Universalist Christianity ­— part 2

 

This follows and completes the essay begun in the previous blogpost of Feb 8th.  A re-read of that first part is recommended.

3.

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.

4.

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 itIt’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 …”

Tony Equale

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8 comments on “Universalist Christianity ­— part 2

  1. theotheri says:

    Tony,

    As I watch Pope Francis’ efforts to make the RC church more applicable to the world today, I have indeed wondered if there is anything that he could ultimately mandate that would make it possible for me to consider myself a Christian, let alone a Roman Catholic again, Something far more than a call to serve the poor and not to judge homosexuals would be required.

    As I read your last post, however, I thought that perhaps after all, stripped of its humanoid god and faux “facts,” and standing only for the universality you describe, I could after all consider myself a Christian.

    And you do describe it very beautifully. It sounds simple, but I have some idea of the long, tortuous road we must take to get to this simple insight of love when we start from the authoritarianism that imbued the Catholicism with which so many of us were indoctrinated.

    Thank you.

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, hi! Thanks for your incisive comment.

      We are indeed far from such universalism and our clinging to the humanoid “God” and the other “facts” that are adduced to prove our sectarian superiority are exactly what stand in the way of it ever happening. There is a glaring correlation between the arrogant claims of superiority of our religion and the “exceptionalism” which we conjure to excuse our injustices that calls for more than change … it calls for metanoia. Perhaps it is true, after all, that all “doctrinal” problems are at root “moral” problems.

      Tony

  2. Brian Coyne says:

    Tony, don’t get a swelled head about this, but I honestly think that in my 65 years you are the person who comes closest to being a true prophet for me. I wish this sort of thinking could be openly discussed in the best and highest lecture rooms of the institution. Sadly today, it won’t be — and can’t be such is the sad situation the institution has been reduced to. And I don’t think it is going to be significantly improved under Francis. The institution’s problem today, I increasingly believe, is the now near total absence of real talent in the upper management structures of the institution. The culture in the institution today is that everybody, from the lowliest employee of the Church up to the most senior cardinals, has to constantly look over their shoulder ensuring they don’t get the next person above them in their hierarchical feeding line in trouble about anything. Our institution is no longer an institution primarily motivated for the search for truth in creation, it’s become a ‘game’ of trying to pretend we (our institution) already has “the truth” and we have some kind of exclusive mandate from none other than Almighty God himself to interpret and proclaim his mind to the world. The real “God” must piss himself with mirth at the games we human beings play.

    Over a long period of time, but by different route, I have come to a similar conclusion to you and have begun writing about this on Catholica in the last couple of years. I’ve expressed it in these sort of terms: ever since humankind began to think and develop their “theologies” to explain the great Mystery at the foundation of our existence, or the hope of our eventual destination, religion has been characterized by this competition from one group living out the game we all learned in the kindergarten playground of trying to prove “my Dad (God) is bigger or better ‘n your Dad (or God) and if you don’t believe me he’ll come round and rip ya bloody arms off”. Religion has been tribal, and about identity (rather than any real search for “ultimate truth”), and has been about trying to assert that our God is better than every other tribe’s God — or we are God’s “chosen ones”.

    I have a growing sense that in the educated world many, many people are completely “over” this game. This partly explains the massive drop-off in participation. (In our country Australia the participation rate is now just a tad over 10% and if current trends continue at the time of the next official census and mass count in 2016 it can be pretty confidently expected the participation level will be down at around the remnant level — which I suspect is about 5% of the baptized). Paradoxically while interest in religion might be falling through the floor, interest in the spiritual seems to have never been higher judging by the rise in inter-faith and inter-religious discussions, spirituality-based internet sites, the number of television programs being made and book sales. Religion might be dying but spirituality is not. And a large component of what seems to be going is an interest in the spiritualities of people from other cultures and religious traditions.

    In what you write in this and the previous essay you give some kind of theological and theoretical “flesh” to something I’ve perceived and been trying to write about more from some intuitive sense.

    I’ve lost almost all hope of “reform” of the Catholic Church — and even under Pope Francis. This institution once recruited “the best and brightest minds” in society and ushered them through to the top management positions of the institution. For decades now it has been actively expelling or excommunicating “the best and brightest minds”. There is no real leadership talent left at the top of the institution. The best priests and theologians, if they haven’t been actually expelled, have “seen the light” and quietly exited themselves or dropped their heads well below the parapets. If Catholicism wants to reclaim the respect of humanity at large, or even claim some true place of “primacy” amongst the great religions of the world I sincerely do believe it needs to embrace the sort of insight you articulate so well in these two essays. Rather than presenting itself to the world as some exclusive agent for the Divine or the Godhead; it needs to present itself as the great encourager of humanity in this search for “universal truth” — a universal theology if you like. We must turn away from presenting ourselves as in competition with everyone else, to the great encourager of all people in this universal human quest to “penetrate” the Mystery at the Alpha and Omega points of our existence, and in the universal human search for “ultimate truth”.

    I sincerely have doubts though that it can happen now because of this everyone “looking over their shoulder and being careful what they say” which has poisoned the entire institution, and simply “the total lack of talent now” in the upper management echelons of the institution. What you are writing about though I believe is the future. The big question remains in what sort of structure it might manifest itself — or perhaps humanity is about to embrace some kind of de-institutionalised spirituality.

    Keep up your work, Tony. What you are writing about I think is vitally important.

    • Brian, I love Catholica and the refreshing out-of-the-box Aussie voice of yourself and the spectacular Michael Morewood. I agree with you that Tony Equale is right up there as one of the greatest prophets of all time. For 36 years since I left the Redemptorists, I have told anyone who would listen that we are wasting our time trying to reform the institutional church. Vatican II did that and we see the meagre results as outlined so clearly in Tony Equale’s writings. With Tony, and yourself and the rest of the splendid Aussies, and with all the ex’s and in’s who follow Tony’s message, we have to takler seriously that we the people are the Church and continue to form our own “community of ‘faith'”, in Tony’s definition of faith. Especially in what Tony says so succinctly here, that we are not “things”, we are not individual “persons” or Egos, but we are RELATIONSHIPS, that we are all part of the Oneness of Being, and “God” is a metaphor for the LIFE that brings us forth. This “community of faith” must finally be based on the Universalist Spirituality that Tony has been teaching us.
      Sal Umana

    • tonyequale says:

      Brian,

      Thanks for your comment. I particularly like your point that the Church, instead of insisting on its ownership of the “truth,” should cherish, praise and encourage the vision and aspirations of other religions. Everything they do that’s good should be held up as an example. Francis clearly radiates this supportive, encouraging attitude. He goes out of his way to find the good in everything. The recent video of him greeting and praising non-catholic evangelicals was a case in point. It is refreshing to hear anyone talk like that, and coming from a Catholic Pope it is — to use his word — “miraculous.” And miracles, he said, always turn out well.

      It’s probably true that he will not insist on the dogmatic changes that I would like to see. His way is to ignore the dogmas of superiority. But if, as we claim, we are all the people of “God,” then we are no longer waiting for the Pope to do it all. We can let him be the simple man that he obviously wants to be and does so well, and the rest of us can take on “Martha’s” dirty work of cleaning up the crap. Doctrinal restructuring continues to be a top priority, but there’s nothing to prevent us “little people” from being its spokespersons. There’s nothing to prevent us from telling the truth.

      Tony

  3. theotheri says:

    Tony, I profoundly hope you are right and that Francis is not simply a better salesman than his recent predecessors. I’m not encouraged when I hear him saying things like we should be less judgmental of gays and divorced Catholics who remarry because we are alienating their children. We should be less judgmental because we need to love, and because we are limited human beings without the knowledge necessary to make valid judgments about others.

    Like you and the commenters above, I think it essential that Roman Catholicism make some profound dogmatic changes if it is not going to continue to spiral into arrogant irrelevancy in the modern world. However, I would be interested in knowing what criteria you would use to determine what dogmas should be changed.

    My own two criteria would be first that dogmas blatantly at odds with modern science need adjustment. Mostly, I think, they need to be seen as metaphors rather than the equivalent of scientific facts. As we know, science is sometimes superbly wrong. and if religion tries to be more “right” in the scientific sense, religion is inevitably going to continue to get into the trouble it has been in since at least Galileo.

    Secondly, dogmas or their applications that make it more difficult for us to love all our fellow men (and women, of course) without feeling the need to change or convert or “educate” them to our versions of the truth are fundamentally unChristian. That does not mean we do not have principles – even Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple.. And that’s the challenge as I experience it – to live by the principles to which I am committed without judging those who disagree often in the most profound matters of life and death. Listening to others respecting the serious possibility that they understand something I don’t is my first step. I’ve learned a lot that way, though unfortunately I still stumble frequently.

    You inevitably add light to my own thoughts, and if you see gaping holes, contractions or relevant additions that would benefit my thoughts at this point, please be assured that I will find it easy to consider them seriously.

    But above all, thank you for this wonderful, insightful, liberating post.

  4. theotheri says:

    Tony,
    On reflection, I would like to say that I have changed my judgement about Pope Francis as possibly nothing more than a good salesman. It is not that I do not think radical dogmatic change in the RC church is called for, nor do I think it is likely to be spear-head by Francis. But I think it might be permitted by him. And perhaps that is the only way it can occur. Vatican II quite possibly demonstrated that this change cannot come from the top down – that it must come from what you describe as “the little guys.” Otherwise the hierarchy will make every effort to snuff it out.

    Apart from that, I have to conclude that Francis is acting out of a true sense of Christianity. As a psychologist, I know that our justifications for our choices go in two directions. Thinkers (in the Jungian term) tend to base their values on their theology/philosophy however inchoate that may be. But Intuitive types more often use intuitive judgements first, and then more or less adjust their theology/philosophy to fit.

    Either one of these approaches can be either constructive or self-serving. As a thinking type, I have with horror come to recognize my capacity for rationalizing. I can make up a reasonable defense for some behaviors that are nothing more than sheer self-serving. On the other hand, some of my deepest and most important values spring from the intellectual world view which I hold.

    So dogma can either be distorted to justify selfishness or to help form true human fulfillment and concern for others. One of the things that has delighted me in recent times are the number of Catholics who have so easily dismissed critical Catholic teaching without feeling that they are no longer Catholics. Personally, not believing in the resurrection, or in Jesus’ divinity, in heaven and hell or even in God seem rather central to me but they aren’t for everybody. They still belong to the Catholic community.

    I suspect that basically Francis is an intuitive type. That doesn’t mean he is not intelligent (any more than it means that thinking types are). But like so many loving even heroically generous people I have known in my life and with whose religious beliefs I disagree, his intuition, his fundamental value, seems to be one of love and respect for others. That comes first. Dogma may be important, but it should never override this one basic Christian value.

    Perhaps Francis has got it right on the most important thing after all.

    Thank you for listening.

    And please keep thinking!

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry,

      Thanks for your usual clear thinking and concise expression. I agree that one of the most delightful developments of late has been Catholics’ ability to continue to identify themselves as Catholic even while feeling under no obligation to toe the line. This means that the rebellion goes well beyond the issue of birth-control or other matters sexual and has reached down into the dogmatic foundations where the obstacles to universalism lie. No one is blind to the fact that universalism will undermine institutional identification entirely and that means the “business” side of church membership will eventually dry up. What “being Catholic” will mean in the not-too-distant future will be very different from what is was for us. But even more delightful will be the kind of universal spirituality that is developing out of the shards and remnants of the collapse. Re-ligio, in the ancient sense of being bound to one’s source and sustainer, drawing from all the partial and local traditions that are fast disappearing, will begin to reflect the unity that so eludes the Church institutions — the unity that we are as humankind.

      Tony

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