Christmas for the Deconstructed
I am enjoying the Christmas music and devotionals and time to reflect on the birth and life of Jesus. The #lighttheworld campaign that encourages us to reflect each day on a trait of Christian discipleship really helps me. One of the things on my mind is how to intellectually view Christmas and how to explain that view to others, after phases of faith crisis and reconstruction.
Like many other Mormons in my generation, learning CES Letter type information about Mormonism sent me on a faith deconstruction phase. First came loss of belief in the Book of Abraham. Then came reinterpretation of Old Testament myths like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Flood. Then came loss of belief in Book of Mormon historicity. You’ve heard this before. The hardest of all, emotionally and spiritually, was the deconstruction of the New Testament and the historical criticism of the historical Jesus.
New Testament scholars make a case that the earliest known stories of Jesus lack the miraculous aspects. Then as the Christian movement evolved, the high Christology aspects of Jesus, the miracles, the virgin birth, and the empty tomb were added. The implication here is that the actual historical Jesus likely was a revolutionary teacher and prophet but not the divine Son of God. I don’t have a judgement on this, but the evidence is pretty compelling.
Many of my readers might have gone through a similar faith deconstruction. Some might view this as a condemnation on Mormonism and religion in general. I don’t. I’ve gone through a faith reconstruction phase to where my beliefs in Jesus Christ and the restored LDS Church are as meaningful as ever.
So, now it’s Christmas. What are we in faith deconstructed state going to do? Everyone’s path is different, but if you’re struggling with this, let me share how I reconcile the seemingly competing concepts.
Wholesale — Retail
The logic of Marcus Borg is what helped my faith reconstruction journey accelerate. In The Heart of Christianity, Borg uses a merchandising concept to make an example. There is a wholesale product and a retail product. The wholesaler makes a generic product and ships to retailers who customize the product, optimizing for their audience’s geography and demographics. In a similar way, we can look at all the religions of the world as marketing a retail God, highly customized for each audience. But they are all pointing us to something higher. Which could be thought of something as the wholesale God. If you’re struggling with the intellectual viability of the “retail God”, then it’s perfectly valid to view it as pointing to a God that’s more intellectually viable.
Avatars of God
I combine this concept with what I learn from Hinduism. Hinduism is considered by some (debatably) monoetheistic. But Hindus believe in many avatars or representations/carnations of that God. You’ve probably seen the popular Hindu God Ganesha.
Hindus believe deeply in Ganesha. They pray to him. They put little statues and pieces of art representing him all around. They think of him in their head when they close their eyes to pray. They feel connected to him. But if you told them God is not actually half man half elephant or that the historicity of Ganesha is suspect, most Hindu’s would not be affected. The incarnations (avatars) of God that Hindus believe in, each teach an aspect of God that is important to them. I think it makes sense to think of the Hindu avatar concept when we think of Jesus Christ. We literally believe he is an incarnation of God, and use very Hindu-like language sometimes to describe this, ie “God is revealed in Jesus Christ,” so the avatar concept fits well. Additionally, it might be insightful to think of the Holy Ghost, God the Father, and Heavenly Mother also as avatars. Representations of the divine, put into human concept and form. Meant for the purpose of understanding God better.
My 11 year old son is getting an ant farm for Christmas. This ant farm is pretty amazing to watch, and while I set it up, it put me deep in thought. These ants look at me like God. How could I explain to one of these ants who I was. I would have to use ant logic, and I would end up probably giving them a very dumbed down, ant-like explanation of who I was. Then the ants could argue back and forth about whether or not this was true.
I like this idea:
Some religious belief might not be literally or absolutely true. But not believing it would lead you to a less true position.
The ants have no chance to understand who I am or how I view the world, so I tell them X. X is a dumbed down version of who I am and what my plan is for them, using ant language and symbols. X is not literally or absolutely true. But the ants can understand X. It’s the closest thing they can understand to the actual truth. So, if they choose to reject X, they would be technically correct in rejecting X due to its untruth. But they would also be wrong in rejecting X, because while untrue, rejecting X leads the ant to a less true position.
I believe in “the more”. I believe in the transcendent. On my best days, I feel God very close, walking and talking with me, supporting me and enabling me to endure trials in my life and stay strong. My view of God is less certain on the details than it was prior to faith crisis and reconstruction. I’m not sure what it is, but I need an “X” to put my faith into, to hope for, to think about and talk about it in my language and according to my understanding, even if I may not believe it completely.
For me, the X is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. A scholar might describe it as the myths of an ancient polytheistic tribe rewritten with Yahweh emerging as a monotheistic God, then revolutionized by the prophet guru Jesus, manipulated by Paul and other early Christians to elevate Jesus into the cosmic Christ, then shaped by centuries of debate of Christian theologians like Calvin and Arminius, then revolutionized and expanded again by Joseph Smith, then taken way out into left field by Brigham Young and then mainstreamed and modernized and globalized by Grant-McKay-Smith-McConkie-Kimball-Hinckley-Monson. I would probably describe it that way, also. But it’s still my X.
I’ve been reading The Zealot by Reza Aslan. He’s a New Testament scholar, and this book describes Jesus as a Jewish zealot and revolutionary and introduces the historical criticism that suggests the high Christology aspects of the New Testament came later and didn’t originate from Jesus himself. It’s very interesting. But this isn’t my Jesus. I’ve come to separate these two ideas. 1) The historical Jesus, the Jesus of the scholars. By studying this, I find insight into how to follow Jesus better. 2) The Cosmic Christ, who is the Jesus as taught at church. The Savior and Redeemer. This is the God I worship. That’s my Jesus.
You see this picture floating around that is meant to be a more accurate description of what the historical Jesus would look like.
My kids asked me if Jesus came, should we expect him to look more like that? NO! 1,000 times, NO! At least not to you, white kids growing up in Mormon Utah.
I hope you’ve heard the great Christmas song by James Taylor, Some Children See Him.
Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!
The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!
I cheered recently when I read of the black LDS family that tossed out their pictures of white Jesus. The historical Jesus is not the point. What’s important is the meaning of the historical Jesus. Which is a representation of God descended to Earth.
If God came to me, I’m sure he would come in the arguably kitschy form of a Greg Olsen or Liz Lemon Swindle painting.
Enough of the intellectual case. Here is why I believe in Jesus.
1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.
Whether this is literal and actual or symbolic and meant as man’s best description of God, let’s not get caught up in that. But I find it incredibly powerful the concept that God himself would come down out of heaven to be born a man, fully human fully divine, and live a lowly life with humans.
Why would he do this? Alma Chapter 7:11-13
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
God didn’t know what it’s like to work out in the hot sun and be dying of thirst. God didn’t know what it’s like to work your whole life to win the dance Sterling Scholar and come in second place. God didn’t know what it was like to try to kick a pornography habit. God didn’t know what it’s like to tell your family you got laid off from your job. God didn’t know what it’s like to have the doctor tell you your husband’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. God never buried a child and get crushed with fear and doubt he would see her again.
He needed to know. He wanted to know.
We believe in a God that knows these. First hand. Not theoretically because he’s perfect and all knowing. But actually, because he lived it. He knows how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
Jesus showed us a higher way to live. Love, forgive, serve, sacrifice. When I emulate his example, I become his disciple. When I live this way, I feel more connected to others, I feel better about myself. This grace extends even to my temporal life, as I naturally do the things that give me the best chance to succeed in those areas.
His grace is what enables me to become his disciple.
When we talk of discipleship, we usually go straight to things like obedience, honor, works, grit. Do this, do that. The weight of all this and the guilt of not measuring up sends me the opposite direction of following Christ.
Look at how his disciples felt about him.
Two of his disciples, the day after Jesus’ death, were joined on their walk with him. He taught them on their walk and at the end of the day, sat down to break bread with him. And when he needed to leave, their hearts had burned while they were with him, they begged him to stay, saying “abide with us”.
His disciple John didn’t refer to himself by his name. At the Last Supper he identifies himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
He dined with Simon the Pharisee and the woman known as a sinner came to him. She kneeled at his feet weeping and washed her feet with her tears. She brought her most valuable possession the ointment from her alabaster box.
When Peter was sentenced to death by crucifixion, he requested to be hung upside down out of love and respect for his Savior and Master.
These were his disciples. But I don’t get the feeling any of these had to work hard to motivate themselves to be a disciple of Christ. It came naturally.
John explained the reason why, very simply and powerfully.
We love him, because he first loved us.
If you’re struggling living the way you want. If you don’t feel like you’re being a disciple of Christ, you may be tempted to get down on yourself and attempt to try harder, double your efforts. Brennan Manning suggests we should instead seek to understand and feel the love of Jesus as his disciples did. From that love, the works and the discipleship flow naturally.
Ask the Father, for we only know the Father through The Son. Go to him and ask him. “Father, do you love me?”
Does he say, “I’m so sick of you. all your false promises. Your unrealized potential. Your pettiness. Your sins. You don’t deserve my love.”
If so, then try again, and keep trying until you feel him say.
Do you know how proud of you I am. Do you know how grateful I am for you?
Does he say, “I’ve got 100 commandments for you, and you’re only keeping about 8 of them on a regular basis. Come back when you’re at least up to 60 or 70.”
Or when you look at Jesus in our scriptures do you think he’s jumping out of his skin for you to come to him and accept his love and enter into a deep and intimate relationship with him.
God loves you just as you are. And not as you should be. Because no one is as they should be. And he’s not waiting for us. We’re the ones that are waiting. We’re the ones that are waiting until we’re perfect to approach him.
I’m still not sure on the historical Jesus. I don’t know whether the Jesus taught in the New Testament and the LDS Church as Christ is historical or whether it’s the perfect parable and symbol of Christ. But either way, it is the same to me. This Christmas, I reflect on his life and resurrection. He is alive in the world today. I am at my best when I turn to him and let him live in me.
We celebrate the coming of God to Earth. When grace entered the world. Peace came into the world. When the old law of justice was put aside for the new law of mercy. I’ll tear up and get cheesy when I hear Christmas songs. Tell my kids I love them. Try to serve someone and love them as He would.
Silent night! Holy night! All is calm! All is bright!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
At Christmas, we celebrate the condescension of God. Like Nephi, we may not know exactly what it is, but we get the basic idea.
1 Nephi 11:16-17
16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.