Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed at Christmas
Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed at Christmas
At the core of the Christian faith is the idea of “God becoming man in Jesus.” As soon as I became old enough to question my conditioning, I instinctively felt this was an inherent blasphemy.
I came to feel that making Jesus God meant that God was made in the image of man, and that made no sense at all. But of course religions aren’t rational, and their rituals aren’t meant to be.
Every year at the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims must make at least once in their lifetimes, throngs of people throw stones at pillars that symbolize the devil. It’s called, fittingly enough, “stoning the devil,” and in previous years dozens of people have lost their lives in stampedes that have occurred when thousands fervently converge on the same place at the same time from different directions. This year the hajj was much more organized, with the tens of thousands per day moving in the same direction around the pillars that look like stone slabs.
To those of us raised in the Christian tradition, the six-day hajj, which fell just before Christmas and drew three million pilgrims, is a rather frightening spectacle. The fact that so many people can harmoniously come together in one place (notwithstanding the threat of terrorism), dressed in the same simple clothing to show equality, is overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of the exotic event.
The practice of stoning the devil seems very strange to Christians who like their devil remotely enthroned in hell. Though the original meaning seems fairly clear, the Islamic practice appears archaic and rote. But isn’t that increasingly the case with all ritual—strange, archaic, and ultimately mechanical?
Though I left the Catholic Church at 17 and never looked back, I sometimes go to Mass if I’m in my home state (not to be confused with homeland) visiting for the holidays. Years ago I took a friend to a High Mass on a visit to my native state, the insular peninsular of Michigan. She was raised nominally Lutheran, and had never been in a Catholic Church, much less to a High Mass on Christmas.
A jam-packed High Mass on Christmas is as dazzling a ritual as there is in America, decked with thousands of candles, and incense so thick you feel high on it. A choir in the balcony fills the church with religious Christmas music, and the aisles are filled with the flowing robes of priests and the cassocks of altar boys. Though one might have to go to an Orthodox Church in Russia to experience the full feudal splendor, it’s a spectacle everyone should experience once in a lifetime, though I wouldn’t make it mandatory.
My friend was, as expected, overwhelmed by the sensory surfeit, though to her credit she didn’t confuse the rituals with religiosity, as so many still do, whether Catholic, Buddhist, or Muslim.
As we were leaving the church, she gasped and stopped short, riveted by a life-size statue of Jesus at eye level nailed to a cross, complete with convincing wounds and dripping blood. I’d passed the thing a thousand times as a kid compelled to attend Mass every day before school, and didn’t even notice it.
The Mass was still said in Latin at that time, and between the dead language and ancient rituals, I was properly instilled with the requisite sense of shock and awe that 2000 years of solemn sacramentalism convey to the mind of a child. All this was unknown back-story to my friend, whose horror was confined to the 3-D depiction of the crucified Christ. She had as many questions about it, and its meaning for Catholics, as I imagine a curious Muslim would.
Of course, for many the whole issue of faith is resolved by believing the opposite—in atheism, the belief that there is no such actuality as God in any sense. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have many followers these days, but their arguments are as silly and superficial as those that Catholics use for Jesus as God, and Muslims abuse for Allah the jihadist.
There is not ‘a God,’ but there is God, if we non-intellectually understand God as an immanent intelligence, the awareness within and beyond the material universe, rather than some kind of separate ‘Creator.’ But what was Jesus’ relationship to that intelligence?
Surely Jesus’ mission was to bring about a radical change in the human heart at the crossroads of people and place in the known world of his time. If he had succeeded, such an inner revolution would have complemented the one Siddhartha ignited in India a few hundred years earlier. Then Eastern and Western worlds would have developed in harmony and taken a very different course. Jesus was not as great as the Buddha, and Mohammed was not as great as Jesus, but no matter; except for Sufism, Islam is as hidebound as Catholicism.
Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. On Christmas this year, the Jewish state, which has been oppressing Muslim Palestinians for decades, has, through its Bush clone, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declared a “true war” on Hamas. Hamas, in turn, has been conducting a war against fellow Palestinians.
Religions deteriorate and degrade into meaningless rituals and divisive beliefs because they lose their original insight and impetus, becoming mechanical and repetitious, which allows the few to manipulate the many.
Religion and politics aren’t strange bedfellows, but conjoined twins. There is an inexpressible and infinite source of intelligence, but religious insight is always new, arising from direct experiencing in the individual.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.