THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (4)
A major corollary of my philosophical proposal is a corresponding “materialism” for “theology.” What I am about to say is no more “outrageous” than what I have already claimed about the “materiality” of God.
First, let’s be clear. For me, “christian theology” means an intellectually valid interpretation of the meaning of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, as accurately determined by scholarly consensus of the relevant historical (mostly scriptural) material and then as originally understood by his friends and eye-witness followers in the communities formed after his death. That’s a long definition. But it is intended to pre-empt the gratuitous claims that the “original message” was designed to be “superceded” in the Greco-Roman world by a 3 or 4 century doctrinal “development” that in fact ended up supporting a Roman Imperial theocracy which effectively contradicted that message.
What exactly do I mean? I am saying that Jesus’ message … and the “Doctrinal Magisterium” of the Roman Catholic Church (from which all western “Christian” denominations have drawn their beliefs), have very little, if anything, in common. Furthermore, I am going to claim that belief in the existence of a parallel “spiritual” world was a greco-roman concoction; the “christian message” prescinds from any such doctrines and is entirely compatible with a “transcendent materialism” as I have been defining it.
The first point is what I cited in Chapter II of An Unknown God. The Doctine of the “immortality of the soul” was not an early christian belief. In fact it was the target of attack by the earliest apologists like Tatian, and Athenagoras, because it would have rendered superfluous the power of the resurrection of Jesus. Take a second to think about this. We die. This contradicts the inner dynamism of every fiber of our being. No one is reconciled to this. The Greeks tackled the “problem of death” by generating the theory of “mind-spirit.” Our human ability to think allegedly “proves” that we are from another world. When we “die” it is only our bodies; our souls then go back to their own world.
The original message of the Christians to the Greeks was quite different. It was that “Jesus rose from the dead,” not as a “spirit” belonging to another world, but in his own body which belongs in this one, and that “you can too,” by immersing yourselves in his mysterion through baptism and the eucharist. It was in the genre of a mystery religion. Please note: they describe the immortality won for us by Christ as communal and in the flesh. There is no “spiritual substance” or “spiritual world” as opposed to “body” much less individual judgment for the “soul.” In fact the goal as envisioned by the earliest christian creeds is the “revivification of the body” … not an eternity for the disembodied “soul.” There is little talk of the individual, the emphasis is on humanity as a collective entity. “Human flesh” as a totality has been announced as immortalized in the resurrection of Jesus. The “hard labor” was already done. All that was required of the initiate was to accept it.
That description represented the vision of the early communities translated into Greek categories, it was not dualist. It was entirely compatible with a world of transcendent material energy. Still, it was an interpretation of the significance of the life and work of Jesus. It was not the actual message of Jesus. For that, we have to go back a generation.
Jesus was a Jewish visionary who was focused on the renovation of Yahwism. His message was very simple: the rules and regulations, rituals and institutional practices of the Jewish religion have only one purpose ― to be a vehicle for a loving, trusting relationship to our “Father.” That relationship makes us like a family and so it spurs us to love our neighbors as “ourselves.” He taught in parables which were designed to draw out the sense of compassion and justice that his audience already had internalized. He taught nothing new whatsoever. Absolutely none of the so-called dogmas of Christianity or Catholicism ― Original Sin, the Trinity, the sacraments, the authority of the Church, or even an immortality that would supposedly come to all by dint of his death ― none of them were part of his “teaching.” His message was to live Yahwism faithfully and humanly. And he hinted that he might be called on to pay the price as a living example of his message: “God’s love for us can be trusted.” Nothing more and nothing less. Any reward or punishment envisioned was vaguely conceived in terms of an apocaplyptic communal destiny for the entire Jewish People in historical time. There was no separate realm of body and spirit, this world and another. He didn’t deny it … he just didn’t discuss it or relate to it.
Reward or punishment was almost an aside. It was not the issue. Jesus’ message was about relationship, and the understanding that it requires and generates. First there was the relationship to God ― whom he imaged as a compassionate loving Father with numerous examples ― and the corresponding compassionate relationship among the people who are God’s children, no matter what their status or nation. He got into serious trouble because his rejection of any quid-pro-quo with God challenged the authorities’ traditional teaching about the law. This had a disquieting effect on the status quo. It was seen by the Roman occupation authorities as subversive. He was executed as a political rebel.
The relationship Jesus promoted was uncomplicated love. God loves us; we love one another. That is the “whole of the law and the prophets.” Trust in God’s love erases any concern for our ultimate destiny. Jesus’ message absolutely bypasses any and all philosophical speculation about “substances” ― bodies, souls, flesh and spirit, other worlds, etc. ― and any importance those considerations may have for the ultimate meaning of human life. The relationships ― to God, and to others ― characterized by love, generosity and trust, are the only consideration. The rest, as far as Jesus’ concept of religion is concerned, is irrelevant.
The message of Jesus is so non-doctrinaire as to be compatible with any number of cosmological possibilities, and that includes the “transcendent materialism” being proposed here. The claim that Jesus’ vision can only function in the context of the greco-roman dualism of late antiquity, which dominates christian dogma to this day, has no support from the scholars who have worked hard to separate out the message and person of Jesus from the clutter of later insertions that make up the gospels. Even Paul’s hellenic re-articulation of that message, creatively couched in the language of the mystery religions, shows no evidence of the crass mind-body and spirit-flesh dualisms of the post-Constantine “Catholic” Church. Jesus’ “divine” status, clearly upgraded in some epistles from “Messiah” to an emanation of the One like Philo’s Logos, was not yet the ontological over-kill, the homoousios, that created the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea three hundred years later. Jesus himself, of course, taught nothing of the kind.
Those who choose to accept the Romanized version of “christian doctrine” with its two worlds must be aware that it is their choice to do so. It is not supported by the evidence. They should also be advised that this particular configuration of doctrines was maintained by the Imperial authorities because of its effectiveness in shaping the kind of personality that they wanted in their citizens and soldiers. And a thousand years later it served to justify the Christian conquest and enslavement of the “heathen hordes” in America, Africa and Asia, creating problems of poverty and racism that are with us to this day.
We might all wish that the things we have traditionally considered “divine” did not turn out to be so uninspiringly “human.” But there’s a flip-side. Jesus taught in parables because he trusted the humanity of his listeners to interpret accurately what he was trying to say. The “doctrinal premises” that served as the basis of his message was our human nature. If it was the sufficient and necessary grounds for everything our Teacher had to say, perhaps we should follow his example and listen to the wisdom provided by our bodied humanity, our flesh, spawned by this material universe.