Weaving the Tapestry of Transformation: A Humanist Reflection on the Narrative of Transformation
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of studying with folks from Trinity Cathedral and learning about some of the female heroes of the Bible. We started in the genealogy written in the first chapter Matthew’s Gospel. What becomes apparent is that Matthew’s tracing of Jesus’ lineage is a theological statement more than it is a historically accurate statement. Matthew is known perhaps as the Jewish evangelist. His gospel was written for the benefit of the Jewish community that was trying to incorporate Jesus into their own experience and their own history and perhaps make sense of what Jesus was saying. In a few short, seemingly meaningless recitations of who fathered who and so on, we see Matthew’s selection of a few women, who happen to be gentiles, and coincidentally among Judaism’s most celebrated female figures. Matthew is setting his theological narrative and story for what he eventually would write at the end of the gospel: “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations”, indicating that Jesus’ teachings were not just for the Jews, but also for the rest of the world.
Matthew was trying to take the rich tapestry of Jewish heritage and weave Jesus into that tapestry. In fact, we do this quite a lot with transforming figures in our world. In today’s Christianity, people take New Testament ideas and read them back into the Old Testament and regard it as God giving surreptitious hints about the future, but as a humanist, and non-theist, I don’t buy that. In reflecting on the stories of the Bible, I understand the Bible as an ultimately human story, and not a divine one. It is not a story of the divine’s work, it is rather a magnum opus of the Jewish people’s historical attempts to understand the world around them and what was happening to them as a people. The writers of the New Testament were trying to understand the very profound impact of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on them.
Jesus was a transformational teacher that arose out of Jewish surroundings, but I believe that the teachings of Jesus were not traditionally Jewish. To read the Old Testament and get the feel of the relationship between the Jewish people and God, is to feel the resonance of the ancient Mesopotamian religions, and the mythological gods that we encounter in Greek, Roman, Norse, and even Middle Eastern myths. The Jews did not have one god for this and one god for that, but the relationship to their God was remarkably similar. They had a class of magicians (who they called Priests) who performed magical rites to invoke the blessing of their deity and to ask for favorable outcomes. This God, if he was dissatisfied would exact his wrath on his people (or at least so the Jewish people understood in the context of hard times).
So, then, to me, Jesus’ tapestry of transformation is not necessarily a continuation of the tapestry of Jewish history and relationship with their chosen Deity. Jesus’ tapestry of transformation is a completely new tapestry. It is one that may have some similar threads and colors as the culture that he rose out of, but it has a completely different feel and vibration.
There is a parallel here with the story of the Buddha, who predates Jesus by approximately 500 years. The Buddha arose out of a Hindu culture and Hindu society. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in many ways, is analogous to the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism. A great transformational teacher, in the person of the Buddha, started his own tapestry of transformation. The contrast between the two, however, is that Christianity appears to have chosen not to create its own tapestry of transformation, but rather, continue the Jewish one and make all of it a part of their own tapestry. In Buddhism, there was a whole new tradition created. Though it had some Hindu and Indian cultural elements, it was definitely very different. It completely got rid of the concept of caste, and regarded women as worthy of attaining enlightenment. Buddhism became in its own right, its own tradition.
Here, I think we learn a subtle, but very important lesson. Transformation is not a continuation, it is rather what it is – change. We all come from various cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds. However, when we begin to walk the spiritual path of transformation, we cut ourselves out of the tapestry. We start our own. The narrative of our transformation is ultimately our own and of our own construction. Spiritual transformation, and walking the path towards it is an immensely profound act of separation, of acquiring a new identity. In Christianity and Buddhism, when one takes on these paths, one casts off one’s previous name and one’s previous identity and assumes a new identity. So then, this is the true beginning of transformation.
In transformation, we don’t need to read our new identity, our new ideas into the stories and myths of our history. In fact, that holds our spiritual transformation back. We can, however, be informed by our history, by our background, and use the knowledge from that to work towards spiritual transformation. What does it matter if Isaiah or Jeremiah or any of the prophets were really talking about Jesus? What does it matter that Jesus is confirmed to be the Messiah by laborious and meticulous scriptural proof using pedantic logical tricks? Buddhism doesn’t have this. Buddhists don’t read into the Vedas and look for prophecies of the Buddha. Buddhists simply continued the journey of transformation, even transforming the esoteric Hindu Tantras into some of the most profound meditations and practices in the world.
So, what does your tapestry of transformation look like? Have you begun weaving your own narrative of transformation?
Peace, and a Happy New Year to All