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.

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4 comments on “A New “Covenant”?

  1. theotheri says:

    Tony – It’s a courageous post. With the kind of thinking that must be done if we are to make Christianity compatible with modern science.

    You say that we should not give metaphors of religion a literal status. I agree. Not only does the use of metaphor-as-story reflect Hebraic thought, but metaphors are far more powerful in motivating and teaching if they are NOT taken literally. As children begin to realize that there is a difference between imagination and objective reality, they start asking at about the age of 5 if something is “true.” But it is not until they are 10 or 12 that they generally come to understand that something can be “true” on another level – the way poetry is true or music or art is true. I think that much of fundamentalist religion has not understood this more mature level of metaphor, and so misses much of its power.

    In this context, I do find myself just a little uneasy with your saying that reality is “accurately apprehended and described by science.” Especially today when too many people think that scientific fact is immutable, is true in some absolute sense. It’s not, and “facts” change in science far more often than most people appreciate. Facts are conclusions we reach as a result of examining the objective evidence within the context of a theory. When the theory changes, so do the facts.

    It was a fact, for instance, for thousands of years that the earth was flat and that the sun went around the earth. We had the evidence of our own senses to prove this. With Copernicus and then Galileo, the evidence didn’t change but our interpretation of it did. It happened again in the 19th century when quantum mechanics shed a completely new light on Newton’s theory of gravity. Etc. So I would prefer to say not that reality is accurately described by science but that science reflects reality as we understand it today.

    Which gets us back to religious metaphor. In The View from the Center of the Universe, Primack and Abrams argue that we need new metaphors that are consonant with science and which are believable. I don’t think believable is the right term. I would rather say we need metaphors that resonate, and they are more apt to resonate if they fit in with reality as we understand and experience it. For instance, the story of a ship lost in outer space might resonate more with many people today than the story of Noah’s Ark. But the power of each is not that they are literally true but that they can speak with hope to that part of us which sometimes feel cuts adrift, wandering alone in a vast universe.

    Okay, I will stop. As you may have noticed by now, I often read what you have written, and then translate parts I like best into posts on my own blog. Most of the above probably belongs there, though I do appreciate the dialogue on those occasions when you do not agree with my particular “translation.”

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, hi!

      Thanks for the ample commentary. I am gratified that you have picked up on that very issue as it needs to be explored. Both what we call “literal” and the metaphors we apply to it have to be clarified as to their significance as well as the nature and the validity of the process by which they are generated. It’s nice to have you working on the “metaphor” side of things … or at least looking for ways to express in what way the ‘literal’ should be taken. It’s good to keep “literal” in its proper place, but it’s also important to not give the religious literalists a way to get their foot in the door and claim that all these “literalisms” are on a par and with the same “dubious” claim to “fact.” Metaphor is the language of relationship. Science is the language of what we see and measure. I can see and measure my partnerr whom I love … but the image and the measurement does not express my relationship, or what else the relationship allows me to “see.” For that I need other “descriptors” that, while they are applied to the same reality, they are not applied in the same way.

      All this needs to be hammered out … discussed and argued … until we can come up with a generally acceptable articulation of the interaction beyween our ways of knowing … our ways of relating … and our ways of speaking.

      I look forward to future contributions from you on this issue, either here or on your blog. It’s at the heart of the matter.

      Peace … and thanks again,
      Tony

  2. Leon Krier says:

    Since “God,” “reality” (“stuff”), “someone,” “person,” “etc,” are all so “quotable,” “I” “thought” it might be pertinent to make “this comment” in response to “Tony Equale” who once again offered an enlightening reflection. Pondering such “transcendence” of “matter’s energy” emphasized once again the importance of this “moment” of my “personal confluence of particles” and thus “I” sign in gratitude for this “blog” held “permanent” in the “cloud.” “Leon Krier”

    • tonyequale says:

      Leon,

      Touché … but, since words, especially certain important ones like “God,” simply do not fit, quote marks immediately invite the reader to “understand” when they might otherwise be inclined to say they do not know what I am talking about. The point is, they “understand” all too well, but feign bewilderment to avoid the unpleasant business of metanoia which may seem to denote a change of mind but really involves a change of heart.

      It’s the heart, after all, that hides behind the defenses of the mind. The heart, according to some in our ancient tradition, cannot change without divine help. We ironically find that proposition convincing if only because on the rare occasion when we’ve witnessed such a change occur, it seems like a miracle.

      But that is beyond us. All we can do is try to find ways to make words understandible … and that can only happen if the listener herself is actively engaged in trying to “understand.” Quotes immediately suggest there is something more to the word than its conventional meaning.

      In the case of “God” whatever could that be?

      Tony

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