You put me on the spot! My own fault, of course, for suggesting that the Christian story might mean something vaster, and be more spiritually significant, than most of us moderns seem to think. The Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension are concepts spoken of long before Christianity adopted them. St. Augustine recognized this when he wrote:
The very thing, which is now called the Christian religion, really was known to the ancients, nor was it wanting at any time from the beginning of the human race up to the time Christ came in the flesh; from which time the true religion, which has previously existed, began to be called Christian. — Retractations, I, xiii, 3
One has only to look closely at Christianity to discover how many concepts of other religions are embodied in it, either in identical terms or with slight variations of detail. Osiris, for instance, was dismembered instead of crucified in the Egyptian version of the allegory. He is also depicted as having wheat or corn of some kind growing from his body — and do not Christians eat the bread of their Lord at Communion? No one questions the fact that the Egyptian tale is older than the Christian version. Does that imply that the Christian story is untrue? Nothing of the sort; it simply suggests that it was not a unique event in history. It has happened before, and will happen again, and it signifies more than its literal interpretation.
What, then, does the story mean, apart from the accepted view? Here again I am on the spot! Quite frankly I'm not certain, for only those who have experienced the reality can know what it means, and such people, I am convinced, could not remain long amongst us. They have attained a stage of evolution above mankind, just as mankind lives on that rung of the ladder higher than the beasts. Theirs is truly an "ascension," and from our standpoint they "walk with God."
Nevertheless, I believe we do have some pointers as to what all this is about. The great teachers have told of a world which exists above, beyond, or within this waking world of ours — a world of the spirit, the antithesis of material existence. Some have spoken of intermediate realms as well: "In my Father's house are many mansions."
Suppose we admit the possibility of another state of existence, with a system of values which sets at nought our earthly goals and ambitions, a sphere in which personalities do not matter, where our wantings, anxieties, aversions, and other petty feelings are stilled, where pleasure comes only from the smile on another's face, and where knowledge and understanding have revealed the cause and end of sorrow.
Let us try to imagine such a quality of experience where the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount are not merely beautiful platitudes but are the natural way of living; where, for instance, "meekness" is not a suspect virtue. One doesn't know whether the term "poor in spirit" is an exact translation from the original sermon, but we, in our materialistic wisdom, would think that to be "strong in spirit" should be the virtue. The translators, however, have succeeded in coining a phrase which is strong with the aroma of this other world, so strange to us. "To lay down one's life for a friend" is indeed a "greater love" amongst us mortals, but in this other realm of experience it would be the norm. Truly this other world is incomprehensible but, somehow, it strikes a deep chord of longing in us.
The ancient traditions tell us that there is an act of renunciation which marks the boundary line between our world and the world of the spirit. Give up your life if you would gain it, said Jesus, and I don't think he meant give up our responsibilities and duties. There is more renunciation in carrying out these latter, though our soul hungers for peace, than in grasping for the spirit and leaving our debts unpaid. It is rather a payment of those debts in more fullness, a keener sense of our responsibilities, a more thorough carrying through of our duties, which brings about this peace — and this is part of the divine unreason which, by paradox, is more powerful than the logic of self-interest. It is this divine unreason which bids: "Step out from sunlight into shade, to make more room for others." "Sell all your goods, and give to the poor." "Not my will, O Lord, but Thine."
This other world is as strange to me as it may be to you. Let a man travel but a little way towards it, and he towers head and shoulders above us. Should he go further, he disappears from our ken, like a sound that becomes ultrasonic. But the perfected man, like the ultrasonic sound, hasn't ceased to exist. He cannot disappear from the universe. He has seen and experienced the depth of human misery, and vowed not to let "one tear of pain" dry before he has "wiped it from the sufferer's eye," nor will he brush off from his heart a "burning human tear, until the pain that caused it is removed." His task among men has become fundamental, though unseen. His consciousness has been identifying itself more and more with mankind as he gradually withdrew his outer appearance from them. His spirit has been spreading wider and wider over them, in an essence of compassion and love. Perhaps we have partaken of that love in a subtle way, and felt our loads the lighter for it. He has become one of the world's saviors, born into the spirit without visible sire.
And so the perennial Christian and pre-Christian story will have been told, once again.
We may appreciate the beauty and relevance of these ideas, and see that during the long ages of prehistory more than one savior may have been born, yet feel that the story only remotely is of concern to us. Maybe it is. Maybe we are not ripe to consider perfection. We do not understand it, therefore why should it be of any significance to us?
Why, indeed? It is here, I think, that the message of the orthodox churches fails us. Christ died for our sins and to save our souls, we are told, but we still have our sins, and the concept of hell-fire has little threat in it these days. What deity could it be who bids us be perfect and threatens us with violence if we refuse? Even our mundane courts have more sense than that.
I think there is an answer. We are told that the Kingdom of Heaven is within, that is, within each one of us. If that is so, then we are a world in ourselves — two worlds, in fact, one heavenly and the other corresponding to that around us. In the heavenly part of us lies that divine unreason, from which comes the sense of longing and the strange urge to act contrary to our own self-interest.
You and I may think we would feel lost in this "other" world. How much more must our "better selves" feel lost in our own mundane sphere, for they must be affected by it, just as we suffer from twinges of conscience coming from "above." Imagine what it must be like for that portion of our nature which would rather die than harm the least of God's creatures, when we are in the middle of a war or when dreadful atrocities are going on. It must be like hell to it, a rending apart, a crucifixion.
Come to think of it, were it not for our better self and its persuasions and admonishments, we would be calculating crooks, without principles and without scruples. Is it possible that somewhere in our make-up there is a part of us which, right now, is suffering a living death for our sakes? Perhaps it begins to dawn on us that we are setting the stage for another re-telling of the perennial story. Isn't it likely that the central figure in this version is — ourself, or rather an aspect of ourself? But this time, instead of the central figure moving away from our ken, it is the shadow of our former self dropping away from us, as we move towards the "peace that passeth all understanding."
Add to all this the fact that in most versions of the story other than the Christian, man is shown as having many lives on earth, lives to try and fail, and try and fail again until he eventually succeeds, and we may begin to see that the story may indeed be vaster and of more spiritual significance to each of us than we seem to think.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2000/ January 2001; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)
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