In Christ: Theology of the Self

Never has the need for a contemplative understanding of the Gospel been stronger than it is today as fewer people in the culture are church affiliated. Those on the journey of deeper contemplative Christian spirituality have a great mission field to evangelize in a new way and must have a core message that is relevant at the most intimate level – the Self.

Much like the general trajectory of Biblical narrative, it helps to understand the bad news, but in a certain way. The teaching that follows is clear in scripture, but has not quite been articulated in most churches. In the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, the Bible says “God looked at all that God had made and saw that it was very good.” This is Original Blessing. The unspoken assumption in many of our churches is that the Fall somehow changed God’s mind about us. It didn’t.

“The Fall” is the religious term for what happened to humanity as a result of Original Sin, which occurred when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Prior to partaking, they only knew union with God; they knew no separation in any form. They didn’t conceive of any type of either/or scenario because they didn’t have a sense of self that was in any way fragmented. All they knew was “oneness.” The tree gave them this knowledge – they knew evil, so as to distinguish it from good. The immediate result was knowing they were naked. For the first time, they noticed themselves in this new way, identified their “self” with the physical body and felt shame. Original Sin brings separation, not just between good and evil, but between humanity and God. Any preacher brings this to his or her congregation from time to time, but that’s not where truth stops. Original Sin also brings separation within the Self. There is now a dichotomy between the True Self, which was in a state of divine union before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, and the False Self that was born when they ate and knew they were naked.

The True Self extends from Original Blessing, but the False Self extends from Original Sin. We know the False Self as the ego. Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist Jacques Lacan labeled a phase of early childhood development as the “mirror stage.” This is when a child sees himself or herself in a mirror and recognizes himself or herself. Lacan believed this takes place sometime after the age of six months. The child comes to know the difference between what is “me” and what is not “me.” We initially identify with the physical body. Then, through the rest of childhood, into adolescence and beyond, we add to that. We start by identifying the Self with the body, then add all manner of things that fall under the categories of mind and tribe. The False Self looks to family, school, religious group and more for identity. We begin to think more deeply and identify with various beliefs, be it religious, political, social or philosophical. We spend what Jungian psychology calls the “first half of life” looking for identity in things outside of the True Self, which has no such need.

When the False Self goes on this search, it isn’t just looking for identity and meaning – it’s trying to plug a hole. There is a gap created by the separation brought on by Original Sin. We feel deep dissatisfaction and a lack of fulfillment. We don’t know who we are, so we go looking – while everything we need is already inside us at the deepest level (the True Self) because the Fall didn’t change God’s mind about us. Original Blessing remains the “first word” on humanity and will be the “last word,” as well. In the meantime, though, we have issues to work out.

As people continue searching for satisfaction and fulfillment, they may end up caught in addiction or conflicted relationships. They continue to feel the brokenness of separation, but nothing is fixing it. This is where fundamental/evangelical Christianity comes along, offering religion as a crutch and God as an idol designed to resolve the problems brought on by Original Sin. The tricky thing is this – Christianity does address the problems brought on by Original Sin, but it doesn’t mask over them. It leaves us painfully aware of them. We remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled, but when we come to religion/God out of dynamics set forth by Original Sin instead of Original Blessing, things will remain disjointed. We are looking for a crutch and we treat the Sovereign Creator as an idol.

God allows this because it’s natural for us. This sort of thing is simply going to happen when we are in our first-half-of-life inner journey. Humanity and religion, at large, was in the first half of life when the Old Testament religious system was established.

We know from anthropology that the earliest humans conceived of deities based on animals. Stone carvings depicted gods that were a human/animal hybrid of some sort. Humanity graduated to numerous gods in human form and, with the Abrahamic religions, to one god imagined in human form. Whether one god or many, people believed these beings were mad at us and needed to be appeased. Humans tried to work deals to get rain for their crops and all sorts of things related to the community’s preservation. So, an offering of that which was most valuable was made – human sacrifice.

The Abrahamic religions extend from this context. In Genesis 22, we find the story of Abraham and Isaac. Animal sacrifice was also part of humanity’s religious experience at that point, but in this story, Abraham believes God has told him to go to a certain place and sacrifice his son, Isaac. Through the bulk of the story, the word “elohim” is used for “God.” Most of the time, the Hebrew scriptures used the term meaning “the God,” but outside of the texts, elohim was a generic word that meant “god” or “gods.” In Genesis 22, there is a dramatic shift late in the narrative, when “an angel of the Lord” stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. The word used here for Lord is “Jehovah,” which was the key name for God in the Old Testament, used in place of “Yahweh,” which was never spoken or written as a show of reverence.

So, one thing this could mean is that Abraham was not hearing from God when he thought God told him to sacrifice his son, but he was hearing from the god of religious imagination. Wrapped up in this is the cycle of guilt and the deep-seated belief that the deity was angry and demanded to be appeased. It may be that Abraham was not psychologically and/or emotionally ready to give up the crutch of sacrifice. Perhaps he (and many other people) was co-dependant with it in some way, so God gave him an animal to kill as a scapegoat.

Not only did animal sacrifice last for many centuries from that time forward, but the inadequate system that hinged on it, a reward/punishment system called “the Law,” was also maintained. It kept humans caught in a cycle of guilt, according to Hebrews 10:1-4. Worse yet, the misunderstanding of who God is was also maintained. Many people think God instituted this system because God somehow needed it. They say God is “holy,” “righteous,” and “just” and therefore needed sacrifice in order to be justified in forgiving us for breaking the Law. However, if we filter the Old Testament through the New Testament, instead of the other way around, this idea crumbles. It stands apparent, then, that God only instituted sacrifice because infants can’t skip over childhood and go right to adulthood. We must go through the first half of life, to get to the second half of life, spiritually speaking. Therefore, God gave Abraham an animal to kill as a matter of progress and to wean him (and many others) off of human sacrifice. It was really never needed, as far as God was concerned, but was “needed” within the context of the relationship. Within the relationship, Abraham’s felt-need became a real need, but only on the human side of the matter. In other words, the dynamics brought on by Original Sin and separation are real, but not Real. They are real only on the human side of the relationship. We need things like law and reward/punishment to keep order and to guide us through the immature stages of development, but those things don’t transform our immaturity. They are our reality, but not God’s Reality – they do not reflect who God is. Jesus does. So, to get us beyond our insistence on sacrifice/crutch/idol, and to bridge a separation sacrifice could never cover, God gave us Jesus.

By his death on the cross, Jesus put an end to the sacrificial system. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding of who God is didn’t end, though it could have. We still come to religion in the first half of life, looking for a crutch. Again, when we do this, we make God an idol. In the case of Christianity, we idolize the crucifixion. We filter our understanding of the New Testament through the religious beliefs of those who wrote/compiled the books of the Old Testament. As a result of thinking God needed the sacrificial system, church history has interpreted Paul’s language of sacrifice in a literal manner and developed “atonement theories” that say God sent Jesus to atone for our sin because we couldn’t. There are two of these theories and in both, God is still the misunderstood god of human imagination, keeping score and being mad at us for not being perfect. This couldn’t be more wrong, because Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. Jesus came to change our mind about God.

The New Testament book of 1 John declares “God is love.” The Greek term used here is “agape,” which is an unconditional love. It is bigger and broader than any human form of love. It is endless in life and limitless in scope. It will go to the ends of the earth and beyond to bring us into itself; to bridge the separation brought on by Original Sin and restore us to the union of Original Blessing – which is only missing in our consciousness. In reality, it has not been broken. The core of the human condition is not just that we don’t know who God is, it’s also that we don’t know who we are – collectively and individually. We experience separation vertically and horizontally – in our relationships with God, and in our relationships with each other. However, we also experience this separation within ourselves. We have a fallen consciousness that causes us to miss the truth that is already present within us. The True Self is there, but we don’t see it. Now, we understand what “hell” metaphorically represents. To have the “heaven” of the True Self/Eternal Life/Life of the Kingdom of God – Divine Union – right before us and be outside of it in our understanding is the greatest tragedy of all.

If we filter our reading of the Old Testament through the New Testament understanding of God as unconditional, endless, and limitless love, we see that God did not stop interrupting as God did with Abraham and Isaac. God interrupted time and time again through the Old Testament Prophets with declarations of not desiring sacrifices, but wanting pure hearts that care for the poor and the outcast (Isaiah 1: 11-17), or not wanting fasting from food, but wanting the faithful to care for the poor and outcast (Isaiah 58), or to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

God went as far as God could go in giving us Jesus to put a stop to all of this misunderstanding – even farther than we thought. It’s one distance to go if it was necessary, in some universal sense, but it’s even greater distance when Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t really necessary at all, at least, as far as God was concerned. God didn’t demand that Jesus die for our sins – we did.

We have idolized the crucifixion, not just because we come to it trying to fill the gap, or void, left by the separation brought on by Original Sin, but we also do it in another way.

When we obsessively focus on the crucifixion, singling it out from the other components of Jesus’ life and ministry, we say that we are saved by Jesus death on the cross. This is a little different than saying we are saved by Jesus. In most of our traditional understanding of the atonement offered by the cross, Jesus’ being is slightly peripheral to his doing – specifically this one act and experience of his tortuous death. His being, then, – who he is in his person – comes second. Also, his being exists primarily to make his doing “work.” This makes God very “small.” The god of religious imagination continues to rob us of a deeper understanding of who God is and of the Divine Union that is our birthright as children of God. This puts much of our religion under the category of “separation,” which is interesting in light of the fact that “re-ligio” means “to put back together,” as in rejoining ligaments. This is evidence that within the same religious texts, ideas, and organizational structures, the very same things that can heal, restore and redeem, can also do the opposite. It’s all a matter of how religious components are approached, understood, and presented.

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