Caveat Emptor is latin for “let the buyer beware.” It will eventually become clear why I chose it for a title. I had originally planned to call this piece “On the Nature of Things” as an intentional reference to the poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. It was also meant to evoke the work of almost the same name, “On Nature,” Periphyseon, by the ninth century Irish monk John Scotus Eriúgena (Erse) who was brought to France in 845 by the grandson of Charlemagne to educate and civilize the barbarians. He failed. It’s important to understand why. So, despite the change in title, I still need to begin there.
With this double reference I am trying to call attention to the congruence of vision that existed between Lucretius, an ancient pagan “atheist” writing in the golden age of the Roman Empire, and Eriúgena, a Christian mystic from the farthest edge of the then known world credited with being the last expression of Hellenic theology before the middle ages. The conflation elucidates a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion and the European culture that emerged from it. Lucretius and Eriúgena shared the last vestiges of a world-view that was soon to disappear, swept away by the pecuniary proto-capitalism of mediaeval Christianity.
As one would expect, there are differences between these two men. But what they have in common is so fundamental that it provides the basis for a potential reconciliation from which mediaeval Christianity, despite its historical provenance, is excluded. What Lucretius and Eriúgena both profess, and mediaeval theology does not, is the metaphysical primacy and heuristic pre-eminence of nature. It is nature and nature alone that is not only all of being, but is its own exclusive interpreter.
Nothing else exists except nature, and everything we know about nature is revealed to us by nature itself. For Eriúgena, as for Philo Judaeus and all the early Fathers, “revelation” meant that the metaphors, symbols and stories found in the Hebrew scriptures taught the very same “truth” for the benefit of the ordinary people, that the learned philosophers discovered by other means. Nature provided the philosophers — the scientists of their day — with facts by which the scriptures were to be interpreted, not the other way around. Both men were focused only on this one world; they concurred that its source and destiny — where it came from and where it’s going — remain entirely within it. Scholastic dualism, on the other hand, the interpretive language of the mediaeval version of Christianity, locates the source and destiny of this natural material world in a second world, a supernatural world of immaterial spirit, which “reveals” information — facts — about our world that we would otherwise have never known.
For both Lucretius and Eriúgena nature rules. But it goes further than you might expect. Even the “God” of the Christian monk is comprehended under the category of “nature.” Eriúgena identified the Source of all things as “Nature which creates, but is not created” … and the universal Destiny of all things, “Nature that neither creates nor is created.” The theme was taken up later by Spinoza who described “God” as natura naturans (Nature giving birth) and creation as natura naturata (Nature born). We are obviously in the realm of imagery and terminology here that is foreign to our own.
Lucretius and Eriúgena, despite being centuries apart, lived in an era when the gods had lost their credibility for pagan and Christian alike. People were looking to the “divinity within.” We may be on the brink of doing so again in our times, but so far we have not. We still think of “God” as mediaeval Christianity imagined — an entity/person “out there,” not only distinct but separate from and “other” than us, whose personal providence and perplexing permissions determine what happens to us from day-to-day. It was different in the ancient world. Both pagan and Christian believed that an immanent power — sacred LIFE — dwelt at the core of nature like a creative transforming seed, spewing things out into life and then drawing them all to itself in a great cycle of birth and return. Jesus’ resurrection for Eriúgena was the first fruits of the great return, the réditus of Plotinus. The réditus was a natural event — a part of nature — the natural evolution of LIFE. It would have occurred even if there were no incarnation.
The first stanzas of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura assimilates nature’s creative power to the charisma of the love-god Venus in a poetic allusion that anticipates Freud’s use of eros for the energy of LIFE. In our era, we tend to divide the world into those who “believe in God” and those who don’t, and if you are “pagan” it means you don’t. That wasn’t true of Lucretius and Eriúgena. They both believed that the universe was hot with a divine fire that was on shameless passionate display in the natural order. For them “God” was not the issue. The only difference between them, as Paul explicitly declared in his speech at Athens, was that for “pagans” “God” was unknown — they did not know his name, history, family, and “will” — Christians did.
But for both men there was no other world; this one world was itself the revelation of divine LIFE. I contend that whether you think there is one world or two-worlds is more important to the authenticity of your response to LIFE than whether you believe in “God.” For believing there are two worlds, and that you don’t belong here, necessarily generates a distance — an emotional disconnect — that makes love … and justice, impossible. Some call it alienation. You become a stranger to yourself and your world.
For his part, the Irishman, like the Greek Fathers who taught him, did not believe there was a place called “heaven” any more than Lucretius. Following his mentor Gregory of Nyssa, Eriúgena taught that heaven was not a place, it was a state of mind … and “hell” was the misery we experience when we intentionally choose to separate ourselves from LIFE. “God” sends no one to this personal hell; the freely choosing human being is the only one who can do that. Eriúgena’s “heaven” was the very same state of mind that Lucretius was trying to evoke with his poem, newly appreciated today for what it is, a religious manifesto calling its readers to drop their superstitions about miracles and punishments and commit themselves to LIFE as it is. But make no mistake. For Lucretius every bit as much as for Eriúgena, LIFE included the resident power to create, change and grow … everything in nature was a clone of the love that spawned it. LIFE was sacred. For us humans it meant activating our role as agents of LIFE, transforming our communities into oases of justice and mutual esteem. For the contemplative in all of us, it meant to taste and see the liberating “truth:” that we are at home in the material universe … that we are the children of LIFE … that we belong here. Our human hearts are the place where “God” resides and reveals “him”self. Eriúgena called it “theophany.” There are no gods beyond us to help us or hurt us, as Lucretius reminds us constantly: whether it were one “God” or many, it was superstition. The only divine power we can call on resides within us; and the only power that can destroy us is ourselves. We are theotokoi, the bearers of LIFE; Lucretius and Eriugena both want us to see that, because if we don’t, we will never activate it.
In contrast to this ancient vision, we in the West are living in the last years of mediaeval Christianity. If what drove the ancient world was the derogation of the gods, mediaeval Christianity was their reinstatement. This reversal was a long time in coming; for, original Christianity — the “way” of John and Paul — was born of the ancient world’s rejection of the gods.
Five hundred years before the common era the early Greek “philosophers” challenged the stories of the gods … as did the Buddha in India … and Lao Tzu in China. What they all saw, almost simultaneously, was that the gods were myths — poetic symbols of something immanent, something interior to us. They introduced an insight that became a planetary movement that never won, but never entirely died out either. The earliest Christians shared that view, as we know from Paul and John. Eriúgena was still bearing it forward when he died in 877.
But it is not the one we were formed in. The Catholicism that our generation inherited was the finalized version of a pecuniary, two-world, quid pro quo Christianity, born sometime after the “apostolic age,” made the consort of the Roman empire by Constantine, and rationalized by the Roman philosopher, Augustine. It was a vision that came to dominate western Europe in the middle ages. With it, the “gods” returned with a vengeance in the form of the humanoid “God” of the book and brought with them the demons of the “other world” and the crushing fear of hell. If the ancients began the process of internalizing the Sacred, discovering the true depths of what it means to be human, mediaeval Christianity externalized it once again, set it off in another world. It resulted in human beings becoming alienated from the earth and from themselves, bitter at life and terrified of death.
I have called mediaeval Christianity “pecuniary proto-capitalism” because it was premised on buying a LIFE that we were told we did not own. In this version LIFE did not belong to us. Mediaeval Catholicism imagined another world, supernatural, not part of nature, and a separate “God-person” who lived in that other world, as capricious and as easily provoked as any Greek godling, ruled by fate and “logic,” who sent plagues and earthquakes to punish us now as a foretaste of what he had in store for us later. This alien “God” lived in an immortal immaterial world to which we mortals and our material bodies were barred but could gain entrance by accumulating the coin of the realm — grace and merit. And we had better do so; for the alternative was an unthinkable eternity of torment applied by this same monster “God” who mercilessly punished anyone who had the misfortune of being born human, including unbaptized infants. What a story! What did mediaeval theologians offer as a way of coping with this nightmare?
They said entrance to the other world and avoidance of the wrath of hell could be obtained by trade. We could dodge the bullet and get what we wanted — eternal LIFE — but we had to pay for it. It took the form of a business deal brokered exclusively by the Church. It was exactly the appropriate instrument for dealing with this irascible “God.” “God” was the “owner” of this other world. We insulted him so he threw us out. We belonged there, not here, but our way was blocked by an angel with a flaming sword. To whom can we turn? The Church is “God’s” sole agent. We can gain entrance only by giving “God” what “he” wants, which only the Church knows, paying a price here that otherwise would be extracted from our tormented bodies after death. The “solution,” if you ask me, was almost as much of a nightmare as the problem.
Mediaeval Christianity brokered a “contract” with “God” — a quid pro quo — a business deal. The “business transaction” was its central ritual — a cell-like symbol from which all things derived their significance; it became the image that dominated western culture. Business. It may take many forms but in all cases it presupposes independent unconnected individuals each with his/her own needs, resources and desires. The paradigm is based on dissatisfaction, for why else would there be any interest in someone contacting anyone else unless one wanted to acquire what one didn’t have? If I dare to contact “God,” it can only be for one reason: because there is something he has that I want to get … and there is something I suspect he wants.
Excuse me before we go any further, but this is totally absurd; “God” needs and wants nothing. No quid pro quo is even possible. The lameness of the analogy is obvious. How in the West it became the principal interpretive symbol for all of life — all our interactions and all our relationships — once we understand the thrust of mediaeval Christianity, is less of a mystery than we might have thought. It may remain absurd, but at least it becomes intelligible.
“Business” is driven by demand, need. Someone lacks something … and is willing to part with something he treasures — money, goods, services, labor — in order to get it. Humans are presumed to be eternally needy. Mediaeval Christianity grounded that by following Augustine and dogmatically defining the human being as congenitally corrupt and therefore so needy as to be fundamentally insatiable. For consider: if I can never be whole, complete, I can never be satisfied. It’s as simple as that. Thus was created the penchant for calculating every human action as a response to self-interest. We were gollum-like creatures incapable of humanity: generosity, magnanimity, love.
A second presumption of the business model of life is that I own what I have — it is mine to trade or keep or even destroy as I see fit. There is no acknowledgement that we have not provided ourselves with our bodies nor the earth’s resources which sustain them. These things are freely given; they cannot be bought, and the claim that we own them is a fiction necessary for trade that is erroneously taken as literal. Reality is grossly distorted in the shallowness of using the business transaction as the model for life. Ownership is a metaphor. It is not real!
Thinking of life in terms of buying and selling might seem normal enough at first glance. Trade is a function of need, and need of one type or another is simply a pervasive fact for everyone. Buying and selling has been a characteristic of social life at all times among all people everywhere. It is a virtually unavoidable part of life … but it’s only a part. What is unique about our culture is that the business transaction — and by implication, the individual need and self-interest that drives it — became the paradigm, the template, the model for every relationship and every interpersonal interchange among us.
Note also that the business transaction presupposes separate individuals, from start to finish. Union never occurs. The individual remains always the individual, even afer the transaction is complete, for the contract is never about what you become or whom you embrace and bind yourself to, or what you commit to. You never lose yourself in anything. The contract is not about what you are but what you get … and what you are willing to do to get it.
The “contract” also presupposes that the contracting parties are capable of defending themselves and therefore freely enter into the relationship. It places the burden for fairness on the wariness of the contractors, watching out for their own self-interest. Justice becomes a matter of individual self-defense, not a communal responsibility. The implications of this dynamic are far-reaching: it explains the principal warning of the business transaction: caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.” It also explains why the defenseless are so consistently exploited: they are expected to defend themselves, even though, by definition, they cannot. Each party is presumed to be looking out for him/herself. And finally, it explains how the crass depredation of the environment can have occurred: for nature cannot defend itself. Nature stands mute and helpless before our runaway technology and senseless extractions leading to the depletion of natural systems we all need for survival. From there come the anthropogenic extinctions of life forms other than ours currently estimated at over 35,000 species annually.
The business contract takes the place of human union, and in fact by standing in the place of union, precludes it. The “two” parties of a business deal never become “one.” Three examples: Marriage … Society … and Myself. Marriage was understood to be an economic entity defined by contract — whether or not human union occurred was irrelevant. Society was imagined to be the result of a “social contract” between individuals and the ruler “vertically,” and not among the individual members “horizontally.” And third: even one’s relationship to one’s self was alienated, i.e., objectified and externalized in a quid pro quo arrangement with a separate “God”-person (my creator/owner) managed by contract (“covenant”). Let’s take a closer look at these three examples.
(1) Marriage has been categorized as a contract and treated as a business agreement since before records were kept, and the interested parties were most often other than the marriage partners. Arrangements were made by the parents, with dowries and other compensations included as essential elements. Then, at least since Roman times, marriage became an economic entity regulated by the State. The emperor Augustus actually issued edicts not only making the reproductive function (not the “relationship”) the “matter” of the contract, but he assigned penalties for those who did not reproduce in complete disregard of the quality that the relationship might otherwise have. Augustus had an explicit political intention in all this: to raise Roman citizens to run the empire and prevent “foreigners and barbarians” from taking over. We have the residue of this with us in the shrill insistence of the Catholic Church that it has the right to exercise the imperial role of regulating marriage. And true to form, its regulations are designed to prevent the dilution of Catholic constituency. The current controversy over same-sex marriage has nothing to do with interpersonal commitment and vows — relationship — which the parties are always free to make anyway, but rather with society’s recognition of the contractual form which acknowledges certain economic rights and responsibilities. The contract — the business deal — rules.
(2) Since the 17th century, the collaborative structures that constitute Larger Society have been described as the result of a tacit social contract between individuals and their government. The paradigm is exclusively vertical. Society is not interpreted as “family” or even “mutual help neighbors” where all have a prior natural relationship to each other involving rights and responsibilities as one might have imagined. One “retains” the State and pays for certain clearly defined services — police, fire protection, education, national security, etc., — with taxes. The failure to provide the services, or the failure to pay taxes is a breach of contract. Outside of those specified duties, neighbors have no legal responsibility to one another for they are all independent, unrelated individuals who happen to live side by side on the same piece of land. The binding relationship exists between the government and the individual. Relationship among citizens is ad libitum and all mutual support is supererogatory. There are no social crimes except violations of the social contract. We like to call this horizontal unconnectedness, freedom.
Christianity got trapped in this verticality by having too close an association with the State. Following a path opened in chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Christianity lent itself as practical support for social harmony within the Roman world obtained through compliance with the law. It was underway long before Constantine and dove-tailed perfectly with the individuation of “salvation” inherent in the “two-world” version of Platonized Christianity . This, to my mind, was a fatal alliance that compromised the Christian vision. Society — and the State / Church as its guardian — is interested only in behavior that guarantees social stability; it is exclusively vertical. It does not care about the depth of your horizontal “relationships.” It means, ultimately, that the state as “law,” and Jesus’ message as uncompromising justice and generative love, are completely incompatible, because the message is precisely about the quality and depth of our relationships. The two operate on contrary dynamics. “Love” as “law” becomes a question of what you do, not how you understand who you are or how you are related and bound to others. The ersatz “freedom” of the business contract is not freedom at all; it is simply a distance between contracting parties that eschews all responsibility except for the narrow terms of the contract. True freedom, in contrast, is the ability to rest in union … union with others, … union with oneself … and union with that “in which we live and move and have our being.” True freedom is the ability to embrace and be embraced … to face the elimination of distance without fear of losing oneself.
(3) Even the relationship with “God,” as we’ve suggested, was originally imagined in our Judeo-Christian tradition as a quid pro quo contract (covenant) in which “God” promised victory and prosperity for the nation, in exchange for ritual acknowledgement and obedience to “his” law.
The Christian “new” covenant, on the other hand, as articulated by Paul, claimed to abrogate the “law” and therefore eliminate the quid pro quo nature of the “old” contract; but please notice: Paul still used the contract imagery and terminology. Paul was a Jew. He had no other terms in which to express his understanding of the Christ-event. His letter to the community at Rome is a good example of the convoluted efforts he had to make to say what he meant while still using covenant categories and terminology. In spite of this, however, it was perfectly clear that he was talking about LIFE as gratuitous. But, unfortunately, by characterizing Jesus’ death as the “full payment” of the Jewish contractual obligations with Yahweh, he already laid the foundations for the skewing that occurred in later generations.
This explains how the mediaeval version of Christianity could even have arisen. Covenant terminology was taken literally, not metaphorically. As Christianity insisted on usurping the place of the Jews and their scriptures in the Greco-Roman world, they began to take the “contract” imagery embedded in the Old Testament texts literally and applied it to their religion as the “new contract.” A literal “contract” implied a “God” who was a literal “person” who wanted something in return for “salvation.” It completely undermined Paul’s gratuitous vision. This development was reinforced by the belief in the literal divinity of the man Jesus imposed by Roman imperial edict in 325. Making an individual human person “God,” made “God” an individual person. That conflated with the individualization of sin and damnation / salvation rationalized by Augustine. It had the final effect of imagining life as a “business transaction” between the individual “God” and the individual soul using the contractual metaphors of the OT as literal descriptors.
Christians, not unlike the “mortal” pagans who believed in the immortal Olympian gods, came to consider themselves “different” from “God” and alien to that “other” immortal world where they supposedly really belonged but had lost the rights of entry. They had to “buy” their way back into that world. This “buying” became the central dynamic of mediaeval Christianity. Subsequently every kind of social interaction has come under the rubric of the business transaction. Many see the commodification of life as the central and defining feature of modern society. It began and grew in late antiquity and was set in place as the overarching western paradigm with mediaeval Christianity. It displaced the vision of Eriúgena and Lucretius, John and Paul.
The rituals and observances of Christianity were transformed by this central dualist dynamic into accumulative mechanisms. The sacraments stopped being “mysteries of immersion” and became automatic apparatuses for “gaining” the grace necessary to avoid sin and thus “earn merit” without which entrance into “heaven” would not be granted. Since the sufferings of life and the human “inclination to sin” were believed to be a living proof that “God,” implacably furious at humankind for the sin of Adam (Augustine’s thesis), withheld the grace necessary to earn direct entrance into “heaven,” the majority would either go to hell or, if they were lucky, spend a considerable amount of time in Purgatory. This “temporal punishment due to sin” set up a secondary search for ways to shorten the time in stir. Responding to market demand, the Catholic Church cleverly devised a “product” called “indulgences” — utterly without scriptural or theological grounds — which were offered as a quid pro quo exchange of religious observance for “time off” in purgatory, calculated to the day. One could gain a year’s indulgence, or 5 years etc. And highly prized “plenary indulgences” were also available. These were originally exchanged for “good deeds” or prayers. But it quickly became clear that since almsgiving was a corporal work of mercy, it was itself a “good deed.” From there it was a short step to offering plenary indulgences in exchange for donations to the Church. It was this particular practice, so egregiously pecuniary that people would no longer tolerate it, that precipitated Luther’s challenge at Wittenberg in 1517. But it was only the most extreme result of a metaphysical and religious worldview that saw all of human life in terms of business transactions.
We live with these patterns even today; we are so accustomed to them that they pass without notice. People still “buy masses” for the deceased. While we may overlook the monetary charge as a way of supporting the clergy, there is no overlooking the absurd quid pro quo premise behind the practice: that the “sacrifice of the mass” pleases “God” to such an extent that “he” will change his mind about the amount of “temporal punishment due to sin” meted out to that person whose name is on the next card in the stack, or, in rare cases, actually muttered by the priest. It might be mediaeval in origin, but it is common and current practice.
Moreover, the transactional paradigm has turned the “Church” itself into a self-defined corporate enterprise, legally identified with the person of the bishop alone, whose success is routinely assessed in economic terms: income, market share, brand recognition. Services once considered works of charity like hospitals, social and relief agencies, schools, are now known to be targeted efforts calculated for their ability to generate income and maintain constituency. The present strategy of turning parochial schools into independent “Catholic” academies open to whoever can pay the tuition regardless of church affiliation, even indicates that income supercedes membership as a corporate priority. The business model rules. And this is the Church that holds the keys to your eternal destiny? Let the buyer beware.
The entire picture is at variance with the unitary, immanent and therefore communal vision espoused by Lucretius and Eriúgena … and John and Paul. By laying out the very foundations of human life and society along transactional lines — as quid pro quo between opposing interests — mediaeval Christianity established the paradigm that promotes capitalism, not only as an economic system, but as a social ideology using business success as a tool of social Darwinism. By changing our very image of the nature of things from a self-embracing communal love internally energized by its own LIFE, to a fearful, self-interested, calculating attempt to acquire LIFE in another world to which we have no right and little interest, mediaeval Christianity institutionalized a profound alienation which is now becoming global in its reach and penetration. Besides the enormous toll in human destruction through the centuries since its ascendency, the ultimate by-product — the environmental degradation of nature that cannot defend itself in a transactional universe — the flip-side of our technological acquisitions — may with poetic justice, do us in.
But it would be wrong to motivate ourselves to change the “contract” paradigm just to get what we want. The point is to stop thinking obsessively about what we don’t have and want to get and where we want to go and begin to appreciate what we are — what we have been freely given — our bodies, one another, and the earth that sustains us. We are not needy; we are wealthy beyond measure. If we reach out to others, it is to share, not to get. We are the children of LIFE and the mirrors of love. It’s time we opened our eyes to the nature of things.