Saturday 1 September 2007

Beware of Friends Bearing Messages - The Jesus Principle

This post is dedicated to you, Greg, for proving to me beyond a reasonable doubt that faith, wisdom, and intelligence can share the same mind.

Let's Hang Out
What would be really good is if we could spend some face time together. If I already know you, I'd love to see you again. If I don't, I'd like to meet you, and get to know you, and hang out with you, because, if you're here in the first place, we're obviously on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, modern life being what it is, chances are pretty good that, whoever you are, unless you live close by, we'll have to just settle for spending time here. Not that that's a bad thing. The greatest power of the Internet -- the personal, digital printing press, telephone, and living room all rolled into one -- is that it allows us as individuals to spend time with more people at one time and in one life than our ancestors, or even our parents, would have ever believed was possible.

You're On My Friends List
I promise you won't be disappointed if you do allow me to share your time. I think you'll be glad you did. You may even enjoy hearing my stories almost as much as my kids do. You'll enjoy learning about the world as I see it, even if you see it in a completely different way, because, if you let me, I will make you think. If you don't already know me, you're going to get to know me pretty well, even if you don't know what I look like. If you already know me, you're going to get to know me a little better. If you read this and you can see the real me, then chances are that I've also seen some of the real you. If you're reading this, I already consider you as my friend.

Tough Choice Re-Visited
I made a choice a number of years ago whose consequences I've been living with ever since. It was a tough choice, a very tough choice, and anyone who has had to make it will understand that, whichever path you choose, it will affect and it can and probably will ruin many parts of your life. In other words, the very existence of the choice is somehow destructive. I made the choice I made then because the parts of my life that would be ruined were all to do with the people I loved, and the benefits of the path I did not choose would fall mostly to me. I'm faced with the same choice again, though it now feels more like a compulsion, but this time I think I can manage the consequences better, being older if not wiser. Either that, or I'm so afraid of being snuffed out like a candle that feel I better take my shot while I still have something to shoot with.

So You Wanna Be Famous?
The choice of which I speak did have something to do with becoming a person of some renown. I wrote a book that I was pretty sure would make me very famous, and infamous with many. There is an inherent assumption these days that fame is good, that it is a recognition of accomplishment of qualities that people find noteworthy, but the thing that strikes me about fame, at least from the outside, is that it seems to have been designed as a very clever practical joke, played on those who should have known better but were trusting enough to have bought the basic premise. Many without it covet it like nothing else, as it seems to represent something that every human being craves; to be accepted, on a truly grand scale. Those familiar with it, those who talk so that so many can hear, often have lives as tragic as they are successful, because, though they are heard by so many, often times the ones who they would most like to reach may not be listening, and part of the reason they are so good at talking to so many is that they are so used to being not listened to, that they have developed remarkable communication tricks, which is what so many others hear.

Snake In The Grass
For such as them, such social standing is actually a penalty, a balancer, for living their lives by doing what they were really put on this earth to do, for better or worse. It is like a serpent slithering though leaves on the forest floor of Paradise, reminding you that if you want to use this world as your personal playground, as your own earthly kingdom, where riches flow to you simply because you are who you are and you do just what you want to do, then you had better learn to step a little more lightly. You just cannot have it all, and Fame, along with a few other vile but inevitable creatures like Tragedy and Disease, is there to make sure you remember that. The final poke, what you realize as you feel the poignant prick of its fangs pierce your skin, is that what you really wanted was not just to be accepted but to be understood, and the number of people that actually understand you is no more now than before you were famous.

Mask of Normalcy
So, anyway, as a result of the choice I made, I went into a kind of hiding, at least from the public, as any living organism might when perceiving a threat to its security, or even survival. I built a Trojan Horse of normalcy around myself, wondering at times if I would ride it all the way to the horizon, never stopping to emerge within any castle along the way to show its inhabitants what I had in that horse with me. After all, when faced with the dilemma of whether to show your true self and thereby change the shape of your life and many of those in it forever, or to voluntarily sacrifice the yearnings of that inner self for the sake of sheltering yourself and those you love from risk, ridicule, and possible harm, isn't it pretty clear which is the moral choice?

The Selfish Choice
This was essentially what my book was about, though I had no idea as I wrote it that the choice of which I wrote fictionally was one that I would face myself upon completion. The problem was that my book was about that same choice as faced by an allegorical Jesus, and my contention was that he made the immoral choice, the selfish choice, the wrong choice. My argument went that, if we accepted that Jesus was special from a very young age to everyone who knew him, as anyone must be possessed of such wisdom, or even if we took a historical approach that he was special from the time his words became worthy of record and quotation, we must also have realized that all those whose lives he touched, all those who surely loved him and were concerned for his welfare, would have been deeply affected by any important decision he made regarding the direction of his life.

What Killed Jesus?
I could not see how anyone could doubt that it was Fame that killed him, the fame that came naturally, inevitably, from people being captivated by his words, and his deeds. It had to be assumed that he knew his own fate, if not by some divine gift of precognition then at least in the way that a person of intelligence knows that to challenge the powers-that-be with certain ideas is to invite certain disaster. My reasoning was that, if he did know his own fate, and continued to pursue it, what did that say about his sense of responsibility to those who loved, nurtured, and followed him? Wouldn't he have been worth more to them alive, teaching them further how to live, or simply sharing more of his time?

The Question of Sacrifice
The educated Christian response to that, of course, would be that he had the sins of mankind to die for, for eternity, which would have outweighed any humanistic, earthly considerations of the time, and that his primary responsibility was to God, not his circle of loved ones. When I wrote my book, I had two problems with this argument. First of all, this did not make any sense to me based on the ways of people. Think of the people in our lives that really make us mad. The guy who blames everyone else for his mistakes, the woman who won't give in even though it's obvious she's wrong, the kid who whines about everything he doesn't have when he should be thankful for everything he has. These people bother us because they will not make sacrifice, and will not accept responsibility. Both personal sacrifice, the ability to accept that you can want but don't need everything, and personal responsibility, the understanding that what you do need has to come from you, are critical for personal growth. Sacrifice brings humility and perspective, two profoundly beneficial qualities for society at large. So why would anyone concerned with the spiritual well-being of humankind make that sacrifice for them? Out of love for them? In my softer moments as a parent, I would certainly prefer to protect my children from ever having to make significant personal sacrifices, but I know in the end that, for them to grow, and learn to accept responsibility for their actions, they must learn not only to make sacrifices but to willingly accept them.

The Ultimate Epitaph
Secondly, I wondered how we could ever know whether this stated mission, of one person's sacrifice for the good of all humankind, was just a good cover for wanting to become great. Those interested in their legacies and concerned with their own mortality could do worse for an epitaph than "He Saved Everyone For All Eternity." Those possessed with the power of words, the power to persuade, have a huge responsibility to live with, in that they are capable of doing great good, but also great evil. To strive for and achieve worldly greatness is to walk a very fine line between those two extremes. Even notions of great altruism and charity can be double-edged; is the self-fulfillment in noble philanthropy related only to the simple joy of helping another person, or is there some part that craves the adoration and respect that "selflessness" will likely invite? Can anyone really know for certain what truly motivates another individual? If you love someone, set them free; isn't that how it's supposed to go? Who would doubt that a charismatic individual can choose to use his words, her power, to manipulate people into doing what s/he wants? You must know such a person, probably you know many. But what do we make of a person who uses such a power to control the people s/he loves? Could this have possibly been what Jesus was doing, consciously or not?

That Dammed Stream
Or perhaps Jesus had never even had a choice. The strength of the compulsion of which I have spoken, the compulsion to represent who you really are, made me wonder if an attempt to consciously divert a human being's nature was like trying to stop a stream by putting your foot across it. It may flow in another direction, it may change shape or form, but flow it will, to wherever downstream it is bound to go. Everything from Scripture to Holy Communion makes clear that God gave Jesus to the world as a sacrificial lamb, so, in this rendering at least, regarding his ability to shape his own destiny, he may have had little more choice than does a farmed sheep from becoming mutton, fated to bleed out into a stream running as red as wine and be feasted upon by the grateful and ungrateful alike.

Cost Benefit Analysis
Those were the things I was thinking about at the stage of my life at which I wrote the book, and it was the certain repercussions that would have come with airing these ideas that led me to eventually destroy everything I had written. These ideas may not seem all that inflammatory now, but, as I look back, I recall that that period was not all that far removed in time from the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses. It may seem ridiculous to some to expect a similar reaction among Christians to a work that was perceived to be blasphemous to Jesus, but, besides the fact that all but the most careful reading of my work might have offended even members of my own family, this was also a time in North America when anyone involved with the provision of abortions ran the real risk of being murdered by those with strong religious beliefs against the practice.

The Love That Passes All Understanding
Though I have foresaken my first choice of a full-time job, I have continued to ponder these questions part-time, and I have since come to realize, being 20 years older and hopefully a little bit wiser, that the object of worship and love for so many was not strictly defined by the man himself but by the ideal of the love that he was said to profess. The person who loves everyone as he loves the most cherished person in his life is the cleanest, most perfect, happiest person any of us could ever imagine. For that person, it is indeed possible to sacrifice out of love without absolving of personal responsibility those for whom you are making the sacrifice. Love and forgiveness can be used to burn away even the most heinous instances of betrayal, defiance, and disappointment, but such a possibility is not the product of any ordinary love. One might hear an exquisitely rare story of a mother who eventually finds enough love in her heart to forgive the man who murdered her husband and children. Imagine this kind of love then magnified to include all human iniquity througout the ages. This is a love so great as to be not only beyond human capacity, but beyond human comprehension. Whether divinity is a living entity or just a concept for organizing complexity is a subject of some debate, but, either way, it is no wonder that such a love as this would be described as the love of God.

Question Arising
It necessarily follows therefore that, for our small minds to even begin to be able to conceive such a concept as this love, it would need to be demonstrated in a way that humanity could understand. I suppose it is from this need that may come the Christian conclusion that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son. Consideration of such love, with Jesus or anyone else as a medium, is a wise and worthy pursuit, giving us an ideal towards which we can aspire, to enrich and improve our lives. Where the question arises, is as to whether this awe-inspiring ideal can only arise in consideration of Jesus, or whether it can be considered of its own accord, or perhaps again through reflection on a selection of equally compelling life stories, including our own.

By All Accounts
I don't know about you but, even an hour or so after the most important conversations of my life, I cannot remember word for word everything that I heard, or recall with exact precision what I have seen. We now possess the most amazing communications tools, and still there are as many accounts of facts and events as there are people to write them. Accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus were passed through many sets of ears and eyes over the course of years and even centuries before ever being recorded. The message I take from this is that what makes his life worthy of contemplation would be terribly limited if restricted simply to the things he said and did. What is infinitely more instructive is the shape of ideas that has emerged from discussion of his life. If we can never know what he thought, what he really said and did, or even whether or not he existed, we can at least know and discuss the ideals to which this history of discourse refers.

Across The Spectrum
There have been plenty of messiahs for humankind, some overtly self-styled, and doomed to obscurity, some still widely followed, and I have always believed that there are as well at least a thousand people alive at any one time who believe it is their destiny to fulfill that role. I believe with enthusiasm and without hesitation in the ideals to which believers in these perceived redeemers are drawn for inspiration. I believe as well that the discussion of these ideas, that takes place across the spectrum of religious faiths, brings anyone open-heartedly involved in the discussion closer to their own true selves and therefore closer to each other.

Qualm & Question
My qualm is with the very concept of an actual person whose motives I can never know, addressing on my behalf such elemental principles of life as sacrifice, responsbility, and love. Whether the people who claim or have claimed to address these principles on my behalf have a choice in the matter, or whether they just do what they do and are somehow destined to do so, is not, to me, the most interesting question. Far more interesting to me is this. Does the fact that they can captivate, guide, and even free people from their burdens by tapping into a message that is deeper than the ocean of humanity's consciousness and grander than the universe in which our imagination roams mean that we should ascribe predominance and grant dominion over our thoughts to the messenger?

The Messenger Is Not The Message
My answer to this question is the title of this post, and it is a warning that is even more resonant in the age of the Internet. What makes the Internet and all of our other tools of mass communication so wonderful, providing as they do the ability to reach and even spend time with so many people all at once, also makes them very, very dangerous. These threads of insight transmitted to us though waves and wires allow both the responsible and the irresponsible, the noble and the self-serving, access to our coveted attention. Can you tell them apart? I'm not sure I can. What can set you free can also enslave you, that is no secret, but even the message most liberated from everything we may have known before, hides the secrets of the messenger.

Even if that messenger is famous. Even if that messenger is revered. Even if that messenger is your friend.

Trust me. Unlike everyone else, I have only the best intentions.

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