Cover Art: Writing in the Sand by Thomas Moore
Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
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One of the lessons I learned while practicing therapy is the importance of wit and a certain kind of irony and appreciation for the absurd things that happen in life.
If a person is zealous, not just about religion but about everything in life, he is easily thrown into deep confusion and depression. I have worked with people who were labeled psychotic, and I thought that there was hope for them when they could laugh at the contradictions in their lives.
The same is true of spiritual life. If we are zealots, passionate about the way we have found to make sense of life and dismissive of other ways, or if we don’t see how complex life is and are not prepared to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes, then our spirituality is in danger of being neurotic, easily threatened and therefore excessively defended.
In Writing in the Sand Thomas Moore develops a view of the Jesus gospels as spiritual texts rather than as Christian history or a biography of an historical Christ.
Using techniques of inquiry familiar to anyone who has read his Care of the Soul including respect for metaphor, skill in holding both rationality and literality in check, and a careful review of context, Moore brings a focus on the message of the Gospels through the culture and ideas that were in play at the time these texts were written.
“In all my writing,” says Moore, “I stress the origins of words and the many levels of meaning in stories and images. I look for insight rather than fact and nuance rather than definitive interpretations.”
Therefore, this is a book about Jesus that brackets out Christianity. To get to the crux of the Gospels, generally I have to abandon established readings and tread on pieties that are taken for granted as valuable and revered.
I have no intention of leading the reader to an appreciation of Christian tradition but rather to an appreciation of the Gospels as they are liberated from tradition.
An experience of unmistakable transformation
What would someone who said or wrote these things have been thinking about, if they were people of their time, rather than people of ours? Obviously this is a question we can’t answer with any certainty, but it is one that can be deeply annotated with research into writing that is the contemporary of the Gospels, as well as by reading the early manuscripts themselves.
Working with Greek texts, Moore finds he doesn’t encounter the preoccupation with damnation and judgment that translators wrote into the Christian gospels over centuries, as translations were made from translations. Instead he discovers a strong focus on living a radical vision of connection, presence, love and healing.
To give a sense of just how heavy handed previous translations have been (from the Greek to Latin, from Latin to German, etc.), Moore chooses one word that occurs repeatedly in the Gospels, metanoia, following its appearances and the meanings assigned to it to demonstrate how the act of twisting a single key concept obscures the original message of the text.
For centuries people have had the habit of viewing the Gospels in moralistic terms. They tend to think: How do I know what is good and what is bad? How can I be on the side of good? How can I avoid punishment for my bad behavior? In this atmosphere, the word metanoia has been translated routinely as “repentance,” a term having to do with moral feeling.
But if you were to go through the Gospels and retranslate this one word, in its various forms, as “shift in vision” or “discovery of a new world of meaning,” you would have an altogether different take on these ancient writings.
Your task would be to live a different life, not just feel bad about the mistakes you have made and live in fear of punishment.
Like the concept of “awakening,” metanoia is more than just changing your mind about something, or becoming accepting. “You empty your head of ideas and become a new kind of person. It is a matter of being rather than believing.”
As a central focus of the Gospels, metanoia, is startlingly similar to enlightenment.
The tantra and shamanism of the Gospels
Over the course of several chapters, Writing in the Sand explores metanoia and its relationship to the three other core concepts of the Gospels basilea, therapeia, and agape, key ideas which are “profoundly intermingled and dependent on each other.”
In his chapter “Water to Wine,” Moore draws out the Dionysian and Epicurean aspects of the Gospels. Later he examines contemporary academic perspectives on Mary Magdalen, whom Moore considers as a Tantric element in the Gospels; and Moore turns his vision to Lazarus, a man Jesus raised from the dead. Moore considers Lazarus’ story through the lens of shamanic traditions.
It’s not that any one of these discourses is radical. What makes Writing in the Sand a true pleasure is that Moore rescues the whole body of Jesus literature from the death-grip of damning language, and restores the corpus to the tradition of spiritual world literature as a living teaching, vibrant and relevant, even to practitioners of yoga.
Making meaning: a vision of a radically new life
There are two ways of being spiritually secure: One is to attach to a fixed and uncomplicated teaching, leadership, and a set of moral standards. Another is to be open to life, ever deepening your understanding and giving up all defensiveness around your convictions.
The first way offers only the illusion of certainty, an illusion that must be maintained by anxious inflexibility.
In spiritual matters, generally we need to bring all our intelligence to bear on creating a vision of reality and a way of life.
The world is in a tragic state, getting worse rather than better, and yet we often escape into sentimental spiritualities that give us an illusion of peace and harmony that has no relation to the facts.
We are accustomed to the misleading notions of our modern dualism, drawing wiggle-room distinctions between body and mind, or the world “out there”and its meaning to us internally. Even when we are trying to work with new ideas, the available language is hard to use in a way that really expresses what we experience or suspect.
Moore brings his characteristically responsible use of language to bear on such issues, distinguishing meaning, for example, as something we create, not something that pre-exists our need for it. Spiritual texts don’t tell us what the world means, Writing in the Sand suggests; instead, they wake us up, forcing a change to accepted ideas in shocking ways. We see that our expectations and fear create meaning, that meaning emanates from us, rather than standing outside us.
Emptiness and tathata
The Gospels, as Moore reads them, encourage us to give up everything for emptiness, to become skilled at letting go the meanings we have created that don’t serve our new realization, our awakened view of reality.
When you find yourself in the kingdom, you will be in a different world, though at the factual level everything will be the same. The kingdom is translucent and empty. You don’t see it in itself, but you see the world altered by it.
Jesus, Thomas Moore says, radically taught that we should empty ourselves of the meanings we have previously built up, and walk with this openness and receptivity at the core of our intelligence.
“Heaven here is not utopian. Heaven is a condition in which you live an ordinary life fully -”
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.