I stopped at a light and noticed a bumper sticker on the car ahead of
me which I had never seen before. It said "Real Men Love Jesus."
Now, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised or startled. It's, of
course, a variation on a very old (probably from the 60s) saying
"Real men don't eat quiche", which was (of course) a
challenge to the changing sex roles occurring at the time. I guess,
(the more I think about it) the "Real Men Love Jesus"
sticker itself might very well be worth a critical, sociological
study. But what it triggered in my mind was a question I've been
struggling with for many years now. Something which I don't know if it is
sociological, theological or what...
I'm Jewish. I was never bar mitzvahed (The Jewish "confirmation" ritual) because my father abhorred institutionalized religion. But, growing up in the united States during the 60s, despite all the "revolution" supposedly going around, and despite my own complete lack of religious affiliation, it was impossible not to notice this thread of Christianity, which was so pervasive on TV, in the newspapers, movies, etc.. Christians naturally, were bound to take this "presence" for granted.
Growing older, it was not unusual for me to hear people refer to the US as a "Christian Nation", or watch my boss (who was an Evangelical, and whom I was very fond of) go almost ballistic when the legal publication we worked for was sent a copy of "The Godless Constitution" to review. I'm not sure I ever saw her that upset. But for someone from the outside, the way I certainly was- free to be truly objective and critical, I may have taken it for granted for them ; but for me, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. A quick inquiry into the basics (even for someone who had not read a single text), made me just dismiss it all as irrational; even if there was a God, and a continuation of the soul after death.
Firstly: the idea that God would have knowingly, beforehand, created a situation where anyone He had created would have any chance of spending eternity in Hell, was to me completely irrational. On top of that, the idea that in order to be "saved", everyone else was required to believe that a certain individual they had never met (or who may not have even existed), was the Only Begotten Son of God, and if they couldn't in all sincerity convince themselves to believe this to be the absolute truth, they were condemned to eternal fire. This seemed quite unfair (to say the least...), and once again: irrational.
But what the bumper sticker triggered in me was not a questioning of God in politics, or even the whole "reason vs faith" debate. It just made me ask myself again, after all of my own investigating of the subject... why Jesus, in particular. I mean: what is all the commotion about him, and is it in any way significantly different from other religions. And if so... why?
I believe it is. But, not for the reasons most Christians would probably claim, i.e. that he really is the only begotten Son of God, and there is no way to be saved without him. But first...
After not being initiated into my native faith, Judaism, I did what many people such as myself do, I looked into other religions. I remember reading a Catholic translation of the New Testament when I was about 18, and I seem now to recall a bit too much about everlasting damnation, even though when I read the same texts now, I'm surprised how little of that there is. I'm not sure how to explain it. Perhaps Catholics really do use a different translation. In any event, I was neither any more or less convinced of his greatness, nor any more convinced of the necessity of my needing to go through him in order to be saved; which he did seem to claim.
I don't want to get sidetracked into arguing all of the contradictions in the New Testament (and they are legion). Because my experience is that all scripture (East & West) is full of contradictions (click here for an interesting Wikipedia article on the subject). But just one obvious example: Jesus at one point says "The Father and I are one." and elsewhere, "He who has seen me has seen the Father". But when someone he meets refers to Jesus as "Good master" Jesus replies, "Why call you me good? There is none good but one, that is God.", thereby denying not only that he was God, but also that he was even completely good. Personally I've come to the conclusion that scripture is necessarily contradictory, just as there is space and matter, light and dark, good and evil, etc. The ultimate nature of things is contradictory, so shouldn't it's ultimate expression also be?
About this time, I read the novel "Jean Christophe" by the French writer, Romain Rolland. He was quite famous around the turn of the previous century. He won the Nobel prize, and was even considered by many to be the successor to Tolstoy. The book was about a very noble musician of genius (based on Beethoven) and his struggle to maintain his integrity, as well as his devotion to art and life. I was so amazed by it that I looked for something else the fellow had written, and was quite surprised to find two biographies about two Indian holy men: Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. This changed everything for me. Here were two individuals who no doubt lived, but even lived in modern times, who's lives were copiously documented, and who were often referred to as compeers of Krishna & Christ.
I don't want this to be a long memoir about my "spiritual journey" (believe it or not...) But I just want to say that this discovery is what led to all my subsequent research and investigation into the whole subject of spirituality. I won't claim that it has been terribly broad, but it has been long (about 40 years now) and, I believe, intense and sincere.
After discovering Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, my study was pretty much confined to their organization's "Vedanta Book Catalog", which I still consider to be the best collection of spiritual classics anywhere. There were Christian classics as well as Indian, Sufi, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. But, yes, the focus was very much on Eastern mysticism. As limited as it may make my "scholarship", it perhaps also makes my ongoing question "Why Jesus?" that much more genuine...
Let me first say that the question is in no way meant to belittle or even question his significance, historically or spiritually. Few things in western civilization could be more obvious. Nor am I really questioning his deservedness. Quite frankly, right from the start, before I had even read any of the texts, the few glimpses of the transcendental nature of his teachings, the beatitudes, etc., were of such a sublimity and truth, for me, they even went beyond Shakespeare, whom I had always considered to be the ultimate source of truth (Harold Bloom in fact once wrote, "Shakespeare is the Truth, Milton is the Law, and Whitman and Blake are the Prophets"). After all, how does one top "The truth shall set you free.", "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.", "Cast not your pearls before swine.", "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God." or "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God."? I mean, it really does just go on and on...
The question which is ever with me when I ask "Why Jesus?", could also be stated: "Why Jesus, and why not, in quite the same way: Krishna? Or (for that matter): Rama, Buddha, Moses, Abraham, Ramakrishna, Yogananda (author of "the classic "Autobiography of a Yogi"), Zoroaster or Mahavira (the last Jain tirthankara)?" All of whom have their own very devoted following, most of whom have performed miracles and uttered divine wisdom.
To hundreds of millions of people (all over the world, not just in India), and beginning thousands of years before Christ was even born, Krishna has been regarded as a full Incarnation of God (with no internal contradictions I am aware of). Henry David Thoreau was said to have read the Bhagavad Gita daily ("the Gita", as it is often called, is sometimes referred to as the "New Testament of Hinduism" and is a conversation between Krishna and his brother-in law, Arjuna about the nature of reality. click here for a free copy). He is installed in probably tens of millions of temples around the globe. But, let's face it: for whatever reason, he just never "caught on" in the West in the same way as Jesus did (the same can be said for the Buddha, as well known as he certainly is). While his followers' belief in him is deep, and often beyond what we in the West can even imagine, I've never heard anyone say (particularly in America) "Krishna entered my heart and now I'm saved!" Or, "I've given my life over to Krishna!", or to Buddha, or to whomever. No one here ever says, "Thank you, Krishna!" when something nice happens to them. Or when they're upset do they say "Oh Krishna!"? I've even heard my own mother, who is an 88 year-old Jewish woman, and doesn't have any idea who Jesus is other than someone a bunch of nutty Christians are obsessed with, say, "Jesus Christ!" when she gets upset.
Jesus has simply taken root in the hearts, minds and consciousness of this part of the world in a way that no other Deity has- but certainly could have. And Christ's influence has come about with or without missionaries involved, scaring the hell into people. So, this easy and popular sociological explanation, while attractive, to a great extent is simply facile, failing to explain the full extent and nature of the phenomenon.
So... why? As I mentioned earlier, Christians would naturally say it's because Jesus is the real thing and all the others are either frauds or liars (I have heard them actually say this.) But, this phenomenon of Christ never really moved East. Most of Asia remains a relatively Jesus-free zone (with certain exceptions), and it is not due to any lack of trying, or not having enough time. Shortly before the Common Era, and for about 1000 years, India became almost entirely Buddhist. But after the great sage and philosopher Shankara walked the length and breadth of India around 900 AD preaching (and performing miracles and speaking divine wisdom and claiming to be divine...), Buddhism vanished from India, and again became Hindu. Jesus is considered a great sage, and even an Avatar (Incarnation of God) in India. But so are a number of others, with no particular significance or distinction attributed to Christ.