“The figure and teachings of Jesus are too often broken down, adapted, and then shaped to fit people’s own particular needs and desires. Who was the real, walking, talking, preaching Jesus and what lessons can we take from him today?”
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
Don’t get tricked into confusing truth with facticity — i.e., facts and figures that seem to prove an “objective” reality. We know little about the historical Jesus — other than that he seems to have actually existed in first century Palestine and created enough anxiety in the minds of his religious and political superiors that he suffered a criminal’s death. Beyond that it’s all speculation, and the “facts” we look for, whether by archeology or textual criticism — are themselves open to speculation. But what is true is PRECISELY the subjective element: Whoever this Jesus may have been, his teaching and his existence in and of itself made such an impact on people that they passed on his story like wildfire and even founded a new religion to carry his teaching to the world. Over twenty centuries, the explosive energy of the Jesus event has changed the world. That much is true.
It’s also true that people continue to meet him in their hearts and in their lives, and over the centuries, creating some of the most remarkable human beings who have been the model of the highest possible degree of what human dignity and compassion are all about. Think about St. Francis... Thomas Merton... Dorothy Day... Mother Theresa... Dag Hammarskjold. For all these people the encounter with Jesus changed their lives and rekindled the flame of human striving. Is this all just massive self-delusion? Or is it the actual working mechanics of how everything that’s really REAL in our lives — love, beauty, hope, forgiveness — always seems to change us from the inside out.
Facts remain facts, but our relationship to them is what reveals truth. So it is with Jesus, and all the great spiritual beings who from time to time visit our planet to awaken us to the vastness of the divine Mystery, and the human heart that receives it. The two are inseparable, and the cure for “delusion” is not facticity, but clear and luminous vision.
That, incidentally, is what the star above the manger in Bethlehem represents symbolically: the clear and luminous vision that can proclaim “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward humankind.” The story is perhaps a legend, but the message is utterly true. And it is the message I wish to each and every one of you GOOP readers in this magical, mysterious season of Christmastide. Blessings to one and all!
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada. For more of her writing on Jesus, her book The Wisdom Jesus is available on amazon.com
Deepak Chopra replies:
The Nazarene rabbi who wandered the shores of northern Galilee is lost forever as a walking, talking man. He could have taught for as little as eighteen months, the scholars tell us, or as long as three years, as tradition believes. He had brothers and sisters. We know their names, or at least a couple of Gospels mention them. We don’t know why he didn’t go to Jerusalem for Passover except one fatal time. His relationship with Mary Magdalene could have been of primary importance, if the Gnostic Gospels are right.
The reason that this lost figure of history, mentioned only once in passing aside from in the Bible, has been adapted to so many uses, good and bad, is that a second Jesus emerged after the Crucifixion. This was the Jesus of theology, whose teachings became the basis for the Church. Religions have their own agendas. Every teaching in the New Testament has been modified over the course of two thousand years, quite often to suit the purposes of the time. If people today pick and choose among these teachings, they have ample precedent.
Still, that doesn’t solve the dilemma of someone inspired by Jesus who sincerely wants to walk in his footsteps. I was inspired as a child in an Indian school run by Christian brothers from Ireland. But as I grew up and saw the near impossibility of being like Jesus or becoming what he wanted me to be, I came to a new conclusion.
There is a third Jesus, who isn’t the historical rabbi or the creation of theology. This Jesus is a teacher and guide to a higher state of consciousness. The Gospels describe a man who had reached enlightenment, or if that term sounds too Eastern, a man who had become one with God. His fervent wish was to show his disciples how to rise to the same level. That is why he told them “You are the light of the world,” just as he said of himself, “I am the light of the world.” When he performed miracles, Jesus made sure that he told his disciples that they would do works as great as his, and greater.
So the answer to any question about the “real” Jesus is to look within and step onto the path that leads to God consciousness. Every great spiritual teacher has indicated that this is the only way to truth and freedom. Jesus is the teacher in this lineage who has the most prestige in the West, and for that I am glad, particularly at Christmas time.
Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity