Peak Experiencers and Jesus the Zealot

In The Power of Myth, a book-length interview conducted by Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell, the mythologist said ‘It’s the Christ on the cross that’s lovable.’ He was responding to Moyers’ question, ‘Perfection would be a bore, wouldn’t it?’ Campbell went on to state that what is human draws us towards others. We have no frame of reference to comprehend the supernatural and immortal; such figures will always remain detached.


Campbell was replying to a growing sentiment—our prophets have been transformed into these inhuman creatures—that really took root in twentieth century America. Even today, what’s meaningful about historical beings is that they care about us now; an impossibility, though one that feeds our illusions. Campbell recognized the value of the imperfections of spiritual leaders, a sentiment reflected in Reza Aslan’s latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

While reading Zealot, I was reminded of the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work on self-actualization. Most famously noted for creating his hierarchy of needs—basically, when one’s carnal and survival necessities are met, they can focus on ‘higher’ states of being, such as morality and creativity—Maslow’s essay ‘Religions, Values and Peak Experiences’ was his attempt at synthesizing these goals into a formula that made possible for everyone the revelatory experiences of past prophets.

Today such a notion remains blasphemous to some: the God juju was reserved for a few, or even one, historical man and can never again be realized by anyone. Yet Maslow recognized patterns in human existence that created such states of being in the patients, friends, and colleagues he interviewed over the course of decades.

Granted, those who were ‘primed’ for peak experiences tend to have them most often. They seem to embody psychological openness; whether by genetics or training we do not know. Maslow was able to give form to these experiences, even if the essence could not be captured by words. They include:

—The entire universe is perceived as an integrated and unified whole.

—Tremendous concentration occurs; figure and ground are less sharply differentiated.

—We become more objective and less human-centric; more desireless and impersonal.

—The peak experience is a self-validating, self-justifying moment that carries its own intrinsic value with it, giving meaning to life itself.

—There are ends to aim for in this world, instead of constant next steps.

—Our perception of Being is more passive and receptive, as well as more humble. We are able to listen and hear better.

—Conflicts and polarities of existence are transcended.

—All fears disappear, including those of death and loss.

These are some of the qualities that make self-actualizing people, Maslow writes,

our most compassionate, our great improvers and reformers of society, our most effective fighters against injustice, inequality, slavery, cruelty, exploitation (and also our best fighters for excellence, effectiveness, competence).

Maslow understood that the transcendent gravity afforded to spiritual leaders was a ruse, that their greatest strength was in being fully human—and that such feelings of oneness, inclusiveness and camaraderie are available to anyone. This involved fighting for the rights of everyone in your society, sometimes against popular opinion.

Aslan recognized these patterns in Jesus of Nazareth. As he writes in Zealot regarding the young man observing what was going on around him,

He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor.

Aslan points to a single episode from Jesus’s life that defined the revolutionary man more than any other: the ‘cleansing’ of the Court of Gentiles, in which he overturns the tables of money changers and sets free animals being sold for sacrifice. This is the act that got him killed; when he later told Roman authorities to let Caesar keep what he owns and give back the land to God, crucifixion was guaranteed.

We often forget that Jesus would today feel at home in an Occupy protest, perhaps throwing on a polar bear costume in Martha’s Vineyard to remind President Obama of the dangers of the proposed Keystone pipeline. As Aslan points out in Zealot, the writers of the bible were not trying to write a historical biography of Jesus—he was dead before any of them were born—but capture the essence of his teachings.

Those teachings fit well into Maslow’s peak experiencer: someone who saw the world as an integrated whole not designed to be divided up by those few very rich who had the political capital to do so. Aslan’s book is a reminder that as far as we’ve come in 2,000 years, we haven’t evolved as much as we think, and that peak experiencers are in more demand now than ever before.

Image: kilerus/shutterstock.com

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