CHAPTER 05: JESUS THE AVATAR
The Letter to the Hebrews begins with the words that “long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”(1:1-3)
These opening lines acknowledge the fact that throughout the history of the world and at particular times, special people make their presence felt. These special people in what they say and do bridge the gulf that seemingly separates God from men and women and the rest of the world. Throughout the history of the world there have been many such figures, almost transcendent figures who are able to give an almost singular expression to the Spirit of God. The Hindus refer to such people as Avatars – divine incarnations or divine manifestations. The word itself is derived from the Sanskrit Avatara and is translated as descent. In Hinduism an avatar is the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form to counteract some particular evil in the world. The term usually refers to the ten appearances of Vishnu, and the number of Vishnu’s avatars is sometimes extended or their identities changed, according to local preferences. Thus Krishna in some areas is elevated to the rank of a deity and his half-brother included as an avatar. In the religious poem the Bhagavadgita Krishna tells Arjuna: Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness then I send forth Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age. In these people the Logos or the Word of God or the cosmic purpose of the universe, or the principle of reason, or the outpouring of God’s goodness, power, light and love, makes present in a tangible human way the transcendent God. God speaks to us and shows himself to us in a comprehensive way in the life and teachings of these unique persons, these avatars. In them the transcendent God becomes immanent. Early in John’s Gospel the words of the writer could easily be painting the man Jesus as an avatar: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Such wording finds a similar sentiment in the extract from the Letter to the Hebrews quoted at the beginning.
There have been many such avatars in the course of world history and there will surely be many more to come. They usually appear at times of stress or crisis in the world or in a particular society, during times of social and political upheaval or tension. A Hindu writing states that like the countless numbers of rivers that are created by the ocean (presumably through evaporation and rain) which never runs dry, so are the countless Incarnations of our Lords. Indeed something like 21 avatars have been suggested which include Moses, Christ, Buddha, Confucius, Zoroastra, Mohammed, Krishna, and Mahatma Gandhi. Even King George V gets a jersey according to some unofficial source. I don’t know why except he did visit some fighting fronts on several occasions during World War 1. However I have just returned from The Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo where I noted that King George V in 1910 shot and killed 39 Sumatran tigers in four days. Therefore let King George V consider himself removed from any official or unofficial records of avatars! But let us continue somewhat more seriously.
Some would regard Bahaullah as the most recent avatar. All these avatars teach and preach the same or similar principles in different words, make similar claims regarding themselves and lead their hearers to different levels of understanding and intellectual horizons. One is not better than any other. Each has a special gift of interpreting and giving expression to the divine. As a result a person can be led to explore reality more completely by studying the thoughts of several avatars. There is no question of heresy here because each avatar gives expression to a God who is big. Real big.
In the Vedas, the most ancient of the world’s Scriptures, there are passages that are almost identical with the opening sentence of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Lord of Creatures; second to him was the Word and the Word was truly Brahman.
Now Brahman according to the Hindus is the Word out of which the concrete sensible world then evolves. This creative urge is especially made present in the avatar – the avatar being the descent of God, whereas the ordinary man ascends toward God. In John’s Gospel Jesus claims to have come from the Father and he is the way the truth and the life. But when the sayings of other world’s teachers are examined we find that they make almost identical statements, equally declaring themselves to be incarnations of the Godhead. Thus, for example, Sri Krishna: I am the goal of the wise man, and I am the way, the Lord, the sustainer. And the saying of Buddha: You are my children, I am your father; through me you have been released from your sufferings. I am the saviour of others and so on. The point would seemingly be that the I or Me of these teachers, these avatars, is not referring to the ego or the mere human part of the person; it refers to their divinity, their identity with the Universal Self. The Father, the Godhead, is reached through the grace of the Son, the Incarnation. But it is always the same supreme Spirit which embodies itself in the avatar – and according to some thinkers, God reveals a new and characteristic presentation of the eternal truth of religion with each coming in order to suit the particular needs of successive ages. Makes a lot of sense! Every so often an avatar is born to relight the flame of religion in the heart and to reinvigorate truth and righteousness. This in part explains what for some people remains a problem, namely the particularity of the advent of Jesus into history. When we view Jesus as an avatar, presented here as a hypothesis, this ceases to be a problem. Jesus the avatar was needed. And at that time!
Now comes an important issue. If we worship Christ or Krishna or Buddha or Moses or Mohammed, are we worshipping God? The answer is probably (and a rather tentative probably) and the rationale behind such a response is that we are not worshipping a man as God, we are not worshipping a person. We actually are worshipping God himself, the impersonal-personal Existence, in and through the Incarnation.[i] We are not worshipping the man but worshipping God in and through the man. Maybe we could say that we are worshipping the divine component in the avatar – but then we would be guilty of dualistic thinking! Jesus and the other avatars did not simply encase themselves in a human body; they actually used the human body to express the divine. In a sense the human and the divine became one. This was one of the issues of the early Church Councils – whether or not Jesus was a divine person or a human person. The conclusion arrived at was that Jesus was a divine person but having both a divine and a human nature. So he was God in person according to the teaching of the Church. The conclusion of the learned and the clever! But one has to raise a disclaimer in all these matters. God is big. Real big. No human being can ever be God. And Jesus was a human being. It is as simple as that! It would have been much better and certainly much healthier had the Arians had their way in the days of those early Church Councils. They insisted that Jesus was a human person. Certainly today among many theologians the conclusion has been arrived at which is fundamentally closer to an Arian way of thinking. Pooh would understand.
Barbara Thiering in an article “A God for our Times”[ii] claims that to worship Jesus is to worship an idol. That is to say, she cannot accept that this Jesus was the Son of God. He is someone to be admired very much for what he did politically but Thiering and others refuse to worship a human being. No human figure can represent a God who is far beyond the personal.
I think Jesus would undoubtedly agree. I am quite sure that although he felt an extremely close intimacy with a God whom he called Abba, he himself would never have thought of himself as God or a god. A prophet perhaps – but never a god. After all Jesus was a Jew and a good one at that. It would have been the ultimate blasphemy to have seen himself as God. The problem is that Barbara Thiering and countless other theologians and millions of Christians take the Scriptures and perhaps Church Councils too literally.
The people who made Jesus into a God – or to be more theologically correct, the Incarnate Son of God – were a breakaway group of Jews, Christians, who claimed that this person Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed One of God, the Christos. Subsequently there developed over the early church period some theological reflections regarding this man Jesus which ultimately lead to the Council of Nicaea which encoded the major beliefs of the mainstream Christian churches today, including the divinity of Jesus. I want to return to this whole matter regarding Jesus being God a little later because it is a concept that not only does violence to my own intelligence but must be a sticking point for millions of people trying to make some kind of sense of the Christian religion. The concept of Jesus being an avatar makes considerable contemporary sense. It does not detract in any way from Jesus being a human person, it explains more easily his relationship with his God, and it helps us to read and respect the lives and teachings of other avatars – something very important for us living in the global village.
Nearly all religious leaders and sometimes political ones have been afforded divine titles on their death. Most of them would have disdained such titles. This may well have happened with Jesus. Nevertheless we have Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism, Confucius and even Buddha being afforded divine compliments after their deaths, not to mention the pantheon of Hindu gods (which even include a trinity) – and that’s just mentioning some Eastern Religions. Rome and Greece and Egypt and the Incas and many more peoples have continually honoured their religious and political leaders with divine auras – usually after death but sometimes during their lives.
In light of this rather brief exploration of avatars and sons of God it has to be strongly conjectured that Jesus cannot be accepted as the only Son of God. More to the point, Jesus shares with many others the attributes of an avatar. There have been other avatars before him and will presumably be other avatars again in the history of the world. Moreover, any avatar can be far better understood in the light of other great lives and teachings. We must be alert to the spirit of their teachings and sayings that, as suggested above, are very similar in content. But it is the truth of the spirit within and not the person himself that is important. If Jesus had been the sole originator of the truth about God, it would not be truth. Truth cannot be originated. It exists. Jesus like the other avatars came to further unfold the truth! This truth incidentally has to be continually unfolded and not left in doctrines and dogmas. This is where the old and contemporary scribes and pharisees made their big mistakes. This is where the learned and the clever come to grief. But this is where Pooh hears the Voice deep within.
With regard to the Spirit of God, Wisdom as some call it, being present in the Universe since time began, it is interesting to reflect on the words of none other than St. Augustine:
“That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christianity”.
It needs to be read again. Slowly. But, biased as it is towards Christianity, it certainly indicates that the man Jesus did not originate Truth because Truth was there already. Jesus came to unfold it in his own way and in his own time and in the particular religious and political environment he was born into.
Just to pursue this issue a little with reference to what some theologians and others have called the Cosmic Christ.
The Preface of the Second Eucharistic Prayer makes it clear that we give thanks to the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ the Word through whom you made the universe. This is simply reiterating the profound theological statement made the beginning of John’s Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
It is unfortunate, I feel, that little thought has been given to this profound theological reflection by John’s community and it is urgent that we distinguish clearly between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. In other words the person Jesus preached a liberating doctrine for his own particular time and for those people who aligned themselves with his teaching, the first Christians. But that same Jesus apart from his historical personage also had a kind of cosmic significance for all people and for all of creation. The Jesus in John’s Gospel is the Christos or the anointed one, the Jesus of faith. According to most traditional Christians this Jesus of faith has no significance and makes no sense apart from the particular historical Jesus of Nazareth. It is at this point that Quantum Theology, espoused by Diarmuid O’Murchu and others, adds the cosmic dimension.
Quantum Theology tends to reflect more genuinely on the words of John’s Gospel. It considers the Cosmic Christ, the God of universal life and love, whose revelation unfolds over more than 16 billion years of evolution, to be the originating mystery from which we devise all our divine images and personages. All the god-figures of the different religions, including Christianity, emanate from this cosmic originating source.
O’Murchu states that “consequently all the events narrated in the Christian Gospels, particularly those that impact upon universal human and planetary yearnings –beginnings (e.g., the Infancy Narratives) and endings (e.g., Calvary, resurrection), miracles, parables – are particularisations of a more universal narrative of faith and meaning….They offer a universal symbolic significance as well as having an immediate, practical application.”[iii] To put it quite simply, the Cosmic Christ came before the historical Jesus. Indeed all our prophets, deified or not, are expressions of the Word as expressed in John’s Gospel.
To put it another way, the events that happened to Jesus and the response that Jesus made to them and about them were of particular events of his time but they are particularisations of a higher global and universal impact. So, for example, the Calvary experience of Jesus has a symbolic meaning of planetary and global proportions, “a dimension largely ignored by orthodox religion and theology.”[iv] Similarly it must be said that, although real experiences for Jesus, the flow of events that befell him must be seen in an evolutionary context. They have a gigantic symbolic meaning of planetary and global proportions. The flow of good and evil, of life and death, of life giving and life destruction.
And so the Calvary experience of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – is but a particularisation of what is the life, death and resurrection experience of the entire universe. And we humans must also confront the shadow, “that dark pain and chaos that serves as a prerequisite for fresh possibilities.”[v] Evolution will continue but it is from the dying seeds that new life sprouts forth. “Destruction becomes a precondition for reconstruction; disintegration undergirds reintegration; Calvary is a prerequisite for resurrection.”[vi]
Just to digress briefly, Bahaullah is regarded as the most recent avatar (“This thing is not from me, but from One who is Almighty and All-knowing”). And just as each Messenger builds upon the messages of those gone before, the teachings of Bahaullah are presented as relevant and pertinent for the age to we live in today. Here are some examples:
“That one indeed is a man who today dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race…the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
“The day is approaching when all the peoples of the world will have adopted one universal language, one common script…These things are absolutely essential.”
“…among the teachings …is the equality of women and men”
“It is important to limit riches, as it is important to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good.”
“Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him.”
Is this not good advice, good news for the new millennium?
It is through Jesus, the Christian avatar if you like, that God displays his divine spirit and his mighty powers. But to suggest that God’s divine manifestation is limited to a single human person does neither God nor Jesus a great deal of justice. Jesus is one of a number of avatars to have been born and lived throughout the ages and who will continue to be born and live. Just about every Faith has some kind of avatar and there are millions upon millions of people who do not regard Jesus as the sole “way, the truth and the life”. Indeed to suggest that “Jesus is indeed the way, the truth and the life not only for his followers but for all the peoples of Oceania, indeed for all peoples of the world”[vii] is a comment that lacks tact, displays woeful ignorance and does injustice to both God and Jesus. Jesus is a human person. God is big. Real big.
I have just received some propaganda from The Bible Society in Australia which in part stated that during the Olympic Games 2000 there will be thousands of visitors many from countries where God’s Word is scarcely known or read. The organisation sees these people as lost souls that Christians have to proselytise in order that they might be saved. It is both beautiful and sad that Christians are so jealous of Jesus. It is beautiful because they hold Jesus with such great respect and awe that they would like his life and teachings proclaimed to all nations. It is sad that many Christians would want to do this because they see Jesus as the only person whose life and teachings can give hope, life and encouragement to others. There are billions of people in the world today and there will be billions to come but Jesus is the Christian Avatar with a message from God addressed to Christians. It is only natural that in his youthful exuberance he may have wanted his message preached to all nations and to have everyone baptised as his followers (Matthew 28:18). But other nations and other people living in different places and in different times will have their own avatars. They may very well be lost souls but lost souls that do not have to rely on the words of Jesus to save them. They will have their own avatars, their own saviours. Let us as Christians respect and honour Jesus but let us also respect and honour all those avatars who make the presence of God felt in our world.
By way of conclusion, the story is told of thirty men who left their home village, crossed a bridge and went to fight a war. But there were really thirty home villages that the men left, thirty bridges that they crossed and thirty wars they fought. Essentially of course there was only one village, one bridge and one war but the memories and lived experiences of each man were unique and non-transferable. So existentially, and because of the non-transferable lived experiences of the men, there were thirty villages, thirty bridges and thirty wars: a village, a bridge and a war for each man.
I tell this little story because if someone were to ask me how many gods there were, I would reply rather uneasily that there is only one. I suspect, however, that there are as many gods as there are people who believe in them. Thus we have the God of the Christians, the God of the Jews (and in early Jewish history there were several gods), the God of Islam, the God of the Egyptians, and so on. It is extremely important that we respect each other’s God(s) and that we treat with great respect and tolerance and sensitivity the religious beliefs of all people – although I admit it is tediously difficult to remain patient with some fundamentalists, heartened as I am that such rampant fundamentalism is on the decline. More about this later. Indeed in terms of the current communication and technological revolution which could, at least on paper, finish up with one world, one culture, various religions and their Gods will stand side by side. Christianity will have to stand alongside Judaism and Islam and Buddhism and so on. One cannot be said to be better than another. Each creed or religion has its own orthodoxy and its own experience and understanding of God. One’s God cannot be said to be better than another’s. For a Christian to state that the fullness of redemption and salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ is not an acceptable statement for other faiths or religious traditions. And it is offensive to proclaim it as universal truth.
I take exception when we Christians pray for members of other religious traditions. To pray as we do on Good Friday that the Jewish people may come to accept the fullness of the Passover Promise and accept Christ must be seriously offensive to those of the Jewish faith who have absolutely no intention of becoming Christians. For years we Christians have been praying for the conversion of Russia. Are we now to be happy with the horrible consequent disturbances in the Baltic areas? Now we are trying to proselytise the Jews! Who next –Buddhists, Taoists? We have to be careful. We have to be sensitive. We have to be Christian!
When our own very beautiful Christian religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant and meaningless in today’s world and where our Catholic voice seems to be way out of touch with reality, I find it kind of bizarre that we should be telling other people what to do, what to believe and what to think.
Let us respect each other’s Gods. Let us respect each other’s Avatars.
[i] Prabhavananda, Op.cit p.47.
[ii] The Sydney Morning Herald, 20-12-97
[iii] Diarmuid O’Murchu, Quantum Theology, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997,p.178
[iv] Ibid, p.178.
[v] Ibid p.180
[vi] Ibid p.181.
[vii] Instrumentum Laboris, Vatican City, 1998,p.6