The Incarnation is a Metaphor

The central doctrine under discussion at Nicaea and for the next century was the “Incarnation.” The Church declared that the man Jesus was “God.”  It was this doctrine that grounded Christian claims to superiority over all other traditions.  Not only did it function to suppress dissent in Christian lands, but beginning in the 15th century it was used to justify the systematic conquest, brutal subjugation and shameless exploitation of non-European people across the globe.  It was “God’s will” that all become Christian, and it was only “just” that they pay for the privilege.  It continues to function today to prevent serious participation by Catholics in dialog with other traditions. 

I was preparing a piece with the title “The Incarnation is a Metaphor” when I realized that I had already introduced the topic.  The following is section 5 of the essay “Reflections on Catholic Revisionism: Garry Wills’ Why Priests’”? posted on this blog March 31, 2013.   References are to Wills’ book “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition,” Penguin, 2013.

Wills wants to tinker with doctrine and still remain “Catholic.”  That’s the way with revisionists.  I can understand the temptation.  We Catholics cling to our Catholicism with an intensity that reveals the ethnic energies that feed all religious phenomena.  We believed that to abandon it would mean to abandon who we were.  On top of that, we were subjected to a formation that elevated Catholicism to divine status.  For us, the Catholic Church was the very place on earth where “God” himself exclusively resided and infallibly taught eternal truths to his people.

It’s time all this foolishness ended.  The Catholic Church is one organization among many that brokers relationship to the sacred.  It is no more divine than any other religious club and just as prone to superstition, venality and abuse of power.  We are learning from scripture scholars and historians that the ultimate source of the absolutism that has characterized our Church was not Jesus of Nazareth who eschewed being called “God,” but the ancient Roman Theocracy — the belief that the Empire was diva Roma, divine — chosen by the gods to rule the earth.  Rome was the Empire; the sole ruler of the known world.  When Rome chose its “church,” it automatically became “the Church,” the religion of “everyone” — kat’olica.

Wills insists that he is Catholic and takes pains to list the doctrines to which he holds fast; they are adduced to prove his orthodoxy and guarantee his membership.  Here they are, copied directly from page 256.  Wills says:

But if I do not believe in popes and priests and sacraments, how can I call myself a Catholic? What do I believe? I get that question all the time. Well, I will tell you what I believe. The things I believe are not incidental or peripheral, but central and essential. They are:

God.

The Creation (which does not preclude evolution).

The Trinity.

Divine Providence.

Prayer.

The Incarnation.

The Resurrection.

The Gospels.

The Creed.

Baptism.

The Mystical Body of Christ (which is the real meaning of the Eucharist).

The Eucharist.

The Second Coming.

The Afterlife.

The Communion of Saints.

I notice there is no mention of “Original Sin,” and “Redemption” — a conspicuous omission given the focus on “sacrifice” in his book, and no clue as to why.  The “doctrines” that remain on the list are some of the metaphors our western culture has generated to express the mystery of existence.  Other cultures with different histories and different poetry have generated other metaphors that are directed to the same existential issues, sometimes in ways that are recognizable to us, sometimes not.  Religion is a universal phenomenon because the insecurity of existence — an existence that our flesh is programmed to cling to but which is inexorably moving toward death — is absolutely universal.  Religion will always be with us because of that inherent contradiction: it affects us all, we can’t help it. 

Christianity has never acknowledged that its doctrines and practices are metaphor.  Born in Greece at a time when science in the form of rational philosophy had swept away the pantheon of the gods, Christianity was embraced by the Greeks as the ritual expression of a “scientific” Platonism, and its narratives objective history.  That is still true today.  Garry Wills is a Christian literalist whose critique of the Catholic doctrines of “sacrifice” and “priesthood” is based squarely on challenging their factual authenticity.  He meets literal claims with literal refutations.

Catholic doctrine is, however, pure metaphor, and its practices, structures and rituals — all of them — are poetry.

Wills does not agree.  For him, it is literal.  When Wills provides us with this list of “what he believes,” he is not saying that this is a list of acceptable metaphors … and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not acceptable metaphors.  Not at all.  He is saying this is a list of “realities,” things that are really, literally “true,” and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not among them,

but the Incarnation is …

Let’s take the Incarnation.  If Wills accepts the Incarnation as real in the sense that the Church has traditionally proclaimed it, then he is also saying that Jesus is literally “God” exactly as the “Father” is “God” — homoousios, defined at Nicaea and therefore it was “God” himself who founded the Christian Religion.

How can Catholics be faulted, then, for drawing the inescapably logical literalist conclusion, a century before Augustine’s time, that “outside the Church there is no salvation”?  You can’t blame logic, it is only an obedient tool that validates conclusions.  If the conclusion is invalid — and we know that it is — it must mean the premise was wrong … incorrect as stated or as understood … not true.  Where does that leave the “Incarnation” … and Wills’ “Catholicism”?

Belief in the literal Incarnation has entailed the “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” of Catholicism that Wills surely rejects.  Catholics are on the horns of a dilemma: if they want to avoid saying that the Catholic Church was founded by “God”-in-person, and to that end declare that the Incarnation is only a metaphor, they stop being Catholic.  On the other hand, if they want to remain Catholic, they have to live with “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” as acceptable conclusions from the premises they support … and just hope and pray that the “Holy Spirit” will deter the authorities from acting on its implications.   But think what that means: it implies that we are praying that the Incarnation not be taken literally — that it be treated as if it were a metaphor!

The contrary to exclusivism, whether as applied to sectarian Catholicism or to all of Christianity, is universalism, i.e.,  a recognition that all religions provide similar metaphorical vehicles for their people.

Doesn’t the realization that even if Christian doctrine like the Incarnation were literally true, that it can only avoid contradictions like “exclusivism” when treated as metaphor, … doesn’t that very fact compel acceptance of the poetic nature of religion and therefore, paradoxically, argue for religion’s universal validity?

However you ask it, the question highlights the metaphoric, esthetic, non-literal character of the religious phenomenon.  Religion is a work of the imagination, and Wills’ entire study in Why Priests?, by pursuing the question of sacrifice and priesthood in the same literalist terms that philosophical theology has used since the days of Augustine, does a disservice to the evolution of religious thought in our time.  We are learning that religion — all religion — is symbolic, part of the virtual world we create with our heads to override the indeterminacy of life.  Priesthood and sacrifice are historically and regionally conditioned metaphorical expressions of the religious relationship.  But so is Incarnation.  If for some reason I no longer wish to embrace the first two doctrines and still accept the third, I have a perfect right to do so, but not on the claim that one is a “fact” and the others are not.  None of them are “facts.”  They are all metaphors; they are all poetry.  And, yes, we have the right to choose the poetry that inspires us, to listen to the music that expresses our feelings and to surround ourselves with the art and buildings that represent our relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being.”  But once you admit that, you have entered the universalist dimension because that’s what every religion does.

In our time we are thankfully beyond “state religion,” by which I mean some obligatory imposition of “objectively true” propositions from and about another world, administered by a social / political elite which controls our destiny here and hereafter.  We have finally discovered what religion really is — ancient poetry — and we have made it ours.  We have entered an era where the power of the religious poetry of multiple traditions has been made available for the enrichment of us all.   In our time the universal respect for all religions is our celebration of the profound insights and luxuriant expression here­­to­fore denied us by the erstwhile pre-emptions of our “only true” religions.  Religion is human poetic insight functioning at some of its deepest levels.  We are now learning that religion does not come from “God,” it was a human creation from the very beginning; and we are now declaring our rights of ownershipThese are depths that our ancestors pioneered and we will not be disinherited.

We are not going back where we came from.  We have entered a universalist age and any religion that earns our loyalty will have to acknowledge it, perhaps even in the form of “official” declarations.  Such a universalist proclamation on the part of a seriously reformed Catholicism would have to insist not only on the repudiation of its own traditional religious arrogance and claims to superiority, but also actively encourage its members to taste and share the poetry, ritual and relational attitudes of other traditions even as we offer to share ours with them.  For Wills to attempt to breathe life back into the moribund corpse of an unrepentant exclusivist sectarian Catholicism by separating “orthodox” from “heterodox” literalisms and bypassing entirely the metaphoric nature of all religious expression, is myopic and atavistic.  It is revisionism at its worst.  Derogating the priesthood and challenging the validity of the doctrine of “sacrifice” on which it rests, however valid, is to my mind, too little, too late and too narrow.  Wills’ proposals are hardly different from the reforms sought by the Protestants in the sixteenth century.  If those reforms had been embraced by the Church at Trent in 1545, it may have averted the bloody European nationalism and brutal, dehumanizing colonialism that characterized the last 500 years of “Christian” history.

It’s too late for that.  Now is not the time to “revise” Catholicism or even Christianity; it has had its day for good or bad — now is the time to transcend it all and a Catholicism that would remain relevant has to embrace it and proclaim it publicly.

A Catholic universalism will demand many changes in the formulation of doctrine, but the first and most basic is the acknowledgement that the “Incarnation” is a metaphor.

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Pan-entheism and “prayer”

(first of a series on “Prayer in a Material Universe”)

1. Pan-entheism

“Pan-entheism” is a term that tries to say in one word that a “divine principle” constitutes the structural core of everything that exists.

To put it another way, pan-entheism means that existence as we experience it in ourselves and in the world around us is the active presence — the energy — of a divine principle or source.  It is all there is.  There is nothing else.  It is the definition of existence, esseThe use of the word “divine” is meant to describe the psychological effect — the relationship — which this existential “donor” activity has traditionally generated in the human recipient.

I am intentionally avoiding the word “God,” because it immediately connotes a rational humanoid all-powerful and all-knowing immaterial personal entity who plans, chooses, acts and guarantees the realization of “his” plans for our material universe.  I claim that such a “person” — the traditional “God” of supernatural theism — does not exist.

The “divine principle” I speak of, as far as human knowledge can discern, is not an entity.  It is not “an individual,” much less a “person” rational or non-rational.  What is undeniably known is that it is a “prin­ciple,” “source” or “wellspring” of our material existence — what the Greeks called archē (αρχη),[1] that is perceptible, i.e., empirical: able to be experienced, observed, measured or related to only in its “concrescences.”[2]

“Divine principle” does not refer to any entity or quantity that is directly known.  It refers to whatever it is and however it may achieve its results, that either is, or is responsible for, the following effects that impact human beings at the very core of their existence and identity:  (1) the existence of a universal and homogeneous indestructible material energy, observed, measured, described and made clearly known to us by science, that constitutes the basic components of every structure and every force and feature of the cosmos including ourselves; (2) “life” experienced as a conatus sese conservandi, an “instinct for self-preservation,” derived from the existential energy of matter, characteristic of all known organisms which is expressed as the spontaneous desire to survive, defend, enhance the organism and to reproduce, thus sustaining an evolutionary process from which emerge new and unforeseen entities that populate our planet in a near infinite number of species; (3) a necessary embrace of existence, also known as a sense of the sacred in humans, springing from the connatural concurrence of our organismic conatus with the availability in the environment of the resources necessary for the successful pursuit of survival and reproduction.  Humans necessarily take joy in being-alive and necessarily cherish whatever provides, protects and enhances their life … I repeat, necessarily.  It is a function of the conatus which is itself a necessary function of material energyNo one can suppress their existential hunger, nor their joy when that hunger is satisfied.  These are bodily reactions beyond voluntary control.  We are physically predetermined to love being-here.

The “divine principle” is the unknown “source” that is, or provides, the matrix which makes us ourselves and the means to remain ourselves.  Logically speaking, the sense of the sacred that arises spontaneously in us is not an option; we are locked into an auto-appreciation whose denial is not possible without being pathological and self-destructive. The inner logic of the constitutive connection between the individual and its various sources of support reaching ultimately to its existential source extends the diagnosis of pathology to cover the denial of the divine principle itself.  One cannot cherish oneself without appreciating the sources of one’s support.  The alternative is a self-contradiction and therefore — theoretically — not an option.  That it has, in fact, been claimed a valid choice is an anomaly made possible, and in some cases seemingly inevitable by a severely distorted social history regarding “religion.”  This is a very big topic that we will deal with at another time.

Defining the source of existence as a “divine principle” is also an attempt to identify all the “being” there is (whatever exists) as its manifestation while at the same time refusing to say that the two are simply one and the same thing.  From the side of the concrescences, the concrete existents, there is nothing there that is not the activated divine principle, while from the side of the divine principle, whatever it is, there is obviously always more potential than what has been activated in the various concrete existents, singly or collectively at any given point in time.  In other words, what actually exists and the divine principle are not simply one and the same thing … but what actually exists is only an expression — an observable activation — of that one same divine principle.  The scholastics called it esse.

That means that the only visibility, the only empirical reality this “divine principle” has is in the concrete existents which it constitutes and enlivens.   “Constitutes and enlivens” is intended to evoke an immanence that is quite thorough.  To repeat what was said earlier, “It is all there is; there is nothing else” but this divine principle.  The archē does not reside in the “thing” as a separate entity/tenant, but rather suffuses it totally: for it is the very existence of the “thing.”  They are completely commensurate.

That is what I mean by pan-entheism.

2. Experience and intention (attention)

Based on the foregoing, it follows that all human experience — interior or exterior — is necessarily, in fact if not in awareness, an experience of the divine principle.  Existential energy’s empirical qualities are palpable in the conatus of each respective concrescence; the archē, source, is not experienced as separate from the entity driven by the conatus (mine or others’).  Nor does it immediately imply that the experiencing subject adverts to the relationship.  There is no immediate evidence that there even is a relationship.  The conatus is not spontaneously reflective; it is focused on the survival of the composite organism in space and time, the tasks that survival requires and the enemies that threaten it.  The conatus is a drive emanating from the existential energy of matter; it is common to all matter; it is not an exclusively human phenomenon and it is not fundamentally rational.

Since the divine prin­ciple is not an entity it is not directly or separately perceptibleIt is not a thing.  Its active presence takes the form of the concrescence in question.  That means there is no distance, no difference in fact between the divine principle and the existing “thing” which it activates.   Whatever distance (and difference) there is between them, is due to the focus of human consciousness alone; it is entirely a question of human cognitive attention.  Consciousness does not directly experience the divine principle as such; it only experiences the concrete existent and its intentions, driven by its conatus; any conscious focus on the divine principle is indirect — an inference.

We directly experience the divine principle because, metaphysically speaking, it is all there is.  But, psychologically — from the perspective of our awareness of it — that it is a “divine principle” is an inference.  It is what we are experiencing, but it is a mediated experience, a “cause” known only in its effects.  Our awareness of what it is goes beyond what we experience; it is metempirical.   But the “distance beyond” is exclusively due to the empirical focus — the intentionality — of human consciousness.  There is no relationship as between two entities, for there are not two entities there.  The divine principle is not an entity.  There is only one entity, the concrescence, and it is constructed of the “divine principle.”  The unity here is total.

Reductionists claim this metempirical designation is really a pretext for admitting illusion and duality into the equations about reality.  They say it is “mysticism,” which for them means conjuring imaginary entities and forces and a world that does not exist.  They speak as if this inference were a gratuitous projection.  But it is not; it is similar to my knowledge of the components and functions of my body — from large organs down to the quarks and muons that are the substrate of matter.  My know­ledge of my own substructures is an inference based on the observations and measurements of science expanding on what I have learned over a lifetime of experiencing life in my body.  It is a valid way of knowing certain things so long as it is employed with due regard for its limitations.  This inferential “know­ledge” does not imply there is more than one “thing” there.  No substructure or component of my body has any identity or conatus-energy that is independent of my integrated self.  They are all known to “me” as if they were “other” than me, for my only direct experience is of my self … everything else is inferred.

This metempirical awareness may enter into the way I manage my life.  I may, for example, take the advice of medical science that warns me that smoking tobacco may cause emphysema and decide to quit, while someone else might declare that they “don’t believe it” because they do not directly experience smoking as painful or debilitating.  Metempirical knowledge may be both valid and logically compelling, but it still remains “beyond experience” and its compelling quality comes from logic, reason, inference — not from direct experience.

But metempirical does not mean it’s not there or even the totality of what is there; it only means the difference and distance is in our heads, not in reality.  Every facet and feature of everything that exists, is a function of material energy either in itself or as an effect of some immanent unknown material “source” (archē) that sustains that energy from within (from our point of view, they are both the “source of material energy” and any distinction between them is irrelevant).  Our experience, therefore, is always and only the experience of this material energy of which we are constructed; there is nothing else there.  And that “source,” archē, immanent in material energy, generates a “divine” relationship with us because we are stunningly aware that it makes us to be-here and to be us.

 3. “Prayer:” relationship to the archē

The word “prayer” is term whose traditional literal application of “asking God” for something is anthropomorphic and obsolete.  I am reluctant to use it at all because it suggests expectations that do not exist.  But since its grosser uses have been transcended even among many traditionalists, I now use it, cautiously, to mean only our affective relationship to our source.

Now, I claim that the conatus of any given living thing is the concentrated display of its existential energies, the expression of its very coherence as an integrated organism made of parts.  We can see and attend to the form those energies take in living things by observing their behavior and we can draw certain limited conclusions about the character of their source from what we see … always keeping in mind, of course, that their source is not separate but is immanent in their substructure.  Since we have identified the source of these energies as a “divine principle,” it follows that what we are experiencing when we observe the conatus of organisms other than ourselves is the effect of this divine principle as it functions in the real world.

But we also know the archē more intimately because we can attend to the conatus within ourselves.  I claim that the simple act of turning attention to one’s own emerging existence in time with all its associated needs and desires, brings us into indirect, mediated (i.e., mirrored in ourselves) contact with the “divine principle.”  It is, in all essential respects, what has been classically called “mystical experience” or the experience of “God,” notwithstanding its simple and undramatic nature.  Gregory of Nyssa called it the “sense of presence.”  I believe it is fundamentally the same as the Buddhist practice of “attending to the present moment,” what they call “mindfulness.”

Such a perspective follows logically, given the premises outlined above.  My personal conatus is the “gathering,” the synergy resulting from the coalescence of the existential energies (the more primitive conatus, if you will) of the various sub-structural elements that under other circumstances may subsist independently as themselves, but now cohere and are integrated as “me.”  Their combined existential energies collaborate across the entire structural spectrum — organic, molecular, chemical, atomic and sub-atomic (themselves all more primitively structured) — in a seamless unified experience of self-identity.  There is only one “experience,” one conatus, one entity — and it is myself.

But the “present moment” includes the existential energy on display in everything around me.  Any given “present moment” is witnessing material existence creatively occupying new ground that a moment earlier had been “non-being.”

Pan-entheism and “prayer”  — “treat everything as if divine”

Pan-entheism says the “divine principle,” the archē, is inseparably immanent in things.  It doesn’t “dwell” there as if it were a second entity.  There is no second entity.  As esse it is indistinguishable from the existential energy of living organisms and all their constitutive substructures.  I want to emphasize: It is not only phenomenologically indistinguishable, it is physically/metaphysically identical for there is nothing else there but “divine energy” in the form of material existence integrated into an “entity” as this particular organic concrescence.

Not only does every type of micro substructure collaborate in the phenomenon of conatus-driven organic life, but the macro features of the “superstructure” — the fully integrated organic individual — are themselves the end-products of evolution that have been shaped by material energy for material survival through eons of geologic time.  The human “body” is the evolved result of the sequential synergies of more primitive ancestral material organisms driven by their archē-energized conatus to survive.

So we see that both structurally and genetically the conatus I experience as myself is the gathering of the existential energies of evolving matter.  My experience of my living striving self is the experience of the “divine principle” — LIFE, archē — as it gives shape and life to all things.  I claim this is what is palpable in “mystical experience.”  Christian mystics through the millennia who have claimed to have “experienced God” were in fact experiencing themselves as the expressions of the archē … and the “growth” that they claimed was occurring in this “relationship” with the “Other” was in fact the growth in their own personal awareness that everything, including themselves, is “divine.”  The personal theist “God” is a metaphor — a poetic personification — of the self-appreciation and personal trajectory of the conatus, increasingly aware of and increasingly determined to act in congruence with, its source.

Don’t get me wrong.  You do experience “God,” but what pan-entheism tells us is that the experience is of ourselves as the expression of the “divine principle” not of some separate “person.”  The “presence” that energizes existence is mediated through its concrescences.  “God” is the immanent energy of existence not a separate “entity.”  The scholastics called it esse.

“Well, isn’t ‘God’ transcendent as well as immanent”?

Even allowing  the use of that word which comes from essentialist metaphysics, “transcendent” never meant that “God” was an entity; quite the opposite, essentialists employed it to mean that “God” could not be delimited to any finite reality, and an “entity” of whatever kind, by definition, is not other entities and therefore to that degree is not infinite.  Also “transcendent” does not imply that “God” is rationally interactive.  That was an imaginary projection of theism and it is belied by experience.  “God” is not another “person;”  we may talk to “God,” but “God” does not talk to us.  The personal humanoid “God” is a fantasy that has stood as a metaphor for my self as the locus, mediator and mirror expression of the archē.

Metaphor and religion

Don’t misunderstand.  There is nothing necessarily misleading or illusory about religious metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  They are not lies (except if they are taken literally); metaphors are poetic symbols that help us relate to what we cannot see or say and can barely understand; They are necessary to sustain our relationship to our immanent metempirical source.  They lose their validity only when we forget that they are metaphors — relational poetry — not literal “facts.”

The existence of the archē, source of existential energy, responsible for our dependent relationship, is a “fact;” it is the only “fact” that religion validly knows.  Exactly what the “source” is, however, is not known.  Religious metaphors that “personalize” and “humanize” the archē are poetry.  They achieve an affective intensification that is altogether fitting, given the intimate nature of the relationship that is created by the source which is providing me with me.  Nothing could be more personal, more constitutive and therefore more emotionally important to me than what gives me myself.  It would seem incomprehensible not to turn to poetry to extol it, and the ecstatic language generated by the various traditions in the effort to do so reflect an appropriate passionate enthusiasmWe are dealing here with the extreme emotional reverberations of a relationship that is constitutive of human personal existence and identity.  This is not frigid science.  It is the expression of a generative love-relation­ship, a carnal event of unparalleled intimacy with which the interpersonal conjunctions of orgasmic sexual experience pale in comparison.

This perspective is borne out by the great mystics of our tradition for whom the “experience of God” is not something separate from or independent of their personal existence.  It is identified with their own individual moral and emotional development that flowers in compassion, generosity and service to others.  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the earliest mystical theologians said that “God” is “known in the mirror of the soul.”[3]  Using the sun as a symbol for “God,” Gregory says while we cannot look at it directly, we can “look upon the sun within ourselves as in a mirror.”[4]  He also says he experiences “God” not as an entity with a nature, or a recognizable “person” with a face, but rather “as an indefinable presence.”[5]

Gregory’s philosophical perspective on “God” was different from ours.  He believed that “God” was a “person.”  But, even so, he was quite clear that in spite of it, as far as his own experience was concerned, what mediated the presence of “God” was himself.

But of course this “mirroring” works in both directions.  Negatively, if the attitudes and behavior I have forged as my “personality” are egocentric, dissolute, unfocused, self-preoccupied, at the whim of every passing desire and insecurity, my “relationship to ‘God’” will reflect it: scattered, unsure, demanding, adolescent, if present at all.  Or another example: if, like Augustine, I decide to build my life around the condemnation of the spontaneous emanations of my body, it should be no wonder that a relationship to “God” based on such a distortion will turn out to be unsustainable.  How can I despise myself and still love my source.  Relationship to “God” will quickly be declared impossible without the “miraculous intervention” of divine grace and a limitless “forgiveness” coming from another world.  One may assume that a “God” who doesn’t perform such a “miracle of grace” in my case does not consider me worth saving.  What are my options then?  Suicide?  Perhaps I can wing it … repress myself … do whatever it takes to tell myself (and convince others) that I am not a reject … if I can’t “be,” perhaps I can “seem” … and at least stay alive.

The depths of self-loathing, repression, and self-deception in such a scenario are bottomless.  And many are quite familiar with it.  The correlation between a healthy balanced human development — which integrates these bodies evolved by LIFE and the society in which they are formed and sustained — with “relationship to ‘God’” is absolute.

What we have made of ourselves determines what we think about “reality” and the “God” who is the source of that reality.  Is this purely arbitrary?  What we think we are is certainly our choice, and comes to be embedded in the social structures that evolve as our culture.  (And the culture, in turn, shapes the personalities of the young ones who follow us.)  It can be a wise choice.  A personal/communal integration focused on shaping one’s personal desires around “wanting for others what one wants for oneself” mirrors the universal availability of the divine principle, and it integrates social justice and personal morality.  Freud said emotional maturity means that our personalities pass from being selfishly “oral” and “anal” to finally becoming “genital” because they become “generative” — generous and life-giving.  The individual is intrinsically communal.  The experience of ourselves receiving and sharing LIFE in a “divine milieu,” is the experience of “God.”

We can see how pan-entheism integrates our religious relationships, our growth in personal liberation/integration and social/political justice.  They are all facets of the same “relationship to ourselves” that is our participation in LIFE.

Make no mistake.  LIFE, archē, is really there, and we know it because we are really here.  But it is not a separate entity.  It has emerged and is on display as us — the living elements of an evolving superorganism.  Our bodies — our communal selves — are where it manifests itself.  We sense its presence mirrored in our selves, and we relate to it with poetic metaphor.   It is in LIFE itself that like sponges in the sea, we “live and move and have our being” and it is in us and our material universe that the archē is incarnate.


[1] The word archē is an ancient Stoic term used by Philo and the epistle of John.  It is often mistranslated as “the beginning.”

[2] “Concrescence” is a term coined by A.N. Whitehead to refer to a “thing” that acquires a complete complex unity — a sustainable coherence — within the primitive substrate which we have been calling “material energy” and Whitehead calls the “primordial nature of God.”

[3] Jean Danielou, From Glory to Glory, texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical writings, St Vladimir’s Pr, NY 1979, p. 25

[4] Ibid., p. 26

[5] Ibid.

Arius and Athanasius

Arius and Athanasius: … what was each trying to accomplish?

Arius was trying to do two things.  First, by emphasizing Jesus’ traditional identification with Philo’s LogosCraftsman, Arius was trying to preserve inviolate the sense of the utter unknowability and inaccessibility of the “One” beyond all ousía.  We needed a mediator precisely because we could not contemplate the “One” directly and by our own lights; “God” was beyond us.  Looking at Jesus we would be content with a human model and we could let “God” be whatever unknown thing “he” was and thus the correct relationships would be maintained.  Second, as a corollary, he was out to preserve the humanity of Jesus, and thus protect him as a human role model and teacher of human wisdom against a tendency to have him absorbed into the unknowable Father and thus made irrelevant to a humankind who needed a shepherd they could see and follow.

Athanasius, for his part, was committed to what Christianity had always claimed was the epic achievement of Jesus: that he broke down the walls of separation between us and “God” and brought “God” near.  Jesus forged an intimate connection with the Godhead by grafting us into his own flesh.  For Athanasius this intimacy was only secondarily relational.  It was first and foremost metaphysical.  We participate in the life of God not primarily through obedience, nor even by admiration and love, but we actually become “flesh and blood” members of the “body” of Godsharing his ousía and its immortalitybecause the ousía of Jesus IS the same ousía as the Father.  Morality is a derivative: since we are being “metaphysically” divinized we are expected to behave like “God.”

For Athanasius, if theosis, “divinization,” was going to occur, homoousía had to function in two directions simultaneously.  Jesus had to be homoousios with “God” and the human being had to be homoousios with Jesus.  The Incarnation was a bridge.  It meant that ultimately we were homoousios with God.  To share ousía with the source of LIFE was to achieve immortality.

Athanasius’ premise, however, was the same as Arius:’ the high God was transcendent, remote, inaccessible, alienated from us and it was Jesus’ epic achievement to bring him near.  For Athanasius that meant in his own flesh;  Jesus had to be homoousios — “God” — to do that

But consider: if the premise is false, i.e., if “God” is not remote and inaccessible, the rationale for everything that follows from it, disappears.  Anyone who reads the gospels will immediately recognize that Jesus’ Jewish message contradicted the very premises that drove the Arian dispute.  There was no infinite gap between “God” the Father and us.  Jesus taught that “God” was our father … loved us … was near to us … clothed us like the lilies of the field … cherished every hair on our heads … mourned every sparrow that fell from the sky … ran to us when we were still far off … .  If Athanasius honestly felt that he needed the homoousios to bring “God” close, he never really heard what Jewish Jesus was saying.

In the context of a mindset that considered the high “God” remote and inaccessible and humankind hopelessly alienated, making Jesus the high “God” had an effect that was, in hindsight, entirely predictable.  Instead of bringing “God” near, it made Jesus remote and inaccessible and took from us one who was once our brother.

Immortality

Athanasius’ argument in the decades of polemics sub­se­quent to the Council was that the homoousios guaranteed theosis, “divinization” and thus immortality.  It was a notion that was given deep mystical applications later on.  Fifty years after the Council Gregory of Nyssa will describe theosis as an ever deepening process whereby we are borne into the unfathomable heart of the self-existent Godhead by our identification with the risen flesh of Christ-God.[1] “Salvation,” in his view, is not simply a “state of safety,” it is an endless ecstatic activity totally engaged at each “present moment” in exploration — a continuous mind-expan­ding adventure that begins right here and now and continues in an unpredictable creative newness for all eternity.  Christianity is a relationship to LIFE that implies endless living, not a morbid, static “non-condemnation.”[2] The key word is “implies.”  Immortality was a secondary and derived feature of this conception, the primary focus was the connection to LIFE itself.

Dodd in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel has a lengthy commentary dedicated to showing how John in his gospel clearly distinguished these same two aspects of “eternal life” and emphasized the priority of relationship to LIFE in the here and now.[3]

In the dialogue preceding the raising of Lazarus the evangelist appears to be contrasting the popular eschatology of Judaism and primitive Christianity [life after death] with the doctrine which he wishes to propound.

That “doctrine,” Dodd goes on to say, is implied in Jesus’ expansion of Martha’s statement of belief in the “resurrection on the last day.”

The implication is that the believer is already “living” in a pregnant sense which excludes the possibility of ceasing to live.  In other words, the “resurrection” of which Jesus has spoken is something which takes place before bodily death and has for its result the possession of eternal life [LIFE] here and now.  … The evangelist agrees with popular Christianity that the believer will enter into eternal life at the general resurrection, but for him this is a truth of lesser importance than the fact that the believer already enjoys eternal life, and the former is a consequence of the latter. … the “death” which is in view is rather the mode of existence of unenlightened humanity. … For John, this present enjoyment of eternal life has become the controlling and all-important conception.[4]

We might go so far as to say that if it were possible for us to contemplate the resurrection on the last day as a fait accompli, it would still be, as in the raising of Lazarus, no more than a sēmeion [sign, symbol] of the truth that Christ is himself both resurrection and life — the giver of life and the conqueror of death.[5]

But for Athanasius, guaranteeing Jesus’ divine status was motivated by much more practical interests.  He was convinced that our metaphysical state prior to baptism was a state of insuperable alienation from the source of LIFE and necessarily incurred death.  It was not at root a moral condition of malicious will or weakness of character.  It was the way things were.  Death was due to a corrupt nature.  It was “science.”  And the “scientists” at Nicaea were not intellectualizing, they were being stone practical: they were talking about conquering death.  The fact that there was death in the world proved to Platonic scientists that an unnatural “fall” had taken place.  Death could not possibly be natural … for we are spirit and spirit cannot dis-integrate.  It was a metaphysical reality that only the Creator could change.  This was Platonic science.

Now, it is important to ask, what exactly was this state of alienation?  The background all along was the Platonic belief that human nature was intrinsically corrupt due to a pre-historic fall of spirit into grubby matter.  This was the metaphysical assumption which the Greco-Roman educated classes accepted as scientific truth.  “Original Sin” was its reprise in a Judeo-Christian idiom.  By Athanasius’ time the story of Genesis had already been retrofitted to accommodate Plato’s “science.”  The key factor is that Platonism had made this “fall” metaphysical, not moral or relational, and its sign was physical death.  “Original Sin” was given the same role.  It was not principally moral, it was metaphysical.  To turn things around, being good was not good enough … you had to be reborn as a new kind of entity, and Christianity provided that rebirth because it was the source of LIFE himself — the Logos — who was incorporating you into his “body” in baptism. 

Plato generated a cultural illusion that death was unnatural, a sign that something was wrong with nature.  What makes this all so bizarre is that every other life-form on the planet dies naturally.  That undeniable fact never made a dent in the insane Platonic belief that death in our case was unnatural.  If we are not struck by the obvious delusional nature of this conviction, it is only because we ourselves are culturally engulfed in it.

Christianity for all its historic importance, was only a minor subset of the overall Platonic two world, spirit-matter, life-after-death fairy tale that has characterized our civilization since at least 350 bce and maybe earlier.  It is the peculiar legacy of Greek “science.”  It’s good to remind ourselves that the majority of the ancient Mediterranean religions — the many Mysteries, the Hermetists, the Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Mithraists — that existed at the time Greek Christianity was born, all shared that vision.  This was intensified in Late Antiquity.

… the religion of the age was to a great degree other-worldly and escapist. Despairing of true happiness for themselves in this life or of the triumph of peace, justice and prosperity on earth, men turned their thoughts to a future life beyond the grave … In the mystery religions … the dominant motif was to seek assurance for a life after death. … In philosophical circles there was a strong tendency to regard the material world as inherently evil and the body “a cloak of darkness, a web of ignorance, a prop of evil, a bond of corruption, living death, a conscious corpse, a portable tomb.”[6]

These religions were all dualist, and they all believed that we were spirits that should not have to die.  Christianity was only one of Platonism’s many cultic forms; it displaced all the others only because of the single fortuitous event of becoming the religion of Constantine, the Roman emperor.  The empire carried it to all of Europe and the European nations spread it to their colonies throughout the world.  It was a local myth that enjoyed a global expansion by sheer historical accident.[7]

The much touted quest of Athanasius for “mystical” union with God is overstated by Williams.  Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, like so many Christian apologists, is trying desperately to find some core values in the Nicene formulas that will give them a trans­historical and transcultural significance.  Whatever mysticism Athanasius was trying to preserve he based on mechanics and hydraulics that were designed to work within an ancient physics and cosmology.  He was grounding his mysticism on the science of his times.  It turned the Church’s sacraments into magic talismans, objective “instruments” which infallibly produced a metaphysical transformation “infusing” humans with “divinity” which would eliminate death in their case, individual by individual.  Moral and relational changes were secondary to these physical/metaphysical changes and were thought to follow naturally.  The entire picture was sheer fantasy, and it easily sidelined the here and now relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being.”  Homoousios was an essential part of a self-interested solution to a terror-of-death generated by the “immortality mania” characteristic of a Platonic universe.  As Dodd said:  “Hellenistic society … was haunted by the spectacle of phthora [decay], the process by which all things pass into nothingness, and which engulfs all human existence.”[8]

But if we are sensitive to these underlying Greek aspirations represented by Athanasius we can see the analogue between what he thought he was guaranteeing with the homoousios and the religious aspirations of all humankind which seeks “union” with its source and sustainer naturally.  The Nicene controversy was born of the unresolvable inconsistencies of the Platonic view of the world.  By attempting to resolve those inconsistencies in Platonic terms it locked Christianity even more inextricably into the Platonic Universe.  But the Platonic Universe does not exist. They did not know that in the fourth century, but in the 21st century we do.  What needed to be said to guarantee union with the “source of existence” in a Platonic Universe, does not need to be said to guarantee that same union in ours.

We can see by the visions of both Arius and Athanasius how they were utilizing familiar features of their common Platonic world view to support the relational priorities that they each saw made possible by the Christ event.  That imaginative process resulting in two hundred years of violent disagreement and division eventually settled nothing.  And I contend there is no way it could have.  For the only reason they saw their respective positions as incompatible was that they were looking at them primarily as objective scientific facts rather than relational goals.  The relational goals of each were legitimately and traditionally Christian.  Why couldn’t they see that? … because they were mesmerized by what they thought were the facts.  Arius was saying that because Jesus, factually, was a creature, to worship him as “God” was idolatry: it sapped our sense of the awesomeness of God and diluted our worship.  Athanasius was saying if Jesus were not in fact God, theosis could not take place, and there would be no resurrection.[9] The philosophical world-view that they both shared had the familiar fixed features of Philo’s Platonism which determined the facts of the case.  And they each “worked backwards” from their preferred relational effect to what had to be the “scientific” cause in the Platonic universe.  They were interested in the facts.

This was not their doing.  Right from apostolic times the use of Philo’s Platonic “facts” to “explain” the Christian world­view to Greeks in their own terms, eventually got out of hand and supplanted the primacy of the relationship.  Jesus’ Jewish message had no such complexity.  It was relational in the most simple, uncomplicated terms imaginable.  Love “God” and love people.  Nicaea could have reinforced that message, but it did not.  Nicaea might have confirmed the validity of the relational goals promoted by each side and left the expression of it in the form of the liturgical metaphors where it had been safely kept for 250 years.  But even if that were their intention, would Constantine have let them do it?  I don’t think so.  The Emperor wanted a religion that gave him “facts” and “certain knowledge,” a basis for demanding subordination and behavioral compliance, not some symbolic invitation to embrace the darkness.

But religion is born and thrives in darkness.  We are related in blood and bone to what we neither know nor understand.  Religion does not attempt to escape that ignorance; it revels in it.  Ignorance feeds the sense of the awesome mystery of existence … and religion embraces it!  Religion’s “knowledge” of “God” is not scientific, it is biblical: it is carnal knowledge — know­ledge that comes from the intimate surrender of relationship, not science.  To science religion is darkness.

Today, we have an entirely different world-view from fourth century Platonism, the “science” of its day.  But If their relational goals — an awe-filled relationship with the unknowable invisible source of cosmic LIFE, triumph over the fear of death, solidarity among suffering human beings, “redemption” from a sense of alienation from ourselves and the cosmos that spawned us, the retention of Jewish Jesus as role model and teacher of human wisdom — are important for us, we will seek to ground those relational choices in the world-view that we share with one another today.  The “facts,” the science has changed; but the relationships are heuristic: they guide the enquiry.  Those relationships are what we have chosen them to be; it is what we think we are.  And through our cultural tools like religion we become who we think we are.  We cannot pursue our relational goals in the scientific world-view of Arius and Athanasius.  It was theirs, it is not ours; we have our own.  But if the relational goals of the Judeo-Christian tradition — love of the Source of our spectacular universe and love for one another — are to remain the same, we have more than the right, we have the obligation to understand, ground and celebrate those goals in terms of the science / philosophy of our times.

There is no sense even thinking about eliminating scientific world-views altogether.  The quest for some kind of “fact-free” other-worldly “religious” approach to this business of religious relationships is an illusion.  Relationship is not a theoretical exercise.  Relationship cannot occur in a world that does not exist.

We can only understand the doctrinal tradition we have inherited from the distant past by understanding the world-view of those that created it, which in the case of traditional Christianity is not ours.  And we can only assess the validity of the relationships that their efforts envisioned by testing them against the demands of our view of reality.

These things are ours to decide.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”


[1] Williams, op.cit,. p.26.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Bk II, #219 ff.

[3] Dodd, pp. 144-150 and 364-366

[4] ibid pp. 148-9 (emphasis mine)

[5] Ibid., p. 366

[6] Jones, op.cit., p. 41 (sic. He quotes someone without giving the reference.)

[7] Augustine’s claim that the centuries of slaughter, treachery, rape, plunder, slavery and cultural obliteration that went into the creation of the Roman Empire was, all along, “God’s plan” for the universal expansion of Christianity, is the absurd extension of this mega-Myth.  And if it weren’t for our cultural blindness such an outrageous claim would be considered self-serving on the very face of it; it was a contradiction of the character of “God.”  Like “Original Sin” and “life after death” it’s part of the artificial scenery — the stage backdrop against which we watch this “drama” we have created for ourselves unfold.

[8] Dodd, op.cit., p.366

 [9] The immortality of the soul was not a generalized belief among the earliest Christians because Platonism, which was the ideology that proposed it, did not dominate Mediterranean culture until centuries later.  One’s personal resurrection was considered a special gift that resulted from being incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ.  For the Greeks, man was mortal; only the gods were immortal.  In his tract On the Incarnation, Athanasius shows residual signs of that older belief, and his desperate insistence on the homoousios can be understood as a function of it.  Effectively for Athanasius, if Jesus were not “God,” being incorporated into him would not guarantee immortality.