Recently, much of the Bible-centered, evangelical Christianity in the United States has been charged with playing politics from the pulpit. Evangelicals have commonly associated themselves with a Christian/moral agenda that they believe to be present in the Republican Party. In this niche, the military might of the United States is equated with evangelism of the Christian Gospel. Accordingly, the Middle East becomes like a pagan, as was Vietnam before it, and the church has to bring the light of the gospel (which is the United States and its military power) to the lost sheep.
But some Christian pastors have spoken out against the politicization of the gospel, with perhaps the most popular of these right now being the Baptist pastor, author, and biblical scholar Greg Boyd. His recent book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, has been big news in evangelical communities around the world. In his writing, Boyd explains a new, "counter-cultural" understanding of the Christian Gospel and the life of Christ. This view is called the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement.
After the book's publication and a series of sermons that refused to equate the gospel of Jesus with the Bush regime, Boyd lost over one thousand of the five thousand members of his Baptist church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The New York Times recently quoted Boyd as saying in one of his partiularly controversial sermons: "I am sorry to tell you that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."
After the initial loss of members, Boyd's mega-church quickly gained a larger congregation than it had lost. Of the new members, the largest group of newcomers were minorities.
The Times interview with Boyd summarized the event: "Mr. Boyd lambasted the 'hypocrisy and pettiness' of Christians who focus on 'sexual issues' like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson's breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. Boyd said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public. 'Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,' he said. 'And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.'"
Sounds like progressive theology for an evangelical Christian, right?
* * *
During my undergraduate years at Bethel College in St. Paul Minnesota, I was also a Christian evangelical. However, a secret cannabis habit was slowly dissolving my more extreme views of Jesus and the Gospels into a universal understanding of the divine mystery. My theology was becoming more and more liberal every semester. During that period of dissolution at Bethel College, Greg Boyd was my favorite theology professor.
In the classroom one day he told a story about an LSD trip that he'd been on as a teenager, before becoming a Christian. It was the first time I'd ever heard a Christian pastor talk about psychedelics. He said that he felt like he had become one with the universe while looking into a Christmas tree. He recalled that he wrote a treatise that night about the ultimate meaning of life.
But, Boyd told the class, he quickly discounted this acid-inspired revelation. He said that he realized the very next day that his experience was meaningless.
Recently in an article from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Boyd recalled the LSD trip again. When he read his ultimate treatise, after the trip had ended, he couldn't understand anyting he'd written. "It was incomprehensible," he said. In my theology class he also concluded that, "If everything is 'one,' then we would have to throw logic away." We would slide into a vortex of meaninglessness.
It occurs to me, after years working in Ayahuasca ceremonies, that while Greg Boyd is one of the most progressive theologians and pastors in the evangelical community, refusing to equate the gospel with politics and evangelism with imperialism, he is still operating under an assumption about the life of Christ that I have come to disagree with.
* * *
The Good News of the Gospel, in my opinion, is that oneness or void, emptiness or even meaninglessness, perhaps paradoxically are not always negative or undesirable states of being. This understanding started with my first vision of Christ, in Peru during an Ayahuasca ceremony.
After using cannabis for years during and after college, and then attempting to be a Christian youth pastor for a year in Chicago, and resigning, I finally left the Christian church altogether. I began experimenting with more drugs. During my experimental phase I eventually tried mushrooms, which shifted my attention from party drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, opiates, liquor and cigarettes to entheogens, shamanic literature, drum circles, sweat lodges, lucid dreaming, and creative writing.
The visionary experience of psychedelics was not, after all, completely dissimilar from the ecstasy of the pentecostal lifestyle I had been a part of for some time during my exploration of Christianity. In fact, it was through my experiences with psychedelics that I began to see it was possible to be "christ-like" without being a "Christian."
After reading about Ayahuasca shamanism, I traveled to Peru to drink the magical vine of the spirits. I decided that I wanted a visionary experience that was a part of an ancient, medicinal and spiritual tradition. In my first ceremony, downriver from Iquitos, a jungle outpost city in Northern Peru, I drank a strong cup of Ayahuasca medicine and entered into a deconditioning sequence. The ceremony cleansed me of an unhealthy relationship to Jesus.
I was cleansed of evangelical Christianity like many people who drink Ayahuasca find themselves purging drug addictions. The fear-based pathology of my days as an evangelical had left residual scar tissue throughout my body and mind. Christian culture, for me, was like a drug. I had been using it to medicate my own confusion and fear, my own insecurity. The first healing of my evangelical dis-ease came an hour into my first ceremony, when I had my first real conversation with Jesus.
* * *
It was raining in the jungle. Thunder clapped over the top of the mesa, which was on the top of a hill, tucked in against the bank of a shady, green lagoon. Bullfrogs croaked and birds called, strangely, back and forth. Cicadas buzzed loudly, like an electric fence, and larger sentinels crashed in the distance. The jungle was alive, and after an hour into the ceremony I felt the pulsing of the universe.
I could no longer sense where the boundary of my skin and bones ended and the rest of the universe began. I dissolved into bliss. I laughed and cried with joy. I listened to the rain and the whistling of the magical icaros. I stretched out like a cat, and it felt as though my body was unwinding from years of tightly held stress. My nostrils opened, and I could smell the lush plants of the jungle.
I heard the small yawn of a sleeping dog outside of the mesa, protected from the downpour by the awning of the roof. My muscles relaxed, and I began to float out of my body.
I found myself knee deep in water, standing in a grid of Greek columns. I saw Jesus walking towards me in the water. He looked strong, like a carpenter. His skin was dark, not white like the portraits from the walls of my childhood churches. His eyes were fierce and powerful, but he looked like had a sense of humor, like he knew how to laugh, as well. His humanity startled me. Then I was afraid.
Fear welled up from my stomach, I began bubbling like a fountain, saying "thank you." I doubled over clutching my stomach, feeling like I would vomit.
I couldn't stop saying "thank you." When he finally reached me, I would not lift my head to look into his eyes. And my "thank yous" poured out of my mouth, faster and faster, until it was clear to me that the language was a vessel for a deeper communication. I might have been saying "thank you," but the sounds of my words actually said things like, "I am not good enough. I am afraid. I am alone."
It instantly occurred to me that most of the words I had ever said to people about Jesus when I was an evangelist had been filled with fear, anger, jealousy, insecurity, and saddness. It occurred to me that I so rarely ever meant what I said. I saw that my words often betrayed my feelings.
While lying on the floor of the mesa, I felt as though a sinister witch doctor, and not an emissary of light, had been speaking through me during my Christian days. The dog outside of the mesa began snarling protectively. The wind began to blow hard through the treetops.
The "thank yous" were coming out of my mouth like liquid, a golden oil. The oil formed into a statuesque calf, trembling and undulating on the surface of the water. The rain blew sideways in sheets against the side of the mesa. Through mosquito netting on the windows, I could feel the humid spray of the jungle, alive, pusling, swallowing me whole.
Then in my vision, Jesus lifted me up onto the water. I was looking into his eyes.
The "thank yous" stopped. He touched the golden calf, and it dissolved. Then he looked at me and we shared silence. I held eye contact with him, and it felt wonderful to see the man's proportions. His skin. To look into the cracks and lines of his forehead and cheeks. He was human. His face. Like me.
Then he spoke.
"Adam. Love me. But do not make me into an idol." He held my shoulder in his palms, gently.
The rain was settling in the jungle. Outside of the mesa, I heard the dog sigh deeply and lie down again.
Looking into the eyes of Jesus and hearing the dog adjust its body to sleep, it occurred to me that all of life is an intelligent web. Infinitely connected. I began to cry. My tears felt like bricks, crumbling away, my face crackling open, white light shining through, so bright it could blind the sun.
He continued, "Our father is the only one who has the right to judge anything." He pointed up. And the sky opened above me. There were stars twinkling in the rafters of the mesa. "And he never does. He never judges anything."
* * *
So now, years later, why do I have this bone to pick with my old theology professor? I suppose I challenge Boyd's theology because I believe that it is becoming increasingly important for the universal spiritual communities to engage in healthy dialogue with liberal evangelicals, those who are counter-cultural but still see Christianity as separate and essentially "the best."
We should seek a spirited debate with evangelicals as we attempt to create a more unified spiritual community on our planet a community that includes all of the many avatars that have walked the earth, not just Jesus.
I picked Greg Boyd because he is a new kind of evangelical, one that is coming closer and closer to a more universal understanding of the divine mystery. Because it turns out that the evolution of consciousness is happening everywhere.
* * *
Boyd recently outlined his evangelical theory in a sermon at his mega-church. Angering some of his members again, he said that it was good to see a black man, Barack Obama, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, running for president. "It's about time we realize that all people are created equal, regardless of whether you like their politics or not," Boyd declared. He then outlined his Christus Victor theory, annotating a passage from Matthew as he went.
But in order to understand Boyd's Christus Victor theory of atonement, and why its making such a splash in evangelical communities, it's important to first understand its classic theological rival: the "penal substitution" view.
This view is the common understanding of the cross, where Jesus came to be the sacrificial lamb that would appease God, the judge, for man's sins. In the penal substitution view, Jesus takes the place of the sinner, and if we say a prayer, join a church, or become a "Christian," then we sign into the contract that was made between God and Man, via his son Jesus. Of course, by doing so we also avoid hell and damnation, which is the alternative to the contract.
Boyd's view is different it's far more liberal. In his understanding, Christ did not come to take the place of sinners but came to free Christians from the shackles of the strong man: Satan. His theory is comparatively progressive because the emphasis of the cross translates to social action more than imperialistic evangelism. Its primary thrust is not the fear of hell but the need for change and healing.
Jesus came to heal the world, and it was by healing the world (not by paying the debt of our sins) that he saved us. Jesus came to remove the blinders of hatred and to enlighten human beings to a more peaceful way of life. By dying on the cross, according to Boyd's Christus Victor theory, Jesus conquered the Kingdom of Satan once and for all. Now, since his departure from the earth, we're supposed to mimic his lifestyle until he returns to establish the new kingdom.
Oppressing those we perceive as different is not a part of this gospel. Neither is war or violence, or aggression. The world needs love, and Christ was the turning point in the battle.
In his sermon elucidating the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement, Greg delves into the book of Matthew, chapter 12, using this passage to highlight his theology:
22 Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, is not this the son of David? 24 But when the Pharisees heard it they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. 25 And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. 26 And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand. 27 And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children castthem out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. 29 Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house. 30 He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
Boyd notes it was astonishing that Christ exorcised a "mute" demon because mute demons were especially impossible to exorcise, according to Jewish history. They were tricky because you couldn't get their name, and getting a demon's name was important to pulling it out of a patient's body. He went on to cite verse 25, where Christ rebukes the Pharisees using what Boyd calls "good logic."
By saying that a kingdom cannot stand "divided against itself," Boyd suggests that Christ was proving, logically, that he was casting out demons by the power of God and not by the power of Satan (because it would be logically impossible to cast out Satan by Satan).
He then goes on to say that the "binding of the strong man" and the "spoils" of the strong man's house represent the idea that Christ came to free people from the grand illusion that Satan had cast over the planet. The final death blow to Satan's Kingdom was dealt on the cross, according to Boyd.
While this view is progressive, it is still exclusive. Because the Buddha is excluded. Krishna has nothing to add. It was Jesus, not anybody else, who took home the largest spiritual victory in the history of the planet. This is what was accomplished on the cross, and this is why Christianity is the truest religion on the planet, In Boyd's view.
In his sermon, Boyd proclaims, "War is not acceptable America! Hatred of gays is not the gospel! That's what Christ conquered. Our walk with Jesus is about social action and being 'counter cultural,' not political."
This view speaks to the majority of the liberal and counter-cultural evangelicals in our nation. (It's important that we recognize that not all Christians are conservative.) But even then, I cannot subscribe to any religion that attempts to assert itself as the only path to God.
Upon further examination, I believe there may be a deeper way to read the passage from Matthew one that perhaps reveals Christ's esoteric teachings, and hence, a more rounded, more universal understanding of the Gospel.
I'm not a biblical scholar, but I'll give it a shot in the hopes that my reading might spark good conversation.
* * *
In order to fully understand how the Christ energy worked in the exorcism of the mute demon from the book of Matthew, one should have experience with exorcisms of mute demons. This past December I experienced demonic possession in an Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, my twelfth ceremony since my first vision of Christ in the jungle. The demonic posession involved, specifically, my old evangelical fear of hell and the devil.
It was my third year of working with Ayahuasca, and the lodge I first drank at had been rebuilt only an hour outside of Iquitos. Instead of a 24-hour boat ride downriver, I took an hour bus ride to the new jungle camp.
There were thirty of us in the mesa instead of the mere six that had been there when I had first drank. The amount of Westerners seeking medicinal Ayahuasca healing has grown exponentially in recent years, and I have met many people seeking healing from years of religious confusion spawned from evangelical Christianity.
As I scanned the mesa before the ceremony, I thought to myself, "All of you are going to be healed by the Ayahuasca." I could feel a bit of the old evangelical in me, thinking something pious like, "Ayahuasca will save you all you just wait and see."
There was a full moon. It shone brightly and illuminated the ceremonial circle. As one of the shamans, Don Alberto, whistled an icaro into my cup of medicine, I began to feel queasy. I began to remember my fear of hell. My fear of damnation, both personal and collective. I drew a deep breath. I knew that Christianity was going to come up again in the cermeony, but I had no idea how deep the teaching would be.
After an hour into the ceremony, I was seeing snakes and jaguars, vines and plants. I could see the icaros, the medicine songs, floating in the air like serpetine bubbles, decorated with stars and diamonds. Then I saw the sky open above me. I saw the blackness painted purple, like a king or queen, and I saw an angel of death. It beckoned to me, as if to say, "die little one, let go." I tried to vomit into my bucket to get rid of the vision, but nothing came up. I pounded my fists on the ground, trying to make the fear go away. I spat. I tried to walk to the toilet, but I fell to the ground.
My body was posessed with fear. I could hear people all throughout the mesa crying and vomiting, some screaming. I could not speak. How long had it been since I last had a voice?
The scent of vomit wafted through the air, mingling with Alberto's mupacho smoke.
As I struggled on the floor, losing touch with physical reality, my joints moved in and out of their sockets. I saw shadow-wraiths moving through my limbs in the shadows cast through the mesa by the light of the moon. I was losing all sense of my body and my mind. I could not control my thoughts or my physical actions. Then I saw the death-angel fly into my stomach.
I began to seizure on the floor. My body was shaking so hard that I was propelling myself off from the wooden floor boards like a live-wire. In my head, like a hailstorm, the only cognizant thing I saw were memories of hell. Sermons on hell. Sinners in the hands of an angry god. Images of fire. Explosions. Black holes. Scolding myself. Scolding others. Burning my secular music collection.
Every memory swarmed around the fear that all of my best efforts, all of anyone's best efforts, might not be enough. In the end, damnation would take us. My fate was hell.
While I shook on the floor, a strange glossolalia released from my stomach. My voice, usually a tenor, became a bass, and I grunted in strange rhythms. I could not cry out for help. My voice was gone.
Alberto walked casually to where I struggled on the floor. He began performing a healing on me. He shook his chakapa in a circle around my head and annointed my crown with smoke.
Another shaman, Hamilton, said "You must know fear so that you will not be afraid of it. You must know confusion so you will not be confused by it. These are your demons, Adam. You have to own them, and then you'll come back to your body."
I was not there to respond in that moment. Though I heard the words of the shamans, I was lost. I did not know who I was or what was happening inside of me. I had no voice, and my normal sense of self was forgotten.
Finally, Alberto sang an Icaro that forced me to vomit several times, at which point the energies subsided.
Then, almost instantly, the craft of the healing was revealed in a teaching vision that came to me. I felt cradled. I could feel my body again. My muscles, my joints, my face. I remembered my name again Adam. Here I am again.
Alberto sang a song calling in the "Christo" energy. I saw rainbow-colored dragonflies and golden moths descend from the rafters of the mesa. A temple filled with light manifested in front of me. And I understood that the demonic inside of me was being integrated, transformed, built into a beautiful temple of spirit. It had not been simply "cast out."
What had felt demonic inside of me did not feel "gone," but instead embraced and understood, able to be held in a new energetic space within my body. The demonic was not "bad" or "good." It was more like a birth canal, and it was fueled by the contractions of my fear, my resistance to change. It occurred to me that God is everything and that fear and spirit are one and the same thing. It turned out that there was nothing at stake, the whole time.
The mute demon inside of me had an identity, after all.
From the top of the golden temple there was a tube of rainbow colors shooting up like an arrow into space. And, like my first vision, I saw stars twinkling above. This time I did not see Jesus, but I felt his energy.
I understood that the Christ energy is all about saying "yes" to fear. Because what we say yes to can never be the actual fear. When we say yes to fear, we are only saying yes to integration, transformation and new life. This is why Christ took to the cross, and while he was on the cross, cried out, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" And then, "It is finished."
I sat near a lantern after the ceremony was over, until the sun came up the next morning. And while I sat, looking into the light of a tiny, steady flame, I saw myself more fully than ever. It turns out that my true name, like the true name of everything, is really simple: here I am.
* * *
Returning to the exorcism from the book of Matthew:
I recognize that there are other passages in the synoptic Gospels where Christ directly casts demons out of people, as in the book of Matthew where he casts demons out of two men and into a herd of pigs but my point should still be heard.
This point is not to say that all understandings of the shadow or the demonic are only internal. It is to suggest that there is room for both internal and external understandings of the demonic and also Satan, or evil.
In the passage from Matthew that involves the mute demon, I believe Christ was revealing one of his more esoteric teachings about the craft of a particular kind of healing.
* * *
Greg Boyd sees the kingdom of Satan as something in complete opposition to the kingdom of God, but perhaps my old theology professor did not read the passage from Matthew with the appropriate assumption about the Kingdom of God. What if the kingdom of God is omnipresent and unified already, in and outside of time? What if, in one sense, there is no division in reality at all?
Perhaps Jesus understood a deeper level of logic: that dualism itself, in order to be consistent, must exist within a relationship to non-dualism. When Christ said that "every kingdom divided against itself will fall," maybe he was speaking esoterically. He could have been speaking to the Pharisees about the nature of exorcising a mute demon like mine.
Imagine that Jesus was saying that God, in "one" sense, is neverboth divided, and neither is his kingdom, which is all of reality. This implies that the mute demon from the book of Matthew was not "bad" or "good" but simply a divided state of consciousness that is both illusory and painful, real and false, simultaneously.
Christ then went on to say, "If I cast out the devil by the devil, then who do your people cast demons out by? They will be your judges." In other words, if Christ was casting out the devil by the devil, then he was performing quite the miracle, since it was a logical impossibility (according to the time-bound and dualistic logic of the Pharisees).
According to the Pharisees' logic, Christ's healing was more impressive than the exorcisms that they were performing. The Pharisees couldn't get the name of the mute demon because their logic didn't allow for it.
In the infinite sense of dualism and its inherent paradox, the Pharisees were only able to perform healings through the dualistic side of dualism and non-dualism. In his response to the Pharisees, maybe Christ was dishing out a mystical and rhetorical smack-down about the infinite, self enfolding nature of dualism.
Bam! Take that Pharisees.
Christ proclaims, "But if I cast out the devil by the spirit of God, then his kingdom has come upon you." In other words, in my own colloquial take, "I am naming the mute demon after my big Dad in the sky. Because that's how you handle mute demons. You integrate them isntead of casting them out."
Then Jesus says, "Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house."
Maybe Jesus was saying that there is good in the devil, there are spoils within the kingdom of the devil (there are treasures to be found in Satan's house), but first you have to bind the extreme idea that Satan and God stand in complete opposition to one another, entirely separate.
Only when this illusion is bound can the goods in the kingdom of Satan be distributed. I believe this was Jesus's most esoteric teaching on the nature of exorcising a mute demon. He was teaching people about the craft of healing and medicine. I believe this to be true because the demons that were exorcised from my body were not cast out. They were integrated after the shamans named them. They named the demonic pure Christos, the annointed one within.
Once you see Christos energy in a mute demon, you have the true name of the demon, because you have the true name of the eternal self, the great "I AM."
Greg Boyd assumes that Christ came to assassinate Satan, as if Satan is an evil entity who exists in complete opposition to God. But by making this heavy-handed distinction the underpinning of Christ's death on the cross, I believe that Boyd places too much emphasis on the power of the crucifixion as a "once and for all" destruction of the kingdom of the devil (which stands entirely separate from God's kingdom).
In this sense, Boyd might be idolizing the historical person of Christ. He might be idolizing the cross, when perhaps Christ's most powerful message was to remind us that we are all Christ, we are all annointed ones, and we all have a cross to bear even if you're not a "Christian" (or Jew).
We can easily remember that Christ did not teach Peter to bow down to him. Jesus didn't instruct Peter to use the canonical Bible (which wasn't even around) to logically demonstrate the dualistic nature of Satan versus God in order to perform miracles or exorcisms. Instead, he told Peter to see that there was no division between his feet and the water. He taught Peter to walk on water. And if Peter really got up and walked on water, then maybe Peter sank when he began to see himself as separate again. In that sense, maybe Peter was incarnating the dualistic side of dualism and non-dualism, so he sank.
Sometimes its good to just come right out and say it so I will. I appreciate the biblical texts. I know it's not popular, but I do. And I wonder if the biblical texts are shunned because of the way they, too, like Christ and the cross, have been largely idolized in the evangelical churches? Evangelicals claim that the Bible, put together during political upheaval in Rome, excluding and even killing the mystics and their teachings (among others), is infallible. But the Bible is not an infallible book. It is a collection of 66 books by over 40 different authors on 3 different continents, written over 1,500 years and in 3 different languages.
The truth is, for as powerful as Christ's message was, I feel as though he'd be the first to say that many "Christs" came before him, and many would come after him whose power would be equal or greater than his own. Should we even assume that Christ would be a Christian today?
Before he left the planet, Christ suggested in the book of John that, "You will do greater things than I have done in my name." Lest we forget that his true name was not Jesus, but "I am."
* * *
Of course, when I heard Boyd's sermon about Satan and his idea of the "Christus Victor" theory of atonement, the old evangelical inside of me leapt up into the air. Finally!, I thought, someone in the Christian community is taking a leap of faith. Finally the evolution of consciousness is coming to the church.
Moving away from the penal substitution view is a large theological step, and we should be happy that evangelicals are opening up to new readings of the gospels. Christianity, according to Boyd and Christus Victor, is no longer about saying a simple prayer and being "saved" from your sins. We should admire that there are evolutions of consciounsess happening in the evangelical community. And I admire that he preached against the politicization of the Gospel. I admire that he lost those angry members, yet gained a new flock of minorities.
But if I could go back and say one thing to my old professor, as an adult man having experienced an exorcism, having drank Ayahuasca, and having felt the Christ energy in the visionary space, I would ask if perhaps Christ's last desire, after his his death and rebirth, now, today, would be to have his historical persona exorcised from Christianity, to have Christianity itself crucified.
I wonder if Jesus wouldn't have seen a "mute demon" in the evangelical church that's been set up in his name.
But, then, what's in a name anyway?
How many members would someone like my old theology professor lose if he drank Ayahuasca, or crucified his Christianity, and who would come in the doors afterwards?
Greg Boyd's blog can be found here. You can also check out an audio file of Boyd's "Christus Victor" sermon cited in this essay, attached below.