Catholicism is not Universalism

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd made a catchy attempt to idealize Catholicism using Joyce’s phrase from Finnegan’s Wake, “here comes everybody!”  But the suggested universalism is one of those fictions we have told ourselves.  It is simply not true.  It is not only contradicted by current Vatican attitudes, it belies the reality of Catholicism’s birth and history.  The Catholic Church, despite its enormous global nominal membership, is anything but universal, it is a local, Western European self-idolizing sectarian association — more of an ethnic-cultural than a religious phenomenon — and grossly intolerant.

The name “Catholic” comes from the adjectival form of an ancient Greek shorthand: kata holon, which literally means “according to the whole,” or “pertaining to the whole.”  It is traditionally translated “universal,” but while that is semantically defensible, from a religious point of view it is a complete distortion of the reality.  The label kat’holica was only applied to Christianity after it had become the official religion of the Roman EmpireThe significance of the new word “Catholic” was not religious, it referred to Christianity’s social role in the Empire.  Christianity was the Empire’s official religion — the only one permitted, all others were banned — and was therefore “obligatory for everyone,” kat’holica.

The word “Catholic” had dark implications for those who weren’t.  In the Roman Empire all other religions — and any but the official version of Christianity — were suppressed, and violently.  The Gnostics were closed down and their books all burned by order of the emperor.  The few writings of theirs that we have is the result of secretive action by monks, hiding their precious books in remote locations.  Arianism was actively persecuted by the Imperial authorities, and even though it took centuries to complete, was only eradicated by physical coercion.  Even the Jews, already dispersed throughout the empire for a millennium when Catholicism was spawned and familiar to all, suddenly became the object of persecution and could no longer count on state protection. “Catholic” meant that the official “orthodox” Christian dogmas and the authorities who guarded them were made the exclusive ideological agent of a narrow totalitarian vision — the policy of the Roman State.  The Imperial Church was the primary instrument for the complete homogenization of thought and guarantor of compliance within the empire.  The two — Church and State — became one flesh.  Rome was a theocracy, it ruled by divine right, and the Catholic Church made sure the “divine” part would fulfill its assignment.

The Church was also responsible for the narrowness, the sectarianism.  In August of 388, a mere eight years after Catholicism’s official establishment, a Jewish synagogue and a chapel of Valentinian Christians in Mesopotamia were burned down by Catholics at the instigation of the local bishop.  The emperor Theodosius’ spontaneous reaction was to punish the bishop and require that he rebuild the synagogue.  But he was publicly excoriated from the pulpit by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan where the emperor resided, and demanded he rescind his order.  The emperor acceded.  That Judaism, whose teachings were the source and inspiration for Jesus’ vision of universal love should have become the object of such opprobrium, is an indication of how narrowly sectarian the “Catholic Church” had become, and how pliant the State was in its service.  The way the events unfolded provided clear evidence that the violence was inspired and justified by Catholic sectarianism — the conviction that it was the one and only Church, kat’holica. 

Keep in mind how early this was.  Note too that it was not simply a case of anti-Semitism, for dissident Christians were included in the attack.  It was a violent affirmation of Catholic sectarian identity and an attempt to physically eliminate others.  Nor was this the only incident of its kind.  Within 20 years of that event, Augustine of Hippo prevailed upon the emperor Honorius to send Roman Legions to Africa to dislodge the Donatists from their churches.  This was a blatant suppression of a local sect of Berber lower class North Africans in favor of the Catholic sect, obedient to the emperor, comprised of the Roman residue of the occupiers following the Punic Wars.

Sectarian Christianity has always been violently intolerant, and it began with its promotion to being “Roman Catholic.”  Violent sectarianism has resurfaced again and again throughout the history of the lands ruled by Catholicism and its offshoots.  Persecution of heretics, slaughter and enslavement of “heathen,” crusades against Moslems, were accompanied by a perennial maltreatment of the Jews.  Neither Luther’s call for their extermination nor the genocide of the Nazis were disconnected isolated phenomena; they are whole cloth with the Catholic intolerance so clearly manifest in the fourth century.

There is nothing universal about Roman Catholicism, not now, not ever.  Totalitarianism is not universalism; it is quite the opposite.  It is the forced imposition of local custom and control on everybody.  The true Jewish universalism implied in Jesus’ message which the first Christian communities followed and fostered, esteems the efforts of “every nation to grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him.”  The “good news” announced by the earliest Christians was that the Jewish “God’s” love for humankind, was neither a demand nor a condition, it was an invitation.  That it became a requirement for “salvation” under the control of upper-class authorities was a deviation that guaranteed Catholicism’s imperial favor leading to its selection as the Religion of the State.

These days there is great talk of reform.  A reform that does not include a return to true universalism is a sham.  Roman Catholic intolerance is bound up with a self-idolatry that must be acknowledged: the Church considers itself divine and it claims it was made so by Jesus himself; “divine foundation” is the ground of its sectarian intolerance and inevitable violence toward others.  Dealing with that horror is the first order of business.


In the ancient world political success — wealth and power — was considered in itself a proof of divine favor.  It is arguable that it still is.  It was a belief that was shared and promoted by Augustine of Hippo, the principal  ideologue of Roman Catholicism.  Augustine’s belief was completely consistent with a theological definition that made “God” into some kind of humanoid “person” who, like the godlings of the Mediterranean pantheon, dispensed “blessings” in the form of material success and punished with poverty and failure.  There was no difference in the kind of divinity imagined, only the size and level of its power: the “God” of Augustine’s imagination had no limits and no competitors.  Its providence embraced every detail of every event, natural or man-made.  The very success of the Roman Empire, despite its bloody and rapacious history, according to Augustine, was clear evidence of “God’s” providential design, for the Empire became the instrument for the diffusion of Christianity to the ends of the earth, giving the Romans a continuance of the divine permission for conquest.  Thus was “God” “paganized” and re-conceived as a god of war and the atavistic texts from the old testament supporting Hebrew expansionism suddenly came to life again in their literal sense.

This notion of a separate “God,” out there apart from us, to whom we are related by command and control and not by blood, is at variance with Paul’s and John’s “aboriginal LIFE in which we live and move and have our being.”  Once you project a “theist” anthropomorphic “God” who is not immanent in our humanity, who micromanages every occurrence of the natural world and makes use of the free choice of men to accomplish his purpose, you cannot challenge the way things are, nor appropriate the “divinity” necessary to change them … for the way things are must be the way “God” wants them.  You have nothing to say about it.  Wealth and power no matter how criminally obtained were “blessings” from “God.”  They had to be, or “he” would never have permitted them.  Internal consistency demands that you accept the status quo no matter how unjust it represents the “will of God.”  To Paul’s eternal discredit, this belief was enunciated clearly in Romans 13.  But it is not a museum piece, it is endemic to traditional “theist” Christianity and it is with us to this day.  It is exactly the attitude that only months ago prompted an American politician to affirm that if a pregnancy resulted from rape it had to be the will of “God.”  Events as recent and as unconnected as American Imperial prerogatives justifying the Iraq war, the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake have been explained similarly as the will of “God” by religious and political leaders.

It should not escape notice that Augustine’s “Christian” interpretation of history confirmed what the Romans had always claimed about themselves: that they were destined by the gods to rule the world.  This belief long preceded Christianity.  Even while Rome was still a Republic, the great “City” was called diva Roma, “divine Rome.”  Military victory, conquest and the enormous wealth and power that accrued were considered proof of the Empire’s divine status.  The emperor was called divine, but only by extension … the primary “divinity” belonged to the ascendant State.  The occasion for Augustine to write De Civitate Dei, “The City of God,” was the sack of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths in 410.  That unprecedented humiliation prompted an outcry from the “pagans” that the old gods had abandoned Rome because Rome had thrown them off for Christianity.  Augustine’s book was written to assure them that Rome could count on the very same providence from the Christian “God” that they had always enjoyed under the gods of Rome.  Rome, “the City,” remained “of God,” but its destiny was now borne forward in intimate association with Church.  The sack of Rome was a punishment for failing to follow the commands of the true “God” and his Catholic Church.  The rape of Christian women by Alaric’s Christian troops was interpreted by Augustine as “God’s” punishment of those women for taking pride in their chastity.   ( sic ! The City of God, Bk 1, ch. 28)

Ultimately, Augustine’s work provided an ideological justification for the continuity of Roman theocracy.  By Augustine’s time, Rome had enjoyed “divinity” for a thousand years, long before Christianity was born.  That divinity, guaranteed by the providence of “God,” now passed to the Church as Rome’s intimate consort.  The Church was now “God’s” Rome — the “City” of “God.”  No less than the divinization of the emperor, the divinization of Catholicism was a derivative of the indisputable divinity of the Roman Empire and the canonization of its wealth and political  power.  If the Catholic Church considers itself divine, it’s because it was the co-regent of Rome.  It was Rome, not Jesus, that made the Catholic Church “divine.”  And it was ultimately Rome that defined for its own purposes what kind of “divinity” Jesus was to have — Pantocrator, “The All-Ruler,” homoousios, “as high a ‘God’ as the Father himself.”  The Church became divine by marriage, not by birth — the bride of the empire, not of Christ.  Bride?  The discernible inspiration behind its behavior and attitudes throughout history has prompted reformers to call it a whore — The Whore of Babylon.[1]

Please be advised: “bride,” like the “body of Christ” is only a metaphor.  And even if you claim it was more than a metaphor for Paul, he never intended it to be applied to a transnational corporation.  The Roman Catholic corporation is not Christ.  Even when poetically applicable, as in the case of small authentically Christian communities, the error arises from taking poetry literally.  It’s one of the many “doctrinal” deceptions keeping Catholics from assuming the universalist perspective implicit in Jesus’ message — a major element in true Church reform.  The Catholic Church is only one religion among many, Christian and non-Christian, all of whom are “groping” to find “God.”  Reform does not mean the mere forensic rehabilitation of an archaic self-serving institution which has lost moral credibility due to the ineptness of its managers.  It calls for nothing less than the radical re-appro­pria­tion of the message of Jesus and the public repudiation of those “dogmas” that divinize the Roman sect and its authorities.

[1] Identifying the pagan Rome referred to in the Book of Revelations with the Vatican was invoked in the past by reformers such as Savonarola, as well as by Luther and Calvin. … [It] is in the Smalcald Articles of Luther’s time and the 1646 Westminster Confession of Calvinists. It is still professed by churches who have embraced these documents … “ Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, “The Whore of Babylon.” Washington Post, May 20, 2008.

Universalism vs. Sectarianism

…  So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35).  

~   ~   ~   ~

…  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.  Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’   (Acts 17: 23-28) 

~  ~  ~   ~

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us … and so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1: 1-3) [all English Standard Version]


These citations are representative of the spirit found throughout the New Testament.  It seems clear that the ancient Christians who were responsible for those documents were self-con­scious­ly universalists.  As the time-line of newborn Christianity opens up in these narratives and letters, the reader quickly discovers that certain critical and defining decisions have already been made.  The principal and emphatically explicit one was that Christians were not Jews.  That focus pervades the entire collection.  I believe it represented the rejection of sectarianism and the commitment to universalism.

This needs some explanation for Christians originally considered themselves Jews.  Jesus was a Jew and he understood his “way” to be the real meaning of the Jewish covenant (contract) with Yahweh: that it was a love agreement, a relationship, not a business deal.  There was a universalism implicit in his vision, but he never made it explicit; his message was exclusively to the Jews and he said so.  After his death his followers at first continued as a movement within Judaism with hopes of convincing their co-religionists that Jesus was the messiah and that his death had a special significance as foretold by the prophets.  When and why the Christian decision was made to separate is a matter of discussion among scholars, but the intentionally historical account in the Acts of the Apostles is very specific about it.  It said it was precipitated by the conversion of Saul the Pharisee and his claim to have a direct personal assignment to preach to the Gentiles.  The agreement approving Paul and his mission was given in the concrete form of a revision of gentile Christians’ obligations toward the Jewish law.  They were not to be bound by dietary restrictions, nor were they required to be circumcised.  Effectively this meant there was no attempt to meet the sine qua non conditions under which inclusion in the Jewish national “contract” with Yahweh would be possible.  A more definitive “clean break” could not be imagined, at least as far as orthodox Jews were concerned.

Early Christians did not think they were rejecting the “Jewish religion” in order to establish a “Christian religion” changing one sect for another, and securing “salvation” for those who were willing to adhere to a new set of rules.  Leaders like Paul were quite clear: Christianity was the full flowering of Judaism.  They knew from Jesus message that Yahweh was a “God” of love, and therefore would want to connect with absolutely everyone.   That meant he stopped being just “Yahweh,” Israel’s tribal war god, and revealed himself to be THE “God,” everyone’s “God” — Jesus’ “loving Father,” what John called, “the LIFE that was from the beginning.”   It was an unmitigated universalist vision based on a universal immanentist monotheism … and Christianity has always claimed to teach it.

In their own minds at least, the early Christians reconciled themselves to the split by denying it.  They insisted that they were the real Israel of the Jewish Scriptures, the recipients of the blessings promised, and in turn the only ones making the correct response.  It was with Christianity that Judaism was revealed to have been the seed that “God” had, all along, intended to grow into a vast universal tree.  It was a tidy package, theologically speaking, for diaspora Jews like Paul, whose Judaism was as congenital as his Greek culture.  The entire old testament was reinterpreted as “prophecy,” meaning symbol, figure, metaphor, and embraced the way one might embrace one’s childhood self, identifying traits that were harbingers of the future adult even though attitudes, behavior and commitments had changed.

“Adulthood” as a Jewish Christian involved some significant modifications as far as Paul was concerned: acceptance of Jesus as the messiah whose death was the fulfillment of the contract with “God,” eliminating the national, sectarian claims of Judaism symbolized in the “law.”  But the fundamentals were Jewish.  On accepting Christ, in Paul’s view, the Jew remained a Jew but threw open his arms to embrace the whole world, inviting everyone to share the joy of the uniquely intimate Jewish relationship with “God” — the fulfillment of the historic promises to Israel.

Paul’s vision of Christianity was elegantly Jewish: in a single act of perfect divine symmetry, Jesus’ death was simultaneously “God’s” display of self-emptying self-donation to humankind, and humankind’s perfect response already completed in the perfect obedience of Christ.  All debts were paid; it left us owing nothing at all.  The one glitch in Paul’s system was that Jesus had to be both divine and human to accomplish such a feat.  Such a hybrid entity, a “god-man,”unthinkable to orthodox Jews, was entirely imaginable to polytheistic Greeks whose pantheon comfortably housed many “sons” of gods.  But, more importantly, Philo’s studies in Alexandria had uncovered a remarkable confluence of Hebrew texts and Greek philosophy in the Logos, an emanation of “God.”  Applied to Jesus it made his dual role a real possibility for progressive diaspora Jews like Paul and John.

The elimination of circumcision and food prohibitions was meant as a way of allowing people of “every nation” who “grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him” to enter his family — to finally know “God’s” name, his family history and what he has done — to know what the “God” they had been worshipping all along was really like (Acts 17).  It was “good news.”  It was a long sought-after desideratum almost beyond one’s wildest dreams — to finally know the “real God” (the “God” of the Jews) and his epic deeds of love for us.  It was not a condition of entry into a new sect, and new “rule” or “law,” the human side of a “new contract” where failure to comply meant damnation.  Paul’s was precisely the opposite of exclusionary sectarianism.  No one was excluded.  There were no conditions whatsoever.  The doors were wide open.  “God” wanted to connect with us all and the Christian “announcement” was an open invitation to connect with “God.”  It was a relationship, not a contract.


Early Christian universalism implied a conception of “God’s” relationship to people that did not quite fit the Jewish paradigm of the contract.  The texts cited above clearly show that early Christians recognized that everyone was already connected to “God” by nature.  The very possibility of universalism is predicated on a pre-existing relationship that is not determined by local choices.  The source of that relationship could not have been a “person-to-person” agreement, a covenant, because no one had a recollection of any such a thing.  Any such agreement would have to be local.  The relationship could not be universal unless it were grounded in nature itself.  So the “only god” of the Jews was reconceived as the “One God” who made all things and was therefore related to all by nature.  Every nation was created by that “God;” he was, therefore, already their “father.”  Everything was in place; the potential for the full flowering of the relationship was there.  The core insight was the recognition of this pre-existing connection.  The contract was no longer relevant.  The “God” of nature implied that the most any religion could offer was a clarification of exactly how that relationship should be understood and lived out going forward, but it did not create it.  The missionary function was to “reveal” and  announce what was already there, not to to bring it into existence.

This “recognition of prior relationship” is unmistakably present in all the texts quoted above.  They indicate that the early Christians were quite conscious of their ancillary role in the announcement of the “new relationship” to “God” — that what they had to say was not new; it was the clarification of “what was from the beginning.”  The very condition of Christian mission was that those who heard their message already understood what they were being told.

Relationship to “God” based on the creature/creator connection is naturally universal and the early Christians understood it implicitly.  Sectarianism is the antithesis of this universalist respect for prior relationship.  It presumes to control the relationship.  But please take note: you can only do that if you control the basis for its existence.  That is the nature of a sect, a cult:  you, the sect, own the relationship.  The parties, in fact, are related to you, not to one another.  If you have the means to make the relationship come and go, then indeed, members are locked into a dependency upon you as the source of the connection.  The nature of a sect is that it is a closed system, imposing specified conditions controlled by the sect.  A relationship created by contract is of the nature of a sect, unavoidably.  The nature of a universal religion, on the other hand, is that the institution is subordinate, subservient, at the service of a prior and independent natural relationship, one that it did not create and does not control.  There is no quid pro quo possible when your very existence — your “you,” the party of the quid — is a gift from the party of the quo.

What is remarkable is that within a few generations this early Christian way of looking at things came to be reversed.   The Christian movement was turned into a sect that claimed to control the relationship with “God.”  It declared itself the exclusive inheritor of Paul’s letters and the only one infallibly authorized to interpret his ideas.  That religion, represented today by the Roman Catholic Church and many of its “reformed” offshoots, was culture-speci­fic to the mediterranean and later Europe; it was exclusivist, offering a relationship to “God” that without the sectarian Church could not exist.  Relationship (and “salvation”) were conditioned on membership in the sect, and that in turn involved meeting certain ritual requirements (like baptism), making verbal assent to otherwise unknowable supernatural facts (creeds) and conforming behavior to a rationally deduced “Natural law” codified and promulgated by the sect as “God’s law.”  Catholicism differed from its later “reformed” versions only in which rituals, formulas and moral demands were authentic and saved you from damnation … but in all other respects they all claimed to control the relationship to “God’s” love made concrete in “salvation.”

The relational dynamic implicit in this “Orthodox Christianity” which came to dominate Europe in the middle ages, seems to have negated virtually every aspect of the early universalist vision articulated so eloquently by Paul at Athens.  Rather than validating the universal “groping” for “God” and the multitude of means discovered by “every nation” in that search, mediaeval Christianity restricted legitimate religious expression to one set of rituals, formulas and morality — its own — redefining “universal” to mean the reduction of all tribes to one.  Instead of transcending the contract mentality which had limited “God” to sectarian conditions for relationship and “salvation,” it reinstalled it as a “new contract” whose quid quo pro requirements cancel out the self-emptying self-donating open-armed universal gratuity projected by Paul.  Far from being the source of exuberant joy, the relationship to “God” in traditional sectarian Christianity has been made elusive and anxiety-ridden, and “God” an ominous task-master whose glaring invasive presence motivates a self-preoccupied obedience through fear of eternal punishment — hardly “good news” for us “existentially challenged” humans.


That these features reproduce exactly the relational dynamics characteristic of authoritarian societies like violent exploitative empires, can hardly escape notice.  It seems undeniable that in this regard the Roman Church was deeply influenced by the Roman State … as one would expect of co-regents.  This authoritarianism stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the familial, forgiving, non-violent, self-negating, omni-validating love that obtains between brothers, true friends and equals.  It has had the ultimate effect of taking Jesus vision of the great-hearted loving Father of us all, so solidly in possession of LIFE that he needs nothing and no one, … a “God” whom Paul said was so big that he could afford to “stoop to become one of us,” and turned him back into a self-absorbed, thin-skinned, tribal war-god, dependent upon the obeisance of his groveling clients and the lugubrious ceremonies of a sectarian Church for the diffusion of his name and glory.  There is an inescapable proportionality here.  The transcendent absoluteness of “God” corresponds to the limitless breadth and independent intimacy of his relationships, just as a limited, sectarian, self-protective, demanding “contract” evokes a needy, unfulfilled and impotent god-effigy that needs to be constantly constructed by his minions’ loud obedience and coerced submission of others if it is to have existence.  The second is not “God,” it is “the work of human hands … it has eyes but cannot see … it is deaf and mute … and those that worship it become like it,” — small-souled, grasping, self-involved, insatiably empty, dead and needing to be infused with LIFE from the outside.

Magnanimity and generosity and the universalism they imply are not optional features.  If they are missing from our religion — and our personality make-up — it means we never really heard what Jesus said about his “father, God,” … and we never understood what Paul said it means to know the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  It means we have never appropriated for ourselves what John spoke about: the LIFE that is from the beginning.  For those men, you must understand, all this was prior to membership in the community.  It was the only condition, the natural human LIFE that we were all born with.  It was absolutely universal.  Our relationship to “God” was our self-embrace of the LIFE that is ours.

There is a critical difference between evaluating religions according to the scientific “truth” of their beliefs and behavioral requirements … and assessing them from the point of view of the relational dynamics implied in their fundamental structures.  For us humans, there is no choice.  Relational structures must rule the enquiry.  We are our relationships.  Religion’s “facts” are ancillary to the relationships they assume, imply and evoke, and their “truth” must be judged by them.  The nature of “humanity” is “to be in relationship.”  We are not “things.”  There is no substance to us; we are temporary diaphanous formations of material energy that take our reality from our valences, our connections.  We are our relationships.  And shaping our lives by the relationships as understood by our religions will make us who we are … for better or worse.

It’s time we began to evaluate our religions in these terms.  The “truth” of religion has nothing to do with the “facts” it alleges; it has to do with the character and quality of the relationships it calls forth.  We ARE our relationships.  The religion that is “true” for humans is the religion that supports, justifies and encourages the kinds of relationships — to ourselves, to others, to the earth and to our living source and matrix — that make us fully human … that recognize and deepen our identity with LIFE.  The religion that empowers us to activate LIFE is the one that first recognizes that the power of LIFE is resident in our flesh.  We are born with it.  It is ours … it is us.  In contrast, a religion that insists that we are corrupt from birth — devoid of LIFE — and that LIFE must be gotten from another world through mechanisms which are in the exclusive possession and control of the sect, necessarily creates a dependency relationship that ties us to those mechanisms.  If you need to be filled from the outside — if you do not have LIFE within you — you can never cut the umbilical cord, for if LIFE is not yours to start with, you will always have to get it from somewhere else.  Without LIFE you are bound to your little sect and so is everyone else, for all are corrupt, empty, dead, needing to be filled from outside by the one infallible set of mechanisms that work ex opere operato.  This is sectarianism.  It is the antithesis of universalism … even if the whole world were to join, they would have to suppress their humanity as a condition of entry … it annihilates the diversity implied in universalism … the whole world would become sectarian; human diversity would be submerged in the totalitarianism of a monolith.  There is nothing “universal” about it at all.


Christian “facts” are derivatives that come from Christian theology.  That’s what makes them metaphors.  That Jesus was “God,” for example, was not a primary datum.  It was derived from his followers’ interpretation of the crucifixion as the unique fulfillment of the Jewish contract with Yahweh.  No one began by calling Jesus “God.”  Certainly during Jesus’ lifetime and immediately afterwards it would have been considered an unthinkable blasphemy.  The very fact that it only dawned on his followers as time went by is a prima facie indicator that their “facts” were generated by their theology, not the other way around … in my terms, by their understanding of the new relationships proclaimed by Jesus’ vision and message … in Paul’s terms, by their sectarian belief that with Christ’s death the Jewish contract with Yahweh was fulfilled and therefore discharged and annulledThat Jesus was “God” was a metaphor that allowed that interpretation to exist.

In time, however, the idea of Jesus’ divinity came to be taken as a primary indisputable scientific “fact” and it distorted the interpretation of his significance accordingly.   By late antiquity Nicaean Jesus had become Pantocrator, the “all ruler,” the judge of the living and the dead, and the cult of Mary began to fill the void created by taking our human mediator from us and making him “God.”  Once Jesus was made “God,” the judge who could send you to hell, the people spontaneously turned to thoroughly human Mary to play the intermediary role that was once Jesus’.  She was a woman, a mother who could “intercede for us with her son.”  They were sure this was a mediator the authorities couldn’t take away from us, for we all know no woman would ever be made “God.”

But at first, in the vision offered by Paul, the dominant guiding notion was the direct perception of the new relationship to “God” in Christ as gratuitous.  It was the unfortunate but unavoidable use of the Jewish “contract” categories and terminology that began the process of reversal and made the reinstatement of the quid pro quo sectarian relationship virtually inevitable.


It seems clear from New Testament documents, that those Jews who followed Jesus had felt oppressed by the Jewish law.  In the synoptic gospels it was expressed in the form of Jesus’ many adversarial encounters with the “scribes and Pharisees,” culminating in his vitriolic denunciation in Matthew 23.  This included the rigidity of the laws which Matthew attributed to the Pharisees hypocritical interpretations, “laying burdens on men’s’ backs.”  In Acts 15 Peter himself is heard speaking of the Jewish law as “a burden neither we nor our fathers could bear.”  In his letter to the Romans Paul is expressive to the point of anguish on the question of the role of the law in creating a bad conscience … and quite explicit that it had exactly that effect on him personally.  Against this background, the Christ-event was seen as an unexpected liberation for people like Paul — the lifting of an immense burden, and a sign of the boundless generosity of “God.”

This perception of the limitless generosity and all-embracing merciful love of “God,” forgiving all his prodigal children, “running to them when they were still far off to fall on their necks and smother them with kisses of welcome” (Luke 15) is the core religious insight of the Christian way.  Jesus, who seems not to have been personally distracted by the “pharisaical” misinterpretations of the law, expressed it in terms of his conviction that “Yahweh” was not the “holder of an IOU” but rather his loving father who asked for nothing but love and validated Jesus’ authentic sonship.  Paul tried to express it theologically as the lifting of the burdens of the law achieved through the full compliance of the contract offered by the self-sacrificing Christ.

The difference in these two approaches, Jesus’ and Paul’s, in explaining the sense of liberation and the blinding joy of complete reconciliation with “God” explains why Christianity, in attempting to free itself from the limitations of sectarianism, projected a universalism that the “contract theology” of Paul was ultimately incapable of sustaining into the next generation.  The effort collapsed back into a new quid pro quo because the very contract terminology that Paul used to explain the lifting of the Jewish burdens, did not apply to other peoples or to Christians of a later time.  His language was a propos only of oppressed, humiliated, first century diaspora Jews, miraculously freed from the onerous obligations that identified them as outsiders in the Roman world.  The perennial attempt to understand what he was trying to say in the extremely constrained terms he was forced to use, has consistently meant that we missed the universalism embedded in the message.  It was a boundless universalist message expressed in extremely limited sectarian terms.


So what is the “core message” that allows for the true universalism present as a seed in Jesus’ vision?  It was definitely not Paul’s theory of “the fulfilling of the old contract.”  I contend that never for one moment did it ever occur to Jesus that his death would amount to discharging the obligations incurred in a contract with God.  Jesus’s vision, to the contrary, was simple and direct.  No reconciliation was required, for “God” was never angry at us, ever.  It was all a myth created by the misinterpretation of the sufferings of life.  Jesus caught the spirit and meaning of Job and the prophets: that “God” was love, not the legislator of Sinai, and that we were “God’s” children predisposed by nature to respond in kind.  Jesus saw that the contract imagery was metaphor and he transcended it … and he was able to do that because he had a direct independent sense of what “God” was like.  The need of his followers to explain things in terms of the Jewish contract was their problem; it was not Jesus’ problem.  They could not think “outside the box” of their tribal sect and its sacred contract categories, but Jesus could and did.  That’s why he could say that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and “by their fruits you will know them” … that’s why “he spoke as one with authority” … that’s why he could call the legalists “whitened sepulchres” and throw the money changers out of the temple … and, paradoxically, that’s why he could remain a Jew. 

The first letter of John captures the spirit of Jesus’ universalist message because it speaks directly about the character of “God.”  John spoke of LIFE that is from the beginning … LIFE that is superabundant love.  His message, like Jesus’ message, is simple: that “God” is love and light, and we are his children.  We are the offspring of LIFE.  We own itIt’s in our blood and bones — everyone from every nation knows this … everyone has the power of LIFE residing within themselves.  They don’t have to go anywhere to get it, they just need to hear someone like John say out loud what they have always known: “… we are “God’s” children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared …”

Tony Equale

Willis VA

June 7, 2013