The Son or the Man?
To understand who Jesus Christ is, let’s take a look at this simple sentence: “Lisa went to the store to buy a loaf of bread, but instead she came back with some milk,” whispered one 5 year old to another. As it travels from the mouth of one babe into the ear of another, the message changes to: “Liza went to the store with a loaf of bread, and then she drank some milk.” Now version 2.0 of the story is assimilated by child number 3, and the game of ‘telephone’ continues until we find Lori, at the end of the relay, on the floor milking some cows with her head!
Vindicating the maxim that everything we need to know really was taught in kindergarten, Karen Armstrong divulges an account of Jesus Christ in her iconic book, A History of God:
“After his death, his followers decided that Jesus had been divine. This did not happen immediately; as we shall see, the doctrine that Jesus had been God in human form was not finalized until the fourth century. The development of Christian belief in the Incarnation was a gradual, complex process. Jesus himself certainly never claimed to be God.”
In the same way that Lisa would never think to milk a cow on the floor, much less with her own head; similarly, Jesus would never dare claim himself to be God, at least according to Armstrong. She notes the following:
“Jesus himself used to call himself ‘the Son of Man’. There has been much controversy about this title but it seems that the original Aramaic phrase (bar nasha) simply stressed the weakness and mortality of the human condition. If this is so, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize that he was a frail human being who would one day suffer and die.”
These are bold statements by Armstrong when compared with the Christian precepts offered today. Who is she to make such claims?
Armstrong is a former Catholic nun turned Jewish scholar who is recognized by the Muslim community as an authority on Muhammad. From Canterbury to Caledonia, Karen Armstrong’s work is accepted as both scholastically and spiritually sound. A winner of the ‘TED Prize,’ and an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations, she has written multiple best-sellers, the foremost of which, A History of God, follows the 4,000 year old Judeo-Christian doctrine and its synthesis of a personal God.
Many Christians today understand heaven and hell in very black and white terms. Jesus is God Himself, non-different in quality or quantity. Jesus died to atone for the inherently sinful nature of man’s soul, and those souls may have their place in heaven restored. Anyone accepting this version will be rewarded with a return to God’s kingdom; those who do not accept Jesus as their ‘Lord and Savior’ in this life are eternally damned.
Chocolate or vanilla? Pepsi or coke? Eternal life or perpetual suffering? Appreciating and allowing for those individuals who follow Christ and yet do not espouse a ‘do or dead doctrine;’ this all-or-nothing spiritual proposition is commonly advocated by many modern Christians.
This thesis statement wasn’t written over night, yet it is taken for granted that such a philosophy has always defined Christianity. Actually, there was a great struggle to characterize Jesus for the sake of propagating his teachings. The controversy came to a climax in modern day Turkey, hundreds of years after Christ’s time here on Earth. The conclusion was ratified as the Nicene Creed as follows:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousion) with the Father, through whom all things were made, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made man, suffered, rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens and will come to judge the living and the dead. And we believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Armstrong pivots this original Christ convention around two personalities, Arius and Athanasius. Both were charismatic, young presbyters; each posited a fundamentally different understanding of the nature of Jesus.
Arius, whose name Armstrong notes is now synonymous with heresy amongst Christians, had an attractively soft nature, and his visage is described as contemplative and melancholy. For Arius and his sympathizers, it was blasphemous for Jesus to be called God. Remember, Armstrong points out that “Jesus himself used to call himself ‘the Son of Man’… If this is so, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize that he was a frail human being who would one day suffer and die.”
Arius asserted that Jesus was non-different from God. In fact, it is God Himself Who is to nullify the wonder of His activities. In essence, Arius asserted that if it’s God who died on the cross, so what? He’s God, the all-powerful. However, if it was one of ‘us’ that accepted nails being driven through our appendages, one of ‘us’ who accepted the burden of man’s transgressions against God, one of ‘us’ who forsook everything for the sake of others, that would be a mighty sacrifice indeed. This gives hope that reconciliation is possible even for the lowest of men. Though the rest of society is wayward and wanton, Arius posited that Jesus and the rest of humanity were created in the same capacity.
If such a portrayal of Christ sounds unfamiliar, that is because Athanasius won the battle for the story of Jesus. ‘Original Sin,’ another term now synonymous with Christianity, came into Christian theology as a maxim when St. Augustine extrapolated the conclusions of the Athanasius. Athanasius purported that man was too wretched to save himself. He was inherently incapable and completely dependent on God, devoid of the virtue and determination necessary for uplifting ourselves from this degraded position. Christ, fulfilling the need of saving hapless humanity, was God incarnate.
The battle between the two sides engrossed the public’s attention. Armstrong quips that “People were discussing these abstruse questions with the same enthusiasm as they discuss football today.” Emperor Constantine, indifferent to the theological implications of this conference on Christ, was simply happy to see a consensus had been reached when informed of the Nicene Creed.
One can imagine what distress this nation’s ‘leaders’ might be in if there was a resurgence in spiritual life that distracted fans from the NFL’s 32 teams, each worth $1.04 billion on average. Such was the anxiety of Constantine, whose citizens had, at least for a time, given up business for the sake of addressing these economically less productive questions.
Constantine’s situation was such that he cared little for the substance of the convention’s conclusion and instead only insisted there be one. Armstrong notes that by no means did signing of the creed end the debate, just as election results don’t stop the political discussion. It is readily apparent; though, that the theology of Athanasius was also politically advantageous long term. Armstrong writes,
“Jesus had never claimed that these divine ‘powers’ were confined to him alone. Again and again, Jesus had promised his disciples that if they had ‘faith’ they would enjoy these ‘powers’ too. By faith, of course, he did not mean adopting the correct theology but cultivating an inner attitude of surrender and openness to God.”
Jesus Christ Superstar, or Superman, God Himself, as Athanasius’s side claimed Him to be, is a much more palatable version of Christ for government leaders to support than the ‘average Joe’ picture of Arius and his supporters. What’s the need for government and all its girth if you have a bunch of saints for citizens? Arius wanted an accessible, approachable, even replicable Jesus. Knowing the end of Jesus’ story well, we know what governments naturally do to even one such person. These considerations, however, deserve their own article, and furthermore, focus on whom Jesus has become, which is not necessarily whom he is.
Understanding the Spiritual Teacher
To answer the question of whom Jesus is, it’s necessary to step away from the Christian paradigm. Though the Church of today would have the public believe otherwise, the reality of the situation 1700 years ago was, by Armstrong’s well accepted account, that “nobody could possibly prove anything definitively, one way or the other.” regarding the true nature of Christ. The debate was going on hundreds of years after his death, and only the anecdotal writings of his followers, which themselves were written no sooner than 40 years after his death, remained.
In either case, Divine by ordination or origination, Jesus was understood as an anomaly by all Western thinkers, Christian or otherwise, a virtuous one of truth and love in the sea of otherwise listless, loathsome humans. Imagine if Steve Jobs, rather than introducing ‘The Macintosh 128K’ as his first retail computer, offered the world an iPhone. Systemically, we can make sense of the iPhone because there was ‘The Macintosh 128K’ and everything in between. If an iPhone was the fist thing Jobs put out, we might have thought the 2nd coming was here.
So, is there a systemic way to understand a personality such as Christ? Or is it the case that in the many thousands of years before Christ, and the 2000+ after him, that an all merciful, all powerful, all loving God has not sent forth any other such messenger?
The Vedic version of spiritual life, having its origins in India, offers an understanding of spiritual reality that not only accommodates a Christ figure, but in fact, necessitates one. One of the essential verses in the Bhagavad-gita, which for purposes of expediency can be called the Vedic ‘Bible,’ is found in chapter 4. The 34th text of that chapter reads, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual teacher. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” We may be familiar with Jesus’ claim of being the Way, the Truth, and the Light, and that no one can come to the Father except through him?
Here in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna is speaking the same truth, though the Bhagavd-gita is a text that predates the Bible by several thousand years. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the translator of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, explains the necessity of a spiritual teacher through the example of a drowning man. A man drowning can only be saved by one who knows how to swim. So a man searching for spiritual perfection can only be brought out of his material condition by someone who is fully spiritually cognizant.
Similar to the Judeo-Christian idea that the plight of a person here in this material world is due to sinful activity stemming from a misapplication of free-will, the Vedas explain that the living entity or soul, which is an eternally spiritual being, is experiencing repeated suffering in this temporary material world due to improper desires. We want wine, women, cars, clothes, and the rest. Yet these things can only bring us temporary pleasure, and when obtained, often implicate us in the gross suffering and subjugation of others. The concept of the inescapable suffering associated with this material world, and the attempt to understand a reality beyond the temporary place, is the common thread shared among spiritual traditions.
The Vedas also speak about a transcendent reality, or ‘heaven,’ where the scourges of old age, disease, and death, which are associated with the temporary body, no longer trouble the eternal soul.
In a conversation with his own disciples, Swami Prabhupada mentions an interaction he had with seniors in the Roman Catholic Church of Australia. “They asked, ‘What is your idea of Christ.’ I told them, ‘He is our Guru. He is teaching God consciousness, so he is our spiritual teacher.’ The ministers very much appreciated that.”
It is understood through Vedic literature that God, as the supreme parent, always wants his wayward children to return to him. Therefore, he is constantly asking his children who are situated properly, to return to this place of temporary pleasure and perpetual pain in order to awaken the dormant God consciousness of their siblings.
Swami Prabhupada affirms the exalted position of Jesus, who used his life purely in the service of God. “We should not think of him as an ordinary human being. If Jesus Christ were an ordinary man, then he could not have delivered God consciousness.”
In the commentary of Visvanath Cakravati Thakur, a renowned Vedic scholar, it is explained that the spiritual teacher is ‘haritvena’ or non-different from Hari, a Sanskrit name for God. Swami Prabhupada further expounds the spiritual teacher as the representative of God, which means the spiritual teacher should be treated as good as God, just as the president of a nation is honored as an emissary for the entirety of its people. Furthermore, affirming the Arius version of Christ’s position, Swami Prabhupada says the spiritual teacher is a specially empowered living entity who is Godlike in quality, though not in quantity.
Understanding, through the Vedic concept, the essential need for a spiritual teacher and his divine essence, one can get a contextual grasp of Jesus that will easily satisfy any sincere inquirer. Yet the idea of Jesus being an exclusive personality, a one of a kind deal from the Divine, has not been sufficiently addressed, at least not in proportion to its propagation.
Confidently it is presumed any reader who has read this far has also completed the 4th grade. And with equal confidence it’s assumed that at least two such readers had different 4th grade teachers. And yet could it then be rationally said that one person’s promotion to the 5th grade was legitimate, while the other’s was a farce?
Time, Place, Circumstance
Bhaktivedanta Swami stresses that spiritual teachers teach according to time, place, and circumstance. Herein we can understand the exclusivity that Jesus, and all authentic spiritual teachers demand. Were anyone to do the work of a teacher and not their own work as a student, it would be unreasonable to think that they would be promoted to the next grade. Not that the work offered by any other teacher is unimportant or invalid, but the individual has been placed under the tutelage of a certain person according to time, place and circumstance, and their responsibility lies in completing that work. God also sends his teachers to different parts of the material world to speak to the people there and elevate consciousness for the purpose of restoring each individual’s personal place in God’s Kingdom.
Through this example of school, it can also be understood how a book like the Bhagavad-gita, which speaks of karma, reincarnation, and multiple material universes, can simultaneously affirm the essential teachings of the Bible and Jesus. The same principle applies to the reader, who upon reaching high school, was still using the arithmetic they learned in elementary school to solve math problems that suddenly had more letters than numbers.
The Vedic culture, which Lord Krishna came to speak in the form of the Bhagavad-gita, is the same culture that gave the world its first airplane designs, the root language of all modern tongues (Sanskrit), and the concept of zero, without which no computer could exist.
The people Jesus spoke to were living simple lives, seeking only their ‘daily bread’ through basic agriculture and trade.
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” – John 16:12. Amen.