Jesus, Spirituality, and the Soul of the Gospels
What were Jesus’ teachings really all about? Why we are ready to see the beauty and promise of his vision.
The world is changing. When you look at the surface of cultural developments you see new technology, threats to the environment, and perhaps a loss of traditional religious piety. But if you look closer you may see deeper and more positive developments as well. More and more people are concerned about the planet on which we live, a sign of a maturing moral sense. We are slowly becoming less sexist and are even more open to men and women living the gay life, a sign that our own sexuality is less defensive. And many are passionate about moving past rote belief and obedience toward a more vibrant spiritual life. These changes can be confusing and challenging, but they also inspire hope.
These changes could allow us finally to appreciate what Jesus’ teachings are all about. Today we are ready to read the Gospels and see the beauty and promise in Jesus’ vision: not to create an exclusive group of chosen, lucky believers, but to glimpse an entire world able to summon up deep respect and even love, to create a global culture free of violence and the urge toward dominance.
Nothing in the Gospels suggests that Jesus was interested in creating a religion. He was offering everyone a chance for a peaceful and fulfilling life by adopting a different set of values. The crux, of course, is a shift from judgment, competition, and aggression to the rule of an open heart. The Gospels represent a movement out of narcissism and paranoia to a more mature, self-possessed life of deep community.
The Gospels do not focus on a plan for spiritual self-improvement and a virtuous personality. They are not a set of platitudes about living properly but rather a restructuring of the human imagination about how we can be in relation to each other and to the world. They offer a new way of imagining the human worldwide community.
How, then, do you live the Gospel spirit today? You do exactly what the gospel says: Firstly, you cultivate a deep respect for people who are not of your circle and whom society rejects. I speak of respect rather than love, because love is too easily sentimentalized and because agape…is about respect and affection rather than melodramatic emotion. Secondly, you do everything possible to deal effectively with demonic urges in yourself and in society. You do something about aggression, paranoia, narcissism, greed, jealousy, and violence. You live with a mindset that doesn’t justify such things but seeks alternatives. Thirdly, you play the role of healer in every situation. The word therapy appears 47 times in the New Testament—you adopt a therapeutic posture in the style of Jesus the healer. In all your work and interactions, you take the role of healer. Finally, you say awake and don’t fall into the unconsciousness of the age. You also help others wake up to a thoughtful life imagined in fresh, original, and convivial ways. In his last talk, Thomas Merton said, “First, one comes to a monastery to be cured; then, one prays for others or teaches them the cure.”
These are the basics, and they have nothing to do with feeling virtuous or with what you believe and what happens to you in the afterlife. To deal with your mortality, you can live with faith, hope, doubt, and wonder, the building blocks of a spiritual life. Like Jesus in constant discourse with his cosmic father, you cooperate in your destiny, go beyond a materialistic life, do what you feel called to do, and let the flow of your existence take you where it will. Instead of worrying about the afterlife, you stand at the edge of your existence in hope and trust, responding creatively to the opportunities and challenges that come to you from the fatherly source of your existence.
Theologians have always said that Jesus is divine and human. He lived fully on this earth in the community of his friends and family, but he also never lost contact with his heavenly father. He was shamanic, skilled at being both earthy and visionary. He could be profoundly involved with his fellow humans and yet also metamorphose and be in the company of his visionary forebears.
European Renaissance theologians said that we, too, could be and should be human and divine. Deus humanus was their phrase, a divine human. They saw what humans could accomplish in art and technology, and they had the strong spiritual imagination to see how we humans could take our part in the ongoing creation of the world: solving aggression, creating a world community, and cultivating a highly convivial life.
We have lost that spiritual vision and largely turned the Gospels into a book of moral standards. But now we have the opportunity to reread these documents with a renewed appreciation for the spiritual. We could recover that grand vision of the Renaissance and think more deeply about religion, spirituality, and Jesus’ vision.