by Curt Osmon
"A god dies when we stop believing in him." -Neitzsche
"To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete" --R. Buckminster Fuller
I have been told for most of my life that "Jesus died for your sins". I asked so many times, "What does that mean"; or better yet, "How does that work?" The answers that came did not satisfy. I could plainly see that people were just repeating what they were told, but that they didn't really seem to understand it themselves…sometimes they would admit this by saying that there are things we are not meant to understand; they would invoke" faith" mercilessly. As I began to realize that my questions were just upsetting people, it became apparent that I would be finding the answer to this conundrum on my own.
And so, a cursory glace at the mythological systems of a variety of historical cultures showed that almost everybody has a resurrection myth; that almost every religion through history includes somewhere the story of a "dying god" who is killed tragically, and either returns to life or achieves some sort of advanced godhood as a result. From Odin to Osiris, from Central America to Sumer, we find a theme, which, if not universal, is at least commonly encountered. But still, the question I couldn't shake was, why? What would motivate the most advanced adepts of so many religious systems to take that risk? Were they even all doing the same thing, or did it just seem that way from our perspective?
My first clues to the Judeo-Christian aspect of the mystery came from the Nag Hammadi library; which was also my first exposure to that multi-faceted diamond of belief known under the heading "Gnosticism". Here we find references to almost every possible variation of the Crucifixion tale; often Jesus is said to have survived the ordeal rather than being resurrected. We also find the Biblical version of the story repeated, sometimes with considerable variation. Plainly, a definitive sequence of events would prove difficult to establish from these sources; however, in spite of the bewildering variety in the Nag Hammadi books, a common theme began to emerge…and a new question arose: What do you do when you discover that your God is not what he has been represented as being?
As I became acquainted with some basic mystical techniques, I also was introduced to the concept of baptism being a possible initiation into a mystery school (of sorts). Many such initiations involved at least a simulation of a near-death experience, a travel through a tomb, not inconceivably including a simulated drowning. A stretch, yes, with little or no documentation to back it up, but an idea consistent at least with what was already established as "standard operating procedure" for mystical initiation.
That was all well and good for the beginning of the story, but the burning question on my mind had more to do with the ending. By now I was comfortable with the idea that Jesus knew what he was doing, and very possibly knew where it would eventually take him. But why would he go ahead with a plan that appeared suicidal?
His vision of a loving god seems to be inconsistent with the Old Testament God of wrath and fear. Perhaps that was the whole point, in order to save mankind from all that wrath and fear; he would give us the chance to make this world the garden it once was…
What do you do when you discover that your God is insane? The thought is immediately suppressed, for fear that the wrathful, vengeful God will hear. How much worse would it have been to think it during the reign of Herod? In those times, to translate the near unthinkable into action would require a heroic figure indeed. But what action would be appropriate or even useful under those circumstances? Do you tell a large mass of religious fanatics (who consider blasphemy a stoning offense) that their God has the behavior of a madman? Even if you do, who among them doesn't have the behavior of a madman?
A God dies when we stop believing in him. Neitzsche was still a couple of millennia into the future, but the principle's inverse was not unknown to ancient cultures. A God is born when people start believing in him. And once again, the time was right for a new God to appear.
It would not be an easy transition; it never was. Social inertia is a powerful force of history; people are not in the habit of changing gods casually. First, a candidate for godhood must prove his worthiness, and that means he needs some miracles…
The possible (and sometimes established) connection between legerdemain and religion is too complex a matter to examine here in depth; suffice it to say that the division between the two is a relatively modern invention. This is why it's all called "magic"; the roots of each are found in tribal shamanism, where no effort is made to distinguish between the miraculous and the theatrical. (If some modern readers of religious works have forgotten this, we can hardly blame those who remember for keeping it to themselves, given the usual treatment of heretics by any culture.) Once a wondrous event is witnessed, word of mouth takes over and a legend is born. (See any good biography of Houdini for many examples; he is known for a number of stunts that even he never thought of performing…and the Vaudeville audience was much more sophisticated than the crowds of 33 B.C.)
Which is not to say that wondrous events do not happen; anyone likely to be reading this has seen events that defy explanation. But such events are notoriously unpredictable; an aspiring Messiah would do well to take no chances when the stakes are so high.
There are examples of the attitude Jesus was taking toward the old laws, many times when he came to the attention of the authorities of his day. One of the most telling is also commonly overlooked and doesn't seem radical at first. When asked which commandments to obey, he doesn't name all ten; he names the five dealing with human interrelations and adds: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself". Admonitions about the Sabbath, about "have no gods before me", about idolatry, are left out of this conversation. Again I was left to wonder: Was there some kind of problem with the Old Testament Vengeful God, a philosophical and moral issue that everybody seemed reluctant to discuss?
The pivotal event is the crucifixion itself, and the events that soon followed. The Biblical accounts are well enough known not to repeat in detail; the Gnostic accounts are conflicting enough to keep any one version from achieving dominance. Every possible variation is covered; Jesus resurrected in body, in spirit, or not at all; Jesus living for a time on Earth, or going straight to Heaven; even a laughing Jesus watching as Simon of Celine is hung up in his place. But in the context of a dying god, one phrase has always stood out in my mind: My God, why have you forsaken me?
We have seen that through a mystical initiation, Jesus has become (or behaves as, which is functionally the same thing) an incarnation of The Father, Jehovah, YHVH, or whatever your favorite representation of the Judaic Supreme Being might be. Having become the vessel for his God, Jesus then goes out of his way to draw negative attention from ecclesiastical and political authorities of his day; one might think he was trying to get executed…again, what can you do, when you discover that your God is insane?
And suddenly, at the end of the operation, the God-force leaves unexpectedly; slipping out the back door as it seems. For the remainder of the story we see Jesus with no sign of divine help or intervention; in fact if someone expected God to save him from his fate someone would have been disappointed. Traditional Christianity has always conceded that point, in fact it has become a cornerstone of many people's faith. The story was destined to be played out until the end.
In most cultures, the Dying God ritual appears to be successful; the old ways fade, and a new god takes over. It is interesting that in our culture we got the "new god", but the old god did not fade away. Indeed, the phrase "Why have you forsaken me?" raises the question of whether our old god actually died at all…people have certainly not stopped believing. It might be interesting to see what would happen if they did…
I don't pretend to know what was on the minds of any of the actors in this passion play, nor do I pretend to have enough faith to believe or disbelieve any of my own words. But one thing is apparent; if the old God of Vengeance would not die, then the new God of Love would have to learn to coexist with him. Perhaps it was meant to be that way after all; in any case, It Is What It Is. In the end, everybody creates their own God in their own image anyway. Create well; Gods are damned hard to get rid of.
Curt Osmon, sometimes called Melting Wizard and a variety of less savory names, is a solitary mage with about twenty years of experience in twisting his own conciousness. He started out as Christian/Gnostic, but quickly expanded to uncharted territory. Primary influences inclued Robert Anton Wilson, Buckminster Fuller, and Robert Heinlein. New to cyberspace, this constitutes his first published work. Be gentle.
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