“Other” or “not-other”

The religions of the book are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.”  In the western Christian tradition this transcendence is ultimately grounded in the complete opposition between spirit and matter.  “God’s” remoteness is infinite; there is no common ground between Creator who is Pure Spirit and any creature made of matter.  Any contact must come on the initiative of “God” who must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact.  Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in all their forms, will not permit any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a relationship of utter submission to a pure transcendent Spirit, absolutely sovereign, personal, rational, freely choosing, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe.  This “God” that they insist on — a separate rational entity “out there” — is claimed to play exactly the creative cosmic role for which science can find no evidence whatsoever.

Science’s associated philosophical systems assert that the only creativity observable belongs to material energy’s self-elaborations driven by the need to exist.  This same material energy, moreover, seems to be the source of our sense of the sacred by passing on to us its intrinsic need to exist which we experience internally as the conatus, the drive to survive.  Unlike the “God” of the book, material energy did not create the world from nothing, designing its features and forces by rational personal choice.  As the energy at work in cosmic development, biological evolution and all human personal and social constructions, matter’s need to exist provides the necessary drive and sufficient explanation for everything in the known universe — that it exists and how it exists — as extrusions of itself and carriers of the same existential dynamism.

Matter-energy is convertible; it seems to be neither created nor destroyed, as the first law of thermodynamics states; it stands at the end of the chain of causes and does not need any explanation beyond itself.

transcendence

It must be acknowledged that the insistence on the traditional doctrine of a transcendent “God” has led to an impasse.  Elaborated in pre-scientific times as a rational explanation for the universe and humankind’s sense of the sacred, it has lost all rational credibility due to science’s discoveries.  If our sense of the sacred is to be validated and protected, it must be grounded in a rational explanation.  The traditional concept of a transcendent “God” no longer provides such a ground.

Science and the immanentist current in our tradition — represented by the scholastic doctrine of “participation in being” — concur in a most intriguing and provocative way: characteristics that our tradition has claimed to be features of divinity are clearly identifiable attributes of the material energy that pervades the universe.  Let’s review these concurrences:

First, science is talking about energy.  In our Thomist philosophical tradition, “God” was defined as pure act.  And in each case — “act” and energy — the focus is esse (existence) itself.  These notions are different because the systems in which they function are different, but within their respective systems each performs exactly the same function: they create by sharing their own existential dynamism.

Then, both this energy and this “act” are claimed, by their respective proponents, to be the ultimate source — the “creator” — of the existence and the nature of everything in the universe, visible and invisible, known and currently unknown — both what and that things are.  And in each case, to repeat what was mentioned above, they create by sharing themselves.

Third, self-subsistence is claimed for both these conceptual ultimates.  The source of existence must necessarily be the absolutely independent proprietor of being.  If not, then whatever it is dependent on, is.  “God” and matter-energy are each said to be ultimate in this sense: they exist in their own right; they have always existed; they can never go out of existence; everything depends on them; they depend on nothing.  The existence of everything else that exists is a derivative of that uniquely “stand-alone” existence.  In the case of material energy it is self-extrusion; for the Thomists it is procession and emanation from “God” resulting in a “participation in being.” (ST 1, qq. 44-45).

Fourth, the divine immanence that is referenced in both NT Paul and John becomes intelligible only when the kind of physical / metaphysical continuum that “participation in being” and the shared energy of matter represent, are acknowledged to be the structural foundation of reality.  If Paul did not believe “God” was immanent, then his use of Epimenides’ poetic description in Acts 17 was an insincere rhetorical ploy.

Conceptually speaking there is nothing to prevent the identification of “God” with material energy except for the claim that “God” is a rational “person” and as such must be “spirit” and cannot be matter; in fact, as “God,” he needs to be “Pure Spirit.”  These two features, historically, have been interconnected in our tradition.

Person and spirit

“Person,” stems originally from “God’s” imagined interventionist role in human history that later got “ontologized” as “mind.”  Religions of the Book insist on this feature because they are all constructed on obedience to “God” as the source of social coherence and personal integration.  You cannot elicit obedience for an impersonal force.

The root of all this was the tribal nature of the Hebrew people who, from the eighth to the sixth centuries b.c.e., built their “nation” on their god, Yahweh.  International survival and the relationships of domination, dependency or alliance among peoples were imagined as a drama being played out among the various gods who were their champions.  Yahweh was not only Israel’s warrior among the other gods but he also consolidated the nation by promulgating a moral and ritual regimen its individual members were expected to follow.

Even after the Greek and Roman Empires made international competition obsolete (and the various national gods evaporated) all these dynamic relational features of Yahweh were kept in place, used for other purposes and given corresponding explanations to justify them.  When Christianity inherited the Hebrew scriptures, at first it totally denationalized the role of “God.”  Yahweh was claimed to be everyone’s “God” and among Greek converts was thought of as someone who had the features of the Stoic’s “divine fire,” the life that enlivened all things.  Christianity’s elevation to imperial status in the fourth century made him Rome’s “God” and his tribal role resurfaced and was made to function for the unity and ascendency of the Empire.

The explanation for “God” that was in place at the time of Constantine was provided by Platonic philosophy.  Platonism was characterized by two things: (1) substance dualism (that spirit and matter are separate substances, not just different aspects of the same substance) and (2) the reification of ideas and the ontologization — making metaphysical realities — of moral attitudes, intentions and commands.  In the Platonic system only a “Mind,” could do what Yahweh had done: design a world of living things, call a nation into being as his representative in the world, give moral and ritual commands, and reward the “chosen people” with prosperity and international success in exchange for compliance.  This was now all applied to Rome.  The earlier notion of a “divine fire” that enlivened all things was foreign to the Platonic system and so “God” as a transcendent “person” — “Mind” — came to dominate the imagery.

But this “rational entity” was now acknowledged as the all ruler, the one and only “God,” Pure Spirit, remote and inaccessible to this world of matter, who required a compliance of a different sort: the surrender to a “plan” for the universal “salvation” of humankind.

Reinventing Christianity in the fourth century

I maintain that it was the Platonic insistence that “God” is Pure Spirit, Mind, totally unlike matter and therefore immutable and inaccessible, that drove the theological innovations at Nicaea and Augustine’s theory of redemption.  For this “God,” who was now ontologically defined as “Mind,” by dint of his transcendent nature suddenly lost the flexibility enjoyed by “persons.”  In Augustine’s Roman hands “God” became a juridical force that could not change.  Because he could not change he could not forgive.  When Adam sinned, a state of irreparable injustice and eternal guilt was created that would affect every human being ever born, even to the end of timeA “plan” therefore, immutably conceived from all eternity, had to be devised that would overcome the insuperable obstacles created by divine immutability: “God,” now in his new role (invented at Nicaea) as “Son,” became man and paid the price for Adam’s sin which otherwise would have been unpayable.  That “man” was Jesus, and the payment was his death on the cross.  Nicaea and Augustine laid out these fundamental lines of the Western Christian edifice, and those lines are with us to this day.

So “God” over a period of 300 years went from being the Hebrews’ warrior who made them a nation, to the Stoic “divine fire” that enkindled Jesus’ moral triumph, and finally to the neo-Platonic Triune Deity who, in the form of the “Son” and his Mystical Body, the Roman Empire’s Church, ruled the entire human race.  For the individual, that meant your “salvation” was mediated by your compliance with the law as determined by Rome’s Church and your participation in its saving rituals.

Reformers

The reformers of the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant, rejected scholasticism and with it the immanence latent in “participation in being,” and returned to the Nicaean-Augustinian concept of a solely transcendent “God.”  Their principal focus, however, was not “God.”  It was Constantine’s Imperial Church which had become thoroughly corrupt.  Protes­tants tried to reverse the quid pro quo elements introduced into Christian life by Roman theocracy.  They rejected the Catholic identification of the Mystical Body with the actual Church and its rituals and made “salvation” the unmediated effect of personal “faith” in the interior privacy of the soul.  In this scenario the Church became secondary, ancillary to the individual, a social scaffolding that assisted the personal quest for salvation.  Salvation was between the individual and “God;” the Church could be helpful, but it was not essential.  This shift occurred, in practice, in Catholicism as well.

But the real driving force behind the Christian worldview for both remained in place: Augustine’s transcendent Platonic “God,” whose immutability made Adam’s “Original Sin” infinitely unforgiveable, and human individuals,  inescapably, the object of the implacable wrath of an immutable “God.”  Augustine’s claim that “God’s” plan to circumvent his own inability to forgive was a great display of love and compassion, was incomprehensible and gained little traction in the popular mind.  “God” remained as implacable as ever.

Luther’s efforts to resurrect Augustine’s convoluted solution met the same fate.  People continued to live in the only way that made sense: a quid pro quo morality that expected reward for good behavior, and an imaginary relationship with a living Jesus who may perform miracles of fortune, healing and “grace.”  This was true for both Catholics and Protestants.  The tortuous explanations imagined by the theologians were unintelligible, and “God” remained, as always, some “other” person, invisible but really there watching what you do, whom you must obey or be punished, and to whom you may relate for favors or companionship. 

Augustine’s insistence on “God’s” immutability had the effect of depersonalizing “God,” and people could not relate to it.  People continued to imagine “God” anthropomorphically because no one can imagine a “person” who is not human.  Thus Christian doctrine lives in a schizoid state at all times: it is “metaphysical” in theory and anthropomorphic in practice.  Doctrinal statements made for popular consumption refer to “God” in terms that presume that he changes his mind.  All official public prayer, for example, is premised on persuading God to do something he is not already doing … clearly impossible if “God” is immutable.

Living comes first, theology — the “explanations” — come afterward.  In our time the implacable and punitive character of the traditional “God,” which was a derivative of his transcendent immutability, is now suddenly declared “incorrect” based on a re-reading of the scriptures.  Philosophical tradition is ignored, but doctrine based on it remains on the books.  Coincidental with a more permissive social mindset, “God” is now imagined as primarily “compassionate,” and “forgiving” and no longer rigid and demanding.  But the belief still imputes these “nicer” attitudes to a humanoid “person.”  It does not address the fact that such “feelings” are incompatible with the accepted metaphysical definitions about “God,” specifically divine transcendence, that Christians trot out to “explain” the contradictions of anthropomorphism when they arise.  The outrage at “God’s” providence, for example, when it is thought to “permit” disasters like the Haitian earthquake of 2010, is answered by saying the events had been foreseen from all eternity by an immutable all-seeing “God.”  Notice the “explanation” makes no mention of any “feelings” of compassion for the 150,000 children that died or were left orphans by the event.  An immutable “God” could also have had compassion from all eternity!  The explanation doesn’t work.

Sometimes, in a flagrant disregard for rational integrity, humanoid imagery is gratuitously declared a metaphysical premise from which other conclusions are then deduced.  The “fatherhood” of “God,” for example, obviously a metaphor, is adduced as the eternal paradigm and archetype of earthly paternity and the “reason” for an exclusively male hierarchy in the Church.  These examples, just two of many, illustrate the dysfunctionality of the entire traditional  western “concept of God.”  It doesn’t work because it makes no sense.  There is no such “God”-person.  People realize it and are abandoning those churches that insist on it … but they are not abandoning their sense of the sacred or the search for how to respond to it.

“Other” or “not other”

The claim that “God” is “other” than what we are is a projection.  It objectifies as a “thing out there” what is really our own existential dynamic — the material energy that constitutes the material cosmos and our human organisms which are part of it.  By separating us from our own inner dynamism, it prevents awareness of the intrinsic nature of our existential dependency, i.e., that we are internally conditioned by the very stuff of which we are constituted.  Thinking of “God” as “not-other,” in contrast, encourages a recognition of authentically human action as a requirement of our own inner conditioned nature, not the imposed demands of an “other” personOnce we realize that “God” is “not-other,” humility, the need for human community with its concomitant sense of justice, respect for other species, compassion and solidarity for the existential dependency of all things and a profound gratitude for our shared life, are all perceived as inner imperatives, not outside commands, or counsels, or poets’ flights of fantasy.  The divine energy that bears us aloft into existence is simultaneously our consciousness of being borne aloft IN it — that our ability to “fly” is a function of our being part of a material totality.  We are exactly where we belong.

“Other” is the very heart of transcendence in a dualist universe, it is a corollary of spirit’s opposition to matter.  Transcendent materialism, on the other hand, refers to material energy’s ability to transcend itself and evolve new and unexpected forms; it does not imply “opposition.”  In transcendent materialism there is no “other” of any kind, for everything shares the same “substance.”  We are like the leaves of an immense cosmic tree, and our being-here as humans is a function of our place in the whole.

Divine transcendence in a universe conceived along substance-dualist lines is both cause and effect of human alienation, what I call autogenic disease.  It guarantees we will feel like strangers to — and perhaps even victims of — the very energies “in which we live and move and have our being.”   A recent commentator called it “a genuinely sad state of affairs.”

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Thinking about Edith Stein (III)

I rarely, if ever, talk about my personal struggles in these posts.  But it should be no surprise to anyone who has accompanied me in these “raids on the inarticulate” that I am wrestling with something, not always faceless, that tries to dislocate my hip in the middle of the night.  That wrestling is not without considerable risk.  For in a real and not rhetorical struggle of this nature, you may win and you may lose; and if you lose, you can lose yourself. 

Edith Stein represents, because she embodies, the spirit that I struggle with.  It is the spirit of Tridentine, counter-reformed, infalliblist, exclusivist Catholicism — the “truth” — and I was not only brought up in it, I embraced it with passion and commitment.  It was my world.  It was the world of my people and those local communities that we lived in, but I also made it my own as I matured; it offered membership in a vast community of intelligent seekers and selfless workers whose depth and quality, both modern and going back for thousands of years into the past, no other institution could match.  Where else would you go?

Edith Stein discovered the same Catholicism when she was 30 years old.  After her conversion she brought her formidable intellectual resources to the effort to support it, at first by updating traditional Thomist thinking with contributions from modern philosophy in which she was expert.  But later, she reached beyond the philosophical into regions where few dare — or care — to venture.  She entered a contemplative community of discalced Carmelites and pursued a “truth” that recapitulated everything she had discovered in her odessey.  But now it was “Truth” itself — intensely personal and intimately interior — and she had fallen in love with it.  “Truth” was no longer an abstraction for her; it had a face.  It was the face of “God.” 

Many of us, including myself, are not unfamiliar with this phenomenon.  And we are also not strangers to the serious effort, sustained over many years, to apply the counsels of the mystics in the pursuit of those same goals built on the same vision of the “truth.”  Edith’s endeavors in this regard, for those of us who have passed this way, are more than merely nostalgic.  Like an uncontrol­led “flashback” for one grieving a great loss, her certainty about the facial contours of “living Truth,” reinforced with the irrefutable integrity of her witness, can be immobilizing.   

For many, the refusal to be immobilized means learning to turn your back and walk away, no small accomplishment in itself.  But I believe there was something essential there, and if you don’t struggle to find out what it is and hold on to it, no matter how close to the “edge” it brings you, you lose it.  This sets the terms of the struggle as I see it: the relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being” comes with birth — it belongs to all of us as Paul clearly acknowledged when he used that phrase; it is not the proprietary domain of a Christian sect that arrogates to itself the possession of “the truth” and insists that its theocratic authority structures are the exclusive conduit for divine energy.  Mystical doctrine as Stein received it had been skewed to support a narrow, ossified, self-exalting Tridentine Catholicism — a Catholicism, by the way, that is far from extinct.  If employed in that form it will suffocate the user; if abandoned altogether, however, the quest itself can atrophy.  In each case something essential to being human is lost.  

Avoiding both Scylla and Charybdis can appear to be a careening ambivalence.  It is not.  It is a struggle that “penetrates to the division of soul and spirit” … it’s a real struggle, it’s not theater, and there’s no guarantee.  This is not an academic exercise.

 

A third major work of Stein’s, and the one she had just barely finished when she was murdered in 1942, was a book with her interpretation of the work of sixteenth century mystical theologian John of the Cross (+1591) a discalced Carmelite canonized in 1726.  Her book is titled: The Science of the Cross and it attempts to organize John’s “doctrine” — a method for achieving mystical union — by mixing her own running commentary with extensive quotes from his poems and four books.  She also incorporates the writings of Teresa of Avila, another canonized Carmelite mystic, who was, most significantly, from a converso Jewish family.  Stein claims it was reading Teresa’s autobiography that inspired her own conversion in 1921.  The Science of the Cross serves to round out the picture of Edith’s search for truth.

It also helps us understand the vision of reality that her phenomenological Thomism had yielded.  For this book on mysticism represents her personal embrace of what she, as a scientist, had come to understand as the real world — the facts, the truth — guaranteed by Roman Catholicism and rendered rationally intelligible by a Thomism updated by her application of “scientific” Husserlian phenomenology.  Notice: she calls her book The Science of the Cross.  And for my purposes, it provides some of the best material for clearly delineating the difference between the world as Stein and counter-reformation Catholicism[1] saw it, and the world as we are inclined to see it in our times, and from there our respective relationships to the “Sacred.”

1

Edith, following John’s descriptions, identifies mystical union as a “lover’s tryst”  — a nuptial event between the human “soul” and “God.”  The necessary basis for this belief is the assumed anthropomorphic “personality” of a transcendent “God.”

These two features of the standard concept of “God” — person and transcendence — are intimately linked.

“God,” for Stein’s Science, is an entity, other than me, a rational “person” who thinks, wills, feels and acts the way human persons do.  It is the fundamental assumption of all the “religions of the book.”  ”God” is not me.  We are two persons who do not compenetrate metaphysically; we achieve union through relationship.  We are and always remain separate, independent individual entities.[2]

An essential element of traditional divine transcendence is “spirituality.”  “God” is supposedly “pure spirit” and therefore completely different from everything material.  It makes “God” to be so “other” as to be totally inaccessible to contact or even understanding.  “God” is not part of this world.  (Why an entity that is “pure spirit” should create a vast universe of “matter,” is never explained.)

My contention is that once you conceive of “God” as “transcendent” in this sense, if you want to have a relationship with “him,” you are forced to find mechanisms to overcome “his” inaccessibility.  Mystical union, imagined in the idiom of John of the Cross as a “lover’s tryst” initiated and consummated by “God,” I submit, is such a mechanism.  It is the psychological, affective equivalent of the metaphysical bridge created by the doctrine of the Incarnation, debated, dogmatized and institutionalized at Nicaea, designed to overcome the inaccessibility of “God.”  It is only “mystical union” that finally achieves “divinization:”

“The substance (sustancia) of the soul is not divine substance, since it cannot undergo a conversion in God substantially (sustancialmente), but through the union with God and through being absorbed in him, she is God by participation.”[3]

Mystical union and Incarnation are different expressions of the same device created to recapture the total unity lost by the aban­don­ment of divine immanence.   Divine immanence is the opposite of transcendence; it means that “God” is the existential envelope in which we are immersed — in which “we live and move and have our being.”  Immanence means that, metaphysically speaking, “God” is “not-other” than what we are, that we compenetrate one another totally, that my life is naturally a share in divine energy, that “God” is part of this world because the material universe is the extrusion of divine material energy.

Transcendence, the “otherness” of “God,” in contrast, is grounded in “spirit,” not matter.  “God” is “other” than everything in this world because “he” is pure spirit and we are matter.  This results from and in turn intensifies a schizoid relationship to ourselves as material organisms.  Since we imagine that “God” is “pure spirit,” in this view, we have convinced ourselves we can only come close to “him” by becoming more “spirit” and less “matter.”  The final union is only achievable when the body is totally discarded at death; then we will be all and only spirit.  “… She [the soul] is completely filled with fervent longing and begs to be freed from the veil of mortal life.”[4]

Working off the poetic imagery and original commentary of John of the Cross, Stein’s interpretation of the highest reaches of Christian aspiration concur with all the premises mentioned above.

Divine Being, however, is personal life and can only flow in where one personally admits him. For that precise reason, it is impossible to receive grace without its being freely accepted. It results in a being-within-each other such as is possible only where a genuine interior being, that is, a spiritual one is available. Only in that which lives spiritually can spiritual life be received.[5]

To this corresponds the very distinct view of the relationship of body and soul, which is to be remarked at this point. The soul as spirit is essentially dominant, even though in her condition after the fall — and this even when elevated to the highest degree imaginable on earth — she is burdened by the body, and weighed down by the earthly shell.  And the ordering of grace adapts itself to this original ordering of nature and gives gifts especially and in the first place to the soul, then only in descending order and eventually through the mediation of the soul, to the body.[6]

I contend that the restoration of the primacy of immanence to our understanding of “God” will allow for a naturally integrated appreciation of oneself as a biological organism in intimate contact with that in which we live and move and have our being.  The body, in an immanentist universe, is continuous with the divine, not discrete and different from it, allotted only a “trickle-down” value.  Mysticism becomes a natural phenomenon and while it will require an asceticism that corresponds to the mindfulness and moral engagement that participation in divine energy implies, it does not involve the kind of loathing for the body and the efforts to suppress it that making contact with “Pure Spirit” has traditionally been thought to entail.  Nor does it harbor the fantasy that “God” is “another” person watching every thought and action and providentially steering you through your life.

Miraculous and “supernatural”

A “tryst” with “God,” for Stein and John, is not an ordinary part of human life; it is the extraordinary vehicle that a distant “God” uses to draw near.  It is in the realm of the miraculous and  necessarily “supernatural” according to their worldview.  The initiative is imagined as “God’s.” But one of the first clues that suggest that the experience may be a projection of affective need (generated by deprivation, voluntary or involuntary)[7] is that the conditions for its possibility run counter to the very premises that are adduced to justify it.  For in order to have a lover’s tryst with “God,” you must conceive of “him” in anthropomorphic terms: as a humanoid “person” who relates to the human being psycho-eroti­cally, and that contradicts the notion of a transcendent spiritual “God.”

Imagining “God” as a “person” has been used in Judeo-Christian religious history to justify other roles as well, like “God” as “law-giver.  This is significant.  It established an “obedience relationship” between the Biblical “God” and the Jewish people, prefigured in Adam.  “Obedience” requires a human-like “other person” who issues commands and “wants” them to be obeyed.  “Person” implies an identifiable entity — a singular “someone” — and “wanting” implies a lack.[8]  Neither accords with a transcendent spirit, but they are essential for social control.  You can see the theocratic imperatives lurking behind all these “inconsistencies.”

In sharp contrast, once it is conceded that “God” is immanent, “God” ceases being “other” and I am understood to be part of “God;” my moral responsibilities must be conceived as coming from within me … not from without.  The obedience demand vanishes and becomes metaphorical.  An immanent “God” not only justifies but requires my autonomy, because if I and “God” are fundamentally the same “stuff” — we share the same existential energy — then there is nothing “outside” of us for me to turn to for direction.  Guidance emerges from the “God” potential — the divine energy — constitutive of my human organism on display in synderesis, my sense of justice and my sense of the sacred which I have in common with all other people.[9]  The whole community accepts the responsibility for discerning a morality that works; immanence does not imply an individual solipsist morality which, for example, Dostoyevsky’s “Raskolnikov” claimed for himself in Crime and Punishment.

The transcendence that Stein establishes in Finite and Eternal Being takes on “flesh,” as it were, in The Science of the Cross.  The divine “personality” that transcendence justified is now revealed in all its anthropomorphic untenability as the “lover” who overcomes all distance and consummates the human destiny of being absorbed back into “Pure Spirit.”  With “mystical union” as imagined by John of the Cross it becomes clear that calling “God” a “person” without imagining “him” with humanoid features is impossible.  “God” displays all those characteristics without which humans could never recognize “him” as a person.  “He” “draws near” or “withdraws his favors” as would a lover.  And the “soul” must “withdraw affection” from everything other than the lover … hence the most severe mortifications, separations and self-denial.  Not only is such a “soul” expected to have no other “lover” (therefore celibacy is virtually mandatory) but “she” is expected to have no affection for anyone or anything else but “God.”

2

We should pause for a moment to allow these equations to sink in.  The logic is straightforward.  If “God” is a “person” the way we are persons, then it follows that to “love” “God” is to activate all those organic factors that are operative in human love and apply them to “God.”  Becoming one with a humanoid “God”-person is virtually the same as becoming one with a human person.  It is marriage — two in one flesh — psycho-erotic, somatic, i.e., implicitly sexual, as human lovers are always in touch with their sexual bond even when engaged in activities that have nothing to do with sex.  Marriage is a joining of “persons” through the joining of bodies.  John imagines his mystical union as a lover’s tryst.  He slips away at night and his lover comes to him, he rests his head on his breast, he runs his fingers through his hair …

From all eternity the soul has been chosen to share the triune life of the Godhead as bride of the Son of God.  In order to lead the bride home, the Eternal Word clothed himself with human nature. God and the soul are to be two in one flesh.[10]

Such intimacy calls for sexual fidelity.  Celibacy has to do very precisely with a lover’s fidelity to “God” as a person.  As a person, “God” relates to us as humans do, in face-to-face communication, and as human lovers do, intimately — what John shamelessly calls “boca a boca.”

All orders of nuns have spiritual betrothals, a ceremony that symbolizes the initiate’s becoming the “bride of Christ.”  But is it only a symbol for John of the Cross?  Stein suggests otherwise:

Here in the [Spiritual] Canticle, it [the bridal relationship] is the focal point for everything. This image is not an allegory. When the soul is called the Bride of God, there is not only a relationship of similarity between two things which permits one to be designated by the other. There is, much more, such an intimate union between the image and the reality that it is almost impossible to speak of them any longer as a duality.  … The relationship of the soul to God as God foresaw it from all eternity as the goal of her creation, simply cannot be more fittingly designated than as a nuptial bond.  … the image and the reality directly exchange their roles: the divine bridal relationship is recognized as the original and actual bridal relationship and all human nuptial relationships appear as imperfect copies of this archetype — just as the Fatherhood of God is the archetype of all fatherhood on earth.[11]

Stein’s insistence on the metaphysical (not metaphorical) nature of this relationship is very revealing.  It is the result of her determination to see John’s descriptions as a “science” that deals with “facts,” instead of what it really is, the poetic response of a human organism culturally organized around the paradigm of marriage as the expression of interpersonal love.

We must understand the depth of the significance of this phenomenon: celibacy in the Catholic tradition at root is not a superficial convenience … it is not merely a juridical expediency to avoid clerical inheritance and keep priests dependent … it is not a filter to keep sexually vigorous people out of the ranks of the clergy … it is not a cloak designed to mystify the ordinary people … it is not a necessary disencumbrance intended to allow the elite total dedication to justice and the advance­ment of the Church.  Even if it has been exploited for all of these purposes, celibacy is grounded in only one thing: the intimate accessibility of a transcendent “God”-person.  Celibacy corresponds to an anthropomorphic concept of “God.”

Celibacy has become central to the Roman Catholic mystique, identified with hierarchical authority — and the celibate priest has become the anchor and centerpiece of the Catholic community — because Roman Catholicism is wedded to a transcendent, personal, paternal “God” who enters actively into the details of our lives, for ordinary Christians with a micro-managing providence, and with mystical intimacy for the spiritual elite.

Married people, by the very fact that their affective lives are focused on one another, according to the dynamics this worldview represents, cannot  — I repeat: cannot — be available to the highest level of intimacy with “God.”  That’s the ultimate reason why married people are denied entrance to the hierarchy: their lives cannot bear the ultimate witness — mystical marriage — to the transcendent “personal” “God.”  And correlatively, once committed celibates become disabused of that assumption about “God,” they can no longer justify remaining celibate, for once the psycho-erotic dimension in the relationship with “God” has been exposed as fantasy, the one necessary component for making the transcendent “God” visible — mystical marriage — disappears, and celibacy becomes meaningless.  It all turns on maintaining belief in a humanoid “God”-person.

3

An immanent “God” on the other hand, needs no such psycho-erotic correlate, and correspondingly, no one needs to be celibate to be intimately related to this “God.”  Relationship to “God” is a relationship to one’s own organism, moral energies and innate proclivities.  An immanent “God” is authentically visible in our bodies as they are — reproductive functions and all, and female as well as male — even before any of its divine potential is activated morally.  And the moral activation of the divine potential resident in the human gendered organism turns it into an active, energizing force that generates sane and upright individuals, healthy families, loving communities and just societies.  With an immanent “God” the sacred is a communitarian energy grounded in sexual reproduction involving the equal contribution of both sexes.  Sex, in an immanentist universe, is sacred.  How that plays out in practice is a matter of community consensus; but in all cases it reflects your concept of “God.”

Learning what it means to be a surviving, collaborating, reproducing and nurturing, socially responsible human being is to draw on the divine energies resident in the human organism.  With that re-definition the traditional ascetical program re-configures to run 180o in the opposite direction.  Instead of trying to suppress and eradicate the body and its instincts, efforts are now directed toward eliminating all the obstacles to the clear vision of the potential wholeness and creativity  resident in the body and its functions.  Growth becomes a constant clarification illuminating the divinity immanent in humanness and allowing it full passionate play.  “Learning to love” stops being obedience to a commandment, or an attempt to cerebralize (“spiritualize”) relationships in order to remain invulnerable to hurt or desire.

Don’t be fooled.  This is not a highway to libertinism, and it is full of painful struggle.  It demands as much discipline and self-transcen­dence as ever.  The difference is that the goal of the program is one of an accurate self-appraisal and creative self-expression, not self-doubt, self-loathing, self-repres­sion and self-destruction — the symptoms of the autogenic disease.  The vision is centered on fulfilling one’s divine potential: a striving for theosis, “divinization.”  And please note well: none of this can be achieved without abandoning the illusion that we are disembodied spirits.

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I would like to demonstrate how the stark contrasts between these two “concepts of God” are illustrated in Stein’s views which she embraced whole cloth from her mediaeval mentors.  Parenthetically, my criticisms in this section are strictly theological.  I am not implying moral or psychological failure on the part of Edith Stein whose faithful compliance with what she was being taught overrode the potential damaging effects that came with Tridentine Catholicism and its scholastic scaffolding.

The following is a single undivided paragraph taken from her chapter 15 called “Death and Resurrection.”  It speaks for itself.

God is love. Therefore, being seized by God is an enkindling in love — when the spirit is ready for it.  For all that is mortal is consumed in the fire of eternal love. And that means all movements that are released in the soul through creatures. If she turns toward the creature, she withdraws herself from the divine love, although she cannot escape it.  Then love becomes a fire that consumes the soul herself.  The human spirit as spirit is destined for immortal being.  This is shown in the immutability that he ascribes to himself in his own circumstances: he thinks that as things are ordered about him, they will forever remain.  That is a deception, for during his mortal existence he is subject to change.  But one hears in this the consciousness that one’s being is not consumed by what is temporal, but is rooted in the eternal. According to his nature, he cannot decay like material forms. But if, in free surrender, the spirit fastens on to what is temporal, it will come to feel the hand of the living God who can destroy it by his almighty power through the avenging fire of rejected divine love or can preserve it as with the fallen angels, in eternal ruin. This second and most actual death would be our common lot if Christ had not stepped between us and divine justice with his Passion and death and opened a way for mercy.[12]

This is an utterly terrifying statement.  It paints a picture of a violent punitive “God” whose demand for exclusivity in a love relationship parallels Augustine’s version of the obedience relationship originally established with Adam and Eve in the garden.  Those who do not rise to the demand in each case are destroyed or kept alive in a state of moral degeneration by the “avenging fire of rejected love.”

Clearly, Stein has accurately perceived the emotionally immature character of the “God” presented by the Augustinian worldview: a petulant inflexible mega-monster who displays the same character traits at all levels of interaction with humans.  Stein has no difficulty ascribing the most horrendous punishments from “God” as “revenge” for unrequited love.  The “God” she imagines is narcissistic and self-cen­tered.  Humans with those characteristics are considered emotionally infantile and morally crippled.  An ordinary decent human being, morally and emotionally speaking, would be far superior to this imaginary “God.”

“Science” and poetry

Following Husserl and Aquinas Stein always thought of philosophy and theology as “science.”   Her reading of the Carmelite mystic as a “scientist,” is reflected in the title of her book.

Stein often quotes or paraphrases John.  The passage quoted above was her own but three chapters later she quotes John directly and extensively; and, whether she intended it or not, it provides a “scientific” corrective to any and all imagery of the “mystical union.”  The following is copied directly from the kindle version of the ICS text; all quotation marks, ellipses and their positioning are Stein’s.  John is speaking in The Living Flame of Love:

“The soul here sees how all creatures of the higher and the lower orders have their life, their power and their existence in him . . . but that the being of God in himself is infinitely eminent and above all these things so that she understands them better in God’s being than in themselves. In this lies the remarkable delight of this awakening. The soul knows creatures through God and no longer God through creatures. . . . How this movement takes place in the soul is a wonderful thing since God is immovable. . . . For, although God does not really move, it seems to the soul that in truth he moves. Namely, in order to perceive that supernatural sight, since she is changed through God and is moved by him, divine life and the being and harmony of every creature, with their movements in God in that life, are revealed to her with such newness that it seems to her that God moves, and the cause assumes the name of the effect it produces”. . . .  So it is also the soul that is moved and awakened from the sleep of natural vision to supernatural vision.

“In my opinion this awakening and view given to the soul is effected in this way: since the soul, like every creature, is in God substantially, he removes some of the many veils and curtains hanging in front of it so that it might get a glimmer of him as he is. And then that countenance of his, full of graces, becomes partially and vaguely discernible, for not all the veils are removed. Because all things are moved by his power, what he is doing is also evident, so he seems to move in them and they in him with continual movement. That is why the soul has the impression that he moves and awakens when, actually, it is she who is moved and awakened. . . . And so human beings ascribe to God what is actually to be found in them. They who are lazy and sleepy say that God raises himself and wakes up, although he never sleeps. . . . But since in truth all good comes from God and human beings of themselves can do nothing good, it is according to truth that one says that our awakening is an awakening of God and our rising is God’s rising. And since the soul was sunk in sleep out of which she could never by herself have awakened, and because only God could now have opened her eyes and effected this awakening, the soul very appropriately calls this an awakening of God. . . . What the soul experiences and feels in this awakening of God’s excellence is entirely beyond words.”[13]

You would think the inclusion of this clarifying passage would indicate that Edith had to be aware of the poetic, “unscientific” nature of all John’s descriptions.  And yet, it is remarkable that she does not include these “scientific” correctives in the descriptions of the experience itself.  It is my opinion that John intended to clarify his expression of the “doctrine of God” perhaps to satisfy the Inquisition which was particularly alert for “pantheistic” vagaries in mystical doctrine.[14]  The clarification was not meant to minimize in any way the intensity of the experience for the human individual or “God’s” intention to have it materialize in the “soul;” John’s point was that “God” was not moved, not that the soul was not moved.

But the fact remains: John admits the descriptions are metaphors, not literal realities.  They are acknowledged as illusions which he believed were evoked (miraculously) by “God” and therefore must be taken “as real” by the soul in her ascent, but they are illusions nonetheless, and his acknowledgement confirms the subjective and culturally conditioned nature of mystical experience.  It opens the door for the consideration of the descriptions of mystical experience found in non-Christian traditions where the sense of the sacred is not based on interactions with a personal “God” — descriptions that may serve as a guide for us as we pursue “contact” with a “God” which we, in our day, are rediscovering as immanent.

Stein goes out of her way in chapter 14 to distinguish “God’s” presence in mystical union from the “normal” presence of “God” in all created things.  Curiously, she does not seem to recognize the mystical potential of natural immanence even though Teresa of Avila, her namesake who led her to the faith, claimed that she herself only learned about it in mystical experience.[15]  Stein insists on the primacy of all those features necessary to support her preferred image of “betrothal.”  To have a mystical marriage, “God” has to be another person.  A “lover’s tryst,” on the other hand, is not the best metaphor for contact with an immanent “God” in whom you “live and move and have your being,” for you are yourself a part of that “God.”  “Finding your real self” may be an apt description of contact with “God” for the post-modern Christian, but not for Stein.

This is not to deny the authenticity of the experience that Stein examines.  It is quite clear that the metaphors her analysis supports have to do with issues of her own personal and intellectual history and ideological priorities which clearly are in sync with both the mindset of the Church in the 1930’s and of John of the Cross in Imperial Spain of the sixteenth century:  for both it was Tridentine Roman Catholicism.   It generates a poetry that resonates with its worldview.  One would expect nothing less.

But by the same token there is also nothing privileged or “canonical” about it either.  John and Edith’s imagery is not a literal portrayal of reality — the “facts.”  It is not “science.”  It is poetry, and John, for his part, as Edith acknowledges, never suggests it is anything else.  It corresponds to their own affective needs, relational values, personal preferences, theological assumptions and literary tastes — all historically and culturally conditioned.  Catholic claims that mystical union is a “supernatural phenomenon,” the exclusive product of “sanctifying grace” which comes only through the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, is disproven by the extent and depth of mystical experience in the non-Christian world.

Mystical experience is, by its very nature “subjective,” for it is the resonance in the human organism of the suffusive presence of that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

[1] “Counter-Reformation Catholicism,” while claiming to institutionalize the Catholic doctrine in its mediaeval form, the Council of Trent actually represented an evolution of it.  It abandoned in pastoral practice the immanence of “God” in favor of a quid pro quo obedience relationship with an exclusively transcendent “God.”

[2] This correlates with Stein’s metaphysical view of “God” in Finite and Eternal Being where she suggests “God” has a “spiritual body” [Geistleib] that makes “him” to be “enclosed” and “interiorly self-possessed,” — what I call an entity.  pp. 360-1

[3] Stein, Edith (2011-03-17). The Science of the Cross (The Collected Works of Edith Stein Vol. 6) ICS Publications. Kindle Edition.Kindle Locations 3499-3500, the quote is from John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, 2.33-36.

[4] ibid., Kindle Locations 3282-3283.

[5] ibid., Kindle Locations 2947-2950

[6] ibid., Kindle Locations 3443-3444.

[7] Sarah Borden, in Edith Stein, Continuum 2003, p. 7 says:  “Hedwig Conrad-Martius [Edith’s close friend], while not questioning the integrity of Stein’s conversion, suggests that dashed hopes in a relationship played a role in the timing of her decision.”

[8] See footnote #2

[9] It needs to be emphasized that these statements are structural.  That means they are metaphysical, and refer to the ultimate source of responsibility.  They do not take into account the actual presence of immaturity, addictions and other bad habits of mind and behavior that may have so clouded over the moral agent that a serious program of rectification is necessary before such autonomy can be safely trusted, both in thought and action.

[10] Ibid., Kindle Locations 5237-5239

[11] Ibid., Kindle Locations 4791-4794

[12] ibid., Kindle Locations 3186-3196.

[13] ibid., Kindle Locations 3687-3693. Stein provides one global reference for much of this section in footnote #1 of chapter 18 “The Hidden Life of Love.” Kindle Location 6327:  “These last quotations and the paraphrases of the doctrine of St. John are from F.4.1-14. “[“F.” refers to The Living Flame of Love, poem and commentary by John of the Cross.]

[14] ibid., Kindle Location 4671.  This “pantheism,” called “Illuminism” in John’s Spain, represented vestiges of the doctrines surrounding the heresy of the “Brethren of the Free Spirit” in the high middle ages that were connected to immanence.

[15] ibid., Kindle Location 2934-85.  It is significant that already in the 1570’s Teresa of Avila was not even aware of divine immanence from her basic Christian education. It illustrates the universal marginalization of divine immanence in the Roman Catholic worldview 30 years after Trent.  See Interior Castle, fifth dwelling, ch 1.  Edimat Libros edition p. 88:  “I know of a person who had not learned that God was in all things by presence and power and essence; God granted her a favour of this kind, which convinced her of this so firmly that, although one of those half-learned men whom I have been talking about, and whom she asked in what way God was in us (until God granted him an understanding of it he knew as little of it as she), told her that He was in us only by grace, she had the truth so firmly implanted within her that she did not believe him, and asked others, who told her the truth, which was a great consolation to her.”

Thinking About Edith Stein (II)

This is the second in a series of posts on Edith Stein and builds on what was said in the first.  Stein was a serious philosopher who tried to apply the phenomenological methodology of Edmund Husserl to the philosophy that underlay the theology of Thomas Aquinas.  It was a project she took on after her conversion to Catholicism.  Neither Finite and Eternal Being, the book she wrote in the late ‘30’s to complete that project, nor its forerunner, Potency and Act, written in the ‘20’s, were published in her lifetime, the former because she was a “Jew” and the latter because she was a woman.    

Stein was a Thomist.  This essay is not a critique of Stein but of her Thomism.  As such it may be considered as an addendum to the “page” in the sidebar to the right called “Critique of neo-Thomism” which is focused on the work of Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. 

It should go without saying that it is also an implied critique of the Tridentine Catholic dogmatic constellation which her efforts were designed to protect and promote.  Stein was a formidable proponent of that point of view not only because of her unique resources — she was well versed in both Thomism and phenomenology — but because of the power of her personal witness.  People called her a “saint” long before the Wojtyla Vatican decided to “canonize” her for reasons that had more to do with her “orthodox” ideology than her sanctity.  It’s significant that many cite Stein’s brand of “feminism” as a source of Wojtyla’s “Theology of the body.”  His respect for the “uniquely feminine,” however, while it encouraged participation in politics by women even at the highest levels, did not include membership in the Catholic hierarchy even at the lowest levels.  I wonder how Stein would react to the way her thought has been applied.

Clearly she was an extraordinary human being.  The luster of her fidelity in following her lights, however, should not blind us to the flaws in the worldview that, in ways we are only now coming to recognize, was not only the cause of her death but victimized untold numbers of believers in a myriad of ways.  We will have more to say on this issue in subsequent posts.

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It is significant that Stein calls her metaphysical opus Finite and Eternal Being and not “Finite and Infinite Being.”  The reason is that “time” is the fulcrum of her analysis .  Very early in the book she makes a revealing reference to a 1927 article entitled “Time” by fellow Husserlian Hedwig Conrad-Martius.  Stein applauds the article’s “profound analysis” of the ego’s phenomenological experience of the temporal structure of existence and incorporates it into her own work-in-progress.  The phenomenon of “being,” according to Martius, immediately contains within itself the notion of “non-being,” for in the very instant of its “showing itself” as a phenomenon now, it is already in declivity toward an as-yet non-existent future that will put the current existing moment into a non-existent past.  But notice what the phenomenologist is doing with this “knowledge:” she uses it to arrive at what she calls the “essence” of the idea (the phenomenon) of being.  For Stein the idea of being reveals itself to be simultaneously a “now” that is eternally “existent,” riding the crest of a continuous wave-form that is constitutively temporal because it continually passes from non-being into being and back into non-being again.  It is precisely this way of looking at temporality that provides the justification for dividing being into finite and eternal.

For Stein, following Husserl, being is an idea — an idea whose inner structure as an idea is explored and “purified” phenomenologically — but an idea nonetheless.  From there, following Husserl’s belief that the idea as constituted in consciousness is “being” and if properly clarified through phenomenological analysis accurately reflects reality, she makes immediate declarations about the real world.

I believe this is to repeat Plato’s fatal mistake.  She believes her “purified” idea reveals reality-as-it-is.  She declares the “now” part of the three part sequence of past-present-future (abstracting selectively from the phenomenon as an unbroken continuum) is eternal and without any admixture of non-being.  Thus she derives the notion of “eternal being” from the very first phenomenological analysis.  “Being” has an eternal side, for there is always a “now,” and it has a temporal side, because it slides back into non-being.  She calls the latter “finite.”  But I believe the flaw in this analysis is the introduction of an arbitrary division in an experience of an otherwise seamless process.

Others who analyze the same “phenomenon,” like Martin Heidegger, do not reify such ideational divisions.  Heidegger, also a student of Husserl, who wrote a book at the same time (1927) and with virtually the same title as Conrad-Martius’ article (“Being and Time”), uses the temporality of the experience to explain the subjective need of Dasein (the human being) to forge its existence ever-new in each instant, the micro-building block of a lifetime of self-creation, the simultaneous source of human freedom, creativity and a profound anomie. 

But no such immediate “practical” determinations interest Stein.  She is focused on “ideas” — like “being” — which presumably, in the final mix with other “ideas” similarly purified and validated by phenomenological analysis, will provide an overall vision that will eventually open onto the practical paths implied.  But initially the reason for the analysis — true to the thought of Husserl — is the purified “idea” that it produces.  It’s what Husserl called the “essence” of the phenomenon.  He “brackets” the actual existence of whatever is constituted in consciousness (a procedure he calls epoché) and by doing so postpones the examination of its practical applications and prevents them from entering into the definition of the “essence” of the experience.  But please notice: this procedure prevents “matter” from entering into the definition of “being” which is forever dominated by its origins as an “idea.”

Husserl always insisted that his analysis did not abandon the anchor of real existence and that his methodology was a way of knowing the real world — that it was an epistemology not a metaphysics.  But by treating “existence” as an “accident” that an “essence” (a purified idea) may or may not have and therefore is irrelevant to the “being” revealed by the essence in question, despite his “realist” intentions, it is reasonable to ask, as many have, if he has not structurally confined himself to ideas.

The primacy of the “idea” characterizes Stein’s thinking as well, even though her position, following Aristotle’s critique of Plato (she is, after all, a Thomist), gives less independent reality to ideas than Husserl does.  But even while admitting that “essence” (form) only exists embedded in a concrete existing “thing,” by sustaining the scholastic principle that “being comes through the form,” her philosophy does not transcend an “essentialism” that runs counter to the discoveries of science about the real world.  For we have learned from evolution that “essence” (form, what things are), in fact, does not come first; “existence” (survival) comes first, and things evolve the form that works for survival.  This radically impacts Stein’s scholastic assumptions about the separate existence and primacy of “spirit” and of a rational creator-God who inserted “essences” (form) into “matter.”

In her 1929 essay comparing Husserl and Aquinas she herself also suggests Husserl’s thought is “idealist.”  One may assume her allusions there to students who were not convinced by his disclaimers include herself.[1]  In her own work Stein clearly tried to subordinate her phenomenology to Thomism’s “moderate realism,” but as with Husserl himself it is fair to ask whether the very tools she employs, like Husserl’s epoché added to Thomas’ essentialist dualism, do not lock her into a world of ideas, her best efforts notwithstanding.

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In the cosmo-ontology that I espouse (see The Mystery of Matter, p. 93ff) the temporality experienced by the human organism is immediately seen to be the very condition of material existence itself; it is correlated with the body of knowledge amassed by science.  It is not just an “idea” or a human experience.  The “phenomenon” of temporality corresponds to what all other “things” in our cosmos are going through simultaneously with us.  We are all subject to the same sequence of past-present-future at the same pace, with the same consequences for survival.  Matter exists as an unbroken continuum and “time” is the mental construct we have created to represent that continuity.  Non-being is a fiction.  There is no such thing as “non-being.”

Temporality is a mental derivative of matter’s energy itself.  Everything made of matter — organic or inorganic, atomic or molecular, sub-atomic particles or pre-particle energy — continues in existence as itself moment after moment in a way that creates what human biological organisms experience as “time.”  “Being” and “time” and “non-being” are mental constructs; they are our ideas for what we are experiencing as the conditions for continuity (survival).  Living organisms must learn how temporal sequence affects their vital needs, their food sources and their predators, or they will not survive.  Time is a function of material identity — organic continuity.  By the organism insisting on continuing in existence (surviving), the existential energy (matter) that is the structural “stuff” of the living material dynamism creates “time.”  That “insistence on existence” in the human organism is experienced as the conatus.  And the result of this insis­tent continuity, “staying the same” (surviving), we experience as “being-here in time.” 

Beyond Platonic Christianity: an immanent “God,”

Stein’s idealism is not unique.  We have to take a broader historical view and recognize that Platonic idealism was itself the “hard science” of its day, believed to rationally supersede the naïve naturalist worldview represented by the ancient cosmic theogonies and the immanentist monotheism that they gave rise to.  Platonic ideas were thought to be “fact” of the most superior kind, groun­ding the transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” that gave humankind (as the only “spirit” in a material world) full, absolute and unaccountable dominion over material “nature.” But the price we had to pay was exorbitant.  In exchange for our lordship over creation we were forced to disown the matter of our bodies and maintain the illusion that we were disembodied spirits exiled from another world.  Mind over matter and life after death became the leitmotiv of the culture nourished by Christianity.  The failure of the mediaeval philosophical “science” that was conjured to justify these illusions was the direct cause of the development of modern empirical science.  Thomas’ holistic insistence, for example, that body and soul in man are only one thing, was immediately contradicted by the simultaneous claim that the “soul” lived on after death.  If Thomas’ Aristotelian subtleties were disregarded by the people, we should not be surprised:   people are not stupid.  A soul that lives after death has got to be a “thing” in its own right, and because it goes to heaven or hell, it is the only “thing” that matters.

Modern science evolved from the work of religion’s most ardent defenders, men like Aquinas, partly in reaction to them and partly by employing the analytical principles and standards of probity they had refined from the inheritance of ancient times.  In promoting Aquinas and his scholastic worldview, Stein’s “return to roots” only reached those closest to the surface.  To find roots with enough depth and pre-scientific authenticity to support new growth one would have to go back before Platonic Christianity.

This is not the only way to rethink Christianity in the post-modern idiom but it is a fruitful avenue, and one that offers an ultimate continuity for the Christian.  It attempts to understand the worldview and mindset of Jesus and his immediate followers, and discovers an entirely new set of heuristic principles that turn the so-called “traditional” Christian value assumptions on their head.  A pre-platonic immanent “God,” for example — generally rejected as “pantheist” by the mediaeval Church — a “God” who is near to every one of us, clearly and unapologetically evoked by Paul in Acts 17 and Colossians 1, and John throughout his writings, stands in glaring contrast with Plato’s “Pure Spirit” who is inaccessible to all things material, including human beings, and requires a divine mediator (and his Imperial Church) to bridge the gap between humankind and “God.”  Plato’s remote and distant “Spirit” provides the context for understanding Nicaean Athanasius’ obsessive need to dogmatize Jesus’ “divinity” and set it in metaphysical stone.  If “God” were naturally near us (which is what Jesus believed), there would be no need to insist that Jesus was “God.”  And quiet as it’s kept, Jesus himself insisted he was not “God.”  Theosis would be open to all and human moral goodness and a selfless attitude would be its manifestation and confirmation.  The mechanisms of a Church which were claimed necessary to overcome a metaphysical incompatibility between “God” and humankind would revert back to what they originally were and should have always remained: rituals that evoke and poetically enhance human moral commitments based on attitudes that imitate Jesus’.

In this light, the entire dogmatic edifice of traditional western (Constantinian-Augustinian) Christianity is revealed as the institutionalized displacement of Jesus’ message from the moral to the metaphysical  plane, from the arena of moral action and attitude to that of conferred status, office and ownership.  The “sacraments,” similarly, were displaced from being the symbols of personal transformation and commitment, to being quasi hydraulic mechanical devices — magic ATM machines — delivering a “currency” (grace as “coin-of-the-realm”) needed to secure a “place” in the “other world.”

It was Platonism that created “the other world” and the only evidence for it was the human mind and the ideas that swim in it.  A Christianity wedded to Platonism — made insuperable by the insistence on the immortality of the disembodied “soul” — results in the alienation of the individual’s sense of the sacred and renders humankind defenseless against the maneuvers of self-appointed “holy rulers” who control a mystified population convinced their destiny is in that other world, and that the priests alone hold the keys to it.  Entrance to the “other world,” dependent on “good behavior” and the means of accumulating “grace,” put enormous power in the hands of the hierarchy.  It turned out to be the most efficient mechanism of social control ever devised.  The fact that it came to be correlated to money was a clue to its true function.  It ran Europe unchallenged for 1700 years, and is even today, far from extinct.

Clearly this was not Stein’s intention, nor, I feel assured, was it Thomas’.  But it is my contention that once you define “being” as an idea and “bracket” the real material conditions under which its energy is activated, you have skewed the picture so radically that whatever later you derive from those premises is bound to go in the wrong direction.  In this case we were off by 1800.   We are not “spirits” that belong in another world; we are biological organisms spawned by and at home on this planet earth.  It confirms what many post-modern Christians say: that we have labored under a distorted vision of ourselves — as disembodied spirits — and from there we have projected an equally distorted image of “God.”  Our Christian tradition took both “God” and ourselves out of the real world, the world of matter … and left the material universe and our human bodies a godless wasteland.

The crux of that error lies in the denigration of matter: the divinization of ideas and the substantial “spirit” they supposedly represent.  It is the creation of a false and unwarranted division in reality that results in the human alienation from its own material organism.  It is responsible for the pathology of Western Man that fulfills the definition of what Thomas Szasz has called “autogenic disease”: a disease in which the organism identifies its own body as the enemy and tries to destroy it.[2]

[1] Stein, op.cit, Knowledge and Faith, pp 32-33

[2] Cf. Thomas Szasz, M.D., “On Autogenic Diseases,” The Freeman, Ideas On Liberty, May 2004.