The publication of Gary Wills’ book, Why Priests? has been announced for the 12th of February. Advanced notices indicate that his approach will be fairly straightforward: there were no priests in the early church, and the very notion of “sacrifice,” the raison d’etre for priests, is a theological category that originally was used as a way of understanding the crucifixion, but it was not central to Christian worship. The advertisements go on to say that Wills challenges the primary importance given to “sacrifice” and its representative rituals (the mass as sacrifice rather than a memorial meal) in the West. Without “sacrifice” there is no need for priests.
Wills prefers the Incarnation as the primary hermeneutic for “the Christ event.” In support of this he might validly adduce the example of Eastern Christianity. The central theological and spiritual category of Greek Orthodoxy is theosis, “divinization,”: it can be summed up in Athanasius’ phrase, “God became man, in order that man may become God.” With such a vision, the Incarnation predominates and renders all other doctrines ancillary to its transcendent mysticism. In the East “Sacrifice” was a somewhat poetic description of the meaning of the cross, while in the West it was taken literally.
Some might hope that this simple reordering of Christian thematic priorities, leaving all else essentially unchanged, will perform a dogmatic purge of sufficient depth to finally accomplish the reform intended by Vatican II — a reform that has continued to elude the Church for half a century. I demur. Despite delivering a telling and long-overdue blow to the myth of priestly power and authority, in my opinion the implementation of Wills’ suggestions would not eliminate the most damaging aspects of the Roman Church’s role in the world nor end its recoil from the vision opened up by the Council.
Resistance to reform will not be neutralized even by the end of the priesthood. For the Incarnation itself, as generally understood, can be and has been used for much more than theosis. If history has taught us anything, it’s that in the hands of those with an agenda of ethnic superiority or political domination, the Incarnation can serve as a bludgeon of coercion against which there is virtually no defense. It has provided the uninterrupted justification of Roman Catholic “exclusivism” and “infallibilism,” i.e., that “outside the Church there is no salvation” and that the ordinary magisterium (the bishops as a body together with the Pope), is infallible. Think about it. Incarnation means Jesus was “God himself.” A religion founded by “God himself” can never be wrong and will not tolerate competition. All other religious traditions are invalid; whatever of “truth” that they contain is decided by the Catholic Church alone. The Incarnation, traditionally understood, would still support all this because the “God” imagined is an all powerful ruler and punitive dictator. The implications of the doctrine are determined by the kind of “God” that becomes flesh.
A different “God,” a different Incarnation
The current understanding of the Incarnation includes the imagery associated with a supernatural theist “God.” How you define “God” lies at the heart of these arrogant Roman Catholic claims. Change your concept of “God” and everything changes with it — including the Incarnation. Theism says that the “God” who became man in the person of Jesus was the creating, miracle-working, commanding “Yahweh” depicted in the Old Testament. I contend that such a “God” does not exist and the claim that that “God” became man is false. If the man Jesus, as I claim, was not “God” by those standards, then the legalistic, coercive and punitive character of Western religiosity manifested in Roman Catholicism is fatally undermined, and the Church that ruled and coerced and punished in that “God’s” name is dethroned. Such a profound reform will require nothing less than a completely new understanding of what it means to say that Jesus was “God.”
The “God” that St Paul believed does exist is not “theist” but “pan-entheist.” That means everything exists in “God;” we are part of the divine reality. John said “God” is LIFE. The real “God” is the energy from which our very organisms emanate. “God” is not a separate entity-person, did not create the universe by intention and design, does not micro-manage the universe, does not perform miracles, has issued no commandments, and does not reward or punish after death. This view of things will not sit well with those committed to “exclusivism” and “infallibilism.” The notion that religion is primarily a bulwark of the state and a motivational force for socially compliant behavior needs a “theist” God to move its agenda forward. A pan-entheist “God,” in contrast, does nothing but make it possible for us to be ourselves. A theist “God” is the “God” we are used to, and it may never have occurred to us to think about “God” in any other way. Can “God” be anything else and still be “God”?
The theist “God” is really a modern innovation devloped by taking the poetic descriptors of the Hebrew scriptures as if they were literal scientific truth. Those imaginary projections of a pre-scientific people were creative attempts to make sense out of a perplexing world. They are still valuable to us as poetry. It helps us relate to a “God” so different from anything we are familiar with as to be truly called “Unknown.”
The real “God” is not like the theist “God” at all. “He” is not different or separate from us; “God” is LIFE and we come from “his” very being … more like offspring derived from the very cells of a parent than an object made by a craftsman. This is a “God” who does not command and control us. With such a “God,” Incarnation can no longer be used to support the arrogant claims of a an ancient theocratic Empire that created the Catholic Church to keep its authority alive and justify its conquests.
The “pan-entheist” idea of “God” was traditional in ancient Christianity, but it was a tradition that has been lost to us. It recognizes that there is a living source of all things to which we are intimately related and to which we are grateful for everything we are. This “God” is LIFE. This ancient imagery doesn’t think of “God” as an “entity” separate from the universe (including us) and it doesn’t impute “personality” to “God” because that word is completely locked into human experience. The shorthand description of this “God” is found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 17 which narrates Paul’s speech in the Areopagus in Athens. He told his listeners that “God” gives life to all things and
is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ (New RSV)
That key phrase is one that I use in my blogs over and over again: “in him we live, and move, and have our being.” “God is LIFE and we are alive in LIFE. The metaphor is that we are “God’s” offspring, “God’s” children, and “God” is our Father. How can we imagine this? Just think about the living material of which we are made. Our bodies, our organisms, so full of life, are comprised of the very same elements as everything in the universe. We are a part of “God” in the same way — made of what “God” is made of, and in “God’s” image and likeness. With such a “God” as our Father, we are all like “God” because we are all “his” offspring made from “his” substance. Jesus’ preferred term was “Father.”
And those whom we revere because we have seen that they are like “God,” we say are “God” among us. Jesus of Nazareth was one of these. The metaphoric nature of that statement shouldn’t blind us to the depth of its truth. We are all “God’s” offspring. The “incarnation” is another word for what we are … each and every one of us. We are all “God” incarnate, and we display it most clearly when, aware of who we are, we love one another, giving life and energy as LIFE gives life and energy. That Jesus incarnated “God” to a superlative degree doesn’t prevent us from understanding that he was simply more of what we all are, “God’s” offspring.
So if professor Wills wants to substitute the Incarnation of “God” for sacrifice and its entourage of priests as the ruling theme of a renewed Christianity, he must make sure he has the right understanding of what “God” means. The theist “God” we have imagined does not exist. If that is what we mean by “God,” then there is no “God.” And until we can safely say that that word no longer conjures the fallacies and distortions propagated by our western Roman version of christianity, we should stop using it. What word then should we use? Perhaps we can repeat over and over to ourselves like a mantra — until we learn — the words of St Paul:
“in whom we live and move and have our being.”