Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

This is the season when we traditionally celebrate LIFE under the symbol of the newborn child.  The thought of newborn life immediately conjures the image of the family with loving father and mother. The following reflection is taken from a work in progress on the Reformation.  It highlights the anomalies that the Augustinian view-of-the-world presented for the Christian imagination at the beginning of the 16th century … .

Augustine’s worldview

Augustine became Christian at a time when no one doubted that at the end of their individual life there would be a private judgment which would determine the eternal destiny of their “soul:” happiness in heaven, or eternal punishment in hell.  For many people those assumptions are with us to this day.  But in the fourth century they represented a significant change from an earlier Christian view, as recorded in the New Testament: that Jesus’ return was imminent and that he would restore the reign of justice for all on a transformed earth.  Originally there was no talk of immortal souls, heaven or hell, no particular judgment; persons existed after death only temporarily, awaiting their flesh and blood resurrection in a new universe.  The “paradise” anticipated was the human body immortalized by immersion in Christ’s resurrection living on this earth, a material world made completely friendly to humankind.  There was no thought of any world other than this one.

By Augustine’s time that had all changed.  It had become increasingly clear that Christ was not coming any time soon; the immortalized body on a transformed earth had ceased being a realistic expectation.  Christians had come to believe that what was important was not the body but the “soul.”  “God” weighed the moral worth of individual souls without bodies and consigned them to live forever as souls in either bliss or torment in another world ― a world of spirits, minds and ideas familiar to the followers of Plato that would have been foreign to the Jewish followers of Jesus.  This “God” was identified as Jesus.  He had been elevated to Pantocrator (the all-ruler) less than a century before Augustine by Constantine’s Council at Nicaea in 325.  His “mercy” notwithstanding, the “Judge of the living and the dead” was obligated by the order of the universe to see that righteousness was satisfied.

Augustine was convinced that because of the dignity of the office, an insult to “God,” just like an insult to the emperor, was a major crime regardless of how unimportant the offense or how willing the person insulted was to forgive it.  Such insult was a threat to the social order.  Dignity had to be restored.  The juridical interpretation of Adam’s disobedience as a case of laesa majestas1  was clearly in the background and essential to Augustine’s theory of redemption.  Augustine’s Roman “God” could not simply dismiss the offense.  The insult to God was so heinous that the entire human race not only lost its original immortality and was condemned to die because of what Adam did, but each and every human individual born thereafter carried the guilt of the crime and was condemned to eternal punishment — hell — just for being born of Adam’s “seed.”  That included newborn infants.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, while also acknowledging the literalness of the Genesis account, the expulsion from the garden, the loss of immortality, etc., never believed that “God” imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to all of humankind or that all were condemned to hell for it.  That little added detail was the brilliant stroke of the Roman Augustine and it insured that Adam’s sin and the need for baptism would be applied personally to each and every individual across the face of the earth.  It theologically justified the practice of infant baptism already being promoted in the late fourth century as more than a pious practice.  Augustine claimed it was necessary; for the “God” that Augustine painted was obliged to send even innocent infants to hell if they died without baptism.  It was another stone in the foundational claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” — a critically important and very attractive “doctrine” for the managers of the religion of the Roman Empire.  It provided justification for requiring that everyone be “Catholic,” an imperial demand intended to establish the social harmony that was essential if the Romans were going to maintain control over such a vast and culturally disparate conglomeration of conquered peoples.  Constantine had been quite explicit about what he expected from his imperial religion.

But it was also hugely influential in portraying the kind of “God” that Western Christians imagined they would meet at the end of their lives.  It belied any claim that Augustine’s “God” was merciful.  What intensity of hatred must this “God” harbor toward us to even think of anything so utterly inhuman as sending innocent babies to hell just for being born human?  This “God” had to be a monster.  Augustine insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants to the end of his life.

Augustine’s “God” was internally inconsistent.  Consider: “God” was forced to honor the requirement that there be just retribution for and restoration of lost divine dignity; but because he “loved” humankind, Augustine said, “God” devised a clever plan that would circumvent the death sentence and restore human beings to their original immortality.  That plan was our salvation through the death of Jesus whose act of obedience on the cross paid in full the debt owed to “God” in justice, and thus freed the human race from punishment and “God” from wrath.  Augustine’s infinitely merciful all powerful “God” who is unable to forgive is simply incoherent, if not self-contradictory.

As you might expect, this divine plan was perceived as love only by Augustine and other likeminded Romans.  For most others, like late mediaeval Christians, the fact that “God” was bound to the demands of this arbitrary “dignity-as-justice” cultural obligation and could not be moved to simply dismiss the charge for a  humanity that was pleading with “him” for forgiveness … a “God” who would even punish innocent babies … was a clear indication that their “God” did NOT love them.  And in fact most mediaeval Christians were terrified of “God” and some, like Luther, even admitted that they “hated” him.[2]  The loving fathers that they knew, like the one in Jesus’ parable, forgave their prodigal sons.  The open armed father running to embrace his wastrel son was Jesus’ own image of “God,” an image that Augustine somehow missed.  Augustine was so focused on the standard picture of punishment and sacrificial atonement that had become central to the Christian view of the world that Luke’s parable was unable to shake him out of his obsessions.  Jesus’ “prodigal father” was a far cry from Augustine’s insulted emperor.  Jesus’ “God” and Augustine’s “God” were two very different kinds of “father.”

Augustine’s so-called “God” demanded the death of his own son to compensate for his lost dignity.  Imagine the parable of the Prodigal Son being re-told in Augustinian terms:  As the repentant son approached home “… while he was still far off, his father sent his servants to arrest him, and bring him to him in chains.  And he said to him, you have dishonored me and wasted your inheritance.  You have become so dissolute that you are now incapable of doing what it would take to make it up to me.  So I will take your upright brother who has been obedient to me throughout and I will subject him to mutilation and torture and a slow agonizing death in your place so that his steadfast obedience will re-establish respect for me in the eyes of your brothers and sisters, who have become miscreants because of your bad example.  His death will be the salvation of this family.”  Preposterous!  That people ever bought such nonsense, and that even the Reformers, despite having declared that scripture was their only source of information about “God,” continued to imagine such a “God,” speaks to the Augustinian conditioning to which all had been subjected.  Mediaeval Christians were inured to the sadistic violence of the patriarchal Roman system rationalized for them by Augustine.  They considered it “normal.” They had been programmed by the religious practices and beliefs rooted in imperial antiquity that had dominated the Mediterranean world since time immemorial, and Augustine had made it all make sense.

And to make the situation even worse it was all pure conjecture.  The full story with all these bizarre interconnections had never been put together before Augustine.  He was a master at exactly this kind of thing, as we saw from his conversion.  It was a triumph of the synthetic imagination.  Augustine wove it all together: his own personal life experience, current Church belief and practice, a Genesis story with his own personal spin, and the juridical and cultural customs of the Greco-Roman overlords whose slave-based empire was driven by torture, mutilation and, quite specifically, execution by crucifixion.  But even the Roman emperors who punished those who displeased them could still be moved to pardon and forgive.  In that respect they had more freedom and moral depth than the pseudo-“God” of Augustine’s paranoid imagination who apparently had to obey the law of laesa majestas in support of the established order whether he wanted to or not

And then, for Augustine to call “God’s” planned sacrificial death of his own son, “mercy,” was a psychopathic inversion that served to justify the punitive violence that has characterized religion, governance and the relationship among peoples in the lands of the Christian West since that time.  Augustine’s “theology” was little more than a narrative that mirrored and justified the violent autocracy of the Roman Empire.  That his sketch of “God’s” character was familiar to Roman subjects from their experience of punitive authority not only gave it plausibility, but it ultimately justified the way things were.  This has been the fundamental import of western Christianity ever since.  It is the handmaiden of empire and “empire” has been written into its doctrinal configurations since the fourth century.

Luther had been thoroughly imbued with this mindset and not even his new awareness of “God’s” gratuitous donation of salvation by faith could extirpate the violent punitive sadism embedded in this imagery.  It was Augustine’s “God” that had become the unquestioned horizon of mediaeval western Christendom and, as for everyone else who took religion seriously, it had become part of Luther’s idea of “normalcy.”

Luther put it on public display on more than one occasion.  In 1524 when the German peasants rose up against the oppression of their overlords, Luther called on the armed nobility to pitilessly slaughter the “evildoers.”  This is from his second letter on the Peasant Uprising:

Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or diabolical than a rebel.  It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.[3]

And later, when the Jews failed to see the “truth of the Gospel” as he had newly revealed it and did not convert, he called for their enslavement and expulsion from Germany.  His admonition for the treatment of the Jews written in 1543 three years before he died, called for

Firstly, that their synagogues and schools should be burned down and what will not burn should be razed and covered with earth, that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of it again … next, that their houses should be broken and destroyed the same way … Thirdly that all their prayer books and Talmudists … should be taken from them … Fourthly, that their rabbis should be forbidden to teach from now on, at the risk of life or limb … Fifthly, that escort and road should be completely prohibited to the Jews, … Sixthly that they should be prohibited from usury and all their cash and fortunes in silver and gold should be taken from them … seventhly, that young strong Jewish men and women should be given flail, axe, hoe, spade, distaff, spindle, and be left to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows … For as all can see, God’s wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better.  So away with them at all costs.[4]

That the Third Reich sought to exterminate the Jews was a Christian inheritance, not some deformity of the Aryan brain.  I don’t bring this up to indict Luther or Protestantism; these attitudes were common throughout Christian Europe north and south of the Alps.  But it gives a very clear picture of the violent and punitive attitude considered “Christian” in obvious conflation with a “God” of righteous violence that Augustine’s theology had justified.

Augustine’s theology conformed to and served to confirm the ongoing upper-class subversion of Jesus’ message, effectively harnessing it to the goals of the Roman system.  The reversal of Jesus’ image of God — from an empowering, liberating, loving and forgiving father, to a pusillanimous, self-involved, legally rigid, implacable mirror-image of the narcissistic autocrats who ruled Rome — immediately entailed a corresponding reversal in the attitudes required for an authentic relationship to “God.”  Augustine’s Emperor-“God” demanded obeisance, obedience, acquiescence of mind and behavior to his will.  Quid pro quo: “you will obey or you will be punished.”

Jesus’ “Father,” in contrast, asked us for something else entirely: insight into his self-donating gift of creation which we celebrate symbolized in newborn life … and a generous forgiving love for one another, recognizing his image and consciously attempting to imitate his generosity.

The difference could not be more profound.


[1] Laesa majestas was a juridical category that judged the seriousness of a crime according to the status of the person offended.  Status always had to do with one‘s position in the body politic and so the offense had the overtones of treason.

[2] Luther explicitly admitted that in the Preface to the First Volume of his Latin Writings (1545) (reprinted in Hans Hillerbrand, The Protestant Reformation, (revised) , Harper Perennial, NY  (1968) 2009, p.29)

[3] Martin Luther, Against the Murdering and Robbing Hordes of Peasants, 1525, reprinted in Michael Baylor, The German Reformations and the Peasants’ War, Bedford/St.Martins, Boston/NY 2012, p.131

[4] Martin Luther On the Jews and their Lies, 1545, reprinted in Oberman, Luther, Yale U.Press, 1989 tr Swartzbart, p.290

Matter and Mysticism (II)

In 1901-02, American psychologist William James was invited to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.  They were published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Two of those lectures, 16 and 17,  were dedicated to the topic of mysticism.

Citing testimony after testimony, beginning with witnesses contemporary to his time and then branching out to include others, James offered his audience what he believed were the common features of mystical experience.  One of the first is what he calls a noetic quality, a kind of intellectual “objectivity” which his exemplars experienced as a characteristic of the phenomenon.  “Al­though so similar to states of feeling,” says James, “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”[1]  This is reminiscent of Harris’ evocations of geometric theorems.

Another feature that I single out as particularly germane to the transcendent materialism that I believe truly supports and explains these experiences is its cosmic nature: an identification with the totality of things which entails a corresponding reduction in the sense of self.  James quotes a contemporary Canadian psychiatrist:

“The prime characteristic … is a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species.

… Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.[2]

And another:

In that time the consciousness of God’s nearness came to me sometimes. I say God, to describe what is indescribable.  A presence, I might say, yet that is too suggestive of personality, and the moments of which I speak did not hold the consciousness of a personality, but something in myself made me feel myself a part of something bigger than I, that was controlling. I felt myself one with the grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in Nature. I exulted in the mere fact of existence, of being a part of it all — the drizzling rain, the shadows of the clouds, the tree-trunks, and so on. In the years following, such moments continued to come, but I wanted them constantly. I knew so well the satisfaction of losing self in a perception of supreme power and love, that I was unhappy because that perception was not constant.[3]

From German Lutheran Jacob Boehme (+1624) he adds this testimony translated by Edward Taylor in 1691:

For I saw and knew the being of all things … the descent and original of the world and of all creatures through the divine wisdom. I knew and saw in myself all the three worlds, the external and visible world being of a procreation or extern birth from both the internal and spiritual worlds; and I saw and knew the whole working essence, in the evil and in the good, and the mutual original and existence, and likewise how the fruitful bearing womb of eternity brought forth.  … I could very hardly apprehend the same in my external man and set it down with the pen. For I had a thorough view of the universe as in a chaos, wherein all things are couched and wrapt up, but it was impossible for me to explicate the same.

And to Boehme I will add Johann Angelus Silesius (+1677) who was raised Lutheran and was a follower of Boehme:

In God All is God

In God all is God; the simplest little worm is as much in God as thousands of Gods.

I Am as Vast as God

I am as vast as God; there is nothing in the world, O miracle! — that can shut me up in myself.

As Much as God

I am as much as God; there isn’t a grain of dust I do not share — believe me — with Him entirely.

You Must be Sun

I must be sun, and paint with my own rays the color-free Sea of total Godhead

Similarly, St Teresa of Avila:

One day, being in prayer it was granted me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul. It is one of the most signal of all the graces which the Lord has granted me…. The view was so subtle and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it. [4]

The Ground

These are descriptions of experiences.  In most cases the subjects quoted assumed that the ground of this cosmic sense was the “Pure Spirit” that has been traditionally identified as the Western “God.”  That assumption was intensified in the 19th century when Idealism of the Hegelian variety was the predominant philosophical preference. But that began to change with James.  Self-labeled a “radical empiricist,” James believed that reality was “neutral,” i.e., one substance that was as much mind as matter, i.e., both were made of the same “stuff.”

To say that the ground of our sense of the sacred corresponds to the traditional notion of “God” is hardly confirmed by these descriptions.  Even more bizarre are the projections offered by another of James’ citations, Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth century Syriac Christian monk — projections which derived from the monk’s contemplative experience.  Please note: the author is talking about what was commonly assumed to be “God:”

The cause of all things is neither soul nor intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion, or reason, or intelligence; nor is it spoken or thought. It is neither number, nor order, nor magnitude, nor littleness, nor equality, nor inequality, nor similarity, nor dissimilarity. It neither stands, nor moves, nor rests…. It is neither essence, nor eternity, nor time. Even intellectual contact does not belong to it. It is neither science nor truth. It is not even royalty or wisdom; not one; not unity; not divinity or goodness; nor even spirit as we know it …[5]

Johannes Eckhart

To these extraordinary assertions I will add what I think are some of the most remarkable of all: statements about “God” made by mediaeval Christian mystic Johannes Eckhart (+1327) that I have frequently cited in my books.  Please be aware that in the following passage from his sermon “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,” Eckhart uses the word “God” in two different senses.  Most often it should be enclosed in quotation marks as I have just done, because it refers to a relationship.  The in se reality, on the other hand, is never really named:

When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed [i.e., divinized.  Christians since ancient times claimed the goal of “sanctifying grace” was divinization], for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature.  But in my breaking through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works and of God Himself, then I am above all creatures and I am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain forevermore … this breaking through guarantees to me that I and God are one.  Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am the unmoved cause that moves all things.

… If one wants to be truly poor, he must be as free from his creature-will as when he had not yet been born.  For by the everlasting truth, as long as you will to do God’s will and yearn for eternity and God, you are not really poor; for he is poor who wills nothing, knows nothing and wants nothing.

Back in the Womb from which I came, I had no God and merely was myself.  I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth.  Then I wanted myself and nothing else.  And what I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I existed untrammeled by God or anything else.  But when I parted from my free will and received my created being, then I had a God.  For before there were creatures, God was not God, but rather, he was what he was.  When creatures came to be and took on creaturely being, then God was no longer God as he is in himself, but God as he is with creatures.

Now, we say that God, in so far as he is only God, is not the highest goal of creation, nor is his fullness of being as great as that of the least of creatures, themselves in God. …  Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, and taking the truth, break through into eternity, where the highest angels and souls too, are like what I was in my primal existence, when I wanted what I was and I was what I wanted.  Accordingly, a person ought to be poor, willing as little and wanting as little as when he did not exist.     .  .  .       

The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything.  But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that.  God is free of everything and therefore he is everything.  He then who is to be poor in spirit … knows nothing of God, or creatures, or himself. …

Thus far I have said that he is poor who does not want to fulfill the will of God but who so lives that he is empty of his own will and the will of God, as much so as when he did not exist.  Next we said that he is poor who knows nothing of the action of God in himself. … But the third poverty is the most inward and real … it consists in that a man has nothing.

…  If it is the case that a man is emptied of things, creatures, himself and God, and if still God could find a place in him to act, then we say: as long as that exists, this man is not poor with the most intimate poverty … since true poverty of spirit requires that man shall be emptied of ‘God’ and all his works, so that if God wants to act in the soul, he himself must be the place in which he acts … he would himself be the scene of action, for God is the one who acts within himself.  It is here in this poverty, that man regains the eternal being that once he was, now is, and evermore shall be.

… Therefore I pray God that he may quit me of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions.  It was here that I was myself, wanted myself, and knew myself to be this person, and therefore I am my own first cause, both of my eternal being and of my temporal being.  To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die.  It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever.  For what I am as a temporal creature is to die and come to nothingness, for it came with time and with time it will pass away.  In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten, I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else.  If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be.  If I had not been, there would have been no God.  …” [6]

I dare say Christians have never heard this kind of talk before.  Such descriptions of “God” are not consistent with the traditional notions of a transcendent “theist” God, but they are compatible with a pan-entheism based on transcendent materialism.

Eckhart is meditating on “life before birth” looking for clues about “life after death.”  It’s not difficult to understand how he got there.  If you assume that the “soul” is a metaphysical “substance” of some type that is not made of matter, not made of parts, therefore cannot die and decompose, then it is not dependent on the body; it cannot have “come to be” with the life of the body otherwise it would “cease to be” at its death.  The “soul,” therefore, must have existed before birth.

Eckhart’s meditation about the pre-existent “soul” only makes sense in a Platonic matter-spirit  universe.  But if you assume, as I do,  the worldview of a transcendent materialism, all the elements of the experience described by Eckhart remain in place without the metaphysical inconsistencies: the material organism is completely one with the source of existence — matter’s energy — and therefore the organism’s rational intelligence can identify itself with it; the individual is subaltern to the totality.  “Participation-in-being” is not some convoluted mental gymnastics that magically extracts “reality” from human ideas and imagination, but simply articulates direct observation: we are part and parcel of the homogeneous mass of material energy.  The breakthrough is spontaneous because the middle term — an “Idea-God” (esse) remote from everything else that exists who even “donates” an alien esse ad extram and cannot be reached without mediation — has been eliminated.  “God” is now identical with matter’s existential energy which all things share; there is no remote inaccessible “God” that can only be reached by using the sacramental bridge provided by the Church.  “God” as the symbolic personification of the existential life force, is immediately accessible to all, everywhere and at all times because we are THAT — we ARE what “God” is, and Eckhart’s effusive statements about being the “first cause of everything” and Silesius’ claims to be as vast and as much as God suddenly make perfect sense.

I want to emphasize: Eckhart makes no mention of mediation by the Church.  We have to recognize that the “God” who is immanent and accessible as esse, which is the Thomist / Aristotelian element of his vision, is completely contrary to a Platonic / Augustinian remote spirit-“God,” inaccessible to matter by nature and alienated from humankind by sin.  How can Eckhart leave out “divinization” through the Catholic sacraments?  I claim it’s because his breakthrough put him beyond that Platonic worldview and the “other side” of the breakthrough is a pan-entheist universe grounded in esse —for Eckhart an idea, but for me matter’s energy to be-here.

What I am saying is that the universal experience of complete oneness with the Source of all things is directly possible only in a transcendent materialist worldview (or in a monist idealism), but not in the alienated Platonic dualist metaphysical vision underlying traditional Christianity requiring the Church’s bridgework and Eckhart’s breakthrough.  The fact that Eckhart’s experience, described without reference to Church or sacraments, conflates so remarkably with the experiences of non-Christians around the world, speaks to their having a common basis with which the Western theories of a remote inaccessible “God” do not concur.

The point of these reflections is to take mystical experience seriously and allow it to generate reasonable hypotheses about the nature of reality and the source of our sense of the Sacred.   It calls for a “doctrine of ‘God’” that is so different from the traditional anthropomorphic caricature that the word “God” can no longer be used.  Correlatively, if mystical experience proves contradictory to accepted assumptions, the doubts introduced cannot be dismissed or ignored.  They must be either resolved satisfactorily or a search for alternatives launched.  The universal testimony of the mystics, minimally, calls into question two things: (1) the traditional Christian notions about the unattainable “otherness” of the creator of the cosmos, and (2) reductionist mechanistic materialism ― the two horns of the dualist dilemma.  It invites a sincere and unbiased exploration of other explanations.

[1]James, William,  Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature (p. 280).  Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., p. 294

[3] ibid., pp. 290-291

[4] ibid., Boehme and Teresa, p. 302

[5]. Pseudo-Dionysius, T. Davidson’s translation, in Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1893, vol. xxii., p. 399.

[6]. Johannes Eckhart, sermon: “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,” quoted in Walshe, M., Meister Eckhart, German Sermons and Treatises, London, Watkins, 1979 vol 2: p.275 (emphasis mine).