The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (IV)


 “Mystification” is a fundamental operator in human life. It is an application of our “sense of the sacred” to our social structures. We “mystify” ordinary reality and project it to be something “more than human.” Curiously, when things become “more than human” they also pass “beyond our control.” For most of us there’s a serenity that accompanies this recognition. Once it seems that “this is the way things are supposed to be, and there’s nothing we can do about it” we can relax; things are out of our hands.  

 Mystification is a perennial feature of all power relationships. It suggests “this is the way things are supposed to be.” The male’s power over the female was mystified in our culture through the “sacred” submission of the wife to her husband. It was similar for children to their parents, employees to their bosses, a ship’s crew to their captain, citizens to the authorities in a civil community. Obedience is couched in terms of a “sacred relationship” and grudging compliance becomes willing collaboration. “Holy obedience” involving the mystification of the authority figure is as essential in the military as in the monastery. Without it life as we know it would be very different indeed.

 Mystification is not necessarily “oppressive.”  It does not have to imply either blindness or an intention to deceive. It can be taken metaphorically; such  a voluntary self-mystification means people embrace what is known to be a symbol in order to enjoy some benefit that derives from the exercise. The British, for example, sustain the myth of the “divinely appointed” Queen and her family. They know it is not literally true, but choose to have the feelings of national pride and continuity that are associated with royalty and its pompous ceremonies. Judges wear black robes and “all stand” when they enter the courtroom as a symbol of respect for their moral authority. Even television’s “Judge Judy” and “Texas Justice” are treated in like manner. It’s a game, a make-believe that is freely chosen for a reason. With metaphorical mystification, the principals are free and in control of what they are doing. It’s a way of poetizing the importance of our relationships.

Catholic mystification

The authority structures in the Catholic Church depend on mystification too, but Catholic mystification is not metaphorical. It is absolutely literal and has been presented that way with shrill insistence since ancient times. Literalness makes mystification oppressive; it takes away the freedom of the mystified. For it is not their voluntary respect and acquiescence that is being elicited, but rather their submission to “things as they are and are supposed to be.” Let’s see how some of these mystifications evolved and function in Catholic life.

 I want to start with something we are all familiar with. It is a mystification that is currently in transition from literal to symbolic: it is the mystification of “the priest” … which has historically been associated with the literal interpretation of the “real presence” of Jesus in the eucharist.

 At his last supper with his friends the night before he died, Jesus took bread and broke it and said, “this is my body” and as he shared the cup of wine he said, “this is my blood.”  He was clearly using the broken bread and red wine as poetic symbols of his imminent death. The gospel writers all tell us he said “do this in memory of me.” The eucharist is a memorial re-enactment of that moment at the last supper. To claim that Jesus’ words were meant literally is a gross misreading of an obvious poetry. A literal reading is not only dishonest and impossible, it is also misleading, for it overwhelms the symbolism of the shared memorial meal, which was clearly Jesus’ intention. Even Augustine was aware that the belief in the real presence could distract from the primary meaning of the eucharist and warned against it.  And exactly as he feared, the thought that Jesus himself was right there in front of us ultimately came to dominate the Catholic imagination; the symbolism of the memorial meal was lost, and the mass became a “sacrifice.” It was only with the reforms of Vatican II that the symbolism of the meal was brought forward again.

 From the mis-taken literalness of Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine there came a second: that the person who presided over the ceremony — the priest — had to have “supernatural” powers because he effectuated such an astounding transformation: he brought Jesus back to earth. They were both major mistakes. The bread and wine is not literally the body and blood of Jesus and the priest is not someone with supernatural powers. It is clear that the early communities celebrated the eucharist as a meal, and we do not know exactly when the change occurred, but when the bread and wine began to be considered literally the body and blood of Jesus, the eucharist stopped being thought of as a meal and became a “sacrifice” offered to “God.”  The person who played the role of Jesus in the re-enactment also stopped being an ordinary person and became a “priest” who brought “God” to earth with magic words that worked only when he used them and then offered this really present Jesus as a sacrifice “to please and appease God.” 

 It is significant that class stratification was an integral part of this phenomenon.  The control over the eucharist came to be restricted to the bishop who was always a member of the upper class; priests were his agents who served at his pleasure. They were not independent of the bishop in any way. They owed him absolute obedience and their unique powers were conferred on them by the bishop alone. We don’t know exactly when this all happened, for Christianity was originally an egalitarian religion of the poor and leaders were chosen by the community, but when it emerged into the light of day after the Roman persecutions were over 300 years later, all these new features were in place: … the real presence … the mass as sacrifice … and control of ritual by the upper class bishops. None of this existed earlier. And we do not know which came first. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the literal mystifications of the real presence and the super-powers of the priest were modifications devised by the upper class hierarchy to insure control for themselves.  But even if it was an independent development, it served to concentrate control in the hands of the upper class.

Now, what if we were to reverse these mistakes. Notice what happens. First, let’s take the eucharist as a shared meal. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in memory of me.” He didn’t say: “Do this and I will be literally present with you again” which he could have said if that’s what he meant. The presence he spoke of was “in memory.” Christians share their memories of how Jesus lived and what he died for, in order to have his vision live on in them. Jesus’ spirit is not present physically in the church building or the bread and wine, it is present psychologically and voluntarily in the lives of the people who have chosen to remember him. There is no other presence. The meal helps us share our memories and focus our aspirations. We live in the spirit of Jesus and thus “he lives again” in us.

 Now let’s take our idea of the “priest” and return it to its proper place next to the symbolism of the memorial meal. We immediately realize that since the bread and wine is not Jesus magically come to earth again, the “priest” is similarly not a supernatural magician with special powers either, but an ordinary human being who simply has the role, given to him by the community, of performing a memorial ceremony. The priest’s job has to do with memory. It is to remind people of the meaning of the symbolism: who Jesus was, what he taught and why he died the way he did.

What about “sacrifice”?  Isn’t the mass a sacrifice that will guarantee our safety … our “salvation”?  No, that’s the difference between Jesus’ message and the various official religions of his day. Jesus was not conerned with placating any “god,” especially not Yahweh. The “loving Father” of Jesus did not need placating. He was a “God of mercy and forgiveness.” What Jesus taught was that the answer to life is to imitate the generous loving kindness of the One in whom we “live and move and have our being” — our “Father.” Jesus never said we would be saved from death, except metaphorically. What he said was “forgive as you are forgiven, love as you are loved, give as you have been given” and you will be like your “Father.” That is what we remember when we re-enact that meal.

 It should not surpise us then, to learn that the word “priest” originally did not mean “one who offered sacrifice.”  “Priest” comes directly from the Greek word “presbyter” which meant “elder.” It indicates that in the early communities the eucharist was celebrated by older people, as you would expect. That’s all that “priest” meant.  We don’t know when it happened, but it was only much later that we learn that the priest became “someone who offered sacrfice.” We first hear of it after Christianity took over as the official religion of Rome. The Empire demanded a continuity with its pre-Chris­tian practices because that’s what everyone was used to. Sacrifice had to be offered to guarantee divine protection and the success of Rome’s ventures. “Offering Sacrifice” was a Roman state function, it was not originally a Christian category, it was not part of Jesus’ message, not even metaphorically.  It was a “theological adjustment” made by the ecclesiastical authorities that conveniently dovetailed with the requirements of the Empire … it earned the Church all those big basilicas and handsome stipends from the Roman government. It’s no wonder “sacrifice” became the dominant category for understanding the eucharist.

 Jesus said, “do this in memory of me.”  Those christians, women or men who would respond to his request must first realize they have the right to do it.  No special powers are needed.  This sounds simple, but it’s not. For Catholics have been mystified big-time. They have been told for centuries that the eucharist is reserved to magicians — supermen, priests, an elite corps of men who had an eternal “seal” on their souls giving them “power” that no one else had. That eternal seal, as “indelible” as a birthmark and as powerful as Merlin’s wand, could only be gotten through ordination by a credentialled bona-fide upper-class bishop.  

 You must understand the depth of the mystification here. These are not just ceremonial metaphors, a poetic overlay designed to show respect for the important role these men played as priests. They were presented to Catholics as literal metaphysical facts, as real and functional as any iron tool that gives humans the power to do what their hands of flesh cannot. It was the hammer of Thor. Catholics were mystified indeed. If they are to accede to Jesus’ request to “do this in memory of me,” all this must be demystified.  The community designates who will preside over the memorial meal. Catholics, of course, respect whoever is chosen … but that is the extent of legitimate mystification. The rest is pure “hocus pocus.”


 Since the middle ages the mystification surrounding the priesthood has been intensified for Catholics by mandatory celibacy. Celibacy meant these priests could not be married. Not being married became a permanent accompaniment to the elite status conferred by the powers of holy orders. I emphasize “not-married” because it helps gain an insight into the psycho-dynamics of Catholic mystification — what Catholic structures mean and how the Church uses them to project its way of life. All these non-married elite were committed to the “Church” with a total personal dedication. In fact, they had been persuaded that to give oneself in unquestioning obedience to the Church authorities was to give oneself totally to “God.” Please take careful note, there was a double hand-off functioning in the backfield here: … the Church was substituted for “God”… and the ecclesiastical authorities were substituted for the Church. It’s strange that no one seemed to notice the switch All magic acts depend upon this kind of dexterity that makes key substitutions without being detected. Celibacy was elicited from “souls” that were said to be the “bride of Christ” but the bodies those souls inhabited were, in fact, wedded to the hierarchy and controlled as by a “husband.”

 Think of it this way. “Celibacy” is really just another kind of marriage. These celibate elites didn’t marry a human being, they married the ecclesiatical authorities and all the powerful reproductive energies of their young bodies were channeled toward generating more offspring for them — the one “Mother” of all … like a beehive or ant colony where sterile workers dedicate their lives to the proliferation, care and feeding of the progeny of the one fertile “Queen.”

 People who marry people are focused on people: … the love and care of their partner … the survival and welfare of their children … food, clothing, shelter … and the equitably shared work-in-community necessary to procure these things for themselves and their neighbors. People who thought they were married to “God,” however, turned their attention to “another world,” a non-existent fantasy universe where human sexuality was supposedly “sublimated” and neutralized by a psycho-erotic relationship with an imagined humanoid “God”-person and its energies placed in service to the ecclesiatical authorities.

 People who married people were never trusted by the hierarchy. Of course not. They were married to someone else. Their loyalties were always supect, for at any moment they might put the interests of their families and villages above the interests of the bishops. The “Queen Bee” wanted only sterile workers for her hive. Other potentially reproductive females and sexually potent males were mercilessly exterminated. “Lay” people — in effect the “married” — in like manner, were marginated, stripped of any respect, responsibility and power, fed only the mystifications that would keep them “hooked:” terrified of an eternity of torture from a monster “Father” whose senseless rage was averted only by the “Mother” who alone could protect her children. The mystifications here would be diabolical, if they weren’t so transparent.

 The arrogation of all Christian rights to the “sacred authority” (the hierarchy) alone, was a key maneuver that established rule by the “elite.” Clerical celibacy intensified the separation between the elite and the ordinary people. But we may notice, celibacy was about marriage, not sex. Sexual failure for celibates was not infrequent, and “forgiveness” was readily available. No priests have ever lost their jobs because of their sexual foibles … no matter how egregious. But if they dared marry, O most heinous of crimes, they were fired immediately and without exception.  Whatever happened to “thou art a priest forever …”?  This remains true even today.  How transparent does it need to be before we “see” it?

 So, it wasn’t “sex” that was the “line in the sand.”  It was marriage. Lay people — family people — were excluded from the workings of Church life, especially the central rituals that nourished and directed spirituality. The very first step in the humanization of Christian doctrine, therefore, is for ordinary people to take back those rights that were ripped-off by the upper-class in a maneuver cleverly concealed by the cloak of social and educational superiority, mystified and emasculated by celibacy.

 Women, especially upper class educated women, were also given the opportunity to serve the hierarchy as celibates. Being not married was an important condition for them as well.  But there was a major difference. Non married women who were dedicated religious were always conspicuously excluded from leadership in the central rituals.  Women could never be priests. How do we explain this?

 Women embodied a heinous sexual lapse that could never be forgiven: they were women, and a woman’s sexual foibles produce children. Once a woman became a mother we know exactly what would happen to her loyalties. Women cannot be trusted where power relations are mystified because women become mothers and are programmed by nature to put life before all else. Men were the preferred victims of ecclesiastical “vampirism,” the blood-sucking expropriation of human energies represented by mandatory celibacy, because men did not have babies … and their “supernatural” loyalties remained intact.  Men were preferred because they could be rendered inhuman … torn from family and clan (and the justice they require) and manipulated at will … whereas women could not.  Hence men were the “chosen ones.”

 Even when it was embraced and lived sincerely, celibacy erroneously evoked the literal existence of another world … not just another dimension in human life … but a “supernatural” world different from this one whose requirements took precedence over life on earth. Celibacy was intended to keep people from loving and caring for what they really are — people who belong to their families and villages, their shared equitable work and their companions — in favor of projecting a non-existent world where solitary individuals will be saved (or punished) as individuals.  “Human Justice” did not matter in that other world.  It tried to get us to love a “God” that was nothing but an image in our heads, and not the real “God” whose existential energy flowers in the family of humankind.  To love an imaginary “God” is to love an imaginary self — a non existent independent “ego” — and not the real self bound in blood to the real human beings who share life together in this valley of tears. For Catholicism, the human family and the sex and marriage that produce it, is the Original unforgiveable Sin … and it was “Eve,” the woman, who was to blame for it all … she tore us from “paradise” and condemned us to live on the earth.

 “Do this,” Jesus said, “and remember me.” It’s a straightforward request and an invitation; nothing very complicated here at all.  No mystification, no hocus-pocus.   It’s strange.  When the ecclesiastical authorities command, Catholics tremble and obey; they believe any line that’s fed them.  When Jesus invites them to a common meal, they hesitate.  Why is that?  Is there a connection between the two? 

Perhaps we do not yet have the “ears to hear.”

Tony Equale

The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (III)

The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (III)

If the “supernatural,” as I claim, is not a fact, then what do we do with our tradition, which was constructed on belief in the supernatural? Should we destroy it … walk away from it? Are we to say that our people lied, intentionally told us stories that simply weren’t true? I don’t believe two millennia of Christian history can be dismissed as just so much illusion. Ours is not the first generation to set out in pursuit of the meaning of human life and the Mystery of existence. The work and insights of former generations can be found in the residue they left. We have to cherish the efforts of our forebears, notwithstanding the serious emendations that have to be made. I think doctrine should be thoroughly evaluated free of the manipulations of “infallible authority.” The ancient human wisdom embedded there should be identified and separated from the supernatural fantasies that have made it inhuman.

“Supernatural” doctrine, very often, has a deep human significance which only emerges when understood metaphorically. This is not just a “saving of the words.” In many cases, a doctrine’s supernatural formulation was originally the result of the attempt to provide a “philosophical” ground for a natural phenomenon. Ancient philosophy tended toward reification — turning psychological realities into physical or metaphysical “things”. Re-interpreting doctrine metaphorically often returns it to its natural human origins and transforms its meaning.

Certain doctrines, of course, like papal infallibility, are beyond metaphorization. Nothing can be done with them; they must be repudiated and abandoned. But others, like the Incarnation, I believe, derived originally from a deep sense of the goodness of that “in which we live and move and have our being” and its reflection in human holiness / wholeness. They called it “God.” NT authors John and Paul attributed a poetic “divinity” to the extraordinary man Jesus. They saw in it the potential “divinization” of humankind. “God became man,” says the ancient formula, “so that man could become God.” Jesus embodied a “divine” quality that we recognize as human wholeness; he was a “symbol of ‘God.” Recognizing the completely understandable reaction of his awestruck followers who knew him personally, we simply retrace their steps. There is no manipulation here. We can agree with them; Jesus was “simply divine” … in the way that phrase from popular parlance suggests — a remarkably whole human being. And potentially so are we all. That’s not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning. Us “becoming God” is what it’s all about. “God,” i.e., human wholeness: justice, compassio0n, generosity, is at the end of this story, not the beginning.

Evolution, experience and ideas

Christian doctrine reflects the beliefs and cultural assumptions of two thousand years of Western religious experience — humans becoming “God” by becoming whole. Without science for most of that time, Christians were limited to their era’s conceptual categories for explaining their experience of human wholeness..

What was always authentic through all that time, was their experience. In those days, they labeled their experience “supernatural,” and communicated it through certain symbols and legendary stories that were equally “beyond nature.” We may have a similar experience, but, because our tools of interpretation and view of the world are vastly different from theirs, we assign it to different categories, link it to other concrete images and find other ways of narrating the stories. The narrative — the way the story is told — determines how it is understood. All stories can be told, and understood, in different ways.  

Just as clothing changes, languages tastes and customs change, our understanding of our experience changes because our ideas change. Our experiences, however, do not change because our bodies do not change. We remain as always, females and males, children until maturity, sexually reproducing organisms who survive only because of a complex division of labor we call society. Society naturally engenders power gradients among people. The temptation of the powerful to get and keep more for themselves is perennial. Violence in the service of injustice is always a threat, and along with it parallel aspirations for justice and peace. Love and gratitude for life is also a constant, as is anguish and perplexity over disease, suffering and death. The universe is an awesome place; every generation is driven mad with ecstasy over the beauty of our human minds and bodies and the world we live in; and every generation is tortured with fear and pain — disconsolate at the loss of loved ones and harrowed by the tragedies that befall us all. These things do not change. Our experience is fundamentally the same as that of all humankind and that includes the founders of our religious tradition. Organic evolution works on a time-scale that renders the scant two thousand years of Christian history insignificant.

Ideas, on the other hand, do change, and rapidly. The evolution of ideas is very significant and affects doctrine profoundly. Religious interpretations will modulate with changing ideas … unless something intervenes to keep that from happening. If normal doctrinal adjustments are prevented from occurring, there is a toxic backup that ultimately poisons the organism. I contend that Christian doctrine has not been allowed to evolve because the Church projected the illusion that what it taught was infallibly, eternally true. This is not human. We may know where it came from and be inclined to overlook it as an exaggeration, but taken literally it is not human. The Church, ironically, confirms my accusation … because one of its “supernatural” doctrines is that it is literally divine. That is exactly the problem. The Church thinks it is “divine” and therefore what it says cannot change.  But nothing is divine but “God.” The only “divinity” that humans have is their wholeness. The Church is human every bit as much as we are human and Jesus was human. If we seem to be reaping the whirlwind in our time, I submit it’s because we sowed the wind — the claim to be more-than-human. Since evolution is time-related, if you refuse to evolve with your times there comes a point when the accumulated disparities are so overwhelming that the camel collapses under the weight of some “last straw.” Many feel that point was passed a long time ago. The Church, as anyone with eyes can see, is in fact all too human.

A global impact

Everyone has a responsibility to try to humanize the Church, not only Christian believers. The whole world is affected by the colossal obduracy that results from Catholicism’s idolatrous self-projection. For me, the single most egregious example of this is the insane insistence that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil, despite the contrary recommendations of an official Commission composed entirely of Vatican-appointed bishops, theologians and advisers in 1967. The Pope’s solitary decision to reject the Commission’s advice on this question was taken for the sole purpose of maintaining the appearance of an unchanging infallibility. The self-exalting hubris here is evident. This “unchangeable policy” goes to the extreme of condemning the use of condoms in marriage even to prevent transmitting HIV-AIDS. And for a Church that has publicly declared that one of its practical goals is to reduce the number of abortions to a minimum, the condom prohibition wipes out the single most effective way to limit the number of unwanted pregnancies … and unwanted pregnancies are the only reason for abortions. The irrational madness displayed here is so profound, that if we didn’t know the background — the “supernatural” reasons for this stance — it would be totally incomprehensible. It suggests the mania driving it to be of demonic proportions. It is simply not human.

Humanizing the Church

I believe there are some clear goals in the process of humanizing the Church; most of them have already been suggested. There is, of course, the derogation of the claims to infallibility for the pope and the magisterium. It must be clearly acknowledged that there is no infallibility which closes the possibility of doctrinal restructuring or grants the bishops the right to rule without accountability.

The “sacred authority” (hierarchy) limited to the Pope and bishops (and celibate male priests, agents of the bishops) eliminates any authentic contribution from the rest of the Catholic community. Witness the disregard for the Papal Commission mentioned above. This not only prevents change but it invites abuse. It is estimated that there are 1.2 billion (with a “b”) Catholics throughout the world. A paper-thin crust of questionably qualified “bishops,” all appointed by the pope without consultation with the people, autocratically rules over this seething volcano of humanity whose desires for reform are never solicited, and if by any chance expressed, they are ignored.

This affects women most especially. Women are officially and explicitly excluded from the exercise of “sacred authority” for no other reason than their gender. Countries whose laws against gender discrimination apply to all other institutions within its borders, for some reason cannot penetrate the “supernatural” injustice functioning here. With its “doctrinal” subordination of women, the Catholic Church actively fosters attitudes that contradict the intention of the laws of the land — and does it with impunity. The clear and unambiguous words of the Apostle that for the followers of Jesus, “there is no more male or female …”  like so many other things, have been trashed and forgotten in favor of the values of another “supernatural” teacher, whom we are told is “infallible.”.

Next, the doctrines that are used as foundational supports for infallible authority and autocratic rule must be challenged and modified. Among these, first and foremost is the “divinity” of Christ as “defined” at Nicaea. John and Paul made effusive poetic allusions to Jesus’ cosmic significance as “divine.” The literal interpretation of their poetry, set in stone by Nicaea, has resulted in political power projections by the Church and the various wanna-be empires which identified with it throughout its history. If there was anything clear about Jesus’ message, it was that establishing political ascendancy was absolutely not his agenda. That the Nicaean “dogma” has been used for exactly those anti-gospel purposes is direct evidence of its invalidity.

Furthermore, the Church claims that the one and only “God” of the Universe is its founder, and therefore it is ipso facto the one and only religion for the whole human race. Other traditions may be permitted to exist, but their role is entirely secondary and subordinate. Their significance and “efficacy for salvation” is determined solely by Catholicism, and as expressly articulated by Catholic authorities. These traditional claims of absolute superiority, in their very arrogance and incredibility, stand as a reductio ad absurdum. For the very thought that “God” would actually set up one ethnically limited and culturally conditioned religion to rule over all others on a planet teeming with human diversity, is an insult to the intelligence and benevolence of the “God” evoked in support of these claims. And the added fact that in the past these beliefs served to justify the conquest, plunder and racist enslavement of what we now call the “third world,” confirms the judgment being made here: the “God” cited as their author, could not possibly have “willed” any such thing.

Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus, claimed to be a literal historical fact and used to establish the superiority of Christianity over all other religions and traditions, and proof of Jesus’ “divinity,” must be reinterpreted. Its significance must be understood in religious terms, not political.  And the only way to do that is to insist that it be taken metaphorically, not literally.

For far too long, Christian claims of literal “resurrection” — Jesus’ first and then ours — have been used for the mystification of the masses and the power projections of the Christian state. John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic scripture scholar, teaches that the “resurrection” may be taken either literally or metaphorically so long as the primary focus remains the “message of human justice” (the “kingdom of God“). Should the resurrection ever become a justification for behavioral control, fear before authority, the subordination of other traditions and the projection of political power, we are in the realm of the impossible — this is the argument from a Christian perspective — because the “God” of Jesus could not possibly have willed such things. These are clearly the goals of Caesar.

But we can also argue from the perspective of sincere seekers for truth who are not believers. If the resurrection were literal, then it would appear there is a theist humanoid “God,” after all, and this “God” is a miracle worker. But in our world no similar “miracles” are ever performed, as anyone can see. That means that either there is no “God” at all, or the real “God” is not a humanoid miracle worker. Otherwise “God” would have prevented the Nazi holocaust, and the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Indonesia … and the Black Plague. The fact that this “God” never does any of these things also proves that “he” did not raise Jesus from the dead. Each implies the other. There would be no possible “Christian” explanation why 6 million Jews and others were exterminated, if it weren’t something “permitted” by the same “God,” refusing to suspend the laws of nature, whose intense love of humankind and detailed attention to our needs supposedly suspended the laws of nature and raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore I conclude, the “God” who did not prevent the holocaust did not raise Jesus from the dead either; and, furthermore, the theist humanoid “God” inferred from such a non-existent literal resurrection also does not exist. There is a reason why these kinds of interventions never occur: It’s not what “God” is like.

In a discussion with N.T.Wright over whether the resurrection should be taken literally or metaphorically, Crossan  asks, “What does literal resurrection add to the message of the advent of the rule of justice”? What Crossan is saying is that, religiously speaking, the significance of the resurrection is that it is the proclamation of the victory of the cross-as-human-justice (the “coming of the kingdom of “God”). The resurrection is an unambiguous declaration of the transcendence of human dignity over the forces that would demean and dehumanize us. But it is a declaration, and like any parable, it uses a story to convery its message.

The world has always been burdened with parasites, thugs — larcenous murderers who use violence to plunder others and arrange things to their own advantage. We are often intimidated by them because they can kill us. Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman thugs would seem, outwardly, to be exactly such a defeat before these dehumanizing powers unless, equally outwardly, something proclaimed his victory: “he rose from the dead.” To proclaim that death was conquered … a spiritual victory … is made by announcing a concrete symbol of reversal: resurrection. Resurrection’s spiritual significance was symbolic: that nothing, not even death, can conquer the human spirit created by “God” for wholeness and justice. This is the “meaning” of “God” in our lives — human justice and human wholeness — and the only valid meaning of resurrection.

The resurrection then, even if it were literal, must be understood for what it means. Resurrection does not imply nor can it be used for the power projection of one religion over another, or offered as justification for conquest and political domination. If resurrection is used in these inhuman ways, as it has been throughout Christian history, it is grotesquely deformed and stands as a mockery of those that proclaim it. The only way to absolutely preserve the human significance of the resurrection and prevent it from ever being exploited for domination is to insist on its metaphorical character. With metaphor the entire significance is preserved; nothing whatsoever is lost. A literal resurrection, on the other hand, unless its potential for abuse is confronted and explicitly repudiated, offers nothing but trouble and confusion.