Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ishta Devata: A Sermon

Ishta Devata
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
June 21st, 2009
John 14:1-7

When you go to a bookstore and check out the religion section you will find all kinds of books about Jesus. Year after year scholars and non-professionals alike publish books about Jesus. The Real Jesus. What Jesus Really Said. The Secret Life of Jesus. The Historical Jesus. Many of the books are an attempt to refute some other book about Jesus. One would think that all that could be written about Jesus already would have been written. But that isn’t so. Apparently, the author of the Gospel of John had it right in the final sentence of his account:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

After two thousand years, Jesus is still a hot topic. We still wait for the definitive account that will unlock the mysteries of this figure. I have been interested in the search for the historical Jesus, that is the search for what we can know about the person as distinct from the legends and the theological affirmations about him.

This quest is at least as old as Thomas Jefferson who took scissors to his New Testament. He discarded the miracles as supernatural fluff and retained the teachings. Jesus, for Jefferson, was a teacher of wisdom, particularly a teacher of morality.

This quest reflects in part, dissatisfaction with the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. For many, the Jesus of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds is not credible. These creeds tell us more about those who formulated them several hundred years after Jesus than they do about the person of Jesus.

That is not to say these creeds are not poetic or express truths in mythical form. I think they do and I think they have value for that reason. To say, as the Apostle’s Creed does, that “Jesus descended into Hell” is to say something about our own need. In our own Hell, in our own estrangement, the Divine One comes to us, seeks us out, and calls us blessed.

Nevertheless, the conceptual universe in which the creeds were formed no longer exists. A trip to the planetarium shows the universe far more interesting than a heaven above and a hell below.

We are faced with a choice. We can suspend disbelief and enter into this world of demons and gods, heaven and hell, and supernatural miracles like we do when we read Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter novel. You enter into its world, accept its parameters, and seek the truth within the story itself. I tend to do that.

Yet there is a difference between enjoying a novel and making a religion out of it. Can you pray to or trust in a god you know you have created? I don’t have the answer to that question, I just raise it.

The other choice, aside from rejecting Christianity and Jesus altogether, is to seek a Jesus who speaks to our context. This is a context shaped by the sciences and the humanities. The quest for the historical Jesus or a credible Jesus is, I think, a quest for a modern myth. We are looking for a myth of the human. We are not looking so much for “God” as we are for what it means to be human.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say “We.” It is what I am looking for. I enjoy reading about the various portraits offered by students of history about the person of Jesus and the context of his time and the time of writers of the Gospels.

I do have a couple of disclaimers.

First, I have no certainty that any of these portraits are accurate. Because Jesus didn’t write anything and because there are no independent sources for him outside of texts that proclaimed him as a divine figure, the historical person is elusive.

Second, I admit up front that my interests are religious. Mine is not a disinterested scholarly quest. I think that Jesus, in part because he is elusive historically, can be a focal point of a modern myth of the human.

Throughout the centuries, Jesus has served as a myth for God. Of course, Christianity has not called it a myth until recently. It has been absolute truth. In this version, Jesus is not only a way to God, but the only way. The text we read from the 14th chapter of John’s gospel has been one of the key texts in hammering this truth home. It is the text before the altar call. Jesus is the only way and if you don’t believe it right this second, it is down the chute to the fire for you. I am preaching to the choir, but I think we all know that this theology has had unfortunate consequences.

Is there another way? Is there a way for those who identify with Christianity to both have their Jesus and be inclusive too? I think so. I think concepts from other religions might be helpful.

I also included a reading from the Bhagavad-Gita. In this text, Krishna is saying to Arjuna essentially the same thing Jesus is saying to his disciples.

'You want to get to Brahmin, to the Father, to God, to all that is, to the Ultimate Reality, the Truth beyond all truth, to the I Am Who I Am, and I Will Be Who I Will Be? Well, you can’t. It is too big. You are too small. In my person, you get a manifestation."

In Jesus, in Krishna, you get a particular vehicle.

Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg tells a story of a Hindu teacher preaching in a Christian church about the 14th chapter of John. He is not a Christian Hindu. He is a Hindu. He read this text:

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The Hindu teacher said, “This is absolutely true. And it is true for every enduring religion.”

Whether Jesus says it, or Krishna says it or whether the Qur’an says it, the way to the Ultimate is through the particular. One could say, “I love humanity.” Great. However, the only way to love humanity is to love concretely the flesh and blood human being sitting next to you. Otherwise it is just talk. It isn’t about right belief, but commitment. It is as if Jesus is telling his disciples, “Hey guys, do you want to get to be super spiritual. You want to find God, man?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they say.

“Here is how. Do what I have done. Love your neighbors. Feed the poor. Stand up for the dispossessed. Give your life for others.”

“Oh. We were hoping we could just recite a prayer and believe a creed.”

One of the advantages of studying other religions is that this study can give us insights into our own. A concept that I find intriguing is from Hinduism. It is the concept of ishta devata, or chosen deity.

Because Hinduism is polytheistic, our Hindu friends have a number of deities from which to choose. The ishta devata is the deity you choose. The idea here is to find a deity who speaks to you. You need to do some research. You find one you like. The deity must have some depth with characteristics you have or that you would like to develop. You use this deity as a focal point for meditation, devotion, and personal growth. The deity you choose is a vehicle for your own growth.

There a couple of guidelines.

The first is that you stick with it. It is less helpful to bounce from one deity to another. If you want to find water you need to dig a hole. To get water you are told you will need to dig forty feet. You could dig ten holes four feet deep or you could dig one hole forty feet deep. The second option is going to be more productive even as it will be more difficult. When you search for your ishta devata find one you can live with and stick with.

The second guideline is that your ishta devata must be credible. Even as you may choose a figure from religious literature, she or he as to be real for you. You define what real is. But your ishta devata needs to satisfy your sense of what is real.

You can choose Jesus. You can choose the Jesus you grew up with, or if that Jesus no longer works, you can find another ishta devata. If you want to stick with Jesus, you can choose a particular aspect of Jesus. Perhaps the infant Jesus or the healing Jesus or the Jesus who offers unconditional love, or a combination of these images will work for you. There are plenty of Jesuses to go around.

I think the quest for the historical Jesus is really a quest for an ishta devata. It is a search for a Jesus who is credible. At least as I look back on it that is what it has been for me. You don’t need to tell anyone who your ishta devata is. In fact, it is probably wise not to do so.

But at that risk, for point of illustration, mine is my version of the “historical Jesus.” I put quotes around “historical Jesus” to show that I don’t know if my Jesus is the historical one or not. For me, he is a credible Jesus. This is the Jesus who told parables, who welcomed outcasts, who was a healing presence, who stood up for the disenfranchised, who loved enemies, who considered the lilies, who practiced non-violence, and who was so committed to what he stood for, that he risked and even paid for it with his own life. For me, this Jesus is real and alive.

This Jesus is for me what it means to be a human being.

The creeds and theological speculations about Jesus I respect as the ishta devata of my ancestors. I value them and learn from them as such. But for me, the way to authentic life, the way to the Father (since it is Father’s Day, I’ll say Father) is the way that this first century Palestinian Jew lived his life even to his death.

I offer this concept of the ishta devata only because it has been helpful to me. It may or may not be helpful for you. I have found in it a way to remain Christian without having to embrace either an incredible Christianity or an exclusive one.

Peace and strength be with you on your search.


  1. Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

  2. I've only recently discovered your podcast and your blog, so clearly I am a few years behind the time.

    I just wanted to say thank you and wow. You have summed up everything I've been unable to articulate. I've abandoned Christianity because it's impossible to ascent to so many of the tenants, and yet I still search for Jesus, I miss Jesus.

    I used to scoff at the theory that God is like the wheel, and all religions are spokes on that wheel. They may be different spokes, but they all take you to the same center of the wheel. I think your description of Jesus as your Ishta Devata is a great reminder that I can still have a relationship with the Jesus I remember, even if that Jesus isn't actually sitting on a cloud waiting to intervene in my life.

  3. Hey Samantha, thanks for the nice comment and for reading!!

    I, too, have had a struggle with how to understand Jesus.

  4. Another useful idea is seeing Jesus as one's "Guru". The Guru is the one who takes you to the "Great Deva" (or capital-G God).

    The traditional Jesus of your family's understanding would be your "Kula" (or "family") Guru. The Jesus of your own understanding would be your "Ishta" (or "chosen") Guru or "Sat" (or "Truth-revealing") Guru.

  5. I agreed with 99% of this. Even though I am an naturalist (only nature exists) and an atheist, I would say that Jesus serves as my lens through which I interpret my religious experiences. He is the center of my spiritual devotion. However, I would want to make a distinction between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. I would say that the question of what exact things the historical Jesus did/said is a question separate from personal devotion.

    I think that it is quite clear from historical Jesus scholarship that he was baptized, taught in parables, chose disciples, proclaimed the Kingdom of God (a concept widely misunderstood), worked "miracles" of some kind (I suspect we would agree that these were not genuinely supernatural) and that he was crucified. The details are blurred as you move away from these core facts, but your devotion need not rely on the historicity of every detail in the gospels (a point we agree on).

    I would say this: as far as devotional literature is concerned, in many ways I prefer the Gospel of John. It is a better written, more poetic, more inspiring book than the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), even though it is universally viewed (by scholars) as less historically accurate.