What’s the Story?

Atheists are typically accused of being moral cripples.  It is assumed that because they do not believe in “God” they also do not believe in life-after-death and therefore they “live only for the moment” and for the “delights of this world.”  They are suspected of being addicted to passing pleasures — hedonists that have no other option than to find happiness here and now.  “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”  Non-religious people tend to be lumped together with them.  After all, Christian or not, if they do not go to Church, they are obviously not concerned about what happens to their “souls” after death.  That means, despite their claims, they really do not believe in “God” the “judge of the living and the dead.” 

Religious people make all manner of judgments using this simple hermeneutic.  They will blithely apply their criteria to situations that range from the mundane to the momentous.  They are convinced that faith in “God” and living morally is determined by how interested you are, not in life on this earth, but in life-after-death in another world.

Being interested in life-after-death in another world clearly requires a significant detachment from spontaneous feelings — a detachment that amounts to a sustained mistrust and suppression of the body.  Bodily needs generate spontaneous feelings that are focused solely on life in this material universe.  The body knows nothing of “life-after-death” therefore it can be assumed in advance that it will lead us astray, simply because it is unavoidably riveted on this world.  It has to be.  It is flesh and knows no better.  However innocent, my body is my enemy and I must treat it as such.  It is a subhuman presence that accompanies me like a shadow wherever I go.  My humanity has been corrupted and cannot be trusted.  If I am to fulfill my destiny in the other world, the body must be conquered and its spontaneous misdirections neutralized.

These warnings apply not only to oneself; they are true of everyone.  No one can be trusted;  and unbaptized “heathen” — traditionally identifiable by the color of their skin — who have no knowledge of the “one true ‘God’” and “his” commands, are the most untrustworthy of all.  What has been called their “culture” amounts to little more than a lack of concern for controlling their spontaneous desires.  They are undisciplined.  Their naïve identification with their bodily urges makes them the epitome of the subhuman.

That’s the story

Sound familiar?  It’s the same old story.  Pardon me if I interrupt it.  It is rubbish.  It needs no refutation; the description alone is enough to establish its absurdity.  It’s a story Christians have told themselves since the days of Augustine.  And being patently absurd, it ironically presents a counter-proof that allows us, arguing backwards, as it were, to conclude that the original premises that led to it had to have been equally absurd.

“Arguing backwards” is the key to this whole exercise.  It suggests that with questions about “religious doctrine” we already know the answers before we start.  Contrary to traditional Christian propaganda, our human instincts rooted in our bodies can be trusted.  Human organisms are the developments of LIFE.  They are the fundamental source for imagining (and evaluating) the “religious doctrine” — the story — that symbolizes and energizes how we want to live LIFE.  In this respect, the “heathen” in fact have been more faithful to the integrity of their humanity than Christians.

In the case of Christianity, we can see how the very idea of reward and punishment in a spirit-world after-death in and of itself skews our relationship to our bodies, ourselves.  The belief in “two worlds,” one of flesh and matter and the other of mind and spirit has resulted in the human organism itself being split in two — mind from body, spirit from flesh.  Once it is set in place, this schizoid misperception goes on to impose its deformations on everything in its pathThings take on value depending upon how “spiritual” — i.e., mental, cerebral — they are; and everything identified as originating in the body and its spontaneities becomes suspect, if not worthless.  Nothing “bodily” and physically satisfying can survive unless it is re-categorized under the rubric of rationality.  Examples?

Let’s take “work.”  Work is held in high regard because it requires the conquest and domination of the body.  Work in our culture is valued as much for its disciplinary effect as for its productive output.  Hence it became the core of the ascetical program in monasteries, the instrument of personal rehabilitation in penitentiaries (the very name reflects its religious roots) and the clever excuse of the 16th century Spanish conquistadores who diabolically devised the encomienda system to justify the wholesale enslavement of the Amerindian population in the name of Christian formation.  Work made you holy because it brought the body under subjection.

We still live with the reverberations of this ancient story.  There is no attempt to mitigate the oppression of laborious tasks.  Hard, boring, dangerous and body-damaging repetitive toil, often expended on the production of items whose real value is questionable, characterizes the way the majority of working people spend their lives.   Yes, of course, slave labor has been utilized from time immemorial for the monumental “achievements” of the great empires of the past, but in their case the oppression was not justified on any other basis than selfish coercion.  The slave worked for the benefit of the master or else … end of storyBut it is relevant to the evaluation of our Christian heritage that the same effect has been produced by internalizing values derived from an imaginary “life after death in another world” and a belief in the alien, subhuman nature of one’s own body.  In this we are truly unique … and our “wage slavery” uniquely dehumanizing, for we are asked to dehumanize ourselves out of an abundance of self-hatred. 

Here’s another.  The torture and mutilation of children have always been used as ways of creating a society of compliant adults.  According to the Codex Mendoza, a 16th century manuscript of Aztec pictograms, recalcitrant children were pricked with Maguey needles and made to breathe in smoke produced by burning chili peppers.  While such measures are barbaric in our eyes, the Christian practice, familiar to the elders among us, of implanting a fear of hell and purgatorial suffering after death as soon as the child reached the age of reason, was a mental torture focused on “another world” that resulted in a permanent fear of “God” and an unnatural obeisance before authority.  Most of us were made to go to confession at the time of first communion, 6 years old, and in preparation were educated in what “sins” needed to be confessed.  It came as a shock to learn that missing mass on Sunday was a “mortal sin” meriting eternal punishment.  Eternal!  We laugh at such foolishness today, but hell was no laughing matter for a child.  In comparison with breathing chili smoke the mental torture of discovering that the “God” who made you would punish you forever for minor infractions, is no less barbaric.  Tender minds like tender lungs are easily scarred for life.

Then there’s sex:  the quintessential example of carnal treachery, the sexual urge is to be suppressed entirely except for its disciplined, rationalized utilization in the reproduction of the species.  Until fairly recently Catholic “teaching” insisted that taking pleasure in sex for its own sake even within marriage was minimally a “venial” sin.  The current persistence of these very same rationalist norms in the ongoing prohibition of artificial birth control, despite claims to the contrary, shows that the madness continues unabated.  Yes, of course, every culture takes the potentially disruptive power of sex and tries to “sublimate” it to constructive goals, but the senseless application, in our Catholic culture, of dry cerebral logic as the exclusive standard by which sexual behavior is to be evaluated, borders on the insane.

Derived from these standards, a sense of shame and guilt about anything associated with genitalia and their functions created a schizoid self-loathing that started very early in people’s lives … so early for some, in fact, that later in life not even psychoanalysis could dredge up the memory of when it began.  From the time we were little children, everything conveyed the message that sex and our sexual parts were so shameful that we wished they did not exist.  Sex was never to be mentioned.  No one explained the sexual functions; adolescent boys were left to wallow in shame over nocturnal “pollution” (sic!) and learn about sex from the streets … and girls were routinely traumatized by the unexpected arrival of their menses.  The silence over sex was deafening.  Incomprehensible?  Not once you understand the premises.

I have no intention of beating a dead horse.  These sexual issues are well in the past for us, but I bring them up because they were the derivatives of premises that are still with us … premises that continue to distort our humanity.  The problem is the premises, what has come to be known as “Christian Doctrine,” the story we tell ourselves.

So, what’s the story?

The Christian doctrines in question here are those that tell the story of the existence of another world — a world of spirit — and our destiny to live there after we die.  Jesus did not believe in that story, nor did his immediate followers.  They told a different story entirely: resurrection, —the revivification of the material human organism — this concrete human body.  They believed that “God” would bring these flesh and blood bodies of ours back to life again on this very earth, similarly transformed so that injustice, exploitation, slavery, the arrogance of power and the slaughter of innocents, not to mention hypocritical blasphemies like the encomienda system, would be forever banned.  It was not  a spiritual “heaven” they were after, it was a transformed material earth.  However naïvely unrealistic you might consider their vision, you have to look at its focus: it was this earth they were speaking about, this clod of soil, this world of grubby matter and its living energies and our organic humanity as part of it.  And the transformation they imagined was specifically focused on justice in human society; they projected an end to the exploitation obtained through the violence of conquest by the blood-spilling, blood-sucking empires, the last and worst of which (at that time) was the Great Whore daughter of Babylon, Rome.  They were not talking about another world of spirit nor were they interested in accepting the current Roman system as “penance” to earn entrance to that other world.  Don’t be confused by superficial similarities, one-world and two-world stories are contrary visions.

That the soul was separable from the body and destined to live as a disembodied “spirit” in that other world was a Greek idea specific to Plato; not even the Greek Stoics shared it, and certainly not the Hebrew religious thinkers who had produced the scriptures and the Jewish tradition to which Jesus and Paul were heir.  What we are looking at is a major disjunction between these two stories.  How do we deal with this?  The hierarchical model which we have inherited, described in my April 9 post on revisionism,  is at stark variance with both Jesus’ vision and its original translation into Greek categories by Paul.  Can we go back to what our founders had in mind?   Let’s think about this.

The story of the parousía, that the second coming was imminent, was abandoned within two generations after Paul’s death — probably by the middle of the second century and it was abandoned with good reason.  Christians realized Jesus was not coming back and they would have to accept living in the oppressive Roman Empire as it was.  Paul’s mythic vision could not defend itself against the literalist Platonism that dominated Mediterranean thinking.  It resulted in the formation of the hierarchical (class dominated) two-world Christian Church that Constantine found so compatible with Roman imperial goals and practices.  That is the Church we inherited.

Things have not changed.  The imminent coming of Christ is no more likely now than it was in 150 ce.  Jesus’ and Paul’s expectation, taken literally, was a gross miscalculation — yes, an illusion.  It was not true and still is not.  It was a story — a poetic narrative, a Myth — that embodied the attitudes and relationships that inspired their vision.  It cannot be defended as science or fact … nor should it be.


Myth is at the heart of religion.  We use myth — story— to guide our lives.  Myth is a poetic narrative that appeals to the imagination.  We know what we want, but it remains fuzzy until we can articulate it.  That’s the function of myth.  Myth is a story that explains who we think we are, what we think life is and how we want to live it.   Here’s an example of such a “myth:”

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

I seriously doubt that anyone thinks that that story refers to something that actually happened.  And yet all are inspired by it and can use it to guide their lives.  It is a poetic narrative, a parable, that we cherish and actively remember, repeat, proclaim and promote.  It is a Myth.

It’s worth reminding ourselves there are two senses of the word “myth.”  One refers to factuality, the other to vision.  “Myth” in the first sense means just plain false; “Myth” in the second sense is “a narrative of religious hope and aspiration.”  Let’s be clear.  The story that says that there are two worlds, one of matter and the other of spirit is a myth in the first and very worst sense of the word: it claims to be a fact but it is not.  But it’s also a Myth in the second sense, i.e., it is a story that has been proposed to guide our lives and it has done so for more than 1500 years.  By the same token, the myth of an imminent general resurrection, while it is, factually speaking, not true either, metaphorically it’s a story that evokes the triumph of life — human justice and compassion — over the most heinous forms of dehumanization and oppression in society.  It’s a story, not about reward in a “spirit” world for obedience in this world of matter, but about the power of LIFE to conquer the terrors of death and the exploitative coercions of man by man in the only world there is — this one we all live in.

Consider this: however literally mistaken, early Christian communities used that belief about an imminent resurrection to project some of the communitarian and egalitarian features that we, in our times, want our churches and our communities to have.  We want a classless non hierarchical Christian community that will be the ferment — the leaven — for the reign of justice within larger society here and now in this world.  We have discovered that the story of the general resurrection was what helped Jesus and his followers sustain that effort.  It was a literal illusion that unleashed the metaphorical power embedded in the narrative of creating a new world.  They behaved “as if” they were living out a life transformed by LIFE’s transcendent creative power to elicit justice and compassion.  There is nothing to prevent us from tapping into that power.

The same imagery can produce the same results for anyone who chooses to live according to its vision.  But I want to emphasize: it is a choice.  There is nothing obligatory here.  Those who feel this story works for them may decide to use it; some others may prefer to steer clear of anything that is not a fact.  We are, after all, formed in the mindset of modern science, and living by “Mythic” truth may not be emotionally possible for many of us.  I am not insisting the parousía story is some sort of litmus test for Christian membership; I am simply defending its legitimate use as the founding myth that drove Jesus’ vision and the earliest communities.  And it stands in stark contrast with the current hierarchical Myth of the two-worlds, which does not.

I am not claiming it is fact any more than Jesus was claiming the Samaritan was somebody he actually knew; it is an inspiring saga.  It’s a script, and following it we can “act out” a new way of relating to ourselves, to others and to the earth.  It’s the way we change our lives.  It puts into practice a new human behavior that our current social imagery — the equally non-literal and symbolic mainstream fiction about “another world” — does not.  We are opposing a symbol with a symbol, one poetic story with a another, because we want to substitute one way of living for another.  The narrative gets its validity from the life it inspires, not the other way around.  Our choice of story is determined by our resident humanity.

Fear of flying

I am aware that “choosing our story” puts the ball squarely in our court.  It gives us a responsibility for religion that we are not used to and that, frankly, we are not comfortable with.  We are accustomed to thinking of religion as the voice of “God” and the hierarchy as its infallible spokesmen.  Our job was to listen, believe and obey.  But it’s time we matured: religion is our story, not “God’s.”  When we accept “God” as Paul described as “that in which we live and move and have our being” then we are accepting our intimate participation in the LIFE that John said “was from the beginning.”  We are part of LIFE.  Religion is the story of how we see and commit ourselves to that LIFE evolving.

This is a new perspective for many of us.  We have been formed and frozen in the belief that “God” was someone out there separate from us and that we had to bridge the chasm between us and reach “him” with our submissive obedience.  But if “God” is that “in which we live and move and have our being,” there is no reaching necessary; there is no chasm, we are already there.  Being in intimate contact with “God” is the pre-condition of our being-here at all.

But we have to recognize how nice it is not having responsibility.  Maybe we were inclined to let the hierarchy do our thinking and make decisions for us because it let us off the hook.  Catholic “infallibilism” reduced our multitude of anguished questions about the meaning of life and how we should live it to just one: what does the Church teach?  We were reassured that all was well; life was guaranteed for eternity, and all we had to pay for this peace of mind was the small price of our freedom.  We conveniently forgot that Jesus had called us to shoulder our autonomous responsibility when, referring to our religious teachers, he said: “by their fruits YOU will know them,” thus making it quite clear that he thought the heart of man was the ultimate arbiter of religious truth.  That conviction dominated his life’s work.  Jesus taught in parables.  He knew his listeners could discern the truth of what he was saying because it would resonate with what was already in their hearts.   Maybe this is the greatest shock of all.   The face of “God” is limned in our flesh.  Our bodies are “God’s” story.

I am not the only one who has been struck by the paradoxical benefit that humans derive from surrendering their freedom.  In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky addressed it in a lengthy parable that is recognized as one of the classics of world religious literature.  It is called “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” In it, Ivan, the story teller, imagines that Jesus has returned to 16th century Spain and walks the streets of Seville the day after an auto da fé at which heretics were burned at the stake.  He is immediately recognized by the little people who are drawn to him.  Crowds gather.  The situation comes to the attention of the authorities and Jesus is arrested by the orders of the Grand Inquisitor himself, Cardinal Torquemada.  Jesus is thrown in prison and condemned as a heretic to be burned the following day.  The Cardinal visits him in his cell and launches into a long monologue directed at the silent Jesus.  This is the gist of what he says:  You think I don’t know who you are?  Why have you come back to disrupt and impede our work?  We have labored these 1500 years to rectify what you did.  You proclaimed human freedom and challenged people to assume their autonomous responsibility.  You knew very well what burdens you were laying on their shoulders.  You said you loved them but you did not, for it is a burden no one can bear.  We are their true saviors.  We alone love them.  We have worked hard to neutralize your challenge.  Do you think we will let you undo our efforts?  We will not!  And the people will love us for it.  They will come to us and lay their freedom at our feet and beg us to save them … (the following is excerpted directly from the book:)

“… and they will submit to us gladly.  The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all.  And they will be glad to believe our answer for it will save them from the great fear and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.  And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except we who rule over them.  For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.  There will be thousands of millions of happy ones and we few sufferers who have taken upon ourselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.  Peacefully they will die, peacefully in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death.  But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity.”[1]

Perhaps it will help us overcome our “fear of flying” to remember that it was Jesus himself that encouraged us. “The Sabbath was made for man,” he said, “not man for the Sabbath.”  If the Sabbath is ours, religion is ours.  We have to begin shaping it as the tool we need to express our sense of the sacred.  It’s a communal task, so none of us should feel s/he needs to bear the burden alone.  Perhaps T.S.Eliot shared this focus:

Where the bricks are fallen

We will build with new stone

Where the beams are rotten

We will build with new timbers

Where the word is unspoken

We will build with new speech

. . .

Without delay, and without haste

We would build the beginning and the end of this street

We build the meaning:

A church for all

And a job for each

Each man to his work.


(from Choruses from The Rock)

[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Garnett, Signet (Penguin) 1999. P.252

A Hymn by Frank Lawlor

This is a poem written by Frank Lawlor, retired, emeritus professor of biology and former priest from Brooklyn.  Frank is a social activist focused on racial justice and lives near the Chesapeake Bay where his skill as a sailor is redisplayed every spring.  I present it here as a post, but it can also be found by clicking on “Frank Lawlor’s page” on the sidebar to the right where you can make comments and replies to Frank directly. 


The following hymn is a saga


In a new way,

An ancient story:

One told by:

Celts and

Babylonians and

Inuit and

Hebrews and

All peoples and tribes ….

Of how matter,




From pure energy.

How it persisted,


Into complexity.

Always insisting

on its own survival.

Until Becoming …..



And, now the new song:


In the beginning,

there was ONE.

Before it,  ONE.


ONE only …

No   time.

NO.   before or after

NO     change.

NO      other.


All that is.



NO “how long”

NO    “where”

NO      “how big”

NO        “how small”

NO          “parts”




Then –

change …..

a many,

time begins,

space begins,

where begins,

size begins …….

A beginning ……

All things begin …….

The first instant …….


The Big Bang!


The Big Birth!


Of ……. Every-thing!

Of …….  Of the mother of all the matter/energy that will ever exist

Of …….    Of all that matters!


From a center,  the only and newborn location


Outward …… always every-where

Always every-thing


All that is, all that will ever be,  explodes outward.



an expanding bubble of

radiating energy,

photons to scatter light into the void

Quarks and

muons and


the stuff

of all reality,

of all that will ever be.

Not,  at first

is there an atom

of this metal or

of that gas –


no thing

In this new every-where

no atoms.

But, yet to be….

Too hot!

Molecules are far off

Yet to be …

in the cooler future,

long after still impossible atoms.

It is all,

all of all that which is,

or will ever be …

a seething globe of energy

Inconceivable heat,

temperature beyond anything


in our now,





Seen nowhere before

but then,

And now,

For the last

Thirteen billion earth years,

everywhere and




How long till this explosion

reached the size

of a winking mote of dust in a sunbeam?

Long …..

in what measure of time?

In our seconds or

billionths of one?

Or, in what might seem,

if we could be engulfed in such an event,

As a millennium?

A thousand millennia?

Could there even be

a measure of size or

of time?


When the expanding bubble

of all that exists,

Not yet a thing,

An energy.

reaches the size of a grape

That is,

The size of a grape in our universe ….

That grape is all of space,

the size of the only universe

Open now to our instruments.

Outside of which

there is nothing!

Imagination stumbles,


falls short of reality.




can be measured

in terms

of cooler temperature

But unbelievably

hot in terms

of our conception

of cool ….



primitive atoms


as binders of energy,

coalesce as


with orbiting electron fields.


Now there is stuff,


We call this proto-matter

Hydrogen: one elusive electron,


a single proton



The elementary

building block

of everything

that will ever be.

Massive amounts

of this simplest

of all stuff and

still within

the expanding,

The cooling

Primal explosion.


And then ….

Bits of

its daughter helium,

two electrons,

two protons …..

a beginning of complexity.


Now there is matter,  something.

Born of chaos,  born of pure energy,

Itself a compact

Persisting thing,

As matter

is doomed to do

as a

concentrate of energy.



Hot,hot, hot

even the ONE

that is

all of existence,

Do one thing –


balloon outward

from a center

At unimaginable

speed …

Cooling as

it takes up

more space

As space itself

is thus created!


This “it” is


a plasma,

from light

to radiation.

And, and,


a vast bubble

of hydrogen,

the stuff of

all future stuff.

Each hurtling

ultra microscopic

bit of matter

Whose mass is

the smallest of all stuff,



the core of

all of

the big stuff

Non-the-less, it has


And it does its “thing”

It PERSISTS in existence!


Hydrogen atoms

scattered throughout


Have two properties –

Mass and


which determine

The future fate of

what will become


Our universe!


Each hurtling H atom,

because of its mass,

exerts a gravitational force.

Distorting its space.

It interacts

with other H atoms.

They attract

each other.

Hydrogen Matter

begins to clump

in space

Vast clouds

of H form.

Becoming dense.

Their momentum

causes rotation

Into many

giant spheres.

spiraling inward,


ever denser,

more compact,

hotter and hotter.

Then …




Stars are born

when the heat and density


the primitive atoms

in a nuclear

fusion reaction.

As H atoms


forming helium atoms.


hydrogen bomb!

Each fusion

releases vast

quantities of energy

Photons and

elementary radiations

burst outward from

the dense

Hydrogen/Helium sphere.

This is

A star at work!



The Big Bang,

the Big Birth

was not stingy.

Millions of stars,

billions of stars continue

even now to

burst into “life”!


Just as

the scattered Hydrogen

interacted gravitationally

Now the small and

The medium (like our sun) and

super massive stars


They form

enormous gravitationally interacting

clouds of stars.

As many billions of stars as earth

has grains of sand

On all its beaches.


Galaxies are born!


Billions of galaxies



in turn interact


The singularity

has become a universe.

Which evolves

as it has evolved

from scattered Hydrogen!


Each star,

each hydrogen bomb

is on the way

to birth helium.

As the H

is depleted

in the fusion reactions,

More complex fusions

begin to take place




atoms are formed.

Each subsequent fusion

releases energy

birthing heavier,

more complex atoms

As the star ages

it collapses

from its own density.

Gravity concentrates

the matter

raising the temperature.


Until finally …

The star dies

A spectacular death.

A Supernova

is born,

lighting up its whole Galaxy.


most importantly,


its vast store of matter


at unimaginable velocities.

This “little Big Bang”

Forms the rest

of the heavy atoms




uranium …..

All of these elements

Are now

Scattered out

into space.


in all of its

Hundred and more elementary forms,

is complete.


Matter …


but scattered

Speeding thru space

In isolated,



Now massive,

each atom

huge in comparison to

The ancestor

progenitor H

But the ancient

gravitational dance,


from the inspiration of

Gravity and momentum

Again begins…..



and there

In the vast reaches of space

Within the matrix

Of star systems

And galaxies


The heavy atoms,

Especially iron,

Speeding to nowhere

Distort space

And gather,

Coagulate into

Space rocks,



Grow planets

Accumulate into moons

Captured into star orbits

Here and there

By the millions


Solar systems are born!


And here,

Where we are,

A watery planet spins,

And orbits

A star itself birthing Helium

Therefore bathing the blue

Mass of rock and water

With its atomic shower,

With photons

The byproduct of its atomic fusion

Of H into He


Creative distruction,

And finally …..

providing the power

To generate something

Radically new,



And the dance,

Continues …

The self complexifying

Urge of matter

To survive by changing

By adapting

Defeating stasis

Which is death,

The fate of the unadapting,

The Unchanging

In a changing universe.


Life is change,



Life is matter challenging



But that is another



Reflections on Catholic Revisionism (II)


It is a common complaint among many disaffected Catholics that their church “fooled” them.  They say they were bamboozled by solemn declarations of absolute truth and the eternal will of “God” that they are now realizing are not only not true but in some cases were actually psychologically damaging.  On that basis many have swept away their childhood religion, some deciding to stay away from religion altogether, others to begin searching for another, perhaps in a non-Christian tradition or ethical system.

It’s interesting that you don’t hear of defectors from eastern religions making such complaints about their ancestral faith even though they may have stopped practicing it.  Since all religions everywhere are similar, you would think in a scientific age that the phenomenon would be broadly universal.  None of these religions are isolated from science and technology these days, and in India and China it’s just the opposite.  Why the difference?

I believe it has to do with literalism.  Hindus and others do not expect their religions to be scientific fact, Christians do.  That’s where the bamboozling began.  Christianity has always, since its earliest days, presented itself, not as symbol and myth but as reality — literal physical / metaphysical and historical fact.

To be fair, this is fundamentally due to the time and place of its birth.  Pre-Christian Greek rationalist questioning of their “gods” is documented at least as far back as the 6th century before the common era (bce).  It’s well known that Christian apologists like Tatian and Athenagoras in the second century ce made the adolescent antics of the Greek gods the centerpiece of their case for the one true “God.” The gods were myth, the one “God” of the Jews and Jesus was “real.”  But, we may not be aware that their arguments had all been developed centuries before by “pagans.”

Those pagan “philosophers” effected the equivalent of a scientific revolution that dared to question the reality of stories of the gods.  The tales were isolated from their ritual settings and ridiculed for their factual impossibility, and the word “myth” began to assume the meaning we still give it today: fiction and fable rather than symbolic narratives of human insight and awe.  It was an intellectual pursuit to which the educated upper classes were attracted.  It became broadly speaking a “religious” movement, informally meshing the metaphysical anthropology of Plato with the much admired morality of the Stoics.  Meanwhile the uneducated poorer classes clung to the beliefs surrounding the traditional gods or settled into one or another of the mystery cults that abounded at that time.

Christians converted from all classes and religious backgrounds, and the early Christian communities predominated with one class or another, each giving the interpretation to the events of Jesus’ life and death familiar to their class and religious background.  There was a plethora of “christianities” that reflected the religious diversity of the Mediterranean world.  Within the first three hundred years, however, the only version that survived was the one that was identified with Greek rationalism, i.e., platonic, stoic and neoplatonic philosophy — Greek “science.”  I believe other versions of Christianity died out or were absorbed because the “scientific” literalist view was more likely to find acceptance among the ruling classes.  In some cases other local churches which reflected gnostic beliefs were declared “heretical” and shunned.

Two versions

The main stages of this development are well known, though there is no information about how or exactly when the transition occurred.  The earliest Greek “translation” of Christianity was Paul’s.  He introduced it as a “mystery religion.”  It was egalitarian, participatory and communal; it revealed the classless focus of his mission grounded in the Christian narrative with no reference to philosophy.  The clear evidence of the “mystery” character of the very first communities  meant that there had to have been a later and definitive take-over by rationalists who turned Christianity into an apparatus of individual salvation clearly dominated by a Platonic world-view and managed by an upper class hierarchy.

Paul had believed that Jesus’ resurrection (and Christians’ communal immersion in it through the mysteries of baptism and eucharist) was the barest beginning of a massive community event — a cosmic resurrection of which the Christian community was the first fruits.  The mysteria, the “sacraments,” gave identity to the Christian community as it awaited the imminent final transformation of the whole universe.  This hoped for “salvation” was to be cosmic, communitarian and concrete — in this material world.  For the very earliest Christians there was no separate world of spirit.  In fact, second century apologists like Tatian, Justin and Theophilus who represent the proto-theology that followed the New Testament writers, rejected the immortality of the soul as a pagan belief.  It would have made the resurrection superfluous.[1]

For Paul, the Christian community was the visible foreshadowing of the impending moment when “God” would definitively establish “his” kingdom of justice among humankind on this earth, and all would live in the harmony of “God’s” love the way Christians were doing it now.  Egalitarianism was a given; social classes were ignored.  The loving harmony among equals in the Christian community was the moral achievement; it prefigured the coming harmony of a re-created universe.  Paul was not talking about individual “salvation” in another world.

All this changed within a relatively short time, and radically.  Certainly by the time of Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 312, Paul’s version along with many others had disappeared completely.  Christianity had become an institution characterized by a rigid class structure dominated by a hierarchy (literally “sacred authority”) that offered an individualist personal survival-after-death in a world of bodiless spirits, to be earned by personal merit.  This “salvation” by moral merit was nourished by sacraments that automatically supplied “grace” as divine support for the effort. Desire for an unimaginable spiritual “heaven” was quickly upstaged by an intense fear of the eternal punishment — ironically always described in bodily terms — that awaited all those who failed to be “saved.”  The organic integrity of the human being was re-interpreted along strictly Platonist lines as the temporary juxtaposition of two fundamentally opposed “realities,” spirit and matter.  The human person became identified as a spiritual “soul” that was destined to live without its body in a matterless world of spirits.  The disembodied “soul” was the hallmark of Plato’s thought, it was not Paul’s; and it became the centerpiece of the new Christian vision.

How did it happen?  There is no extant documentation but it seems entirely plausible that the failure of the promised apocalypse to materialize forced Christians to accommodate their institutional life to the social, political and religious realities around them.  They embraced the protocols of deference accorded the upper classes and accepted them as their leaders; the fact that Constantine regularly assigned Christian bishops civil authority in localities where magistrates were missing is living proof that they were universally of upper class educated status.  These leaders re-interpreted Christian doctrine along the rationalist, literalist lines of their preferred philosopher, Plato; they imitated mainstream religion by calling their central ritual, “sacrifice,” and the bishops, “high priests;” they assimilated to the Roman legal mindset and explained “salvation” in terms of individual reward for obeying laws and individual punishment for disobeying them, and gave the sacraments a physicalist significance, making them automatic mechanisms that dispensed a “thing” called grace.

The focus of the two conceptions of “salvation,” Paul’s version vs. the hierarchical version, were poles apart.  And even though both were decidedly “Greek” and not Jewish (and therefore neither could claim to have been  Jesus’) they represented vastly different versions, vastly different ways of interpreting the life and death of Jesus and the texts of the OT prophets that had come from the early years, and vastly different ways of conceiving and relating to “God.”  Hierarchical Christianity shifted priorities from the community to the individual, … from a church conceived as a loving harmony among equals, to a well ordered group of individuals subservient to “proper” authority, … from a communal meal eaten in thanksgiving for LIFE and in anticipation of the transformation of this earth, to the reenactment of a “sacrifice” that placated a fearsome “God,” satisfied justice, and averted threatened disaster here and hereafter, … from a Christian life joyfully focused on loving one another as the foretaste of an earthly paradise, to one obsessed with an intense fear of one’s own individual punishment in another world where the earthly bodies that make us suffer and sin will be discarded forever … and from a metaphoric to a literalist reading of scriptural poetry — both what was inherited from the Jewish bible and the writings of the early Christians.

It bears emphasizing that the character of “God,” consistent with the ritual relationship conjured in each case, is radically re-imagined in the transition.  Paul’s “God” who was the object of our eucharistía, “thanks­giving,” who from the beginning is the infinitely creative LIFE in which we live and move and have our being, stops being Jesus’ loving, forgiving Father, and becomes, in the hierarchical version, the Emperor-Lawmaker of the Universe, who gives commands, orders correct behavior and submission to the authorities, and will punish those who do not obey.

Even as early as Constantine, the fear of individual moral failure leading to damnation had so taken over the Christian mindset that prospective converts regularly postponed baptism til the end of their lives so that all sins deserving of hell would be forgiven by the magic of the sacrament.  Notice in this scenario that the sacraments had become mechanical not mimetic-participatory rituals; in an age of high infant and childhood mortality, it explains why infants were being baptized: baptism would automatically ensure that they would “be saved.”  One has to see in these developments the consistent application of a literalist and mechanical view of things that applied strict logic to physical / metaphysical / mechanical / hydraulic realities which had been reconceptualized from traditional metaphors

Take the Trinity.  “God’s “spirit” for example, clearly a scriptural metaphor for “God,” was made into a quasi-substantial divine reality called a “person” who was “distinct” from the “Father;” Jesus called himself the “son” of “God” — an obvious Jewish metaphor for his relationship with Yahweh — but the word was taken literally and they made him the actual divine “Son,”“second person” of the Trinity, also distinct from the “Father.”  All this conveniently happened to coincide with Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus’ tripartite conception of the creative energy in the universe.  The word “grace” in scripture which refers to “God’s” attitude — his benevolence and forgiving generosity — was similarly re-imagined as a magical quasi-substance, a kind of physical force or energy that came from “God” that was “poured out,” “infused,” “given,” making it possible to lead a moral life and thus be “saved;” it is obviously another case where a metaphor chosen to describe a relational attitude was turned into a “thing.”

The word I like to use for this whole process is reification … derived from the Latin word res meaning “thing.”  To reify in my lexicon means to claim something is a thing that is not.

Catholics have been fooled because their religion reified metaphors; they were told they were things.  Strangely it continues to do so unabated today.  Christianity has never acknowledged that its doctrines are metaphor and its rituals, poetry.  For “orthodox” Catholics doctrine is literal.  When they provide us with a list of “what they believe,” as Wills did in Why Priests? they are not saying that this is a list of acceptable metaphors … and that other beliefs are not acceptable metaphors.  Not at all.  They are saying this is a list of “realities,” things that are really, literally “true,” and other doctrines are not real,

The Incarnation is on that list: it is real … it is presented as a “fact.” 

The Incarnation

This particular doctrine is central.  Let’s follow out its literal implications.  If we accept the Incarnation as real in the same sense that the Church has traditionally proclaimed it, then we are also saying that Jesus is literally “God” exactly as the “Father” is “God” — homoousios, solemnly defined at Nicaea and therefore it was “God” himself who founded the Christian Religion.  We should keep in mind that the “God” we are talking about here was newly conceived in the image of the Law-Maker-Emperor by the hierarchical version of Christianity; it was not Paul’s “God” of the parousía much less John’s aboriginal LIFE or Jesus’ “forgiving Father.” It was the imperial Jesus who was the pantocrator, “all ruler,” the judge of the living and the dead.  This imagery did not develop until after Nicaea.

If Jesus is literally “God” in the imperial sense, how can Catholicism be faulted for drawing the inescapably logical literalist conclusion that “outside the Church there is no salvation”?   If that conclusion is invalid — and we know it is — it must mean the premise was wrong … incorrect as stated or as understood … not true.  Where does that leave the “Incarnation,” its imperial “God” … and  the exclusivist “Catholicism” spawned by it?

Belief in the literal Incarnation of the imperial Jesus-“God” has entailed the “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” that most Catholics today are inclined to reject.  We simply do not believe that “outside the church there is no salvation.”  Catholics are on the horns of a dilemma: if they want to avoid saying that the Catholic Church was founded by “God”-in-person, and to that end declare that the Incarnation is only a metaphor, they stop being Catholic as defined by the hierarchy.  On the other hand, if they want to remain Catholic, they have to live with “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” as acceptable conclusions from the premises they support … and just hope and pray that the “Holy Spirit” will deter those in power from acting on its literalist implications.

But this is absolutely astonishing!  Just think what that means: it implies that we are praying that the Incarnation not be taken literally — that it be treated as if it were a metaphor!  Doesn’t the realization that even if Christian doctrine like the Incarnation were literally true, that it could only avoid gross anti-gospel contradictions like “exclusivism” if taken as metaphor … doesn’t that fact alone compel acceptance of the poetic nature of Christian doctrine?  For me. the answer is clear.  It also suggests that all religion is poetry and therefore, paradoxically, it argues for religion’s universal validity.  Once religion sheds it literalist pretensions it becomes a tool in our search to understand and express our “sense of the sacred” — our relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being” — and as with any tool it is something we use to help us achieve goals that we choose and pursue.  “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Let’s look at another “doctrine.”  Christians (Catholics) say “Jesus died for our sins.”  What can that possibly mean?  If as Wills contends there is no sacrifice and therefore no priesthood what exactly did Jesus’ death do with regard to our sins, or how did our sins bring about Jesus’ death?  We have to remember the word “redemption” was used from the earliest days to characterize the crucifixion.  Augustine finalized an explanatory theory suggested by the apostle Paul.  Augustine claimed that “original sin” had been responsible for locking humankind in a state of alienation from “God” and that Jesus’ death released us from that state.  But the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin, reproduced in all its essential features in the Vatican’s “Catholic Catechism” of 1992, is utterly absurd.  It took a Jewish creation myth and gave it a gratuitous literalist rendering which totally distorted the meaning of the tale and the intention of the Jewish authors.  (For a thorough discussion of the untenability of the Christian doctrine of original sin, see chapters four and five of Religion in a Material Universe.)  

If original sin is not taken literally, then the Genesis account is exactly what the Jews have always said it was: a myth, a metaphor.  There was no corruption of the human organism and no metaphysical alienation from “God” … and so it no longer “explains” why Jesus died, or why his death is said to “redeem” us.  It’s no surprise to me, then, to see that Garry Wills’ “list of orthodox doctrines” on page 256 of Why Priests? omits the doctrines of both original sin and redemption.  Wills apparently agrees with me that those doctrines are not literally true.  I am gratified.  But where does this end?  Without redemption, the meaning of the sacraments in the literalist view evaporates.

Moreover, independently of the issue of original sin, the magical view that the sacraments “worked” automatically (ex opere operato) to make us holy, besides being rejected 500 years ago by the protestant reformers has now ceased being the general belief of the Catholic people.  Putting it theologically, it is the sensus fidelium (the “sense of the faithful”) that sacramental efficacy is not “literal,” it is symbolic.  It’s because we actively participate in the ritual symbol, we remember its significance (mimesis), and wish for it to transform our lives that it actually happens.  It “works,” not automatically, mechanically, but ritually because we know what the symbols signify and we want them to affect our attitudes and behavior.  Like all symbols, it’s a function of recognition.

Is there some point where we just stop all this literalist nonsense and admit that Christianity is an elaborate social poetry used in the west to represent and express what we want to do with the energies released by the human sense of the sacred?

What now?

If we all agreed that religion is metaphor, what would that mean in the practical order?  What do we do with our “Catholicism”?  Since being literally true is not a necessary feature, can’t it all stay in place exactly as it is and be internally directed by us as we choose to serve our religious search and expression?  I contend that is impossible; for doctrines like the exclusivity of the Catholic Church and the infallibility of the pope and the magisterium are not capable of metaphorical upgrading.  The autocracy of the monarchical episcopate is supported by a literal understanding of “apostolic succession;” to take it as metaphor would turn the office of bishop into a power shared figurehead.  There’s no way that can happen without an explicit disclaimer of its intent and historic misuse and, of course, accompanying changes in the mechanisms for decision-making.  These and a host of other doctrines, like original sin and the “redemption” it requires, will simply have to be restated and given other meanings.  In these cases the old literalisms will have to be publicly repudiated.  There is no responsible solution that can bypass the hard and harrowing work of thinking through, selecting, possibly recasting the doctrinal metaphors we want, consciously embracing the significance they contain and unambiguously rejecting those doctrines incapable of metaphorization.

Doctrine must be restructured in the light of the sciences, including cultural anthropology.  The key word is myth: symbol, metaphor.  There are two essential tasks.  The first is precisely to understand that doctrines are metaphors and therefore to remember that they have been loaded with meaning by human beings.  “God” did not tell us that Jesus was “God;” it was our venerable ancestors, some of whom knew him personally, who decided to say thatOur job, then, is find out exactly who said what and when, and then to fathom what they meant.  If Jesus was not really “God,” and they knew better than anyone that he wasn’t, they were either fools and liars or were onto something that perhaps even they themselves did not fully comprehend and could not adequately express.

I obviously have more to say about that matter, but at this point I want to introduce the other essential task in this business of doctrinal restructuring … and the one that is chronologically first.  And that is to remember that as they are formulated now these doctrines are focused literally.  They make up an interdependent constellation that together comprise a literal view of the universe — a metaphysical world-view.  It’s the very interdependent literalism that has mutually shaped these doctrines over time to give them the meaning that they have today.  They are a gestalt, a setan ideational unit — and it is a literal vision.

Challenging the literalism is fundamental to reform and it will be daunting; for the world-view of untold numbers of people formed over two thousand years — despite what may even be their open disaffection with the Christian institution — will resist change fiercely.  The Christian metaphysical world view has entered the collective subconscious of western man.  There are many examples of this: … the division of reality into matter and spirit … the independent existence of the human soul … the “definition” of “God” as a rational micro-managing humanoid “person” … the existence of “Satan” or some principle of evil … all these and more have become part of our cultural assumptions about the nature of reality.  Many of these assumptions are challenged as to their literal possibility by science.  The minute that the pall of literalism is lifted, however, a host of metaphorical interpretations and different interrelationships among doctrines open up to view.  A new metaphysical world view becomes thinkable.  It is then that the other, truly theological task begins — of deciding if the doctrine(s) in question can validly bear the metaphorical meaning we think we see there, and whether it accords with what science knows about the realities in our material universe.

This is not a quick or facile undertaking.  An accurate understanding of science and the historical context is indispensable, and that necessary study in turn depends on accurate data and detailed documentation.  But the labor is worth it; for the result will be a poetry purged of scientific pretensions that captures the core of what we believe reality, including ourselves, to be — what we are able to articulate at this point in our pathetically short history of keeping human records — and expresses our intimate embrace of ourselves in our matrix exactly as we are.  The end product is a deep and profound “yes!” to being-here-now and being what we really actually, in fact, are.  This is why science is such an essential part of this effort.  Science and religion are complements.  Greek rationalism, and the literalist mediaeval theology and modern science that was spawned by it, failed to include the poetry which alone can express and evoke how we relate to what science has described of that “in which we live and move and have our being.”  Science rejected poetry, and our religious poetry rejected science claiming literal factuality for itself.

The Greek philosophers isolated the “myths” of the gods from their rituals of relationship and ridiculed them for what, out of context, they could only be: silly stories.  Those Greek “proto-scientists” were unable to distinguish fact from poetry — or see how they were bound together.  But, demanding that poetry be science, assured not only that it would be misunderstood, but set in motion such a demand for literalism in all areas that even when the people, groping blindly to express their “sense of the sacred,” spontaneously forged new poetry like Christianity, it was only acceptable if it were presented in the clothing of literal fact.  Hence our impoverished doctrinal inheritance: metaphors are offered as facts, and, like the myths of the ancient religions, they are being ridiculed because they are not.

We need to understand myth as our own poetic creation for expressing and evoking our “sense of the sacred,” and we need to realize that our “sense of the sacred” is nothing more (nor less) than our relationship to our existential matrix … “in which we live and move and have our being.”  That last point highlights the absolutely common content of science and religion.  There is only one literal reality.  Science and religion are each focused on one and the same “fact” — the universal matrix in which we live and move and have our being.  There is no other.  There is only one world and science has access to every bit of it.  There is no “other world” whose “facts” are revealed to religion alone.  The only difference between science and religion is that science describes this one world with mathematical “laws,” and religion embraces the exact same world with an ecstatic passion using very old stories and very old rituals that remind us that we are not the first to stand in wordless awe before this material universe, our home.

But the myths and rituals are ours, bequeathed to us by our ancestors.  They belong to us.  They are our inheritance; we own them.  If we find that, precious as they are, they have been tarnished and diluted through the millennia by those who mistakenly insisted on turning them into “fact,” we have the right to rehabilitate them, return them to the crystalline clarity of their original poetic insights and restore them their metaphoric power.

But we shouldn’t need reminding: we also are mythmakers.  Poetry is our thing;  it’s what we do.  We write silly little love songs, about one another, the world we have built, the other living organisms with which we share the earth, and even the earth and sea and sky itself, for we are THAT and that is us.  We also contribute to this age-old inheritance of the story-tellers, the mythmakers, the bards and minstrels, finding ever new ways to express and evoke the awe of being-here-now.  Our “sense of the sacred” is not repressible … you may have noticed.

The reform of religion involves the release of this pent-up power to express and evoke our relationship to what science is daily discovering about that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Forging the relationship is a poetic enterprise: the doctrinal restructuring of the mangled metaphors of the past and the creative projection of the new ones we are making ourselves, bursting fresh from our awed experience of being-here in the present moment — right now.

It is the experience of our precarious existence in the present moment — now — that is the source of the “sense of the sacred.”  There was no privileged moment in the past that was any more of a “present moment” than the one we are in right here and now.  The experience of present existence is pregnant with this poetic power, and we who are alive today, at this very moment, are the only ones who have access to it.  The past no longer exists; and the future, not yet.  Nothing exists except the present moment.  No “doctrine” or ritual, no matter how ancient and venerable, no matter how traditional and universal can do anything more than point to the energies of the present moment for us who now are alive in it.  That is the value of our ancient witnesses.  Once we follow their advice and get in touch with those present energies, we will make up our own metaphors which we will pass on to the coming generations who await their turn to taste and see how awesome it is to be-here now.

[1] Adolph Harnack, The History of Dogma, tr. Buchanan, Dover, NY 1904, vol II p.191, fn.4; p.213, fn.1 “Most of the Apologists argue against the conception of the natural immortality of the human soul.” Tatian 13; Justin, Dial. 5; Theoph. II.27.  Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition U. of Chicago Press, 1971 Vol 1, “The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition,” p.30, referring to the polemics of Christian theologians against the pagan doctrine of the immortal soul, quotes Tatian: “The soul is not in itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal.” (Tat. Or,13 [TU 4-I:14])