Some years ago, I had just given a talk on television in Canada when one of the announcers came up to me and said, “You know, if one can believe that this universe is in the charge of an intelligent and beneficent God, don’t you think He would naturally have provided us with an infallible guide to behavior and to the truth about the universe?” Of course I knew he meant the Bible. I said, “No, I think nothing of the kind, because I think a loving God would not do something to His children that would rot their brains.” Because if we had an infallible guide we would never think for ourselves, and therefore our minds would become atrophied. It is as if my grandfather had left me a million dollars, and I am glad he didn’t. And we have therefore to begin any discussion of the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus with a look at this thorny question of authority, and especially the authority of Holy Scripture.
Because in this country in particular, there are an enormous number of people who seem to believe that the Bible descended from heaven with an angel in the year 1611, which was when the so-called King James, or more correctly, [the] Authorized Version of the Bible was translated into English. I had a crazy uncle who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true, including the marginal notes. And so, whatever date it said in the marginal notes – for instance, that the world was created in 4004 B.C. – he believed as the word of God. Until one day he was reading, I think a passage in the Book of Proverbs and found a naughty word in the Bible, and from that time on he was through with it. You know, how Protestant can you get?
Now, the question of authority needs to be understood because I am not going to claim any authority in what I say to you except the authority, such as it is, of history, and that is a pretty uncertain authority. But from my point of view, the four Gospels are to be regarded, I think, on the whole, as historical documents. I will even grant the miracles, because speaking as one heavily influenced by Buddhism, we’re not very impressed by miracles. The traditions of Asia – Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and so forth – are full of miraculous stories, and we take them in stride. We don’t think they are signs of anything in particular except psychic power. We in the West have, by scientific technology, accomplished things of a very startling nature. We could blow up the whole planet, and Tibetan magicians have never promised to do anything like that. And I really am a little scared of the growing interest in psychic power, because that’s what I call psychotechnics. And we have made such a mess of things with ordinary technics that heaven only knows what we might do if we got hold of psychotechnics and started raising people from the dead and prolonging life insufferably and doing everything we wished.
The whole answer to the story of miracles is simply: imagine that you are God, and that you can have anything you want. Well, you’d have is for a quite long time. And after a while you would say, “This is getting pretty dull because I know in advance everything that is going to happen.” So you would wish for a surprise, and you would find yourself this evening in this church as a human being. So I mean that is the miracle thing. I think miracles are probably possible. That doesn’t bother me, and as a matter of fact, when you read the writings of the early fathers of the church, the great theologians like Saint Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint John of Damascus, even [Saint] Thomas Aquinas, they are not interested in the historicity of the Bible. They take miracles for granted, but forget it. They are interested in it’s deeper meaning. And therefore they always interpret all the tales like Jonah and the whale tale. They don’t bother even to doubt whether Jonah was or was not swallowed by a whale or rather big fish, but they see in the story of Jonah and the whale the prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ. And even when it comes to the resurrection of Christ they are not worrying about the chemistry or the physics of a risen body. What they are interested in is that the idea of the resurrection of the body has something to say about the meaning of the physical body in the eyes of God. The physical body, in other words, is not something worthless and unspiritual but something that is an object of the Divine Love. Therefore, I am not going to be concerned with whether or not miraculous events happen. It seems to me entirely beside the point.
So I regard the four Gospels, as, on the whole, as good a historical document as anything we have from that period, including the Gospel of John, and that is important. It used to be fashionable to regard the Gospel of Saint John as late. In other words, at the turn of the century, the higher critics of the New Testament assigned the Gospel of John to about 125 A.D., and the reason was simple. Those higher critics at that time just assumed that the simple teachings of Jesus could not possibly have included any complicated mystical theology. Therefore they said, “It must be from a later time.” But as a matter of fact, in the text of the Gospel of Saint John, his knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem and his knowledge of the Jewish calendar are more accurate than that of the other three writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And it seems to me perfectly simple to assume that John recorded the inner teachings which He gave to his disciples, and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke recorded the more exoteric teaching, which he gave to people at large.
Now, what about then the authority of these Scriptures? We can take this problem in two steps. A lot of people don’t know how we got the Bible at all. We Westerners got the Bible thanks to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church and members of the church wrote the books of the New Testament, and they took over the books of the Old Testament, which even by the time of Christ had not been finally decided upon by the Jews. The Jews did not close the canon of the Old Testament until the year 100 A.D., or thereabouts, at the synod of Jamnia and they finally decided which were the canonical books of the Hebrew scriptures, and embodied them Masoretic text, the earliest copy of which dates from early in the 10th century A.D. The books to be included in the New Testament were not finally decided upon until the year 382 A.D. at the synod of Rome and the pope Damasus. So it was the Catholic Church that promulgated the Bible and said, “We are giving you these Scriptures on our authority, and by the authority of the informal tradition that has existed among us from the beginning, inspired by the Holy Spirit.” So, you receive, historically, the Bible on the church’s say-so.
And the Catholic Church insists, therefore, that the church collectively, speaking under the presumed guidance of the Holy Spirit, has the authority to interpret the Bible, and you can take that or leave it. Because obviously the authority of the Bible is not, first of all, based on the Bible itself. I can write a bible and state within that book that it is indeed the word of God which I have received, and you are at liberty to believe me or not. Hindus believe that the Vedas are divinely revealed and inspired, with just as much fervor as any Christian or any Jew. Muslims believe that the Koran is divinely inspired, and some Buddhists believe that their sutras are also of divine, or rather, Buddhic origin. The Japanese believe that the ancient texts of Shinto are likewise of divine origin. And who is to be judge? If we are going to argue about this, as to which version of the truth is the correct one, we will always end up in a dispute in which the judge and the advocate are the same person, and you wouldn’t want that if you were brought into a court of law, would you? If I were to say that I find Jesus Christ to be the greatest being who ever came onto this earth, by what standards do I judge? Why, obviously, I judge by the sort of moral standards that have been given to me as somebody brought up in a Christian culture. There is nobody impartial who can decide between all the religions because, more or less, everybody has been, in one way or another, influenced by one of them. So, if the church says the Bible is true, it finally comes down to you. Are you going to believe the church or aren’t you? If nobody believes the church, it will be perfectly plain, won’t it, that the church has no authority? Because the people are always the source of authority. That is why Tocqueville said that “people get the government [they] deserve”.
And so you may say, “God Himself has the authority.” Well, how are we to show that? That’s your opinion. So you say, “You wait and see. The Day of Judgment is coming, and then you will find out who is the authority.” Yes, but at the moment there is no evidence for the Day of Judgment. And it remains until there is evidence simply your opinion that the Day of Judgment is coming. And there is nothing else to go on except the opinion of other people, who hold the same view and whose opinion you bought. So really, I won’t deny anybody’s right to hold these opinions. You may indeed believe that the Bible is literally true and that it was actually dictated by God to Moses and the prophets and the apostles. That may be your opinion and you are at liberty to hold it. I don’t agree with you.
I do believe, on the other hand, that there is a sense in which the Bible is divinely inspired. But I mean by inspiration something utterly different from dictation, receiving a dictated message from an omniscient authority. I think inspiration comes very seldom in words. In fact, almost all the words written down by automatic writing from psychic input that I have ever read strike[s] me as a bit thin. When a psychic begins to write of deep mysteries – instead of telling you what your sickness is or who your grandmother was – he begins to get superficial. And psychically communicated philosophy is never as interesting as philosophy carefully thought out.
But divine inspiration is not that kind of communication, divine inspiration is for example to feel, for reasons that you cannot really understand, that you love people. Divine inspiration is wisdom, which is very difficult to put into words. Like mystical experience, that’s divine inspiration. A person who writes out of that experience could be said to be divinely inspired. Or inspiration might come through dreams, through archetypal messages from the collective unconscious, through which the Holy Spirit could be said to work. But since inspiration always comes through a human vehicle, it is liable to be distorted by that vehicle. In other words, I am talking to you through a sound system, and it’s the only one now available. Now if there’s something wrong with this sound system, whatever truths I might utter to you will be distorted. My voice will be distorted, and you might mistake the meaning of what I said. So therefore, anybody who receives divine inspiration – and I’m using that in a very loose way, you can mean anything you like by divine, that’s your option – anybody who receives it will express it within the limits of what language they know. And by language here I do not only mean English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Sanskrit. I mean language in the sense of what sort of terms are available to you, what kind of religion were you brought up with.
Now, you see, if you were brought up in the Bible Belt, you came our of Arkansas or somewhere, and that’s all the religion you knew, and you had a mystical experience of the type where you suddenly discovered that you are one with God. Then you are liable to get up and say, “I am Jesus Christ.” And lots of people do. Well, the culture that we live in just cannot allow that. There’re only one Jesus Christ. People would say, “You don’t look like you’re Jesus Christ coming back again, because it says in the Scripture that when he comes back, he will appear in the heavens with legions of angels, and you are not doing that. You are just old Joe Dokes that we knew years ago, and now you’re saying you are Jesus Christ.” “Well,” Joe Dokes says, “when Jesus Christ said he was God, nobody believed him, and you don’t believe again.” You know, you can’t answer that argument.
But you see, he says it that way because he is trying to express what happened to him in terms of a religious language that is circumscribed by the Holy Bible. He has never read the Upanishads. He has never read the Diamond Sutra. He has never read the Tibetan Book of the Dead or the I-Ching or Lao-tzu. And therefore, there is no other way in which he can say this. But if he had read the Upanishads he would have had no difficulty, and nor would the culture, the society in which he was talking, have any difficulty. Because it says in the Upanishads, we are all incarnations of God; only they do not mean by the word God, in fact they don’t use that word, they use Brahman, they don’t mean the same thing that a Hebrew meant by God. Because the Brahman is not personal. Brahman is, we would say, suprapersonal. Not impersonal, because that is a negation. But I would say suprapersonal. Brahman is not he or she, has no sex. Brahman is not the creator of the world – as something underneath and subject to Brahman – but is the actor of the world, the player of all the parts. So that everyone is in mask, which is the meaning of the word person in which the Brahman plays a role. And like an absorbed actor, the divine spirit gets so absorbed in playing the role as to become it, and to be bewitched. This is all part of the game, to be bewitched into believing “I am that role.”
When you were babies, you knew who you were, psychoanalysts refer to that as the oceanic feeling. They do not really like it, but they admit that it exists, where the baby cannot distinguish between the world and the way it acts on the world. It is all one process, which is of course the way things are. But we learned very quickly, because we were taught very quickly what is you and what is not you. What is voluntary and what is involuntary, because you can be punished for the voluntary but not for the involuntary. So, we unlearn what we knew in the beginning. And in the course of life, if we are fortunate, we discover again what we really are, that each one of us is what would be called in Arabic, or Hebrew, the Son of God. And the word “Son of” means “of the nature of,” as when you call someone a “son of a bitch.” Or in Arabic you say abn alkalb which means ‘son of a dog’, abn hamar ‘son of a donkey’. So ‘son of beel ’ means an evil person. “Son of God” means a divine person, human being who have realized union with God.
Now my assumption, my opinion, is that Jesus of Nazareth was a human being, like Buddha, like Shri Ramakrishna, like Ramana Maharshi etc. who, early in life had colossal experiences of what we call cosmic consciousness. Now you do not have to be of any particular kind of religion to get this experience. It can hit anyone, anytime, like falling in love. There are obviously a number of you in this building who’ve had it, in greater or lesser degree. But it is found all over the world, and when it hits you, you know it. Sometimes it comes after long practice of meditation and spiritual discipline, and sometimes it comes for no reason that anybody can determine. We say it’s the grace of God, that there comes this overwhelming conviction that you have mistaken your identity. That what you thought, what I thought was just old Alan Watts – who I know very well is just a big act on the show. But what I thought was me, was only completely superficial. That I am an expression of an eternal something or other, a name that cannot be named, as the name of God was taboo among the Hebrews. I am. And that, I suddenly understand exactly why everything is the way it is. It is perfectly clear. Furthermore, I no longer feel any boundary between what I do and what happens to me. I feel that everything that is going on is my doing, just as my breathing is. Is your breathing voluntary or involuntary? Do you do it or does it happen to you? See you can feel it both ways. But you feel everything like breathing. And it isn’t as if you had become a puppet. There is no longer any separate you. There is just this great happening going on. And if you have the name in your background you will say that this happening is God, or the will of God, or the doing of God. Or if you do not have that word in your background, you will say with the Chinese, “It is the flowing of the Tao.” Or if you are a Hindu, you will say, “It is the Maya of Brahman.” The Maya means the magical power, the creative illusion, the play.
So you can very well understand how people to whom this happens feel genuinely inspired. Because very often there goes along with it an extremely warm feeling, because you see the divine in everybody else’s eyes. When Kabir, the great Hindu-Muslim mystic was a very old man, he used to look around at people and say, “To whom shall I preach?” Because he saw the beloved in all eyes. Sometimes I look into people’s eyes and see that same beloved in the depth of those pools, and yet the expression on the face is saying, “What, me?” It is the funniest thing. But there is everybody, in its own peculiar way, playing out an essential part in this colossal cosmic drama. And it’s so strange that one can even feel it in people you thoroughly dislike.
So let’s suppose that Jesus had such an experience. And they’re of all ranges, as I have said, and his could have been a very strong one indeed. From the sayings of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Saint John, anybody who studied the psychology of religion can easily detect that that experience must have taken place, or something very like it. But, you see, Jesus had a limitation, in that he did not know of any religion other than those of the immediate Near East. He may have known something about Egyptian religion, and perhaps a little bit about Greek religion, but mostly about Hebrew. There is no evidence whatsoever that he knew anything about India or China. And we, people who think that Jesus was God assume that he must have known because he would have been omniscient. No, Saint Paul makes it perfectly clear in the Epistle to the Philippians that Jesus renounced his divine powers so as to be Man.