I often receive emails from folks who suggest that I am trying to destroy Christianity. Some tell me that I am just ignorant and often suggest that if I would just read the Bible I would get it right. Others believe I am an agent of the devil, and some have even suggested that I am the Anti-Christ. I must admit, sometimes my ego gets off on that one. At least it seems that I am important to someone.
Almost all of these types of emails suggest that the “real issue” is that we progressives are trying to ignore the “hard part” of being a committed Christian. That usually includes the statement that we do not want to believe that there are “ rules” that we are supposed to live by that have been given to us by God. And the second related part is that we ignore the “truth that we are sinners,” and therefore believe we have no need for repentance and redemption. Of course, they almost always end with something like, “ha, ha, you are going to burn in hell.” I probably receive about three of these types of emails a week.
I used to respond to most of those but I discovered that my responses just seemed to escalate the number of exchanges and never once in the last four years have I felt that I had changed anyone’s perspective by responding.
The interesting thing is that I really do believe that sin, repentance, and redemption are an important parts of a spiritual path, and in fact an important part of the human condition. I wish I could find a way to communicate that with these folks. However, I am afraid that we have very different perspectives about what these words actually mean and the dynamics that are involved with them on a spiritual journey.
The first hurdle I encountered was my ability to communicate that we need to get rid of the concept of ‘Original Sin,’ and move to a new model. Many would become outraged when I would suggest that Paul was wrong when he suggested that we are all born into sin. Although getting rid of a “center piece” of Christian doctrine may be a paradigm shift for most people, many who read this will find that they have already made the shift, at least at some operative level. I think it happens to every parent or grandparent once they hold their precious new child in their arms.
The whole idea of original sin has an interesting history and few people actually know where that concept came from. It was actually Augustine who made the term ‘Original Sin’ well known. He appealed to the Pauline-apocalyptic understanding of the forgiveness of sin, but he also introduced the idea that sin is transmitted from generation to generation by the act of procreation (sex). He took this idea from 2nd-century theologian Tertullian, who actually coined the phrase ‘original sin’.
All of this theorizing was done by these men after they had already concluded that Jesus was the messianic hero whose purpose was to wash the sins of the world away through some act of grace by a judging God. I don’t have time here to go into the lives of some of these characters involved with creating these socially modifying theories. However, based on the historical information we have, I would suggest that most of their conclusions were guided less by their deep spiritual disciplines or even by their interpretation of scripture, but more by their apparent over abundance of testosterone.
Origen (c185-c.254), probably the most gifted theologian of the early church fathers, has his own share of ideas that would seem strange to contemporary thinkers. But at least he suggested that sin was a sickness and sicknesses can be cured. He broke sin into three different categories, just as he divided the human into three different components; one of those being the soul from which the most serious sin emanates and which requires much more work to cure. Although I am probably oversimplifying here, Origen saw sin as a natural part of being human and an opportunity for both growth (waking up) and an experience of grace.
The ultimate problem for most of the early theologians was their need to identify Jesus as a divine messiah sent by an intervening God to save humanity from humanity’s God-given nature. Rather than accepting Jesus as a profound teacher of another way to experience reality (The Kingdom of God), all the emphasis has been on an outside force, (being), going through some horrible heroic act on our poor behalf, and then only if we repent.
This is one of the reasons that the term repentance has been so corrupted over the centuries. The term, like so many Christian terms that were borrowed from other traditions, has been molded to meet the criteria of what became dogma while ignoring the term’s powerful history. When we think of the word, we usually picture a TV evangelist, pounding on the pulpit or shaking the Bible and yelling that if we don’t repent for our sins, we are going to burn in hell. For many of us, this picture conjures up bad memories and even pain. Over the centuries in the traditional church, repentance came to mean: “Fall on your knees and beg for forgiveness for your sins and ask Christ your Savior for forgiveness.”
However, repentance has a long and deep history in early Judaism. And so when Jesus called his listeners to ‘repent,’ the word had a very different connotation. It is not easy to make a direct translation of repent or repentance into modern English, as we are dealing with ancient language and symbols that have radically changed over the centuries. Plus, this word that has taken on such power in the Christian tradition is actually formed from a combination of two other Greek words: metamorphoo, which means to change or transform, and metanoeo, which means to think differently afterwards, or to reconsider.
Now if that is not confusing enough, the definition of the word for Jesus came out of the Hebrew traditions and was originally an outgrowth or derivative of the Hebrew word, shuwb (shoob). Shuwb is most commonly translated from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament, as repent. The best direct English translation of shuwb is to turn back or away or turn in another direction. Translating ancient languages is further complicated by the fact that most words have many meanings and the meanings are affected by the way it used in the sentence.
For purposes of this discussion, let me try and offer a workable translation for the word ‘repent’: “to reconsider one’s actions or thoughts that have caused pain or disharmony, accept responsibility for the damage or harm that they may have caused, change the direction or the course of your life, and be transformed in the process.”
Please note that a Jew in Jesus’ time would not have assumed that some outside source was supposed to do the forgiving. This was about the individual taking responsibility for the actions or thoughts that have caused harm, seeking forgiveness and making a commitment to change one’s ways. The primary responsibility here lies on the individual who did the infraction, who created the harm or the “sin,” if I can use that word here. And we are assured that when we do those things we will experience peace or redemption.
Elaine Pagels, in her wonderful book, The Origin of Satan, using the Book of Thomas as a primary source, argues that Jesus saw himself as a teacher of a way to experience the “Kingdom of God.” According to the Book of Thomas, often considered a more authentic source of Jesus’ teachings than the Four Gospels, “’the Kingdom of God’ is not an event expected to happenin history, nor is it a place. The author of Thomas seems to ridicule such views:”
Jesus said: “If those who lead you say to you, ‘Lord, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea, then the fish will precede you.” (NHC II .32.19-24)
However, the Kingdom of God, according to Thomas, is a path of self discovery.
“Rather the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves then you are in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
So for the author of the Book of Thomas, Jesus was a teacher of self discovery or self awareness. But this was not some social or psychological process, but a knowing of ourselves at the deepest level. Thomas states: “When you come to know yourselves (discover the divine within you, then “you will discover that it is you who are the sons (and daughters) of the living Father.”
So, for the writer of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus, like many Jews of his time, saw repentance as part of a process to self discovery and self awareness. It is with that awareness that we can experience the Kingdom of God that Jesus offered up to us. Ultimately the question we must ask ourselves is not “what does God want me to do” or even “what does Jesus want me to do,” but rather, “what do I need to do in order to experience the Realm of God that Jesus pointed to.”
Thomas, like Jesus, assured us however that this was not the easy path. That is probably why so many people keep looking for a savior.