The point of it all is our sense of the sacred

All religions of “the Book” are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.” “God’s” remoteness is absolute; there is no common ground between Creator and creature.  Any contact must come on the initiative of “God.”  “God” must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact.  Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not allow any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a transcendent, inaccessible, absolutely sovereign, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe.  While these traditions also allow for divine immanence, it is always a secondary non-essential feature, generally an esoteric gnosis reserved for monks and other spiritual elite, subordinate to transcendence and easily corrupted into the mere “presence” of the transcendent “God.”[1] It was because Calvin saw “God’s” omnipotent transcendence as the very definition of “Godhood” that he was not only comfortable with predestination, but actually saw it as essential.

“Inaccessibility” was considered the Greek counterpart of Genesis where Yahweh is described as creating all things from nothing and therefore transcendent over and different from everything else that exists.  But in order for Plato’s “One,” dwelling in remote tranquil isolation, to create and control the material world, an intermediary was needed — a lower class workman, who would allow the aristocratic master of the house the leisure to pursue matters of the mind without the tedium and travail of manual labor.  The ultimate issue for Platonists, of course, was matter.  The “One” was “Pure Spirit” living in contemplative serenity, and could not be contaminated in any way with matter and the mental turmoil of wrestling with its resistances.

And so the “Craftsman” emerged from Plato’s fertile imagination the Demiourgos whom Jewish Philo translated for readers of the Septuagint as Logos and assimilated to the personified “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8.  It was a Platonic analogue for Genesis 1, and it shows that the entire fourth century trinitarian development, impelled by Constantine’s demand for a dogmatic clarity that would allow him to enforce universal compliance in the Imperial Religion, evolved from the assumptions of Platonic theory and was not biblical at all.  In the 1540’s the Socinian[2] reformers among others, realized this and insightfully took their “reform” back before Nicaea.

The inaccessibility of Plato’s “One” does not in the least resemble the “loving father” evoked in parable after parable by Jesus in the gospels.  Jesus had no Greek philosophical commitments.  He could read Genesis directly without Platonic overlays and say quite simply that Yahweh was a loving Father who created the world all by himselfThe Hebrew Yahweh had no need of a secondary deity to keep him from getting his hands dirty; Yahweh was the direct maker of all things.  Everything he created was “good,” i.e., it was well-made as one would expect of a good workman who only rested when his work was done.  The difference between the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of “God” clearly reflects the difference between a class-society run on slave-labor by an intellectual elite and a society of herdsmen and farmers, artisans and their helpers, where work was not alienated and dehumanizing but something to take pride in, as Yahweh did when he saw that what he had done was very very good. 

The further connection between a society where manual labor was dehumanized, and the demonization of bodily matter as the antithesis of a mental spirit, should not be overlooked or downplayed.  The domination of Christianity by Platonic philosophical assumptions in the trinitarian affair is a clear indication that by the fourth century orthodox doctrine was being elaborated by the Greco-Roman educated upper-class.  That this development was accompanied by the introduction of a caste system into Christianity arrogating authority and the performance of ritual to a hierarchy alone in a way that contradicted the spirit and practice of the earliest communities, supports an historical hypothesis that otherwise lacks direct documentation: by the late second or early third century Christianity had undergone a revolution.  An upper class coup had taken place that radically altered the apostolic inheritance; it all but eliminated any hope that Christianity might faithfully reflect the Yahwist message of Jesus.  And it was a Christianity firmly under upper-class control that formed the Roman Catholic world whose late mediaeval phase scandalized Luther a thousand years later.

Please do not misunderstand the import of all this analysis.  I am not condemning as willful oppression the Christianity that was in place at the time of the harrowing Diocletian persecutions in 310, nor the various attempts on the part of Late Mediaeval Christians to reform the Church they had inherited.  I am saying they are not our circumstances and we cannot allow them to define our response.  We are not on an historical quest here, as if returning to some status quo ante will recuperate a lost integrity.  The Christians of Late Antiquity restructured Christianity to reflect the class-system and social values of their times, and the reformers in their turn brought Mediaeval Christianity into conformity with the emerging modern world as they saw it.  We may evaluate the effects of their choices, but it is not our place to judge the sincerity of their efforts.

Jesus message, for its part, was no different.  He shared a vision with the people of his time, place and circumstances.  Those conditions are not ours.  There is nothing definitive in any of these visions, much less in their forms of expression, including Jesus’, and while we may learn much from the struggles of each in attempting to stay faithful to a sane and available humanity, no one of them is a rigid blueprint for us.  No less than they, we have the responsibility of discovering what it means to be profoundly human in a way that reflects our current perception of how we are related to this universe that spawned us.

Jesus, as far as we can tell, took the narrative of creation in Genesis as literal.  That narrative no longer applies today.  Only if taken as allegory would it even remotely resemble what we know is the ultimate source of the sacred for us — material energy — and it is our sense of the sacred that is the point of it all.

The Sense of the Sacred

I can’t emphasize this enough.  Our sense of the sacred is the fulcrum of this enquiry.  It is the centerpiece of all religion … because it is the centerpiece of being human.  It is religion’s source and its goal … .  Our sense of the sacred is what evokes all our “absolute” values.  It underpins our awe and gratitude — our love of life — the sheer joy of being-here-now as ourselves; it gives birth to our thirst for fairness, an abhorrence for injustice, a compassion and forbearance for weakness; it embraces law and reasonableness in the resolutions of our conflicts; it generates our desire to nourish the life around us, impelling us to work to sustain ourselves and to sacrifice our own individual “selves” for the benefit of others — our families, our community, other species, and the planet which produced us.  Our sense of the sacredness of life is what makes us human.  It is the energy behind all honest law and politics, all sincere search for truth and understanding, all dedication to beauty, and its expression in word and work: poetry, art, architecture, music.

Our sense of the sacred is the overarching value, the solid ground, the one and only absolute that drives our religious quest.  All other things are secondary, subordinate and ancillary to the evocation of our sense of the sacred.  Its preservation is our responsibility; the failure of religion does not let us off the hook.  Religion receives its entire validity, its entire meaning, its entire reason-for-being by satisfying one and only one requirement: that it realistically nourishes our sense of the sacredness of life.  Nothing — not “God” nor Jesus nor bible nor Church … not ritual nor prayer nor mystical experience … neither vision nor revelation nor dogma nor ancient tradition — is of any value if it does not serve our sense of the sacred here and now which is the reverberation of our specifically human relationship to existence.  “Religion” in other words, is not sacred in itself; religion is a tool.  It is sacred only to the degree that it unveils and uncovers for us the sacredness of the universe and our lives in it.  If it fails us, we have to look elsewhere.  Our religion may have to be discarded, but we cannot allow our sense of the sacred to die; we cannot allow it to be dismissed as robotic illusion, nor can we let ethnic idolatry trap us into thinking that without our ancestral religion there is nothing sacred. 

Can the bible’s concept of “God” support our sense of the sacred?  First we have to acknow­ledge that with “God” we are dealing with a symbol — a human idea and associated imagery not a known entity.  No one has ever seen “God.”  We do not have “God” present to observe, define, measure and test.  Jesus did not elaborate on his imagery about “God.”  He seems to have been content with the common notions about “God” assumed by the Jewish people of his time.

Jesus was not focused on clarifying what “God” was like, nor, besides saying we were “God’s” children, did he emphasize the individual’s relationship to “God.”  Jesus promoted just and compassionate relationships among human beings and made it clear that this was the way the Jewish Nation was to fulfill the “law”— by imitating the generosity of a good “God.”  He was operating within the traditional framework of the “covenant.”  Jesus’ great innovation was to humanize the requirements of the law, and in so doing, he humanized “God.”  But I want to underline: he did not teach any new “doctrine of God.”  His “father” was the Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures.

The key elements of Jesus’ image were that (1) a good “God” made the world from nothing (2) as an expression of his goodness and creative power, and that (3) this “God” wills that what he created good should remain good, and that being good for us means being human toward one another; that was the fulfillment of “his” willThe creative abilities of this “God,” if he is to have literally accomplished what the scriptures said, were assumed by a pre-scientific people to be similar to those of the human craftsmen with whom everyone was familiar: potters, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, bakers and weavers, artists and architects.

Evolution

But we do not live in a pre-scientific age.  We understand “creation” to be a long-term process of material self-extrusion we call evolution.  It was not the past work of a rational craftsman but rather the result of the ongoing blind energy to exist.  Material energy is the source of all the forms and features of the known universe; it is also the source of the human sense of the sacred and mysticism.  Matter’s energy did not create the world from nothing, designing all things for a chosen purpose, but rather drew everything out of itself, purposelessly, mindlessly, by the sheer superabundance of its energy to continue in existence as matter.  Evolution means that the homogeneous “stuff” of which everything is made, incrementally modified by minor variations over time, eventually emerges in new forms.  Those forms, made of the same “stuff,” have the same need to fight and survive; they have populated the universe.

We, humans, are one of those forms.  They (we) are different from one another, yes, but we are only forms of the same one “thing” and we all “do” the same one thing: we survive.  Clearly the “God” of Genesis stands in stark contrast to the actual forces at work in the production of the universe and the myriads of species that inhabit our earth.

These “cosmic details” are vastly different from those assumed by the Palestinian Jews of the first century c.e.  But they still remain “details” — the domain of science and philosophy, not religion — and do not necessarily affect the relationship that Jesus was trying to evoke.  The question, therefore, arises: is it possible that the same relationship to source can obtain even if the “cosmic details” are radically changed?  In other words, can the same three key elements that were the focus of the creation account establishing the nature of our relationship to the world’s “creator” be evoked by the evolution narrative just laid out?  Can we say matter’s energy is “good,” chose to create the world from nothing as an expression of its goodness and wishes it to remain good?

Many contemporary Christians, including the current Pope, Francis, would answer affirmatively.  They imagine the traditional “God” with all the same transcendent characteristics given by Genesis but they locate him “behind the scenes;” they see him designing and employing evolution as a tool — like a sculptor’s chisel or a potter’s wheel — working on the homogeneous “stuff” of the universe to give recognizable shape and purpose to what would otherwise be an amorphous uniformity.

But it won’t work as a literal description because it does not correspond to the observed reality.  There is no plan or purpose behind the evolution of things.  They are simply responses to changing environmental conditions on the part of a material energy that is mindlessly compelled to continue in existence.  It has no purpose, in other words, beyond being-here and remaining itself.  The absence of purpose and plan seems to indicate that there is no rational mind “behind the scenes” pulling the puppet strings, otherwise you would have to say that the puppeteer was intentionally disguising rational purpose beneath appearances which are patently directed by and to self-survival.  It would contradict the Christian claim that Creation was intended as “God’s” self-display, the first of a series of “revelations” to the Jewish people leading up to the revelation of his “Son” in the person of Jesus, announced by John as a kind of new creation — a second Genesis.  Besides even if it were some kind of off-beat self-display, as some have suggested: a divine self-empty­ing, a kenosis, done to emphasize respect for the autonomy of matter as co-creator,[3] why did “Providence” wait so long to reveal this central dynamic with its important message?  Evolution only became a serious hypothesis 150 years ago, and since that time most religions of the Book have resisted it because it contradicts scripture.  Why would the same “God” who revealed himself in scripture choose to reveal his respect for matter’s autonomy in such a self-contra­dict­ing manner?  Readers of the bible who reject “evolution” can hardly be accused of disregarding “God’s” attempt to reveal himself.

Frankly, I believe these efforts fail because they insist on retaining the traditional anthropomorphic imagery of a “God” who is an individual entity, a rational person, distinct and separate from everything else that exists, and with the added feature of an inaccessible “otherness” contributed by Platonic Philosophy and linked to creatio ex nihilo and the notion of “Pure Spirit.”  The Platonists at least recognized that a material creation could not be attributed to a Pure Spirit without fatally compromising the purity of its spirituality.

I think we have to confront this traditional, western “doctrine of God” and frankly acknowledge that it is simply untenable and that is why, throughout our intellectual history, every attempt to reconcile the anthropomorphic imagery of Genesis with a rational explanation has ended in disaster.  The Trinity is the prime example.  The Christian Trinity taken as anything more than poetic metaphor is an irrational absurdity that was generated by Platonists, ironically, from the failed effort to make rational sense out of the dualist anomaly of a material universe proceeding from a “God” who is pure unmixed spirit.  The absurdity is not lessened in the least by calling it a “mystery,” citing vague scriptural allusions, and haughtily dismissing dissent as intellectually puerile.  Not only does the “immanent”[4] Trinity make no sense, how could those men ever have imagined they could come to know the very inner life of “God” just by thinking about it?

Where do we go from here?  If we finally have the courage to abandon these efforts to accommodate an ancient religious tradition that used an anthropomorphic and pre-scientific imagery that is untenable if taken literally, we may begin to move forward based on our sense of the sacred, which is, I contend, what it is all about.

[1] Cf. Raimundo Panikkar’s The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man (Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1973) pp.30-32: Panikkar says this kind of “presence,” like the renter of a room in a house, remains completely separate.  There is no “essential” unity.

[2] Socinians: were the 16th century Followers of Faustus Socinus and the forerunners of the Universalist Unitarians of today.

[3] This “theory” has been adduced by John Haught

[4]Immanent” in the context of trinitarian theology refers to “what ‘God’ is like in ‘him’self,” even if ‘he’ had no relationships ad extram.  Relatively recent studies like God for Us by the late Catherine Mowry La Cugna, clearly call for a de-emphasis on thinking of the Trinity as ontologically “immanent” in the Godhead rather than as an “economic” metaphor — i.e., our perception that “God” acts in the world in three distinct ways.

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7 comments on “The point of it all is our sense of the sacred

  1. Betty Lou Kishler says:

    I was once Roman Catholic, but no longer call myself belonging to any religion. Belonging to the Catholic religion is to be controlled. I believe we have to do something about the over population of the world. We should be able to feed all these peoiple but we don’t. I don’t believe there is a “Trinity” of Beings. I really don’t know “what” or “who” God is. I know there are many more ways to reach God than belonging to a religion. Religion is really just a social meeting place. The people at church become our friends and we socialize with them. Keep writing Tony.

  2. jorisheise says:

    You started this presentation with: “All religions of “the Book” are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.”” And I disagree–respectfully. As your own essay develops its line of thinking, I am aware that my own lifetime has suggested a different path, not hostile, but alternative, to yours.

    Jesus, referring to his “god” as Father so consistently, suggests that this “father” of us humans IS knowable “He who sees me sees the father” (and parallel passages) as well as accessible. I do not emphasize, therefore, the chasm between creator and created as an (outdated) notion, but rather I find in so much of what you write a highly sophisticated and academic version of what I have come to understand. I do not see evolution as blind–though neither do I see it as a development in the deistic and mechanical terms you use. I feel that I am much more an both/and viewer of theology than an either/or.

    My chief disagreement with you–and it is a respectful one that does not say “you are wrong and I am right”–is that Jesus emphasized over and over that it is what we DO, our kindness, humility, caring and the like that–to use your terms–is the point and on-going “end” of evolution. It is not what we think we believe.

    I am a Catholic and trinitarian, but both of these have formed–in my 79th year–a conviction that they “lead” to my doing good, and I have realized–or chosen to see–these are neither blind obedience nor outdated theology. I eschew the “naming” of God (any form YHWH), and believe with Moses what he was told from the burning bush was NOT any naming at all, but “I am what I am.”–a reality beyond naming. In fact, I am convinced that we are face-to-face (accessible) to this … every breath I breathe, every moral act I do, and every need of another I meet.

    Finally, I believe that too many people worship religion–mistaking the rules, beliefs (bible, Qoran, and creeds). and rituals for this “doing” which Jesus emphasized. i call myself a trinitarian because I see myself enmeshed in a three-fold “absolute”–a creation beyond my control (the laws of physic, biology, etc.), free people around me (the human race–who ARE humanity, embodying the “daughters and sons of God,” (=2nd “person”) and a conscience (which informs me whether I like it or not)–which grows in and from our human culture(s) with Jesus, who is “da MAN,” (= “the Spirit /attitude/absolute derived from Creator and Unique Son Jesus)

    • tonyequale says:

      Jorisheise,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree. The “God” Jesus painted for us is totally accessible. But the “God” the Churches of the West decided was closer to the truth was Plato’s “One” who was inaccessible. These are “theological” propositions that may not correspond to “reality,” i.e., the “God” that people actually experience. The experience of the believer is not dependent upon some abstract definition of self-appointed experts. As with any other relationship, those who are in the relationship “know” one another directly. Thank you for sharing yours.

      Tony

      Tony

      • jorisheise says:

        Tony–I love your thinking! Here is my response: somewhere in the pursuit of quantum physics and a course I had in epistemology–I have come to the conclusions that ALL knowledge is inter-faced–we contribute and “it” (or I/Thou, if you are cognizant of that dimension) contributes. Like seeing the photon makes it one or the other (energy/wave or quantum/particle) I think it is true of God and evolution. We bring something and “reality-out-there” brings something to the on-going connection. You and I do well to skirt the “immanent” deity because, as you say, that winds up being an inaccessible one. But I will fight fiercely (not to impose on others) for the conviction of a wondrous Creator of “my” universe, a sense of brother/sisterhood that is quite distinct, but “absolute” (with Emerson, many a poet who speaks of the “spark of the divine” in us, etc.–and Jesus [cf. ‘least of my brothers’]), and the absolute who/which talks within MY conscience and i do project (not as to specifics) into the living adults around me. And–to conclude–I remain convinced also that belief is what we do, not what we say or think we believe. Cf. Matthew 7.

      • theotheri says:

        Thank you to both Jorisheise and Tony for answering my own question. I’ve been wondering, Tony, how you define the sacred, because despite your insistence that it is available to all of us, I do not experience anything in the universe as “sacred.” But I do experience much in the universe as wondrous, as exhilarating, as awe-inspiring, as awe-filled. And I suspect that is my experience of what you would call “sacred.” My problem is probably with the word rather than the concept as you mean – and experience – it. “Sacred” works for you. For me, it locks me back into that prison created by “self-appointed experts.” Like the word “god,” given my background, I simply am unable to redefine the word “sacred” and leave behind all the emotional tentacles that originally came with it.

      • tonyequale says:

        Terry, thanks for your comment.

        The word “sacred” has been stolen from us by those who would control us. Like other words, it was once ours but is no longer. So we need new words. But, not to worry. It’s what we do. We can always create a new word, the important thing is to remember what we mean by it. It’s ours. We should never, ever, think that what we mean by it was theirs.

        Tony

  3. inigo rey says:

    Hi, Tony,
    Of course, evolution may not be planned, but it does seem to have an anentropic direction – towards greater complexity and the emergent intelligence that comes with organisms interacting more and more complexly with their changing environments.

    Doctrines no doubt reflect the categories and practices of thought of their times, but they also reflect an attempt to come to terms with the experiences of their inventors. There seems to be a degree of authenticity to them, as well as a unhealthy dollop of arrogance and a dynamic scramble to remedy the absurdities that such doctrines throw off like sparks from a fire. One thinks of the whole original sin/limbo/ immaculate conception/ etc fiasco. I like to think of the way in which peoples with a Neolithic world view tried to make sense of first contacts with modern technologically based cultures in terms of extension and elaboration of their own myths as a useful model for understanding the historical trajectory of theology.

    The problem for me begins with Niels Bohr, and what you get when you drill down into “energy” and get information and “pattern” again, a kind of closing of the circle, albeit still a monistic one. Too close to Plato for you, I expect.

    Still enjoying your work, Tony, and finding it “very good”!

    Regards,

    Inigo.

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