LOOKING AT JESUS THROUGH
NON-CHRISTIAN EYES

MARCH 13, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes declares that "the living tradition we share draws from many sources" including "Jewish and Christian teachings" and "Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life." It used to be the case that Unitarianism and Universalism were liberal Christian Protestant sects who looked upon the figure of Jesus in ways that were quite distinct from their orthodox Trinitarian brothers and sisters. Today we are more than just liberal Christian in our faith and beliefs. We have UU Christians, UUs for Jewish Awareness, UU Theists and Pantheists, UU Buddhists, UU Humanists, UU Pagans, and many who would embrace an amalgam of labels or no labels at all. We are in fact an interfaith movement with historical roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our spirituality can draw on many sources, which I consider a wonderful gift and a source of our strength, but I would also argue that if we do not remember and re-appropriate our religious roots we run the risk of forgetting where we have come from and hence where we want to go. That is why once a year we have a communion service in which we honor and remember the special contribution of Jesus of Nazareth along with other Christ-like souls who have enriched our religious heritage and journey. I recognize that not everyone is comfortable with a service of communion--Emerson you will recall eventually left the ministry because of disagreement with that tradition--but I would ask those of you who do not partake to reconsider the reasons why.

The service that we have evolved over my 30 years of ministry is more than just a remembrance of Jesus. It is also a remembrance of the fact that we all have endured suffering and loss and brokenness in our lives, and that we need the sustenance of mutual support and material and spiritual renewal to carry on and endure year after year. You are invited to stay and observe (without partaking) if you so wish. Or you may still wish to leave during the singing of the hymn following the sermon. The choice is yours. Give it some thought. Do what is best for your soul and spiritual needs. That is the freedom we have as Unitarian Universalists.

It has often been said that Unitarian Universalists are more interested in the religion of Jesus (meaning his ethical and spiritual teachings) than in the religion about Jesus (meaning the later doctrines and creeds about him). There is a lot of truth in that observation. That kind of makes us "Jews with Jesus or Christians without Christ." We would rather talk about the Sermon on the Mount than the Cross on the Hill, though we certainly recognize that the latter event had something to do with our ever knowing something about the former. Blood atonement is not our theological "shtick". Atonement by teaching and example is much more to our liking and that kind of atonement is not restricted to one person and one place in history only, but is something we all can promote and partake of in the here and now.

Most of us are aware of how our views of Jesus may differ from Catholic or various Protestant doctrines of Jesus which portray him as Christ (or Messiah), Son of God and Savior, or part of the Divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A more interesting question for us to pursue this morning might be how do other religions and faith traditions view the figure of Jesus and how do they compare with what Unitarian Universalists have believed and taught.

Let us begin with looking at Jesus through Jewish eyes. I begin with a story:

A pious old man comes to a rabbi. With tears in his eyes, he says, "Rabbi, I had a son."
"What do you mean, you had a son?", replies the rabbi. "Is he dead?"
"No, but almost as bad", says the man.
"What's the matter?" asks the rabbi.
"He ran off and married a Christian and then converted."
(Pause) "I understand", the rabbi says, "I also had a son."
"What do you mean you had a son?", queries the old man.
"You know, my father is a rabbi, and his father before him was a rabbi. I thought my son would be a rabbi. But he went off to the University of Chicago, met a Jesuit, and became a Catholic."
The two men regard each other with compassion, tears streaming down their faces, and the old man finally says, "You know, rabbi, when my heart is heavy, I can come to you and cry, 'Rabbi, rabbi, I had a son.' To whom can you go?"
The rabbi answered, "I went to the Lord of the Universe, Blessed be He, and said, 'Adonai, Adonai, I had a son.' And the Lord said to me, 'You had a son...' ."


The 19th century philosopher, Nietzsche, once said that the world has known only one Christian and that he died on the cross. Nietsche was wrong. Jesus was not a Christian. He was born a Jew, lived and practiced as a Jew, derived his teachings from out of his Jewish heritage, and died a Jew. Even the first Christians in the early church were primarily Jewish until the apostle Paul preached a new Gospel to the Gentiles outside Palestine and changed the character of Christianity from a Hebrew religious sect to an emerging new universal religion. The emergence of Christianity was at first a family quarrel with the mother religion of Judaism. Only later did it divorce itself from Judaism and become a religious family unto itself with its own internal religious disputes. Jesus himself, as far as we can tell, did not intend to create a new religion, he merely wanted to reform his own, something he shares with Gautama the Buddha who tried to do the same with the Hinduism of his day.

What impact and influence did Jesus have on the Judaism of his day? The answer is very little. "It must be remembered," as Stanley Cohen, a Jewish religious scholar, points out, "that far from being the principal figure of his day, Jesus made only a slight impression in his own lifetime. Only a relatively small segment of first century Jewry was even aware of Jesus' historical existence." Jesus' ethical teachings represent the best in Hebrew prophetic thought, but are not distinctive in content so much as emphasis. The question is to what extent did Jesus claim a special authority for his teachings and actions over and above that of the Torah, and did he in fact proclaim himself to be the Messiah?

It would appear that Jesus did challenge the authority of the Torah when it came to Sabbath regulations, but it is not clear that he ever declared publicly that he was the predicted Messiah and Savior of his people. In the Gospel of Mark he keeps the question of his messiahship a big secret until after his death while in the Gospel of John he cannot say enough about it. Christian scholars cannot agree on what Jesus did or did not believe about himself. If he did believe himself to be the Messiah then we must remember that he was one among a number of other Jewish claimants in his own lifetime and after. The others were obviously mistaken.

>From the point of view of Judaism, history has so far proven Jesus and the Christian church to be mistaken in that belief. Jesus did not return on the clouds of heaven after his death as the supernatural Son of Man to establish the Kingdom of God on earth as most first century Christians believed would happen within their lifetimes. Jesus stands in the Hebrew prophetic tradition as an inspired religious teacher, but not as the Jewish Messiah or the Son of God as taught in Trinitarian Christian theology. Even if he was the Messiah he would still be considered thoroughly human in his nature and in the manner of his birth. And even if he performed miracles and healings as portrayed in the Gospels he would still be doing so as a human agent of divine power, not as a co-equal with God.

To put it quite bluntly, in the words of Stanley Cohen:

"In no sense can Jews ever come to acclaim Jesus as Christ and accord him the recognition provided by the interpretative framework of Christian tradition....Whether as heavenly being or divine Lord or metaphysical Logos, Jesus has no place in Judaism....Jews cannot look upon Jesus as a son of God in any respect different from that in which all of humankind may be regarded as (God's) children."

Therefore, he concludes, "Judaism is not Christless Christianity, nor is Christianity a Judaism-cum-Jesus." Both religions have evolved in entirely different directions and cannot be reduced one to the other. The differences between the two faiths are no longer just an intra-family quarrel. Each of them has become a distinctive faith unto itself with distinctive traditions and ways of viewing God and the world. As you can see we share something with Jewish views of Jesus, but Unitarian Universalism is neither purely liberal Christian nor is it a variant of Reformed Judaism though we share much in common with both traditions.

What about looking at Jesus through Muslim eyes? One would think that because of the Islamic affirmation of the unity of God (there is no God but Allah) that we would have much in common with Muslim theological views of God and Jesus. Not as much as one would think. Jesus is a highly honored and respected figure in the Koran (the Holy Scripture of Islam), higher in some respects than the figure of Mohammed himself. Muslims consider Jesus to be one of many prophets sent to humankind by God to reveal His knowledge of the good life on earth and judgment and salvation in the hereafter. As each prophet's message gradually becomes distorted or forgotten, God chooses another prophet to renew His message. Jesus corrected the distortions of the message of Moses. Mohammed, God's final and last prophet, corrected the distortions of the message of both Moses and Jesus.

There are references in the Koran to Jesus as the Spirit (Ruh) and Word (Kalam) of God and of his special form of birth through an act of God in the Virgin Mary. Both Jesus and his mother, Mary, are said to be the only persons in history who were born and lived untouched by the devil, i.e., they were "sinless". The Koran states that Jesus spoke from the cradle, proclaiming, "I am indeed a servant of God. He has given me revelations and made me a prophet." Moreover, Jesus is said to have made birds of clay and then breathed the breath of life into them. Yet in spite of his miraculous birth and supernatural powers Jesus is nonetheless fully human and mortal. The Koran says, "God is one. He is absolute. He does not beget, nor is He begotten. There is no one like unto Him." The Koran states that on the Day of Judgment Jesus himself will testify against Christians who worship him and Mary as divine.

Jesus through Muslim eyes is a strange mixture of fundamentalist like acceptance of supernatural origins and miracle stories and a liberal like realistic recognition of his prophetic role and 100% humanness. Muslims appear to be more confused about Jesus than orthodox Trinitarian Christians who no longer believe in the Virgin Birth but still affirm Jesus to be the only begotten Son of God. Truth be told there is not much in the Koran that speaks to the hearts or minds of Unitarian Universalists about the nature of God or Jesus. Our views of God are more naturalistic and our views of Jesus are more humanistic than those portrayed in the Koran.

How is Jesus perceived through the eyes of the religions of the East? Until very recently, with such figures as the Dali Lama and Thich Naht Hahn, there has been very little articulated views of any kind among Buddhists regarding the significance of Jesus in the cosmic drama of liberation from suffering and ignorance. This is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that Hinduism, Buddhism's mother religion, has integrated and absorbed Jesus into its broad outlook and acceptance of religious seers and divine avatars. Buddhism could easily make of Jesus one of the Tathagatas or manifestations of Buddha that are born into the world to guide erring mortals towards enlightenment from time to time. There have presumably been many manifestations of the Buddha in times past, Gautama the Buddha was but one, with many others yet to come.

I found it fascinating to read Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, in which he appropriates Christian symbolism and ritual in a Buddhist frame of reference and makes the two into one. I especially appreciated his reflections that "the bread we eat is the whole cosmos....Bread and wine are not symbols. They contain reality, just as we do." When a Buddhist brings "mindfulness" to breathing or eating or drinking he opens up his or her awareness to the interconnection of all things to one another and to the universe as a whole. He said, "If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life and we touch the Kingdom of God." The living Buddha and the living Christ continue in their teachings and in the religious communities that practice their precepts. To pay homage to one in mindfulness is to pay homage to the other, for in the last analysis, Buddha and Christ and all beings, human and nonhuman, are part and parcel of one another.

Jesus through Buddhist eyes is a variation of Jesus through Hindu eyes. The genius of Hinduism is its great capacity to absorb the teachings and founders of other faiths into its own pantheon of religious saints and seers and Avatars of God. Hinduism says there have been numerous Incarnations of the Divine in ages past and will be more in ages yet to come. Jesus was not the only one even though Christianity may think so. Gandhi, the greatest religious teacher of modern India considered the Teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to be equal if not superior to the teachings found in the Hindu Gita and Upanishads. He grounded his teaching and practice of nonviolence in the teachings of Jesus and Tolstoy and in turn influenced the thinking and practice of a black preacher in America named Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of them in turned helped forge and change the political fabric of a nation. Gandhi could say in all sincerity that part of him was a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew, because he could find a spiritual resonance in his own soul in all four traditions. What enabled him to do so was the embracing spiritual tolerance of his Hindu heritage which considers all religions to be an expression of the human quest for the divine.

As Unitarian Universalists we can feel a kinship with elements of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu views of God and Jesus, though we would not likely appropriate the entirety of one tradition over another. We can appreciate that Jesus was a great religious prophet and teacher in his Hebrew faith and tradition, perhaps the greatest for some, and he represents for others the incarnation of the divine in human nature as an exemplary ideal for human beings to emulate and follow. If there was a divine element in Jesus of Nazareth so also is there a spark of the divine in every human soul. Our religious task and calling is to find that spark in ourselves and to fan it into a flame of truth and love to illumine the mind with wisdom and to warm the heart with compassion. If we can do that we may yet find a living Buddha and a living Christ within ourselves and in the world which still needs the universal compassion and sacrificial love which each embodied. May each of us in our own way become a living Buddha and a living Christ to one another. So may it be. Amen.