Jesus cannot be reduced to a Buddha-like figure who came to bring a message of enlightenment, writes Dr John Murray
Whilst it is perhaps good to see Dr Noel Keating encouraging “the Christian churches” (sic) to pursue contemplation, it is deeply worrying to see how he describes this contemplation and his background beliefs about Christ and his message (see ‘Be still and aware of God’s presence’ in The Irish Catholic September 16, 2021). Dr Keating says that he has “always resisted the doctrine of salvation, when understood as the saving of the soul from sin and its consequences”. Relying on personal experience trumping Catholic dogma, Dr Keating presents the Gospel as concerned entirely with each of us humans sharing Jesus’ consciousness of God’s loving presence within us. (Somehow, we are to share this consciousness in an unconscious manner, but that’s a problem for another day.)
Dr Keating’s approach reflects an all-too-common tendency within Catholicism in recent decades to present Christian faith in a manner that ignores, downplays, or even denies sin, and which concentrates instead on human beings as naturally, intrinsically and entirely good. Our problem as humankind is not that we have been radically alienated from God by sin, original and historical and personal sin. Rather, it is that we are ignorant of our natural blessedness (what Dr Keating and others have called ‘original blessing’) and of the presence of God within us – the Kingdom of God within, so to speak. Rather shockingly, as seen in Dr Keating’s article and similar approaches to spirituality, this reduces Jesus to a (theistic) Buddha-like figure, who brought a message of enlightenment about our blessedness as human beings created by God and showed us how to find the Kingdom within us, just as he did, by contemplation. So, we are to believe in a Jesus who is a teacher and example of spiritual enlightenment, rather than the divine incarnate Saviour and Redeemer.
The Catholic and Christian faith believes in Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, who became Incarnate “for us men and for our salvation” and who was crucified, suffered and died “for our sake”, as all Catholics publicly profess every Sunday at Mass. Of course, we believe in Christ as a teacher of truth, with a vitally important message. But at the heart of this message, this Gospel, is Jesus himself and what he was and did. And he did more than teach a message and exemplify a contemplative approach to life. He gave his life as “a ransom” for our sins (see Matthew 20:28). By offering the sacrifice of his life, Jesus established ‘the new covenant’, a new relationship with the Father (see Luke 22:19-20, Jesus’ words of consecration at the Last Supper, echoed in every Eucharistic Prayer). Thus, Jesus, in his very person and life and death, restored our relationship with the Father and ended the alienation caused by sin. We are all called to enter this new covenant relationship by becoming united with Christ and living according to the Holy Spirit.
Dr Keating quotes St Paul in Ephesians 3 to the effect that what Christ offers is deep knowledge. This reflects a somewhat ‘gnostic’ approach to the Faith, an approach that has been a constant obstacle to the Church’s mission since the earliest centuries. St Ireneaus was one of the first to write against this heretical distortion of the Gospel. The true Gospel message, centred on Christ as Redeemer and Reconciler, is clearly expressed throughout the New Testament. Dr Keating overlooks and implicitly denies this message. For example, on almost every page of his letters, St Paul writes about Christ’s salvific death, including in the very letter that Dr Keating quotes. Ephesians 1: 7-8 (RSV translation) says: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.” Another example is found in I Corinthians 15, where we find one of the earliest expressions of Christian faith in Christ as Redeemer, namely, that Christ “died for our sins”. We can share in this forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of Baptism (see Romans 6) and through the Sacrament of penance/reconciliation (see John 20: 21-23). There are many biblical passages that I could quote: the saving death of Jesus is at the very heart of the New Testament (and prophesied in the Old) and at the heart of the Catholic Faith.
Dr Keating claims that his way of understanding Christ and the Gospel is “the Franciscan approach” as presented by Fr Richard Rohr OFM, but I doubt very much that genuine Franciscans deny the Church’s belief in Christ as our Redeemer, substituting a Christ-as-Guru figure instead. None of us Catholics has the authority or experience to replace the true Gospel with a ‘nice’, sinless and Saviour-less, version. To do so would destroy the integrity of the Faith. It would be to deny the universal human need for God’s blessing.
If all Dr Keating, and others taking a similar approach, want to do is to warn us off a simplistic and inadequate understanding of Christ’s redemptive death, that would be fine. We are not called to believe in a harsh, vindictive Father-God who needs to be placated by punishing someone, with Jesus the unfortunate one punished in our place. Certainly, a superficial reading of the Bible can lead to an unacceptable way of understanding the sacrificial death of Jesus. I would recommend that Catholics read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the redemptive death of Christ, in order to get a deeper and accurate understanding – see paragraphs 599 onwards.
One key idea is that to Christ’s freely chosen obedience the Father, which permeated his whole life and was displayed most powerfully in his freely accepting his death, makes up for humankind’s sinful disobedience (see CCC, par. 615, and also Romans 5). Thus, Christ established a new relationship between man and God, which we are all called to enter and thus be saved in Christ. This is not exclusively a matter of sharing in new knowledge and consciousness, although it includes it (as we see so clearly in John’s Gospel: Christ is “the light of the world”). Rather, it involves also a sharing in the redemption from our sinfulness and sins that Christ won on the Cross.
Christian faith is not a message about a higher state of consciousness that Christ had and we can have too, naturally; but a message about what was done supernaturally in history by Jesus Christ to save us not only from ignorance but from sinfulness and sin (and their consequences). This is Gospel truth to be embraced, not resisted.