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.
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.
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.”
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?
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 that. Our 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 set — an 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.
 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])