Monthly Archives: April 2015

Christianity with Jesus of Nazareth as a Spiritual Master

Common to Trinitarian, Mormon, and New Thought conceptions of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was (at least) a spiritual master.

Central to this is the notion that Jesus developed or was born with a kind of consciousness or habitual mental state. What is this?

The basic idea is that he created or had a close, personal link with God the Father. He aligned his will and purpose with the Father to a very high degree, had a felt connection with God the Father, and was able to allow certain things to happen by the Holy Spirit moving through him (these things would sometimes cause wonderment to those around him, hence the term ‘miracle’, from the Latin ‘miraculum’ meaning ‘object of wonder’).

We can call this sort of state a ‘Christ consciousness’.

Classical Trinitarian, Mormon, and New Thought traditions all hold that we can, to varying extents, become like Jesus of Nazareth in this way. Although there is a difference in language, all hold that a process called theosis can bring us closer to this sort of state.

What is interesting here is that there is nothing theoretical or abstract about this. Rather, it is something that we know happens in people, as it is direct and experiential. The only question left is how to interpret what happens when people approximate in varying degrees to a Christ consciousness (for example, are they really connecting with something like the Christian God, or are they misunderstanding the experience, and so on).

New Thought understands ‘Christ’ primarily to refer not to a specific human being (Jesus of Nazareth), but rather things related to this state of Christ consciousness, which he most fully has embodied, but which is open to any human being. (Hence, ‘Jesus Christ’ refers to his embodiment of this state.) So, when there is talk of ‘the Christ’, the reference is at least to some extent to the kind of state exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. For example, people’s lives might be transformed by the Christ, by which we mean the psychological transformation which occurs in those people and which to some degree approximates to Jesus Christ’s habitual state.

This makes talk about ‘the Christ’ very direct and straightforward, for those who have experienced the ‘Christ consciousness’ in varying degrees. Instead of primarily being a historical question (“is there something to the Christ?”), it becomes an everyday, practical one – testable.

Beyond happiness

Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness dovetails at many points with what could be termed a broadly Christian outlook. Although presented in an almost entirely non-Christian framework, where its points are supported by citing business studies or lab results, it was not surprising to me to learn that Achor received a Masters degree from Harvard Divinity School, specializing in Christian and Buddhist ethics.

Yet, since Achor is a distinguished researcher in the field of positive psychology – an approach within academic psychology that actually gets results – that leads me to the conclusion that Before Happiness is a Christian work in significant part because certain Christian practices work – and not simply because Achor is informed by a Christian ethos.

That certain specific kinds of Christian practices work is a view I have been seeing significant evidence for in various ways – through my own practice, anecdotally, statistically, and through the sorts of studies Achor focuses on – and so this book largely furthers these beliefs.

(Of course, certain Christian practices I have significant problems with – it seems they don’t work very well. The real picture is complex, including situations where relatively subtle differences in meaning or practice seem to make significant differences in results.)

Noise canceling

In Before Happiness (2013), Shawn Achor lists four criteria for determining whether something is ‘noise’ that is obscuring the signal in your life. The four criteria are (p.156)

1. Unusable. Your behaviour will not be [significantly] altered by the information.

2. Untimely. You are not going to use that information imminently, and it could change by the time you do use it.

3. Hypothetical. It is based on what someone believes “could be” instead of “what is.”

4. Distracting. It distracts you from your goals.

These four points alone are worth the time it takes to read the book.


What did Jesus teach?

One approach to figuring out what Jesus of Nazareth taught is to assume that the canonical Christian Gospels are infallible. Although the word ‘infallible’ covers a variety of views, the basic idea is this

If Jesus is depicted as saying something in a canonical Gospel, then he said that.

The questions on this approach mostly revolve around getting a proper translation and interpretation of what he meant.

This approach has strengths – it is fairly simple and gives us some fairly detailed ideas.

Often, people seem to argue that the primary weakness of this approach is of reconciling the different Gospel accounts, where it seems there are some discrepancies as far as the accounts that overlap. However, I don’t think this is an insuperable problem for an infallibilist – the inconsistencies are mostly minor details, involving supposed chronology, say. These can be explained as the result of copying errors, or by noting certain texts don’t say they are in exact chronological order, and so on.

Rather, the primary weakness of the infallibility approach is this. It’s not clear why one should assume infallibility, as one’s starting position, when it comes to these texts. The working position with regards to most any text isn’t to assume infallibility – one doesn’t do this anywhere else. If, after significant work on the texts, one comes to the conclusion that they’re completely correct, that’s different – but it should be borne of significant research, study, divine guidance, and so on. In short, it should be a conclusion, not a premise, just as the idea that these texts were inspired seems to have been a conclusion reached by the early Christians who put the canon together in the first place.

If you don’t start with an infallibility assumption, then what approach to understanding what Jesus taught makes sense? I think it is to look for larger trends of thought in the work.

What are some candidates? Jesus taught to focus on the inner spiritual life instead of the outer (prayer, for example, is about what you actually think and feel, not about being seen to be pious and uttering words in a rote manner). He taught a ‘dying to oneself’ in order to live in God (i.e., aligning one’s will with God’s, and then acting on God’s guidance). He taught loving one’s neighbour as oneself. He taught the attainment of inner peace (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you”). He taught the importance of a kind of ‘faith’ (active trusting) in achieving certain results (“Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”). He taught loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and strength. And so on.

The point is that broad trends can emerge. When you can see certain basic points of his thought, it also can make sense of passages that originally seem baffling.

If you are taking an infallibilist approach, then it’s easy to get tripped up by this line or that in the Gospel accounts. Taking an approach that looks for basic ideas, though, you can ask what teachings appear in multiple points, across texts, make sense of otherwise baffling sections, and so on, and then put them into practice to see if they actually work.

The Quintilemma

C.S. Lewis argued for a ‘trilemma’ (‘three-options’) when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, summarized as ‘Lord, Liar, or Lunatic’. However, some have noted that this is not a true trilemma, as there are other seemingly plausible options. Kreeft and Tacelli (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, p. 165) expand this to a ‘quintilemma’.

The quintilemma as given is ‘Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Myth, or Guru’.

Although they seem to mean ‘guru’ to be interpreted expansively (“They are gurus, yogis, roshis, “spiritual masters,” “enlightened” mystics.”) the treatment is largely confined to Eastern, and in particular Hindu, ‘gurus’.

There are two problems here.

First, they do not spend much time getting clear on just how Jesus is depicted as understanding his divinity. Since the ‘guru’ option is distinguished from the Trinitarian option in terms of how divinity is to be understood, it would help to get clear first on how Jesus is portrayed as understanding his relationship to God in the Gospels, say. I will return to this shortly.

Second, and related, there aren’t just two options – Eastern or Hindu guru on the one hand and person of a triune God on the other. If Jesus were a spiritual master (and certainly he was that – the question is to what extent he was unique in that role), he might have developed not in the Hindu tradition (which Kreeft and Tacelli rightly cast doubt on), but rather have been influenced by various traditions, or simply been spiritually highly intuitive (and he certainly was that). In other words, Kreeft and Tacelli are creating a false dilemma within the fifth option of their quintilemma.

Let’s return to the evidence for Jesus’ divinity, and how he understood that. Kreeft and Tacelli give a list of 21 points that they believe is scriptural data in support of Christ’s claim to divinity. Again, the question here isn’t whether Christ was divine, the question is how to understand that precisely (in a Trinitarian formulation as a person of a triune God, say, or in some other sense). I will address what I think are the two most important points.

2. The title “Son of God” (“Son of” implies “of the same nature as.”)

The problem here is that Jesus taught that we are all sons and daughters of God. There is a reason why the prayer he gave in the sermon on the mount starts ‘Our Father’. If God is one’s spiritual Father, then that implies that one is God’s spiritual son or daughter, and hence that one is ‘of the same nature as’, as Kreeft and Tacelli point out. This leads to the opposite conclusion they want to draw – that Jesus’ nature was divine, but also that he believed all humans share in a divine nature.

15. One with the Father.

The question is, in what sense? Was he one in purpose and will? Was it that he felt a strong connection to God (which seems broken shortly before his death, “Why have you forsaken me?” before being resumed with “Into your hands I commend my spirit”)? On the other hand, he clearly distinguishes himself from the Father in aspects (“The Father is greater than I,” “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father,” and so on), which is why the standard view of Jesus is that he is a person of a triune God (there are obvious differences between him and God the Father, and so there must be something to account for that).

In conclusion, here is another option that breaks from Kreeft and Tacelli’s false dilemma. Jesus had an extremely close connection with God, had aligned his will completely with God’s, had a very strong inner spiritual life – probably largely as a result of intuition, and felt he had a unique mission from God to transform Israel (or the world). The action of the Holy Spirit flowed through him to a degree that was probably unmatched before or since. He taught that God is immanent (“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.“) as well as transcendent. He thought all people were of a divine nature (“Our Father”), had the potential to be perfect (“Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”), and thought his teachings and actions contained the keys by which people could embark upon that transformation (‘the Way’).

Does this interpretation work flawlessly with the Gospels or the standard Christian canon? No, but virtually no interpretation does, including the standard Trinitarian one. The question is which one makes the most sense.

The Way of the Spirit

The Master’s Way of the Spirit, the finding of the Kingdom within, leads into no blind alley. It leads out and triumphantly out onto the great plain of clear vision, of un-self-centred activity, of heroic endeavour and accomplishment.

(Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite, 1897, p. 225)


Is Jesus a Spiritual Master?

Sometimes, Christianity is presented in Trinitarian terms, so one is presented with the choice

Is Jesus one of three consubstantial persons who make up God, or is it all nonsense?

I am not sure what Trinitarian formulations of Christianity actually mean, so if presented with that dichotomy, I might go for the latter.

(This is often combined with various other theological notions that have been read into Christianity in various places, such as the standard view of the Christian ‘omni’ God, imported into Christianity from certain philosophical movements.)

Yet, various formulations of Christianity don’t frame things in Trinitarian terms.

Instead of starting with the first (false) dichotomy, you can start with another question.

Is Jesus of Nazareth a spiritual Master?

For example, does the evidence suggest he had aligned his will with God’s to an exceptional degree? Does it suggest he had a strong connection with God? Do the (recorded) teachings and actions suggest he had particular wisdom or insight into spiritual matters? And so on.