Let me start with a true story that became a parable for me.
The landscape and culture surrounding Taos, New Mexico have attracted mysticism, real and imagined, for centuries. The Taos Pueblo Indians have lived here over a thousand years, many still practicing their ancient spiritual traditions. Many groups and individuals have come here over the years, seeking a path to some alternate reality. In the 1970s a New Age group called the Lama Foundation built an ashram led by Baba Ram Dass, a former Harvard professor who had done LSD research with Timothy Leary in the 60s, then traveled to India to study and practice under a guru, and returned to the States to promote a Westernized version of Hindu pantheism and meditation. His spiritual guidebook, Be Here Now, was a bestseller, and I had read it the summer before, looking for some alternative to the traditional nominal Christianity I had absorbed in my childhood. This was the time New Age beliefs were starting to get traction in American culture, and many saw this as a new, radical, and desirable departure from the spiritual dead-end of any old-time religion. A friend and I had hitch-hiked to Taos in the summer of ’75; at the same time Ram Dass was speaking at the Taos community auditorium and we came over from our campsite in the nearby Rio Grande gorge to hear him.
Ram Dass sat cross-legged on the stage. With him were several followers, dressed in traditional Indian clothing, who chanted what I supposed were Hindi phrases and mantras. One patted a rhythm on tambala and another played the sitar. My friend and I sat in the back. Ram Dass’s discourse felt familiar, a rehash of the message in his book, and I recall him alluding to Taos Mountain, at the foot of which is Taos Pueblo. There are many ways, he said, to the top of this mountain, just as there are many paths to spiritual enlightenment. Some form of yoga or meditation seemed to be an ingredient in most recipes for rising to a higher plane of existence, but there was no one right path. Your path to enlightenment, and how far and fast you traveled, were your choice and entirely your effort.
As I listened, a small piece of the New Testament came to mind, from some long-forgotten Sunday school lesson, and I didn’t recall chapter, verse, or even book, but it came into my mind that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by me.” The disjuncture between the two words I was hearing was something I wanted resolved and surely, I thought, Ram Dass can resolve this for me. After he finished his lecture, I went up on the stage, waited for an opening between inquirers and admirers, then I asked him to ponder a question: “Given what you say about many paths,” I asked, “what did Jesus mean when he said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by me’?” His reply was brief: “That was just Christ’s ego trip.” He said nothing further and I did not press him on the matter. Yet I found myself in the unfamiliar position of defending, in my mind anyway, the integrity of a religious figure toward whom I then felt no strong sense of personal allegiance or spiritual commitment. It was almost as though someone had told me my mother or father didn’t really love me; all those years of providing, and encouraging, and defending, and comforting had just been for show, a mere pretence issuing from desperately flawed character. No, you’ve missed something here, I thought. Whatever else I am going to make of Jesus, dismissing him as an egotist comes from ignorance or evasion, not from any real wisdom or understanding.
Reflecting later on the event and the person, I also saw there was nothing new or radical about Ram Dass, any New Age worldview, or indeed, any supposed alternate path to enlightenment, salvation, utopia, or renewal. Take your pick: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Marxism, Secular Progressivism, Tea Party activism. None of it is new, in this respect: It is all the same old same old, pull yourself—your enlightenment, your salvation, your utopian vision, your country—up by your own bootstraps. I also think this is true (sadly) of some of the new wave of so-called “radical” Christianity. “Radical” here often just translates to “try harder”.
None of this is “radical”. This is the way of the world. Your success or failure, or sanctification, is up to you. Go for it. And I would not say that—depending on your character, choices, and circumstances—“work hard for success” is bad advice. Our parents were right; the world does not owe us a living. Even the apostle Paul said if an able-bodied man won’t work, well then, he shouldn’t expect to get anything to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Much of what we must do to get along, or get ahead, in a fallen world depends on our own efforts; the more the better. But that is not new, radical, an alternate reality, or Good News.
Let me tell another true story that I also think is an enacted parable.
When Jesus was crucified, two “criminals” were also crucified beside him; one on the right, one on the left. Both the grammatical and historical contexts suggest these were not petty thieves or common criminals. They were rebel guerillas who also practiced banditry in their opposition to Roman military occupation. Today we would call them terrorists. And so Rome considered them and condemned them. They are not named in the Gospels, but tradition has called them “Dismas” and “Gestas”. Nailed hands and feet to a cross, they no longer had anything they could call their own but their agony, their thoughts, and their words.
Gestas joined in the mockery that was hurled at Jesus, sneering: “Aren’t you the Messiah?! Then save yourself and save us!”. Dismas rebuked Gestas, acknowledged their crimes and the justness of their punishment, and recognized Jesus’ innocence (Gospel of Luke 23:39-41).
With respect to salvation—to discovering and entering an alternate reality—I think all of humanity is summed up here. We are all Dismas and Gestas, condemned to die, and we ultimately own and offer nothing but our pain, our thoughts, and our words. And our decisions.
Then Dismas thought, and decided, and offered these words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He had nothing else to offer, yet Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Gospel of Luke 23:42-43). Dismas wasn’t going to be baptized, join a Bible study, go on a mission trip, become a minister, or work for social justice. But he was going to Paradise. Why? Because he saw and knew and acknowledged that Jesus was the Ruler of an alternate reality; the True Reality.
That is Grace. That is Good News. That is radical.
Next Week – A Radical Alternate Reality – Part 2: Love