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Jesus as Cipher

Myths are nonfactual yet true; they speak to psychological realities. They are expansive. Expansiveness is the opposite of analysis, and as dual functions both are necessary. Music and poetry are expansive when they give a sense of deep inhale, of expanding our minds and hearts; science and analysis are about the concentration of ideas, a fine scalpel upon what does not belong to an essence. We need both. Myths must be revised and adapted to every society and situation, must be analyzed. The most interesting personalities in history have a sort of mythology to them; I mean Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, Hamlet, and Quixote. What is unique about Jesus, in a way more extreme than the others, is his lack of soul. To put it in mythological terms, “Jesus was emptied out on the cross”—he is unique among mortals in that his soul was completely annihilated on the cross. He became a cipher, a projection screen: he lacks any depth or reality in himself, and yet retains enough integrity to hold our ideals up. We don’t put our sins on Jesus, but our ideals. We can do this because he has no ability to resist. Morally, he turns the other cheek; Mythologically, he was born without a father (and therefore without a spirit, imagined to be given by the father, and the body given by the mother). And since Jesus lacks a soul, he comes to stand for any ideal we take as sacred, of which I will offer a brief catalog.

Paul saw Jesus as defeater of the Law. His “Christ” is an abstraction, a sort of cosmic principle: never is Jesus quoted, no reference is made to his life: he existed to be sacrificed. He became a righteousness apart from the Law. For Matthew, Jesus is the opponent of the Pharisees, an exalted moral teacher. For John, he is Hermes on Earth (Hermes who was the first known as “the Logos”), a speaker of unworldly origin—hardly lovable. For Thomas, he is the Gnostic antimaterialist, who takes no part of this world, and recommends his disciples “be passersby.” The Jesus of the Q document (an earlier text than the gospels) is a sort of Cynic rebel—”let the dead bury their dead.” The Jesus of John’s Revelation is a warrior. There is no reality to Jesus other than these texts—and they are all sublimely vague on any details of his childhood or what he said in casual conversation. Later traditions built upon these. Here, and in the dozens of other Gospels which have survived, Jesus holds different complexions, has a different chi or center of gravity in each. He is given so many epithets, contradictory, such as “Prince of Peace,” “Mighty Warrior,” “The slain Lamb,” “The Lion of Judah”; so many different professions “Carpenter,” “Good Sheppard,” “Healer,” “Teacher,” “High Priest,” Sacrifice,” that eventually the analytical eye unfocuses. So much for the early Jesus.

As it was then, so it is now: Jesus is a mouthpiece for whatever it is we wish to say. Emerson wrote:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.”

Jesus is self-reliant, and so comes to embody God. This sounds like a description of Emerson himself. Emerson doesn’t dwell at all on the Gospels’ peculiar preoccupation with the Pharisees. Nietzsche also regarded that preoccupation as inessential, as being the imposition of Jesus’ resentful disciples. He writes of Jesus:

[he had] the instinctive hatred of reality: the consequence of an extreme susceptibility to pain and irritation—so great that merely to be “touched” becomes unendurable, for every sensation is too profound.

With a little freedom in the use of words, one might actually call Jesus a “free spirit”—he cares nothing for what is established: the word killeth, whatever is established killeth. The idea of “life” as an experience, as he alone conceives it, stands opposed to his mind to every sort of word, formula, law, belief and dogma. He speaks only of inner things: “life” or “truth” or “light” is his word for the innermost—in his sight everything else, the whole of reality, all nature, even language, has significance only as sign, as allegory.

Though this does not sound quite like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, his Overman, or himself, something central to Nietzsche’s identity is nevertheless presented in the “sensitive free spirit.” Nietzsche also feared that his disciples would misrepresent him, was also sensitive, lonely, a keen interpreter, and certainly a “free-spirit”—nor does Nietzsche seem to overly resemble his own Overman.

Oscar Wilde is neither further on nor farther off in his estimate of Jesus:

What Jesus meant, was this. He said to man, “You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realize that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.

And so Jesus is a socialist. This is pure Oscar, for his deepest aspiration, deeper than his wit, was to develop his personality. Paul would have disagreed. Nor does Oscar dwell much on Jesus’ preoccupation with hell.

The thesis that Jesus is a mirror of our ideals could be given limitless examples. Hitler regarded Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple as the central image of his own Final Solution. Joseph Smith, or his early followers, regarded Jesus as a polygamist, with Martha, Magdalene, and Mary for wives. Communists regard Jesus as a communist, Democrats as a Democrat, Republicans as a Republican. Ayn Rand regarded him as an ultra egoist, concerned as she was for the selfish personality and its salvation: “Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism—the inviolate sanctity of man’s soul, and the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal; this means—one’s ego and the integrity of one’s ego.”

New Age practitioners take him as a magician; one such advocate told me that “Christ” was shorthand for “Crystal,” which Jesus apparently wore. Jews consider him a rabbi who has been misunderstood, a reformer who was betrayed by Paul. Muhammad regarded him as a Muslim Prophet. Mary Baker Eddy regarded him as the first, if not the best, “Christian Scientist.” Hindus regard him as an avatar of Vishnu. My punk-rock boyhood friend thought Jesus was primarily a rebel, but Puritans regarded him as respectable. The Shakers take him as abstaining from sex; the Mormons the opposite. No wonder Emerson said that Jesus was confounded with the possibility of man, that his name was “ploughed into history” till any self-respecting individual would agree with Goethe that the cross was as abhorrent as tobacco smoke, lice, and garlic, or mutter with Voltaire “Let me never hear that name again!” Who needs more than one ideal type, when one size fits all? We can regard Jesus as a perennial virgin, as the Catholics do, or we can agree with Wilhelm Reich that Jesus was the “ideal genital type,” the best of sexual lovers. We can agree with the scholar Allegro, that Jesus was an initiator of and symbol for the use of psychedelic mushrooms—and this will make more sense if we ourselves partake of said mushrooms—or we can agree with Mencken that Jesus was a kind of feminist. We can agree with Dostoevsky that he taught the freedom of man, or we can consider him as the Gospels highlight him, as a servant.

Perhaps there is no cause, no set of values, that Jesus could not be imagined as supporting. PETA attempted to create another media scandal with their billboard “Jesus was a vegetarian.” There is even a pornography company whose slogan is “Jesus loves porn,” which, though obviously glib, seems no less absurd to me than books pondering how Jesus would vote. The question one novelist asked “What would Jesus do?” is not answered by what he would actually do—who knows what that would be?—but by imagining whatever it is we deep down think we ourselves should do, with or without reference to the historical Jesus.

And so Jesus has been a white European for centuries, in our art and imaginations, in our visions of his words and deeds—he speaks our language, he inflects our accent. Among the Mexicans he is Hispanic, and among blacks he is of man’s original color; in this he is not unlike the Asiatic Buddha, who has lost his Indian complexion.

Jesus is a unique literary character, indispensable to World Literature. The Buddha is equal yet opposite. His personality is a parable for the destruction of personality, but in a different manner than the empty-slot placeholder Jesus, since the Buddha’s practice obliterates our own ideals as well, so that the true Buddhist aspires towards something like the Tao: an impersonal set of laws with no central consciousness. These two figures were necessarily historical—yet they are possible only because they are composite, perhaps centered on a pith of fact, and then compounded with centuries of myth-making. The Jesus personality absorbed countless mythical motifs, dozens of Hellenic gods—Attis, Apollo, Osiris—stories of faith-healers, witty rabbis, clever cynics, apocalyptic prophets, Old Testament figures, and so forth. In this, Jesus is a lot like King Arthur or Robin Hood, but less specific and more universal. The other ultrapersonalities of history include Socrates and Hamlet, who stand for two modes of rhetorical thinking, if not for Philosophy and Literature themselves, Socrates as embodied Philosophy and Hamlet as embodied Literature; they are not the less real because they are manmade. These figures mirror us, and they mirror their genre.

The Quixote type I find marvelously self-reflective presentation for a novel. The man who is driven mad by his reading: he is the most charming of novelistic characters. Madame Bovary is of his type: a girl made silly by reading romances; of course Tom Sawyer is another, and all idealists are mocked through them, including Christians everywhere, with their endless end-of-the-world predictions, with their over-identification with ancient legendary figures.

The quest for the historical Jesus is quixotic. Any solid conclusion from such a quest could only be anticlimactic. Whoever the earthly Jesus really was, what he became, a cosmic cipher, holds much more rhetorical power than anything a literal biography could offer. The answer to his own question, “Who do you say I am?” could be rephrased as his saying, “I am whatever you say.” Having such a cipher as we now do, and knowing its limits and uses, gives us a rhetorical advantage; he is revealed for what he always was, a symbol. As a mental tool, or abstract object, he has philosophical use, in the same way the Buddha does, and others, some of which I have mentioned. As personalities-cum-concepts they make certain ideas thinkable, certain behaviors possible, and whether or not this is a “supernatural” power it is all the power they need have, and indeed justifies our continual discussions and developing thoughts regarding them, with or without mistaking their true originate in the minds of men. Despite the attempts to make him universal for all people, the type is easily exhausted when we ask ourselves, “What kind of father should I be?” “What sort of poetry should I write?” “How should I work my job?” Jesus was no father, Jesus was no writer, it is hard to imagine him sitting down in one place and doing day-to-day work for decades, the way we must. He is always running about living a rock-star lifestyle of instant celebrity. When it comes to practical matters, when it comes to family matters, Jesus doesn’t have the answers. He will forever be an ideal type, but he is not rich enough to be the ideal type. For such a true ideal type, we must side with Judas, betray the external ideal, and look inwards to our own real potential.