The Quintessential Point of Reference

The Quintessential Point of Reference

In the 1950s and 60s, as more and more Americans became aware of and interested in Buddhism, it became clear that there was a lot of common ground between the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of the Christ. People who had at least a nominal Christian upbringing – and some with a deep Christian background – found resonance with many of the philosophical precepts set forth by the Buddha and his followers and could correlate them with the parables and teachings of Jesus. This was, and remains, a good thing, as it provides a common ground for interfaith dialog and cultural understanding. It is hopeful that there are some universal truths that can be shared across religious and cultural differences.

But, and with no disrespect to my Buddhist friends, simply following the teachings of Jesus does not make one a follower of Christ. There is a mystical element at the core of Christianity that is nowhere near the realm of philosophy. That mystical element is bound up inexorably with the actual death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection. These two, intertwined events are ground zero for Christ followers: they are the quintessential transcendent point of reference, without which the philosophical, practical and even metaphysical natures of Christianity are meaningless.

Of the two, perhaps the death of Christ on the cross is the most mind-blowing. After all, in our trinitarian view and in keeping with the Christ hymn found in Philippians 2, Jesus is God, so the resurrection was, as mystic Bernadette Roberts puts it, “. . . simply the means for infinite consciousness to return to its natural state: infinite consciousness.” But God dying in a sacrificial act to save his own creation has no precedent in any other religions, mythologies or philosophies. It’s extraordinary. The first half of our quintessential transcendent point of reference is the clearest statement possible of God’s love for humanity.

But I don’t believe we should toss off the second half – the resurrection – quite as easily as incarnationalist Bernadette Roberts does. Not only does God return to a state of infinite consciousness, but God also changes the definition of “death.” In our pure and natural state in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, there was no death. God warns Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” In an existence without death, perhaps Adam and Eve had a hard time understanding this warning, though it should have been sufficient and heeded simply because it came from God. Had Adam and Eve resisted the serpent (evil) they’d still be hanging out in the garden today. But their fall from grace brought about a broken world that includes death, in which the hubris of humanity causes us to think that we can perfect it by ourselves. It’s as if God said, “You want to make something perfect on your own? Well, here you go! And good luck!”

But of course, God doesn’t leave us on our own. Our broken world isn’t a punishment for the fall from grace, it is the natural consequence of the Fall. Our job has always been to find our way back to God, to live in harmony with God, in spite of the world’s brokenness. And God has been generous in his guidance – more generous than we have been in our stubbornness and constant insistence that we, not God, reside at the center of the universe. God keeps on calling us with a symphony, and we keep on responding with cacophony.

So, the death of Jesus on the cross, taken alone, would seem like God simply throwing in the towel. God might have said, “I gave you a savior, you killed him, so now I’m done!” But the resurrection of Christ flips that narrative on its head. It is God saying, “I am the God who heals the world’s brokenness, even the brokenness of death. Even the brokenness you bring upon yourselves. I, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and Jesus – reside at the center of the universe. I could have just wiped you out or condemned you to a hopeless existence. Instead, I have chosen to give you a clear path to come live with me.”

The two sides of this transcendent coin – death and resurrection – are inseparable. The redemption from sin that arises from Christ’s death and the steps towards a healed world through the grace of God elevate Christianity above mere philosophy. This mystical two-sided coin shows God’s direct involvement in our physical, spiritual and eternal lives, bundled together rather than parsed into pieces. It convinces us that we live for God’s purposes, not our own, and yet we are nevertheless a central part of God’s purposes. The costly price of redemption results in the free gift of grace for those eager to give up everything in order to gain a life with God.

My Buddhist friends have a very different view of the nature of life and life’s ultimate purpose, and in my interfaith way I hope this is some sort of different enactment of God’s grace. But when called by Christ, one is given a quintessential point of reference in the redemptive death and restorative resurrection of Jesus Christ. There’s no logic to it, just truth. Transcendent truth as it comes directly from the mind of God, not humanity. It is the truth from which all other truths flow. It is truth that transcends teaching and logic while still giving us a way to understand reality and our place in it. This truth is ultimately the salve that can heal the broken soul and extricate us from a hopeless fate. It is the light that stays on when all others go dim. Light and dark, death and resurrection, sin and grace: God has presented us with a seemingly dualistic world. But in the end, there is just one coin, one truth, and one God. It may not be logical, but it is true.

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