Another narrative

The key to understanding Augustine’s theory of Redemption (and its untenability) is that it works in tandem with his version of the doctrine of Original Sin.  Divine intervention — grace — is absolutely necessary because, according to Augustine, Original Sin has rendered human nature so thoroughly corrupt that no merely human effort, no matter how heroic and sustained, could ever avoid much less reverse human moral degeneration.  “Sin,” in this sense, affected the whole human race … no one was excepted:

… [Adam] through his sin subjected his descendents to the punishment of sin and damnation, for he had radically corrupted them in himself by his sinning.  As a consequence of this all those descended from him and his wife … — all those born through carnal lust on whom the same penalty is visited as for disobedience — all these entered into the inheritance of original sin. … ‘Thus by one man sin entereed the world and death through sin and thus death came upon all men …’ By “the world” in this passage, of course, the apostle is referring to the whole human race. (Augustine, Enchiridion, VIII,26)

Augustine’s innovation imputing guilt and moral impotence to absolutely everyone, clearly, was crucial if he was going to provide a rational ground for the universal necessity of the Church and its ritual ministrations.  His predecessor, Cyprian of Carthage, had ennunciated the principle 150 years earlier during the Decian persecution: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  But think of what it meant that every human being who died without baptism went to eternal torment.  As we saw, Augustine’s consistency required he apply it rigorously, even in the case of unbaptized newborn infants.  He had to insist that “God’s” justice completely trumped his mercy.

Besides its utter absurdity, Augustine’s theory of Original Sin falls on a number of factual counts.  First, it contradicts what anyone could see even without the advantages of modern science, namely, that death is natural.  All organisms die.  The claim that we were created naturally immortal because of our “spiritual” soul, was a Platonic theory that was philosophically contested even in ancient times and became a generally accepted “fact” only with the ascendancy of Christianity and the outlawing of other religions and philosophies by Rome.  This was not limited to the West.  The eastern Orthodox to this day continue to insist that death is not natural.

Second, from the clear evidence of an abundance of good, just and loving people, who in those days were all pagans, it is patently clear that human nature is absolutely not corrupt, and quite capable of living morally on the resources provided by nature.  Claims of universal depravity in Roman times was a “spin” created by Christians to justify their call to abandon ancestral religions and “convert.”  The inability to ac­know­ledge even the innocence of newborn infants was the most egregious example of this myopia.  It was an extrapolation.  Augustine’s primary evidence for the corruption of human nature was, in fact, his own sexual addiction — actually, what he himself admits was a deep attachment to his common-law wife interpreted as a moral trap by his own vaulting ambition and delusional belief in the superiority of celibacy.  All he had to do was to fully embrace his marriage and his “sense of corruption” would have ended then and there.  He couldn’t do that because it would have meant career suicide: he was upper class, she was lower class.  

Besides, Augustine’s obsessive pursuit of celibacy was, in my opinion, an attempt at self-aggran­dizement propelled by 9 years as a “second-class” (non-celibate) Manichee.  Moreover, the denigration of all forms of sexuality as “carnal” and “imperfect” was a pervasive attitude in the mediterranean world which included the Christian Church of his time; and it was a cherished conviction of Ambrose of Milan, his mentor at the time of his conversion.

Third, Augustine’s metaphysical interpretation of what happened in the Garden of Eden (i.e., that nature was metaphysically changed) is entirely gratuitous.  It is contrary to the obvious intentions of the Jewish biblical authors and the current Jewish scholarly understanding of the story as a parable encouraging obedience to the moral counsels of Israel.  Yahweh’s rejection of inherited guilt, explicit in both Exodus and the prophets,[1] is quite unambiguous and totally belies the fundamental premises of Augustine’s treatment.  The Eastern Orthodox have always rejected Augustine’s interpretation as non-apostolic.

Fourth, according to Augustine, and his 16th century Western defenders in the reformed tradition, “God” predestines every human being to heaven or hell by choosing to save the (undeserving) elect while he knows but does not choose to save the (equally undeserving) reprobate.  Such convoluted contortions presuppose a real distinction between “knowing” and “willing” in “God,” which, even in the case of human beings is a contrived conceptual fiction, and for “God” whose every act and thought are acknowledged by classical theology to be identical with “his” essence, there is no distinction between knowing and willing.  The entire effort is revealed for the circularity that it really is: the attempt to justify a theory of “redemption” that was concocted out of thin air, and hang it on a “sky hook” suspen­­ded from non-existent premises.

Besides, why does “God” choose to save some and not others?  No one knows, and we are advised not to inquire.

… [God] simply does not bestow his justifying mercy on some sinners.  …  God decides whom to withold mercy from according to a standard of fairness which is most hidden and far removed from the power of human understanding.[2]

Predestination is presented as a matter of pure whim, without rhyme or reason.  This gives rise to the Christian’s complaint: when it comes to punishment, reasons abound … and “God” himself is bound by them — he must punish the guilty, even newborn infants.  When it comes to mercy, however, there is no such obligation; all we are told is that he saves some and abandons others to their fate “for the sake of his glory.”  Augustine’s “God” was definitely not a liberal.

 *      *      *

Here is where I stand: There was no “Original Sin” as Augustine claimed, and there is no such “God.”  Therefore the perennial Christian belief that we are “saved by Jesus’ death” from selfishness and isolation may very well be true in some other sense entirely, but in the traditional sense that they have been given in Western Christian history — as atonement to an insulted “God” for the sin of Adam and the recuperation of a lost immortality — they are unjustifiable nonsense, rationally and scripturally.  Augustine’s attempt to “explain” redemption in those terms is pure fiction, a tale of zombies, resident evil and “fate” — a paranormal nightmare, the horror movie of the Western World.  That Hollywood and Burbank continue to pour out great quantities of films and TV series based on these themes speaks to the depth of the imagery in the popular mind inculcated by 1500 years of Augustinian Roman Catholicism.

Luther and Calvin did not have an option.  They awoke at the end of the middle ages lost in the maze created by Augustine’s tormented Roman mind: a humanity thoroughly corrupted by “Original Sin” and an an emperor “God” whose commitment to the rights of authority was more fundamental than his compassion for the human condition.  The “reformation” was their attempt to find a way out of the labyrinth.

They never did find their way out, because given the premises there is no way out.  They did the only thing you could do: trust “God” and ignore it all.  It’s an historical lesson that we cannot afford to forget.  For look what it did: it left everything in place, by which I mean Augustine’s dysfunctional “concept of ‘God.’”  That “God,” dreaded by his worshippers and ridiculed by his skeptics, is the very same “God” that mainstream religion imagines today.  From my point of view, the “reformation” reformed nothing.

The Eastern Orthodox narrative

Christians in the West have so internalized this scenario that they think there can be no other story; but it is only one explanation among many.  A different one is told by the Eastern Orthodox and it’s a story they claim the Church Fathers have been telling since Apostolic times.  I present it here not because I espouse it or because it is any less incompatible with the world as science understands it, but simply to show that the same events seen through the eyes of the same ancient pre-scientific worldview can be given a very different interpretation from Augustine’s.  It is an interpretation that has as much ancient tradition behind it as our own, it does not assassinate the character of “God,” and does not require the personal dehumanization and political emasculation of its adherents.

The following is a précis of that narrative taken from the book, The Ancestral Sin, by John S. Romanides.[3]  He begins with an “Original Sin” that did not pass the guilt on to the entire human race.  Adam and Eve were the only ones guilty of that sin of disobedience, no one else.  Human individuals were not born guilty and infants did not merit eternal damnation.  What got passed on were the bodily effects: death, hardship, toil, and a humanity less disposed to strive for theosis, “perfection,” because of death.  The fear of death had predisposed us to selfishness and made forgiveness, mildness and generosity the object of derision.

The great enemy is the fear of death … and it was introduced in the garden by Satan, they insist, not God.  It is the fear of death that makes us grasping and ungenerous.  Jesus died and rose, not to atone for sin or placate the Father, but in order to conquer the fear of death for us.  Jesus’ resurrection and our incorporation into it overcomes the sting of death and with it the selfishness that death inspires.  He thus leads his brothers and sisters to a life of compassion and unstinting generosity in imitation of the boundless generosity of “God.”  We become like God — divinized — by being immersed through baptism in Jesus’ divine humanity and learning how to love one another without measure as “God” loves us; the human family is transformed and the earth along with it.  This is theosis, human perfection; it is immediately, intrinsically social.  We become fearless; we can afford to fight for justice and live with joyous abandon.  We learn to love one another the way “God” loves us.

Notice: there is no insulted “God,” no infinite offense, no atonement, no compensating for the disrespect to “God’s” authority, no universal guilt, no “double predestination,” no moral impotence, no infants condemned to  eternal torment.  The “God” imagined by the Greek Orthodox narrative “seeks not his own” and wants nothing except to have us understand him and share his joyous life of boundless love.  There is also little talk of “heaven,” it being understood that to love one another as God loves is itself paradise, and if indeed there is such a place, what makes it “heavenly” is the love that will bind us all together there even as it does here.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Ex 20:5; Ez 18:20

[2] To Simplicianus, I. 2,16 quoted in Fredricksen, op.cit. p.182

[3] John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, tr. George Gabriel, Zephyr Press, Ridgwood NJ, 2008 (1957).  Fr. Romanides was a theologian and Patristic scholar who taught theology at Universities in Thessalonica, Greece and Balamand, Lebanon.  He died in 2001.

“We are indeed his offspring”

Paul’s interpretation the Christ-event was tied to his expectation of an imminent parousía, and it quickly became obsolete.  Christ never returned.  What did “grace” mean in these new circumstances?  Christians would not conclude that Jesus wasn’t coming at all; they said his return was merely postponed.  It’s not hard to imagine that there was also a gradual dawning that the postponement might be quite extended.  But with it a problem began to arise: the apocalyptic pressure to join the Christian community, participate in its rituals and lead a morally exemplary life before the end, was gone.  So Christians developed a new narrative that had the effect of keeping up the pressure for moral living: reward or punishment for the individual “soul” at death.

This significantly modified the earlier religious aspirations.  Since Christ’s coming was postponed, those who died before his return would be judged and sentenced individually as souls alone and their bodies would be brought back for the final coming of Christ at the end of time to live again in “God’s” definitive kingdom.  Because the real concern became individual salvation or damnation at death, the eschatology radically changed and along with it the community dimension virtually disappeared.

With the new narrative the so-called temporary “particular” judgment turned out to be, in fact, permanent.  Your fate was sealed forever at the moment of death when you were given your eternal reward or punishment; the only addition at the “general” (community) judgment would be that your body would join you in heaven or hell.  Given the focus on “salvation” for your individual bodiless “soul,” few were concerned that their bodies would rise, and while all would hope to see their loved ones again, there was no interest in the installation of a human community built on justice to replace the brutal empires that ruled their lives.  It was all superfluous.  The change insured that Christian individuals would be fixated on that other world where they would live happily after death as isolated spirits, and they saw life on this earth as a burden to be endured of no importance except as a testing ground for earning happiness in heaven.  “Grace,” therefore, no longer referred to “God’s” compassion for oppressed humankind, the model of our love for one another, and became instead divine assistance to the individual “soul” in the struggle to “pass the test” and avoid damnation — the only thing that mattered.  It totally reversed the central dynamic of Christian life from the personal-healing and community-building power of loving others as “God” loves us, to saving your own skin.

There is no documentation to tell us exactly when this transition was made; all we know is that by late in the second century when the last of the Apostolic Fathers were writing we see evidence that it was already underway.  It also coincided with the emergence of hier­archical (class) structure in the Church community and the beginnings of proto-orthodoxy.  Christianity transformed itself from a proclamation of free forgiveness and the establishment of an egalitarian community of the human family lost in a world of voracious empires, to a quid pro quo reward or punishment in another world for the predestined individual based on his/her moral behavior assisted by a “grace” that was channeled through magical rituals administered by the elite managers of an exclusive Church.

Augustine’s “grace”

Quid pro quo was theoretically unacceptable, however, because it contradicted scripture: Paul had insisted that the “law” was abrogated.  Redemption was our love for one another; it came alive in us by our “waking up” to “God’s” free gift of forgiving love.  Augustine’s theory of “grace” claimed to counter the quid pro quo character of the new narrative, but he ended up intensifying it.  For he tried to add grace under the rubric of “divine assistance” to the profile of a transcendent “God” who was necessarily bound to protect the established order and could only “save” by first finding a way to insure that all debts were paid.  Augustine said Jesus’ death was the payment for Adam’s sin and it put the capstone on the ongoing assassination of “God’s” character.  For how could anyone believe that “God” was merciful and forgiving if he was ready to send unbaptized infants to hell and even demanded the death of his own son to “atone” for sin?  Clearly, Augustine’s “God” could not “forgive and forget;” his priority was justice, not mercy.

Besides, one needed Augustinian “grace” even to lead a good life.  This resulted in making “God” indirectly the cause of people’s damnation; for it was “God” himself who chose to intervene with his grace — or not — in the lives of those slated for perdition, saving some and allowing the others to be damned without saying why.  Divine predestination seemed unjust.  Quid pro quo at least had some semblance of fairness.

And so the people clung to quid pro quo as the only thing that made sense.  In practice, if Augustine’s theory of “grace” was intended to inspire a feeling of relief and joy about the free gift of God’s love, it failed pathetically.  A thousand years later at the end of the middle ages, quid pro quo still dominated western Christian religiosity … and it remains so today.  I claim it is due to the concept of “God” that underlay it.  Justice was the priority for Augustine’s “God,” not mercy.  Justice was grounded in the nature of things as ascertained by reason, and both “God” and man had to comply.  “God’s” mercy, on the other hand, was ad libitum, a matter of whim; “God” was under no obligation to save anyone.  This made “God” judge by profession and savior only when he felt like it.  The “law” was not abrogated and “grace” became just another requisite that the individual needed in order to be “saved” but could not count on or control …  just another source of insecurity.

Luther’s “faith”

Luther, for his part, made another attempt to reintroduce free forgiveness, but he used the same maneuver as Augustine — a reified “saving grace” he called “faith” — attributed to the same implacable Augustinian “God,” bound and obligated to defend the rationalized “order of nature” which included immutable moral principles enshrined in the commandments, the scriptural restatement of “natural law.”  Luther’s “faith” wrecked on the same shoals as Augustine’s “grace” and quid pro quo today is as prominent in Protestant religiosity as Catholic.  Luther certainly tried; and his “solution” seems to have worked for him personally.  I believe he saw through Augustine’s contortions and went directly to what was implied by Augustine’s grace: that “God” was so bound to the requirements of justice that in fact he was not capable of forgiveness.  But that was not a problem because for Luther forgiveness was not the issue.  What was called “forgive­ness” was actually “God’s” decision to not punish in acknow­ledge­ment of the fact that the individual bore no responsibility right from the beginning because the human will was not free.  The evil done by a totally corrupt and fallen human nature was not avoidable;  any good performed, therefore, from the conversion of “faith” through perseverance in a life of love, was the exclusive work of “God’s” grace.  But this more radical version of Augustinian “grace” entailed a more radical version of predestination, and it made “God” even more of a monster: for it meant that Luther’s “God” presided over the damnation of those who bore no responsibility whatsoever … Nothing surprising here; it was the same Augustinian “God” who insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants.

There is no way out.  Once you project a scenario where “God” is necessarily committed to the punishment of those who violate the commandments, you must have human responsibility and you must have quid pro quo.  Otherwise law and obedience, reward and punishment, make no sense, and the entire western Christian moral edifice motivated by individual self-interest collapses.

The Western “doctrine of God” evolved in tandem with all this.  Since “God” is totally “other,” we have nothing in common with “God;” all we can do is conform our behavior: we have to obey.  Obedience is an external link between two unrelated moral agents.  No essential “interpersonal” relationship obtains.  A “God” who is pure spirit and other-than-man promulgates a “natural law” that is pure logic and therefore other-than-human.  Humankind is related to the rational “God’s” cosmic order not internally but by extrinsic obligation constrained by rigidly deduced rational principles.  Forgiveness for violators, therefore, can only be an extrinsic pardon — a gratuitous “non-punishment” — in a relationship of infinite insurmountable distance; it can never result in, or be the fruit of, real union.  At the root of it all is the concept of a rational “God” and his relationship to the universe he made, … and humankind as part of it.  The kind of union between God and man which Jesus proclaimed is metaphysically possible only if you are “not-other” than “God.”

Jesus’ message

Jesus was not a philosopher.  His preaching described in personal terms the relationship that should obtain between “God” and man — it was not quid pro quo and it did not include punishmentIt was based on imitation, which implies similarity, sameness — “love one another as ‘God’ loves you,” “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” “forgive us as we forgive one another.”[1]  The message is repeated over and over, and while there is no mention of the metaphysical ground required to make such imitation possible, Greek philosophical Christians later decided that Plato’s science of the transcendent inaccessibility of “God” was the only valid metaphysics, and it had to take priority.  That made “God” not the same as us in any way.  It meant that a remote dissimilar “God” could not really be imitated.  The only relationship you can have with this kind of “God” is obedience and obeisance: you do what you’re told in total awe and submission.  (Other “religions of the Book” function on exactly the same dynamic).  This turned Jesus’ message upside down … and I contend that it is the best argument for saying that the only metaphysics that will support Jesus’ message is some form of pan-en­theism … i.e., that we are part of “God,” where it is understood that we are “indeed ‘God’s’ offspring,” and that by nature we “live and move and have our being” in “God.”[2]

Classic Greek Philosophical Christianity insisted we were totally “other” by nature and said that it was the Christ event applied through the Church’s sacraments that “supernaturally” made us to be “not-other” i.e., to be like “God” (theosis); but in fact the message of Jesus was the other way around: that we were like “God” from the very beginning and that’s why we could live a moral and caring life.  Traditional Christianity bids us become something we are not through the mediation of the Church; Jesus’ Jewish innovation, in contrast, was to invite us to open our eyes to what we always were from the moment of birth without mediation of any kind.  Religion’s classic program is intended to create a relationship where there was none, and reach toward an unknowable divine entity who is always beyond us, always absent; Jesus’ revolutionary program, on the other hand, is dedicated to clearing away the deceptions and confusions that have prevented us from seeing what was there all along, always present.  “We are even now the children of ‘God’ … ”[3]

The only metaphysics that is consistent with his vision is grounded in a source of LIFE — a non-rational “God”— that is immanent in the material universe … and WE ARE THAT.

 

[1] 1 Jn 4:19; Mt 5:48; Mt 6:12.

[2] Acts 17: 27-28

[3] 1 John 3:2