A friend of mine gave me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for Christmas. I had picked the book up by accident way back in college when I mistook it for a required text for a particular class. Instead of returning the book, I tried to slog my way through it. Needless to say, at the time I had absolutely no idea what Robert Pirsig was trying to say. After a valiant attempt to decipher his thoughts, I gave up and toted the book off to Goodwill.
But this time around, almost two decades later, the book came alive to me within the first few pages. I even hauled it to work with me to read during my break. Pirsig is giving verbiage to nebulous ideas I had circulating in my brain but could never pin down, never sink my teeth into. I suspect many of my future posts will be referencing this book, which is destined to become one of my favorites.
I’m about a quarter of the way through the text right now, and came across a passage that brought with it a wave of “Aha! This!”. To explain why, let me give a little back story. Until I was in my early 30s, I was a devoted Christian, fitting well into mainstream evangelical culture. I believed in the virgin birth, the literal resurrection of Jesus, and was convinced that in some form or fashion, Jesus would return and transform all that is ugly and broken. I did have a few nagging doubts during those years, concerns that could never quite be reconciled. But, hey, if my mother, who was a physicist and professor, could hold the enormous paradox between a literal understanding of the Bible and what she knew to be true of the cosmos, who was I to interject my uncertainties?
I ran into problems when I discovered that many of the “Christian” precepts that had ushered me into adulthood through a safe, and albeit, naive childhood, were no longing serving me well. In fact, I was wondering if some of them had ever served me well at all. I began to ask hard questions that I apparently had hidden in my subconscious-cautiously at first, and then headlong with abandon. The result: I killed Jesus. At least, I killed the projection of Jesus that I had carried with me for so many years. The Jesus I had prayed to, the Jesus I had worshipped, the Jesus I hoped would save me from some eternal damnation.
In the pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I stumbled across this:
“When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” p. 81
In my case, the analytic thought was the science and logic that I know to be true from my education and continual learning. This knife broke down my theological scaffolding, and the Jesus I believed in who was teetering, precariously, came crashing down with it. I grieved this dead Jesus, because he had been my everything for thirty-some-odd years. All that I did and all that I believed myself to be centered on this story of him. But Pirsig also describes what I began to discover over time:
“And instead of just dwelling on what is killed it’s important also to see what’s created and to see the process as a kind of death-birth continuity that is neither good nor bad, it just is.” p. 81
The fact is, I could have gotten stuck at the death of Jesus in my mind. I could have gotten angry and cynical and believed that since there is no Jesus anymore, life is pointless and haphazard and completely impersonal. But with the help of writings from Marcus Borg and Joseph Campbell, I began to see that me killing Jesus was necessary to rebirth him in my mind as something bigger and beyond all the petty little questions I had been asking in the first half of life. So many of those questions stopped being questions I really cared to ask.
““So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”
― Marcus J. Borg,
I also took Campbell’s advice when my understanding of the way the world works imploded…it’s SO good!:
“If you are falling….dive.”
― Joseph Campbell
Campbell said if you’re going to fall, you might as well make it a voluntary act. So, I went with it and found that the abyss I thought I was falling into was actually a wide spaciousness that caught me. And that expanse birthed a new Jesus for me.
No longer is Jesus the only saving resurrection story. Rather, he is the archetypal human that revealed to us how we must die to enter into real life. As Richard Rohr has remarked, the death and resurrection story of Jesus shows us the growth and change pattern for all of life.
The new Jesus story I cling to is so much richer than the one I used to recite to myself. Jesus is now to me someone who worked to overthrow the domination system with a non-violent ethic. He was someone who died repeatedly to his ego and lived out of his true self, leaving us an example of how to do the same. He was someone who lived in such union with the divine within himself, that one couldn’t tell where his humanity ended and divinity began.
The primary reason that this resurrected Jesus means so much more to me is that I am no longer enmeshed in a belief that I am inherently a horrid creature in need of saving by some external being. This new Jesus has shown me I only have to go inside of myself to find all that I need, and that at my core, I am light. And at the same time, I no longer have to be afraid of the darkness. It all belongs. Death and crisis and tragedy are transforming agents that let the light in, and grace is the vehicle that carries them all.
I now happily wield my analytic thought knife, and allow others in my life to slash away at beliefs I am clinging to with their own knives. The person who gave me Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been stabbing away at me, and I welcome it. I’m not so afraid any more of dying things, or of dying myself, because I know that life is ever on the other side.
“The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.” -Eckart Tolle