The Indwelling of Compassion: The Evolution of Spirituality and Ethics in the Bible

Dedicated to the life and work of Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, D.D.

The image chosen for this post is Green Tara, the Hindu goddess of compassion, also known in Tibet and Nepal as Chenreshi.  There are two reasons for this selection: First, it is not only a Hindu or Buddhist entity, but a beautiful, universal representation of the compassion of the Divine Person to all beings.  This, as we shall see in this post, marks the high point of Judeo-Christian, religious development.  Second, it represents the feminine aspect of the Divine, which has been suppressed and denied by the church hierarchy over many centuries.

There is a book that I commend to you, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s A Guide to Understanding the Bible (1938).  Despite the years which have passed since its publication, the clear and concise overview it provides of the development of religious thought in the Old and New Testaments distinguishes itself as a resource for those who must sift through the Bible’s complex history. I liken it a relief map, where the comparative elevation of the geographical features may be seen in terms of their relationship to each other. This is by no means unique to Judeo-Christian (and the two must be considered together). Scripture (in any tradition) is by no means a level plain—there are peaks and there are valleys, with elevations in between.  A thoughtful and critical view is necessary if clarity is to be obtained.  There is also what Fosdick calls the chronological fallacy: a later date of composition does not always indicate superior quality, for example Revelation (later) versus Isaiah (earlier and more significant).  We cannot simply say, “it is written”.  The reader is enabled by this book to have the perspective to observe these contrasts and to evaluate scripture in terms of its stage of development and spiritual importance.  Several of its observations have been incorporated into this post, for which it is the primary reference.  For those with an interest, numerous copies are available on the used book market

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) occupies an important place in 20th century religious life.  Fosdick became a central figure in what is called the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th century. Although a Baptist, he was called to serve as pastor, in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and later at the historic Riverside Church. He outspokenly opposed racism and injustice. Ruby Bates credited him with persuading her to testify for the defense in the 1933 retrial of the infamous and racially charged legal case of the Scottsboro Boys, where nine black youths were tried before all-white juries for allegedly raping white women (Bates and her companion Victoria Price) in Alabama.  Although serving as a chaplain in World War I, he later became a pacifist and outspoken opponent of war.  He was an advocate of theistic evolution. He defended the teaching of evolution in schools and rejected creationism. He was involved in a dispute with the creationist William Jennings Bryan. A Guide to Understanding the Bible traces the beliefs of the people who wrote the Bible, from the ancient beliefs of the Hebrews (which he regarded as practically pagan) to the faith and hopes of the New Testament writers. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the preceding background information.)

The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, or Torah) is a composite of four different traditions, all interwoven throughout their texts.  As a result, conflicting messages appear.  Thus, not all passages are equal in terms of their spiritual outlook.  This is characteristic of the biblical narrative, where earlier conceptions are superseded by newer, more universal ones.  Those belonging to a more primitive stage of development may then be seen in the context appear along with those which developed from them.  In the Old Testament (as well as the New) the primitivism of earlier conceptions is on display for all to see.  It should come of no surprise to any student of religion that, in its earlier form, most belief systems are animistic, that is, attributing a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.  This included, as Fosdick writes, “primitive elements such as taboos, serpent worship, ordeal in justice cases, curses, magic in battle, sacred stones, trees, waters, and caves—some from its own background and some absorbed from Canaan.” 

Early practices included the teraphim, or household gods, which were carried around by primitive Semitic tribes with their possessions. The Jewish Encyclopeda states that these may have been the survivors of the earlier ancestor worship practiced in many religious cultures.  The teraphim were explained by the Rabbis as meaning “disgraceful things” and were not indigenous to the Israelites, being characterized as “god of the stranger” or “strange gods”.  This being said, it is not that we should dishonor our ancestors or forget them.  I don’t, and I hope you don’t either.  On my calendar are marked the birthdays of my mother, father, grandmother, and other relatives, and I make  the effort on these days to think of them.  In fact, somewhere in the wisdom literature there is a passage about the virtue and the obligation of honoring those who have gone on.  I can’t find it right now—trust me.

On another note, early Jewish practice did include the use of the Urim and Thummim as the means of inquiring of Yahweh.  These were stones which were cast to determine guilt (Urim) or innocence (Thummim) much as “heads or tails” in a coin toss.  Another use was to receive a “yes” or “no” answer from Yahweh.  In one instance David uses them to inquire of God whether to pursue the enemy or to stay in place. Although later sublimated to become part of the Ephod, or priest’s symbolical dress and no longer functioning as at first, Hebrew etymology gives us a clue to their function: the word Torah, or revealed will of God, has its origin as yarah, the casting of lots. [Adolphe Lods, Israel from its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century, trans. S.H. Hooke]  This points again to the process of development and to the varying accounts in the scriptural record.

Before Yahweh was the universal God he was a local god.  The localization of Yahweh persists through much of the Old Testament, as well as the prophetic awareness which later countered it. It can be said that the Ark of the Covenant was one of the places where God “dwelled”, invested with power and made a locus of worship”. At the time of Solomon the Ark as dwelling-place would be expanded to that of the Temple.  As awe-inspiring as the Temple was, it was still an aspect of localism. 

Significant, too, is the mention throughout the Old Testament of several holy trees (not unique to Judaism) under which auspicious events occurred, such as the High Priest Melchizedek’s visit to Abraham. Likewise, the Pentateuch is full of the manifestations of God in cloud, thunder, earthquake, lightning, and storm.  Signs such as these accompanied Moses on the mountain and in the journey to the Promised Land.  The cloud, especially, followed the Israelites on their journey and covered Yahweh on the mountain.  

It is important to know that the tribal religion of Israel was not an individualist faith but a social culture.  At this point in time there was only “the absorption of the individual’s meaning and value in the meaning and value of his tribe: in the primitive mind this was the continuous reality from which individuals came”.  There were no individual values—only tribal ones.  Accordingly, punishment for sin lay not upon the individual but was transmitted to the entire group, both in the present and future generations.  This was the meaning, in Numbers 14, “The LORD is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.”; and in Deuteronomy Chapter 5, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, and doing mercy to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”  Fosdick writes, “Not heredity but corporate personality explains Yahweh, the ‘jealous God’ visiting ‘the iniquity of the fathers upon the children’: the whole tribe suffered for any member’s sin.  This was only later to be countered by Jeremiah [31:29] with his pithy saying, “In those days they shall say no more, the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”   The idea of fellowship with God was not yet present: “The primitive conceptions of Yahweh made him personally unapproachable….quite apart from the fulminating fearfulness of Yahweh…he was not, even in his most gracious aspects, so much the friend of individual souls as the leader and war lord of the tribal confederation.” As religious thought developed, however, there was not enough truth in collectivism to either fit all the evidence or contain enough satisfaction to meet man’s deepest needs.

God is pictured in the Genesis account as having human features, walking in the Garden of Eden and conversing with Adam.  Moses’ physical vision of God in a human form is perhaps not only God making man in God’s image but man making God in man’s image.  Yahweh is both anthropomorphic (”hands, feet, face, eyes ears, and nose”) and anthropopathic (possessing human emotions and senses: jealousy, anger, regret, etc.) It also denotes the sensory participation of God in the sacrifices, such as “smelling the sweet savour” as they were burned on the altar.  And so, these attributes of Yahweh are connected to the earlier concept.

The curious relationship between Yahweh and Baal, both tribal gods at this time, cannot be avoided.  At first they co-existed because they were so different in function.  Baal, the Caananite god of agricultural plenty was needed to bestow rain and fertility on crops, where the Israelite “Lord of hosts” (Yahweh) was the leader of the tribe and the force behind their conquering army.  Their worship was blended, so that Yahweh himself became a Baal.  Fosdick writes, “So in the end, while the Ark may have been the special palladium of the people and the initial pledge of Yahweh’s presence, he was so far from being confined to it that he was available in the high places where his people worshiped….As soon as this idea of the approachability of Yahweh at the local shrines was well established, the blending of Yahweh and the baals was certain to proceed apace….Such a process as this is a commonplace in the history of religion. When Christianity moved into northern Europe, the old shrines of the pre-Christian deities, instead of being abolished, were often taken over and absorbed.”  From the time of Elijah onward came the prophetic determination to separate the worship of Yahweh from Baal.  At first the name Baal was used by the Jews for their God without discrimination, but as the struggle between the two religions developed, the name Baal was given up by the Israelites as a thing of shame, and even names like Jerubbaal were changed to Jerubbosheth, the Hebrew bosheth meaning “shame”. 1 Kings 18 contains the famous account of Elijah’s confrontation between Yahweh and Baal, with Elijah crying, “How long go ye limping between the two sides?  If Yahweh be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”  This demand was to be repeated by Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah.

The history of religious thought does not exist in a vacuum; it is transmitted within and between traditions.  As with Yahweh and Baal, religious symbols are absorbed by one tradition from another (Fosdick: “contagion is inevitable”).  It is a matter of historical accuracy that Egypt’s sun god, transformed from territorial to universal as Thutmose III conquered the known world, became the monotheism which antedated that of the Hebrew prophets.  Akhnaten’s universal symbol of the Aten, or sun-disk, has an intriguing connection to Moses.  The Aten was the disc of the sun and originally an aspect of Ra, the sun god in traditional ancient Egyptian religion, but was made by Akhenaten into the sole focus of official worship during his reign. The symbolism of the Aten disk could well have been the precursor of the monotheism of Abraham and the founders of the Jewish faith, as well alluded to by Jesus, who in Matthew 5:43-45 commanded, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (For a more complete account, see my post Start with the Sun).  Historian James Henry Breasted noted in his book The Dawn of Conscience that “Egypto-Babylonian culture also set Hebrew civilisation going.”: its ideals of humaneness and social justice predated those of the Hebrews.

As religious thought developed, so did ethical concepts.  Hebrew tribal justice lay in strong cohesion and there was an absence of no moral obligation to those beyond the group. Limited obligations and differing standards applied.  Here, too, was the distinction between resident aliens, “sojourners in the land”, and non-resident aliens.  For example, a beast which died of natural causes could be given away to the sojourner (“resident alien”), but diseased meat could be sold to a foreigner for whatever it would bring.  The seven-year moratorium on debts applied to loans to Hebrews, but not to foreigners.  Likewise, interest on a loan to a foreigner could be charged at whatever rate it could bring. Ethical obligations were codified in the Book of Deuteronomy and the process of development continued in the “widening range of moral obligation” and “increasing universality in the ethics of the Old Testament” associated with monotheism and “growing internationalism”. This discussion continues to our present day as questions regarding immigrant rights remain at the forefront of our political deliberations.  In theological terms, the “unavoidable antimony”, as Fosdick writes, of a God both nationalistic and universal, was never resolved in the Old Testament.

Here, too, is the related consideration of inter-racial relations, for in early Hebrew thought “here was no fertile soil for ideas of inter-racial obligation”.  Ruth stands out with her appeal against inter-racial prejudice and hostility.  The Book of Ruth was apparently aimed against the policy of forbidding mixed marriages, an argument vindicated by the fact that she, a Moabitess, became the ancestor of David.  It should be noted that only as recently as the 2000 Census that the Federal classification “two or more races” appeared, no longer requiring the applicant to choose the race with which he or she identified.

As the Israelite tribe transitioned from nomadic wandering to a settled civilization, there came with it a transition (and struggle) between two sets of economic and social cultures.  In the nomadic culture, there was little or no socioeconomic separation—no one was very rich or very poor.  The new structure was marked with a few rich and many poor, and, along with it, the issues of money, trade, credit, inequality and tyranny—all features of a commercialized regime.  This demanded a new prophetic voice to deal with ethical demands and solutions.

With the Psalms occurs a significant change.  Fosdick writes, “It is in the Psalter, however, that the development of personal prayer within the sacrificial system is most convincingly made evident….The Psalter as a compendium of all moods and attitudes, conflicts, desires, and aspirations of the soul in its relationships with God….Alongside the growth of personal prayer within the liturgical framework…went its development not only apart from the sacrifices but in opposition to them.”  This means that the inward practice, the spiritual observance, was to become more important than the outward one.  It is exemplified in Elijah’s hearing of God as the “still small voice”, not in the manifestations of nature: (1Kings 19:11-13) “And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.  And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?”  The Jerusalem Bible substitutes “gentle breeze” for “still small voice”, explaining in its notes: “The storm, earthquake, and lightning, which in Exodus 19 manifested God’s presence, are here only the heralds of his coming. The whisper of a light breeze signifies that God is a spirit and that he converses intimately with his prophets: it does not mean that God’s dealings are gentle and unperceived—this common interpretation is refuted by the terrible commission of vv. 16-17,” [Here Elijah is to anoint Jehu as King and Elisha as prophet to succeed him; anyone who escapes death by Jehu is to be killed by Elisha, except the “seven thousand in Israel…who have not bent before Baal, all the mouths that have not kissed him.”]  So, in truth, the outward culture of violence had not totally been escaped.

Nevertheless, a shift was taking place and the idea of fellowship of God was becoming more evident. This occurred as monotheism became increasingly ingrained in the faith of the people.  God’s unapproachableness in the old sense was replaced by “greatness in power and righteousness in character came to be recognized as the qualities of God— [Psalms 77:13] ‘Thy way, O God, is in holiness: Who is a great god like unto God?’ Primitive ideas of dreadful unapproachableness …had been left behind; the concept of divine sanctity had been sublimated into terms of transcendent purity; and instead of ‘holiness’ meaning aloofness, it could itself characterize a humble and contrite heart.  The changing meaning of holiness in the Bible are thus among the most indicative signs of progress, and obviously by the time the Isaiah of the Exile wrote, some men were praying in secret to the holy God.”   As with the Pentateuch, the Psalms, too, are a composite.  Psalm 51 (“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness….” could not have been sung in connection with the outward sacrifices (“For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”) Yet an incongruous ending is inserted, making the Psalm conclude “Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”  Development in religious thought does not occur without opposition (or scribal insertions). “Jewish prayer ranged over a wider ambit than Jewish law….prayer outran law, aspiration surpassed enactment, and the universal God was approached in intercession as ‘the confidence of all the ends of the earth, And of them that are afar off upon the sea.’ [Ps 65:5; Fosdick’s note “To be sure, this may refer only to the Jews of the dispersion.”]  Not only Christianity but the later Judaism was the enriched inheritor of this growing universality of interest and care….perceived by some as the corollary of monotheism—‘O thou that hearest prayer, Unto thee shall all flesh come.’ ” [Psalm 65:2]  An evolution of prayer (and with it, theology) was taking place: “from vindictiveness to magnanimity; from tribalism to universality; from the regret of panelized men over broken taboos to the penitence of humble men over personal guilt; from supplications for physical benefits to prayer as the fulfilling of interior conditions of spiritual growth; from the desire to impose man’s will on a god to the desire that God’s will should be done through man”

Another greatly important development in the law and the prophets was the “growing idea of personality’s sacredness”.  This included women, slaves, the poor, criminals, and animals, all of which concerns continue today.  They are present in the codes of Deuteronomy and continue to be developed in the Books of Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Job. This “heightened idea of personality” was that God “cared for it intimately, dealt with it separately, and would preserve it eternally”.  Scott Haldane gives us an amazing insight: “Personality is the great central fact of the universe.” Fosdick provides a useful contrast between Judeo-Christianity and Eastern teaching: “The Hindu-Buddhist development, starting from primitive ideas kindred with the Old Testament’s early tribalism, traveled a far different road.  There one feels the controlling sense of the misfortune of man’s self-conscious existence, its endless transmigrations, vain illusions, and insatiable desires.  There the solution was sought in a denial of individuality rather than in its affirmation…” Here lay the “dissevered roads of Buddhism and Judaism”: Nirvana as the satisfaction of one’s worthiest desires versus the Hebrew “affirmation of personality as boundless in value and possibility, and in its faith the God and his universe are pledged to the satisfaction of personality’s inherent promise”.  Common to the two paths, however, were the kindred motivations of “subjugating, disciplining, and eliminating”—the call to purification, an “acceptable sacrifice”.

The view and practice of sacrifice was undergoing a significant change: “In Judaism, the problem was solved, in part, by substituting the reading of the laws of sacrifice for their outward observance….. Forms of ritual stubbornly persist while the interpretations of them fluidly change; and second, so varied may these interpretations be that the most illiterate peasant and the most erudite philosopher can devoutly observe the same ceremonial, each seeing in it what each brings eyes to see….If to sophisticated thought the irrationality of bloody altars as a means of divine placation and fellowship became troublesome, the use of symbolism could come to the aid of the devout worshipper, as it has done in every other developing religion, Christianity not least of all.”  We are still faced with this conflict in Christianity today: “A large area of Christian theology would have been completely altered if ideas of atonement, especially as related to the blood of Christ, had not been carried over from primitive concepts associated with animal sacrifice.  Christianity left the rubric of bloody altars far behind, but mental patterns are too stubbornly persistent to be so easily cast off, and even yet semimagical ideas concerning the potency of blood, from the earliest documents of the Old Testament, are woven into some Christian hymns, sermons, and prayers.  In this regard Judaism has escaped from its own cult of sacrifice more completely than has Christianity.”

The way was paved for the advent of the Messiah and, with it, the New Testament outlook on the relationship of man to God.   Numerous passages on the “Servant of Yahweh” in Isaiah [42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12] proclaim “this one God cares for all mankind and mercifully purposes the salvation of the whole world”, as we are later reminded in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”. The compassion of the Divine in the incarnation of Jesus and his teaching can be discerned from the “high points” of the Old Testament, of which tradition it was a part.  Home relationships symbolizing divine-human kinship became a key part of Jesus’ teaching.  Principles of the family became those for all society.   Fosdick writes, “Intimate care for individuals was characteristic of Jesus and if he was the ‘image of God’ such must be the nature of the divine interest….To Jesus and the prophets, a man was a being with two major capacities, moral life and fellowship with God.”  The grace of the Divine must be acted out in human relations for it to be complete: there is an “equivalence between the mercy a man shows to man and the mercy he receives from God.” (Matthew 5:7; 18:23-25)  Truly, grace given is grace received.

Jesus’ acute moral perception and what Fosdick calls his “inwardness” is evident in his teaching: “This quality of inwardness was of the very essence of Jesus’ ethic.  He saw anger as killing, hate as murder, lust as adultery, and insincerity as perjury.  In his eyes genuine philanthropy and genuine prayer alike sprang from an inner quality of spirit, for which no outward deed could act as surrogate.”  Continuing with his reference to Hosea 6:6, he says, “I say to you, something greater than the Temple is here. If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned these innocent men.” This was a reference to his disciples picking and eating ears of corn on the Sabbath, placing it in its spiritual perspective, not its outward practice.  Referring to himself, he says, “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Mark’s version (2:27) of the incident includes another statement by Jesus right before the last sentence above that goes straight to the heart of the matter: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  This distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from its old form: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins: otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins: but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22).  The practice of the Pharisees (quoting “belonged to the old paradigm that Jesus was trying to break through. In effect, he and his disciples were saying by their words and actions: you can’t put new ideas into old mind-sets. You can’t get new results with old behaviors.”

In a theme that is surprisingly modern, Fosdick writes that Jesus’ high estimate of women was impossible to distinguish from men in the personal respect he gave them: “In Jesus woman found the best friend she ever had in the ancient world.”  To this I would add that current research on the role of Mary Magdalene as apostle of Jesus and leader of the new Christian community has revealed the concerted effort by the Fathers of the Church to suppress her role as evidenced by the anti-feminine bias of teaching and scripture (another low point) which continues to this day.  She traveled with him, witnessed his resurrection, and spoke prophetically to the disciples.  This was clearly unacceptable to a male-dominated (social and religious) culture, and so a campaign of innuendo began, calling her a whore and suppressing the true evidence of her role. Robert R. Cargill points out, “The women are the ones who go and tell the disciples.  They are the ones that discovered that he had risen, and that’s significant.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene alone after his Resurrection, and instructs her to tell his disciples of his return (John 20:1-13).  Again, the feminine aspect of the Divine, as I have presented here with the Green Tara image, is extensively manifested in the Book of Wisdom.

The radical nature of the Gospel of John sets it apart from the other Gospels.  Fosdick’s interpretation is that John’s theology of the Spirit convicting men of sin who do not believe in Christ means that Christ saves not so much from sin as from inner darkness of an unregenerate nature. We must then consider the role of the “third person” of the Trinity, the communion of the Holy Spirit: “No other word, used throughout the Book, so reversed in the end the most characteristic meanings with which it started as did the word ‘holy’….terrible sanctity from the approach of common men [to] this Spirit, his renewing and sustaining presence within the soul.” The teaching of  “the Word made flesh” and its pre-incarnate and continuing presence throughout all history is what has drawn me to John’s Gospel since my early years. My readings in other scriptures and research into other traditions have only served to underscore its universality, its significance its ultimate truth.

Regardless of where your beliefs may lie regarding the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, the “Man of Sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) was no stranger to suffering, one who lived, in John Stainer’s eloquent phrase from The Crucifixion, “the Majesty of Divine Humiliation”.  The Old Testament wrestled with the problem of sin, and Jesus had necessarily to deal with its “long sustained theodicy that all human suffering presupposes corresponding sin”, and that “God is absolutely just; his rewards and punishments are here and now equitably apportioned; all prosperity is award for antecedent goodness; all disaster is penalty for antecedent sin”. Fosdick writes that “No line of developing thought ever ran directly from the Old Testament into the New”: there was, however, the “accentuation of apocalyptic hope” in the “expectation of an imminent Messianic age” with its “solution of the problem of life’s injustices”. Christ came to minister to human sin and pain, for truly he was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).  According to  John, 9:1–12, where Jesus saw a man who had been blind since birth, his disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  To this Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  This underscores my own view that we are adrift in an ocean of causality, that tragedies befall both the good and the evil in varying and inconsistent degrees, and that, somehow, spiritual teaching and spiritual living must look beyond this. For this reason we need a Savior. What developed in the succeeding Christian scriptures was a unique “positive enthusiasm” on the use of suffering, with its purpose in the future.  This was a new teaching, and a different view, transforming the old understanding. 

The early church was animated by the transcendent presence of Christ and, emboldened by this, went on to proclaim him to the world.  Here I must respond to the current efforts of “post-theological” thought to humanize Jesus to the point of irrelevance, saying that he was just another prophet, or healer, or philosopher.  They seek to denigrate the person of Christ (and I am being facetious here) into “a really smart guy who said a lot of wisecrack things which pissed off the High Priest and the Romans and got him killed”.  Why would his adherents face ridicule, persecution, even death for a Being less than transcendent and powerful?  Would you give your life for someone like that?  What they experienced of the risen Christ was sufficient for them to give all they had for the Gospel. Fosdick’s view of the resurrected Christ may or may not be your own:  He notes two kinds of experiences regarding Jesus’ continued life; accounts of spiritual visions predate those of the empty tomb: “The question inevitably rises: What if faith in Jesus’ continued life originated in such spiritual experiences and was translated afterward into stories of physical resuscitation by the inveterate Jewish-Christian idea that without such revivification no life after death was conceivable?”

It was only natural that, in the various locales and cultures, Christianity was to take on different forms. Influence of pre-existing worship forms from the liturgical heritage of Judaism and “the inexorable pressure of ideas and customs in the Mediterranean world, especially in the mystery religions, presaged the development in Christianity, as in other faiths, of ritual and sacrament.”  These accompanied an “informal, spontaneous, and non-liturgical” atmosphere in some of the first churches. This rich variance, a multicolored quilt of practice and belief, persists in Christianity (Christianities?) to this day.

In my own reading I have found that the most exciting current discoveries have come from the relationship of Christ and Christianity to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other traditions.  None other than Jesus himself said, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)  Christ as Savior must be the Christ of the whole world.  The “high point”, indeed, is the practice of prayer and meditation, and with it the indwelling compassion of Divine Personhood  which continues to shine through multiple windows as its highest expression.

God loves us personally and cares for us deeply—what could be better news than that?

             “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

   —Luke  1:76-79





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