The pertinent question heading into our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, at least for some people, was how would a sophisticated, urbane, thoroughly modern skeptic?#34;or, on the other hand, someone like me?#34;get along for 10 days with a group of Baptists?
The pertinent question for me was: Will I die on this trip? After that, I was more concerned about how the person inside of me?#34;for whom the Bible was extremely important growing up?#34;would get along with the grown-up for whom the Bible is not nearly so important, once I started visiting all those biblical sites.
As for the first question, the answer was: No problem. I was traveling with a group of accepting, gracious, good-natured people who indulged their Sunday selves for 10 straight days. I’m only uncomfortable with religious salesmen. These folks weren’t selling their religion, just living it. They made me feel welcome. I was more worried about being worthy of them than the other way around.
As for the internal theological struggle, that wasn’t a problem either. After 53 years, the internal geography of my imagination met the external geography of Jordan and Israel. Instead of grinding, tectonic plates, it felt more like a confluence of two rivers flowing together with little turbulence.
My belief system, I guess, is fluid enough so it didn’t “depend” on anything I saw or discovered over there. Frankly, I expected the sites to be a disappointment and was pleasantly surprised. The Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Mediterranean Sea, the view from Mt. Carmel, Old Jerusalem, Gethsemane?#34;all were more beautiful and/or interesting than I expected, if I had any expectations at all.
As for historical accuracy, Israel is such a small country, even if exact sites are approximate (as I assumed), the “real” site can’t be far off. Besides, the setting was always more important to me. Standing on the mount and looking out over the entire Sea of Galilee was far more impressive than knowing exactly where Jesus stood when he delivered his famous sermon. It was more significant to me that he chose a beautiful place to deliver such beautiful words.
Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee likewise made a big impression. I didn’t need to know that Jesus had stood at that exact spot. I felt a presence there. Not God necessarily?#34;more like “those who went before,” a sense that whatever happened here, really happened, regardless of whether the Bible has it exactly and literally correct. None of that mattered at the time. There is real history in the Bible, and there is real poetry. I began to see Jesus as history’s greatest performance artist?#34;a master, working in the medium of metaphors, transforming the basic stuff of everyday reality into potent symbols that point us in the direction of personal transformation and evolution.
Jesus’ life probably started in a cave and ended in a cave (his tomb), but the story didn’t end there. If you take the cave as a metaphor for our limited consciousness, what is Jesus “saying” by emerging from that cave?#34;other than showing off a good “God trick?” As a metaphor, it suggests he’s setting an example for the rest of us, urging us to come out of the caves of our limited consciousness?#34;to transcend what we have always accepted as the limits of “human nature.” Could that be the “good news” he was trying to proclaim?
Ultimately, Christianity is a sunny, optimistic religion. Jesus’ message, coded in metaphor and symbol, is amazingly positive. Over the centuries, we have turned the good news into something gloomy.
My pilgrimage reinforced an inclination to see the Bible in metaphorical rather than literal terms. Water, stone, oil, olive trees, all the natural elements of this land, assumed considerable symbolic power. The historical settings didn’t diminish the metaphors. It made them come alive. I’m not prescribing that approach for everyone, but it works for me.
As for that “presence,” maybe it was the warmth of the sunlight shining just outside the tomb of our limited consciousness. You can call it “God” if you want.
I’m calling it “good news.”