A Zen Jesuit Responds to My Best Read on Jesus and His Message

A Zen Jesuit Responds to My Best Read on Jesus and His Message November 1, 2022



Going back to a year that might have changed my life

Yes and . . .

A Zen Jesuit Response to my blog posting Best Read on Jesus and His Message

Dear James,

Your “Best Read on Jesus and His Message” was more than quick summation of the Jesus sayings, miracle stories, resurrection narratives, including possible source materials, how they were collected, and the way the early church used them, including the split between the Jerusalem vs the Greek/gentile communities. It is, from my understanding, pretty accurate. It might be a good jumping off point if we are just looking to examine the impact of what comes down to us, for both good and ill, of the “the Jesus Teaching.” I have to admit that it took me in another direction.

Can I tell you that your Unitarian training is showing? Let me chime in from the more liturgical Catholic point of view, even though I am definitely a former Catholic with little affinity left for ritual observance of any kind, even the spare zen kind.

I’ll call this “Going back to a year that might have changed my life.”

This morning I find myself thinking about the year and half I spent at Dartmouth in the Religious Studies department. After I came back from France in 64, I decided that I would enter the Jesuits. I wanted to go to the novitiate right away, but my parents objected. I talked with the Newman Chaplin, and decided to switch my major to Religious Studies. I’d written on the religious drama of Paul Claudel in France, and there were no majors in the department, so I worked out a split major. I spent my last full year taking every course given by a stellar faculty, the kind of top level scholarship rarely assembled anywhere. Every day Jacob Neuser, H Hans Penner, Jonathan Z Smith, Robin Scroggs and a Belgian Augustinian who’d been a peritus at Vatican II, a visiting scholar, directed my study. There were few other students so my classes were basically seminars. I wrote my senior thesis on the Prophetic Voice in the Christian church under Neusner. I was closest to Neusner. He liked me and encouraged me. His Judaism also came closest to the way in which I held my Catholicism, faithful, open-minded and inquisitive. I wrote to him several times over many years, and he always took the time to respond thoughtfully and generously.

If it had not been 1965-66, the end of the Vatican Council, and if my deep personal bias is what most would label extremely liberal, I might have fallen in with some right wing group like Opus Dei though some might argue that the Jesuits could be classified as a left-wing cult. Regardless, I was cult material. Thank god I was more interested in what John Courtney Murray, Gus Weigel and Hans Bea were up to. Throw in some Urs Von Balthasar, Hans Kung, Thomas Merton mixed in a bit of Mircea Eliade and you got me theologically. Add hard drinking, avoidance of dealing, or even acknowledging my homosexuality, and you got me personally. Looking back I was extremely conservative, even defensive, sure that the Roman Catholic Church had all the answers, or at least kernels of “The” truth were there if you looked carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and critically enough.

My concerns, at least from a theological point of view, were reconciling the apparent discrepancies in the resurrection narratives. Jesus had to have been bodily resurrected into heaven. It all hinged on that. When Scroggs, I think, asked me how I handled the outlier report of the risen Jesus telling his disciples to go before him to Galilee where he would ascend to heaven, I felt that there was either some misreporting or reporting a miscommunication. Further textual analysis would solve the mystery. Perhaps I really just had to learn Greek and/or Aramaic.

Neusner had just published the first of the more than 900 hundred books and articles he wrote during his stunning career: A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai. Leiden, 1962. Ben Zakkai was a contemporary of Jesus, and central to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism that took root in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Ah ha, so Jesus was not a stand alone figure in the religious turmoil of his era. Neusner was an amazing scholar. He’d studied the religious history of Palestine during the first century of the common era exhaustively. He said there was evidence of hundreds of wandering teachers like John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazarath, and Yohanan ben Zakkai populating the parched landscape. This estimate might be very conservative.

Toying with the idea of converting to Judaism, I talked with Neusner. He was always the scholar, but he was an extremely approachable and friendly man. He cautioned me, ”the conservative Jewish position is quite cultural. Conversion does not work the way it does in Christianity. It normally happens when Jew marries a Gentile, and the couple has to handle the day to day observance of the Law.” I was not going to get married, period, Jew or Gentile. My sense was that he had the confidence of a religious man that his particular faith tradition, let’s call it religious proclivity, provided some clues. He said that he could not deny that Christians had helped spread the teaching of the Prophets throughout the world. How’s that for endorsement of a religious belief system? I’m looking for the Messiah and he says that Christianity would do as a promotion, including a byline, on the back cover of a particular understanding of the Law of Moses. Oddly at the time that was enough. He encouraged me to enter the Jesuits. He perhaps felt, or hoped that with the discipline of the Jesuits I might be able to become a scholar. He might have felt that truly mastering scholarship would unlock some of the questions that I wrestled with.

Your quote from Robin R. Meyers about early Christianity is certainly provocative. “Consider this remarkable fact: In the Sermon on the Mount, there is not a single word about what to believe, only words about what to do and how to be. By the time the Nicene creed is written, only three centuries later, there is not a single word in it about what to do and how to be – only words about what to believe.” This not entirely true, or at least it’s certainly misleading. First, the presupposition is wrong; very few of the parables in the narratives contain any doctrinal statements. Meyers has framed his “remarkable fact” for the spirituality vs religion crowd.  He says “only three centuries,” but neglects to say that those three centuries were as eventful as the last 75 years in terms of the rise and fall of religions and empires. But most importantly he completely neglects the importance of the confession of faith amongst the early believers.

From the time of the very first churches, there was always emphasis on what you believed in, and who you believed in. That was in fact the path to salvation. I was just reading an interview with Neusner. He was asked, “Why is dogma essential to orthodox Christianity and not to Judaism?” His response: “The main reason is that Christianity begins with the demand to believe in something or someone. There is a proposition attached to the beginning of the faith. You are saved through what you believe. This is certainly the message of Paul and the early church. Christianity stresses theology, not merely dogma in the sense of what one must believe, but theology in the sense of a systematic study of the faith and of the propositions of faith. The result of this is that the Christian, particularly the Protestant Christian, will think of religion in terms of faith.”

I think that this is just a given. What was emphasized and what was neglected or changed is a parochial argument, but once you enter into a polemical conversation, it is part and parcel. If you take the position that the only course of understanding in Christianity is through discourse, however evenhanded, clear and logical, some residue of this trails along. It is the nature of the beast, intensified by the internecine bickering that was rampant in the early churches.

It is also the key, not just backstory for the Christian polemic that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was a singular, history changing event. My own take on this has evolved over the years. It is a life changing event in your history if it changes your life. That depends on you and you alone. I’ll let you call it grace if you include some qualifying statements. Personally I’ve moved from Paul to Kiekegaard but that’s another story.

This argument still doesn’t account for how the cult of Jesus along with the corresponding cults of Mary, and the saints and martyrs came to capture the religious imagination of the West. Listening to the early writers of the gospels, it was proven by the reports of miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. I would venture that this is still the case in the vast majority of Christian religious communities today or at least it’s in the general guidelines for membership. Listening to the church of religious science, in any of its forms, the reason is that it coincides with the nature of the human spirit, and according to most liberal theological thought, it is where our discourse lands us.

But for me this does not come close to answering the question of how among hundreds of itinerant preachers wandering in what we now call the Holy Land, did Jesus come to dominate the Western religious imagination? The believer says it’s a statement of faith–that he was the son of god and it had to happen, but that’s a belief. I want to exert my personal prerogative to examine other possibilities.

I mentioned Jonathan Z Smith. The position at Dartmouth was his first as I recall, but even then he was working out the complex interactions of culture, ritual and belief. He scared me. After one seminar, because I was pretty resistant to his thesis, he looked at me and said, “If I lived in a culture that fostered a vibrant cult of Socrates, I’d be a follower.” Another time he said, “Christianity was the mystery cult that won.” Talk about provocative statements. But I remembered them.

Let’s look at one of those propositions and see where it goes. In zen, as things fall away, beliefs get challenged inside where they reside. Let’s look at the belief in Jesus dying and being resurrected as a kind of myth that may or may not have a lot of import on many levels. It’s hard to be objective, but I have to acknowledge that several key elements of the pagan mystery cult are present. The god dies, initiates share some of the elements of the god in a ritualistic way, and the believer emerges with some aspect of the divinity. The sharing of bread and wine as a memorial of the sacrifice of Jesus in the communal rites of Christians, though probably very unlike what we know today as Mass, was practiced. You even have the separate entity of the primary god who presides over the unfolding of the mythic ritual, accepting the sacrifice of his son.

Information about mystery cults remains mysterious because they were secret. But they were rather widespread so some of the details have become known. I find it interesting that a lot of our information comes from early church fathers denouncing them. They were not blind to the similarities. Membership was also sought after. It was also used as a way of social advancement. Early Christianity among the Gentiles was regarded as a religion of slaves.

I’m not citing any of this to either prove or disprove any of the tenets of Christianity. But if I were looking for a reason why the teaching of Jesus was the one that found a fertile ground in Greco-Roman pagan culture, I would look here. There were hundreds of preachers with probably as many followers as Jesus, and who knows what they had to say about how to conduct your life. But the myth of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection was planted in a culture that had a predisposition carved out by centuries of mystery cult initiations that went all the way back to early Egypt. It might have been the mystery cult that won.

It took me more than 60 years to even entertain the possibility that Smith suggested. A few more and I’ll rewrite the Nicene Creed.

Your loyal reader

Ken Ireland

Reprinted with permission from the Blog Buddha, S.J.

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