Before the Jesus movement became the official state religion of the crumbling Roman Empire–when its adherents still called themselves “Followers of the Way” (identifying themselves with a spiritual path) rather than “Christians” (identifying themselves with an institution), it was a more supple, joyous affair than modern conservative Christians might make us think. (Before St. Augustine, for example, many—possibly most–devotees of Jesus believed, not that non-believers were damned to eternal hellfire, but rather that all beings would eventually be reconciled to God.)
When the Church first entered the Babylonian exile of state sponsorship under the Roman emperor Constantine, many devout men and women fled to the Sinai wilderness in order to preserve the Gospel way of life untainted, becoming the holy hermits whom we know today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Today, in an effort to escape the narrow spiritual confines of a Gospel faith that has been too long entangled with political power and social privilege, many Christians (including myself and the good Rev. Roger Woolsey) have been turning to Yoga, Buddhism and even Paganism as a way of broadening the horizons of our faith. At best, this exploration lights up for us aspects of the Gospel that had become obscured through de-emphasis or over-familiarity, so that “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started, / And know the place for the first time.”[i] At worst, it leads to spiritual cafeterianism–and anyone who has ever been told not to meditate because it opens one up to evil spirits can decide for themselves whether that’s the worst thing that can happen.
I have also become aware of a great deal of knowledge of, and love for, Jesus outside of the churches, and for that I rejoice. When I read yogis’ and Buddhists’ interpretations of the life and teachings of Christ, I marvel at the incredible power of the Perennial Wisdom to be present to “every family, language, people and nation.”
But there is one thing that raises my eyebrows: the efforts of well-meaning non-Christians to redeem Jesus from Churchianity by turning Him into a yogi or a Buddhist–usually by suggesting that He traveled to India during the period of His life unaccounted-for in the Gospels.
While this notion seems well-intentioned on its face (look: Jesus was down with the Dharma, too!) the idea that the Jewish wisdom tradition that produced Rabbi Hillel, Hebrew prophecy and hand-washing couldn’t have produced Jesus without outsourcing is troubling on a number of levels.