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.
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.