A Slippery Slope (2)

If we are to avoid the “slippery slope” that we were warned about, we have to realize that retaining obsolete doctrine redefined as “metaphor” is risky business. Even expressions of moral endeavor and spiritual aspiration should be explicitly based on the new understanding of doctrine that metaphor is intended to elicit. Without such explicitation, the practice in question will itself, out of sheer inertia, evoke and reinforce the traditional doctrinal ground in which those expressions have been rooted for centuries. Current Catholic “spiritual” writers like the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who absolve themselves of responsibility for challenging dogma, continue to support the doctrines that their writings otherwise seem to ignore. For in fact the spiritual practices they encourage have been historically inspired by those archaic doctrines even if now they are not being called on for that purpose. Certainly the divinity of Christ as traditionally understood is the principal one.  These writers do not specify another ground. The doctrinal base remains the same and tends to reproduce the same literalist results.

A familiar example of this process is the skewed emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It has been taken by Catholics in such a literal sense for centuries that prior to Vatican II Catholics actually worshipped the eucharistic bread as if it were physically “God” himself. Flat out adoration in a ceremony called “Benediction” and attempts at interpersonal contact encouraged by all-night vigils before the “Blessed Sacrament” were encouraged and served to emphasize the divine presence in the eucharistic bread and the vital role of the priest-magician who made it all happen; it was an interconnected group of literalist beliefs that had displaced the symbolic nature of the sacrament and the “public servant” role of the presbyter. It became the very centerpiece of Catholic prayer life. The emphasis in that direction was so great that the egalitarian nature of the eucharist as the symbol of the “body of Christ” — which is the Christian community — or as a symbolic representation of the memorial meal celebrated by Jesus with his friends on the night before he died, was totally eclipsed. Ritual acts like genuflecting at the consecration, raising the host with the ringing of bells, processions with the Sacrament accompanied by hymns, incense and other gestures of adoration are all presently ongoing practices which of their nature tend to evoke the literalist understanding of eucharist and indeed of the central relationship of a divine Christ (and the priest-magician) to the community of Christian believers. The continued use of those ritual practices without an unambiguous clarification of where the doctrinal priorities reside promotes regression into that obsolete mindset. It is the proverbial “slippery slope.” Those “doctrines” as stated and believed for centuries are simply false, and they will lead believers into blind alleys and dead ends if they are not clarified.

There has to be an integrity between ritual and doctrine, between preaching and practice. Practices that grew out of an erroneous “reification” of symbols will continue to evoke that distortion and draw the practitioner into it. It is not avoidable. Integrating ritual and doctrine sometimes means adjusting the ritual to reflect the doctrinal narrative, but at other times it will require changing the doctrine to conform to an established practice of known and undisputed value — like treating other religions as equals. In the case we are considering here recognition of the validity of other religions trumps the dogma of the literal theist divinity ascribed to Christ. Doctrine must adjust to “truth” discovered by other means. If religion is to grow and develop there is no other way; the refusal to allow that process to take place leaves religion lifeless, hardened and toxic to the humanity of those it touches.

Changes in the Catholic “mass” applying the reforms of Vatican II utilized both these approaches. The intention was clear: the new rite and narrative of the eucharist as symbol was expected to eventually displace the old even while avoiding any direct doctrinal contradiction. Many are now convinced that these minor modifications were not enough to overcome the inertia of centuries, and indeed it seems that even after 50 years the doctrine of the “Real Presence” is as firmly in place as ever, but of course the rituals of adoration have not been abandoned either.

Such a neat and minimally controversial package, however, cannot be expected in all cases. The more difficult issues like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin have up til now been avoided precisely because they will require a substantial modification that corresponds to the radical shift in worldview that has occurred over the last few centuries, due mainly to the discoveries of modern science. The very concept of a theist “God” has been impacted by these discoveries. Progress in these areas is impossible without public acknowledgement and repudiation of the offending doctrines.

Also, there are other issues that aggravate matters from a different angle. Changes in moral perception and practice in the sexual arena will require a radical reformulation of the traditional doctrinal underpinnings used to support them. Blanket condemnations of artificial birth control, homosexuality, and the continued insistence on maleness and celibacy as the conditions for positions of responsibility in the Church are another interlocked set of practices that will never change without confronting the doctrinal roots of the problem. Refusing to confront these doctrinal foundations means addictive knee-jerk attachment to traditional behavior will upend rationality — and the tail will wag the dog.

The kind of doctrinal reformulation required in these areas is extremely threatening for the Roman Catholic Church precisely because all its doctrines, creedal and moral, are ultimately grounded in the infallibility supposedly granted its magisterium by the “divinity” of its founder. Change is theoretically precluded because it would imply error, and an infallible magisterium cannot be in error or the very claim to divine foundation is eviscerated. Doctrine must not only integrate with ritual, morality and prayer, but it is a collection of elements that must be consistent with itself. It is an internally harmonious network of conceptually separable beliefs expressed as a single coherent narrative. It is the coherence of the whole — a coherence sculpted and forged over centuries of tradition — that welds the totality together into a single entity making change in one area virtually inconceivable without change in all.

These diatribes and denunciations reflect the frustration of the Catholic people; but in and of themselves they do not solve the problem. It is precisely the unwillingness of the Authorities to face the depth of change required that has driven so many out of the Church. For people have come to realize two things: (1) that the doctrinal complex as we have inherited it from the middle ages is totally dysfunctional in every category of valid Christian interest: the gospel message, the place of scripture, the role of theology, the evolution of morality and spirituality and especially in the failure to connect with science, and (2) that the Catholic Church Authorities continue to promote as literal the very doctrines, like the infallibility of the magisterium strictly constructed, that make any accomodation impossible. Under these circumstances there is nothing that would even remotely suggest that the Catholic Church will change at the depth required by the extent of the anomalies.

Stop complaining

Catholics complain, and they are right to complain, but they do not seem to understand that they are not trapped; the doctrines that they rail against are, in fact, chimeras. They are false. That means that no one is under any obligation to “save the words” of the doctrines — not even as metaphors. To the contrary, unless accompanied by unambiguous clarifications, the use of metaphor can serve as an excuse for not breaking out into the new understanding of Christianity to which we are being prodded by, among other things, our self-revealing dialog with other traditions. Catholics rail against the control of the magisterium, but they continue to look exclusively to the magisterium for the changes they want as if their abdication of creedal responsibility were somehow a guarantee of truth. But we already know from the patently false doctrines that the Catholic magisterium has declared to be infallibly true that such a guarantee is the greatest of illusions. Catholics have been brainwashed into thinking that all change must come from the hierarchy. They have to get over it. The hierarchical Catholic Church will never change. Therefore, Catholics have no choice but to live the changes in their own lives by courageously taking the steps that the hierarchy is incapable of: (1) reformulating the entire doctrinal magisterium with an end to derogating the doctrines that have been used to crassly establish the institutional Catholic Church as a theocratic ruler over the beliefs, morals and spirituality of all people; (2) redesigning the central rituals — baptism, the eucharist, ordination, etc., — to reflect and to deepen the new understanding of doctrine; (3) institutionalize these changes so they they can transcend this generation and be carried on into the future.

I recognize the radical nature of such an undertaking. But there is no alternative. Change at the depth required will never even be attempted much less carried out faithfully by the hierarchy. If it is to take place at all the people have to do it.

This will be a difficult and scary step, just as it was for the Reformers of the sixteenth century. But they had an advantage: their sense of “the Church” was not overwhelmed with a false belief in the infallibility of the Papacy. Papalism had not become the idolatrous expropriation of authority that we have today. The preparatory step for us, therefore, is the re-appropria­tion of the ancient egalitarian definition of “Church:” the whole Christian people managed by Councils. The fear and reticence induced in the Christian people by the expropriations of an elite hierarchy must be exorcized. But perhaps an even earlier and more remote preparation might be found in the choices to pursue a new spirituality based on the doctrinal changes projected under the rubric of “metaphor” and already underway. Confronting the “divinity of Christ” has got to be at the top of the list.

“We are ALL his children”

These radical changes — like grounding spirituality in the humanity rather than the “divinity” of Christ … like embracing Jesus’ gospel message of forgiveness rather than the codified rationalized morality of mediaeval scholasticism — mean stepping out beyond the ancient paths worn smooth by our ancestors’ feet as they searched for the face of “God.” It is definitely a frightening decision for us. Especially because at one point those very paths led many of us to a vision of things that changed our lives.   Our commitments were not made lightly but they were based on the very same doctrinal foundations whose literal truth we have come to recognize is false. The same conscientious analysis that grounds the validity of other traditions, has undermined the security of our own past personal decisions. How can we be sure the new things we are discovering will be firm enough to support our weight as we step out into what appears to be a void?

Poet-activist Patrick Overton wrote:

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have

and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,

we must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for us to stand on

or we will be taught to fly.

The faint light that has enticed us into taking the first steps into the darkness in this new phase of the journey — the scariest yet by far — can be trusted to continue to lead us to the place of promise … and we need to remind ourselves: we are the children of promise. We have remained together as a community because we responded to that promise.

Can we trust this organic material LIFE that we now bear with such a sense of ownership and right of inheritance? Like children in our own home: we know we belong here. That is solid ground. How could such magnificence — this improbable humanity emerging from this universe of matter whose potential was so beautifully epitomized by the message and character of the man Jesus — be the harbinger of ultimate disaster? LIFE and its processes can be trusted; and as the sons and daughters of LIFE we have a right to seek “God,” the Source

… that gave us life and breath and everything, and that made every nation of mankind to live across the face of the earth, establishing the periods of their ascendancy and the boundaries of their lands

so that they might seek and, by feeling their way, succeed in finding “God,” their Source; and indeed “God” is not far from any of us, since it is in “God” that we live, and move, and have our being, as some of your own writers have said: We are all “God’s” children. (Acts 17:25ff)

 

A Slippery Slope (1)

Some twenty years ago I woke up to the fact that there was no way that Catholics could ever accept other religious traditions as equal to their own, or treat their practitioners as anything but benighted and misled, because they believed that their own founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was God himself. The conclusions were inescapable: Catholic teachings had to be infallible and everyone ought to leave their ancestral religions and become Catholic. There is no way a true dialog — an interchange of equals that respected one another’s religious validity — could ever occur. Suddenly it struck me, the logical results of that position contradicted gospel values and the clear call of Vatican II; they were so absurd, insulting and damaging to the global human family that it provided an indirect “theological proof” that Jesus could not possibly be “God.” As a corollary, it also called into question the existence of a theist (rational, providential, powerful, commanding) “God,” precisely the kind of “God” assumed by the doctrine.

The Catholic Church claims it was started by “God” himself walking on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What more guarantee of absolute truth could you ask for? It was a matter of simple logic for Catholic theologians to say that any truth or holiness that might be found among other religions had to have come through the Church in some way. No “pagan” ritual, moral code or spiritual practice, in itself and apart from the Catholic Church, could ever mediate contact with “God.” The Church was “God’s” chosen instrument of salvation. It had an obligation to bring the truth to the whole world, and Catholic “missionaries” were even persuaded that it would be OK to impose Catholicism by force. Like the rationale for baptizing helpless infants, if those people knew the “truth” they would certainly choose to be baptized Catholic. “Error has no rights,” the motto of the Inquisitors, held sway here as well. In 1992 Pope John Paul II hailed the acquisition of the Americas by the Spaniards and Portuguese (which included a genocidal conquest and the encomienda system of forced labor) as a boon to the Amerindians because it brought them Catholicism.

We have to recognize that these attitudes flow inexorably from the premises. If Jesus was “God,” then the Catholic Church has to have the absolute truth; all other religions are “false” and whatever of truth they may contain is solely the prerogative of the Catholic Church to discern and decide. Any tactic or maneuver that led to the conversion and baptism of non-Catholic, non-Christian people was praiseworthy regardless of the means employed.

Absurd

The divinity of Christ, a doctrine that seems an appropriate reflection of Catholics’ feelings about the man they believe “saved” them, when looked at from outside the Church is utterly absurd: it totally invalidates all other religions and traditions. Catholics who were in close touch with non-Catholics were aware of the absurdity of Catholic claims because they experienced firsthand the goodness and holiness that other faiths produced in their people. So while it was gratifying when the Second Vatican Council affirmed the validity of other religions and called for Catholics to have a sincere interchange with them, the Council’s common-sense call for “ecumenism” in practice undermined the “divinity of Christ” as traditionally stated and interpreted.

Those who took the first steps along the ecumenical path were confronted immediately with the impasse created by Catholic doctrine. Since no rational person could ever consider any other religion the equal of the one founded and instructed by God himself, no respectful dialog could take place until that obstacle was neutralized in some way. So Christians found themselves looking to reinterpret the “divinity of Christ” in terms that levelled the playing field with other traditions.

There were only two ways to do that. The first efforts attempted to assign an equal divinity to the founders of those other religions. But that “solution” didn’t work because the other religions were not interested in having their founders compete with Jesus on those terms. They never called their teachers “God” and they saw no reason why the Catholic obsession about Jesus’ divinity should force them to abandon the cherished sanity of their own tradition. Their founders, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu were not gods. They were men and models of humanity.   For Jews and Moslems, in addition, to claim otherwise was blasphemy and idolatry. The Buddhists, for their part, considered the very thought delusional and at any rate irrelevant to the pursuit of liberating self-knowledge. They would not oblige.

That left only one alternative: Saying “Jesus is God” must mean something other than what Catholics have always claimed it meant. Either the statement is simply false or the word “God” has to be taken in a way that is so different from the traditional theist meaning of an all-powerful, all knowing, rational “other” person who created the universe by fiat and communicates his will to humankind as imagined by the “religions of the Book,” that it effectively ceases to denote “God” as understood since the founding of Judaism.

This was earth shattering. The Catholic Authorities recoiled from any such revision, and those who tweaked doctrine in order to facilitate dialog were silenced. The very title of Roger Haight’s book, Jesus the Symbol of God, clearly declared the import of his study and explains why the Vatican will not let him teach or write about such matters. It was predictable. Once you accept the validity of the world’s religions, Catholic doctrinal claims — as traditionally understood — collapse like a house of cards. Needless to say, except in some areas of minor disagreements, interfaith dialog has stalled.

Other untenable doctrines

Catholics who continued with efforts to communicate realized that the divinity of Christ was not the only example of a Catholic dogma that was contrary to the objectives of the gospel or even just plain common sense. “Original Sin” was another; the doctrine was scripturally indefensible, anti-evangelical, scientifically untenable and theologically incoherent. It forced the narrative of Jesus’ life and death to conform to an atonement theory of the relationship between “God” and humankind thereby re-defining “God” as eternally insulted and implacably punitive. It characterized the human being as an aboriginally corrupt and degenerate biological organism whose bodily urges were debased and unnatural.   It denigrated manual labor, debased childbirth and women and claimed death was unnatural, the result of human guilt.

Simultaneously, Catholics were faced with indisputable evidence of the moral integrity, deep holiness and mystical achievements in other traditions. Claims to moral or spiritual superiority for the Roman Church were obviously self-serving self-deceptions.

It became increasingly clear that the untenability and humanly damaging character of Catholic doctrine required that thoughtful Catholics make a “mental reservation” when declaring their allegiance to the teaching of the Church. Such a maneuver immediately meant that many traditional “truths” of the faith — like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin — if they were to be retained at all, would have to be taken as poetic symbols that referred to truths that the imagery, narratives and explanations did not, in fact, literally denote. This would relegate doctrine to the homiletic role of evoking emotions “as if” the doctrine were factual when it was not. Such a re-assignment would fatally undercut any claim to “truth” in the traditional sense; Catholic doctrine would effectively be discredited and assertions of religious superiority rendered ludi­crous. The Authorities would never tolerate that.

In the case of the “divinity of Christ” I proposed at the time that we make a mental reservation about the literal truth of that teaching and think of it instead as a symbol of an authentic humanity possessed by Jesus that could be considered, poetically speaking, “divine.” Jesus’ sense of the character of “God” as forgiving “father,” his mindset on the human condition, his moral actions and his social interactions would be taken as a model of what “God” might look like if “God” were to become visible to humankind. Jesus’ “divinity,” in other words, would be hyperbole for his deep wisdom as a human being. Or, alternately, one could think of the existence shared among all of us, including Jesus, as a proportional participation in the divine existence that comes from our Creative Source; Jesus in this case would be understood to have an extraordinary degree of participation.

In our common moral struggle to “be like God,” which was the core of Jesus’ message, Jesus was more like “God” than anyone we knew. But “God” in this case is not a metaphysical designation, making Jesus the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but a moral one, acknowledging that he was a most insightful, loving and compassionate member of the human family. Furthermore, by understanding the living energies of which we are all made to be “God” or a symbol for “God,” such an interpretation would also be compatible with a view of the universe that has emerged from the discoveries of modern science. That matter is increasingly acknowledged to be somehow alive means that we share LIFE with our Source and matrix.

I made that suggestion twenty years ago at a meeting of interested Catholics. I was immediately warned by one of our number that such a practice would prove to be a “slippery slope.” I took that to mean that to continue to say that “Jesus was God,” even though qualified as metaphor, would, over time, revert to its literal meaning and ultimately reinforce the traditional belief tied to those traditional words. Nothing would change.

At the time I disagreed. I was convinced that we could sincerely take doctrine as metaphor and simultaneously pursue a “doctrinal restructuring” that would systematically reformulate teachings that were patently untrue, institutionally self-serving and damaging not only to the individual Christian’s psychological health and spiritual growth, but an impassable obstacle to the honest sharing among traditions that would promote the deepening of religious life for everyone on the planet. At the same time, there would be no need immediately to change creeds, rituals and catechisms or scandalize the traditional Catholics among us who were not capable of such adjustments.

But retaining doctrine as metaphor was always something of a concession, in my mind. Leaving intact what needed to be changed means that the theocratic intent embedded in the doctrine remains present, ready to reactivate its oppressive potential. The primary example of this is the divinity of Christ itself. It was elaborated at Nicaea in 325 ce. It was embraced and promoted at the time by the Roman authorities for the purposes of shoring up their over-extended, tottering empire. It justified their claims to universal domination and the expropriation of the goods and human energies of their conquered populations. That means that the doctrine in question — the homoousion — was not only untrue, it became an instrument of oppression.   The doctrine needs to be confronted for what it was used for, and reformulated so that its potential toxicity is neutralized forever. The “divinity of Christ” as traditionally understood must be officially repudiated, apologies must be offered for the damage done by it, and it must be restated in such a way that it can never again be interpreted to mean that “God Almighty” founded the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed any religion. I have come to agree: anything less would indeed prove a slippery slope.

The same can be said mutatis mutandis for the traditional doctrine of “Original Sin.”   Its import was to make Catholic baptism a “necessity for salvation” for the entire world. In the mind of Augustine of Hippo who elaborated the doctrine in its classic form, anyone who died without being baptized was condemned to eternal torment because he/she bore the guilt of Adam’s sin and not just its effects. That included infants who died before being baptized. You can imagine the anguish created by Augustine’s “teaching” in an age when infant mortality is estimated to have been 300/1000, or a rate considerably higher than in modern under-developed nations. Augustine’s “theory” justified the growing innovation of allowing adult baptism to morph into a magical ritual administered primarily to helpless infants that guaranteed “salvation” and bound Rome’s subject populations to the Empire’s Church with hoops of steel. The doctrine made it almost impossible for people to believe Jesus’ message: that “God loves us and we are invited to imitate that love by loving one another.” Sending innocent infants to hell was consistent with a punitive Tyrant, but not a loving father. Augustine’s theory of Original Sin radically altered the way we looked at “God.”

I no longer believe that just declaring that dogma is to be taken as metaphor will provide the necessary stimulus for the kinds of reformulations that are required if these dogmas are to cease having their damaging effect on people’s lives. The continued use of the dogmatic expression in question without being accompanied by an explicit disclaimer and explanation of its metaphoric nature is misleading and invites misunderstanding. It is exactly the slippery slope of the warning.

In terms of spirituality and moral development, the unclarified use of these dogmatic travesties prevents the exploration of new forms of expression — new symbols and rituals for the exercise of faith and deepening the relationship to our Source and Sustainer.

 

 

The Limits of Knowledge (5)

This entire series, “The limits of Knowledge,” including especially this final installment, assigns distinctly different meanings to the words “knowledge” and “understanding” respectively. Knowledge refers to what is processed by rational intelligence as “facts,” resulting in conceptual (general, abstract) ideas, stored in language’s literal meanings. “Understanding” on the other hand, as I use it refers to apprehensions more broadly based in the body which include reflexive self-con­scious­ness, interpretation, recognition, realization and contemplation, expressible in metaphor, bypassing society’s storehouse of conventional meanings.

The original organic function of abstractive intelligence was not “to know” but to survive. That we “do not know” is not a problem. It is the expression of the very nature of what we are. We were not meant to know; we were meant to survive. “Knowing” what reality is, is not an innate mission or mandate that comes from “God,” as Rahner, Lonergan et al., would have it. Knowing is a task we have set for ourselves. It’s a valid project, but it’s entirely ours; we cannot infer anything transcendent (i.e., “spiritual”) from our voluntary pursuit of it. Nor do we have a right to expect it will tell us what we demand: “knowledge” — meaning our warehoused ideas. Our inability to know is only a problem (or a solution, as the Thomists see it) if we have assumed our conscious “selves” to be like “gods,” immortal spirits, striding above and beyond this world, forming divine immaterial ideas, the ultimate arbiters of all things material. We claim the right to sit in judgment on reality, submitting it to the bar of our dubiously reliable “ideas,” as if our “raptor’s claw” survival tool, abstractive conceptualization and its rationalist logic, were the very Mind of God.

In my opinion, this is the key. We divinized human reasoning — need I add, under the baneful influences of the Platonic-Cartesian illusions about the non-materiality of the human mind and the nature of matter as spirit’s antithesis. From then on anything that does not yield to our concepts is judged irrational and impossible, all evidence to the contrary notwith­standing. For Plato, only the world of ideas was real; for us, in contrast, all that exists is matter’s energy

The evidence, however, does in fact withstand these presumptions about the power of “spirit.” For, however absurd it may seem, we are-here … and we understand it completely! Our being-here-now is something we cannot grasp with our rational intelligence, verbal-conceptual formulations and abstractive tools … but that doesn’t mean either that it is nothing or that we do not understand it. This reduces the range of possibilities offered by our conventional words even as it expands exponentially the potential for an accurate and intimate understanding of existence mediated by other cognitive mechanisms rooted more broadly in the body like metaphor, interpretation, realization, recognition, contemplation and the possibility of relationship. For our attempt to understand our conscious immersion in being-here trans­lates to our attempt to understand the ineffable wordless darkness — material energy with its existential self-embrace which we are.

“Darkness,” of course, is another metaphor for this phenomenon, like emptiness. It is the living dynamism, the hunger of which we are constructed but unable to speak. It is what we are. In order to speak of this immersion we are forced to utilize our arsenal of non-con­ceptual apprehensions, our metaphorical allusions and poetic markers — myths, legends, parable-stories and witness personalities, rituals, symbols, interpretations and, most revealing of all, contemplative silence, to evoke, in a manner as close to presence itself as we can get, the embrace of being-here that we are. All we need do is experience ourselves being-here from moment to moment … the rest follows.

Hence, at the end of the day, we realize we do not “know” ourselves, … but we understand ourselves. We embrace ourselves in the transparent contemplation of a hungry and surviving energy that is “darkness” for our minds … but only for our minds. It is an understanding of existence derived from the realizations and interpretations of what lies hidden in the crystalline clarity of un-knowing and the penetrating silence of interior experience. We understand this desire. It is what we are … it is what everything is. It’s why we understand one another … and all things.

Christian “revelation” and darkness

Chris­tian “revelation,” as traditionally understood and defended, would turn this un-know­ing, this “darkness” into “light,” that is, into conventional knowledge. “Revelation,” meaning beliefs, “factual truth” as we have inherited it, fundamentally claims to present clear ideas. It pretends to take the emptiness and the darkness out of being-here and to articulate it in the form of defined concepts provided by “divine authority” brokered exclusively by an infallible Church and/or the “Book.” Catholic dogma is officially labeled de fide definita (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion). Dogma recapitulates the partializing dis­tortions of abstraction that we have been trying to get in perspective through­out these reflections.

Conventional knowledge — concepts — is the unequivocal goal of Ca­tholic dogmatic definitions. For, by claiming to “transcend” the dead-end of rational enquiry, “revela­tion” attempts to deny the ultimate significance of the unknowability, the Mysterium Tremendum that we have un­covered. The void, the darkness, the emptiness, we must understand, is not a concept. It is the antithesis of all concepts. It is a Mega-Metaphor; the ultimate figure that describes our experience of being-here, our contemplative appreciation of the ineffable living dynamism that drives becoming and gives meaning to our world and our very persons as part of that world. It is the force responsible for evolution. It is sacred for us for it is our very own lust for life. We experience it internally, we understand it intimately and with an incomparable certitude for it is ourselves, but we do not know what it is.

It’s relevant to remember that before the Middle Ages, in the more ancient Christian view, revelation was not considered defined dogma. Revelation for the ancients exclusively meant the Scriptures. John Scotus Eriúgena, for example, believed the result of rational enquiry, Philosophy, was not transcended by the Scriptures but rather was restated there in symbolic terms. The Scriptures, he said, were allegories and symbols, “figures” (= metaphors) that represented the self-same truth discovered by Philosophy. We will recognize this as the view of all the Fathers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa in a living tradition that went back to Philo of Alexandria. In fact, for this tradition, as far as “knowledge of God” was concerned, Philosophy was the more direct and literal of the two. Scrip­ture was believed to provide stories and symbols designed to make the ethereal truths of Philosophy intelligible to the people who were not philosophers. The real “truth” contained in the symbols of scripture was Philosophical. Scripture did not trump Philosophy. The two were parallel modes of expression. There was only one “truth.”

In this perspective, the bottomless Unknowable Ground into which the roots of reality sank and disappeared was a discovery of Philosophy that always remained insuperable. Ancient Christian mysticism as represen­ted by the apophatic tradition of Pseudo-Diony­sius and Gregory of Nyssa, was constructed on exactly that foundation. Outside of the person and work of Jesus (who was quickly assimilated to Greek Philosophy’s Logos), there was no “new” infor­ma­tion about “God” to be found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were symbols and stories which blended and flavored the “truth” of the Unfathomable Mystery — giving a “human” face to the Utter Darkness at the base of reality for the edification of the ordinary people. We cannot forget that for the Hebrew founders of Judaism, the only image permitted of Yahweh was an empty tent. “God” was categorically unknowable and the role of revelation was only to provide metaphors for the darkness, not knowledge.

Since the days of the ascendancy of the claims of the infallibility of Ca­tholic dogma, revelation has come to be presented not as figures and me­taphors of the unknowable, but rather as “facts” that were allegedly known but just happened to be beyond unaided discovery and rational comprehension. This had a long historical development. As the Church became associated with, and then progressively exercised in its own right the imperial prerogatives of the theocratic Roman State, its declarations about the “truth” became more arbitrary, authoritarian and “definitive.” Beginning with Nicaea (with the personal intervention of the Emperor Constantine himself), the Church acted as if it had inside information that defined “God,” the Logos, the Trinity, Grace, the after-life, and was the only one that knew exactly how that information was to be used in practice. Fundamentally what it did was to reify legitimate religious metaphors, and turn them into gratuitously infallible dogmatic concepts, entities, qualities, reasons and explanations — facts to be taken literally. The upshot of this was to change the significance of mystery from “unknowable” to “unintelligible,” and the method of expression from metaphor to defined dogmatic verbalized concept. As I grew up, every Catholic schoolchild was taught and believed that the “facts” of religion were fully known. The only “mystery” was what they meant!

But as far as “knowledge” was concerned, it meant that the Catholic Church “knew” everything that could possibly be known about “God.” It solidified the Church’s exclusive and universal role in “salvation.” It was the basis for an ideological absolutism that dominated western culture for a thousand years and still has influence to this day.

preserve the question … celebrate the darkness

The only way for religion to safeguard the integrity of the Unknown that our analysis of presence-in-process revealed to us, is to accept the “truths of revelation” not as conceptualized “facts” but as powerful evocative metaphors, creative instruments designed to preserve the question, not give an answer … to celebrate un-know­ability, the “absent explanation,” the Mysterium Tremendum which is our life … and to bundle the unknown remainder into relationship with what, at root, is our very selves. For traditional Christianity this is not the 180o turn it appears to be. Our mystical traditions, going back past the Middle Ages, beyond the Cappadocian Fathers, beyond even Philo of Alexandria to the origins of Mosaic Yahwism, have always spoken of “God” as the Unknowable One. Moses’ code demanded that carved images be forbidden lest we dared to imagine we “knew” the One-Who-Has-No-Name, Yahweh, which Philo tells us was a word that means “Nameless.”[1]

The abandonment of the claim to possess conceptual “knowledge” of God means the end of “dog­ma.” That will mean the surrender of human control, and an end to the arrogance of the sectarian religious enterprise. It accepts our ignorance. It confirms us in our utter humility, dethrones the overrated rational human “intellect” as the ultimate arbiter of reality, challenges the haughtiness spawned by our technological prowess and the false human superiority it implies, rejects the anti-material, anti-body, cerebral and gender-distorting assumptions of the Platonic-Carte­sian Paradigm, and lays a solid foundation for faith[2] not as arcane “knowledge,” a canonical gnosis, but as unconditional trusting surrender to a darkness we embrace as the very core dynamism of our living selves.

I have intentionally used the same images and metaphors as the mystics, West and East, because I think we are talking about the same experience. Darkness, unknowing, emptiness, are traditional words that de­scribe the fact that the only thing we will ever know, conceptually, is our universe of matter’s energy — including us — endlessly driven to survive in the present moment.

To my mind, this is the basis for the ultimate reconciliation of philosophical enquiry and theological projection. It not only confirms the limited conclusions of rational observation and analysis at all levels, scientific and philosophical, but it also guarantees respect for the metaphors of all religious traditions which are attempting to celebrate and relate to the powerful creative darkness instead of denying it. It also finally includes in the circle of the fully human all those people branded “atheist,” who choose to stand in utter silence before the mystery of it all, because they refuse to apply any metaphors whatsoever to the emptiness, the embrace of existence, that they, like the rest of us, encounter at the core of them­selves. We are all made of the same thirsty clay, the same hungry quest for life. For those of us who know that the very heart of the matter is that we do not know what that is, “atheists” are our coreligionists.

But it should not make us disconsolate to say we do not know. We don’t need to know; for we understand existence, and understanding opens to the possibility of relationship. Once we stop in­sisting that there must be an explanation that can be expressed in the con­ventional terms of our rational knowledge concepts, explanations, reasons, words, logic, analyses, instruments of human control — the immense mystery of being-here discloses itself. For while we may not know what it is, we experience its dynamic power and understand it from within. We possess it completely in conscious form. For we are it. We have no more intimate understanding of anything. We can realize our identity with it; we can hold it and be-hold it in silent contemplation; and we can express, com­mu­ni­cate and celebrate its groaning creative maternal benevolence which gave birth to this astonishing universe, with evocative metaphors, spellbinding myths and ecstatic rituals. And ultimately we embrace it as our very selves …  

But we do not know what it is.

 

[1] Philo of Alexandria, On the Change of Names, II (7) to (14) passim, tr.Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p.341-342.
[2] faith: I claim the word “faith” has been hijacked by its association with Christianity’s projections about supernatural realities. Hence it is crossed out. That doesn’t mean it’s eliminated … rather that it no longer has its traditional significance as religious knowledge.