This follows and completes the essay begun in the previous blogpost of Feb 8th. A re-read of that first part is recommended.
Far from being the source of exuberant joy, sectarian Christianity has made the relationship to “God” 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.”
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, other-validating love that obtains between brothers and sisters, 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 … a “God” who was so big that he could afford to become weak and foolish as Paul effused … 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 sovereignty 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 is constructed and needs to be constantly maintained by his minions’ loud obedience and the coerced submission of outsiders if it is to have existence. The second is not “God,” it is “the work of human hands … it has eyes but sees not … deaf and mute … and those that fall down before 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 classifying religions according to 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 a 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 — mechanically, automatically. This is sectarianism. It is the antithesis of universalism … even if the whole world were to join the sect, it would annihilate the diversity implied in universalism; human diversity would be submerged in the totalitarianism of a monolith. There is nothing “universal” about it at all. To call it “Catholic” is a contradiction in terms.
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 for a Jew. The very fact that it only dawned on his Hellenic followers as time went by is a prima facie indicator that their “facts” were generated by their theology (and their culture), not the other way around. That Jesus was “God” was a metaphor that allowed Paul’s interpretation of the contract “paid-in-full” to exist.
In time, however, especially after Nicaea, the idea of Jesus’ divinity came to be taken as a primary 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.” The people were sure this was a mediator the authorities couldn’t take away from us, for we all know they would never make a woman “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. There is no quid pro quo possible with “God.” It was the unfortunate but unavoidable use of the Jewish “contract” categories and terminology by Paul that began the process of reversal and made the reinstatement of the quid pro quo relationship virtually inevitable.
Paul’s analysis was thoroughly Jewish. It seems clear from New Testament documents, that those Jews who followed Jesus had felt oppressed by the Jewish law. In the synoptic gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke 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 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 full compliance of the contract for all humankind achieved by the death of Christ. It was unfortunate that Paul explained it in terms of the Jewish contract, because in that form it needs translation.
It explains why Christianity, in attempting to free itself from the limitations of sectarianism, projected a universalism that the “contract theology” of Paul did not elucidate clearly in the Greco-Roman world. 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 appropriate only for oppressed, humiliated, first century diaspora Jews, miraculously freed from the onerous obligations that identified them as Jews, outsiders in the Roman world. The perennial attempt to understand what he was trying to say in the extremely constrained terms his pharisaic formation forced him to use, has consistently meant that we missed the universalism embedded in the message. It was a boundless universalist message unfortunately expressed in extremely narrow 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 the Jewish nation’s contract with Yahweh. Jesus’ 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. 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 like kind. Jesus saw that the contract imagery was metaphor and he transcended it … and he was able to do that because he had an independent sense of what “God” was like. The need of his followers to explain things in terms of the Jewish contract forced them to infer a series of otherwise unknown “facts” for the convoluted explanation demanded by their sectarian mentality to actually be true. Their problem 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. That’s why they killed him; he threatened a sectarian Judaism with its own universalist significance … and a “Mafia” empire with fearless, empowered human beings.
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 — it’s our nature — 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 suspected: “… we are “God’s” children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared …”