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 path. Things 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 story. But 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.”
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)
 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Garnett, Signet (Penguin) 1999. P.252