A Contemplative Reflection on the Death of Christ

A Contemplative Reflection on the Death of Christ June 19, 2024

Allen, who is a reader of this blog, recently sent me a thoughtful email; here are some excerpts from what he wrote:

I have a profound connection with the teachings of Jesus, yet I struggle with certain aspects of Christian fundamentalism, particularly the exclusivity that sometimes accompanies it… For me, life seems to be about recognizing that we’re all essentially “children of God,” each of us being eternal spiritual beings. It feels like we’ve forgotten this truth and the journey is about rediscovering and reconnecting with our spiritual essence, often found in the stillness of the present moment. God’s presence is to be found in the present moment.

My evolving beliefs see the world as a battle between consciousness and unconsciousness, symbolized by the duality of Good and Evil. I strongly believe in the reality of the risen Christ, but I perceive this presence as something far larger and more encompassing than traditional Christian narratives suggest. To me, Christ isn’t confined within the structures of Christian religion but is omnipresent—in everything and everywhere.

I still cannot reconcile the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross, the atonement etc. with my evolving beliefs.

Thanks for taking the time to write, Allen, and I’m happy to share a few of my own thoughts in response.

As I read and re-read your words, I am reminded of a couple of quotations, one from John Lennon, the other from Rick Doblin.

John Lennon: “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” This was part of  his infamous “The Beatles are more famous than Jesus” interview, which got him into a lot of hot water at least in America. But frankly, he was saying in 1966 pretty much the same thing that my reader is saying now.

Rick Doblin: “Mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism.” He is quoted saying this in Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, and although Doblin is to the best of my knowledge not a particularly religious or spiritual person, I believe his insight holds true for any kind of mysticism, in response to any kind of fundamentalism.

And that seems to take me to the heart of what Allen is saying: that the beauty, power and wonder of Jesus’s message has become all but lost thanks to the “twisting” that the fundamentalist mindset, prevalent in authoritarian religion, does, effectively replacing Jesus’s message of unconditional love, radical inclusivity and equality with a much more dualistic message of moral legalism and a reward/punishment system presided over by an angry and judgmental image of God.

So how do we sort all this out?

First, I simply want to affirm what Alan is experiencing. I am hardly a fundamentalist, but nevertheless I feel the tension, too. I feel the tension whenever I read the ranting of a Christian nationalist on social media, or when I someone like Harrison Butker make sexist and anti-queer comments that just prove too many Christians are as “thick and ordinary” as ever.

I think it is good that people who love the radical teachings of Jesus feel the tension when we are confronted with the bigotry and judgmentalism of fundamentalism. That tension is a reminder that we who are committed to compassion, mercy, forgiveness, unconditional love, and mystical joy have to remember that not everyone sees the world the way we do — including not every Christian.

Yes, Allen, I agree. We are all essentially children of God: no exceptions. And like you, I am horrified that too many Christians seem to have forgotten this. Followers of Jesus, of all people, should know better.

This reminds me of a meme I saw recently on Facebook. I don’t know if this is true or not, you know how memes are. I ‘d rather it not be true. But I worry that it is.

Duality and Nonduality

Allen ends his email to me by saying this:

My evolving beliefs see the world as a battle between consciousness and unconsciousness, symbolized by the duality of Good and Evil. I strongly believe in the reality of the risen Christ, but I perceive this presence as something far larger and more encompassing than traditional Christian narratives suggest. To me, Christ isn’t confined within the structures of Christian religion but is omnipresent—in everything and everywhere.

I still cannot reconcile the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross, the atonement etc. with my evolving beliefs.

I certainly hope we can all promote consciousness over unconsciousness. Yes, “the risen Christ” is far bigger than what the churches proclaim. Yes, Christ cannot be confined to Christianity — or to any religion, creed, or dogma.

But reading these last sentences, I’d like to suggest to Allen that you still have a task ahead of you: an invitation that you might want to consider. Perhaps seeing things as a “battle” is getting in the way of this invitation. Christ’s death, after all, was the event that triggered his resurrection: no risen Christ without a crucified Christ. I am going to set aside for now theologies of the atonement. I believe Christianity, as a religion, began in trauma: the trauma of seeing our beloved leader brutally executed by an uncaring occupying force. Watching an innocent person suffer and die is traumatizing — and Christianity has been trying to make sense of the trauma of the cross for some two thousand years now.

As far as I’m concerned, theologies of the atonement are simply efforts that Christians have made over the centuries to try to make sense of the trauma of the cross. It seems to me that most atonement theories have big holes in them (why would a loving God require a death to prevent him from punishing the people he created and supposedly loves?), and that is probably because theology seems to be inherently dualistic — when we try to express our faith through language, we are limited by language, and find ourselves drawing distinctions (between God and not-God, between good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, matter and spirit, life and death…) that seem to be inherent in language and doctrine. It has been said that a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it; philosophical dualism is a by-product of human language (our cognitive need to separate out categories like “good” and “bad”) and language (including doctrine and theology) cannot erase the dualism that emerges from the cognitive mind. We only find nondual consciousness and awareness  through radical silence — beyond language. Which is why nondual teachers (like the Buddha, and I believe Jesus too, although the New Testament doesn’t document it) teach silent meditation as a way to access nondual consciousness.

So that’s the invitation for Alan (and all of us) — when we approach spirituality, religion, Christianity, etc. through the medium of language (including theology and even the writings of the mystics) we are left with binaries and dualities, from “good” and “evil” to “consciousness” and “unconsciousness” — or “the death of Christ” and “the risen Christ.” Only in the radical silence that we access by grace through contemplation do we begin to see where the crucified Christ and the risen Christ are “not-two” — and that even consciousness and unconsciousness share a unity (in God) that is greater than the separation that we normally experience on an earthly/human level. Nonduality is not about “anything goes” — evil is something we must fight, whether we do so dualistically or non-dualistically. But to oppose evil from a nondual place is to recognize that God is still present in all things, and therefore even those who perpetrate evil deserve compassion and fair treatment and the opportunity for reconciliation and restoration where appropriate. A dualistic opposition to evil just wants to destroy it (something we see all too often in our political discourse these days!)

So: how to reconcile the meaning of the death of Christ with the risen Christ? First, stop worrying about the “meaning” of it all. Simply rest in love. Then, seek through prayerful silence to be able to see all things through the grace and wisdom and love of God. When we see the crucifixion through the eyes of  divine love, we don’t see “atonement” but we do see an infinite expression of love — that is one with the resurrection that follows it so quickly.

To Allen: thanks for a fascinating email for me to respond to! And I hope anyone who reads this has found something of interest to ponder.

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