Sorry it's taken me so long to respond!
I know exactly how you feel about not knowing who is "safe" to be a heretic around. I'm lucky to have a wife who's even more heretical than me! And for the most part, my seminary has been a safe place to ask some of the questions I'm asking... Our family and church backgrounds are strikingly similar. I was home schooled until high school, raised in a very conservative (but as you say: "well-intentioned") family and church. I think the pastor who married my parents ended up a cocaine addict a few years later. I was "saved" when I was 3, but made it more formal when I was 7, then 8, then 9, 12, 14, 15, 17 and 18 ;) Or something like that.
Okay, to your questions:
1 - What's the deal with Paul?...
I'm not much of a fan of Paul either. I think he's kind of a jerk. Bishop John Shelby Spong thinks Paul was a self-loathing homosexual, which would certainly explain a lot of his attitudes and general demeanor, but I think it's a stretch to infer something like that from what little we know of him. Nothing really, outside Scripture. So if everyone who condemns homosexuals is gay, then even the queer community is lowballing those estimates! Anyway, the best way for me to reconcile Paul is to simply imagine what it must have been like for an orthodox, Jewish Pharisee to suddenly come in contact with the liberation, love and egalitarian spirit of Jesus Christ. Maybe we ask too much of Paul to expect him to suddenly "get it." I don't think most of us would (or will) get it in a lifetime! Paul's writings oscillate back and forth, legalism and grace, anger and joy, peace and obsession, freedom and law, equality and hierarchy... And in my mind I can imagine the Holy Spirit yanking on Paul, while Paul's entire cultural and religious background is saying, "wait, wait, wait..."
Over the last couple of years I've conceptualized Paul and Martin Luther very similarly. Both had a profound, paradigm-shattering, God-given vision for humanity's liberation. And both of them had major (and in a lot of ways, positive) impact on Christianity. But both were human, flawed, and only allowed so much room for change. Paul, in the ways described above (misogyny - yes, etc...) and Luther... well, Luther got obsessed with political power and endorsed the massacre of countless peasants (women, men and children) who opposed paying taxes. He also became a notorious "Jew-hater" later in life. I believe that few individuals are willing to go as far as God wants to take them: Jesus is the exception.
Yes, I'm familiar with the Mithras stuff you mentioned, along with lots of other commonalities between Christianity and pagan religions. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty comfortable with the level of non-fundamentalist scholarship that acknowledges similarities while still holding to the originality (organic-ness?) of Jesus. Christianity is certainly shaped by contemporary religions and superstitions of its day. But much of what you'll find online (watch the Zeitgeist videos on YouTube as a prime example) is heavily skewed to make a point. Like FoxNews: "fair and balanced..." Um... And the Christian responses to those videos and articles are mostly just as bad. The reality is, there are lots of similarities because there's nothing really new under the sun. And there wasn't 2000 years ago, either. But there is no cookie-cutter going on with Jesus. The religion surrounding him is historically and liturgically more than stolen bits and pieces of myth. (but there are certainly stolen bits and pieces, nonetheless...)
2 - Random, but intriguing nonetheless...
Interesting. I hadn't heard that theory ("Jesus was a vegetarian") before. I'm a little skeptical, only because I've never run across it in secular or religious histories. But I'm open to the possibility, and deeply support vegetarianism and humane eating. I'm interested in reading more about the Ebionites now that you've brought that up! Cool.
3 - Did Jesus spend some of his "mystery" years in India?...
I absolutely believe in extra-canonical texts. But since I'm not an inerrantist, I don't believe in them as perfect or binding. Only as worthwhile to consider for our spiritual development. As an aside, the Ethiopian Orthodox canon contains 81 books, to the typical Protestant 66. And that church is far older than most of ours. Who's to say what's holy?
I'm well on my way to becoming a Christian Universalist (which goes to your 4th question, I think...) so the idea of Jesus' interactions in India, with Eastern cultures and religions, isn't problematic for me. Do I think it happened? I honestly haven't got a clue. But I think it's an intriguing possibility, and it stretches my imagination about Jesus - which is either dangerous and heretical, or exciting, dynamic, and exactly what "being in a relationship" with Jesus might involve. Learning new things and being surprised by a living personality that can't be bottled or caged.
4 - I'm reading "If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World..."
After reading Brian McLaren's third "New Kind of Christian" book, I felt permission to at least question the validity and history of hell. Then I read Gulley and Mulholland's "If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person." At the time, it wasn't biblically-based enough for me, and certainly didn't offer much in the way of theological arguments. Kind of touchy-feely. I'm afraid to say at this point (years later), as important as good scholarship is to me, that IS the sort of person I'm becoming - more intuitive and less dogmatic (which can be admittedly scary). The God I have loved and prayed to my entire life is not the God who condemns us to infinite hell for finite sins.
But I don't have to be anti-intellectual or anti-biblical about it. There are LOADS of Scriptures that support Christian Universalism:
But we can proof-text to prove just about anything. So sooner or later, we all have to make some choices and inferences based on personal experience, intuition, and gut-level belief. This makes lots of religious folks uncomfortable to articulate, but we all do it - consciously or unconsciously. [I think] My choices are mostly conscious, and in some cases, I choose not to make a choice at all out of both humility and ignorance!
Elly, you ended your e-mail beautifully. I crave that same connection to the Creator, who I believe I have known (and misunderstood) all my life. And I will always misunderstand. And that's okay.
I used to be terrified too. When we start letting go of those things we clung so tightly to, we ask ourselves, "what's next? What do I have to give up now? What's left to hold onto?" And that last one, "what's left to hold on to," is maybe the scariest. Because our faith is built on certainty of data. The Bible. Tradition. Culture. Data that tells us what's absolutely, unequivocally true. And when a piece of that gets pulled out, it's like playing Jenga. Sometimes they come out cleanly, and we can keep reconciling that our tower is still standing. Sometimes they pull down the whole pile of blocks and you have to start over.
When I got to that point, starting over, I still felt certain of two things: that God was real and loved me, and that I wanted to follow Jesus.
The rest is still a work-in-progress.
Here are some readings that really helped me process these questions. None of them are overtly liberal, as I have tended toward in recent years, but they are a really meaningful and freeing introduction into talking about faith without fear or fundamentalist arguments getting in the way. They're also not particularly scholarly, or even the NEWEST books on the block, but they were some of the most meaningful to me:
Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel
A Generous Orthodoxy
The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief