Jesus and the Void

Column by Dr. Carl Krieg on 8 October 2020 2 Comments


We all are painfully aware that we in the US are living in a time of extreme violence and anxiety. What we may not know is that Jesus lived in such a time as well, and the parallels are quite striking. We suffer from a would-be dictator. Jesus actually lived under one. We experience extreme wealth disparity. In Jesus’ time, the wealthy oppressed the poor by increasing the tax burden and appropriating land when those taxes were not paid. We live with the consequences of a national history defined by racism. The Roman empire survived by the work of slaves. In both times, women are relegated to second class citizenry. We might speculate that this is the way it has always been. And we wonder why it must be so.

We know very little about Jesus prior to his public ministry. He had siblings and he possibly was a day laborer in the city of Sepphoris. We can be fairly certain that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. We know this because the gospels include the story of Jesus being baptized by John, a fact that the early church would rather not have had to explain. John’s fiery preaching by the river Jordan created converts who went back to their homes and awaited the imminent coming judgment of God. Jesus apparently assumed a different attitude and left John to preach and teach about changing life in the present, and not waiting for the end of time. Some of his friends, who were disciples of John, left with him and became his compatriots.

And then we wonder, what happened next? What did Jesus do? Who was he such that people saw, listened, and followed? In the history of humankind, nobody has had more written about their life than Jesus, some accurate, some not. The speculation about who he was began right in the New Testament itself, with everyone having their own particular slant. Who was he? The messiah expected by the Jews? A miracle worker? A mystic? By what means did he impact people? Because he was god? Because he walked on water or fed thousands with a few loaves? Because his teaching was so irresistible?

No. No to all those questions. The disciples did not live with Jesus because they believed any of this. They did not believe in Jesus at all: they experienced him. And what they experienced in Jesus was who they really were and could become. The power of Jesus was in the truth of his humanity. Everything else listed above is speculation by those who came later. The disciples experienced a person to whom they could relate. If we need an image for this person, we can look to Popular Mechanics, where an artist uses scientific methodology to portray an image of Jesus — short, black curly hair, dark skin. Not at all the calm, tall, flowing-haired white man so popular in our culture. It was that short dark man who created his family of women and men disciples.

But how did he do that? What was the attraction? If his humanity was true, what does that mean?

Since Jesus was Homo sapiens just as we are, are there observations that apply to him as well as to us? I think the answer is yes, and that there are at least four: 1) each and every one of us creates an egocentric worldview, 2) locked in our isolated ego we experience an absence of meaning, a void, and we fill that void with whatever suggests itself, 3) we need community, and 4) we all experience moments when that world is temporarily invalidated and we are set free from our closedness.

Considering all these together, from beginning to end our life is bombarded with stimuli, a disorder out of which we need to create order. It just happens. The chaos of sensation would be just that — chaos — without an organizing function of the brain. We need an orderly world in which to function, and so we create one, placing new information into already-existing mental categories. Your resultant world is different from mine, and neither corresponds exactly with the reality that is “out there”. Consequently, we all have a distorted perspective of which we are pretty much unaware. But there is more: we are inclined to believe that our world is the real world and that the world of everyone else is at best inaccurate and at worst, untrue. We judge others and universalize without justification.

Our egocentricity drastically impacts our ability to function openly and lovingly. Because we live in a mental construct of our own making, we have lost depth awareness of the environment in which we live and move and have our being. Essential to that loss, our communion with other people is broken. The combined result is that in the deepest reservoir our life feels empty and without meaning. This is so because, in fact, we have cut ourselves off from two dimensions of existence that offer a connection to what is: the objective world and our fellow human beings. Our egocentric world is a lonely, isolated place. We don’t like that, so we look for ways to escape that feeling by filling the void.

All of us experience that crisis of meaning and we seek to fill the void in whatever way is enticing and available. Any activity, which in and of itself can be good and necessary, can also function as an escape. Shopping, TV, cell phones, working, eating, drinking — the list is endless and includes everything. It all depends on how it functions in our individual life.

The void, however, is not continuous. There are times in our life when the fabrication of our egocentric world is challenged, and we are momentarily set free from it. The examples here also are numerous, and include everything from the starry sky above to the conscience within. Holding a baby. Confronting death. Awed by the beauty of a field of flowers. Playing your game while in the zone. Moments come in an infinite variety, but, unfortunately, they do not last, and we return to our egocentric world, with its void and its escapes.

What does all this have to do with Jesus? Plainly and simply, he did not create an egocentric world, as we do. He was continually aware of the divine thou surrounding him, living a continual moment, as we are not. He was totally in communion with his friends and disciples, again, as we are not. His life was filled with meaning, experiencing no void and needing no escapes, quite contrary to our lives. This is the life Jesus lived. It was who he was. And it was this person, this life, that impacted his friends and followers, because in him they saw who they really were. In him they were encountered by a humanity they knew in their hearts and could now identify because of Jesus. It was so simple: living, caring and sharing in community, overcoming narrow perspective with its attendant void requiring to be falsely filled, and being open to the Spirit — this is what life is about.

Contrast this with their surrounding culture, built on the architecture of falsely and feverishly escaping the void. The rich and powerful dealt with their void by a plethora of escape mechanisms. On the one hand, they found meaning in wealth and its accumulation and increase. On the other hand, they built their life in opposition to and oppression of others, whether they be the poor, slaves, women, or whomever “other” they chose to denigrate. The revolution inaugurated in Jesus totally threatened this established egocentric world of the wealthy elite, powerful because it was a revolution not of the sword, but of the mind.

It didn’t take long for the rich and powerful to sense that their power was being undermined. In reaction, they attempted to exterminate the threat. They persecuted the early followers, to be sure, but more insidiously they infiltrated and captivated the thinking of the group. The evidence is clear. By the end of the first century, the church had lost the revolution inaugurated by Jesus and reverted to the old way. According to 1 Timothy, slaves must obey their masters, women must obey their husbands, and everyone must obey the rich and powerful. Because of their influence in shaping cultural norms, the wealthy were able to lead the new generations away from the radical model created by Jesus and back to the old ways that sustained their power.

And so it is today. Here in the US we have millions of people so trapped in their void and looking to fill it, that they are easy prey for those seeking ever-increasing power and wealth. What is a rally of red hats other than an escape from the void? What is carrying an assault gun down the street other than a vain attempt to prove that you are a man? What is shooting a Black man other than a demonstration that you have totally lost your way and succumbed to the void? What is suppression and violence against women other than an unenlightened and dark mentally constructed world? And where do these ideas and actions originate? With those utilizing their controlling power to shape peoples’ minds. Searching for meaning, people will follow the devil. That’s where we are today. We live in a nation where the violent escapes from the void now define who we are.

The good news is that this is not really who we are. None of us. Jesus showed us that, and we all know it in our hearts, in the depths of our being. The truth of our humanity, manifest in Jesus, requires that we dismantle the egocentricity that encapsulates us so that we can reconnect with ourselves, with one another and with God. The truth of our humanity is to embrace our fellow humans as kindred spirit and not as a threatening “other”. The truth of our humanity is to be open to the Loving Spirit that surrounds and supports us. This is who we are.

The disciples of knew. They watched firsthand as the authorities dragged Jesus away to be crucified, and they were briefly confused, afraid and distraught. But that mood did not last, for in their time with Jesus they had experienced the new life together and they now knew the truth of their own humanity. Like the apple in the garden, only now in reverse, once you taste the fruit there is no going back. The revolution continued. The authorities continued to counter the new vision, and they succeeded in part. They brought the newer generations in the church back to the old way as epitomized in 1 Timothy, back to the void.

But the spark carried on and lives in us today. As we create good trouble, as John Lewis advised, just like the disciples we can be assured that God is alive and that love will win. The powers that be cannot overcome the power of Being Itself. Jesus overthrew the tables of the money changers in the Temple. It is our time to do the same.

~ Dr. Carl Krieg



How do today’s elections compare to Bishop Spong’s thoughts on the 2012 elections?


Dear Reader,

In the two recent conventions it was clear that women are a crucial voting block that must be wooed. The rhetoric was far more positive than the platforms, however, which in the Republican case reflected issues not debated in America since the 1950’s. Both campaigns featured women. Both showed off their elected female senators, governors and representatives. Both listened to magnificent speeches made by the wives of the presidential nominees. I have a hard time imagining Pat Nixon or Bess Truman giving a speech!

As I look at America today, it seems to me that we are in a dramatic period of consciousness raising. It began to be visible in the campaign four years ago when among the serious and viable candidates for the presidency were a woman, a Hispanic, an African-American, a Mormon and a man who had been married three times. None of these would, in all probability, have been taken seriously twenty-five years earlier. Consciousness breakthroughs always raise up a hostile reaction from those who feel displaced by the broadening of those who are considered acceptable for leadership. We are living with that reaction. The real issue to be measured in this year’s election is how rapidly we, as a people, will be able to embrace this new consciousness. One party says it focuses on individuality and freedom, the other on the quality of our corporate society and the corporate good. One party is rooted in the quality of leadership coming from traditional sources and it does not appear to be welcoming to newcomers. They value merit, ability and the kind of competitiveness that produces wealth. The other is rooted in a wider demographic pool, stressing openness to rising minorities. One party is conservative because it values and wants to conserve the virtues of the past, which, it argues, have made us the great nation we are. The other party is liberal because it believes that all people must have equality of opportunity that will allow a steady influx into leadership of those, who have not been born into wealth and privilege, enabling merit to rise to the top of our political, economic and social pyramids. I think both emphases are needed. Conservatives need the challenge of new ideas and new people lest they become quickly dated and irrelevant. Liberals on the other hand, need the witness of the traditional values that conservatives espouse lest they become wide-eyed and kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

The nation is healthiest, I believe, when elections are close. The minority must be strong enough to challenge and to rein in the excesses of the majority. Progress should come through the hard task of compromise. We are in danger of losing that in today’s polarized politics. Someone once observed that “politicians are like underwear, the only way you can keep them clean is to change them regularly.” In the last 52 years of American history, the Republicans have controlled the White House for 28 years, the Democrats for 24. That balance is part of what makes our nation great.

~ Bishop John Shelby Spong




2 thoughts on “Jesus and the Void

  1. Dear Carl: I like your essay this time very much. You said, “We can be fairly certain that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. We know this because the gospels include the story of Jesus being baptized by John, a fact that the early church would rather not have had to explain.”
    I’d like to point out, however, that John the Baptist was merely a cousin of Jesus and was only a few months older in age than him.
    In the Gospel by John, I believe John the Baptist told two of his disciples to follow Jesus who became their“rabbi”. Jesus instructed his disciples to go out and preach without money, food, or a second pair of shoes/sandals or shirt; that seemed to be the way of the Essenes; and there must have been 4000 Essenes who lived in the country of Israel in those days. Although there was a“void”from all the Gospels as well as from Paul as to where Jesus had gone to have learned the Pentateuch so well before he began to teach and to preach, the answer might be the ancient Jewish bible located in Qumran where there were 200 people in the Essene community.We don’t know the name of the Rabbi at the time Jesus learned everything, there was a known Teacher of Justice who had lived there about 100 years before Jesus. I believe the carpentry title of Jesus could very well have been similar to Saul who had learned from his Rabbi in Jerusalem.
    We all know that the Jewish leaders in the Synagogues were all amazed at how well Jesus was able to challenge and to debate with them.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  2. Dear Bishop Spong: Thank you for appearing in this answer on the current Elections and the political participation by women in the US. I’d like to mention the participation by women in China as a comparison. In 2016 there were 2987 representatives in the China Congress,637were women,or21.33% of the total in Beijing. Then in 2018, there were
    2980 representatives and 742 were women,an increase to 24.9%.
    Since 1975, women in the China national congress has not fallen below 20% of the total number.
    I have personally met and talked with female ministers in two different churches (two cities), some of them have been permitted to give sermons up front.
    Eugene from Suzhou, China

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