There is currently no major world religion that bases its doctrines and spiritual practices on the teachings of the man who once lived as Jesus.
There are several world religions that owe a significant doctrinal debt to ancient Egyptian mystery cults. There are several world religions that would not be recognizable in their current form without the legacy of ancient apocalyptic groups. There are several world religions that have incorporated the teachings of ancient Wisdom literature into their texts. But there are no major world religions that approach the deep questions of spirituality and relationship with God in the way that Jesus approached these concerns.
This isn’t new. At the time Jesus was teaching and healing, many different religions and philosophies were competing with each other to attract devoted followers. Many of these “pagan” religions were quite successful, far more successful than the modest house churches that sprang up in response to Jesus’ message. So successful were these “pagan” religions, in fact, that in the end they won out over the teachings of Jesus.
Most Christians believe it’s the other way around, that Christianity’s “truth” won out over paganism’s “heresy.” But orthodox Western Christianity isn’t based on the teachings of Jesus. It’s based on the teachings of Paul and his vigilant successors — men such as the author of Matthew and the author of Luke-Acts (whose writings were decreed canonical), and men such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Cyprian of Carthage (whose writings helped shape orthodox thought). These men took the ancient teachings of the mystery cults, the apocalyptic groups, and the Wisdom sages, and repackaged them, rebranded them, into a “new and improved” religion called Christianity.
So while early orthodox Christianity had everything to do with Christ — an ancient saviour figure who was central to Egyptian, Persian, and Greek mystery cults — early orthodox Christianity had nothing to do with the teachings of the physician-scholar named Jesus son of Joseph. In fact, the doctrines promoted by Paul and the men of the “apostolic succession” are the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings about God.
Paul wanted desperately to preserve the ancient teachings of the mystery cults, the apocalyptic groups, and the Wisdom sages because these three approaches to religion, though very different from each other on the surface, all share one fundamental feature: they encourage people to become addicted to status.
Paul offered people a new religion that gave them “bonus points” in their drive for status. Paul promised people more status, extra status, new and improved status, special status, irrevocable status. It’s a status-addict’s dream!
Jesus, meanwhile — as evidenced in the Gospel of Mark, the reconstructed Q source, and parts of the Letter of James — desperately wanted to get rid of the ancient teachings of the mystery cults, the apocalyptic groups, and the Wisdom sages. Why? Because he understood that the widespread addiction to status was the single greatest impediment to people’s understanding of God.
You’ve probably heard the biblical saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). This is usually interpreted as a condemnation of money and wealth, the idea being that if you give away all your money and wealth, you’ll be closer to the kingdom of God.
This is too simplistic. “Rich” people can give away all their money and wealth, and still not feel God’s presence because all they’ve done is exchange one form of status anxiety (wealth acquisition) for another form (asceticism, a.k.a. purity acquisition). Money per se isn’t the problem. Money can be used for hospitals, schools, meal programs, and so on. It’s not money that’s the root of all evil — it’s status addiction.
The only way for people to feel God’s ongoing presence in their lives is for them to acknowledge their addiction to status, and to make a commitment to heal this addiction.
It goes without saying that status addiction is rampant in our society. It’s not an easy thing to heal (about as easy as that camel going through that narrow gate). But it can be done. To be free of status addiction is to be kind and loving towards others in the guileless manner of a young child.
For this reason, Jesus compares those who want to enter the kingdom of God to little children (Mark 10:13-16). Young children haven’t yet been taught to hate others on the basis of class, race, or gender. They haven’t yet been taught that they’re “better” than others, that they’re more loved by God than others, that God will save them and their families but not others. They haven’t yet absorbed the cultural norms of competition, superiority, perfectionism (all forms of status anxiety). Young children are still free. They still have free will. They still have the ability to love. They still have the ability to forgive. They still have the courage to look at other people, and see them as people, not as slaves, property, or lesser beings.
A young child knows nothing of Law or Covenant (both of which are hopelessly interwoven with status). Nor does a child care about “whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). What a young child cares about is love — love that’s infused with respect, and dignity, and egalitarianism, and empathy, and mature relationship, and simple kindness. Love that doesn’t boast (since boasting is food for status addiction). Love that doesn’t presume to prophesy (since prophesying is food for status addiction). Love that doesn’t claim to be centred in the Mind (since pure logic is food for status anxiety). Love that doesn’t punish the body through ascetic practices (since asceticism is food for status addiction). Love that never seeks revenge (since revenge is to status anxiety what crack cocaine is to substance abuse). Love that can’t be taken away or withheld as a form of punishment. Love that isn’t co-dependent. Love that isn’t a synonym for “obedience.” What a young child wants is love that forgives. Love that’s . . . well . . . divine.
What children need, and what they in turn give to others, is divine love — the kind of love our God (God the Mother and God the Father) feel for all their children. The kind of love that Jesus wrote about in a text that Paul subsequently “borrowed” for his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:1-8a).* The kind of love the orthodox Western Church doesn’t teach you about.
This is a love based on the power of the soul, the power of free will, the power of forgiveness, and the power of redemption. It has nothing to do with sin, salvation, sacraments, and separation. It’s a love that can be difficult for human beings to understand. It’s a love that can be difficult for adults to master (the whole “camel squeezing through the narrow gate” thing again). But once it’s yours, nobody — not even an angry Church cleric or an angry Temple priest — can take it away from you, because it’s a sacred trust that exists between you and God.
It’s a sacred trust that fills you with wonder, and devotion, and gratitude, and humbleness. It’s a sacred trust worth dying for, as the man named Jesus once knew. It’s a sacred trust that opens the door to the kingdom of God while you’re living here as a somewhat confused but unquenchably hopeful human being on Planet Earth.
The keys to the kingdom are not found in the person of Jesus. The keys to the kingdom are found in the teachings that Jesus introduced to anyone who wanted to listen to his annoying and exasperating attacks on the status quo.
If you’re a Christian, and you want to start to work on the problems of status anxiety and status addiction in your own life, you’re going to have to let go of the doctrine that Jesus is your Saviour. This doctrine is food for your status addiction. There is no Saviour. You don’t need to be saved, because God don’t make no junk. There’s nothing wrong with your soul. Your soul is just fine, thank you very much.
It’s okay to think of Jesus as a teacher and mentor in the same way you think of Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, Jr., as inspiring teachers and mentors. But please don’t put Jesus on a pedestal. That’s the last thing he’d want anybody to do.
Jesus wasn’t trying to teach his followers about himself. That would have been the height — the very pinnacle — of status addiction. He was trying to teach his followers about God the Mother and God the Father. He was trying to take out the “middle men” — the prophets, priests, and philosophers — whose grandiose, narcissistic musings about the One God had made it all but impossible for anyone to have a loving, trusting, forgiving relationship with the God who is Two.
If the church of the third millennium wants to follow the teachings of Jesus, it must let go of its apocalyptic, mystery-ridden, wisdom-elevated “Saviour,” and shift its focus to God.
Now there’s a radical idea.
* It’s fashionable these days for theologians and biblical scholars to express their profound regret that Jesus wrote nothing down because he was an illiterate Galilean carpenter who spoke only Aramaic. This is nonsense. No lasting Indo-European movement has ever got off the ground without an articulate, knowledgeable leader and a written record of the movement’s main tenets. To those scholars who insist that Jesus couldn’t write down his own original and penetrating observations about God, healing, and psychodynamics, I want to say, “Get a life , , , and a history book!”