THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (5)
Religion has been used as the foundation and engine of larger society since the days of its birth. Doctrinal configurations and the motivations embedded in them have tended to deploy themselves around that function. Religion declares what is right and wrong … and it enjoins obedience to “God given” authority. It justifies and fosters society’s interests.
According to our rabbi, however, the reason for religion is very different from this. It is the relationship to a loving Father whom we acknowledge by imitating. Not everyone would agree, and even those that do, often forget it. Most think of religion in terms of how important it is for the human project: … how essential to public morality, civility and honesty … how necessary for peace among nations and cultures … how motivating for ecological responsibility, social equity and justice … how healthy and centering for the human personality … for fostering understanding and patience between spouses and among members of families and villages … for sustaining us through the tragedies of death and disaster.
Religion is evaluated in terms of what it can do for us. And it is considerable. But its foundational aspect ― the relationship to our source and therefore ourselves ― is often relegated to personal, private and even idiosycratic interest: a matter of “taste.” And yet, it is the ground of all the rest ― the sine qua non ― without which the “rest” evaporates or runs the risk of distorting and becoming self-destructive.
Contrary to the claims of the Roman Church, Jesus did not see his task as founding a religion. He had a religion. Judaism was already the bedrock and energizer of the society he lived in. He had no intention of changing that. The task he set for himself was “relational reform.” He saw, with a unique clarity, that the organic relationship to God ― for him symbolized by the word “Father” ― was the single “key to the kingdom.” He had, in fact, nothing else to say. And that one little thing was so subversive, so threatening to everything that Judaism represented to “larger society” of his time that they killed him for it.
This is the secret for understanding what “it’s all about.” You don’t kill someone for no reason. And the Romans couldn’t be bothered with esoteric Jewish religious disputes. You kill those who attack your way of life. The Romans killed those who challenged their power and control. Understanding how what Jesus was saying threatened “larger society,” provides us with answers to the questions of what life is, and how Jesus proposed we should live it. It also helps us evaluate those “religions” that have been launched in his name.
The “relational” focus of Jesus worked thoroughly within the parameters of Judaism. Doctrinally, he did not propose anything new. Yahweh was as always … the only true God, powerful and all-knowing … but what Jesus centered on was that God is a loving Father and we are his children. Fatherhood describes a relationship of blood. A father would not give his child a stone if she asked for bread or a serpent for fish … this “Father” arrayed the lillies of the field in the spendor of kings … he knew every sparrow that fell from the sky and every hair on your head. This “Father” was intimately engaged with his children.
But there was nothing new here. It had all been said before … . God loved them like a husband loves his wife, as a Mother loves her children. It was cookbook Judaism, sharply focused by Jesus on the implications of the relationship. There were no empty dogmatic niceties. No Trinitarian processions, no transubstantiation, no homoousios, no ex opere operato sacraments. And no new commandments. Forgive others, the way your Father forgives you. Love God, love one another. In fact the old commandments … do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, respect family partnerships, respect your parents and elders … are not really “commandments” … they are common sense.
His outrageous exaggerations, “cut off your hand … pluck out your eye,” were homiletic hyperbole and everyone knew it. His “commandment” to “love one another” was a well established ancient norm of Judaism, part of the Shema Ishrael written down and bound in little boxes to heads, hands and on the doorways of houses … Jews had known for a thousand years that the “greatest commandment” was to love God with all your heart and others as yourself. The rest of the moral law was subordinate to that one … . He was a Jew, held to basic Jewish morality. Nothing new here. What was there in any of this that would account for his political assassination?
Here’s what got him into trouble: his “modifications” indirectly attacked the way the doctrine, practice and authority of Judaism were being used to sustain a parasitic religious caste complicit with the Roman occupation. He challenged the code of control which, sanctioned by religion, made it clear who gives orders and who obeys, who gets wealthy and who stays poor, who eats and who starves, who kills and who dies. He liberated people from “laws” that made gods of those who used “God” to leverage their own power and plunder. That’s what got him killed. His message was subversive of the “way of life” in Roman occupied Palestine of his time.
I said he did it indirectly. How did that work? By simply insisting that the “law” that their Father wanted them to obey was their humanity. They did not need a hieratic authority to tell them what was right and wrong and whom they should obey. If the authorities insisted on obedience to God, then that law was easy to read; it was the one that their Father had written in their hearts of flesh.
This was Jesus’ “heresy:” his message implied there is nothing requiring brainy lawyers or hooded monks to go to another world, or an inaccessible mountaintop, and bring back a “spiritual” law to torture and convict us “materialists” on our grimy planet. Your human flesh, such as it is, is a living message, the image of your Father. If you want to know the law of Moses, follow the instincts of your humanity. It is the official interpretation of all laws because it is the image and likeness of God.
By calling God “our Father” Jesus evoked the organic nature of our relationship to God. It is not a relationship created by our obedience. It is a blood relationship that precedes all interaction … a parent-child bond that implies we can act like God because we are his progeny, we are genetically like him in our very bodies. So we can forgive as he forgives, and go the extra mile as he does … and conversely, it also means we can understand “him” perfectly, because God is like us: “he” treats his children as we treat ours … with love, care and generosity. If you want to know what God is like, look at yourselves. “If you know how to give good things to your children … don’t you think your Father does”?
Human flesh is the image and likeness of God. God is organically related to human flesh … Therefore human flesh can forgive as God forgives … and “God” can die as human flesh dies. The first communities of “the Way” that formed after Jesus’ assassination saw the connection … and so they projected that in Jesus’ death, “God” died … confirming the blood relationship. “God,” they said, “was human.”