Jesus the Lighthouse
By Josh Radnor | ONEING Vol. 8 No. 1 | Liminal Space
I am Jewish.
I also love Jesus.
This has not been uncomplicated for me.
Jews have a fascinating relationship to Jesus. By “fascinating,” I mean that we act like he never really happened. I’ve always found it odd that there could be a historical figure of such deep world significance, who emerged from our tradition—someone considered one of the finest, clearest, most affecting spiritual voices the planet has ever known—and Jews kind of plug their ears when his name is mentioned. The reasons for this are varied and complicated. Chief among them, I suspect, is the ugly history of anti-Semitism perpetrated—falsely, horrendously—in the name of Christianity. Jesus’ name came to be linked in the collective Jewish imagination with oppression, forced conversion, and genocide.
The Christian story, as I understand it, goes something like this: God incarnated as a human being two thousand years ago, taught and performed miracles, upset the powers that be, was sentenced to death by the state, was crucified, and, three days later, bodily resurrected. A belief in the exclusive divinity of Jesus is, as far as I can tell, the big ask in Christianity, the price of admission. That he died for our sins is the doorway to salvation and everlasting life.
Though my admiration for Jesus is deep and sincere, I am not a Christian, nor do I have any intention of becoming one. When it comes to Jesus, I tend to throw my lot in with the Romantic poet William Blake (1757–1827), who said Jesus Christ “is the only God. And so am I and so are you.” Heresy to some, good common sense to others.
I’ve come to think of Jesus as a friend, brother, teacher, rabbi, and prophet—an awakened man who walked among us, but a man nonetheless. Jesus was not God-in-a-body, but rather an ambassador for divine truth. Jesus for me is a stark reminder of what is possible on this earthly plane through awareness and surrender. He offers an unending invitation to awaken my consciousness and reactivate the wisdom of my heart.
Whenever I feel squirrelly about this or worry that my Hebrew Day School teachers would be utterly horrified by the preceding paragraph, I remember that this man was a Jew! He was not trying to start a new religion, but, rather, to purify his own. His critique that people were mistaking the letter of the law for the spirit of the law—missing the forest for the trees, as it were—is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. We’ve all encountered “religious” people who are outwardly pious and faithful but highly unethical and cruel behind closed doors, or people who cloak themselves in the robes of religion while pushing the most unethical and immoral of agendas. All that religious custom and practice seems to have left their hearts unaffected. Nothing enraged Jesus more than hypocrisy, the failure to admit one’s own folly and imperfection. His critique of the Pharisees—those gate-keeping, finger-wagging, detail-obsessed types who come to dominate much of organized religion—is perennial and universal, as relevant and potent as ever.
Judaism is the tradition into which I was born, the one that served to define and shape my worldview more than any other. I could never undo any of that, nor do I wish to. But my spiritual appetite is omnivorous. Theological monogamy feels antithetical to my nature somehow. If something stirs my heart, I run with it, no matter the tradition from which it emerged. From Judaism, I’ve loved and been affected by the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jonathan Sacks, and Viktor Frankl; from Christianity, C. S. Lewis, Henry Nouwen, A. W. Tozer, Rachel Held Evans, and Richard Rohr; the Buddhists Alan Watts, Pema Chödrön, and Jack Kornfield; the Sufis Rumi, Hafiz, and al-Ghazali; and from the Hindu/Vedic tradition, Swamis Sivananda and Yogananda, Ram Dass, and Ramana Maharshi.
I’ve come to think of Jesus
as a friend, brother teacher,
rabbi, and prophet.
It would be foolish to think that the entire storehouse of theological wisdom could have been exhumed and mapped by one single tradition. There’s not a Christian alive that couldn’t gain spiritual nourishment from an encounter with the Sufi poets, no Jew who couldn’t be fundamentally altered by Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. When the borders are too defined and the walls too high, we miss out on so much wisdom, beauty, and truth.
Not to paint with too broad a brush, but it seems to me that different religions excel at different things. Buddhists—again, broadly speaking—are very good with karma, suffering, liberation, and impermanence. Jews are wonderful with text, debate, doubt, question, and education; Christians with forgiveness, mercy, and grace. Hindus are uniquely skilled at mapping the varieties of divine expression. Islam means surrender and we can assume Muslims have much to teach us about this spiritually vital principle.
None of this is to say that these things are exclusive to these religions. Surely Jewish scholars and sages have written extensively on the virtue of forgiveness, to take one example. But some traditions have taken a deeper dive into certain areas. If there’s a bright spot in our deeply connected world, it’s that all this richness is available to us. We need no longer travel to far-off lands or wait for a vagabond master to stroll into our village. A visit to a library or a simple Google search can unlock so much. It feels valuable to me, as a spiritually curious and thirsty person, to try to get at least some sense of the whole.
Carl Jung (1875–1961) said religion was designed to keep people from having spiritual experiences. He has a point. Religion is very good with what Richard Rohr would call “first half of life” concerns—moral foundations and a sense of belonging—but it has a spotty track record when it comes to transformation. A true spiritual experience is anarchic, off the beaten path, often disorienting, and asks for the deepest kinds of faith and surrender. It asks us to give up what we know, that which may have given us deep comfort and a sense of safety. I think this is what Jesus meant by his startling statement in Luke 14:26: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
I began working with the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca back in 2007. Tribes in the Amazonian basin have been using ayahuasca—a foul-tasting brown brew—as a tool for personal transformation, physical healing, and spiritual growth for thousands of years. When ingested, ayahuasca catapults you into some overwhelmingly odd trans-dimensional space. You might vomit, your body might contort itself in spasms, you might be forced to stare into some deeply dark corners of your psyche—or none of that could happen and you can spend hours saturated in bliss. The menu of options is quite vast and the unpredictability of what lies ahead is part of what makes the start of each ceremony slightly terrifying. Whatever the course of your particular journey, when the effects wear off—for reasons I struggle to explain—you feel vastly more connected to the earth, to nature, to other human beings, and to yourself.
I did over a hundred ayahuasca ceremonies over a ten-year period, always led by a shaman and undertaken with great seriousness of purpose. I’m not sure why I took so ferociously to it, but I suspect it was partly due to being rattled by the success of a television show I was on and the attendant newfound visibility and erosion of anonymity. Ayahuasca became my refuge, a thing that felt meaningful and true at a time when meaning and truth felt in short supply. I ran into its arms and vomited up—oftentimes quite literally—my fears, obsessions, regrets, and insecurities. And the medicine, or whatever force dwells therein, held me. I never felt unloved, punished, or rejected by it. I continue to feel that ayahuasca is, in many ways, an antidote to what ails the modern soul, a fiercely deep teacher of generosity, selflessness, and forgiveness. It offered me a glimpse of my best and bravest self.
One of the great benefits of working with ayahuasca is that it demands that you assume the role of the protagonist in the spiritual drama. No more delegating the heavy lifting to others. No more worshipful reverence of the great masters from a distance. When you ingest that medicine, you are Jesus in the desert, you are Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree, and you are forced to make choices of deep consequence. We speak in hushed tones about these sages and prophets. We honor their journeys, but we’re rarely encouraged to go on our own. Why should we rely on the testimony of others? Nothing is truly ours until we have experienced it for ourselves.
It was through ayahuasca that my relationship with Jesus began in earnest. During a ceremony one night in 2009, I experienced a vision of myself at the crucifixion. Jesus was on the cross, near death. My heart was heavy with grief. Soon, I was in a small hut with a few people as we laid Jesus’ lifeless body out on a stone bench. My grief deepened and tears began to fall. Then, very suddenly, I was inside my chest and, in the darkness of my heart, there appeared a tiny light which began to grow and grow. I knew this light to be “Christ.” This Christic light then began growing brighter and brighter, spreading throughout my heart, slowly occupying every last nook and crevice.
The prophecy is that the compassion,
wisdom, and healing capabilities of
Jesus will one day be available
to all of us—
I recall a moment of panic as the light began to spread, horrified at the thought that I was undergoing a conversion. How was I going to tell my parents that I was now a Christian? But the next thought calmed me. This vision, I came to understand, was not about tribe or sect or religion. It was bigger and more transcendent. Christ—as Richard Rohr so beautifully maps out in his recent book, The Universal Christ—is distinct from Jesus. I saw that the “Second Coming of Christ” is not a literal, material event. Rather, it will be taking place in the realm of consciousness, in the hearts and minds of human beings. The prophecy is that the compassion, wisdom, and healing capabilities of Jesus will one day be available to all of us—or could be. What else could Jesus have meant when he said, in John 14:12, “All these works I do you shall do, and greater works than these you shall do”?
It seems that the history of Christianity has separated Jesus from us. He was God while we are mortal sinners, redeemed only through the blood of Jesus on the cross. But, as I read the above statement, I hear a man saying, “You can do this too. Let me show you how.”
Like so many others, I have some wounds around my religious upbringing. I am also supremely grateful for the order of my early life, in the strong delineation between right and wrong. I now know the world to be an infinitely complicated place, that life is fraught with paradox and mess. But the ethical foundation of my youth remains. Though I make countless missteps, I hope and pray that I can walk a path toward truth.
I don’t believe anyone has done anything for me that exempts me from my own process. But there are those who came before us that have illuminated the path and shown us how to walk. There are few finer examples of how to surrender and cultivate faith at the deepest, most intimate levels than Jesus.
Jesus—a Jew—is a lighthouse for me—a Jew—in the dark thickets of life. He urges me to let go of attachment, slough off the robes of piety, and admit my imperfection and error. He reminds me that it is my wounds and not my worthiness which are the doorway to the divine. He says: I walked this path and so can you. I am with you.