… 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).
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… 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)
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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 annulled. That 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 it. It’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 …”
June 7, 2013