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April 08, 2006

Jesus Walked on the Water

Well, another irritating theory about Jesus has come out—get this, he walked across water why? Because the lake was frozen. Ooooooh. If you’re going to literally posit a person walking across the surface of water, ice would likely be the first of several explanations, making this theory easily the least imaginative. If this study was grant funded I’d want my money back.

But let me get to my real point. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a literalist. Literalists take all shapes these days. You have literalists in science and literalist a-theists and you have literalists in religion and literalist evangelicals—literalists have a strange, zealous, hard-nosed fundamentalism that is to be avoided or that should be confronted directly and beat out of them.

Religion is a mass of symbols that represent a much more expansive realization of human experience. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologer, notes that far, far too often people become entangled in the symbols (the literalists) and not only miss the greater message of religion, but greatly reduce it, codify it, and generally behave in so fascist a manner as to undermine the point of it in the first place. Campbell once described a literalist in the following manner: he goes into a restaurant (one of those cheaper restaurants with glossy pictures of the entrées on the laminated menu), he gets the menu, sees a picture of a steak and proceeds to eat the menu. Dr. Nof is a literalist: he eats the menu. In case you missed the point or I wasn’t clear, the picture of the steak on the menu is a REFERENCE to the real steak that is somewhere else—back in the kitchen, likely frozen in the walk-in freezer. In the same way, the symbols of religion are a REFERENCE to the experience: the experience that is somewhere else.

So, in many ways, this literalism is really a problem of human communication. The experience of God, or the ultimate religious experience, is something that is beyond words as it transcends rational understanding. It is an EXPERIENCE, which by definition is felt and lived and not easily conveyed or carried to other people. This is one reason we value our greatest writers and artists: their ability to transfer and convey their own experience is so profound. The inability to transfer experience easily results in symbolic expression of the experience or parts of it. The mind is masterful at recognizing metaphor, and pattern and symbol is its natural language. For those who cannot grasp the symbols we use metaphors, similes, and aphorisms: that is, we use powered words or powered phrases to describe it. If you’re keeping track, the final fall to earth is everyday language: “Hey, buddy, where’s the john?” So you can see, by the time a religious experience hits earth, using everyday words for its expression, it has fallen far from its heavenly origin and there’s plenty of room along the way for confusion, misinterpretation (honest or intentional), and outright stupidity.

Let’s look closer at a popular one: the Virgin Birth. I am using Campbell’s explanation of it. A religious fundamentalist devoutly believes that a woman with an intact hymen was impregnated by God, a magical force, or a shower of gold, if you’re into Greek myth. She then gives birth to a god herself. The hardnosed rationalist says that Mary was getting something on the side and pulled the wool over poor Joseph’s eyes—further, that anyone who believes her hooey should be horsewhipped and then doused with cold water. Neither representative above will look at the thing from a symbolic or metaphorical point of view. The mention of the Greek myth above is important. Christianity is certainly not the only religion/mythology that has a virgin birth, or other like events. Whether these symbols rose in isolation from the Jungian collective unconscious or were passed along by transient cultures (both have happened) these symbols and metaphors are common in the society of mankind. The Buddha was born from his mother’s side; she was impregnated after having a dream.

Campbell describes the Virgin Birth using images on the chakras that he saw in an Eastern religious text; chakras being bodily centers of energy in Eastern religious practices. The first chakra he describes is at the level of the anus and bears the symbol of a snake. He describes the alimentary canal as virtually being a snake in itself. The symbol, however, is that for the physical energies of the body: hunger, for example. The second is at the genitals and bears the symbol of the male and female genitals in intercourse. It is the symbol of sexual energy and procreation. The third symbol is at the abdomen and again is a snake, this time more elaborate. It represents another kind of hunger: the hunger for possessions, territory, power. Anyone who has ever watched a nature show knows how much time is dedicated to large mammals fighting to walk certain fields and forests or to inseminate the herd. The forth chakra, and the last that I am going to discuss, is at the center of the chest and it bears the symbol of the genitals in intercourse again, this time they are golden. This is symbolic of love. This is the Virgin Birth.

As Campbell explains it, of the four chakras mentioned so far, this is the first that is not an ANIMAL function. The first three: physical hunger, sexual energy, and hunger for possessions, are all animal energies. They concern themselves with the experience of the body and its desires. The fourth is the energy of love. More specifically, of concern for another other than the self. It is the birth of the human OUT of the animal. The Virgin Birth is the birth of the pure spirit from the animal existence. It is the birth of the Holy Grail: compassion; from the human animal. To have concern for another is to recognize that other person as similar to yourself, to empathize, to see his or her pain as your own and understand it. It is the golden birth, the new birth of the human spirit. It is out of his mother’s side at the level of this chakra that the Buddha’s birth is depicted. It is at this point where the Sacred Heart of Jesus is observed.

The Virgin Birth is the birth of the human from the animal. It is that point at which we each become fully realized human beings. Sadly, there are some amongst us that never make it beyond the first three: greedy, oversexed, eating and shitting like animals in the woods all their self-referential lives.

Religion has been around for a very long time. Magic was its mother, and she’s been around even longer. She had another child, the brother to religion. Do any of you know who he is? Paraphrasing Sir James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, the purpose of Magic was to control the external world by harnessing powers that are greater than us. This involved elaborate ceremonies that, when properly carried out, resulted in the desired effect. Later, Religion developed a line that appealed to a personal higher power, one that was sympathetic, intelligent, who provided guidance, care, and support. The other line that stripped off became Science. Note that it, too, follows elaborate ceremonies (procedures) that result in a desired effect—no longer arbitrary, but proven by new scientific methods. http://www.bartleby.com/196/9.html

Overcoming our superstitious natures will always be a fight for humans. This is not only due to the hundreds of thousands of years we have had to live at the mercy of nature, but due to the wiring of the brain, which Ray Kurzweil refers to in The Singularity is Near as being “massively parallel,” and as he and other brain researchers have found to be largely pattern-based. The human brain seeks out patterns. Poetry and metaphor is the best example of this: connecting unrelated ideas and making a new experience. The newspaper floated along the street like a butterfly, gently its wings brought it to rest on a neighbor’s lawn. Connecting the disparate, that is what we do. And when one thing connects to another coupled with a violent, frightening event: well, those two things become associated forever. I had friends at OU who refused to drink Wild Turkey ever again after a rough night one time. This is a direct connection. But to a so-called primitive man in the woods who has just eaten a mushroom, the bolt of lightning that splits the tree, setting it on fire, is no less a connection and just as much to be feared: never eat that mushroom again (taboo).

Religion, just like Science, is our attempt to understand the world around us. And just like science, religion is not simple. It’s no accident that Religion and Psychoanalysis are closely related and deal with experiences that can be described both as psychotic episodes or truly religious events. Regardless, dismissing easily any one method we humans use to understand and experience our world is the truly ignorant message here, and it cuts both ways. Reducing expressions of science or religion to simplistic, rationalist, or literalist interpretations does far more harm than good: whether it’s Christ walking on water or the Virgin Birth or humans descending from the monkeys swinging in the trees.

So did Jesus walk across the water? Maybe you won’t look at the question so literally now, eh? What is the water? What does it represent. I’ll leave that to all of you to figure out. Just one clue, water is usually associated with the unconscious. The deep well of our human heritage, as Jung says “primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations…the groundwork of the human psyche.” There is a dynamism in the unconscious too, an energy. The generator of dreams and unseen forces. This dynamism is usually characterized as a beast or animal: a whale, for instance: a white one or the one Jonah encounters. Does it eat you, or you it? Jesus walked across the surface of the water. He didn’t run, or skip, or flee. He walked the line between the conscious and the unconscious. Easily, quietly. Think about that, Dr. Nof; you Literalist.

Posted by twh7 at April 8, 2006 11:25 AM

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