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.

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6 comments on “The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (III)

  1. Bill Wilson says:

    You nailed it once again, Tony. The church’s claim to be a divine, perfect society isna theological travesty that has rendered an all-too-human institution immune from significant challengers for positive evolution. The legitimate charges of the Reformers gave us the iron-clad, brass-bound reactionary dogmatism of Trent.
    We can thank Augustine for this doctrine of the two cities, as well as his misogyny and gynophobia. His theological absolutism has polluted the stream of clear thinking about the divine for 1700 years.

    • tonyequale says:

      Bill,

      Thanks. I agree. Augustine was the “intellectual author” … but the whole Roman Church was his willing accomplice. It is interesting that the Greek Orthodox to this day reject Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and claim it was not authentic Christianity. I believe the Romans recognized the face of the “divine” Caesar and their own socio-political culture in Augustine’s writings and therefore promoted him. He ruled in the Roman Church through the middle ages, but not in Constantinople. Even a cursory look at Greek Orthodox theology and spirituality reveals a much more mystical focus. They are less threatened by “metaphor” because their interest is in the human significance, not the “science.” This could serve as a basis for Roman doctrinal reform.

      The Greek liturgy could stand a little revamping, however.

      Tony

  2. Leon Krier says:

    RE: “Our experiences, however, do not change because our bodies do not change.”

    Tony,

    This series on “Humanization of Christian Doctrine” continues to be quite engaging and have been following it closely. I would add just a comment or two.

    There has been the recent news about the Australopithecus Sediba discoveries and it’s interpretative impact upon the understanding of hominoid development. It is clear from this scientific research that the hominoid body does change. Yes, ever so slightly, but from an evolutionary perspective the change is definite and identifiable. As the body develops evolutionary changes, this creates new opportunities for new experiences.

    Please see the article below by Ker Than which addresses these body changes and their implications regarding expanding the hominoid horizon.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/09/110908-apes-humans-evolution-australopithecus-sediba-lee-berger-science/

    I hope I’m not being too picky here, Tony. You are deeply invested in an evolutionary perspective so maybe it’s just a choice of words.

    Maybe one could take the approach that there is an evolutionary hominoid matrix. Out of this changing matrix arises an expanding horizon of possibilities that one might define as “experiences.” Some are unchanging such as birth, maturation, decline, death. Others are truly new such as hand and thumb development, feet and ankles, brain size and skull shape. Today, the changes in the body are probably more subtle, e.g., the ability to manipulate the our DNA.

    Just to satisfy my aesthetic desires, homo sapiens is the only creature to paint his own portrait.

    Gratefully and looking forward to the next chapter.

    Leon

    • tonyequale says:

      Leon,

      There was no theoretical point being made here. The argument simply said that even though the short 2000 years of Christianity are not affected by biological evolution, ideas (religious doctrines) still change. But certainly, if over some hundreds of thousands or millions of years bodies change, then for sure “religious doctrine” is going to change and radically because human experience is going to change radically. My point was that even when experience does not change, ideas … i.e., interpretations, the way experience is understood … change. — but the Church’s “infallibility clause” prevents normal change from occurring.

      Now, to address the question of what experiential changes are effectuated by organismic evolution, I think it’s legitimate to ask what exactly has changed from a “human” point of view? We are still males and females. We are still dependent on parents for many years. We still live by killing and eating other life forms, We still need to live in society and develop some kind of division of labor or we don’t survive. And once you divide labor, the question of equity arises. We still are social animals. We were never “rugged individuals.” So, once we become rational, what’s fundamentally new besides “taste”?

      Tony

  3. Gerry McGowan says:

    Tony,
    Thanks for your most recent blog. For me it had a special poignancy, specifically your statement about Catholicism’s insistence that birth control is intrinsically evil.
    When I was a visiting confessor in a parish on Long Island in the early sixties before “Humanae Vitae” was promulgated, I would counsel ‘penitents’ , usually women frantic with guilt, that under certain circumstances, birth control was not sinful. My counsel was consistent with the probable opinion of recognized moral theologians of the time. To my astonishment, my counsel was not accepted, “that’s not what Father XXX said in last Sunday’s sermon”, was a typical response. At supper between confession shifts, with usually 6 to 8 priests present, the senior priest would boom, “Who’s telling our parishioners that birth control isn’t a mortal sin?”
    The experience was a pivotal one in my decision to leave Catholicism. I felt a profound sense of hopelessness and despair that these young parents were so brainwashed that they could not accept an enlightened interpretation of morality and that their moral mentors were so uninformed. I could no longer be part of an abusive system that was ruining lives. You accurately describe the insidiousness of a church that is a sickly substitute for saintliness.
    Gerry

    • tonyequale says:

      Gerry,

      I am very grateful to you for sharing that moment of intense personal awareness. Catholicism often forgot people, and most of us were blinded by the Church’s authority. We were hardened against the sufferings created by this impersonal and inhuman morality, developed as an abstract rationalized deduction preserving “ideas” and “principles” to the detriment of human well-being. But things have to change. Morality has to be about people … not verbal formulas promulgated for their own sake without human significance. This is all part of humanizing what was very inhuman in our inheritance. There are many still being dehumanized by it. Only those of us who live in both worlds can speak to them about it in terms they can understand.

      Tony

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