Review: The Dream of Jesus by Michael Morwood

When I read the words, “God’s reign on Earth” and “Divine Presence within us,” I react. I know from extensive experience that they are weighted with religious symbolism and tainted with religious doctrine. If the author wants to use them as non-religious concepts, he’s deceiving himself and others.

In the first place, they rely on and imply the concept of absolute good, a concept I find dishonest, even offensive. Secondly, they revert back to belief as a foundation of thought, another Christian concept I find disquieting. If these words are to mean “kindness and concern for our fellow beings on Earth,” then let’s say that and not use words that mean something else to many, if not most of us.

The Catholic Church has been pretending to be “God’s reign on Earth” for close to 1700 years and you can bet the farm that anyone professing to bring God’s reign to the Earth is up to no good because God has done what God is going to do already and, if I can say so, it isn’t much in the way of managing the affairs of men or societies or nations and has very little to do with the general concept of “reigning.”

To insert these heavily-weighted words into a doctrinal premise is to put a worm into an apple. It will end an unpalatable mess that’s full of holes. Furthermore, if this is merely shorthand for something secular, it is bad shorthand and must be avoided. If you want an inclusive society, it must include everyone. To use the concept of divine (needlessly and arbitrarily) is hurtful and disrespectful! And, right away, the concept overtly presented as inclusion covertly excludes. It’s dishonest and devious! To blatantly use the concept of “God” or “Divine” in a context where one is ostensibly trying to correct past exclusions is to disregard a host of other exclusions by disregarding atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religious traditions.

The one thing I think we all need is humility — and I don’t mean humiliation. We need to have made some errors. We need to find something that WE can do differently. Otherwise, we’re just shaming and blaming others for the problems we face.

The Christian doctrine is all about the fictional being “Christ” returning to rule us, to separate us, and to punish the wicked and disbelieving among us. For 1700 years, “God’s reign on Earth” has meant either the second coming of Christ or the Papacy. To pick these words to mean something else is foolish, deceptive or both because I know what they mean and will continue to mean to fundamental Christians and Catholics! To cling to these words is to invite fantasy and pretense.

“God’s laws” have, traditionally, been the Ten Commandments and covenants which provide a dubious legal foundation for Jews to steal land from others — including the creation of the racist state of Israel. “God’s reign on Earth” has, for much of the modern world and for many centuries, been whatever the College of Cardinals or the Pope decided it was.

However, if I were to search for a new, modern meaning for these words, I would choose the laws of science. These laws seem to be universal and inviolate; embedded into the fabric of reality. As I said earlier, if God is reigning or to reign on Earth, he’s already doing what he is going to do and the rest is up to us. Expecting divine intervention has led us to where we are. It hasn’t worked and I firmly believe that isn’t going to. If we’re to survive, we’ll have to save ourselves because God has taken a back seat and will not take hold of the steering wheel no matter how fervently we pray.

And patting ourselves on the back and calling ourselves partly “divine” may feel good, but, having studied psychology in detail for a long time, I am certain this is deceptive or, at best, meaningless. We are human, not divine. Whatever characteristics we share with gods, either mythical or real, will be entirely accidental because the word “divine” MEANS something different than what “human” means.

Don’t get angry at me for nit-picking words. These words have misled us for centuries. I don’t rebel out of pique or spite, I rebel because we’ve been led around by the nose by dishonest words for a very long time and it’s time we wised up and stopped would-be “prophets” from misleading us by twisting words to mean different things at different times.

I may not be a Biblical scholar, but I am a certified spiritual scholar. I claim expertise in this area. I know a lot about psychology and not just what is taught in text books. I know that the human spirit has a number of admirable qualities, but I see nothing divine in it. And, if by some chance, we are partly divine, I see no benefit in trying to separate that component of humanity from the rest by distinguishing it with a label that has, at best, an ambiguous meaning and, at worst, misleads us.

The dream of Jesus, as I understand it, was simple: the brotherhood of man. In many ways, this dream has come true! I do not think Jesus dreamed of perfection. I do not think Jesus, at least for the bulk of his life, was all that concerned with Heaven. I think Moses and Saul of Tarsus were the actual authors of a lot of the rules we think of as “divine.”

To bring about the brotherhood of man, we need to AVOID religion. It has never worked in the larger context. Yes, you can bring a congregation together and get them to profess to agree on what is “true” and what is “false,” but sooner or later, it will split with itself and there will always be rival groups with different beliefs. As we’ve seen in the past millennia and a half, this does NOT lead to the brotherhood of man but to war, bloodshed, and exclusion. Formal Christianity started out with exclusion and it hasn’t been able to shake the parasitic infection since. It tries. I know it’s trying, but words like “divine” cannot be used to describe humans without getting us all into a lot of sloppy thinking and, sooner or later, will lead to conflict and contention.

To get our society back together, we are going to have to develop an alternate vocabulary. If there are atheists and agnostics and Buddhists and Hindus among us, “God” and “divine” are, at their best, fairly meaningless words and, more often than not, lead to conflict and exclusion. Giving words an alternate meaning isn’t going to work, either.

What’s anathema to me is exclusion and any time you chose the words “divine” and “God’s reign,” he is taking a religious stand. To do this gratuitously, when he could just have easily used secular terms to have the same meaning is perverse and exclusionary and, I submit, entirely unnecessary.

I chose the word “usurp.” When men profess to know what Jesus thought or what God wants, they take on a position of higher authority than average people. So, here is Michael Morwood pretending to be superior to the rest of us.

I, for one, am sick of the deception. Biblical scholars know what the authors of the Bible — all men — are said to have said or said to have said that Jesus said. But he can’t speak of God or Jesus with any clarity or certainty! Jesus said in the Beatitudes that lots of people will be blessed. And he is said to have said in Luke that all non-believers will go to Hell. Which is it? Both can’t be right. There are lies in the Bible. People didn’t live over 900 years. The worldwide flood didn’t happen. And the world and the universe existed well before 4004 B.C. So what makes a Biblical scholar any more aware of what God is or what Jesus was than the rest of us?

Religion — at least religion based on irrational belief (including belief in the inerrancy of ancient scholars) — can be set aside and non-religious rhetoric put in its place.

Michael Morwood’s stuff IS dogma. It’s ambiguous and it uses weighted words that suck you in. That’s exactly why I’m so resistant to it. He paints with a broad brush, glossing over nuances with ambiguities. As a whole, it sounds great until you get into the details. Then it falls apart.

OK.

Let me try to rewrite the society that Michael Morwood (not Jesus!) envisages.

  • 1) Radical equality. ==> Equal rights and equal respect for all.
    We are not equal. We never will be equal. If we are to communicate, let’s do it precisely.
  • 2) Radical service to others ==> Focused on the greater good; what’s best for all in the long run.
    I like the idea of service to others. However, radical service to others sounds more like Students for a Democratic Society. If it isn’t voluntary, it’s servitude, not service.
  • 3) Freedom from dehumanizing behavior ==> Tolerance for our differences.
    I’m suspicious of anything that starts with “freedom from.” And I’m not exactly sure what “dehumanizing behavior” might be. If it happens, what will we do about it? OK. Rape comes to mind. Freedom from rape? Not possible so far. We put the victim on trial and punish the rapist, both dehumanizing.
    There is one area where freedom from dehumanizing behavior is precisely what we need: in our prison systems and our courts. Germany treats even murderers humanely and compassionately and sees far less recidivism and less crime. Substituting rehabilitation for punishment works far more often than not.
  • 4) An expansive concept and concern for “neighbor.” ==> Loving compassion for all humans.
    This one still clings to the Biblical form where “neighbor” is left ambiguous. We’re a lot further from this than we realize. This loving concern has to extend to enemies as well as friends and fellow citizens. It requires a lot more humility than we currently are able to muster.
  • 5) Concern for justice Care for the underprivileged. ==> A welfare state??
    What’s legal and what’s just aren’t the same. A just system would not give an inordinate advantage to the wealthy over the poor. I suppose that, within a few decades, the US will have basic human rights to food, housing, clothing, legal support and medical care ensured for everyone simply because there will be less and less jobs. To maintain production, the government will have to step in and fund stuff.
    I champion a socialist system that everyone has to use, so it impinges personally on the powerful to make the system work; there would be no loopholes that allow them dispensations. If Congress and their corporate sponsors had to use public lawyers, public health care, and a public retirement system, they would be far more concerned with making it work well.
  • 6) Everyone empowered with a sense of dignity and the willingness to establish “God’s reign” on earth.
    <sigh>
    • 6a) Religion will stop bullying people.
      • 6a1) The words “under God” will be stripped from the Pledge of Allegiance. Putting it there in the 1950s was a mistake which led to many injustices in the Third World. Furthermore, it is a blatant lie that excludes atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, and Communists while calling ourselves “indivisible.” (If I had my personal druthers, I’d skip the Pledge entirely.)
      • 6a2) Children will have the right to avoid catechism or any other religious training. If there is any religious training, it should be accompanied by training from experts in at least two other religious traditions. Our children will no longer be taught one-sided, biased dogma and then expected to be unbiased.
      • 6a3) People, even children and criminals, will be treated with dignity and respect.
        I’m not sure there is any way to “empower” people except by the way we treat them. I’ve seen this in action. It works. This is, again, one of the problems with religious training. It’s victims are treated disrespectfully. They are threatened with ostracism unless they conform and comply.
      • 6a4) We will stop pretending to know what God does or doesn’t want and what Jesus did or didn’t think. We will, instead, speak on our own authority about what we want and what we think.
      • 6a5) Religion’s special status will be revoked. Religious businesses will pay taxes. Religious doctrine will be subject to the same restrictions of full disclosure as the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry.
    • 6b
      • 6b1) We will amend “freedom of religion” to “freedom of belief,” empowering the individual to think and act for himself and removing the power of religion or the state to enforce its views upon the individual. This will immediately and unambiguously create a more tolerant and inclusive society. If an individual does not want to fight for his country, he cannot be forced to. If an individual does not believe in killing “enemies,” he cannot be forced to do so.
      • 6b2) We will stop saying “God bless America,” and start saying, “Thanks, God, now, please bless everyone else.”
    • 6c) We will no longer vote on what is best for us as individuals, but what we believe is in the long-term interest of all humanity. All political information must focus on what is good for us all and will be accompanied or amended with supporting facts and analyses.
  • 7) Belief in the Divine present in all people, regardless of race, religion or culture. <== We respect all races, religions (even atheism) and cultures. No belief required or assumed.
  • 8) No religious superstition or magic; no fear of God; no dependence on middle management to “bring” God to people
    I personally really like this one, although I believe he violates this restriction within this paper. However, I don’t think this is workable because it is a restriction on personal belief. It is intolerant. I could easily adopt this, but many could not. It is, therefore, an unnecessary source of conflict, an unworkable and unnecessary restriction.
  • 9) No violent responses to problems.
    I concur.

I believe I get what Morwood is doing. It’s what Moses did. It’s what Saul of Tarsus did. It’s what Muhammad did. It’s what every successful preacher, priest, rabbi, or imam does. We insert our own ideas into the mouths or minds of gods or trusted philosophers of the past and speak for them. In this way, the passive among us automatically adjust themselves to our superior status. Our willing suspension of disbelief is transformed into belief, into credulity, into a “flock” they can lead.

How else could a race of logical thinkers profess a belief in an irrational God that is both one single being and three distinct and separate entities, that is both fully God and fully man; that is both kind and loving and harsh and unforgiving; that is both staunchly nonviolent and repetitively but unsuccessfully violent?

The first trick is that, if Jesus thought it or espoused it, who am I to question it? On the other hand, if it is just the ideas of some other guy, I’m free to criticize and revise it all day.

The other trick is to force a religious context into a spiritual one. Christianity was far less tolerant than its predecessor religions. It brought intolerance and bigotry to new levels in the societies it infected. It was the mother religion to Islam, which, like Christianity, has its extreme forms of intolerance, bigotry, and misogyny. To make this out of the life’s work of Jesus of Nazareth is an incredible magic trick performed by Saul of Tarsus and his sycophants and followers.

To suddenly pretend that a new form of Christianity is going to reform our society is to ignore history completely and to lose ourselves in fantasy and unfounded conjecture.

What has reformed Europe into a more tolerant and inclusive society is the absence of religion, not its presence. The influx of Islam, particularly radical Islam coupled with Arabic resentment because of several centuries of colonialism appended with a century of NATO’s high-handedness has been a setback. Additional work must be done to make amends for the fruits of colonial aspirations, both here and in Europe.

The last thing we should be doing is bringing more religious rhetoric into play. If we are to apologize to Arabs for the harm we’ve inflicted upon them over the last few centuries, we can’t lead with religious rhetoric or delusions of grandiosity, generosity, or wisdom. We need humility. We need compassion. We need tolerance. And we need to forgive their reactions to our nefarious deeds1.

©David N. Dodson, December 2017

1 What motivated Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Atta in their life’s work was not radical Islam but American and European interference in their internal political affairs through military activities. What caused the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the seizure of the US Embassy in Teheran, the opposition to both Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan, al Quida, 9/11/01 and ISIL was foreign troops in the Middle East. (See Robert Pape, Dying to Win.)

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