My red car (c) JAT 2015

“His disciples said to him: When will the resurrection of the dead take place and when will the new world come? He said to them: What you look for has come, but you do not know it” (Gospel of Thomas 51). In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus talks often about “life” and “beginnings,” yet his sayings involving “death” are not what we typically find in eschatological or apocalyptic teachings. Rather, the sayings about “life” and “death” in Thomas seem closely related to parts of the first century CE text known as The Didache, in which “the way of life” and “the way of death” are used as metaphors for how to live a moral life in full relationship with God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus spends quite a bit of time and energy trying to persuade the disciples to let go of the eschatological doctrines held by the Pharisees and the Essenes at that time.  Photo of my red car, photo credit JAT 2015.

A: Last week I bought a 2007 Pontiac to replace my 1998 Nissan, which was close to death. The Carproof report found a lien against the Pontiac — a financing lien held by Chrysler. At first I wasn’t worried. I figured the paperwork for the clearance of the lien hadn’t yet made it into the computer system at the proper government ministry. But being a thorough person, I decided to phone the ministry yesterday morning to make sure the lien had been cleared. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the lien was still attached to my car! I quickly got the problem straightened out with the dealer I bought the car from. But in the meantime I had a chance to reflect on my feelings about the lien. In Ontario, as in many other jurisdictions, a person who unwittingly buys a car or house that has a lien against it can lose the property they bought. It can be legally seized by the lien holder if the debt hasn’t been paid by the original debtor. The car you think you own outright can be towed away in the blink of an eye by the original lender. It’s a scary thought.

Anyway, I was thinking about my feelings around the lien on my car. I was noticing how upset I was at the thought that somebody could — theoretically — swoop down on my little Pontiac and take it away with no say on my part. I was thinking how I’d paid for the car in full, how I could lose all the money I’d invested (unless I were inclined to sue, which would cost me even more money). I was thinking how unfair it would be for such a thing to happen. I’d bought the car in good faith. Why should I be punished for somebody else’s mistake? Or somebody else’s willful fraud?

So I’m standing in the bathroom and I’m drying my hair so I can get ready for work and it suddenly dawns on me that the feelings I’m expressing to myself about the lien on the car are the same feelings I have about orthodox Western Christianity’s teachings on the soul. The Church teaches us there’s a lien on our souls!

J (grinning): Yes. Not a nice feeling, is it?

A: No! It totally sucks. I never noticed till yesterday how deeply, deeply unfair the church’s claims are. I knew their claims about the soul were based on the writings of Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, and so on. I knew their claims were self-serving. I knew their claims were just plain wrong in light of God’s loving and forgiving nature. But I never felt the unfairness of it before at such a deep level — at a gut level, a visceral level. It’s just wrong to tell people their soul can be taken away from them by lienholders. It’s so . . . so . . . unfair. And cruel. It’s cruel to tell people they have to invest themselves wholly in their faith while at any time the great big towtruck in the sky could show up to haul them or their loved ones away to the fiery pits of hell. Not to pay their own debts, but to pay somebody else’s debts! Namely Adam and Eve’s debts!

J: Ah, the wages of sin.

A: Very funny. This God-and-Devil-as-lienholders thing means that devout Christians are always looking over their shoulder, waiting for the cosmic towtruck they can’t do anything about. It makes people feel helpless. It makes them feel like slaves-in-waiting. Their soul isn’t their own. Their time isn’t their own. Their life and their choices and their free will aren’t really their own. They’re always on tenter-hooks because they think they don’t fully own their own soul. This is abusive.

J: That’s why it works. From the perspective of certain members of the church hierarchy — stretching all the way back to the time of Paul and his backers — it’s an excellent strategy for gaining control of the populace. People who feel helpless and hopeless tend to cause less trouble. They ask fewer questions. They tend to do what they’re told because they’re frightened. Frightened people turn to strong leaders — in this case church leaders. The Church is using a psychological control strategy that other groups in other cultures have used to similar effect. Paul’s teachings have been particularly successful in this regard.

The teachings of myself and other like-minded spiritual teachers are useless for this kind of psychological strategy. Totally useless. You can’t frighten people into submission if you’re actually giving them real hope. Real hope doesn’t come from words. Real hope comes from actions — from people’s ongoing choices to help their neighbours. Real hope comes from healing and relationship and dignity and change. If the early church had wanted to teach real hope, it wouldn’t have chosen the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Chalcedon Creed as its operative statements of faith.

A: Ah. You mean they might have mentioned the themes of divine love, forgiveness, healing, redemption (as opposed to salvation), and egalitarianism?

J: If the bishops in the first few centuries of Christianity had spent one tenth the time on compassion that they spent on their endless arguments over the “substance” of the Trinity, medieval Europe would have been a much nicer place to live.

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