THE PINNACLE OF CREATION?
It is very difficult for us to accept that the universe is not all about us. We were taught that we are the “pinnacle of creation.” In practice that meant we thought we were the only thing of any value in the entire universe. The very basis for our delusions of grandeur was forged by the Greeks and put into permanent orbit by greco-Roman Christianity.
“Essence over existence,” a formula that reflected an imaginary world of ideas, was not “sleight-of-hand,” nor was it a Christian invention. Plato got snared in that misperception 350 years b.c.e. and christianity simply embraced the accepted wisdom of its times. While not unavoidable, it may be forgiven as an honest mistake; but it served to ground a false belief in the existence of a separate parallel world and our exclusive place in it, regardless of the avalanche of contrary evidence. It separated us from the rest of the material universe.
We are our bodies. Our abilities, our limitations, our vulnerabilities to disease and environmental hostility, our bodily needs and the instincts that in fact forge our destinies, families and communities, are all dependent on the organism that we are … evolved by this earth … not on some some alien “spirit” that comes from another world and will return to it after death. There is no other world.
Our bodies live and then we die. We should not need more proof of our organicity than that. But the Roman Church skewed our perception of ourselves by making Plato’s fantasies of the charioteer de fide, alienating us from our own organic humanity ― from our very selves. Earlier, christian hopes were focused on the body, and the cosmos, not an immortal soul.
Belief in the separable immortal soul is not just a quaint and harmless exaggeration born of an enthusiasm gone too far. It is a huge and almost irreparable distortion of our place in the real world and therefore our real destiny. Our destiny, like our origins, is with this cosmos not apart from it. Plato’s vision is responsible for imagining real reality somewhere outside of our universe and outside of our selves ― our bodies. It turned us into sleepwalkers, strangers in a strange land, unable to feel at home or respond with awe to the mystery that our eyes have seen … and our hands have touched. This myopia wasn’t initiated with Descartes. It was a Greek inversion that Roman Christianity canonized.
Notice how they did the same thing to our teacher. From the early suspicion among fellow Jews that he may have been the “messiah,” Jesus’ obvious godliness became progressively reified and labeled “God.” For the Greeks he had to be at least as “divine” as Hermes or Apollo. But the Romans went further. They needed to have their State Religion based on the highest possible Authority, and so they turned Jesus into the Pantocrator ― equal to the “Father” in every way. He was alienated from his humanity to such a degree that the “Incarnation” came to be an undisguised docetism ― he only looked like a human being. In my Catholic formation Jesus was simply “God,” the Terrible Judge of the Living and the Dead. We were encouraged to turn to Mary to “intercede for us with her Son.” Marianism may have been a welcome balance to paternalism, but it shows how effective they were at eliminating Jesus’ humanity. He stopped being one of us. And, of course, the progressive “divinization” of Mary has been following the same route. With “infallibility” they even divinized themselves … closing the circle completely.
Our organic humanity was overridden by an imaginary world of “divine spirit” known only by “revelation” ― an arcane message from the “other world,” transmitted exclusively to the Empire’s Cultic Authorities. The Roman Empire had chosen (and groomed) the perfect partner. Instead of the peace and freedom that comes from embracing our place in a sacred universe ― flowering in love, care and service ― we were locked into a frenzied race to secure a place in the “other world” … which could not be done outside Rome’s Church.
The road back from all this self-estrangement will be long and, it seems, halting. But we are not alone. For it is not just an enterprise of the mind, nor of the individual. We have our organic humanity and the universal community with us everywhere we go and however long we live. We are the scion of the material universe and bear its ancient wisdom of life, love and community written in the DNA of our blood. We can trust it. “Be a mensch!” New Yorkers say in Yiddish, “be a human being!” Have humility and compassion; trust your human nature. In order to do that we have to love being what we are … such as we are … human beings, ourselves. We have to love being this flesh in all its frailty.
(To get us to kill on orders, please note: the military must beat the hearts of flesh out of our reluctant bodies and replace them with “ideas” of stone that turn men into monsters. The alarming suicide rate among the military suggests that the “warrior ethos” cultivated for imperial purposes is just another delusion that robs us of the humanity without which we cannot live.)
Can our erstwhile dogmas continue to serve us as metaphorical guides along the way? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. But in all cases it is our humanity-in-community that will decide, not some “divine” authority with a message from another world. There is no guide except what the universe has given us ― this frail flesh. Our teacher told us “… by their fruits YOU will know them.” The knowledge he was referring to is imbedded in our bones. It precedes any analysis or “revelation.” Why else teach in parables? This world and the flesh it has spawned is the sacred place … the only Eden we will ever know. We are not immigrants. We belong here; we can never be deported. We can make it a paradise, or, as we well know, a hell.
Will those metaphors work?