Here’s an example from a site on transcendental meditation, which is pretty representative:
Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless. Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us.
As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful. [source]
Luke 17:21 and Matthew 6:33 aren’t the only verses people cite, of course, but they are representative. So I’m going to use them as such. If it turns out that what we might broadly call the “mystical” interpretation is wrong about these verses, it is probably wrong about others too.
So, are people dealing competently and honestly with Jesus’ words when they use them in this way? There are two ways to examine the question:
- Compare the mystical interpretation to the overall thrust of Jesus’ teachings
- Examine the passages themselves to see what Jesus meant to say
I’ll look at (1) in this post, and at (2) another time.
Absurd just on the face of it
Even without looking at the specific passages in question, surely it’s obvious that the broad strokes of Jesus’ teachings throughout the New Testament are utterly opposed to a mystical interpretation? The only way you could be unaware of this is if you knew nothing of Christianity, and hadn’t bothered to read anything of Jesus except these few verses. Yet it’s hard to imagine that anyone who knows how to read—let alone anyone with critical thinking skills—could see this as a legitimate way of understanding someone’s position. Imagine if you came to this blog and you picked out the following two sentences from two unrelated posts on homosexuality:
the law changes only apply to bigots and haters who deserve to be slaves for at least a short time. [source]
Homosexuality is normal [source]
Should anyone take you seriously if you started telling people that Bnonn supports homosexuality and thinks conscientious objectors should be enslaved? Of course not—because the overarching position I take on this blog is manifestly opposed to such a notion. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see that. So if you did do such a thing, you would either have to be stupid to the point of genuine impairment, or intentionally dishonest about what you know I believe.
The same is true of Jesus’ overarching teachings. Take, for instance, Matthew 6—which is where the second verse in the quote at the beginning of this article comes from. In this discourse, Jesus talks repeatedly about a “heavenly Father”. Since the mystical interpretation of “the kingdom of God” is akin to the “interior plane”, God/the Father himself must be something like a personification of what lies within us.
But Jesus claims the following things about the Father:
- He (singular) is Father of us (plural)—as opposed to each of us having our own Father (Matt 6:9)
- He sees what is done in secret, and will reward us (Matt 6:4)
- He forgives our sins (Matt 6:12, 14)
- He provides us with food to eat, and clothes to wear (Matt 6:11, 28, 30)
- He provides the birds with food (Matt 6:26)
- He creates the lilies and the grass (Matt 6:28, 30)
Now, does this sound like a mystical inner divinity in each of us…or a monotheistic God like Yahweh? Obviously the latter. It requires some pretty imaginative distortion to come up with a mystical interpretation of these verses when considered as a whole. And the problem gets a great deal worse if you go back to the start of Jesus’ speech in Matthew 5, where for instance he claims that not a single stroke on a single letter of the Hebrew Torah will pass away until everything is fulfilled (Matt 5:17-18), and that hell is a place of bodily punishment (Matt 5:30).
Do these sound like mystical truths, or like monotheistic ones? Indeed. The overarching thrust of everything Jesus says is decisively monotheistic, because Jesus presupposes the existence of Yahweh, and the truth of his revelation to Israel in the Hebrew Bible.