Immanence and the “divinity” of Jesus

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This is a reflection on the contemporary search among traditional Catholic theologians for language about Jesus’ “divinity” that is consistent with the implications of material evolution.

I put the word “divinity” in quotes because I believe that when “God” is understood as immanent it gives the word a new meaning with an imagery that is very different from what we are used to.  There is the old meaning of an all-powerful entity/person ― human-like but unlimited in reach and power, transcendent, spiritual and set apart from the rest of the material universe to which “he” is nevertheless present.  The new meaning based on immanence suggests the sustaining energy of universal existence, what some call a divine “Presence” that creatively suffuses everything that exists, a metaphysical cause that is materially indistinguishable from its finite effects.  Calling it LIFE projects an image that, to my mind, comes closest to the concept and evokes the dynamism responsible for the panoply of evolutionary effects that have filled the universe. I believe the key to a new way of expressing Jesus’ divinity is in a “new” way of expressing divinity itself ― as immanent. Once you take divine immanence seriously, things begin to fall into place.

[“Immanence” is the term traditionally used to describe “God’s” presence in the universe. Its usual expression has been to say that “God is everywhere.” We tend to think of that presence as if “God” were an entity like any other, separate but present to us like a tenant who rents a room in your house. But the deeper meaning of immanence as found in the work of Thomas Aquinas, is that “God” is present as the moment-to-moment sustaining source of the very existence of everything that exists. Aquinas’ theology of divine immanence has effectively been ignored in pastoral practice. For Thomas, the immanent “God” is present by “his” existential activation of all things here and now making them to be-here. “God” is being itself; Pure Act. All things exist by “borrowing” “God’s” very own existential dynamism and activating it as their own. It is not something that happened once in the past. It is a continuous operation that results in panentheism ― a condition where all things exist in God.]

Consider. In Thomistic terms, if “God” is the “act of existence” (the primary cause) that sustains, suffuses and is materially indistinguishable from all things as they are and have come to be (“things” = secondary causes which are both the agents and the products of evolution), then it’s a simple fact that “God” and the individual human being enjoy a “composite” relationship whose only discernible dissimilarity is that it is metaphysically structured, i.e., that it is only distinguishable conceptually as cause and effect. “God” and “creation” are not observably distinct either in composition or in activity. They are distinct only through our unique human ability to perceive and understand metaphysical cause and effect. (We unerringly perceive absolute metaphysical conditionality in ourselves, and infer an unconditioned metaphysical underpinning.)

The moral embrace of that metaphysical dependence, faith ― my conscious acquiescence to the co-presence of my source … my awareness that being-here is an exhaustive effect of “God’s” immanent primary causality (“exhaustive” = there is no other source) ― is reflected in my compassionate attitudes and behavior, which may be said to be more “godlike” the more completely each and every moment of my existence unfolds as a function of that relationship.

With such a way of looking at things ― a derivative of immanence ― not only is Jesus’ “divinity” intelligible, but so is all “divinity” among humankind, wherever faith is found, and however it was evoked in whatever community and at whatever time in the history of humankind. Gone is the problem of trying to account for the transmission of holiness/wholeness from Jesus to others, or from Christianity to other traditions, or back in time to include Judaism. We are all, Jesus no more or less than the rest of us human beings, all the immediate metaphysical effect of the suffusive presence of our immanent Primary Cause, and our “divinization” is all of the same type: moral appropriation and assimilation. It is by our moral surrender in faith causing a transformation in behavior and attitudes that we become more like “God.”

Metaphysical divinity is the same for all; we all have the same primary cause which is existentially activating us all as human beings (and only as human beings). If the immanent primary presence were “different,” we would be “different,” i.e., we would not be human. But the moral appropriation of that divinity in the surrender of faith and its diffusion through­out every aspect and every moment of our conscious communitarian lives, accounts for the different levels of the discernibility of divinity ― holiness/wholeness ― among us. Jesus, in our tradition, embodied the most complete fidelity to that “image of God” and the superlative quality of his trusting surrender is observable in his “obedience unto death,” even the dehumanizing death inflicted by the Roman thugs who ruled by torture and mutilation.

But please note: Jesus himself said that we would do even greater things than he did (Jn 14:12). How could he say that If he were indeed a “different kind of being” than we are? In the moral sphere everything is wide open to everybody. The depth, clarity and intensity of faith is as available to each of us as it was to Jesus, and the result of our fidelity to our reality as metaphysical effect is a closer likeness to the “divinity” that is our primary cause. The word for that is “divinization.” The Greeks called it theosis. I contend that that was the “divinity” that people experienced in Jesus. It was theosis divinization ― the human moral, attitudinal and behavioral expression of “divinity.”

 

Christians have never been shy about using the word “divinization.” Athanasius’ principal argument at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for acceptance of the term homoousios (which “defined” Jesus as the same kind of “God” as the Father) was that without it there was no way of guaranteeing divinization/theosis for us, and theosis was what it was all about. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had his own reasons for promoting the homoousios, but the Greek bishops resonated with Athanasius’ rationale.

Fast forward to John of the Cross, a late mediaeval Spanish Carmelite mystic who wrote around 1580. For him, the language of divinization is the same, even though his metaphors are characteristic of his time. He imagined the “soul” to be the “bride” of “God.” His argument ― that people who love one another tend to become like one another ― was used to account for both the personality distortions that result from loving the wrong things, as well as the “transformation into God” of the soul who becomes his “bride.” Today, we might squirm at the imagery, but it was clearly his way of describing his experience of the surrender of faith. Faith divinizes by bringing light and mirror into sync with one another. Why should we think that Jesus was not as adept as any of us at the surrender of faith?

The entire Christian tradition, by falsely characterizing Jesus’ “divinity” as different from ours, also made Jesus’ humanity different from ours. If he was a “God-entity,” as we have falsely imagined him, faith would not have been demanded of him. How could he be a model for us? How could his message be relevant “for the nations?

Jesus was a human being. It was by embracing his humanity unreservedly ― by trusting “God” through death, even death on the cross of infamy ― surrendering without reserve to the immanent Presence that was his primary cause, that he “earned a name above every name,” and why “every knee bends” at the sound of that name . . . why even today, hearing what he said and did, people everywhere know what he was.

 

“. . . and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

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The question Jesus asks, as framed by Luke, has a non-sectarian, universalist focus. He is not asking about whether Israel will still believe in Yahweh, or whether his new followers, who later called themselves Christians, will still believe he is the Messiah, but whether people (any people, all people), who are, like a defenseless widow, seeking “justice,” ― the vindication of their humanity in an inhuman system of murderous oppression ― will still believe they can find it. It is a one-line commentary following on the parable of the unjust judge which Jesus uses to “prove” that if persistent pleading can obtain justice even from the worst of men, how much more from a loving Father.

This, according to Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (NT p.151), is an attachment to the warning in 17:22-37, immediately above, that the coming horrors (surely, an allusion to looming persecutions) would fall indiscriminately on everyone. In the maelstrom of a generalized “crucifixion,” who will remain standing? . . . who will continue to trust? The verses cover a wide spectrum of events where the only imaginable human reaction would seem to be despair. It is in an ordeal of that intensity that Luke’s Jesus promises justice to those who have faith.

 

Whether the evolving material universe can be trusted with the human thirst for fulfillment (“justice”) embedded in our organisms, is a modern version of that question. “Faith” here is bedrock: it is trust in LIFE. Jesus’ question applies to every human being living in every human community across the face of the earth. It is not a riddle seeking solution: “who will be saved and who will not?” It’s not a call to take refuge in some imaginary ethnic or institutional protection, much less an excuse for despair. Faith corresponds to our ultimate human challenge: can we, destined as we are to die, beset as we are with pain and loss, trust LIFE? That Luke’s Jesus was aware of the true anguished depths of the human condition suggests that, given the established injustice of the Roman Empire, the path that led to resurrection could only pass through a crucifixion for everyone. Faith in Jesus is enjoined upon all not because he’s “God,” or Messiah, but because he “proved” that a human being ― he himself ― could trust LIFE through anything.   And Jesus’ trust in his loving Father was itself the very kingdom he heralded.

But the challenge is universal, and the solution, the faith it calls for, is neither sectarian nor propositional. It is trust in LIFE whatever the metaphor, whatever the narrative, whatever the rituals, whatever the imagery we use to relate to it. Jesus is offered as teacher and guide for surmounting the ultimate barrier to trust: crucifixion ― which may be “defined” as the demonic inversion of human community, the intentional dehumanization of one human being by another. It is our ultimate enemy. Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval mystic, for reasons of his own would call it “perfect joy.”

The universal message of Jesus’ death is not that an infuriated Monster-god has finally been placated, but that we can trust LIFE as we would a loving Father no matter what happens ― even crucifixion by our fellow human beings. This is “salvation.” It is what gives Jesus a universal relevance.

 

Any suggestion that salvation is to be found after death in another world, conditioned by institutional membership and dependent on propositional and behavioral conformity in this world, is wide of the mark. It misses entirely the clear vision and profound universal compassion of Jesus for the human condition. The universalism of the early Christians was the echo of attitudes they picked up from Jesus despite his exclusive focus on preaching to the Jewish community.

By the second century, however, early Christian universalism in the hands of the Greco-Roman upper classes would shortly yield to the demands of authoritarian control and deteriorate into a rigid sectarianism fully in place by the time of the election of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The control of the conditions of membership and of “saving” ritual, eventually evolved a propositional panoply ― a compendium of orthodox doctrine ― that served as a protective barrier for upper-class control. These controls ultimately resulted in the ethnic identities, class divisions and political preferences of the Roman Catholic Church, predictably mirroring Greco-Roman social structures and competitive dynamics. “Salvation” became a sectarian expression of Mediterranean culture claiming a universalist mandate for itself. It was the mystification of Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire and its inheritors claimed “permission from heaven” to despoil the world.

Jesus’ question ultimately came to be answered in the negative as propositional, behavioral and ritual conformity took the place of the “faith” that Luke was interested in. Universalism was subverted and Christianity degraded into a punitive, moralistic, misogynistic, imperialistic, slavery-based two-tier sect whose overriding function was not justice ― human wholeness, compassion, mutual assistance ― but imperial political success: internal crowd control and external conquest. Christianity came to represent a cult from hell that shaped our western world and even now continues to sculpt the contours of the global community conquered and controlled by Christians. If the tribes of the global community are still at one another’s’ throats, it’s because compassion has never prevailed among us.

 

“Theology” is a misnomer. It is not the “study of God.” It is an attempt to make rational sense of faith. Theology is a secondary event. The primary phenomenon, faith, is a spontaneous response of trust by human beings in a material universe-in-process from which our human organisms emerged and to which we remain umbilically connected. Faith has been a feature of human life for as long as our records indicate ― long before any of the institutions or programs we now call “religion” existed. It has been integral to the formation and cohesion of human community at all levels; its principal correlate has been human behavior, especially interpersonal support and assistance, hence society, justice, and also the proclivity to theocracy.

To start the process of reflection anywhere else is to fail to acknowledge the universalist nature of the theological enterprise: theology is reflection on a universal, global phenomenon that is as characteristic of humankind as society itself and essential to the human project. I believe this has to be the overriding perspective, the high ground, from which the theologian is always looking at his subject matter. This caveat is especially applicable to the Christian theologian because Christianity has been so notorious in disregarding all other traditions and acting as if “faith” began in the Mediterranean basin in the first century of the common era. That is the “heresy” of Roman Christianity ― the one single “error” that sets it furthest from the message and mind of Jesus.

Roman Catholic reform must be understood in this universalist context. Universalism was the unmistakable implication of Jesus’ profound compassion and it was the immediate “next step” taken by the communities of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of his death. While it is always valuable to focus on the glaring propositional anomalies of Christianity as the target of reform, such a narrow perspective may fail to see the overall arrogant assumptions of sectarian superiority that can fly under the radar of efforts at reform. Doctrinal error has many facets. But the primary schism is between universalism and sectarianism. You cannot save humanity from tribal and interpersonal self-destruction by denying the very bonds that make us a family.

The primary obligation enjoined by Jesus is compassion.  It is the moral corollary of faith.  Faith’s compassion is “salvation,” the kingdom.  What are the necessary conditions that must be in place if compassion is to prevail?  That is the theologian’s question.