John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This lecture and two additional ones were delivered as The Britt Lectures at the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu, on February. 16-19, 2007, under the overall title of “To Whom Can We Go?” Used by permission of the author.
Cobb examines secular alternatives to following Jesus, especially Buddhism, then gives reasons for choosing to follow Jesus. He concludes that the response of Jesus to the Roman Empire of his day is deeply needed in our time. We must demonstrate in our communities that “another world is possible.” And we must so present that other world that hundreds of millions of people will gravitate towards it and create the context in which that other world will replace the present one.
In the Johannine story the teachings of Jesus that drove many away were about the eating of his body and the drinking of his blood. I for one do not blame Jews for being turned off by some of this language. Ever since then, many have ceased to follow Jesus because they could not believe the official creeds of the church or because they understood that only one who believed that God killed Jesus as a sacrifice could be a follower. Others have turned away from Jesus because they understood following him in terms of sexual asceticism or other forms of legalistic morality.
Today many who are brought up in liberal churches turn elsewhere because following Jesus has for them been reduced to conventional morality or sentimental feelings. They may not have anything against the morality or the feelings in question, but these hardly constitute a basis for organizing their lives. When liberals, in order to avoid the negative consequences of excessive or distorted claims reduce the meaning of following Jesus to uncontroversial elements, their children are likely to be bored by Jesus and to look elsewhere for something of importance. What is left of Christianity may seem true and even good, one may even want one’s children to be exposed to it, but it is not of major importance.
- Secular Alternatives to Following Jesus
- Jesus or Gautama
Many who look elsewhere these days do not do so with any hope of finding much. They simply seek to make their way in the situation that the world hands them. Making their way means making a living, if possible, by doing fairly interesting things. It often means establishing a family and helping the children get settled in their lives. It usually means becoming interested in travel, television programs, and spectator sports. Some take up active sports or hobbies and work hard toward excelling in these. If they need anything more than hardly conscious conventions or social pressures in any areas of their lives, they will look to different people for guidance in each area of In short, they will live normal, moral American lives, dividing time between work and play, and staying out of trouble.
At the end of the preceding lecture I provided an account of what I understand, from the synoptic gospels, serious following of Jesus entails. For those of us who have tasted Christian discipleship, what many Americans consider the good life looks flat and unsatisfying. Still, it can sometimes tempt us. When our efforts to follow Jesus repeatedly prove unsuccessful, and when we are very tired and frustrated, we are tempted to forget about the needs of the wider world and simply adjust to our immediate context and the minimum that it demands of us. Nevertheless, we usually feel this as a temptation, and we know that to succumb is to settle for something much less than discipleship offers. We can say with Peter, Lord, to whom could we go? You have the words of authentic life.
The fact that so many, even those who have grown up in the church and some who remain at its periphery, settle for the American good life without any real sense of what they are missing is a judgment on the church. They have not found there the nearness of the divine commonwealth nor understood its meaning for the whole of life. Or at least, what they have experienced has lacked a clear contrast with the dominant society, and there has been little of the clarity of exposition that would make it seem important and challenging. If we would end the hemorrhaging of our old-line churches that has been going on for several generations now, we must find a way to present discipleship as a matter of critical urgency for ourselves and for our world.
The question of turning away from Jesus to others strikes us more strongly when those who leave the church devote themselves to causes that appear of critical importance to us as well. Precisely by not dividing their time between the church and such causes, they seem to be more effective in their service. The causes in question may be peace, or justice, or the environment, or some mixture of these. Those who devote themselves to these causes see no need to connect their efforts to improve the human condition to the church or to Jesus. Often the values that shape their lives seem so self-evident, that they feel no need to ground them in a larger tradition.
We used to use the label secular humanism in a broad way to refer to the view that the values Christians prize can be grounded in a secular worldview and provide motivation and guidance without the connection to any religious tradition. We saw how well this worked in the lives of many individuals. We saw that in many instances, while we were struggling to interest the church in important causes, secular humanists were already effectively at work. Sometimes the spirit to be found in secular nongovernmental organizations has put to shame the lack of spirit in local congregations. Clinging to Jesus as sometimes seemed an impediment rather than an asset is saving the world and its inhabitants. Or, if we rightly recognized that the motivation and values had roots in religious traditions, in many cases Christian, we might decide that it is more important to engage in the actions for which Christian values call than worrying about whether we ar following Jesus. There seems to reason to remain in a community that identifies itself as Christian.
This reason for leaving Jesus seems to me less persuasive now than it once did. Although there are still many who make this move, as time has passed, its limitations have become more apparent. Usually, when those who have left the church, but carried its values with them, bring up their children outside the church, the values do not have for the children the formative force they have had for their parents. Of course, there are many exceptions, but overall, sociologically, we can see that it is in communities that seek to encourage discipleship that the values of discipleship are in fact nourished. Outside those communities, people are socialized in ways that do not involve this kind of commitment to the well being of others. This certainly does not mean that those of us who participate in communities that encourage us to follow Jesus are more virtuous than those who do not. But it does mean that participation in these communities is more important than liberals have sometimes recognized.
Today the question of whether we should seek look elsewhere for guidance and leadership arises more poignantly in other ways. For the past three decades there has been a widespread interest in what is called “spirituality.” Especially among those who have drifted out of the churches or to their periphery, but also among many faithful church members, there is a sense of loss or emptiness in the interior life. Burnout occurs among those who work most diligently in the churches. The busyness can be less and less rooted in personal depths. The quest to fill this deeply personal need has become a major factor in our society.
When people seek for help in this area, liberal Protestants have been particularly poor resources. We are heirs of a long tradition of piety, but by fifty years ago, that form of spirituality had gone dry. Liberal Protestants turned to popular forms of psychological self-help instead of developing a new, distinctively Christian form. This kind of psychology did not respond to the new hunger for inner depth. Some turned to adaptations of the Catholic monastic tradition. More began to look East. Indeed, many Catholic monastics did so as well.
Some of those who turned to the East to meet their needs were satisfied to adopt particular techniques of meditation that they found helpful without changing much in other respects. Others fully converted from Christianity or from secularism to an Indian or Chinese tradition. I will take Buddhism as my example for fuller discussion. Many found in Buddhist traditions a wealth of psychological practices that went far deeper than Western psychologies into what can properly be considered spiritual depths. These practices were accompanied by theories about the nature of the human beings and the universe quite different from either biblical or secular ones in the West. The theory and practice constituted a rich orientation to reality, one that covered many of the areas with which the Western traditions dealt but also others on which the Western traditions throw little light. Euro-Americans have become serious and committed Buddhist in substantial numbers. The results are often extremely attractive.
If people can find a great deal more guidance in shaping the inner life from Buddhist teachers than from Jesus and his followers, it does seem that there is someone else to whom liberal Protestants can go. We could object that in doing so some were fleeing their social responsibilities and simply seeking to deal with individual internal problems. There has been truth to this charge in some instances. For some Westerners, Buddhism offered welcome relief from concern about the needs and problems of the public world and efforts to deal with them.
However, they did not agree that this was a weakness. They argued instead that this withdrawal from efforts to change the world was a gain, that trying to improve public structures only made matters worse. They could point to the negative consequences of the French and Russian revolutions and even of political activism generally. They could argue that when the distorted psychological needs of individuals were overcome, society becomes more harmonious. Part of that distorted need is to impose on others one’s vision of what should be in contrast to accepting what is. The need to impose one’s values on others leads to controversies, revolutions, and wars, the results of which are only to make matters worse.
I do not want to seem to imply that these arguments are to be lightly dismissed. Social actions are always ambiguous. Social reform is usually costly to some who, accordingly, resist. Conflict usually follows. Jesus is reported to have said that he brought not peace but a sword. Buddhism has a far better record of nonviolence and social harmony than does Christianity. The choice to leave Jesus and go to Gautama is often a considered one, based on a deep understanding of both. Given the availability of that choice, Peter’s answer to Jesus is not quite so convincing. The Buddha also seems to have words of authentic life.
Nevertheless, given the choice between Jesus and Gautama understood in this way, the reasons for staying with Jesus today seem to be strong, even decisive. Gautama lived in a world in which historical change was very slow. Reflection about the course of public events and their probable future outcome was not a part of his thought or of the thought of his day. The religious intellectuals of India wanted to relieve human suffering, and this could even lead to governmental action, but they did not envision fundamentally different ways of organizing society. One might agree with the contemporary Buddhists to whom I have referred for the superiority of a stable historical context. But my point here is that this is not our context or that of Jesus.
The Jews of Jesus’ day were vividly aware of their historical situation as subjects of Rome. They knew their history. Most hoped for radical change. They debated how that change might come about. Some looked for supernatural intervention by God. Others doubted that they should expect this kind of divine help. Some thought that God would help them if all fully obeyed God’s laws. Others saw that as impossible. Many were ready to revolt militarily against Rome. Others believed that was futile, and they were proved right by repeated experience. Some accommodated themselves to Roman rule and supported Rome against their restive fellow Jews. Of course, most went about their daily struggle to survive without clear commitment to any one of these positions.
Our situation is different from both that of the India of Gautama’s day and the Israel of Jesus’ day, but it is much closer to the latter. Thoughtful Americans know something of history and are aware of their contemporary historical situation at least to some degree. We know that things have been different in the past and will be different in the future. We know that as citizens of the world’s only superpower, we have some responsibility for the way things are and for what they will be like in the future. Many of us are distressed about the way things are. Even those who are complacent about the present are likely to be aware that continuation of present patterns leads toward ecological disaster.
The difference between our situation and that of Jesus means that his teaching is not likely to be directly applicable for us. Nevertheless, in fact it is remarkably relevant. In my preceding lecture I emphasized the development of counter-cultural, and that means counter-imperial, communities, that is, communities that function on principles quite contrary to those of empire. Jesus believed that such communities would grow and spread. He may, or may not, have believed that there would also be some divine intervention in human history, but he did not support the use of violence against the status quo. One should subvert Roman rule by living from the values of a very different order.
One should pray for the comprehensive, public order also to be brought into line with these very different values.
This message is increasingly relevant for us Americans who live in the heart of the imperial power of our day. It is critically important that the church show forth that a different way of being, a different orientation of life and community, is possible. Our situation differs from that of Jesus in that he and his followers had no way of directly affecting the imperial order in which they lived. Today, as citizens of the imperial nation, we have some such power. They could only pray for change. We can not only pray but also exercise our rights as citizens. To do that we do not need to turn away from Jesus.
The greater similarity of our situation to Jesus than to Gautama does not exclude the possibility that we should turn away from Jesus and to the Buddha. But for one who has been deeply affected by Jesus, such a move has the appearance of escape. One may escape the burden of concern for the complex affairs of the nation and the world and find inner peace. Indeed, for some people the effort to act responsibly in the world may simply be too much. There are forms of Christianity that respond to this need to escape. But I suspect that, on the whole, the turn to Buddha is better than these truncated forms of Christianity. For me, better still is to find the peace that passes all understanding in communities that live by counter-imperial values, where one is accepted and loved regardless of one’s usefulness or even moral standing, and where one is freed to love others as well. Sadly, not all those who seek to be disciples of Jesus have found such communities of support.
In believing that the form of Buddhism that involves withdrawal from responsibility for the wider society is inadequate I am in agreement with many of the most thoughtful and committed Buddhists. They do not believe that, in our day, following the Buddha calls for such withdrawal. The Zen teacher and missionary to the West, Masao Abe, repeatedly asserted that Buddhists needed to learn social ethics from Christians. Other Buddhists have found grounds for a more active involvement in social issues in Buddhist traditions. Today, under the leadership of the Thai Buddhist and social activist, Sulak Sivaraksa, thousands of Buddhists in the United States and elsewhere identify themselves with “socially engaged Buddhism.” I find their commitment to peace, justice, and sustainability profoundly congenial. Indeed, I find myself in quite consistent agreement with the positions they take and enthusiastic about the ways they act. There are few Christian groups about which I could speak so affirmatively..
Sources for socially engaged Buddhism can certainly be found in Buddhist traditions, and Buddhists can point to important instances of social action for noble causes in their history. Nevertheless, I believe that its rise to a central place for many Buddhists reflects the influence of the Bible, understood especially through Jesus. This is not in any way to belittle its value and importance. It shows the capacity of Buddhism to incorporate what is of value in other traditions and to respond to changing situations. All Buddhists regard compassion as a central expression of the enlightenment they seek, and Buddhist history is replete with stories of its radical expression. To recognize that the fullest expression of compassion requires social analysis and action is a fully coherent step, and Buddhists are to be congratulated on their willingness to incorporate wisdom from other sources in the process of taking this step. In this process of incorporation, they also transform what they have taken. My admiration for socially engaged Buddhism is deep. I believe that most of those who have converted from Christianity to this form of Buddhism are in fact living in ways more appropriate to discipleship to Jesus than they were when they belonged to Christian churches.
Accordingly, the question of to whom we might go has, for me, an attractive answer. One might go to another who has provided a wisdom about personal transformation absent in Jesus’ tradition and teaching whose teaching is also capable of assimilating much that comes from Jesus. Why not make this change?
My answer is that I am strongly convinced that for our own sake and for the sake of the world, Jesus remains the one we are called to follow. There is a fundamental difference between the messages of Jesus and Gautama. Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the basileia theou. The Buddha showed the way in which individuals could move toward enlightenment. I believe that both messages are important and that they are not in conflict. We can, we should, learn from both. But it makes a difference which message we take as basic.
Buddhists who seek to live from and toward enlightenment can understand the importance of seeking peace, justice, and sustainability in the public world. The practices in which they engage in relation to their personal enlightenment prove beneficial for their efforts to promote a better public world. In these efforts they can also be inspired directly and indirectly by Jesus.
Christians who seek to live from and toward the basileia theou find that they have personal, existential, psychological, and spiritual needs that are not always met by their participation in community with other Christians or by spiritual practices developed in these communities. They can find great help in Buddhist meditation of various sorts. These can also open their eyes to an understanding of the fundamental nature of the world that differs from what they have been taught in Western schools. All of this can help them live from and toward the basileia theou.
Christians who have been enriched by what they learn from Buddhists and Buddhists who have been enriched by what they learn from Christians have much in common. We can work together for the salvation of the world. I have no desire at all to berate those who have chosen the Buddhist way. Frankly, my overall position is probably more similar to that of engaged Buddhists than to most Christians. I thank God for this movement.
Nevertheless, my purpose in this lecture is to explain why I believe that Jesus remains the one who has the words of authentic life. There are many reasons to turn away from many forms of Christianity. Most of the formerly Christian Buddhists whom I know had excellent reasons for their conversion. The Christian need for theological reform is critical, and those who have left us for Buddhism are among those best qualified to show us this need. I am not arguing for the superiority of actual Christianity to actual Buddhism. But I am arguing that the hope of the world, at this critical point in history, lies in the increase of those who truly follow Jesus. Accordingly, this is not the time to turn from Jesus – even to the Buddha.
I will formulate my argument briefly and simply. (1) At this critical point in the history of this planet, the greatest need is for people whose primary commitment is to the true well being of the planet including, of course, and primarily focusing on, its living inhabitants. This will certainly require attention to the spiritual life of those engaged in seeking the transformation of public policies. Buddhist practices and understanding can play a large role here. But individual spiritual practices will ultimately be for the sake of the transformation of the global situation.
(2) Central to the work for the salvation of the world will be establishing and strengthening communities that live from the reversal of imperial values that is expressed in Jesus’ message of the basileia theou. These values focus on relationships among people. These relationships also can be richly benefited from disciplined meditation of various sorts. But the various forms of meditation will be judged more by their contribution to mutual acceptance and caring and loving relationships than by their deepening of individual spirituality.
I have not dealt with what may be the deepest difference between the Buddha and Jesus, their understanding and relation to deity. The Buddha rejected any interest in deities. He also rejected the Hindu idea of Brahman as ultimate reality. The idea of God as understood in the Abrahamic traditions was not within the horizon of his thinking. But when his followers encountered these traditions, they judged that the God of whom these traditions spoke should also be rejected. For Jesus, on the contrary, the relationship to God is absolutely central, cognitively and existentially.
One attraction of Buddhism in cultivated circles in the West, already in the nineteenth century, was its freedom from any form of theism. Many in the West had become skeptical of the reality of God, but of these some were fearful that morality depended on belief in God. They found in Buddhism a deeply moral vision and style of life that did not involve theism. In an intellectual context in which traditional ideas of God hardly could be made to fit, this seemed a great gain.
Both Buddhists and Western atheists had good reason to reject the dominant understanding of God in the West. I share in this rejection. But I do not find that understanding in Jesus. And I do find that the total rejection of God functions as a limitation of Buddhism. It has been partially met by the reintroduction into Buddhism of divine figures. However, these do not, in my view, overcome the limitation altogether.
Let me first indicate where I am sympathetic to the Buddhist rejection of God. First, God is often presented very much like Brahman, as the universal substance underlying all things. This can be called Being Itself. I agree with Buddhists that there is no such substance. I find the Buddhist analysis of substance convincing.
Second, God is often presented as a transcendent will that determines everything. Buddhists rightly deny that any such unilateral center of determination exists. Causality is diffused throughout the world. Human beings are responsible for their own actions.
Third, God is often presented primarily as lawgiver and judge. Human beings are to be obedient to God’s laws at least partly out of fear of punishment if they are not. Buddhists do not deny that evil deeds have evil consequences, but these are not imposed externally. They are the natural consequences built into the order of things. In my view the relation of deeds and consequences is less orderly than traditional Buddhist teaching affirms, but Buddhists are right to reject notions of externally imposed punishment.
Fourth, God is often presented as having created the world out of nothing. I agree with Buddhists that there is no reason to insist on any absolute beginning of things. Certainly there is enormous evidence that our universe is vastly older than Christians used to think. Some present the Big Bang as a creation out of nothing, but other interpretations are at least equally possible. Buddhists are quite right to refuse to tie their faith and practice to any such notion of a beginning of the world.
We do not know, of course, exactly what Jesus thought about questions of this sort. This suggests to me, at the very least, that such ideas were not central to his teaching. Of the four ideas mentioned, his teaching touches most closely on the third, and there it cuts against any simple views of reward and punishment based on divinely given rules. The parable of the last judgment does indicate reward and punishment, but this is on the general basis of how we treat our neighbors rather than how closely we follow divinely imposed rules. Other parables emphasize a radical disproportion between what God gives us and what we deserve.
Jesus addressed God not as Being Itself nor as Omnipotent Ruler but as Papa or Daddy. This fits his emphasis on God’s universal grace and love. The reasons for Buddhist rejection of God do not apply equally to the view that these play a role in all reality. Indeed, whole segments of Buddhism have affirmed something like this in their teachings about Amitabha and the great popularity of Guanyin in China (Kwannon in Japan). Buddhism does not oppose the idea of a more than human graciousness in the world.
That this more than human graciousness seeks a world order based on love and grace rather than force and fear is not characteristic of traditional Buddhism, but it does not violate any basic Buddhist insight. It is a central conviction of Jesus, one that leads Jesus to pray for such a world. One might suppose that orienting one’s life to the coming of such a world would be possible without believing in God or being influenced by those who do. I will not say it is impossible. But believing in God supports it in two ways.
First, a universal perspective is difficult for human beings to attain. It differs from simply viewing the world from an individual human point of view. It has to check the results of that point of view based on the recognition of the equal importance and value of every other point of view. Belief in God encourages that checking because one supposes that God’s point of view is not biased toward any one creaturely one. God’s impartial concern for all lures us in that direction.
Second, if one does not believe in God, any idea of a world based on radically different values seems simply utopian in the negative sense. Thinking about that, or even hoping for it, seems a waste of time. One cannot pray for it, since there is nothing to which to pray. If one believes that this very different world order is the aim of a cosmic spirit who works for it, then giving oneself to that work makes sense, even if the effects are often hard to discern.
My point here is that for a Buddhist to adopt from Jesus the ideal of seeking first the basileia that Jesus described would be difficult indeed. It would be greatly facilitated by the acceptance of a Spirit in the universe that is gracious and that aims at the transformation of the world. It would, from my point of view, constitute a conversion to following Jesus. That would in no way require cessation of meditation or a rejection of profound Buddhist wisdom about the nature of reality. But these Buddhist elements would contribute to discipleship to Jesus rather than be the organizing principles of the whole of life.
I have spent most of my time in this lecture asking about just one serious option. Many thoughtful people have turned from Jesus to the Buddha. I have explored what is involved in that conversion, and I have argued for appropriating the wisdom of Buddhism into the mission to which Jesus called us. It is my belief that such appropriation is possible and desirable. Indeed, I believe that we can and should appropriate a great deal from other teachers into the pursuit of the basileia theou. I believe it is more difficult for those who follow other leaders to appropriate that mission.
3. Other Options in the Abrahamic Traditionss
I will conclude this lecture by looking far more briefly at the possibility of finding a center in the Abrahamic traditions other than Jesus. Some have left Jesus to become Jews; others, to become Muslims. Here, too, many have good reasons for leaving the form of Christianity they have known and locating themselves in the Abrahamic tradition in another way.
One common reason for turning away from Christ is that Christians so often depict Jesus as a nonhuman being. The divinity of Jesus is often formulated in a way that denies the full humanity of Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity is often formulated in ways that obscure the unity of God. If this had not been the way in which Christianity was taught to Mohammed, he might have become a great Christian prophet instead of bringing into being a competing faith. At this point my sympathies are with him and with those who, for these reasons, turn away from Jesus.
But, quite obviously, the following of Jesus does not entail such doctrines. Jesus may have understood himself to embody God’s Spirit in a special way, enabling him to speak for God and even to forgive sins in God’s name. But it would never have occurred to Jesus to suppose that because of his intimate relation with God he was not a fully human being. Even Mohammed accorded him a more special status than he would have accorded himself. More obviously still, Jesus never doubted the Jewish teaching of the unity of God. To forsake Jesus because of strange doctrines later formulated in the church, and their even stranger popular interpretations, is understandable but unwise.
What other reasons might we have for turning from Jesus to either Judaism or Islam? We might do so out of horror at the crimes that Christians have inflicted especially against Jews but also against Muslims. We might judge that the Christian view that we can be saved only by believing in Jesus has led to a level of intolerance and persecution that is intolerable. We might be impressed by a Judaism that does not try to impose itself on others or by an Islam that has dominated the only societies in which the three Abrahamic faiths lived peacefully side by side for centuries.
It may be that the crimes the Christians have committed in the name of Christ are greater than those that have been committed by either Jews or Muslims. Sad to say there is plenty of guilt on all of our hands. In all cases, these crimes have sprung from aspects of the teachings of these traditions that are rejected by its finest representatives. The clearest case of contrast is actually between Jesus himself and the crimes committed in his name. It is not following Jesus that leads to these crimes. When they stem from Christian teaching, as many do, it is from later teachings about Jesus and the salvation of the individual soul rather than from Jesus’ call to follow him and seek first the basileia theou.
The reason for turning from Jesus to other loci in the Abrahamic tradition can also follow from actual teachings of Jesus. Both Judaism and Islam call for a rigorous and vigorous morality, for ways of life that are difficult but possible, at least for some. Jesus calls for living here and now, in a society that operates on a quite different basis, the life of the basileia theou. What he asks is impractical and perhaps strictly impossible. For two thousand years, how to respond to this call has been a source of deep perplexity and tension for those who would follow Jesus. Jews and Muslims believe that it is far better to teach people how, practically and realistically, it is best to live in our actual world than to hold before them an ideal way of living that cannot be achieved. That some who have been Christians decide at some point that Jews and Muslims are indeed wiser is quite understandable. Perhaps it leads in fact to a higher level of personal morality in these traditions that Christians, on the whole, attain.
Let us consider this choice seriously, if simplistically, around a single teaching. Christians and Jews both know that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. For Jews the meaning of this is spelled out in terms of just treatment of others. For Christians it is a call to care about the neighbor the way we care about ourselves. This does not mean that we cease to care about ourselves, but it is a call not to be biased in favor of oneself. This clearly works against what we can only regard as “human nature.” Jews, accordingly, do not expect it. They check its negative consequences by moral principles. Christians believe that this kind of love of neighbor constitutes a true righteousness in terms of which they find themselves to fall short. This falling short or missing the mark is sin. Because this sin is part of human nature, we speak of original sin, that is, a sinful quality in our lives that is deeper than particular sins. Even when we behave justly to our neighbor, the taint of sin does not disappear.
This leads us to believe that we cannot save ourselves. Our salvation depends on divine grace. This is understood both as forgiveness and as healing. Perhaps our sinful nature is never fully overcome, but we can grow in love of neighbor. We do not grow, however, by the exercise of free will but by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Fundamentally, Christian spirituality is not about attaining an altered state of consciousness but about widening the range of genuine caring about others, so that we act for their interest not out of duty but out of love.
Throughout Christian history, many have turned away from this understanding. They have wanted to know how they should behave, and they have developed sets of rules, analogous to those of Jews and Muslims. Typically, their choices of rules are less wise than those of Jews and Muslims. If we understand the good life primarily in terms of obeying the will of God, and if we understand that will primarily in terms of moral laws, then the difference between Christianity and the other Abrahamic traditions becomes much less, and I suspect that Christians do not do well in comparison. For reasons that have little to do with Jesus’ message, Christians have been peculiarly obsessed with sexuality and have taught many foolish and harmful things about it.
Nevertheless, overall the sense that we are called to something more than what we are able to actualize has been pervasive of Christianity, for good and ill. When this sense of missing the mark is stronger than the conviction of God’s love and forgiveness, the ill predominates. When the assurance of God’s acceptance and the experience of acceptance by other Christians predominate, I believe that the continuing sense of being called to more and of growing in love of others, is deeply good.
In these lectures I am not asking universal questions about which religious tradition is best. I am asking now, when the world faces a peculiarly disturbing crisis, one that threatens the healthy future of life, to whom should we turn. Should we give up on Jesus and go to another? Or should we strive all the harder to be good disciples of Jesus?
The question I am now raising in relation to Judaism and Islam is whether the deeply moral lives to which they call their followers are an appropriate and adequate response to the world’s needs. I have argued that these may be the best lives possible within the actual order of the world. My point now is that the actual order of the world is leading to unparalleled catastrophes. Unless at very deep levels these are changed, those catastrophes are inevitable. We need to work for this radical transformation.
Of course, most of those who share our desire to avoid these catastrophes will work for change in and through the methods available to us in the present world order. Let us celebrate all that they accomplish in this way. The contribution of Jews and Muslims can be great.
Nevertheless, there is a special need today, perhaps more than ever before, that we imagine, and live from, a quite different world order. The order that the world needs is much more like that envisioned by Jesus than like any minor modification of its current patterns. Just talking about that other world will help, but it is not enough. We need to create and maintain communities that now, already, live by the quite different values and principles of the basileia theou. We need as individuals the support of communities like that in order to continue our work for public change. We need to embody those principles in our lives as we do this work
Accordingly, I believe that the response of Jesus to the Roman Empire of his day and to the terrible threat to the survival of Judaism that was part of that situation is deeply needed in our time. It seems to most people quite unrealistic. But what is realistic will not stop the movement to catastrophe. We must demonstrate in our communities that “another world is possible.” And we must so present that other world that hundreds of millions of people will gravitate towards it and create the context in which that other world will replace the present one.
This will not happen if this “other world” is limited to those who consciously and intentionally follow Jesus. It is my hope that we can persuade many, especially those who already think of themselves as Christians to seek first the basileia theou in this critical time. But our goal is the salvation of the world, not the conversion of all to explicit Christian faith. In the twentieth century, the Hindu Gandhi in India and the Buddhist Ariyaratne in Sri .Lanka did as much to make visible and effective what Jesus called the basileia theou as any avowed Christian. As Jesus said, those who are not against us are for us. The changes needed are so vast, the laborers so few, let us celebrate all achievements. But for us, it will be as self-conscious and intentional followers of Jesus that we will do what we can.