My recent attempt to highlight the contribution of John Scotus Eriúgena to the concept of “God,” entitled With Irish Eyes, wasn’t just a love-note to my Hibernian friends. It was intended as another installment in the ongoing struggle to rectify a major defect in Western thought and culture: We have lost the capacity to see ourselves and our world as sacred. And the root of that blindness, in my opinion, is not the absence of “God,” but rather precisely the opposite: the fallacious idea of “God” offered by the Christian religion in the traditional form in which we have inherited it. This is a serious and complex charge.
Allow me to present my case.
I begin with a story. On a warm May morning in 1889 on a cobble-stoned plaza of Turin, Italy, a vegetable vendor in a state of blind fury at his fallen horse was futilely venting his rage by beating the exhausted animal to death. Suddenly someone, apparently as out of control as the whipper, lept from the sidelines and fell on the horse in an act of protective embrace. The appalled onlookers were convinced both men were mad, the first in a way they could understand, the second they could not.
The authorities who responded to the melee blamed the disturbance that ensued on the second man’s insane behavior. It turned out that the “madman” was Friedrich Nietzsche. He had been living in Turin as a near recluse; his family and friends were aware that he was showing increasing signs of disorientation. His letters in the immediate aftermath of the incident were so bizarre that they were sure he had a complete mental breakdown. They came to Italy, gathered him up and brought him to Basel. He spent the rest of his life … eleven years … in and out of treatment, such as it was, in a state of mental incapacity under the watchful eye of his family. He died in 1900.
Nietzsche’s “madness” has been uncharitably and most judgmentally interpreted by some Christians as the just payment for a lifetime of attacking the “God” of his father, a christian minister from a small Prussian town. His offense, in their eyes, was not merely atheism. It was the passion and the personal venom that he brought to what most believed went well beyond being a philosophical or religious “issue” and had become a campaign to overthrow the Christian religion. Nietzsche didn’t simply disbelieve; he was on a crusade to exterminate “God.” “This is what happens,” say his critics, “when you lose respect for what’s sacred.”
But in a moment of quiet reflection someone might be prompted to ask: did the events of that spring morning make you think this was the act of a man for whom nothing was sacred? Didn’t he seem rather to be someone whose sense of sacredness went far beyond what others could identify as reasonable, or even rational? Could it be, perhaps, that Nietzsche had come to believe that everything was sacred, and that he lived in a world where that was insane?
“When God is Gone, Everything is Holy.” This is the title of a new book by Chet Raymo, science columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of a dozen books, some novels, … all on science and a sense of the sacred. Raymo considers himself an ex-Catholic, “atheist,” but a man so transfixed by the awesome beauty and creativity of the natural world, that he has no problem calling it “holy.” I don’t want to get sidetracked into a debate on the quality of the essays in this particular book or the validity of his “position.” But I consider the title inspired. I believe it contains a key to an understanding of our world, the Sacred, and the crippled and crippling religions that have traditionally been the vehicle for the Sacred for us. I want to propose the title as something of a challenge. I want to explore Raymo’s exquisite paradox.
I’ll start with the videtur … the antithesis: One would have thought it would be true that “when ‘God’ is around, everything is holy.”
“Everything.” This seems obvious enough. “Everything” should mean every thing, right? Well, here’s part of the problem. In our tradition, the holy is not everything. We have inherited some very definite notions of the degree of “holiness” that we attach to different things in our world. In general, we consider human beings sacred and everything else not sacred. And the reason for that distinction has to do with another inherited belief of ours: that human beings (and only human beings) have immortal souls. Our essence is spirit, a reality of a different order altogether from everything else, which is “only” matter. Unfortunately our bodies are also made of matter, and so we tend to treat them as less than “holy.”
The strict limitation of “spirit” to what is human functions in practice to dissuade us from seeing other forms of reality as sacred. In the traditional view, matter is considered flat, one-dimensional, dead, inert ― and profane. Vitality resides in spirit alone. If we are holy because we are spirit … and nothing else has spirit, then nothing else is holy. Belief in the human spirit has been used to justify the de facto domination of the human species over everything else by calling it dominion. We have been taught that spirit gives us ownership over the entire universe … with the right to do with it whatever we want.
Where did that come from?
“Spirit,” in the traditional view, is not only holy because it is a superior order of being, but because it supposedly makes us like “God” who is “Spirit.” It’s something no other creature can claim. And because we are like “God,” we are immortal. Our bodies appear to live and die just like the mere animals we see dying around us, but despite the obvious similarities we claim we are “spirits” and we will live forever; they won’t.
Humans alone are “holy.” But even within the human family, we make sharp distinctions … between which belief-systems (meaning ideas of “God’) are “holy,” and which are not. And then, based on the identity of people once associated with primitive culture, considered the most unholy of all, we maintain a racial and ethnic prejudice against them. The unholiness spreads. Our feelings run so deep on the question of religion, that “what is holy” has been the perennial justification if not the cause of the endless avalanche of slaughter that we heap on one another. It almost defines us as a species.
“God.” Please note: all these distinctions are associated with “God.” When “God” is around, these distinctions are functioning. By “around,” of course, I don’t mean the presence of God, I mean the active application of the traditional idea of “God.” When christians think about the “God” they were taught to believe in, all sorts of things become “unholy.”
Some may claim these are street-level popular distortions, they do not represent the more precise formulations of the authorities who are responsible for correct “doctrine.” I beg to differ. For example: the spirit / matter division and its association with the sacred / profane split is proclaimed as “core doctrine” by the authorities. Catholics call it de fide definita and can point to papal and concilar pronouncements that make it “infallible.”
Another example: The Roman church proclaims itself the “only true church,” thus making a further distinction within the category of christians. All other christians are in “gross error,” not a very holy label. These are the words of as august a source as the Second Vatican Council.
As we get deeper into those circles where “God” is “around,” we are finding that fewer and fewer things are “holy.”
Many christian churches, the Roman church prominent among them, promote a moral code they claim is the will of “God” … and therefore commanded for everyone to obey, even non-Romans. On the basis of these beliefs, these churches have no qualms about stridently condemning behavior that many responsible and mature adults consider moral ― behavior that is protected by law. Hence new divisions are made among us separating out those whose behavior is deemed “evil” by certain “religious authorities.” The holy, under the watchful eye of these authorities, becomes more and more restricted. In one case, in the Roman Church, one particular activity which the authorities insist is “intrinsically evil” is flouted, polls show, by 75% of its own members. That makes a lot of people “unholy.” But christian churches generally also teach that all people are “sinners,” born in sin because of the Original Sin of Adam, and incapable of not sinning. So to say the belief that “everything is holy” is promoted by “the authorities,” is simply not true. In fact, one might be tempted to say that when the idea of “God” is permanently around, as it is in the minds of religious authorities, almost nothing is holy.
“Sometimes the idea of God that is formed is so fallacious, that it’s rejection can hardly be considered atheism.” I’m sure you’ve heard that statement. So before you damn me as a Nietzschean “Zarathusthra,” proclaiming the death of “God,” let me make it clear that I have been talking exclusively about the idea of “God” that we have received from our traditional christian sources. I claim that idea is false. This, after all, may have been the intent of Nietzsche’s poetry, to exterminate that idea of “God.” I insist you understand that I am attacking that idea, the people and institutions that promote that idea, and the reasons they use to justify that idea. Please realize: our idea of “God” is not God, our religious institutions and communities are not God, and our religious authorities are not God.
I would go even further than the above statement of Vatican II and say that sometimes the fallacious word and concept “God” have dominated the psychic landscape for so long, have been promulgated with such awesome authority and imposed with such implacable severity that for some people no amount of “correction” can liberate the term from the chains that bind it to its crippling imagery. In such cases the people so affected must reject the term, for the term and its idea totally obliterates the holy. They have no choice. If they don’t, the Sacred itself will be lost to them, and with it their humanity. We are not playing games here. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Gone. So to say “God” is “gone” for me means to be rid of the suffocating imagery, the “fallacious idea” that stands in the way of our appreciation of the Sacred. I think of it as shutting down the boom-box that’s drowning out the faint background hum of our cosmic origins. Or it’s like turning off glaring floodlights to let our night-vision return, and our other senses, like touch, come alive again, so we can regain the ability to grope in the darkness. For what we’re after, say the mystics, lives in a cloud of unknowing.
There’s a reason why our great teachers warned us again and again that ultimately everything we said about “God” had to be denied, negated. We know nothing, nothing. If there is wisdom in this Sacred universe, its ultimate depths are so beyond our ken that we have to say it’s not wisdom. If there is something to which we are tempted to apply the word “person,” it is not a person as we know it and may even be closer to what we call impersonal. And even that, in turn, must be denied. If it is existence, we must be aware that it is not only no-thing, but more aptly described as “Nothing,” “not there” as we are there.
According to our teachers, like Eriúgena, there is no word we can use that won’t trap us in fallacy. So he says it’s ineffable, unspeakable, unknowable. He calls it non-being, Nothing, and it’s out of this Nothing that we have come. This Nothing, then, becomes Something like me and you; and it’s only that sacred Something that we can see, know, and speaks “God.” Nothing else. There is nothing “there” but this Nothing-become-Something … our sacred universe … us ….
This stands in stark contrast with the imagery of “God” that we have been fed by our religions. “God,” they say, is a separate person-entity, who just like us, sees, thinks, has preferences, gives orders, can be angered, pleased, insulted, enraged, relates to us humans collectively and individually. And so we pray. He wants us to behave in specified ways, otherwise he will punish us, either here or hereafter. And so we pray. For his part, we are taught, he makes certain things happen and other things to not happen in accord with his will. This “God,” in spite of being “spirit,” can and does act in our material world; he is all powerful, can do anything at all, and because of his oversight and power we can assume that if anything occurs, no matter what it is, “God” had to have willed it. And so we pray. This “belief,” which is so hard to believe, so contrary to our everyday experience and the Goodness of “God,” inevitablly entails the following, all too commonplace phenomenon:
“Atheism not rarely results from a violent protest against evil in this world.” Another brilliant insight from Vatican II. Permit me to borrow a word from the kids: “duh”! What do you expect? You set “God” up with the unbelievable idea of a naïve micro-managed “divine providence” referred to in the paragraph above. This “God” that the ancient biblical authors imagined acts physically in our world and in our history does not exist. The real God does nothing. Please look around you, and open your eyes. Stop expecting “God” to be like you, and look at what She actually does.
Some may ask, well, if the world runs by itself, why do we need a “God” at all?
“God” is our existence. It’s what we are. We would not be here without it. Eriúgena’s way of saying it is that “God’s” Love has become this material universe. That’s what we are. And that’s why “God’s” activity is limited to the matter he has chosen to assume, for without those limits there would be no theophany and “God” would not “be” … and neither would we. Creation is “God” externalized for viewing. God shares her being with us, that’s what she does … that’s ALL she does … and that’s what the universe is, and what we are, and why it is all sacred.
With Eriúgena’s vision, Raymo’s thesis stands. When the fallacious idea of “God” we inherited from our fundamentalist tradition is “gone,” everything ― meaning every thing, including the very dust under our feet ― is sacred. There are diamonds on the soles of your shoes. “When God is gone, everything is holy.” And the material world is sacred because the “Nothing” that lies at the heart of matter turned itself inside out, as it were, for us, transforming itself from Nothing into Something … and that Something, the existential energy of formless matter, developed into us. That energy still drives us. There’s a reason why our “flesh” is hopelessly focused on love. “God” is like a Great Mother. We are formed from the cells of her body; we are built of her blood and bones. We breathe and are breathed with the breath of her mouth.
Our flesh is the breath of “God.”