Correspondence on Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus
I post this correspondence here for reasons that will be obvious upon reading it. The initial letter was sent to me regarding my review of Stephen Mitchell's book. I found the letter addressed problems raised in a half dozen other letters I'd gotten on this review, with the difference that here they were addressed in a more interesting and compelling way. Ron Buchheim was kind enough to let me post this brief exchange. --E.M., 2005
If you read Mitchell's book about Jesus carefully, you will see that he frequently points out the Hebrew context of his teachings. In fact, Mitchell argues that the idea that Jesus brought a new dispensation is false. For example, he shows that the key idea of that "new dispensation," that an "eye for an eye" was replaced by forgiveness, is utterly false, since the Old Testament is full of references to forgiveness, and that the assertion of "an eye for an eye" referred more to giving the victim of a crime equal compensation, rather than to plucking out the eye of the criminal.
More important, the idea that Jesus had nothing to do with Lao-Tze or Chuang-Tze because their cultural milieus were different shows that you do not understand the essence of religious experience. Anyone with true experience of God--experience, not belief--recognizes immediately the truth found in Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, Krishnamurti, Eckhart, Jesus, and innumerable others, because they speak the eternal truth of the timeless encounter of the soul with the eternal--and don't take my words literally, because I'm referring to something that is ultimately indescribable. But if you merely believe, with no actual, direct, living experience of God, ego transcendence, whatever you want to call it--the name is not the thing--then you will always feel threatened by deviations from your belief. It is your ego, I'm afraid to say, that clings to the idea that Jesus was different from other great religious teachers. (Of course, Mitchell never said that Jesus was "nearly as great" as Lao-Tze--what an absurd idea! Consider the Sufi saying: "When swimming in the infinite ocean, who is closer to the shore?") If Jesus was greater than others, and you believe in Jesus, then on some subtle level that you surely aren't aware of, you feel that you yourself are better than others. Such identification is the essence of the ego and a major obstacle to religious experience.
Of course, it's easier to just believe, defend the dogma, and not be open to new perspectives. The true religious or mystical life turns the person upside down again and again, until there is nothing left of the ego, not a single belief, just an empty space into which God's infinite love can pour. As the devil said to his worried disciple when he saw someone stumble on a dazzling jewel that contained the truth: "Don't worry, he'll turn it into a religion." Meaning that he will codify the living, ever-changing truth and thus mummify and destroy it. Truth cannot be nailed down; all you can do is be vulnerable, open, and empty. Unless you become as a little child--intensely alive but not encumbered by belief--you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, which exists in the heart of every human being, as Jesus said.
I respectfully suggest that you consider my comments, and start the painful voyage of abandoning encrusted ideas--and all ideas are inherently encrusted--and opening your mind and heart to the unknown. You might start with the anonymous Christian mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, since you think Buddhism is onanistic, or at least deserving of that nasty pun. Do you know enough about Buddhism to honestly and responsibly conclude that it is a self-centered religion? Buddhism is about loss of ego and opening to the unity of everything--the exact opposite of onanism. Aren't you just a wee bit ashamed of yourself?
I am a wee bit ashamed of myself, yes.
It may be of interest to you that my overly harsh essay on Mitchell's book gets more replies than most anything else I've posted on my web page. The wee bit of shame I feel comes from my over-harshness--my biting tone in this essay. Stephen Mitchell certainly doesn't deserve it. Nonetheless I really do think that with his Gospel he has written a shoddy book. Though it is demonstrably true that the phenomenology of mystical experience is similar in the different religious traditions, I do not believe the different traditions offer "the same thing" in different guises.
I too know the Western tradition of negative theology, as evidenced in The Cloud of Unknowing, and it doesn't much compel me. I believe it's not the most vibrant or true path toward what Jesus teaches.
You are clearly a wise commentator on my essay. I find your remarks worthwhile. Any writing of your own out there? In fact you didn't even offer your name.
Dear Mr. Mader,
Your very gracious response to my message has now made me a wee bit ashamed. My message too was overly harsh. But you chose to ignore the personal attacks and focus on the useful aspects of what I said. I am extremely impressed--you truly are a Christian soul, responding to attacks with kindness and, more impressive still, with an interest in hearing more from me! Unfortunately, I have never written about spirituality, though I have long wanted to. I've just been afraid that I'm not wise enough, and that writing could be a spiritual obstacle because my ego might take control. I'm most grateful for the implicit encouragement.
I agree that religious traditions offer different things. But I think that authentic teachers--as opposed to what subsequent commentators make of their teachings--do offer much the same thing, because as you say, mystical experience is essentially the same, and is an aspect of being human that belongs to no particular creed. But I could be wrong. And I understand and respect your feeling that a certain approach to Christianity speaks most deeply to you; I think everyone is drawn more to some ways of describing the truth than to others.
I had written at greater length but sadly I hit the wrong key and lost the entire message. So please accept this somewhat abbreviated version. Your message made my day and gladdened my heart, and I thank you deeply.
P.S. I am a Jew who has been attracted to Jesus ever since I read his words that the kingdom of heaven is within--I'd never heard anything like that in all my years in temple or Hebrew school. All the traditional teachings I received there were like ashes, leading to a deep distrust of traditional religious authority. Maybe that will help you understand why I am drawn to Mitchell's interpretations of Jesus, which parallel those I experienced on my own in reading the Gospels.