Christ taught for all generations. Every generation has the opportunity to discover new ideas in his words that can be seen only from today's perspective on history. Christ's words teach concepts today that are go beyond what Christianity has taught historically. The purpose of this page and related articles is not to argue that any Christian teachings are incorrect, but simply to highlight how Christ words can be understood today from a new perspective that adds important elements to that tradition.
Christian Teaching and Christ's Words
Putting aside the differences among them, the teachings of today's Christian churches are based on many sources other than Christ's words. Paul was certainly a major influence, as were all the teachers through history--Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and so on. Christ's actions acted as a powerful example for his followers, affecting their thinking. And his followers were themselves inspired by the Spirit of Truth to extend the ideas that Christ taught directly. The work of the Spirit continued throughout history and it continues today. Each generation must find its own lessons from those carrying on Christ's message, but we must go back to that message directly, to the words God gave us continually, rediscovering what is new there for each generation, even when it goes beyond what is Christian tradition has taught up to this point.
Many fundamental ideas of today's Christianity do not appear at all in Christ's teaching, and, in some cases, Christ clearly offered a different view from the way those ideas are taught today. One example is the Trinity, the idea there are three persons in one God. This idea was fleshed out largely by Augustine in the fifth century in his work on the Trinity. His writings are beautiful and deservedly influential. However, Christ never taught the idea. Christ said unequivocally in John 14:28 that his Father was greater than he was. More to the point, he says in many, many places that he does not speak on his own authority but he speaks what he has been taught by his Father. He extends this idea saying specifically that the Holy Spirit also does not speak on his own authority in Jhn 16:13. Rather than pit the common view of the Trinity against Christ's words, the only resolution is to recognize that the nature of divinity is beyond our understanding.
What we can know from Christ's words is that Christ, according to his own testimony, only spoke what he heard from the Father and that he only did what he saw the Father doing. Given this testimony, how we can separate anything we know about Christ, what he said and did, from the Father? The dividing line between the two is hidden from us. As Christ said, we do not know where he came from and where he is going, except, of course, by what he told us. The relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit is more of a mystery by its very nature. Christ's description of the Holy Spirit sounds to [my] modern ears very like the relationship between Superman and Clark Kent: both cannot be in the same place at the same time. The Spirit could not come to his follower until he left (Jhn 16:7).
From another angle, many Christian teachings are easier to understand than the meaning of Christ's words. Church teachings written for human popular consumption, but they are written by and for people at a particular point in time. As the doctrine of Trinity emerged in an era that was focused on understanding Christ's divinity in the context of one God, every doctrine has its roots in the history of the era. In every era, there are new lessons we can learn from Christ's teachings. The words themselves are from God, which mean they are beyond simple human understanding though not beyond human contemplation. The more we look at Christ's words, the more we discover there.
However, it is important that we look back to Christ's words, not around them. The church's teachings are reflections of the truth. To learn more, we must look directly at the truth, even when it makes us uncomfortable. This is especially true when we are too comfortable with what we already believe.
So Key Points of Christ's Teaching
1. Accept the world, for it is the path to completion not a battle between good and evil. People today have problems with the ideas of absolute good and evil, which is great because Christ never used these ideas. He describe the decision as between that which is noble and beautiful and that which is second-rate and worthless. The Greek term used to describe human nature in the Bible is not kakia, which means a malicious form of evil but poneros, which mean burdened, handicapped, second-rate, and worthless. The word that Christ uses for "good" is agathos, which means "sound", "noble", "of good quality" and "capable," as well as "morally right." Much more about these ideas in this article.
Our decisions and actions seek what Christ's first words in the Gospel point us toward" acting in the moment so as to complete God's plan for us, which is a very different idea than a battle between absolute good and evil. Unlike later Christian teachings which see the world as evil (an idea taken for other Middle Eastern religions), Christ sees it differently the word differently, as a testing place, a place of accomplishment, a place where failure must exist if we are to perfect ourselves. Indeed, Christ says that we cannot become perfect until we learn to love what we naturally hate.
The idea that we are incomplete in this life, even as Christians, is the foundation on which Christ teaches about the nature of reality. Christ doesn't use the language of Christians regarding being "saved" and thereby different than non-Christians. For Christians and non-Christians, the path is the same. However, he certainly taught that to be rescued we must have faith and trust and him and the Father. The beatitudes, a central point of his teaching, can easily be read to describe, not different groups of people, but as a spiritual journey that a person takes toward perfection, from someone "lacking the spirit" to being a "son of God."
This is not to say that Christ's words do not teach absolute right and wrong, but putting his lessons in terms of sin and eternal damnation are lessons written for another era. Today, we understand them best by translating "sin" closer to Christ's original meaning, not of moral blackness, but "missing the mark," that is, making mistakes. In Christ's terms, lying is always a mistake. Not honoring your father and mother is always a mistake. Not only is killing people a mistake but getting angry at them and calling them names is a mistake. Christ lesson is that, if we follow his words, we can avoid making mistakes in finding our own path to the Father.
2. The spiritual is as real and natural as the the temporal world. Christ begins this idea with his first test, telling his tester that the idea of God is as nourishing as physical food. Though Christ describes the spiritual and temporal worlds as different realms, he doesn't separate the spiritual and temporal as people do today, with one life here on earth and a different life in heaven.
In his first test, his symbol for physical life is bread (more about that here), but the spirit is mixed in with the dough to make it better. Christ continually describes the spiritual and physical as emanating equally from God. There are two key differences. The physical is temporary but visible. The spiritual is lasting but beyond our ability to see. To some eras, like our own, the physical seems more important because we can see it. However, to others, the spiritual seems more important because of its persistence and dependability while physical things are always evolving. The spiritual is about "being" while the physical is about "becoming." Which is harder to describe? The moving target or the hidden one?
However, Christ does not see the physical as bad and the spiritual as good. This was originally a Greek idea. Indeed, his good news was that life was a celebration of the wedding of the temporal with eternal, the temporary as stepping stones to the eternal.
The challenge today is that people think that we should be able to "see" everything that is real. Because the tools of science have evolved so much in recent times, exposing many forces and elements of the universe that were once hidden, we have a harder time to think that anything as invisible or permanent. However, science is itself an inquiry into what is hidden. And what is has discovered is that more of the matter and energy that make up the universe is "dark," that is, hidden. It has also discovered that the universe we know is completely improbably without an infinite reality beyond our knowing. This brings us to the next lesson.
3. You cannot test God or take any knowledge of God's will as certain. This is another recurring theme in Christ's teaching starting with his second test. Indeed, from reading Christ's words, I often get the sense that the whole point of the physical world is to make the test of faith possible because it is necessary. The processes of believing what is uncertain is itself part of the transforming power of the world and Christ in our lives. In this process we accept that we cannot understand or explain the divine in any real sense. We have to be humble about the fact the we can never know for certain what God wants from us personally. Christians who teach that they know the absolute truth of God are missing the point of much of what Christ taught and certainly his whole mode of teaching, which is often intentionally ambiguous. Indeed, Christ teaches that it is our uncertainty that is a necessary part of our path to completion. Both are faith and the uncertainty of that faith are important in this process. God is hidden live the universe or heaven as hidden. Christ usually describes Him as "our Universal Father" or what we translate as "Heavenly Father," but he also describes him as our Hidden Father (Mat 6:6, Mat 6:18). However, God will make everything that is hidden known (Luk 12:2).
4. Human society is something separate from the natural world. This lesson starts with Christ's third test. While some Christian tend to see the spiritual as good and the physical as evil, Christ draws the line differently. He sees the physical world as God's creation, every bit as good and natural as the spiritual. The only different is the the spiritual is lasting and the physical is transitory. A big part of human life is human relationships, the source of emotion. Human society is different; it can be the source of evil and mankind's burdens. It is human society, not the natural world, that Christ came to earth to reform. When Christ talks about "coming of the kingdom of God," he doesn't seem to be talking only about the afterlife but reforming human society, bringing the universal rule of God to the way we live together, not in a state, but as individuals dealing with each other as children of God. Christ also teaches that the rules for human society are different than the rules for individuals. Individuals are perfectible and the source of a good society, but human society will never be perfect and always the source of temptation.
5. We are rewarded for our good works and producing value. Putting aside the debate about the false conflict between faith and good works as too often seen in the epistles of Jame and Paul, Christ's message is surprisingly economic. Christians talk only about our heavenly rewards, Christ describes our payment for good works in the same terms as you would use for getting paid for doing a job. It is not clear whether or not that this payment is material or spiritual, but my guess is that our payment takes the form of moving us closer to that perfect state that is the goal of our lives on earth. In Greek, Christ uses many "economic" terms to describe human interactions that have been lost by the more spiritual interpretations of his followers. The terms we translated as "good news" or "gospel" is translated from a Greek word that means "the reward for bringing good news." It was the "tip" you gave a messenger for bringing good news. In the first verse of Mark that quotes Christ, Christ describes his mission as getting people turn around and to believe that they will be rewarded for bringing good news to others. In a sense, Christ sought to replace an pessimistic mindset about the nature of life with a positive one that not only encompassed our temporal life but our eternal one.
6. The "Kingdom of Heaven" that Christ described seems to be the whole universal order, not just the afterlife or the Christian community. Christ's entire mission revolved around describing "the kingdom of heaven" and its progress on earth. The Greek term translated as "heaven" can also translated as "the universe" in the sense of everything that is not a part of this planet. Perhaps a better translation of the "kingdom of heaven" is "the universal reign," that is, everything that God rules, which is, everything. The nearness of the kingdom was among his first messages and his first instructions on preaching to his apostles. We say that "the kingdom of heaven is coming" in the sense that it is not here, but Christ said that "the universal rule is under way," that life works according to the rules of heaven and that it was time for humanity to recognize that. Most Christians take his statements are referring either to the afterlife, the world after the last judgment, or the community of Christians, but if you look at what Christ said in detail about the kingdom, there is too much that doesn't make sense in that interpretation.
7.The physical, mental, and emotional parts of our lives life must be brought into balance and one complement the other. Christ is constantly referring to these three aspects of life both directly and symbolically. To a large degree, his teaching was aimed at reforming how we view each of these parts of our lives. Physical bodies are not meant to be tortured, especially not for the glory of God. He wanted us to celebrate because he brought the good news of eternal life. The mental life is meant to grow, holding knowledge as a cup holds wine, both old knowledge and new, but new knowledge must be tested. We are not meant for ignorance. Though knowledge is hidden, it will be revealed if we repeatedly ask our father. Finally, the emotional life of our relationships is not a social reward, but rather they are real private commitments of friendship, marriage, and parenthood. Those who seek gratification in public praise and public acclaim are missing the point of life. Human society is a necessary evil, not the epitome of human ambition.