St Paul and the Universal viewpoint

St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians warns against degeneration into a human personality cult. Paul hardly ever quotes the words of the human incarnation: he taught the cosmic Christ:

The whole universe has been created through him and for him. He exists before everything and all things are held together in him. Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself… (Colossians 1.16)

Some eastern teachers, and especially Zen teachers, believe that this Great Christ is the true message of Christianity.

One Zen master, who knew these passages, used to say: ‘Why do they have a dead body hanging up outside their churches? Why do they not teach realization of the Great Christ?’

He himself, as a Buddhist priest, made reverent prostrations daily before the image of the Buddha; but like other Zen teachers (and like Paul), he warned against becoming stuck in symbols. One of them said in a famous radio sermon: ‘The wooden Buddha is burnt in the fire, the clay Buddha dissolved in the water, the metal Buddha melted in the furnace. Somehow we have to grasp the true Buddha.’ Already in Paul’s letters the earliest Christian records that remain there are warnings that some believers were slipping into a cult of human personalities, such as Paul himself or Apollos (Apollos was an Alexandrian, an eloquent Christian preacher).

Paul writes: ‘Each of you is saying, “I am Paul’s man”, or “I am for Apollos”, or “I follow Peter”, or “I am Christ’s”.’ His phrasing shows that some no longer considered themselves as primarily Christ’s but as followers of a living human evangelist. ‘And so [he adds] you quarrel.’ Though Paul had direct realization… ‘not I but Christ in me’… he warns against worship of Christ in the human form of Paul or any other.

He saw that Christ might become more and more remote and the human personality cult more demanding. Then there would be narrowness, and in the end, quarrels. He repeats with great earnestness: ‘What is Paul? What is Apollos? We are servants, like gardeners. One may plant and one may water, but we are fellow-workers and no more.’ In the Gita, the Lord forestalls a personality cult of even his own human form as Krishna.

There developed in India a great tradition of devotion to the avatara (divine descent) as Krishna. But the Gita is a text for the whole world, and it gives no preference; ‘Of warriors I am Rama, of the Vrishni clan, I am Vasudeva (Krishna).’ Incidents of those human lives are not given, by the Gita, for meditation and devotion. As Sankara says, the Lord declares himself to be the essence of cosmic principles such as light and heat. He is indicated too as the peak of classes of things: ‘Of mountains, I am Himalaya… Among men, the… In holy scriptures, the sacred syllable OM.’ Finally (in chapter XI) he reveals himself as all and everything.

© Trevor Leggett

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