spiritually speaking, the gods are within us, and therefore so is heaven, and this what Jesus was desperately trying to communicate, so when Jesus says that he (the Son of Man) is the only one who has ascended to heaven and that he's the one who has descended from heaven, he means that he's the only one who seems to be able to live in the natural world while having a spiritual life, a second life that no one around him seems to have or to be able to comprehend. Everyone is selling doves and garbage in the one place designated for helping humans go beyond their mundane physicality (the temple), and every mind is clouded with a crippling materialism that doesn't allow them to delve into their deeper natures. And he wants to fix this. Therefore, Jesus (conceitedly perhaps) suggests that he needs to be "lifted up" so that whoever believes in him can have "eternal life."

John 3:16

And stop! We're about to discuss John 3:16, which uses the phrase "eternal life" or "everlasting life," but it has been so drilled into the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike that "eternal life" means living forever in a place called Heaven that I feel the need to remind everyone that this is not what we're talking about.

Jesus is struggling to communicate unexplainable things to Nicodemus using metaphor and -- up to this point -- Christian readers are laughing at Nicodemus for misunderstanding ("Ha ha! He wonders how he can crawl back into his mother's womb! Ha ha!"), but now they are guilty of precisely the same mistake in their reading of John 3:16.

Let's look at the famous verse one more time: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Jesus is suggesting is that he can help us have the realization that we are already one with the universe, or at least the Mother of the Universe (aka the Tao), which had no beginning or end: it is eternal. I'll attempt to unpack the metaphors. We already know that "Son of God" can't possibly be literal, and that "God" is also a metaphorical word used to describe the unnamable (equivalent to "Tao"). Jesus calls himself the "only Son" because he thinks he is the only one (at least in his neck of the woods) who "gets it," but he wants everyone to be "sons of God" (even the ladies). So the first part of the sentence suggests that the Tao (or Way) allowed Jesus the teacher to teach the world (the people in it, that is, not the planet, of course) the Way. And if they "believe in" (follow, understand, practice) this teaching, they will understand that their lives are eternal, non-perishing, because they came from the Tao and they will return to it. (If you prefer to be more of a materialist, skip the Tao and think of returning to the universe, an eternal thing. Think of the conservation of mass: neither created nor destroyed.) Before any human was born, that human already existed, and after he dies, he will continue to exist: not as a body or as a conscious being (not as a "he" or even a single "it"), but as part of the matter that composes that which is not created. Zen Buddhism asks you to see the face you had before you were born; if you can swing it, you've discovered eternal life.

So here's another way to read John 3:16: "The universe brought forth a unique teacher who, if you believe him, can help you understand that the universe is eternal and that you are, were, and will always be a part of it."

Or, if you want to get slightly more religious: "That which existed before the universe, which we have no name for, brought forth the universe which brought forth a unique teacher who, if you believe him, can help you understand that you are, were, and will always be a part of the universe and even that which came before."

From the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao is infinite, eternal. Why is it eternal? It was never born; thus it can never die. Why is it infinite? It has no desires for itself; thus it is present for all beings."

The uniqueness of Jesus, of course, is debatable. Buddha was saying much the same thing and so was Lao Tzu and so were many teachers. But Jesus feels that he is special (and it seems that he was where he lived, if not world-wide) and continues to say so throughout the book, so his ego is just something we have to live with. The idea that the universe has a force behind it that could "bring forth" or "give" such a teacher is also debatable, but I'm not arguing that what Jesus says is true. I'm only trying to explain what he is saying and what he isn't saying. I don't necessarily believe him!

If I do nothing else, I'd like to convince readers (quoters, really) of John 3:16 to read the entire chapter (if not the entire book) and realize that it is framed within the context of metaphorical language and a conversation with a character (Nicodemus) who is a fool for taking this language literally, much like the foolish children's character Amelia Bedelia, who messes up her chores by "dressing the chickens" in little clothes and "drawing the drapes" on a sheet of paper. As always, what Jesus is saying concerns the inner, spiritual life--not an afterlife or anything else supernatural.

Light and Darkness, Good and Evil

Next Jesus speaks of himself as being "the light" again. (I think by this point I don't have to re-emphasize that Jesus wasn't trying to convince anyone that he threw off a natural luminescence, like a star or a florescent bulb.) He feels that people prefer darkness because their deeds are evil, but those whose deeds are good prefer light in order that the deeds can be seen. This good/evil distinction is not Jesus the Taoist speaking. Taoism doesn't split the world into good and evil, or -- if it does -- it doesn't feel that one is "better" than the other. From the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao doesn't take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil." In the "Vinegar Tasters" painting, both Buddha and Confucius make a sour face when tasting the vinegar, but Lao Tzu has a happy face. Everything isn't "good," but everything is as it should be: neither good nor evil. So this is another step away from this kind of philosophy for Jesus, who feels that there are correct ways to behave and that humanity can be split into two camps.

God's Wrath

There is more discussion about how important the Son and his message is, saying that the Father has "placed all things in his hands." (Attempt to make that sentence literal if you can.) "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath." Once again, it is very tempting to think back to the traditional, literal image of a vengeful human-looking God throwing thunder bolts (Zeus-like) on those who don't enjoy the words of his kid. But since we already have given a possible reading of the first part of this sentence (that you can be aware of your connection to the universe), the second part might read like this: "Whoever doesn't believe this message will not realize his connection to the universe but will always be miserable."

"God's wrath" is what happens when one goes against the Way, the flow. Cutting with the grain yields the best results; going against the grain brings about the wrath of the wood. Here are a couple of quotations from the Tao Te Ching that gets the same message across: "Trying to control the future is like trying to take the carpenter's place. When you handle the maser carpenter's tools, chances are that you'll cut your hand." And: "The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail."


The Samaritan Woman and Living Water/Food

Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (and, afterward, with his disciples) is another good example of someone having a conversation about an earthly thing and Jesus switching the conversation to a spiritual thing, using the same earthly thing as a metaphor. He asks the woman for a drink, then tells her that -- if she knew who he was -- she would be the one asking him for a drink, because he can give her "living water." "Everyone who drinks of this [earthly] water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." Once again, Jesus' message is to get beyond the body, to tap into the endless source of the inner self.

Jesus does one of his charlatan tricks here to demonstrate that he's a prophet, telling the woman that she's been married five times, causing her to say to friends, "He told me everything I have ever done!" Then, as now, it doesn't take much to trick people, and apparently these folks needed gimmicks like these to pay attention to holy men. He uses the opportunity of her interest in him to say that she soon will no longer worship on the mountain (where her people worship) or in Jerusalem (where the Jewish people worship), but will worship the Father "in spirit and in truth." Places like these (holy cities, mountains, temples, shrines, etc.) are simply metaphorical passageways, but they do not have any power in themselves. Buddhists make pilgrimages to the original Bodhi tree, but the true tree of enlightenment is inside of them. Jesus is interested in the eternal (as previously defined), not the local or historical.

"God is spirit," Jesus says, "and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." God is a concept that you find within yourself. When the woman says she knows a Messiah is coming, Jesus says, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." The people in the book are looking for a natural messiah, a natural savior (like King Arthur returning to restore England), but so are contemporary Christians. Jesus says he is the Messiah because he has a message that goes beyond physical needs. Like the Buddha, he helps to eliminate desire and therefore suffering.

The disciples receive a similar lesson when they ask Jesus to eat something. He says, "I have food to eat that you do not know about" and gives them the lesson that the work has already been done (the sowing) that will allow them to reap the harvest. Jesus feels that he and others before him (such as John the Baptist) have made it so that people can finally begin living inner lives, not only concerned with natural food and drink, like animals. He wants them to evolve, to push humanity to the next level.

Signs and Wonders

"Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe," Jesus says, scolding someone who wants Jesus to heal his son (since Jesus' reputation as a magician spread after the trick with the wine and other conjuring tricks), so -- the book says -- Jesus heals the boy: long-distance even. We are meant to take these stories at face value, that Jesus had these powers, but you'll notice that all of them also have metaphorical significance: in this case, that Jesus can give (spiritual, inner, more significant) "life" to those who are "dying."


Healing on the Sabbath

Apparently even healing an invalid on the sabbath is against the law, since Jesus gets scolded for it by the priests, but Jesus tells them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working" (or, my translation, "I will not stop living while life continues"). This is the first case in this book of Jesus saying that his new way trumps the old law. The Mosaic law (savage as it may seem now) was an attempt to make humanity more humane, less animal, more thoughtful, to help everyone get along, and to have a more enjoyable life. One day off from work per week went a long way toward this goal, just as our weekends and vacations currently do. But imagine if you had to be a slave to the relaxing weekend. "I can't take my sick kid to the hospital. This is my day off!" Jesus realized the purpose of the law in a way that the slaves to dogma did not: they only knew that the law was the law. And the priests' submission to the law was so severe that they now wanted to kill Jesus for working on the sabbath--and for saying he was the Son (and equal) of God. Because, of course, they weren't taking the liberal view of the word "God" as Jesus was possibly doing, but seeing him as all-mighty Yahweh, the jealous and vengeful god of the mountain.

Raising the Dead

Although Jesus will literally raise someone from the dead in a few chapters, here he speaks of the living and the dead only metaphorically. He says that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." Then: "All who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." It is so tempting to imagine corpses in the ground hearing Jesus speak and break out, zombie-style, to then be herded off to Heaven or Hell. But it shouldn't be tempting: we use this kind of language all the time. "She really comes to life when her boyfriend enters the room." "I died when I heard the news." "You haven't lived until you've gone skydiving." "Let's not resurrect that old idea." Life and death are among the most common metaphors we use.

Those in the graves are those who are dead spiritually: they live day to day but with no passion, no inner contemplation, no joie de vivre. When Jesus' words make them "live again," they will also examine what they have done with their lives. Have they done well? Then they can now live with an awareness of the goodness they have done. Have they done badly? They will now live with regret, a regret that only is only made available through an examined life. This does not, I imagine, rule out the possibility of living well once the regret occurs. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge's "awakening" after his dreams of the ghosts: "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew."

Jesus' Ego

Jesus' huge ego has been mentioned before, and here we have a full passage in which Jesus brags on himself, his relationship to the Father, his message, and his right to judge people--all while putting down the ignorant masses he feels he was sent to help. He attempts, however, to be humble by claiming that he doesn't do anything on his own, only what the Father shows him. He also says that he's not the one making these large claims about himself: John the Baptist is (though he's quick to point out that he doesn't accept human testimony) and the Father himself is. Jesus also tells them that Moses was writing about him, which is another piece of genius Jesus uses to spread his message. If he started "from scratch," the message might not have any traction, but if he superimposes it onto the Jewish religion (though it bears little resemblance), then maybe it will work. And it does.

The Tao Te Ching also spoke of spiritual masters this way: "The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings. Because he doesn't display himself, people can see his light. Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words. Because he doesn't know who he is, people recognize themselves in him. Because he has no goal in mind, everything he does succeeds." Replace "Tao" with "God" or "Father" (and speak in first person instead of third) and you have Jesus' words about himself.

The claims Jesus make about himself are really not much different from modern religious persons' mix of humbleness and ego, declaring that both (a) they aren't wise or strong enough to do anything by themselves and yet (b) that the god of the universe has taken a personal interest in them and gives them power and favors.



In Chapter 4, Jesus uses the food and drink metaphor to explain spirituality, commenting that there is more to life than eating and drinking and surviving. ("Man cannot live by bread alone" is how he puts it in other gospels, a great summary of his entire message.) Here, Jesus is said to feed five thousand followers with only five loaves of bread and two fish (with twelve baskets of food left over at the end). Although this is meant to be taken literally in the story, the spiritual significance is that of abundant, overflowing life. Jesus doesn't perform miracles that have no symbolic significance, which is why you never see him doing card tricks or making Mary Magdalene disappear behind a curtain.

He explains the significance of his miracle to the crowd the next day, first by scolding them for following him only because he provided food. "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life." There is a popular (and reasonable) idea that people must first be satisfied with bodily things like food and shelter before becoming interested in other things such as art and philosophy. But Jesus disagrees, thinking that those "eternal" things should be found first, even if one starves in the process. Jesus then compares himself to manna from heaven, saying he is "the true bread from heaven" to "give life to the world," the "bread of life."

Even though Jesus has given them a spectacular, illustrative stage show (the loaves and fishes miracle), and even though he's explaining the meaning of it with what one would imagine is pretty straightforward metaphors, this is the point when some begin to take him literally again, wondering why that kid from down the street (Joseph and Mary's boy) is claiming to have "come down from heaven." Jesus attempts to explain himself again, saying, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This only makes matters worse, because now the people think he's asking them to be cannibals. One might think that Jesus would clarify at this point (maybe explain what a metaphor is!), but instead he plunges ahead: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life." By this point, everyone except the twelve disciples abandon Jesus since they don't want to be the Donner Party.

Some current Christians, however, don't mind being thought of as cannibals, since -- through the process known as transubstantiation -- the bread and wine of communion is meant to become the actual body and blood of Jesus! Amelia Bedelia strikes again!

Walking on Water

Sandwiched in the middle of the two bread narratives is the story of Jesus walking on the stormy water of the sea. Once again, although meant to be taken literally, the symbolic message is "I am above nature. The figurative storms of life do not affect me."

I'll make a few comments about when I write that something is "meant to be taken literally." I mean within the context of the story, it is something that actually happened, not the writer being metaphorical. I'm not saying that the stories historically did happen or that there wouldn't be logical explanations for them if it did (the number one explanation being exaggeration over time, fact morphing into legend). I'm just saying that, as a story -- whether fictional or nonfictional -- these are things that are meant to have happened within it. However, they are meaningless without further metaphorical importance.


Prophecies and Authorial Additions

Some in the story say that Jesus can't be the Messiah because he isn't a descendent of David and that he comes from Galilee, not Bethlehem (both referring to prophecies). Some of the other gospels force-fit prophecies on Jesus, but this book doesn't bother because it has bigger fish to fry. (John doesn't bother with the virgin birth stuff either, though this concept, too, has metaphorical meaning, as something outside the natural.)

And yet John does add some authorial intrusion that suggests that even he didn't understand Jesus. When Jesus says "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water," John writes "Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified." What? Jesus was doing what should by now be considered Spiritual Water Metaphor 101, and yet John is trying to get it to fit within some dogma about a "glorified" Jesus causing an actual Spirit (or Holy Ghost) that would enter the disciples in the future. Even John couldn't escape a literalist religion.



Perhaps the comical misunderstandings (and Jesus' comical insistence on speaking metaphorically when it clearly isn't working) of this chapter would be best served in script form:

JESUS: You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
PEOPLE: Free? But we are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves.
JESUS: You are a slave to sin, and slaves never have a permanent place in the household. But the son does, so he can make you free. Through my word, you will never know death.
PEOPLE: Abraham died and so did all the prophets, but not you? Are you better than them?
JESUS: Abraham was happy that he would see my day come, and he did.
PEOPLE: You're not even fifty years old. How have you seen Abraham?
JESUS: Before Abraham was, I existed.
[People get angry and pick up stones to throw at Jesus. Exit Jesus.]


Blindness and Seeing / Miracles Explained

This chapter concerns the blind man who Jesus heals. Another literal story with a spiritual message behind it, which Jesus sums up at the end by saying that he came to make those who were blind see and those who see to become blind--whereupon the Pharisees say, "But, wait, we're not blind." (I hope this isn't getting too old.)

My job here is not to "explain away" the miracles, but this one (if any of these stories happened at all in any form, which is doubtful) is easy to explain. Jesus spoke about spiritually opening "blind eyes" and this got passed down in legend as Jesus actually healing a blind man. The fact that every miracle has symbolic significance and the fact that no one in the stories (or even writing the stories) seems to understand that kind of language backs this theory up. The figurative is understood as literal and in time is believed as fact: an explanation for all the miracles (if you'd like one).


The Shepherd and the Gate

By now, verse six should be hilarious: "Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them." In this case (and a few others), I put some blame on Jesus, because his metaphor was a little sloppy. He says that anyone who doesn't enter the sheepfold by the gate (but climbs over the fence) is a bandit. The shepherd is the one who goes through the gate and leads the sheep. So who is Jesus in this scenario? He's the gate and the shepherd! Sometimes Jesus gets so carried away with his figures of speech that he doesn't bother to revise for clarity.

Everyone Is God

The whole debate about whether God, the Son, and the Spirit are three or one or all of the above (or whatever) is explained here. As expected by now, the debate itself is nonsense, since all three of those words are figurative. The people want to stone Jesus again because he said he was the same as God ("The Father and I are one"), but Jesus quotes Psalm 82 for them: "You are gods."

Eastern and mystical religions have less of a difficult time equating man with God, and this is what Jesus has been attempting to explain all along. The people are "sinners" only because they don't recognize their divine nature. And Jesus is the "Son" only because he feels he is specially chosen (or has had the enlightenment, if you prefer) among everyone else who is blind to this concept. Jesus' ultimate goal is for everyone to realize that they too are God.

In the highly allegorical Sufi (mystical Islam) work The Conference of Birds by Farid un-Din Attar, the birds go on a quest to find their god called the Simorgh. In the end, after crossing seven difficult valleys, they find this god of the birds, and it turns out to be a reflection of themselves. The Simorgh was just a mythical, figurative representation of the entirety of life. Jesus has the same message in the book of John.



See the blind man story. Replace the blind man with Lazarus, blindness with death. Same thing.


A Grain of Wheat

Whether by murder (John Lennon) or suicide (Kurt Cobain), or just accident (Buddy Holly), the untimely death of an artist puts him on a higher pedestal, and Jesus -- according to the story in this book -- seems to be masterminding a suicide/murder combo for himself. And Jesus is an artist, something like a spiritual performance artist, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to make his point. "Unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies," he says, "it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Jesus is the grain.

But lest I too fall into the temptation of taking Jesus' death only literally, his next line is, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." The Tao Te Ching puts it this way: "If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren't afraid of dying, there is nothing you can't achieve." Dying to the self causes living. Giving up makes you win. Letting go allows you to hold on. I could come up with these all day. The Tao Te Ching says "True words seem paradoxical," and Jesus certainly had those, but they exist not to be simply paradoxes, but because they do make spiritual sense.

Jesus has a "troubled soul" while contemplating his coming death, but he knows he's been working toward this moment, so he doesn't resist it. This is the same feeling one has when on the threshold of enlightenment.


The Father's House

Chapter 13 was more of the same (other than some talk about Satan entering Judas, which is more of the same from another direction), so I skipped it. Okay, well, everything since Chapter 1 has been more of the same, but the images keep changing and I feel I have to cover some of them. One is when Jesus says "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places" or "rooms." The King James translation of "dwelling places" is "mansions" (an old use of that word), and many Christians get all excited that they get a big fancy house in Heaven, though some of the humbler ones tell Jesus that they wouldn't mind just having a little shack on one of the more modest clouds behind those pearly gates. I'm not making any of this up. (I'm also not sure who thinks that mansions are found inside houses, but I'll let that go.) The slightly-less literal-minded came up with alternative ways of looking at this verse, like suggesting that maybe the mansions were new bodies, since our old ones would be rotting in the ground on earth, but even that is a material explanation of something that's meant to be spiritual.

But the answer is more simple. Say it with me: "It was a figure of speech." (Do I really have seven more chapters to go?) Jesus is preparing the Way for his followers. He's showing them the Tao. All he is saying is that within the Tao, there is room enough for everyone. We use this figure of speech every day, whether we're talking about having "slots" available for the softball game or "room" for someone in your heart or whatever. Jesus goes on to explain that he is preparing "a place" for them and will take them with him, "and you know the way to the place where I am going." Thomas says he doesn't know the way, so Jesus says he is the Way (capitalization mine) and equates himself with the Father once again. Philip asks to see the Father and Jesus says, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?" Then: "I am the Father and the Father is in me."

Yes, confusing and nonsensical if treated literally: "My name is Rusty Spell. My father's name is Charles Spell. But I am also Charles Spell. Furthermore, he lives in my stomach." Two thousand years of trying to figure this out in a literal way has made the most intelligent and sophisticated theologians sound completely bonkers, when all that Jesus is saying is that everything in the universe is one: he came from it, he is it, and he is returning to it... and we only need to realize that the same is true of us.

The early Hindus understood this. The Rig Veda says that the primeval "man" Purusha gave birth to Virj who gave birth again to Purusha, who was then sacrificed (dismembered) to become everything in the universe. We are all Purusha. Jesus felt that he was the only one of his time and place who realized he was Purusha, and he wants everyone to follow him to that realization.

The Holy Spirit

Jesus says that he won't be around for much longer but the Father will send "the Advocate" (also translated as "the Helper" or "the Comforter," commonly known as the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost, the third part of the trinity) to teach them everything and remind them of his teachings. This is the same as saying of anyone who has done great things that his "spirit" will remain on earth after he is gone. Martin Luther King did not have a literal dream one night that little black and white kids would join hands, magically bypass biology, and become actual siblings. But we understood what he meant in that speech, and his "dream" and "spirit" lived on after his death. And the Holy Spirit isn't some dove or ghost or female aspect, but "spirit" is still a good way to describe it, as in the phrase "the spirit of the times."



The next chapters (skipping 15-17 for redundancy) concern the crucifixion, and it is interesting to watch Pilate -- a Roman and a person invested more in the real world and not the dogmatic blather of the religious people around him -- interacting with Jesus and the priests. As an objective observer, but someone who has to make the ultimate decision, he seems to find the entire thing confusing and ridiculous.

Pilate has been told that Jesus is the "King of the Jews" and Jesus attempts to explain that this is merely a metaphor, saying, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews." Good point: if he were a natural king, there would be a natural war or at least some sort of violent resistance. Peter had cut off the ear of the high priest's slave when they came to arrest him, and Jesus said to put the sword away because he wanted to be arrested: the murder/suicide combo he'd been planning--even picking Judas to do the dirty deed of the "betrayal," one of the oddest acts of friendship in literary history. So there is nothing natural about this. It is an actual, natural crucifixion, but Jesus is doing it for the most idealistic, spiritual reasons, and of course Pilate can't understand this. How could anyone understand a man organizing his own crucifixion?

The way that they finally convince Pilate (who tries multiple times to save this pitiful self-martyr) is to say that Jesus, as a would-be king, threatens the emperor--though of course this "kingdom" is only an internal idea. Pilate writes "King of the Jews" on an inscription and places it on the cross. The Jewish leaders want him to clarify that it should say "This Man Says He's the King of the Jews," but Pilate lets it stand, no doubt preferring to crucify a would-be usurper than a religious crazy person.

Because here's what Pilate is dealing with, according to the information he has. Imagine you're the governor of Texas (an execution state). You hear of a man who thinks he's Napoleon Bonaparte who has been sentenced to death. You'd like to pardon him, but he's remaining mostly silent. He also tells you that you're the one who said he's Napoleon, not him. He seems nutty enough, but then you find out that the people who helped convict him were even nuttier. They are religious leaders who have the following law: "Anyone who claims that he is Napoleon Bonaparte shall be put to death." This is the story exactly! No wonder Pilate seems like the only sane person around.


The Resurrection

Another literal story (Jesus is reported to have actually risen from the dead) with a metaphorical meaning, one similar to the Lazarus story, only this time perhaps more about one's message living on after one has died. Elvis Presley has been seen by many as well, and for the same reasons. Because it is such a fantastic story, there is much made of "belief" by Jesus (John writing that "belief" is the purpose of his writing the book), saying to "Doubting" Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." A dangerous message, but there it is.



As the book goes on, Jesus seems to shift from a teacher who uses metaphorical language to teach something like Taoism into a egomaniac who begins, himself, to take the metaphors literally (or at least to actualize them): concocting this scheme to die in order to make his message more eternal, more hard-core. Not only did Jesus sell out Judas by making Judas pretend to betray him, but -- after the resurrection -- Jesus is asking Peter to die for the cause as well. He asks Peter three times, like an insecure boyfriend, if he loves him before telling Peter that he'll have to prove this love by going where he doesn't want to go, to follow Jesus into death. (And it does happen: in the book of Acts, Peter gets crucified... upside-down!)

Either this shift is happening or I am guilty of a misreading myself. I do know that Jesus seems to stray from the Tao, putting undue importance on himself as the one and only Way (which re-defines the Tao as something that can be grasped--and not only that, personified). So Jesus may not have been a true Taoist master, but he did attempt to bring religion back to the inner self, though I'm afraid it quickly went back to the material and the dogmatic anyway, starting with Paul and snowballing to the present day. (This is not to suggest that Taoism or any other religion is better or worse than Christianity. The holy texts of these religions often seem fine, but the practice of them suffer from the same sorts of idiocy.)

To give a taste of what a real Taoist master is like, here's a final chapter from the Tao Te Ching: "The Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning. He has nothing, thus has nothing to lose. What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn. He simply reminds people of who they have always been. He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things."


So the Gospel of John has two primary strains. One is Jesus as a spiritual teacher who uses language metaphors and the Jewish religion to teach concepts that are beyond words, failing miserably due to being taken literally and therefore misunderstood. The other strain is Jesus attempting to actualize these metaphors by performing miracles suggesting transformation and resurrection, culminating with the death and rebirth of himself. The two, of course, can be married since they're really the same thing: one in word, one in deed.

So perhaps Jesus was the offspring of a sky god who was also a piece of bread, a lamb, and a grain of wheat. Perhaps he helped wedding guests get drunk, healed a blind man, resurrected a dead man, died himself, then went fishing three days later. Or perhaps he was a misunderstood spiritual messenger who spoke a language that was so beyond the ignorance of his day that his story -- even as presently understood -- has become a beautiful piece of nonsense. Either way, it seems that the message is what matters, the Way to get to wherever you think you need to be: an afterlife or an enlightenment. One of the few things that Jesus said clearly was his "new commandment" to his disciples: to love one another. A novel idea!


Rusty Spell said...

This one's for you, Jenna!

Jenna said...

I’m looking forward to reading this as soon as I have some free time!

Jenna said...

This certainly shows that it isn’t difficult to interpret the sayings and actions of Jesus metaphorically. It seems like the default, at least in fundamental Christianity, is to interpret everything literally unless it is absolutely proven to be untrue, and even then it might take hundreds of years to be accepted. Why do you think there is such a tendency to cling to literal interpretations in the Christian religion?

Rusty Spell said...

Some quick guesses:

1. Unlike "normal" literature, holy texts supposedly promote truth, ways of living, the nature of the universe, etc. So you turn to them for "the answer" and say, "Ah, there it is," not thinking to look for figures of speech and symbols as you might in any other work of art.

2. Reading the Bible "literally," I think, is relatively recent. The old guys knew how to read it better because they were familiar with a ride range of texts (because they were the only ones who *could* read). Everyone today can read, but maybe they don't read enough to know how to understand a simple metaphor. The Bible is sometimes a difficult text, and yet it is read and supposedly "understood" by someone who might admit that they don't "get" poetry. "Why can't this boring poetry just say what it means?" is the complaint, but their favorite book is the Bible?

3. Anything dealing with the inner life (which all of the Bible does, to some degree) requires language, stories, images, etc. that goes beyond the literal, is often fantastical (talking animals, water-parting, lakes of fire, God himself), and the rest of it. But the same could be said of sci-fi: it uses fantasy to attempt to get at the human condition. This is understood in sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tales, etc., but the Bible isn't treated like those are.

4. Holy texts have a "hands off" stamp on them that other texts don't have. Many priests (for example) prefer to pass down the Bible on a need-to-know basis than have people read it for themselves (either for "their own good" or for the priests to maintain power). So whatever the original interpretation was is the one that sticks for a long time. And when people finally do get around to reading for themselves, the interpretation is so fixed that it's hard to read it any other way. (It's still hard for me to read it objectively without hearing the voices of my elders in my head.)

5. It's more sexy to think that these things exist than to think it's all just ways of talking about the mundanity of the inner life. The inner life *isn't* mundane, of course, but it might be considered a let down to find out that it's what angels, heaven, devils, magic trees, etc. is all about. "So real magic doesn't exist? Crap!"

6. Holy texts are stuck in the time they were written in, but they are held up as truths for "all time." So if the writer of Genesis says the earth is flat, then -- by God -- it *is* flat. We finally gave this example up, at least, but we haven't all given up on "creation" in six days or the earth being a few thousand years old or the idea of a homo sapien created straight from dust. This is less about the "literal" and more about the understanding of the world during the time these books were written, but it's a similar idea.