Epiphany: More than changing light bulbs

Mark 6:34; Philippians 2; Romans 6

In the November 28, 2011 edition of The Nation, Naomi Klein proposes that deniers of climate change science are not rejecting the science; they are rejecting the order of magnitude of cultural transformation that will be required in order to slow down, stop, or reverse the process. “This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.” She argues that progressives and those on the political left are equally in denial: not regarding the science, but regarding the global paradigm shift in human behavior that climate change demands. Both sides are operating from deliberate ignorance. The right is afraid of losing global market share. The left maintains a naive expectation that recycling, spiral light bulbs, and carbon offsets will solve the problem.

Klein offers a list of political and social solutions (reining in corporations, relocalizing production, ending the “cult of shopping,” taxing the “rich and filthy”), but ultimately what is called for is “an alternative world view to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – this time embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy. . . . In the rocky future we have already made inevitable, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people, and a capacity for deep compassion, will be the only things standing between humanity and barbarism. Climate change, by putting us on a firm deadline, can serve as the catalyst for precisely this profound social and ecological transformation.”

These are basic spiritual principles arising from a secular, political sensitivity that echo what Lloyd Geering calls for in a series of essays (Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia). Geering describes a spiritual and religious progression in human consciousness. Pre-modern people lived in what might be called an enchanted world, in which everything embodied spirit. This was followed by the so-called “axial age” when people realized there was a difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, which gave rise to the paradigm-shifting concept of one god. Next came the equally transformational concept of incarnation: God in Humanity – in the form of Jesus, called the Christ, God’s “anointed one.” Most Christians stop there. Preachers talk and believers sing about the Christ being “born in us today,” but the concept seldom connects. We may live in a post-modern world, but most minds are still engaged in a pre-modern relationship with a personal Lord and Savior, who came to “save us from our sins” so that we can live in heaven forever. Traditional church-goers hang on to this belief. Many who have left the church and its dogmas far behind are also often unable to get past the tradition because it stays frozen in a childhood time.

By reclaiming language and reframing the Christian message, progressive (liberal) Christians can make a major contribution to the “alternative world view” that is necessary for the paradigm shift Naomi Klein is talking about. Perhaps the most revolutionary concept at the top of the list is that the wisdom of the axial age was not about petty sin. For the prophets of ancient Israel, and the heir apparent – Jesus of Nazareth – “sin” meant injustice, and God’s plan was liberation from injustice. For the Buddha, “sin” was the human condition of suffering, brought about by attachment. Salvation meant freedom from attachment to the past and the future; liberation was found by living in the moment.

It should be a short intellectual hop to understanding incarnation as God (the Christ, or as Matthew Fox puts it, the Buddha nature) within us. But these concepts are far more difficult to grasp than the 10 Commandments – which may be why the story is that Moses smashed the first set out of anger that the people so easily gave up on following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Lloyd Geering suggests, incarnation goes beyond the dogma of one man embodying God; incarnation means that God is manifested in humanity itself. Perhaps most profoundly, James Loney, member of the Christian Peace Maker Team who spent six months in captivity in Iraq, learned from the late Tom Fox that “All we have is now . . . The past is a fiction and the future doesn’t exist. . . [Tom] strained with his whole being to let go of everything – even the hope of release – and just be present to the present.” Loney describes this experience as “what it means to be born again. The present moment [is] the birth canal of incarnation.”

The Scholars Version of The Authentic Letters of Paul is a good place to start to reclaim traditional language. The Scholars have expanded Paul’s original Greek word hamartia (“sin”) into a phrase that means “the corrupting seduction of power.” In his last known letter, carried to the community his friends had founded in Rome, Paul wrote:

How then should we respond to our changed relationship with God [as found in the life and teachings of Jesus]? Should we continue to live as before so that God’s generous favor can become even more remarkable? That would be ridiculous! How can we who have “died” to the seductive power of corruption continue to live as if we were still in its grasp? . . . Don’t allow the seductive power of corruption to reign over your earthly life inducing you to submit to worldly desires. Don’t put any part of your body at the disposal of that power as an instrument for doing wrong, but put yourselves at God’s disposal as people who have been brought to life from the dead and present your bodies to God as instruments for doing right . . . The corrupting seduction of power has a pay-off: death. God offers a free gift: the unending life of God’s new world in solidarity with the Anointed Jesus, our Lord. SV pp 224-225.

“Sin” is not about sex, or petty transgression. “Sin” is about the seduction of power-over others; of the gratification of having what others cannot have. But beyond individual greed for personal power and wealth lies the corporate, collective “sin” that results from the systems put in place by human societies – what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization.” The result of basic human need for security, food, clothing, shelter is systems that deprive outsiders of the means to survive and thrive. That is what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 6:22: “But now that you have been liberated from the corrupting seduction of power and have committed yourselves to the service of God, what you gain is complete moral integrity and in the end the unending life of God’s new world.” SV p. 225.

In Mark 6:32-34, just before Mark’s setting of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus attempted to avoid the crowds and get a little rest, but the people found him anyway. The writer says, “When he came ashore he saw a huge crowd and was moved by them, because they resembled sheep without a shepherd, and he started teaching them at length.” And what did he teach them? Instead of sending the people away to find their own food, he told the disciples, “Give them something to eat yourselves!”

In Philippians 2:1-7a, Paul writes to his friends:

So if you know how uplifting it is to belong to the new community of the Anointed, if you know something about being motivated by love, if you know something about the spirit of fellowship and genuine compassion, then make me completely happy by sharing the same attitude, showing the same love toward one another, and being united in heart and purpose. Don’t be always thinking about your own interests or your own importance, but with humility hold others in higher regard than you do yourselves. Each of you should keep others’ interests in mind, not your own. I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who although he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot. SV p.186.

Paul says that the servant – as exemplified in Jesus, the Anointed One – has become Lord, not the Emperor. Far from being a call to an imperial, “holy Roman empire,” Paul’s words challenge people to live the same life Jesus did, in radical abandonment of self-interest, and distributive justice-compassion.

Lloyd Geering brings humanity full circle from the enchanted world of pre-modern people living a seamless existence, not separated from the natural world, to the possibility of a re-enchanted world, in which“secular” means –once-again – earth-centered. He concludes: “We came from the earth. We remain creatures of the earth. The hope of our species for a viable future depends on our mystical re-union with the earth.”

In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Matthew Fox writes:

It is not enough to celebrate the Cosmic Christ as “the pattern that connects” and the “bearer of coherence” as expressed in Jesus. There is a real sense in which the Cosmic Christ is not born yet. Even in Jesus the Cosmic Christ has yet to come to full birth, for those who say they believe in Jesus have scarcely brought forth the Cosmic Christ at all on the mass scale that Mother Earth requires. One might speak, then, of the already born Cosmic Christ (realized eschatology) who we see only “in a mirror and darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and of the not-yet-born Cosmic Christ (unrealized eschatology) who is the Christ of justice, of creativity, of compassion in self and society that yearns to be born and is eager to be born in us. “What good is it to me,” Meister Eckhart asked, “if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?” . . . The name “Christ” means “the anointed one.” All of us are anointed ones. We are all royal persons, creative, godly, divine, persons of beauty and of grace. We are all Cosmic Christs, “other Christs.” But what good is this if we do not know it? . . . We are all called, like the Cosmic Christ, to radiate the divine presence to/with/from one another. pp. 136-137.

Literalists on the right assure the masses that believing the story guarantees an exclusive right to heaven instead of hell in the next life. Literalists on the left assure the masses that salvation is easy – all you have to do is buy the right light bulb. Nobody says anywhere in the Bible that it is easy to live by God’s law of distributive justice-compassion, in radical abandonment of self-interest. But the biblical writers are very clear that the reward for doing so is profoundly satisfying, here and now.

“If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God . . .” Deuteronomy 28:1-2.

“The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed . . . But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” Psalm 103.

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:21-24.

“Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you.” Matthew 5:38-42.

“Love your enemies.” Matthew 5:44b, Luke 6:32, 35a.

Topics: Bibles and Bible Study, Early Christianity, Jesus Studies, and Progressive Christianity 101. 8 Points: Eight points. Seasons & Special Events: Epiphany. Ages: Adult. Texts: Amos, Deuteronomy, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Philippians, Psalms, and Romans. Resource Types: Articles.

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