The Humanization of Christian Doctine (II)

The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (II)

No other world

 At the heart of belief in the “supernatural” is the conviction that there is another world.  The way that feature has functioned in the West has been to say that we can live forever in that “other world” if we fulfill certain conditions … and those conditions are the program of correct behavior and ritual practice offered by religion. Despite the undeniable fact that the human being, like every other organism on earth, goes through a life cycle that ends in decline and death, the idea that we are not really subject to the common destiny of all living things, has turned out to be an invincible illusion.

Everyone realizes there is no evidence of immortality. Of course the Church’s “revealed” warning that failure to conform to the demands of the other world would result in unremitting torments of the most unimaginable kind, nailed the coffin shut on the question. Even if one had misgivings about it, no rational person in the lands of the Christian West could afford to ignore the possibility. Pascal’s famous “wager” exemplified that attitude. Religion’s success as a social institution, overall, has required little or no external coercion through the millennia for exactly this reason. People voluntarily join the program and fulfill its behavioral and ritual requirements because they think they will live forever and they want to avoid eternal torture. Many feel that without the threat of damnation, belief in immortality by itself would never have enjoyed such universal acceptance because the evidence against it is so overwhelming. If left alone, humankind generally does not stay lost in illusion for long.

But what must be taken into account in any consideration of belief in a supernatural world is the reality of exploitative mystification.

The social-political unit, whether in the form of a great empire or a small village, has always been invested in finding ways to elicit desired behavior from its members. It has been suggested that religion and its emphasis on the supernatural was either originally conjured up or astutely expropriated by political authorities as an instrument of social control. Its importance for society is obvious: if the required behavior can be obtained through the voluntary cooperation of its members, then the use of potentially disruptive external force for procuring labor, military service and the prevention of criminal activity will not be necessary. Looked at from this perspective, religion holds out the real possibility of achieving the most amount of compliance with the least amount of effort. Individuals, seeking to avoid endless punishment, police themselves. They are willing to accept virtually any amount of personal constraint and endure any amount of suffering in order to comply with the entrance requirements of the “other world.”

There are many people in our country, even today after more than 200 years under our “religion-free” constitution, who are convinced that the separation of traditional religion from political power has been fatal to social harmony. They ascribe all our ills to the break-down of theocracy; and they claim its reinstatement will result in a beneficial “moral and spiritual” influence on the authorities as well as on the individual.

So long as people are convinced that there is another world and their destiny there is conditioned on their behavior, the beliefs of supernatural religion pose a threat to political freedom. If humanity is to be spared the mind-control that religious mystification is so efficient at imposing, this core feature of belief in the supernatural — that there is another world whose demands take precedence over the needs of the human community here on earth — must be exorcized for the demonic illusion that it is.

Where does the solution lie? Some see Paul’s definitive derogation of the “law” in Romans as an original attempt to separate the rewards of the afterlife from behavioral compliance. “Salvation,” he insisted, was a free gift. No exploitation was possible in a relationship of unconditioned love. That solution failed, as proven by 2000 years of subsequent Christian history which blatantly functioned on the quid pro quo of behavioral compliance in crass disregard for the injunctions of the Apostle.

The denial of death

How do we explain all of this, and how do we deal with it? The obviously erroneous belief in immortality exercises a mesmerizing effect on our minds. Why? In the 1970’s social philosopher Ernest Becker believed there was an instinctive “denial of death” that drove not only our religious fantasies of immortality, but also explained the energy we pour into accomplishments designed to achieve a certain lasting remembrance in human society. They are all illusions that come from our need to “deny death.” Caesar conquered Gaul to achieve an historical immortality. This is very disturbing. Exactly how much war has been perpetrated by men and women seeking to “immortalize” themselves … and those of their followers who wanted to ride on their coattails? Both phenomena seem to derive from the same root: an aversion to death.

Frankly, I don’t believe this “urge” accounts for as much as Becker claims it does. Of course we have an aversion to death! There is nothing surprising in that. Every living thing we know has an aversion to death. Wherever we find existence we find an insuppressible desire to preserve, safeguard that existence and continue to live. Even the most primitive life forms, single-celled animals and plants, flee from enemies and move toward food sources. In fact, all the activities of any organism, whether it be for food, shelter, self-defense or reproduction, are manifestations of this drive to survive, what Spinoza called the conatus.

Existence, it seems, is an energy that is mindlessly and exclusively focused on itself; that’s what survival means. Existence has only one desire and one goal: to exist. The reason for existence is to exist. Survival is the very nature of all living things.

If Becker is right what we have here is one of reality’s core anomalies. The very forces that drive us to survive seem to feed into an erroneous belief that we can actually beat death, and it’s the “denial of death,” according to Becker, that creates most of our suffering. The concurrence with Buddhism here is intriguing, and I will address this shortly. Becker seemed to feel it was a tragic flaw embedded in the human psyche, an inverted form of the Freudian “death wish,” a kind of radical evil that we cannot avoid.

But I believe there is more to it than that. I am not convinced that belief in immortality and another world is inevitable for human beings … or that without it we descend into moral chaos.  Another factor has come into play, and an otherwise vague desire — to keep on living — took force and focus from a dogmatic certitude that indeed there is a way to beat death and live forever. That certitude in the West came from Christian doctrine which authoritatively declared that there was another world, and it tied reward and especially punishment to our destiny there.

I claim the desire to avoid death, in and of itself, would not necessarily generate anything but fantasies. We fantasize our desires all the time, but we know they are fantasies. Anything else is not normal. People who never recover from their illusions we consider insane. What pushed the desire to live forever over the edge of fantasy and into the belief in immortality was the guarantee of certitude that came from the Christian religion. It is my contention that without that quasi-scientific guarantee, the “afterlife” would have remained a harmless dream — a metaphorical imagery used by bards and poets to describe the depth and intensity of the conatus, the desire for life that came with existence. So what Becker experienced and persuaded himself came from a fundamental urge, was in fact the historic residue of two thousand years of Christian doctrine that had become “hard wired” as a cultural operator in Western society. As it melded into the culture, the belief lost its doctrinal connections and became a “stand-alone” dynamic, a “meme,” a part of the invisible horizon — a “reality” taken for granted and fed by the energy of the conatus.  It was the intrinsic drive for self-pre­ser­va­­tion diabolically deformed into a self-destructive illusion by the reinforcements of Christian belief in the “supernatural.”

We have to realize what this means. If we are to experience the inner peace that comes from self-accep­tance as organic living beings whose life-cycle includes death, we have to liberate ourselves from this supernatural illusion. Our human organisms are impermanent and temporary life-forms like every other thing on earth. Death is an intrinsic part of our destiny. We are marvelous emergent forms of this natural universe … its most “godlike” production to date. We are part of Life and Love itself, and we activate an existential creativity of our own. But like every other living thing on earth, we die.

It is matter’s evolutionary emergence into humanity — this “heaven” that we are — that grounds our sense of the sacred. We do not need another world to recognize the sacredness that radiates from our conatus, the gift of existence. We are immersed in sacred existence as a sponge in the sea. In us matter’s energy has begun to lift the mask of “God.” Our mortality is natural and so is our sense of the sacred.  We are “in heaven” here and now because it is existence itself — Nature (yes, “God”) — in which we live and move and have our being.  What could a “supernatural” world possibly give us that we don’t already have?

Science, Buddhism and the historical Jesus

There are independent authorities that corroborate this view and the illusory nature of belief in the supernatural. The first, of course, and completely neutral, is science. Science doesn’t really “care” one way or another; and that is proven by the fact that even though most scientists do not believe in the afterlife, there are many who do, and continue to be scientists. But science finds no evidence of its existence and generally counsels that if there is no evidence that something exists, it probably doesn’t. Science itself officially functions on the premise that it does not … and it is paradoxical that even those scientists who say they believe in the supernatural are perfectly comfortable excluding it from their work. This suggests the non-literal nature of what they themselves believe.

Buddhism is another. But Buddhism goes much further than science on this question. Buddhism actually repudiates belief in another world and the promise of immortality. For it is one of the central teachings of the Buddha that it is precisely the vain belief in the existence of the permanent self that is the principal source of the efforts at self-aggrandizement that results in the self-inflicted suffering within human society. Buddhism is a practical program. It is the fact that we die and disappear while the particles of which we were constructed go on to become part of other things that provides the objective basis for a realistic evaluation of how to live our temporary lives. We come and we go. While the Buddha never denied the existence of “God” or gods, or another world, he said they were at best irrelevant to the cessation of human suffering, and at worst actually contributed to it by fostering the illusion of personal permanence. A permanent peace of mind, nirvana, was achievable only by embracing the impermanence of the self. We do not last. We die.  … That’s OK. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. It is the ground of our humility and our compassion. Buddhist belief diverges sharply in this regard, not only from Christianity, but also from other contemporary Indian religious traditions:

… In the Vedic [Hindu] tradition one sought the immortality of the soul through the appeasement of gods by prayer and ritual, which have no place in the Buddha’s teaching. In marked contrast to the Jains, who focused on perfecting the individual soul, the Buddha did not accept a permanent individual spiritual substance. (G.C.Pande, “The Message of Gotama Buddha and its Earliest Interpretations,” in Buddhist Spirituality, Crossroad, NY 1997 pp.10-11)

But another supportive authority, surprisingly, is the historical Jesus himself. The message Jesus proclaimed in his lifetime is conspicuously different from the Christian vision and program erected in his name. While he never denied the existence of another world, and even seemed to assume that there was one, for him as much as for the Buddha the “other world” had no functional significance whatsoever. It was irrelevant. His message would not be affected in the least if there were no supernatural world. Jesus, very simply, said that we have a “loving Father” and our behavior and attitudes should imitate “God’s” forgiveness and generosity. It’s really all he had to say. In my terms: the core and source of existence is lavish love; it’s what we are. Trust it, enjoy it and imitate it. Make it available to others. For Jesus, ritual compliance and behavioral perfection were not priorities, and what was really important — loving “God” and loving others — had nothing to do with “another world” — at all!

(… to be continued …)

The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (I)

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  

This may be taken as the paradigm for religious reform.  Religion, like everything else in our human world, needs to serve the needs of humankind, not the other way around … at least according to Jesus.  This requirement is more significant than it may appear; it should be considered the guiding principle for a massive deconstruction, perhaps bigger than we thought.  For I am suggesting that what is to be demythologized is not just this or that legend, this or that dogma, this or that Church, but the very notion of the supernatural itself.  Religion needs to be humanized; and in order to do that it must be “naturalized.” 


There is only one reality.  It is Nature.  There is nothing besides or above Nature.  There is nothing supernatural.  Even if we should discover someday that there are multiple universes, each with its own peculiar elements, physical laws and fundamental processes, there is still only one reality and all things are ultimately reducible to some common foundational unity.  There is nothing else.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  Call it matter, or call it spirit, or call it energy or call it being — it is only one thing.  It is Nature.

There is nothing supernatural.  There is no other world.  The features of our universe are all in seamless continuity with the features of reality everywhere.  The unity is absolute.  It is all there is.  And it contains within itself the explanation for every facet and feature it displays.  Whatever “God” there is, is to be found within Nature.  “God” is Nature’s source and therefore, of all things, the most natural.

There are not two “realities;” there is only one.  Metaphysical dualism — the legacy that dogs us in the West — is impossible.  The differing phenomena of our one reality cannot be groun­ded in two separate sources, residing in two separate worlds, separately derived from two distinct principles, with two distinct ways of being-in-time and resulting in two distinct destinies.  Phenomena that heretofore have been labeled “spirit” and “matter,” or “mind” and “body,” or “natural” and “supernatural,” and considered two separate kinds of reality, are in fact simply properties of the same one reality, misperceived and mislabeled.  It may take many forms, but there only one reality.  

Metaphysical dualism is false and incoherent, and the implications drawn from it are equally false and incoherent.  In our tradition, the dualism of spirit and matter came to be equated in the popular mind with the Chris­tian categories of natural and supernatural, even though orthodox theology would insist that it was incorrect.  Both matter and spirit, the theologians insist, are equally “natural,” and both are equally open to an upgrade they call “supernatural.”  But since what is “supernatural” is defined by them as belonging, strictly speaking, only to “God,” and since “God” is only spirit, it is difficult to see how the two categories would not eventually conflate and encourage the equation of matter with Nature and spirit with the Supernatural.  And that is exactly what happened.  In popular parlance today, the “supernatural” is synonymous with “immaterial” or “spirit” or “otherworldly.”

“Matter” also inevitably became identified with “evil” in this system … and therefore so was Nature.  The inevitability consists in this: The dualist “God” is only spirit.  If that is true, then the question is: whence “matter?”  Matter either derives from something within “God’s” makeup, or it doesn’t.  If “God” is pure spirit with no admixture of matter, there is nothing whatsoever in “God” to explain the existence and character of matter, and matter is something that is entirely alien to “God.”  But that is impossible, otherwise “God” could not have created it, “God” could not even think it and it would not exist.  Fur­ther­more, whatever is alien to “God” is necessarily “evil.”  The incoherence here is total.  Either “God” is somehow material, as Spinoza said, and “matter” is an emanation of “God’s” nature and there­fore a “sacrament,” a “mask” of “God” (as Eriúgena suggested), or matter is irreconcilably evil and exists only to be neutralized, dismantled and eli­mi­nated.  But in the latter case, there still remains the question of matter’s provenance: did “God” create this “evil” or not?  If he did, then “God” is the source of evil.  But if “God” did not create it, then there must be another “God” out there somewhere, the source of evil and matter … and in that case “God” is not “God.”

Religion, the protagonist of the supernatural

Because of the unchallenged dominance of dualism in western culture, religion has become identified with “belief in the supernatural.”  That belief explains the habitual metamorphosis of historical people and events into religious myth, legend and dogma.  It was supernatural “dogmas” like Original Sin and the existence of “God’s” exclusive “Covenant” (contract) with one tribe or one religion that gave rise to racism and a merciless religious intolerance.  Whatever else needs changing because of religion’s doctrinal anomalies, it is first of all “belief in the supernatural” that must be neutralized, dismantled and eliminated.    

The supernatural imagines another world — a realm of existence to which human nature does not naturally belong or from which it has fallen … and long ago forgotten.  It is in the deepest sense of the word, “other” than the human world; it is alien — exactly as alien as matter is to “God” and for the same reasons.  And even while the other world is claimed to be the destiny of humankind, humans have no natural knowledge of its existence nor any clue to what it’s like, no natural information about how to get there and they are dependent upon a supernatural communication from that other world — revelation — in order to live out their destiny.  Simply put, the “other world,” which is supposedly the very reason why we are here, is “beyond nature,” and humankind has no access to it. 

From this I can only draw one conclusion:  belief in the “supernatural” is the quintessence of human alienation.  It is the self-imposed imagined separation of humankind from itself — its source, its organic substrate, its sustaining environment and its ultimate destiny.

Religion in the West claims to be the sole bridge to that other world.  It not only declares that it knows what the other world is like but it also knows and controls what is needed to get there.  As the expression and institutionalization of the “supernatural,” therefore, religion is the repository of the principal justifications for human alienation.  In is active form, religion is alienation’s protagonist and protector.  The roots of all alienation in the West are to be found in “supernatural” religion.

Some may be disturbed by such an analysis.  They see the very sense of the sacred bound up with the belief in the existence of another world.  Aren’t things sacred because of the sacredness of “God”?  And, isn’t “God” an individual, “other” than us?  Wouldn’t this immense person that “God” is, then, constitute a whole “other” world of its own?   Indeed, the core of the problem resides with the idea of a “God” who is “other” than us; it takes “God” out of Nature.  “God,” I insist — with Eriugena, Aquinas, Eckhart, Nicolas of Cusa, and Spinoza — is not other than us.

“God” is not other

The thought that “God” is “other” is erroneous and it is being driven by an erroneous image.  The naïve image I challenge is that of a fashioner.  The “God” who creates the world the way a builder creates a house or an artist creates a painting produces something outside of and other than himself.  To imagine “creation” proceeding in this way is what locks us into our notion of “God” as “other.”  Fashioners are people who work with already existing materials that are other than themselves, and the results they produce are also outside of and other than themselves.  But for creation there were no materials for a fashioner to work with and the results could not stand on their own without continual sustenance.  It is exactly the existence and character of the very materials and products that make up the universe, where the image fails.  Science has discovered that these materials and their products elaborated themselves and have sustained themselves over eons of time through a process of development that in its organic phase we call evolution.  They are responsible for every form and feature of the current universe.  You would have to imagine a carpenter who not only produced boards and nails out of his head, but also imbued them with a magic energy like the brooms of the sorcerer’s apprentice so that they built the house on their own … and the house would have to sustain itself, as if in thin air.  “Fashioner” is not a very apt metaphor for these discoveries. 

But if we were to start from a different image — a different analogy — we come up with a different way of thinking about “creation.”  If we were to imagine “God” to be like the sun beaming light throughout the solar system, all the objects on earth and everywhere are visible only because they are bathed in the sun’s light.  Let “visibility” be the analog for existence.  All light is really the sun’s light being used, borrowed, reflected by things other than the sun.  Just as visibility is “borrowed” from the sun, existence is borrowed from “God;” it is not ours.  And just the way the sun’s active “shining” is being used by objects on earth to become visible, it is “God” actively “existing” that is being used by us to exist.  This helps us see that existence is not just a passive gift.  It is “God’s” own “existing” in which we participate.   Let’s go further.  Once they are visible, things exercise a creative power of their own, for it is the presence of the sun’s reflected light that stimulated the evolution of eyes in living organisms … and it’s that same reflected light that continues to provide to all sighted organisms a secure way to navigate the earth, find food, shelter and avoid their enemies.

This imagery is helpful because it works with evolution, which the image of the fashioner does not.  For if “God” is the source of the energy of existence, then all things existing are using that energy … they are using “God,” and they create with it by evolving new forms.  Evolution is simply what results from the activation of that existential energy by the particles that possess it in order to continue to survive.  Thus the “materials” themselves, on their own, build and beautify the universe.  They apply and propagate the creative energy of existence even though they are not the source of it.  They themselves are in no way separate from what they are using, for what they are using gives them their very existence.  That helps us understand not only how this cosmos arose as it did on its own, but why things come and go, they do not last, for they do not “own” their own existence.  Like reflected light, our existence is a participation in esse Existence Itself.

This imagery places the energy that is the “source of our existence” squarely at the core of Nature, the way the sun and its mass is the source and anchor of all light and movement in the solar system.  What we have become accustomed to call “God,” in this conception, far from being “supernatural” is actually Nature itself, shared and sharing its very being.  This Nature, then, insofar as it is creative, and spendthrift of itself, explanatory of itself and its elaborations, has been called by our mystics, natura naturans “nature making nature” … and this same Nature, insofar as it is recipient, poor, needy, empty, full of longing and struggling to survive, is called natura naturata “nature made nature.”  What is most intriguing is that in this view, all things, including ourselves, are a little of each.  Everything that exists gives of itself and creates, and everything that exists is a deep well of need, emptiness and longing. 

But in all cases it is “Nature.” There is nothing beyond it.  Nothing is “supernatural” especially not “God,” its very source and sustainer.  Any religion that claims to be “expert in humanity,” must first recognize the exclusive existence and unmistakable character of the Nature in which human nature “lives and moves and has its being.” 

(… to be continued …)


Was Jesus “God”?

Jesus’ “divinity” is an important question.  For, among other things, it bears on the issue of the “divine authority” of the Catholic Church which claims to speak in Jesus’ name, and from there the reduced, subordinated validity of every other church, religion or religious tradition on the face of the earth.  The rationale for this strange arrogance is very simple: If Jesus is “God” and founded the Church to be his exclusive and abiding representative on earth … indeed, his continuance … then this Church which is the very body of Christ, is also iden­­tified with “God,” speaks infallibly and must be obeyed with the same complete surrender as if it were “God” himself. 

This claim to be “God’s” exclusive agent on earth enjoys some unique protections.  It can never be lost, passed on or shared with others or even verified and reaffirmed because “God” no longer speaks on his own, but “only through the Church.”  There is no way to verify if the Church still is “God’s” spokesperson (or if it ever really was) or if maybe that job has been passed on to another, or to others or to no one.  We have nothing but the Church’s word for it.

The circularity is flawless.  “God” in the person of Jesus, made the Church “divine.”  The Church speaks with “divine authority” and therefore infallibly.  And in 325 at the Council of Nicaea the Church “infallibly” declared that Jesus is “God” of the “same substance” homo-ousios, (homo = same, ousios = substance) as the Father.   

Divinity and Philosophy

The Nicaean way of declaring that Jesus was “God,” was philosophical.  That’s why they used the strange word homo-ousios; it was a philosophical word.  It is not found anywhere in scriptureBut while Nicaea defined Jesus’ relationship to the Father philosophically, it never told us what we should mean philosophically when we say “God.”  So what you mean by saying Jesus is “God” will depend on your definition of “God.”  If your “definition” of “God” is theist-humanoid, then your idea of Jesus’ divinity will follow suit.  In this case, Jesus will be “God,” a separate being, a “person” like us, but all knowing and all powerful, who thinks and decides in reaction to the sequence of human events occurring in time.  “God’s” will becomes “command­ments” for us to obey; and the Church, as the voice of Jesus, tells us which commandments those are.  It will also follow that If Jesus is “God,” in this sense, and at the very same time “God’s” son, then there must be at least two “persons” in “God.”

But if your concept of “God” is pan-en-theist … which means, as the scholastics said, that everything that exists participates in the esse (“to be”) which is “God,” then all things are “God” to some degree because they exist.  All things exist by participation in “God’s” existence.  “God” is everything’s existential energy and no one thing is “God.”  “God” transcends that kind of singularity because esse energizes everything that exists making it exist.  In this case, Jesus is “God,” to a degree greater than most of us (for he was clearly a very holy man, and holiness has to do with esse), but he is not something “substantially different” from us.  In fact, because of participation in being, nothing is “substantially” different from anything else.  Things are different from one another according to a certain proportion of esse … evident in what they do, how “good” they are and how much “good” they do (how “holy” they are).  There is only one “substance,” Spinoza said … and that substance is “God” and we all participate in that substance to one degree or another.  That is what existence means — it means to be in and a part of “God.”  We are all “God” to some degree … because we exist.   Paul seems to have been in agreement with this philosophy.  When he was speaking to the philosophers in Athens as reported in Acts 17, he said “God” was:  “… in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Personally, I would rather Spinoza had used a different word.  “Substance” for us connotes some kind of “stuff” or even a “thing.”  So, because esse is energy and not a “thing,” substance can be misleading.  The term originated with Aristotle.  In Greek he used the word ousía.  It meant something that existed on its own apart from other things; he never used it of “God.”  So as applied literally to “God” it’s a borrowed usage, and not exactly appropriate.  We can call an individual organism a “substance,” according to Aristotle, but we cannot call “God” a substance except by analogy So Spinoza’s (and Nicaea’s) use of the term is problematic.  Why did he do it?  Because he was trying to use Aristotle’s categories to express “participation in being.”  For Aristotle a substance was something that existed completely on its own.  By that definition, concluded Spinoza, there is only one substance in the entire universe —  “God” — because only “God” exists on “his” own … everything else exists in him.  I believe the use of the word substance was a poor choice and it is the reason Spinoza has been falsely labeled a pantheist and not recognized as a pan-en-theist.  He said all created things are “modalities” of the one “substance” meaning they had their existence in and from and according to the “character” of “God.”  It was unfortunate that he could not come up with another way of saying what he meant. 

But perhaps we can.  Can we find another word for the existential energy which is “God” by the pan-en-theist definition?  Maybe borrowing from the imagery of electromagnetism or gravity, we could use “force” … or “field” or perhaps even the word “energy” itself to help imagine “God.”  Would that work?  Unfortunately, our thoughts are pinned to images.  Use the wrong image and you end up with the wrong thought.  I believe we have consistently misconceived “God” because we continue to associate the notion of “God” with the wrong image.  And the image we have always used is a human person like a “king” or a “father” or a “judge.”  That imagery makes “God” like us humans (anthropoi) and male humans to boot, and so we call that kind of thought “anthropomorphic.”  All people are separate individuals.  “God” is not.  “God” is more like a force-field that we are part of than any individual entity, human or non-human.

Another possible image is “light.”  This was a favorite of the Fathers who took it from the neo-Platonists.  Light originates in the sun and shines on all things on earth making them visible.  All light, even the moon’s, is a reflection of the sun’s light.  But everything is “lightsome” and visible because everything participates in the light of the sun.  Nothing has “light” on its own; its light is a “modality” of the sun’s light … it is a reflected light.  The sun alone has light on its own. 

These images at least help us to move away from the anthropomorphic (humanoid) “God” who is like a human “person,” only smarter and more powerful.  If that were true, it would mean that “God” was not very good at all for “God” does nothing when major catastrophes — like the holocaust, or the Haitian earthquake — occur.  “Persons” who refuse to do what they are capable of doing when catastrophes happen in their presence are considered morally derelict and held in contempt by us … and if they had a responsibility to act besides, we may hold them liable to criminal conviction and punishment. “God” could not possibly be such a “person.” 

Hence I conclude that there is no such “God” as conceived by the Book.  The theist-humanoid “God” does not exist.  But if we live in a pan-en-theist world, then “God” is that in which we live and move and have our being, and Jesus can only be “more divine” than the rest of us … but we are all “divine.”

Divinity and the New Testament

Now, we can also come at this question of Jesus’ divinity from another angle altogether, and we arrive at the same conclusion.  Starting from the New Testament, we can actually see how it was only little by little that Jesus came to be called “God” in the sense that people usually mean it today.  In the beginning, no one thought Jesus was “God.”

In the documents called the synoptic gospels it is recorded that Jesus never claimed to be “God” and on at least one occasion, expressly denied it.  But that’s no surprise.  The Jews were very strict monotheists.  There was only one “God.”  There is no way Jesus’ message would have been accepted by the Jewish people if they had heard that he was claiming to be “God.”  Even if Jesus performed miracles, the Jews would never have called him “God,” it would have been blasphemy to them.  Elijah the prophet once raised a woman from the dead; and they knew he was not “God.”  Jesus never even claimed to be “the Messiah” according to some scholars.  So how did the “God” thing come about?  It started with the Greeks who had an entirely different concept of divinity from the Jewish concept.

A way to understand this is to read the account of Paul and Barnabas’ missionary activity in Lystra of Lycaonia recorded in chapter 14 of the Acts of the Apostles.  When the people saw Paul and Barnabas heal a cripple they exclaimed:

“The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, Hermes.  And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice.  When Paul and Barnabas heard this, they tore their garments … and said, Why are you doing this, we are men of the same nature as you.  [Acts 14:14-15]

This illustrates exactly the difference between the Greek and the Hebrew concept of divinity.  The Greeks were accustomed to a multitude of gods who took human form and acted like human beings.  When the people saw the miracle, they immediately assumed those performing it were “gods.”  But it was so shocking to Paul and Barnabas that they tore their garments in horror at the blasphemy.  Clearly for Paul, performing miracles did not mean that someone was “God.”  When he spoke about Jesus’ resurrection he never said “Jesus was God and therefore could never die.”  He always said that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”  And it was the same for Jesus; when he performed miracles, the people knew “God’s” power worked through him, but no Jew thought he was “God.”

Paul saw Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises of the One God to the Jewish people, and through them to the world.  If he spoke of Jesus as having had a cosmic existence before his birth as a man, it could only have been in Philo’s terms of the Logos-Sophia, meshing Greek philosophy and the Bible — God’s word and wisdom — a kind of divine craftsman, like Plato’s demiurge, an angel-like creature through whom “God” created and re-created the world.  There is no way Paul could possibly have conceived of Jesus as homo-ousios — of the “same substance” as the “father” — it would have been blasphemy.  Paul called Jesus “the first-born” of all creation.  That was a clear statement that he was a “creature,” not “God.”  Paul’s Jewish faith would not have permitted him to call Jesus “God” in the Jewish sense.  But it didn’t prevent him from suggesting that he was a “god” in the Greek sense. 

But in any case, I believe that Paul was being carried along by a poetic insight, not by an attempt at philosophical science.  The cosmic Christ was a metaphor drawn from the imagery of the Book of Wisdom conflated by Philo with Plato’s demiurge and the logos of the stoics.  The cosmic Christ was a transcendent imagery for Paul designed to translate “Messiah” into categories that Greeks would understand.

Following in the Alexandrian tradition of Jewish Philo, early 3rd century Christian “Fathers” who were also from Alexandria — Clement and his disciple, Origen — clearly stated that whatever “divinity” Jesus had was “subordinate” to that of the  Father, preserving monotheism and the imagery of the Logos-Sophia found in “John” and Paul.  But in moving the notion of a cosmic Christ from poetic metaphor to an undisguised attempt at nailing down a “scientific” philosophical fact, these philosopher-theologians created an incoherence that, in the long run, was not sustainable.  For their concept implied the existence of different “levels” of divinity.

In the 4th century, Arius agreed with the “subordinationism” of Clement and Origen.     He had correctly identified what was ab initio, ab omnibus et ubique — the ancient formula for what all Greek Christians had learned in the beginning (from Paul) and believed everywhereBut in 325 the Roman Emperor, who was not even a Christian, pushed for using that strange Greek word homo-ousios to describe Jesus that meant of the “same substance” as the Father.  Many of the bishops who did not want to contradict the Emperor not only rejected Arius’ claims, but reluctantly decided to accept the emperor’s preferred term.  They said Jesus was homo-ousios — Jesus was “God” exactly as the Father was “God.” 

This was an innovation.  Arius was right, but it is hardly surprising that people would find the idea of two or more “levels” of divinity unsustainable.  “Subordinationism” was a complicated and incoherent concept.  The idea that “God” meant only one thing — “God,” — was far simpler, and even though it entailed claiming that “God” had two aspects, Father and Son, which were inter-related “persons,” it seemed easier to grasp.  Hence the Council of Nicaea, in trying to be as philosophically scientific as they could, “created” the doctrine of the Trinity … moving us so far from Paul’s attempt to translate “Messiah” as to make it incomprehensible.  The homo-ousios bore no resemblance to “Messiah” much less to Isaiah’s “suffering servant” whatsoever.  The fact that all these terms and notions were simply poetic metaphors got lost in the Greek obsession with the “truth” as philosophical “fact.”  This should be a lesson for us.

Can we still say “Jesus is ‘God'”?                               

Someone might say, well, if Jesus is simply “more divine” than the rest of us, and not “God” in an absolute sense, shouldn’t we stop calling him “God”?  What is the value of doing that?  

I believe we can call Jesus “God” if we clearly understand that it is a metaphor.  That means that it’s a symbol of what we all are — “God” by participation — and Jesus is more “godlike” than most of us because he was a very holy man.  It also means that if we follow his “way” we become more like him and therefore more holy, more “godlike.”  This way of looking at things captures the spirit of the ancient Church which said that in Jesus, humans could become “God” like him. The Greek Fathers called it theosis, “divinization,” becoming God.  Jesus led the way.  He showed us the face of “God” in his own life and if we imitate him, we will too. 

The very notion of a divine / human conjunction highlights the fact that “holiness” is a human potential and human phenomenon.   There is nothing holy that is not human.  All of non-human creation may be “sacred” to us because we recognize the existential energy, the esse, which is “God,” functioning there, but it is not “holy” as we humans can be holy because it cannot “do good” by consciously loving in order to creatively bring forth new life.  Only humans can do that.  Holiness is existence, esse, using its creative potential on purpose to preserve and bring forth more existence.  Holiness is esse’s creative power, consciously activated.  Nothing else can do that except human beings, as far as we know.  It is what makes us more “divine” than anything else in the world.  That we hold up Jesus as an icon of this divine humanity, keeps the symbol of what we all are and what we can become before our eyes.  That Jesus is “God” is a metaphor for the “divine” potential in all of us.

 To say that Jesus was homo-ousios was a mistake made at Nicaea because it tried to turn a poetic metaphor into scientific fact.  But if we remember that it is a metaphor, to say that Jesus is “God” can symbolize what we hope to achieve by being Christians: that following his “way” will make us all more “divine.”