Paul and the Mysteries

Paul and the Mysteries

The city of Eleusis in ancient Greece was 14 miles west of Athens overlooking the Saronic Gulf.  It was famous throughout antiquity as the site where the rituals celebrating Demeter’s rescue of Persephone from the underworld were celebrated.  They were known as the Eleusinian Mysteries and were performed there from at least 700 bce until they were officially shut down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 392 ce.  The rituals re-enac­ted the descent of the goddess of grain into the underworld in search of her daughter, and her return to life which brought life back to earth.  It had originally been an earth-fertility rite bearing the same burden of “renewing the seasons” as those of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Damuzi of Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, and others.  All these ancient rebirth-of-life rituals were celebrated throughout the Empire and came to be sublimated into the human quest for immortality through the symbolic participation in the death and resurrection of a divine-human “hero” who was called “lord.” The cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were local variants on the rites ofEleusis. They were all called “Mystery” religions.

The word “mysterion” is Greek and means “symbol.”  It has been translated since ancient times by the latin word sacramentum.  “Mysteries” were liturgies of participation whereby individuals, through the symbolic re-enactment of events, were believed to become part of their death-con­quering “lord” and, suffused with her/his power to rejuvenate life, achieved immortality.  

Paul was a resident of the Greek city of Tarsus in the present day Turkey and a Roman citizen.  He was a Jew by birth, a pharisee by choice and training, and a tent-maker by trade.  But whatever else, he was a literate Greek in a Greek world.  Because of their continuous age-old presence in Greek life the Mysteries were more than familiar to him.  There is ample evidence in his letters that he incorporated the essential spirit of those ancient and very widespread mediterranean religious practices into the ritual program he established for the communities he founded.  Christians “died” with their lord, Jesus, through baptism; they were incorporated into him and became members of his body.  They were nourished with his own flesh and blood and would rise from the dead just as he rose.

Paul’s bi-cultural background put him in a unique position to translate the essential elements of the Jesus-event from a Jewish idiom into the Mystery terms that would appeal to his Greek contemporaries.  The formulas expressed in his letters, whether he was solely responsible for them or not, brought together three things: (1) the expectations expressed in Jewish categories of messianic “redemption” which many Jews found “foretold” in the scriptures, (2) Greek aspirations for immortality represented by the Mystery Religions, and (3) the message, life and death of Jesus.  The point I am after is that the interpretation of Jesus’ significance did not come from an exhaustive examination of Jesus’ own declared intentions, teach­ings and life style, but from the religious needs, assumptions and expectations of the com­mu­nities who embraced him as their teacher. 

Jews who were convinced that the messiah’s arrival was imminent also had clear expectations — gleaned from the scriptures — about what that had to mean in Judaic terms.  The Greeks for their part were obsessed with immortality.  Their religious conviction, that it was achievable through incorporation into the life of a dying-and-rising “hero” through ritual re-enactment, provided the paradigm into which Paul inserted the Jewish Messianic covenant-event.  The pressure for “covenant-messiah” from the Jewish tradition and “divine-human-immortality” from the Greek, inevitably meshed the two.  In Paul’s hands, Jesus became Lord and Christ, a “god-man” who conquered death, and by incorporation into his “mysteries” his followers, too, gained immortality.

Jesus as role and function

It is not insignificant that the proper name “Jesus” is never used alone by Paul to refer to the “founder” of his religion.  The name is always accompanied by “lord,” which was the common title given to the hero of the Greek Mysteries, or “christ” which translates Jewish “messiah.”  Both are not names but titles, labels — the descriptors of a role or function.  It was a transference that was so common that Tacitus in his Annals  thought Jesus’ name was “Christos;” obviously that was all he ever heard.  Such a shift from personal name to soteriological function puts on open display the depersonalization of Jesus and the subordination of his personal message and life style to the categorical functions of the religions to whose agenda he was harnessed.  That Jesus’ own vision might have been at odds with Jewish covenant imagery on the one hand, and Greek polytheistic aspirations for immortality on the other, was disregarded if not suppressed.  What we have in Paul’s version of Christianity is a syncretism between Judaic and Greek religious idioms that bypasses the integral message of the man — Jesus — who was the catalyst that inspired them.  Jesus, in other words, was used to promote projects that were not actually his, and with which he may not have entirely agreed.

It should be emphasized at this point that I am talking about developments within the first generation after Jesus’ death.  I am not yet considering the massive deformations that occurred 300 years later when the political needs of the Roman Empire hijacked Christianity and turned it into “Catholicism,” skewing doctrine to such an extent that the spirit of Jesus’ vision was barely discernible.  Roman Imperial captivity eliminated Jesus’ humanity altogether, turned him into Pantocrator,  the ruler-“God” who judges the living and the dead, and set up a quid pro quo of salvation-for-obedi­ence based on a legalist morality monitored by a wrathful deity who demanded baptism into the Empire’s “Church” as the one and only way to avoid eternal torment.  Infant baptism became the common practice; without it unbaptized babies were sent directly to hell by a monster-“God.”  Upper Class hierarchical authority usurped all liturgical functions, women were sidelined, and all religious expression other than the official version approved by the State was persecuted to extinction.  Roman harassment and pogroms of Jews and “heretics” began only in Christian times and were even encouraged by bishops.  Jesus’ popularity was exploited by those who used him for their own purposes, and in the offing, the very humanity, simplicity and compassion that was the basis of his appeal was made secondary to other “more important” values.

Plato, the Mysteries and Christianity

The ancient Mysteries were religious rituals that worked in tandem with the official state cult of the  gods of the mediterranean pantheon.  They were the re-enactment of mythic events done by human “heroes” who were able to manipulate the gods and achieve immortality for humans because of their super-human abilities.  But it always remained an achievement; it was not something to which humans had a right.  The human heroes became immortal by achievement, only the gods were immortal by nature.

The Mystery religions were part of the warp and woof of ancient mediterranean culture from before historic times and they were considered sacred by people of all classes.  Their focus on immortality served as a stimulus to the philosophical efforts of Plato in the 4th century bce who began a rational enquiry into the meaning of human life with immortality as the governing idea.  Plato became convinced that the origins of humankind were rooted in a world of spirit where mortal matter did not exist and hence nothing died.   

Platonic theory offered “doctrines” about natural immortality which contradicted the central premise of the Mysteries.  Plato concluded that human beings were born with an immortal soul because they were made of spirit, not matter.  Immortality in this scheme did not need to be won, humans were born immortal.  Human persons were really spiritual “souls” trapped in material bodies.  Their “soul-selves” would live on after death in the other world.  The earliest Christian apologists, working from the Mystery paradigm established by Paul, rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul as a pagan belief for it would have rendered the resurrection meaningless.  The earliest Creeds which proclaimed belief in the “resurrection of the body” echoed that world-view.

For a long time Platonic philosophy remained an esoteric pursuit of the educated classes; its tenets were not familiar and accessible to all and it never had a ritual program.  The Mysteries were a religion, Platonism was not.  Paul’s use of the Mystery genre as the scaffolding for his message reflects the fact that he was not addressing the class of people who had accepted Platonic philosophy in place of the traditional cults.  And when he did venture into the world of the philosophers, as we see in his discourse at the Areopagus in Athens, the philosophy he alluded to was not Platonism but Stoicism.  To my mind it is quite significant that it was not until Athenagoras’ Apology, a century and a half after Paul’s letters, that there begins to appear evidence of the presence of Platonic elements in the Christian world-view.  But it took almost another century, with the writings of Clement of Alexandria and his disciple Origen, for the Platonic features to predominate in Christian thought.  This tells me that Christianity slowly penetrated the upper classes.  When it did, their prestige and the normal instinct of lower class people to defer to them, their wealth and power, their education and their ideas, meant that Christian “doctrine” ultimately came to be expressed in Platonic categories and controlled by the elite.  By the 4th century of the common era Christianity had virtually become the ritual expression of Platonism.  This represented a sea-change from Paul’s version of Christianity.  Immortality in this new scheme no longer had to be won and so Christianity no longer needed a human hero.  From being a “god-man” Jesus became just “God,” of the “same substance” as the Father.   The preoccupation of the individual  shifted from achieving immortality to what kind of life she would have after death:what world — heaven or hell — will I end up in”?  Torment or bliss for the “soul-self” turned the Pauline quest for integral bodily immortality obtained by immersion in Jesus’ heroic human sacrifice, into the quest to avoid punishment for my disembodied spirit by gaining grace through receiving the sacraments and obeying the law.

The sacraments, which were originally conceived in imitation of the Greek Mysteries provi­ding an immersion (baptism) and ritual re-enactment (eucharist) into the death-conquer­ing divine-human “Lord Jesus,” morphed into the mechanical (ex opere operato) delivery-system of a quasi-quan­ti­fied “grace” which guaranteed reward in heaven.  Such a change from free communal participation to individual self-interested accumulation, besides encouraging the formation of pusillanimous personalities, also meant a new power concentration in the hands of the “distributors” — those who controlled the mechanisms of salvation — the upper class hierarchy who insisted that they alone were authorized  to “administer” the sacraments.     

The Mysteries, resurrection and the theory of the two worlds

So we see there were a series of modulations occurring over hundreds of years that radically transformed Christianity.  Jesus’ vision of the free forgiveness and unconditional love of our “Father,” ritualized in a baptism of conversion and a shared meal among equals symbolizing an earthly morality of love and compassion, was ultimately distorted into a stratified mechanical system for the disbursement and accumulation of an imaginary other worldly currency.  This “grace” was conceived as a magic “something” that supposedly enabled compliance with an otherwise impossible morality and provided the wherewithal to avoid damnation in the other world to which we returned after death.  This distribution system was under the control of overseers from the upper classes identified with the slave-based stratifications of the Roman Empire and fully complicit with its theocratic claims and imperial projects.  And the first decisive step away from Jesus’ earthly vision and into the “two world” fantasy can be found recorded in the letters of Paul, whether he was primarily responsible for them or not, in his articulation of the Jesus-event as the achievement of immortality in the idiom of the Mystery religions.

The still unresolved controversies among Christian scholars about whether the resurrection of Jesus was literal or not have been nourished by the suspicion that the Mystery religion paradigm might have driven the interpretation of the “experiences of the risen Jesus” more than we would like to admit.  And if, besides impelling belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, the Mysteries were the influence that encouraged Plato to look for a solution to human origins and human destiny in a spiritual “other world,” then they also help explain the metaphysical “dualism” that dominated Christianity and from there western culture for two millennia.  Given the cultural importance of the Mysteries in Greek life, these developments may have been inevitable under any circumstances.  That Pauline Christianity became the vehicle of this dispersion may only have been a quirk of history.  But what is more important to us than the vagaries of western culture is what got by-passed in all of this: the message of Jesus.

The legacy of the man Jesus seems to have been determined more by those who exploited his magnetism than by any serious attempt to collect, thoroughly analyze and put into practice his suggestions for a simple program of human living.  To this day, the sayings, parables and personal interactions of this unimposing and uncredentialled … possibly even illiterate Jewish peasant … continue to inspire awe at the depth of his humanity.  Jesus, as his Jewish brothers would say, was a mensch.  Gleaning his words embedded in the highly theologized narrative accounts of the gospels and identifying his personal message is not an easy task.  But luckily, according to Jesus, we have more to go on than just his own words.  We have the promptings of our own human hearts which he said would guide us to know what “God” is like and how to imitate “him.”

… “If even you know how to give good things to your children, how much more does your Father who is in heaven.”  … “Look at the lilies of the field.  They neither toil nor do they spin, yet not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.”    ” … love your enemies … be like your Father in heaven who makes the sun shine on the good and the bad, and the rain fall on the just and the unjust.”  “… Father … forgive our offenses, as we forgive those who offend us.” 

There’s a “theology” here that is very different from those that have been elaborated in his name.  it’s not complicated at all.  Try it … taste and see … it’s very simple, and it works.

A New “Covenant”?

Paul and Law

In his letter to the Romans chapters 1 to 8, Paul argues that, as a salvific instrument, the “law” has been transcended; we are “saved” by grace not by the works of the law.  By “law,” of course, he means the Jewish “law,” the Torah, which includes all the observances of Judaism; and by “grace” he means the unconditional love of “God.”  Paul’s formula was an attempt to translate his vision of the Jesus-event into the terminology of the Judaic “covenant.”

The Torah was understood to embrace not only ritual and dietary commands but the moral law as well. That fact makes Paul’s presentation at first reading somewhat confusing because he seems to be saying that morality is no longer an essential part of our relationship with “God.” An interpretation of his thought based on this misperception was apparently so widespread during his lifetime that Paul felt he needed to correct it; and he did so twice in that letter by asking, rhetorically, “should we then sin so that grace may abound”?

Certainly, it is confusing that he is thinking at one moment of the Jewish religious observances and at another of basic morality without making any distinctions. But I think the major source of the confusion comes from a much deeper place. Paul is trying to describe a “new” relationship to “God” using the category of “law” and his efforts are directed at showing how the Torah is not abrogated but rather fulfilled by the death of Christ — fulfilled to such an extent that “salvation” itself no longer needs to be won by behavioral compliance, only accepted … in faith.  It was Jesus’ death, according to Paul, that “won salvation.”

While that formulation appears coherent on the surface, it is potentially self-contra­dic­tory because “faith” in this scheme can easily become a new “observance” that returns the supposedly unconditional relationship to quid pro quo status as we see actually happened with many fundamentalist Christian churches. “Salvation,” in this scheme, still needs to be “won,” and “faith” is simply the “new Law” that must be obeyed if we are to win it.  I believe this misrepresentation of Paul’s meaning and intention results from his attempt to show that there is not just a personal  but a categorical continuity between Judaism and his vision of Christianity; hence the term “new covenant.”  But I claim that there is no such continuity.  Whatever continuity there is, is a continuity of search and growth in understanding, not in conceptual structure.  Paul’s explanation results in an incoherence that is not just a matter of expression, but rather of a fundamental disparity of ideas.  Romans tries to sustain two contrary theological visions that are not compatible with one another, and the attempt to synthesize them does not work. This may require some unpacking.

On the “covenant” side of Paul’s vision is the notion of quid pro quo.  It is built on the imagery of relationship as a “contract” between two mutually distinct entities — “God” and man — with “salvation” (meaning “life”) in the balance for humankind.  This was the traditional Hebrew tribal agreement with Yahweh.  And the “grace” or Christian side conceives “salvation” (now “immortality”) as gratuitous and unconditional; “salvation,” in other words, is already guaranteed. Therein lies the disjunction.  I claim you cannot have both.  The unconditionality of “God’s” love — the core of Jesus’ message — is vitiated if “salvation” is ever in question, no matter what the terms and conditions.  If you are serious about unconditionality, then you are seriously challenging any quid pro quo character you would claim for the relationship. You cannot have both unconditional love, and a conditional salvation … but with Paul’s approach you cannot avoid it.

The root of the problem, I submit, is that Paul is trying to express Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness with categories developed for a quid pro quo contractual relationship as contemplated by the historic “covenant” with Israel.  Paul is using “covenant” imagery to convey a meaning to which it no longer applies.

What happened?

What happened, I believe, is this: Jesus, following the lead provided by Job and the prophets, came to see that God is unconditional love.  Without explicitly criticizing the old contractual imagery, Jesus invited his fellow Jews to lives of unconditional love in imitation of their “Father.”  But, without being expressed, what that had to mean was that the “covenant” as conceived by Judaism had to have been a fantasy all along; in other words, it never existed — there never was  any “contract.” That implies, therefore, that the vision of “God” projected by the traditional tribal contract does not and never did exist. The categories of autocratic demand and unquestioning obedience that were characteristic of the monarchical societies of the ancient near east were erroneously applied to the relationship with Yahweh; it is completely understandable, but, Jesus realized, nothing could be further from the truth.  He dealt with it charitably: he didn’t criticize, he simply dropped it.

Paul, for his part, in trying to systematize his vision, is clearly not willing to declare the entire Jewish tradition a gross mistake.  He is determined to identify Jesus as the full flowering of Judaism.  And while Jesus himself, from his own point of view, may have agreed with that conclusion, I believe Paul’s reassessment of the “covenant” was not nearly as radical as Jesus’ unspoken version.  As far as the old “contract” imagery was concerned, Jesus was able to “forget about it,” Paul was not.  Paul would insist that before Jesus came, the “God” of Judaism was correctly perceived and accurately characterized by the Jews as having a contractual relationship with them.  But that forces him to say that  because of the death of Jesus “God’s” attitude to us changed from the old “covenant” demand-for-compli­ance to a “new” one requiring only faith.  Jesus’ approach, in contrast, by-passing covenant language altogether, requires no change in “God” at all.

Furthermore, it was inconceivable to Paul that such a profound change in “God” (as he imagined) could have taken place without being occasioned if not caused by some historically transforming event; and that event could not have been something as insubstantial as a mere insight into the eternal loving character of “God.” He needed something more concrete and “efficacious” and it was his “experience” of the risen Jesus that gave him what he needed.  The resurrection retrospectively revealed that it was the death of Jesus, not a more accurate understanding of “God,” that was a transcendent event and changed the mind of “God.”

What we have here, therefore, is a profound difference of theological vision.  Paul’s convoluted pharisaic theologizing, by insisting on interpreting the Jesus event in the terms and categories of Judaism, ended up ironically muting Jesus’ vision and allowing for the Christian regression to the very quid pro quo relationship that he had sought to transcend.  For Paul, Jesus’ “sacrificial death” provided for the whole of humanity whatever the observance of the Torah was supposed to have achieved.  Subsequent generations, however, made faith (for protestants) and membership in the community of faith (for catholics) necessary conditions for access to “God’s” “new” attitude.  Quid pro quo remained the leitmotiv of the relationship with “God” and  Jesus’ vision of a loving “Father” got lost.

Cosmo-ontology and the existential energy of matter

Is there some way of coming at this whole question without using “covenant” categories, which we now recognize by Paul’s own intentions to be misleading? I believe the metaphors of Judaism, because they were taken literally, misled Paul and they will mislead us, unless they can be dispassionately evaluated by beginning on some other non-religious ground. I believe that none of the metaphors of religion should be given literal status.  They are all, I contend, the poetic reprise of a more prosaic “impersonal” reality.  I suggest the following scientific-philosophi­cal starting point that can be understood as the factual ground of the metaphors of religion.

I propose that “reality” is, first, accurately apprehended and described by science; … and secondly then, science’s measured perceptions are given their primary interpretation by a philosophy that works closely with scienceIt concludes that “reality” (“being,” if you will), is the existential energy of matter.  Nothing exists that is not matter’s energy.  This “stuff” of which all things are composed is not an inert, lifeless “substance,” but rather an effusive dynamism radiating an irrepressible energy to exist, to be.  This energy is responsible for all evolutionary development in the universe.  It is neither created nor destroyed.  It has “created” all things … and in it all things “live and move and have their being.”

That energy evolved into human form in us and is internally experienced as our conatus, the love of our own selves expressed in the uncontrollable drive to survive.  It is responsible for our “personalities” as self-identifiable centers of desire and the continuity of organic experience.  We are inescapably ecstatic over this “self-conscious existence” which makes us to be-here and to be us.  That inner self-embrace erupts into a spontaneous awe and dread (love of life and fear of its loss) which has in the past been metaphorically activated and expressed in the legends, taboos, commandments and ritual observances of religion.  Religion has generally assumed there was “someone” out-there, a “person” like us, to thank, placate and cajole in order to insure the maintenance of this existence.  But while we have since discovered that there is no one like that out there, the assumption was not pure unfounded projection.  It was grounded in the experience of material existence as emanating our own organic identity even while clearly transcending it, since it also emanates everything else we have ever experienced.  This energy is everywhere.  This energy is everything.  We are all made of matter’s existential energy.

So we hit a brick wall in our search for that “someone.”  Even though this existential energy transcends us in everyway, we know there is no identifiable single entity outside-of-us  — no rational “God” as we have understood the term — responsible for our being-here.  Existential energy is everything including us; it was here before us, and will be here when our personal confluence of particles loses its organic coherence-as-self and disappears.  It is precisely this immanent transcendence — this common and universal possession of the energy of matter by all things — that makes it impossible to separate “material energy” from myself.  Without that separation, there can be no “relationship” as we understand the term, as between persons.  There is no clear and unambiguous gratitude, no quid pro quo of any kind; for what I am attempting to relate to is in fact what constitutes my very self.

I claim that it is this common possession and personal appropriation of the living energy of mat­ter  that Jesus, following his Jewish tradition, perceived and poetically described as the uncondi­tional bene­volence of a loving “Father” who was the real source of his “DNA.”  Paul, for his part, even though he was a follower of Jesus, as in other cases did not use Jesus’ metaphor. Instead of “Father,” Paul chose to employ the tradition­al metaphors of the Jewish “covenant,” and tried to articulate existence as a “relation­ship” be­tween “persons” which has “divine command” and “human obedience” as its terms.  He tried to fit the hand of “unconditional love” into the glove of “com­­mand and obedience” and it will not fit.  Granted that both meta­phors — Jesus’ “Father” and Paul’s “covenant partner” — erroneous­ly describe an anthro­po­morphic “God,” they are not equally inconsistent with reality.  The universal “benevo­lence” of material energy, which science perceives at a phenome­no­logical level as random and imper­sonal, may poetically and quite appropriately be translated, as Jesus did, to the “unconditional love” of a “parent” to whom we are intimately related — like Father or Mother — without losing its essential uncon­di­tio­n­ality.  But it cannot be read as a covenant of command and compliance … even one where the compliance is considered accomplished by the death of a god, made freely available to all, and appropriated by faith  for in this case the unconditionality is lost.  The “death” is still required as compliance or “payment.”  The distribu­tion of Christ’s payment might be free, in Paul’s conception, but the payment itself still had to be made, and it was the messiah who was prophesied to make it.  Quid pro quo  ruled, and the entire drama from Adam to Jesus was dominated by the category of obedience.  No wonder “faith” was also misinterpreted as obedience. 

Jesus, I submit, would not have recognized such a “God” as his “Father.”  For Jesus, “God” wanted nothing from us whatsoever.  There was no quid pro quo of any kind.  For Jesus the very idea of “redemption” would have been utterly foreign, and “faith” as “obedience” incomprehensible.

So Paul and Jesus are definitely out of synch with one another in the religious metaphors they used to describe the same phenomenon: our “reality”  — the mystery of material existence.  Jesus’ metaphors, like “Father,” I believe, by avoiding all “scholarly” categories and confining themselves to simple human symbols, hew more closely to reality as science can measure and describe it.  Paul’s theological approach by using traditional religious imagery formed in an ancient tribal context produces a confusion that can undermine the very core of Jesus’ vision.

Redemption?

Jesus and Paul

 What did Paul really think about Jesus? It is strange that he cited Jesus’ words only once in 13 epistles and he never referred to his way of life or anything he did. Perhaps the communities he was writing to all had “gospels” or collections of Jesus’ “sayings” and he didn’t feel he needed to repeat them. But given the practical problems he addressed in those letters, one would think the example of Jesus’ life would have been applicable to a number of issues. But he never says a word about it. For Paul, it seems, it was Jesus’ death, not his life that was important.

But perhaps this strange anomaly has a source and reason. The witnesses to Jesus’ message, his disciples, had to find a way to explain the crucifixion. They clearly had not been prepared for it by Jesus. Christianity, I believe, was born in that search for an explanation. His followers concluded that Jesus’ execu­tion by the Roman occupational forces was not, as it appeared, the defeat of an earthly human project, it was rather the triumphant climax of a “heavenly” cosmic project that was not apparent in Jesus’ life and words. It seems that Jesus’ teaching, work as healer and simplicity of life were all seen by Paul and other Greek Christians as virtually insignificant in comparison with the “work” that “saved” humanity: his death on the cross — the rectification of the cosmic order … reversing the disobedience of Adam … “buying back” the world from Satan … gaining immortality for humankind … redemption!

“Redemption” says in one word what Greek Christianity is all about … in contrast to what Jewish Jesus was all about. Jesus was a Jew. His message was about how Jews should live on earth, not about the Greek obsession with immortality. His life-style was an example of what he preached and that included the way he died. Greek Christians, on the other hand, as evidenced by the letters of Paul, were focused on the fact that Jesus died, and what his death meant to “God” and the cosmic order. For Paul, Jesus’ death changed ”God’s” relationship to us, making us, for the first time, participants in divinity. Jesus, on the other hand, had a different agenda. He was focused on changing our attitude toward “God” making us imitators of divine forgiveness, love and generosity. For Paul, Jesus’ death created a new intimacy with the immortal God, something never heard of before, giving us a share in divine immortality. But for Jesus, his quiet acceptance of death at the hands of the imperial Roman thugs bore witness to an intimacy with “God” that was as old as Judaism itself. Immortality was not the issue for Jesus; trust in his “Father” was. Paul’s vision implied another life after death; Jesus’ vision contemplated turning life on earth into a paradise of justice and love — what he called the “kingdom of ‘God,'” (a term, by the way, that Paul never used). For Paul Jesus’ life was consistent with the transcendent significance of his death. For Jesus, his death was consistent with the simple, trusting, loving way he lived his life.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. At the beginning of the “common era” (ce), a Jewish “messiah” tried to change the world and was killed for it by the foreign empire that occupied and was plundering his land. Today we can appreciate what Jesus was trying to do and so we see it for the human triumph that it really was. We have seen others triumph in like manner: Romero, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi. What Paul may have considered insignificant for “redemption,” we see as the saving power of the struggle for human justice … the only hope for our species and our planet. The Catholic Church’s insistence on the absurd doctrine of “Original Sin” derives from the almost exclusive focus on a belief in Jesus’ supernatural “redemptive” death as opposed to his human message and simple life-style. Other worldly “redemption” has come to dominate wes­tern Christian thinking on who Jesus was and why he was significant for us. That situation has changed in our times. We see things differently. “Salvation” means something utterly human to us. We need to explain the significance of the cross for us … without any metaphysical fantasy about the Garden of Eden, or how Jesus’ death placated and “changed” the attitude of an angry “God.”

Jesus’ changeless “Father”

Jesus’ new understanding of the traditional Covenant — the contract — between Israeland Yahweh did not represent a change in the character of Yahweh; rather it involved a change in the cultural assumptions of the Jewish people. Jesus’ vision of the covenant as love and not a quid pro quo of prosperity for obedience was built precisely on the changeless fidelity of a benevolent “God.” Augustine’s traditional doctrine of “Original Sin,” on the other hand, implies a change in “God’s” relationship and attitude toward us, dependant on human behavior. It imagines this change occurred more than once. “God” changed from love to anger because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden, and then back again from anger to love because of Jesus’ obedience at the crucifixion. But even with that, Augus­tine still could not account for the suffering we endure in life — notwithstanding “redemption” — without positing an enduring anger in “God” that co-exists with his love. By Augustine’s own theological categories this is preposterous.

Jesus saw things very differently from all of that. For him, there was never any change in “God.” What he saw was that his loving “Father’s” unconditional benevolence had never been understood from the very beginning. He made it his mission to correct that misunderstanding and to set his companions and co-religionists straight on what Yahweh was really like. This was not some personal “shtick” of his. It was consistent with a long line of Jewish prophetic teaching focused on the same issue going way back in Jewish history. The quid pro quo “contract” mentality was challenged very early … as early as the Book of Job in the 6th century bce. Job had a blinding vision of “God’s” superabundant generosity and came to love “God” gratuitously — not holding Yahweh bound to the terms of the contract. It was the beginning of the re-evaluation of the “covenant.”

The Hebrews, like all the peoples of the near east in ancient times, assumed they had a “deal” with their national “god.” Prosperity in return for moral and ritual compliance would presumably enhance Yahweh’s standing among the nations and their gods. Job’s culture-shattering insight broke with that assumption. It was based on a vision of the vastness of creation itself. Yahweh was the overwhelming creative power behind all things that were. There were no other gods. Yahweh had no need of Job’s obedience and ritual sacrifices, and “he” punished no one for “he” forgave without limit. Job realized his suffering did not come from this Yahweh. Once Job saw reality for what it was, his complaints ceased for they had no basis. There was no “deal.” The “deal” was superabundant love.

The prophets, trying to understand the breakdown of the Jewish state, continued Job’s reassessment as they agonized over the utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the humiliating exile and decimation of the population of Judahin 587 bce. Where was the traditional “covenant” in all this? The prophets challenged the stock answers viz., that they were being punished for breaking faith with Yahweh. … “No”! the prophets said, “God” loves us no matter what. Despite Israel’s failures, the exile was not the act of an angry “God” who had been denied the blood of sacrifice and obedient submission, but rather the direct consequences of relying on power and wealth in an unjust social order. “I don’t care about your sacrifices,” they poetically imagined Yahweh saying. “What I want is that you treat one another with justice and compassion.” The exploitation of the poor by the rich was always at the center of the prophets’ denunciations, and setting things right was the heart of their vision and their mission.

Taught by Jesus, his disciples developed an awareness of what the entire history of the relationship to Yahweh was saying with an evolving clarity. They were learning at Jesus’ knee that the Covenant — the contract — was not a quid pro quo. It was not about national or personal prosperity in exchange for obedience and ritual compliance. The covenant was simply about love and the unconditional acceptance between God and people — “Father” and children — that necessarily accompanies it. “God” our “Father” loves us unconditionally; we, his children, embrace our provenance, our genetic inheritance, and surrender to love unconditionally just like our “Father.” And just as Job decided to “love” God and accept that “God” loved him despite the overwhelming losses he suffered, Jesus’ death represented the ultimate sign that the relationship to “God” was bedrock — no matter the context — for “God” does not change. For Jesus, as for Job, there was no guarantee of recompense whatsoever, for there was no contract.  Death did not represent a “change” in the relationship with our “Father.” The clearest way to announce that realization definitively was to say that the symbol of our trusting relationship to “God” was Jesus’ death on the cross. Death had no power over the love between “Father” and son.

This is very different from Paul’s interpretation of what Jesus did to “save” us. Paul was changed by what he saw on the road toDamascus. Paul saw a “new” Jesus transformed by death, and decided to live his life based on that Jesus, not the one who walked and died among us whom he never knew. For Paul, death changed Jesus, and Paul believed that “God” changed in response to the death of Jesus. But Jesus would have disagreed. For Jesus “God” does not change. “God’s” love for us does not depend on us or our behavior. There is no law or contract with the creative power of the universe. “God” is not now nor was “he” ever angry with us. There was no “original sin.” There is no Satan who “owns” us. “God” punishes no one and death is a natural part of the gift of life.

From what, then, do we need to be “redeemed” … except our nightmares?