Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Alan Watts describes Jesus as a "freak"
Today I have a bit of a treat for those who say that I should spend more time reading the Bible.
Most of you will be familiar with the late Alan Watts, a philosopher, author and theologian who achieved fame interpreting eastern religions for Western audiences in the 1950's and 60's. I highly recommend Watts' Way of Zen to anyone who is unfamiliar with his work. In any event, Watts had an impressive command of the Bible and Christian ideology which is displayed in a series of his lectures which are now available as free podcasts on iTunes. The following is a transcript of my favorite broadcast thus far (entitled "Jesus and His Religion #3). If anyone can place a date and location of the lecture, I would be grateful:
So let's suppose then that Jesus had such an experience [one which suggested to him that he was the Son of God] ... but you see Jesus has a limitation that he doesn't know of any religion other than those of the immediate near east. He might know something about Egyptian religion, a little bit maybe about Greek religion ... but mostly about Hebrew. There is no evidence whatsoever that he knew anything about India or China. And we .. people who think .. you know .. that Jesus was God assume that he must have known becuase he would have been omniscient. No ... St. Paul makes it perfectly clear in the Epistle to the Phillipians that Jesus renounced his divine powers so as to be man: "That this mind be anew which was also in Christ Jesus who being in the form of God thought not equality with God a thing to be hung onto but humbled himself and made himself of no reputation and was found in fashion as a man and became obedient to death." Theologians call that kinosis which means self-emptying. So obviously an omnipotent and omniscient man would not really be a man. So even if you take the very orthodox Catholic doctrine of the nature of Christ, that he was both true God and true man, you must say that for true God to be united with true man, true God has to make a voluntary renunciation for the time being of omniscience and omnipotence ... and omnipresence for that matter. Now therefore if Jesus were to come right out and say I am the son of God, that's like saying I'm the boss' son, or I am the boss and everybody immediately says that is blasphemy - that is subversion, that is trying to introduce democracy into the kingdom of heaven. That is .. you are a usurper of the throne. No man has seen God. Now Jesus in his exoteric teaching as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels was pretty cagey about this ... he didn't come right out there and say I and the Father are one. Instead he identified himself with the Messiah described in the second part of the Prophet Isaiah - the suffering servant who was despised and rejected of men. And this man is the non-political Messiah in other words. It was convenient to make that identification even though it would get him into trouble. But to his select disciples as recorded in St. John he came right out and said "Before Abraham was, I am. I am the way, the truth and the life. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. I and the Father are one and he who has seen me has seen the Father." And there can be no mistaking that language.
So the Jews found out and they put him to death or had him put to death for blasphemy. This is no cause for special antagonism to the Jews. We would do exactly the same thing. It's always done. It happened to one of the great Sufi mystics in Persia who had the same experience. Now what happened? The apostles didn't quite get the point. They were awed by the miracles of Jesus. They worshipped him as people do worship gurus ... and it's ... you know to what lengths that can go if you've been around guru-land. And so the Christians said: Okay, okay, Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God but let it stop right there ... nobody else. So what happened was is that Jesus was pedestalized ... he was put in a position that was safely upstairs so that his troublesome experience of cosmic consciousness would not come and cause other people to be a nuisance. And those who have had this experience and expressed it during those times when the Church had political power were almost invariably persecuted. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, John Scotus was excommunicated, [sic] Meister Eckhardt's theses were condemned and so on and so on. A few mystics got away with it because they used cautious language. But you see what happens ... if you pedestalize Jesus, you strangle the gospel at birth and it has been the tradition of both the Catholic Church and in Protestantism to pass off what I will call an emasculated gospel. Gospel means good news and I cannot for the life of me think what is the good news of the gospel as ordinarily handed down. Because look here .. here is the revelation of God in Christ ... in Jesus ... and we are supposed to follow his life and example without having the unqiue advantage of being the boss' son. Now the tradition, both Catholic and Protestant fundamentalist represents Jesus to us as a freak - born of a virgin, knowing he is the son of God, having the power of miracles, knowing that basically it's impossible to kill him, that he's going to rise again in the end. And we are asked to take up our cross and follow him when we don't know that about ourselves at all. So what happens is this: we are delivered therefore a Gospel which is in fact an impossible religion. It's impossible to follow the way of Christ .. alright ... many a Christian has admitted it. I am a miserable sinner, I fall far short of the example of Christ .. but do you realize the more you say that the better you are because what happened was that Christianity insitutionalized guilt as a virtue. [applause] You see you can never come up here ... never ... and therefore you will always be aware of your shortcomings and so the more shortcomings you feel the more in other words you are aware of the vast abyss between Christ and yourself. [interruption by a member of the audience who suggests that Watts is setting up a strawman and "trying to shoot down" the Church] You will have your opportunity to speak in the Question Period madam. So ... you go to confession .. and if you have a nice dear understanding confessor, he won't get angry with you, he'll say my child, you know you've sinned very grievously but you must realize that the love of God and our Lord is infinite and that naturally you're forgiven ... as a token of thanksgiving say three Hail Marys ... and you know, you've commited a murder and robbed a bank and fornicated around and so on ... and the priest is perfectly patient and quiet. Well you feel awful ... I have done that? To the love of God I have wounded Jesus, grieved the Holy Spirit and so on. But you know in the back of your mind that you're going to do it all over again ... you won't be able to help yourself ... you'll try but there's always a greater and greater sense of guilt. Now the lady objected that I was putting up a straw man and knocking it down - this is the Christianity of most people. Now there is a much more subtle Christinity of the theologians, the mystics and the philosophers but it's not what gets preached from the pulpit, grant you. But the message of Billy Graham is approximately what I have given you and of all .. what I will call fundamentalist ... forms of Catholicism and Protestantism. What would the real gospel be? ... the real good news is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God but that he was a powerful son of God who came to open everybody's eyes to the fact that you are too. And this is perfectly plain ... if you will go to the tenth chapter of St. John, verse 30, there is the passage where Jesus says I and the father are one. There are people who are not intimate disciples around and they are horrifed and they immediately pick up stones to stone him. He says many good works I have shown you from the father and for which of these do you stone me? And they said for a good work we stone you not but for blasphemy because you being a man make yourself God. And he replied: isn't it written in your law I have said you are Gods? He's quoting the 82nd Psalm - is it not written in your law I have said you are Gods? If God called them those to whom he gave his word Gods and you can't deny the scriptures, how can you say I blaspheme because I said I am a Son of God? Well there's the whole thing in a nutshell ... because if you read the King James Bible that descended with the angel, you will see in italics in front of these words Son of God, the Son of God, because I said I am the Son of God and most people think the italics are for emphasis ... they're not ... the italics indicate words interpolated by the translators .. you will not find that in the Greek ... the Greek says a Son of God. [my emphasis]