PSALMS 59 & 60


Background. A lament with political overtones, maybe from a king, focused on the “nations” (goyim) that are creating problems for “the city” of the Hebrews. It may be imagined that a restive population of “pagan” tribes subordinate to the Hebrews and dwelling in their midst is creating problems, perhaps insisting on calling out to its gods at night when it is difficult to locate and identi­fy. Whoever they are, they return “howling like dogs and prowl about the city.” It is seen as a harassment stemming from open hostility.

It is in that context that the psalmist calls for a unique “punishment:” do not exterminate them (extermination was the standard treatment) or the Hebrews will forget what is was to live among enemies. Rather keep them alive in a state of wretchedness and impotence as a standing display of Yahweh’s power for the encouragement of the Hebrews and a constant warning to the subject tribes to remember their place.

Verses 11 to 13 contain the psalmist’s poetic call for Israel’s enemies to be punished in a way that would maximize its display value and Yahweh’s universal power. Do not kill them, the Hebrew poet says, let the consequences of their defeat remain visible as a standing manifestation of Yahweh’s supremacy. Augustine applied that literally to the Jews of his own time.

Reflection. Augustine’s elaboration of this theological fiction, like many of his fantasies, is conditioned by his belief in the divine destiny of the Roman Empire. It can be found in his Commentary On The Psalms. His remarks on these two verses of psalm 59 are extensive, verbose and convoluted. In summary they clearly illustrate: (1) Augustine’s insistence on identifying the Jews of his day with the Jews at the time of Christ who were instrumental in his death, (2) his claim that the mark of Cain mentioned in Genesis applies to all the Jews, implying contemporary Jews are “Christ-killers” by symbolic extension. It is that mark, he says, that makes the Jews stand out uniquely among all people as not being Romans. (3) His unwarranted identification of the hypocritical Pharisees in Matthew 23 with all contemporary Jews, and (4) the clear implication that Jews are to be kept alive as examples of punishment and failure, vitiates any claim that he held that mercy should dictate Christian policy toward the Jews in the Roman Empire.

Augustine’s injunction about the treatment of the Jews is used again in his Adversus Judaeos Tractatus, a 5,000 word piece that is usually omitted from collections of his writings, listed as PL-42 in the official collection of Latin Fathers. But psalms 44, 49, 68, and 79 are also each cited numerous times and played a major role in that exposition. Together with his un­am­biguous condemnation of the Jews in the City of God, the Tractatus makes it quite clear that the “policy” of not killing Jews based on verses 11 to 13 of psalm 59 was a theological justification for a vengeful and punitive segregation. It must also be acknowledged that its concurrence with the puni­tive and sadistic intention of the original Hebrew psalmist is spot on.

In the Tractatus Augustine says quite directly in two places “you,” referring to his contemporary existing Jews, “occidistis Christum in parentibus vestris.” — “You killed Christ in [the actions of] your parents.” Calling present day Jews “Christ-killers” as he does here, cannot square with his­tor­­ian Paula Fredricksen’s claim stated in the subtitle of her 2010 book, Augustine and the Jews, that Augustine’s “theology” derived from psalm 59 amoun­ted to a “Christian Defense of Jews and Jud­aism.” His intentions were clearly vindictive and sadistic as he projected the future necessarily observable misery of the Jews as a real positive and desirable instrument in the promotion and supremacy of Christianity.

Augustine’s lame attempt to cite the “mercy” of God by saying “do not slay them,” while at the same time encouraging Jewish impoverishment and segregation as “Christ-killers,” was, predictably, ineffective. Pogroms of the Jews occurred with increasing frequency and intensity as Christendom became more self-consciously ascendant through the middle ages. Church-sanctioned violence against “infidels” during the crusades unleashed a pent-up Christian hatred of the Jews that showed that ordinary Christians had not even heard of Augustine’s theory. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons in 1146 calling for Christians to slaughter Muslim infidels who despised Christ, and simultaneously to not kill Jews based on Augustine’s reading of psalm 59 fell on deaf ears. People were unable to fathom the difference, and pogroms continued despite his efforts.

This is abhorrent. Augustine’s religious fantasies here as elsewhere were completely dominated by his more fundamental belief in the providential role of the Roman Empire, and the Roman obsession with control and punishment for non-compliance. We can do nothing but forcefully condemn such sadistic attitudes — seeing positive advantage in another’s suffering — clearly enun­ciated by the Hebrew poet, accurately identified by Augustine’s reading of the poem and rein­forced as an acceptable and even laudatory sentiment by his “Christian” application of it to the Jews. Augustine’s treatment, citing the psalms over and over, is tant­amount to saying: this is God’s will, confirmed in scripture and embedded in the psalms, the prayer life of the Church, the earthly embodiment of the risen Christ, which sings these psalms as its daily and continuous conversation with the Father. It is claiming this is what Christ wants, in blatant contradiction to what Jesus himself was recorded as saying on the cross: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. Augustine’s ability to disregard the mind and spirit of Jesus’ message is not unique to the “Jewish issue.” His characterization of the Father’s rage at the insult of Original Sin completely contradicts Jesus’ image of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. This anomaly is found throughout his theology. Its frequency and consistency is such that it may provide an interpretive clue for understanding opaque sections of Augustine’s thought: when in doubt about what he means, assume a punitive imperialist mindset.

The problems presented by this psalm are another reminder of what we are dealing with in this ex­ercise. The psalms are not for us, as they were for Augustine, sacred words that come from the mouth of God, or even vehicles of trustworthy religious sentiments discovered by our forebears and passed on to us in poetry. The psalms, besides their primitive assumptions about divine intervention in history, in many cases call for responses that are simply beyond the pale of human decency and mor­a­­l­ity as we understand it. They cannot be used by people attempting to conform their atti­tudes and behavior to norms urged by Jesus and Buddha. We are forced to wrestle with the psalms for only one reason: they have been used since time immemorial to define and intensify the religious sentiments that supported our culture and civilization. They were powerful influences in our formation, and if we are going to transform ourselves we have to reconfigure the psalms in accordance. We go through them thoroughly and critique them without remorse, identifying and condemning attitudes and sentiments that we know now are inconsistent with our moral and spiritual values. Psalm 59 as interpreted by Augustine will deform and dehumanize anyone who uses it as prayer to guide and habituate a spiritual attitude. The process applies to all the psalms. The psalms must be wrested from their theocratic and self-serving tribal matrix and re-conceived in a way that conforms to our values. If that is not possible, they must be discarded. At the end of the day we must remind ourselves we are dealing with ancient tribal literature, not the revealed word of “God,” and prayer originates in the human heart, not from a printed page.

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.

2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.

3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,

4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!

5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil.

6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.

7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”

Analogously, for us, the “nations” who worship “false gods” are our own selfish proclivities that urge us to give our disciplined service to something other than LIFE. We dedicate ourselves to our own self-aggrandizement: the conspicuous accumulation of goods that identifies the respectable member of society; the pursuit of career recognition in the amassing of credentials, titles, achievements, and a level of remuneration that, delusional as it is, is considered an expression of personal worth. This is not even to speak of the grosser “gods” of physical gratification and display to which even those disciplined to ego-enhancement continue to maintain a surreptitious relationship. “Who will hear us? Who will condemn us”? since everyone is doing the same thing … no one dedicates their lives to LIFE, so there is no one who can even recognize the immensity of the breach.

They howl to satisfy their unfulfilled needs. They prowl at night, robbing us of sleep, our fantasies are filled with them: remorse for lost opportunities, imagined betrayals, beginning with our parents, that kept us from achieving the divinity we yearn for, the ego-surrogate for the LIFE we refuse to acknowledge and serve as our true selves.

But LIFE still resides deep within us. The real self, buried beneath the layers of pathetic fantasy may be muffled, but it is not mute. We can hear its voice — our own voice — quietly laughing at the debris that remains of our pointless efforts to replace it by building a “self” that doesn’t exist.

8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.

9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.

10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.

11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.

12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,

13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

These “gods” are liars, howling about our emptiness as if we had it in our power to fill it by satisfying selfish desires. It can’t be done. When I think of the damage they have caused, my head swirls with fantasies of retaliation. But then I realize, it is this false self — me — that I want to punish; for these “gods” are not other than myself. No, the solution is to stop building a replacement for what already exists in all its pristine perfection, the Self that is my LIFE. The solution is to stop serving my false self and serve LIFE. The Buddha saw it and said it very clearly:

But now, I have seen you, housebuilder; you shall not build this house again. All its rafters are broken, its roof is shattered; the mind has attained the extinction of all selfish desires. (Dhammapada XI: 154)

14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.

15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.

16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.

17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.



Background. A national lament after a military defeat. It might be taken as a royal complaint that Yahweh permitted Judah’s defeat. Murphy (The Jerome Biblical Commentary) conjectures the battle in question may have been with the Edomites and failed to take their fortified city, Bozrah. An ancient oracle is restated (vv. 6,7,8) that confirms Yahweh’s dominion over all of Palestine and Transjordan. Murphy cites another commentator who gives a possible date around 720 bce seeing allusions to the conquest of Northern Israel by the Assyrians in a campaign that occasioned an Edomite uprising. At any rate the king’s complaint that Yahweh is not upholding his side of the contract is unambiguous. A war god that does not provide victory is quickly changed for one that will. Amos and Hosea’s complaint about the recrudescence of B’aal worship in this era correlates with this possibility.

Reflection. Yahweh was a tribal war god. LIFE is not. We can file no complaint when we fail to defeat our enemies, because they are, in fact, ourselves. The LIFE that makes possible my behavior in the world among my fellow humans provides the possibility of true moral action. That is a guarantee. What it does not promise is that our efforts to replace our natural selves with another one, concocted out of figments of our imagination, and designed to re-invent our selves as lords over others, will work.   It does not because it cannot promise the impossible. That imaginary “self,” artificially constructed out of imaginary elements in order to achieve an imaginary superiority, will last exactly as long as the conjurer’s art can make others believe it is real. And that sleight-of-hand is difficult to pull off because the magician himself knows what a fraud he really is. The mirage will last until the first attempt at drinking real water by some­one really thirsty reveals that there is nothing there but desert sand. To drink real water that sustains LIFE, you’ve got to go to your real self, LIFE itself, the sustaining core of your own being. Tap that well, serve that master, and you cannot fail to live.

1 O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!

2 You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, it is tottering.

3 You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.

LIFE has not failed us, we have failed LIFE by seeking to project ourselves over others when our real job was to serve them. Forcing what was never meant to be has left us staggering, exhausted and directionless.

4 You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot.

5 Give victory with your right hand, and answer us, so that those whom you love may be rescued.

6 God has promised in his sanctuary:

“With exultation I will divide up Shechem, and portion out the Vale of Succoth.

7 Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my scepter.

8 Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”

The promises of LIFE are infallible and its potential is unlimited. Even now leaders and heroes abound who would gather us together to make another attempt at conquering our false selves, usurpers installed by our own treachery in the place of LIFE. Ourselves … this is territory we were meant to conquer for LIFE. It is our destiny. It is ours by right of birth.

9 Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?

10 Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies.

It’s no use whining … trying to lay the blame on someone else. There is no one else. By ourselves we have created this selfish vortex and set it spinning in the world; and by ourselves we can re-capture and train it to selfless service. For help we can call on LIFE, our real self.

11 O grant us help against the foe, for human help is worthless.

12 With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.



a meditation on Psalm 58


Background. The “gods” referred to here are an imagined “heavenly court” — minor divinities believed to be subordinate to Yahweh. They are called in other places “the sons of God.” These divinities were also assigned other tribes to protect and promote. The poet rebukes them, surely, because they have not brought their wards into subservience to Yahweh; they have allowed them to perpetrate injustice and violence on others which probably included Israel. The psalmist is furious over this, as the extreme violence of his language reveals.

Rational thought is the realm of the gods. And for humans, what you consider good and worthy of your disciplined service is inspired by the “god” you worship. So the “gods” are judged guilty of plan­ning evil because the actions of their people are evil and must stem from the evil thinking or at least the conscious permissiveness of their “god.” The “stinking thinking” of course, is that you are superior to others and have a right to lord it over them.

The Psalmist calls on Yahweh to confirm his supremacy by a visible display in reverse order: the op­pres­sor nation will be defeated and its arrogant thoughts of superiority conspicuously humiliated thus proving that its “god” has been reined in and his “thinking” made once again subservient to Yahweh’s plan. Faith in Yahweh and his thought-path — the torah and the ascendancy of Yahweh’s people — will be restored.

In Israel’s history, this interpretation of international politics sometimes played itself out with savage consistency by all nations to the point of wholesale population relocation or even national extermination, the latter strategy pursued by the Hebrews themselves in their conquest of Palestine. The “target” of the extermination was putatively not the people but the “god” whose thought-path was their life.

Reflection. The theological cosmogony imagined in this poem is utterly foreign to us. We have little choice but to resort to metaphor. It is axiomatic for us that Yahweh is an ancient metaphor for LIFE, and in all cases we want LIFE as dharma — the rational thought-path of self-control, egali­ta­rian justice, com­­pas­sion and generosity — to assert its supremacy above all other competing ideo­logies. LIFE is not tribal, as Yahweh was. It is universal, as is its dharma, its torah, its thought-path. It applies to all. Everyone knows what it is.

This supremacy impacts politics as much as individual spiritual liberation. Trun­ca­­ted ideological distor­tions that would make “gods” out of something less than LIFE — the individual “self,” the race or nation, the educated elite, the dominant gender, or the wealthy, powerful and merciless bosses in every sector who function on the illusion that they are owners of others — must all be de­feated and those various con­cept­ual surrogates made subservient to LIFE. They are all functions of the isolated ego. For it is my self I promote, my nation, my ideology, my status, career, credentials, and credibility that drive and justify the violence I heap on others. These are all rogue “gods,” and in order to conquer the promised land (fully appropriate our humanity), they must be made to submit to LIFE, applying whatever violence it requires, and the attraction of their thought-path exterminated. This is where spirituality and politics intersect; it is what makes monasticism and revolution dif­fer­ent applications of the same insight and vision.

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?

2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.

3 The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies.

4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear,

5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.

6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!

7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

9 Faster than a brush-fire flashes through thistles, may he sweep them away!

In the most trenchant and uncompromising terms, anything that would dare assert itself above LIFE as the goal and purpose of our human existence as a community of life-sharing individuals, must be neutralized — aborted, exterminated — and swept away. They are our sworn enemies. To value anything above LIFE is to invite disaster.

10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”


Fifty years ago, in the decade of the ‘70’s, the idea of “revolution” was part of everyday conversation, and many seriously pursued it as a real possibility. That is not true today; people claim it is just not possible. What is called “revolution” today are actually proposals for reform: changes for the better that do not contemplate a change of system.

Even in those days what “revolution” meant was not always clear. It varied among the political theories and nascent parties that espoused a change of system. That variety didn’t only stem from debate about what the replacement was supposed to look like, it was originally and more maddeningly due to disagreement about what exactly it was about the system that was the root source of the injustice.

For me, there is no debate. I want to make my position clear on this point from the start. I contend that the bedrock human value that is deformed is the dignity and autonomy of the human individual, ground up and blown away by the forces of social, political or economic organization. The prospects for revolution may not currently augur well, but revolution is as salient today as ever. It is not the power to vote, or parity in remuneration, or access to goods and services, or public recognition and commendation, or proportionate representation, even though these secondary indices correlate with the primary problem. It is the requirement that, as the condition of becoming a fully fran­chised member of society, the individual must abdicate his/her individual dignity and autonomy to such a degree that he can be said to be — and behaves as if he were — owned by someone else. The most common form of this in our society, sustained by economic necessity, is aptly called “wage slavery,” [cf my blogpost for Aug 27, 2017] though the grosser forms of slavery that are sustained by physical and/or emotional vio­lence, inclu­ding extreme spousal and child domination and exploitation, also abound.

From this perspective, the problem I have with the Capitalist system is not primarily that it is capi­talist, but that it is master/slave. The “capitalist” designation is secondary and injects injustice indi­rectly through its fictional claim to ownership of the means of production. Capitalism refers to the ownership of stuff: land, buildings, machinery… and the money that allows you to obtain them. Master/slave, on the other hand refers to the ownership of people, either directly as chattel, or indirectly through the ownership of their labor. I contend the “original injustice” is right there. You cannot own someone’s labor any more than you can own his/her person. It is a metaphysical contradiction. Work in community is the human organism’s necessary interaction with its environment for the purposes of survival — an absolute requirement for all biological organisms in a material universe. Labor can only be communally shared; it cannot be sold because it cannot be owned by anyone else. It is when capitalists claim to also buy and own the labor of those who work on their farms and factories that the fiction of ownership makes them complicit in the injustice.

At the foundation of the injustice — the justification for the master/slave relationship — lies a faulty view of human nature. It is a view built on the discarded belief that the human indivi­d­ual is made of two metaphysically distinct components, body and soul, comprised respectively of two distinct kinds of “stuff,” matter and spirit. On that basis it was believed that the “soul” was an entity distinct from the body; superior to it because it was living thinking spirit and body was only dumb lifeless matter; the soul was master and the body was supposed to be its slave. All the prob­lems in human society, it was claimed, stemmed from the disastrous reversal of that “natural” stra­ti­fication: the body, somehow, through some original mishap, had come to throw off the domi­na­tion by the soul and in many cases usurped its role and ruled the person. This “un­natural” situ­a­tion could only be rectified by the soul reconquering the body by discipline and obedience to disci­plined superiors who imposed “spiritual” norms, re-establishing the reign of spirit over matter. The Christ­ian­ized Roman Empire, whose economy was based on slave labor, was considered the authority that im­posed those norms.

Because it was believed that the “soul” was really the person, the body and its needs requiring labor and struggle was deemed something of an inferior alien “thing” that, like a wild animal could be trained and exploited, used and abused, bought and sold. The slavery that was the foundation of the economic life of the ancient Roman Empire, from which our modern Western civilization emerged, was considered the direct and accurate reflection of the dual nature of man. All bodies are the slaves of spirit, if not your own, then someone else’s.

The supposed dominance of spirit over matter also established the superiority of mental activity over physical labor and the corresponding right of those who lived by mental activity — the educated elite — to direct and control the lives of those who lived by the sweat of their brow and the labor of their body. This also provided a justification for the subordination of women to men, a pheno­menon already well established by male physical dominance and the soft nurturing character of the female organism shaped by evolution to care for and share life with children. Even among wealthy landowners, boys were educated girls were not. Thus it came to be believed that the male head of family owned and managed his wife and children, the way one would own tools or furniture and do with them whatever he wanted. The incorporation into the family of ser­vants and slaves, conquered by war and bought for a price, was considered a simple extenuation of the ownership which the paterfamilias exercised over his household — land and animals, buildings and wagons, tools and people: women, children, slaves.

Wage slavery in turn is the continuation in modern form of those beliefs inherited from ancient times about the nature of the human being. The belief that society is naturally and necessarily com­prised of intelligent thinking educated owners who direct the work of the thoughtless sub-hu­man illiterate inferiors whose labor they own, incapable of surviving without the master’s control and direction, is more than a caricature. There is no democracy on the job. The owner is an absolute dictator whom the worker is bound to obey because he owns his labor.

In all forms of master/slave the value of human labor was not determined by the integral connection between the human material organism in community interacting with its cosmic material envi­ronment. It was determined by the profit it brought to the owner’s person, the “soul,” one’s own or the buyer’s. The result was that the vitality and guiding authority of that material cosmic symbiosis atro­phied. The reality of (and respect for) the material organism integrated in its human com­mu­nity and nested in its mat­er­ial environment disappeared. The “soul” always remained “free” in theory but the body could be sold into slavery, permanently or for a time, to do whatever bidding was required of it. The social sys­tem obliterated individual autonomy and its authentic relationship to its matrix as the condition for its inclusion in the community of sur­vival. The body had no say, for its needs were material and disdained as worthless.


I contend that the master/slave system in all its forms is dehumanizing. It supposes and in turn supports a false notion of human nature and militates against the integrity of the human organism dependent on the human community. “Revolution” is a political symbol that proposes the complete elimi­nation of the master/slave system. Changes in other categories of social role, status and distribution of goods will come in its train, and as determined by the nature of the egalitarian socie­ty resulting from revolution.

A truly revolutionary program may not be possible at the present time because the political conditions are not propitious, but despite that fact, plans for the radical change of economic/social sys­tem have to continue to be hammered out and proposed to the world. And these plans cannot be allowed to be watered down to the point where they become acceptable to the current Capitalist version of the master/slave system. Why? Because the system is dehu­man­izing. And it’s pre­cisely for that reason that revolutionary vi­sions, despite their “impossibility,” stand in a class apart from those that offer reform. Preserving intact the revolutionary intent of these alternatives is one of the few ways we have of holding aloft a vision of the integrity of the hu­manity that we are privileged to bear and pass on. We are meant to become fully human as individuals in a human community that respects and protects our fragile and vulnerable humanity. That means that slavery in all its forms is banished from human life. That is not an optional choice, and it is not possible under Capitalism’s version of the master/slave, two-class, two-sub­stance theory of human nature. Wage slavery is slavery.

In my opinion the furthest we’ve gotten along these lines are reforms: proposals for changes con­ceived to function within a system that will harness them to its own dehumanizing agenda or it will neutralize them. Reform is not revolution. In order to effectuate such reforms you have to emas­culate revolution and turn it into a non-threaten­ing modification of traditional Capitalism. That leaves our dehumanizing master/slave paradigm in place and festering. Reform will work within things as they are. Please note: the beneficiaries of the system – wealthy, white, male, edu­cated people — support reform efforts. And the reason why, I suggest, is because whatever the benefits reform might achieve for others, it does not threaten their privilege.

I admit that reform is better than what we have now. But reform does not address the threat to our humanity. Revolution — the annihilation of the master/slave relationship — does. Without it nothing changes except that the slaves are given a stake in the system (possibly to perpetuate it) and some may get to con­sume more. The multimillennial dehumanization created by the master/slave system will continue on until it finally produces a humankind totally disfigured by selfish uncontrolled consumption, a massive social inequality and widespread destitution created in its pur­suit, and the resulting destruction of Earth’s ability to support life. The system will not tolerate any­thing that contradicts its two-class, master/slave view of human nature that has made “gods” and masters of the elite who control it. It will precipitate Armageddon before it would ever embrace Revolution.


Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

2,300 words

The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.

We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.

Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred is not a “person,” it is the living energy of matter. It has no “will” for us beyond the survival and integrity of what has been brought into existence. Obedience in this context is not a valid category and therefore being forgiven for the failure to obey has no meaning.

But this is nothing new. Asking forgiveness from “God” was problematic in our tradition even prior to the modern age. By the standard mediaeval interpretations, “God” was conceived as Pure Spirit, living in a state of impassable perfection and happiness in an eternal “now” outside time. “God” could not be affected in any way either for better or worse by anything occurring in the world of matter. He could not be injured, much less insulted. Since he has everything, “God” really does not want anything, not even our obedience — except as part of a general benevolence for the welfare of all things. No injustice could be done to “God;” nothing can be taken from “God,” especially unintentionally, and I think it can be reasonably assumed that the last thing on any normal sinner’s mind is an intention to insult “God.” So forgiveness, literally speaking, made no sense. There is no objective damage. And yet we pursued it.

Damage in the world of time

No matter what the “offense” perpetrated by a sinner, the only changes that occur are in the world of time. The primary effect is the loss of the moral integrity of the sinning human being who places himself out of sync with the natural order. The individual distorts himself in the perpetration of an act of selfish injustice. But damage is also done to other people by immoral behavior, and indeed, the very definition of immorality is the intentional causing of injury. Injury can also be done to organisms other-than-human and even the earth itself and its life-support systems. These are all potentially vulnerable. Forgiveness is not appropriate in these latter cases, however, because despite the objective damage they are not conscious agents capable of an act of forgiveness.

Trying to understand how “forgiveness” came to be such a transcendent category for us, despite the fact that it only makes sense within human society, and not with “God” or nature, I am led to consider the fear factor, a derivative of the experience of autocratic rule characteristic of the early governments of civilized man where our ancestral Judaism was born. Since “God” was imagined as “king,” disobedience and offense was expected to bring severe punishment as was usual from kings. Even after damage was repaired, the kings’ need to maintain control meant nipping disobedience in the bud. It demanded punishment, unless the offense was forgiven.

In the case of “God” as imagined by Judaism and Islam, mercy and forbearance were emphasized. People knew they could rely on the forgiveness of “God.” In the case of Western Christianity, however, the theology of Augustine of Hippo imagined a universal sin — that everyone was guilty of — that was literally unforgiveable. In such a scenario, this transcendent offense to “God” was the very fulcrum around which all of cosmic history turned. It was inconceivable that a transgression of such magnitude as to have caused the physical and moral deformation of the human race and require the sacrificial death of the very Son of “God,” could be forgiven by a simple apology. The Catholic Church as theologically conjured by Augustine’s theory was given the power to condition “God’s” forgiveness on a greater expression of remorse and acquiescent behavior. Punishment, therefore, was never off the table, unless a Church-guaran­teed forgiveness was obtained.

In this case the emphasis on forgiveness derived from the leverage the Church was given over the lives of people by Augustine’s theory — a leverage that it exploited to the greatest extent possible during the theocratic rule of the middle ages. This helps explain why our western cultural conditioning in this regard is so much greater than other traditions born from the same original sources. Convinced that “God” hated us for the insult of Adam’s disobedience, we spent our lives trying to secure the forgiveness of “God,” always aware that if we failed, eternal torment awaited us.

But once that nightmare is put to rest, forgiveness only seems to make sense as a valid interpersonal exchange among human beings. Let’s consider. People are vulnerable to having their resources stolen or destroyed, their livelihoods undermined, their reputations ruined, their physical integrity compromised. The community itself as a collectivity can also be damaged by having its structures skewed by the waves of repercussion that shake society’s confidence in its members’ benevolence and reliability. Greed, selfishness and injustice generate fear and distrust. Once society has to assume that its people are “like wolves” to one another, its very institutions have to adjust accordingly; they become disfigured and the people who are responsible for maintaining them are inevitably rendered less compassionate in the performance of their duties. One who has caused such damage needs to remedy it; begging forgiveness from the community and the individuals he injured is only one part of the solution. Erasing the damaging effects must include trying to disable their tendency to propagate themselves into the unknown future among generations yet unborn. Unless the perpetrator can convince others that his behavior will not repeat or worsen its effects, society remains damaged no matter how much it wants to “forgive” the perpetrator.

This “chain effect” by which injustice, greed and selfishness expands outward into the future is what the Buddhists call “karma.” What you do has repercussions that are not always foreseeable, and their effects belong to the injustice originally done.

The “original” injustice

In domestic situations the injustices committed by family members against each other can be subtle and profound, creating rancor and bitterness that also rolls on into the future. It generates reactive destruction in the lives of others who were not even alive at the time of the original offense and have no idea of the origin of the violence that is now being directed at them. I believe that it is axiomatic today to consider the family the initial link in the chain of causation that produces people who are predisposed to lack of self-respect, selfishness, defensive hoarding, competitive greed, injustice, disregard for the rights, property and labor of others, disdain for the weak and helpless, hatred towards authority figures.

Distorted attitudes in the parents, however, were likely the result of influences in their own childhood, and damage from the lives of ancestors is now being passed on to these children — brand new organisms which entered the world without predispositions of any kind. So while the causation extends into past lifetimes before the current family, and may be said to be itself the result of cultural factors inherited from outside the home and from unidentified events occurring in the even more distant past, each new birth provides an unencumbered organism, a new hope, as it were, radically capable of avoiding the anti-social proclivities that seem to make human happiness a chimera — an impossible dream. So because the actual “original sin” is not only diffuse and unknowable, it is also in the past — over and done with, and its perpetrators out of reach, beyond correction or control. If society is to be changed it has to be done by the presently existing individuals.

I believe that this more or less represents the analysis that gave rise to the Buddha’s insight that social justice had to be a function of individual transformation. He placed the entire weight for the termination of the chain of karma and the achievement of harmony in society on the back of the individual, regardless of the fact that the individual and his anti-social instincts may themselves be dependent on earlier lifetimes and social sources. The Buddha is saying effectively, “I don’t care how deep into the past its roots extend, if I can gain control over this karmic phenomenon it ends with me here and now! The rest is not my business:”

I have scoured the past looking in vain for the builder of this house. Many indeed are the cycles of life that contributed to it. But now I have seen you, housebuilder, you shall not build this house again. Its rafters are broken, its ridge pole is shattered, the mind, embracing the eternal has attained to the extinction of all selfish desires.[1]

The house is the human organism conditioned to selfishness. The housebuilder, of course, is the energy of the organism’s conatus harnessed to the delusional demands of the false self to achieve a permanence that is impossible. Buddha spent precious little time speculating, dwelling on the past or wallowing in remorse. His entire focus was on ending suffering for oneself and others here and now by transforming the affective life of one’s body into a body of desires that mirror the “way of heaven.” This concept of “the true path” or nature, what the Hindus called Brahma, he called the dharma. The Chinese called it Tao, The Hebrews called it Torah. I have called it LIFE — the living energy of matter. It is concretized for humankind in the universal call for justice, compassion and generosity toward one another and toward the earth that spawned us. Buddhists collapse it into an “eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The fifth category “right conduct” contains the five basic moral norms: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not transgress sexual standards, do not incapacitate yourself with intoxicants.

There is no time or place for remorse or a need for forgiveness in the dharma. Buddha’s dharma — LIFE — doesn’t need your anguish; if you suffer remorse it’s because you have added to the burden of existence for yourself and others by your selfish greed and self-projection. LIFE doesn’t want you to suffer remorse. It wants you to get back on track, transform yourself, and stop creating suffering for others. You only suffer grief and remorse because of the evil that you have done. Do right and you will stop the suffering that comes from remorse. The excessive wailing over your faults and the blame you have earned for yourself, is just another symptom of your illusory belief that you are a permanent fixture in the universe, too good and too impor­tant to have committed such failures. It’s another symptom of the attachment to the ego. You are not immortal; you are vanishing. Do the good you can before you’re gone.

Instead of remorse, change yourself. Instead of moaning and wailing over your failures, putting yourself first again as usual, put others first. Instead of pursuing forgiveness from an imaginary “God”-person, which you may think is some kind of shortcut to rectitude given gratis from on high despite having done nothing to earn it, start pulling your own weight in the effort to create a just, compassionate and generous community of human beings living sustainably on a cherished and well protected planet.

Remorse, after all, is nothing but anger at yourself. Yes, you betrayed yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on. That’s a forgiveness that makes sense. If we are enjoined to control our anger at others, we are also required to control the self-indulgent anger we heap on ourselves for having failed to achieve permanence and eternity in the good memories of others. It is just another ego trip. In the Dhammapada on anger, the Buddha addresses the self-recrimination that is just another example of a waste of time, postponing the real work of self-transformation:

There is an old saying: “People will blame you if you say too much; they will blame you if you say too little; they will blame you if you say just enough.” No one in this world escapes blame. There never was and never will be anyone who receives all praise or all blame.[2]

Rather than worrying about how we look in the eyes of others, the Buddha advises us to engage in the struggle to transform our delusional “self” into the Self that lies at the core of our being, the self that is the mirror and agent of the dharma — LIFE. Take the time and energy you would spend in “securing” forgiveness for yourself and invest it instead in the practices of mindfulness and meditation that will help you identify the disguises of your self-serving self. Turn your efforts to living with justice, compassion and generosity, and whatever you had hoped to gain from forgiveness will be yours and more.



[1] The Dhammapada ch. 11 ## 153-154, a composite of various translators.

 [2] Siddhartha Gautama, The Dhammapada, ch XVII ## 227-228 tr. Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Tomales CA, 2007.


Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.


Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

Originally posted Sep 1, 2016

2,100 words

In the narrative of one of the earliest Christian training manuals, the gospel of Luke, Jesus introduces himself publicly for the first time in a local synagogue of Nazareth as the suffering servant of deutero-Isaiah. Using the words of the prophet, he announced that he was “sent to embolden the poor, to heal the broken in spirit, to free the slaves, to open the prisons, to comfort the grieving.” It later becomes clear that he also identified with the suffering people he was sent to serve because that announcement is repeated at key junctures through­out his career with an ever sharper focus on his own torture and death as a required feature of his mission.

It is my contention, that this man had a unique perspective on religion gleaned from his own personal interpretation of the significance of the poetry of Isaiah and other post exilic Jewish writers. Those powerful passages on redemptive suffering stood in striking contrast to mainstream Jewish theories about the cause and meaning of their national abasement which by Jesus’ time had gone on for centuries.

The author of “Luke,” following the narrative sequence laid out by “Mark,” says that Jesus had a foundational vision of his own vocation that occurred as he emerged from the waters of John’s baptism. “Sonship” was the dominating sentiment at that moment and it was taken to imply a commission from his “father.” Not unlike Isaiah himself who had a pronounced sense of being chosen and sent, Jesus was driven by his “father’s will.” Thereafter, allusions to his “mission” are unmistakably associated with a personal mandate: that his message included his death. Jesus saw it as a “command” from his father that as son he was bound to “obey.” Later in a letter to the Philippians Paul would claim that it was that very “obedience unto death” that earned Jesus a “name that was above every name.”

Who structured this interpretation of Jesus’ life? In the misty realms of gospel authorship, we cannot determine whether the focus on Isaiah’s poetry is from Luke or from Paul who was traditionally believed to be the inspiration for Luke. But there is also nothing to prevent it from actually being Jesus’ himself, presented by Luke as the origin of a series of predictions of his own death built on the jarring counter-cultural assertions of Isaiah, and never comprehended by his followers. The narratives reported that it was Jesus who appropriated Isaiah’s “servant” poetry as his own personal destiny. We are not under any obligation to deny these reports. That was the poetry that Jesus’ followers heard him proclaim — a poetry which he immortalized by giving his life for it — and which they never understood.

So here we have the beginnings of a radically new perspective on religion. Never before had humankind suspected that the traditional notion of “sacrifice” to placate the gods was anything more than a gripping symbol of a quid pro quo relationship with the invisible forces that protected or punished them. Never before had they thought to identify the elements of the human condition itself — suffering culminating in death — as the force that bound them umbilically to their Source and Sustainer.

I believe that the man Jesus had an extraordinary perception of the central place of brokenness and impoverishment in human life, traceable to the insights of Job and the post exilic Hebrew poets as well as his own experience of life under the systemic exploitation of the subjugated Jews by the Roman Empire. That insight was the source of his remarkable compassion for the poor, the sick, the crippled, the lepers, the possessed, the accused, all of whom were considered outcasts by the standards of mainstream Judaism.   The ease with which he sided with social rejects suggests that he had seen through the self-deceptions of self-righteousness promoted, perhaps unwillingly but by all calculations inevitably, by the quid pro quo mainstream interpretation of the place of Jewish law and ritual in the contract with Yahweh. Jesus seems never to have been fooled by the official “holiness” of the religious authorities and the practices they fostered much less by the officialist interpretation of the perennial Jewish national humiliation as punishment for breaking the contract with Yahweh.

I may be forgiven if I find this extraordinary to an extreme degree. In a world where theocracy ruled undisputed, no one doubted for an instant that “divine providence” was behind the ascendancy of conquering empires and the degradation of the conquered. Rome was universally considered “diva” — divine — by all nations because “God” had clearly ordained its conquests and its universal rule. Jesus seems not to have believed that. What, then, did that imply about his belief in traditional “providence”? Political power as a sign of divine approval and sanction to rule was a universal belief with which Jesus’ own Judaism was in complete agreement. Probably today a majority of people around the world still believe the same thing. How did he get past that?

The same convictions held true for individual health and strength, success and good fortune, status and position. In Jesus’ world “God” was behind it all, rewarding those who were faithful to the contract, and punishing in this life those who were not. Failure, poverty, destitution, loss, chronic illness, disability, isolation, demonic possession, death — it was all a sign of “God’s” displeasure and punishment. Job himself could never get beyond all that; how did Jesus do it? That Jesus was able to see his father in a way that his contemporaries did not, besides the influence of Job and the Jewish poets, remains a mystery; for we do not know what youthful experiences may have contributed to it. What we do know, however, because it is not possible to deny it, is that he had to have a “doctrine of God” that was contrary to the accepted wisdom of his age and his own ancestral tradition. He had to know that his father was not the “God” who rewarded and punished behavior, littering the streets with lepers and blindmen, paralytics and cripples, the tormented and the insane. He had to know it was not his father who sent the legions of Rome to pollute the Jewish temple with abomination, to plunder and enslave the world, to destroy languages and peoples, creating desolation and calling it peace. Jesus’ father was not “God.” He knew it from the moment he emerged from the Jordan. He knew the “God” who ruled the Sabbath was not his father, because his father had given the Sabbath to man. His father was the Source of his humanity, and so he called himself the Son of Man. Jesus knew who he was.

But even in his lifetime some tried to call him the “son of ‘God.’ ” He would not stand for it. He wouldn’t even let them call him “good,” for he said that word was reserved for “God” alone.   He knew who he was, and he was not “God.”

Others got the same impression. The Marcionites, a successful but later suppressed Christian community that flourished a century later in the polytheist Greek-speaking world, were convinced that there were indeed two separate and distinct “Gods” opposed to one another: the Promulgator of the Law, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

It appears Jesus had created an insuperable dilemma for his followers. How were they to understand this new doctrine of “God” that contradicted everything they had learned about the way things were? They believed he was the Messiah and they thought that meant that soon the legions of “God” would engage the legions of Caesar and “save,” “redeem,” and restore Israel to its inheritance. They didn’t count on him being the Son of Man who embraced death — the very human condition that they had been taught to believe was a punishment for sin.

They thought long and hard but they never understood him. In the long run they could not get past the reality of it all. No one could embrace the human condition. No one could embrace death. If death is not overcome in this life then it must be that we finally get beyond it in the next. What were they to do with Jesus’ macabre dance that made him turn toward death every time he had the chance to avoid it. Some were sure he was a madman. His raving even brought his mother and brothers calling out to him at the edge of the crowds to come home and stop all this nonsense. One of his followers, determined not to follow him to the death he so clearly seemed to desire, sold him out to the religious authorities who represented “God,” the Law, the Romans, and the way things were. He knew that what they were saying was right. It wasn’t just one man’s morbid fascination with the underclass, Jesus’ mania for liberation would cause the whole nation to perish at the hands of the Roman overlords, sent by divine providence itself to control a lawless world. Everyone knew what side “God” was on. Judas was not about to be fooled by Jesus’ trust in some “father” no one had ever met. There was only one “God” and Judas knew what he was like … everyone knew what he was like.

Jesus, it must be acknowledged, was not entirely free of that misperception, either. When, at the end, he cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it wasn’t only a culminating literary allusion to the suffering servant in the “prophecies” of Psalm 23. It was because he too had come to believe that his insight into the redemptive power of suffering should have made his death an event of unalloyed triumph for him and for all of Israel. It was not. At the end, I believe, Jesus saw what we all see. His despair was real, and full of disillusionment because he saw that Isaiah’s “prophecy” was not literal fact but poetry. It was the final hurdle. At the end, like all of us, he had nowhere to turn but to his father.

His followers were thrown into a panic. The dreamy poetry about trusting LIFE and Isaiah’s version of redemptive death had turned into hard reality. Death was no longer a metaphor. It had happened. They had been so mesmerized by him that they were no longer able to turn back and go the way of Judas. What had following him gotten them? Nothing. He had left them with nothing but death — his humanity shorn of any delusion of a grandiose triumphant messiahship.

They couldn’t handle it. They convinced themselves that the wisps of stories they were hearing were true: he had to have come back from the grave like the way Job was rewarded for his long-suffering. I contend that his followers’ belief in the resurrection was the sublimation of death, the transferal of Jesus’ embrace of the human condition into a symbolic triumph over death that never occurred. They had no framework in which to insert the raw fact of death and the diminishments that are its equivalent. Jesus’ unqualified embrace of the human condition and the Source from which it came could not be seen as the profound spiritual victory it was without some scaffolding that would illuminate its significance. Resurrection as a symbol would have done that. But it was not taken as a symbol. It was offered as literal reality, eternal life, designed to overcome literal reality, organismic death. It was like the imagined restoration of Job: it offered an answer where there was no answer.

I believe the entire later development of Christian Doctrine including especially the unconscionable homoousion of Nicaea, promoted over the open protests of the Council Fathers by the emperor of Rome, was the further elaboration of that scaffolding. It surrounded Jesus’ humanity with blankets of protective gauze effectively insulating him from the human condition that was the centerpiece of his vision. Making him to be the very “God” that his experience at the Jordan had revealed as bogus was the ultimate in demonic irony. That this claim to be “God,” this betrayal of the Judaic tradition, which Jesus himself explicitly denied in the only written records we have, should now be considered the litmus test of authentic Christianity is beyond my ability to fathom.

I contend the millennial development that we call “traditional Christianity” is based on a “God” that never existed and that Jesus never espoused. It is the direct antithesis of the man Jesus’ vision of his relationship to his father and the embrace of the human condition that was its moral and spiritual face. Jesus’ “father” is our father: the Source and Sustainer of entropic LIFE as we know it in this material universe. Like Jesus, we have nowhere else to turn.



“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

2,600 words

This is a second commentary on Brian Moore’s 1972 novel, Catholics, made into a movie with Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard in the seventies entitled The Conflict.

A reminder of the story-line: an Irish monastic community has been offering mass in Latin with back to the people and hearing individual confessions in violation of the explicit prohibition by the official Church. This is the background to the entire novel — the rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. It’s what provided the initial tension, brought the Vatican envoy to the monastery, and turned out to be the horizon against which all the characters had to define themselves, especially the abbot who, unknown to all, had lost his faith. The novel ends with the monks’ capitulation to obedience and the abbot’s act of spiritual self-immolation: he kneels to pray with his monks.

My previous post, “Catholics,” published on July 28th, dealt with the abbot’s ordeal which I believe was the main point of the novel; in this reflection I want to address the theological anatomy of the background issue that gave rise to the conflict: the real presence.

The problem was elaborated thematically by Moore in the form of a dispute argued between the secretly unbelieving abbot, Tomás O’Malley, and the dozen or so monks who had gathered in the chapel on the night of the Vatican envoy’s arrival. The monks were determined to continue their current practice of making the sacraments available to people in the traditional ante-conciliar Tridentine form. Their passion came directly from their theology: they believed that the bread and wine literally — physically — became the body and blood of Christ. It was, they said, a miracle.

They believed it principally because it was what the Council of Trent taught and what they had accepted on faith since their childhood from the Church they considered “infallible.” It could not have been clearer:

If anyone denies that the sacrament of the holy eucharist really and substantially contains the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore the whole Christ, but says, rather that [Christ] is there as in sign, or figuratively, or potentially: anathema sit. (Ann. 1551, Cc. Trident.. Sess. XIII; Denzinger-Schönmetzer, #883, #1651, p.389)

The decree, issued in 1551, in an unusual departure from scriptural language, in the next paragraph actually used the word transubstantiation, a philosophical term, unmistakably Aristotelian in character, employed by Thomas Aquinas to explain scientifically the nature of the transformation. “Transubstantiation” meant, in the terms understood by Aristotelian mediaeval science, “literally, physically.” The material “thing” that was there looked like bread and wine, but was really the body and blood of Christ. When the monks, in their contentious dialog with the abbot, say that anything else is heresy, they were standing on solid ground. The Council of Trent was very clear: si quis negaverit … anathema sit. Roughly translated: if you say otherwise … may you burn in hell!

Vatican II made no change to the Tridentine formula, and even alluded to the significant disparity between Catholics and other Christians over the eucharist, citing specifically the crucial difference made by the sacrament of orders. I think that is very revealing. But the Council also said in various places that the eucharistic bread was to be taken as a symbol of the loving nature of the Christian community. If both the Council of Trent and Vatican II were not in conflict about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, why was there such a problem in Moore’s story for the monks and the many people who shared their point of view?

The problem, I claim, even beyond the deep habituation to the worship of the host for over 500 years prior to Vatican II, is one of common sense logic. It affected many people at the time of the conciliar changes, and I believe it explains why Moore put it in the mouth of the monks. Let me state it very simply: if the eucharistic bread and wine is really and literally “Christ himself,” then that overwhelming fact will necessarily eclipse any other religious significance you may try to give it. It’s common sense. To insist on another meaning is implicitly to detract from the “real presence.” The liturgical reforms intentionally ignored the overwhelming nature of the doctrine of the real presence.

Both symbolisms were inherited by mediaeval Christians from the ancient Church, but the insistence on the real presence took over to the detriment of the “family meal.” I claim that is a natural consequence of the absence of parity between those two aspects of the doctrine. It stands to reason: if it’s really “God,” what else is there to think about? It explains Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark quoted by Ellsberg in the introduction: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Vatican II encouraged a return to origins. According to early Christian documents the eucharist was originally a meal of fellowship. Its historical evolution from being a symbol of Christian community, to being literally, physically, the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of the risen Christ, is the key to this whole flap and is worth taking time to understand. Not surprisingly, the “problem” is rooted in the erstwhile Platonism that dominated Christian thinking for more than half its historical life.

There are few historical gaps in our knowledge of what was going on during the entire two thousand years of Christian experience. One of those gaps, however, occurred very early. We do not know how the current hierarchical structure of bishops, priests and laity actually evolved out of the more egalitarian formations recorded in the New Testament. All we know is that by the time Constantine chose Christianity as the Roman State Religion, it was all in place. The sacrament of orders conferred special powers on ordained priests that the merely baptized lay people did not possess.

Together with those changes the Church also began to announce its message in terms that revealed its approval of the categories of Platonic philosophy. That process culminated in the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices and direct control of the Roman Emperor where the divinity of Christ was definitively described as homoousios — “consubstantial” — a Greek philosophical word, not found anywhere in scripture, to explain how Christ was “God.”

In the century after the Council numerous Christian theologians, east and west, began the process of interpreting the tenets of the faith, and following the lead of Nicaea, continued to do so in Platonic terms. What does that mean?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two seminal ideas characteristic of Platonism that set it apart from other worldviews and that affected the Christian understanding of its beliefs. The first is that ideas are not just mental states but are substantive realities in their own right that reside in another world, a World of Ideas, which was identified as the Mind of God. So “justice” is not just an idea of ours, an “opinion,” it is a real reality with objective defining features that derive from its objective “scientific” literal reality as an archetype. Our idea of justice is a reflection (as in a mirror) of the “Justice” that dwells in God’s Mind.

The second notion that characterizes Platonism is that ideas are immaterial; they are able to compenetrate matter so that ideas (forms) suffuse and inform “matter” which is formless. That compenetration allows for a phenomenon they called participation.

Participation means that the reality of the material things that we see is derived from the reality of the ideas that inform them. “Matter” is devoid of reality. Only “ideas” have reality, and impart their reality to matter. The concrete thing, therefore, participates in reality through the real ideas that define it. The words of consecration over the bread and wine brought to mind the idea of the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the idea, which enjoyed archetypal reality, conferred that reality on the bread and wine — the symbols that evoked it. So it was said that Christ was really present in the bread and wine.

Since matter in the Platonic system is not real, what is happening is that the bread and wine are being allowed to participate in the reality of the idea — as an idea — of Christ’s body and blood. There is no thought of conferring on matter a reality that it is incapable of bearing. In this case the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine, make the idea of Christ present to the minds of the communicants through the symbolic words of the priest, and it’s the idea that is real for Platonists. Christ is really present because the bread and wine together with the words evoke the idea. Thus the symbol, by participating in the reality, is part of that reality.  But at no point did the Platonists imagine that the bread and wine themselves actually became the body and blood of Christ. They had too little respect for matter for that.

Enter Aristotle

The rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings in the 12th century produced an enthusiasm among theologians of all faiths, first the Arabs who discovered the manuscripts in the lands they had conquered, and then the Jews and Christians. The rush to incorporate Aristotle into their world­view became something of a competition, with each belief system vying to prove that the prestigious Greek scientist supported and confirmed their worldview.

Aristotle was a dualist like Plato, in that he believed that things were made up of matter and form (ideas), but he differed from Plato on the most basic point. He did not subscribe to the notion that ideas had their own substantive reality. His teaching was that material “things,” what he called “substances,” were comprised of matter and form which were principles of being. Matter and form did not exist on their own apart from one another. Only substances (material things) had existence. An idea was only a passing human mental state. By itself it was not real — it did not exist apart from the mind that was thinking it and while it was thinking it. It was what Aristotle called “an accident,” a phenomenon that existed as part of and dependent on a substance. What something looked like, its color, for example, or its size, were accidents. Bread was a substance, a human being was a substance. But an idea was an accident.

Under Aristotle’s influence reality was seen as a quality only of concrete existing things not ideas; therefore symbols could no longer get a derived reality from the idea. They had to have their own reality as “things.” So the symbol itself, the bread and wine, which was the only concrete thing there, had to become the risen Christ, there was no other way to conceive of the real presence in that system. Theologians imagined that the very “thing” (substance) that was bread, became the very “thing” (substance) that was Christi’s body. They called it transubstantiation, and claimed it could only be explained as a miracle. So the bread and wine went from being a symbol to being Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Both systems referred to it as the real presence. But they meant two totally different things.

Return to symbol?

The difficulty for believers now is that to return to a symbolic interpretation of the eucharist does not reinstate the level of reality that it once had under Platonism. We are no longer Platonists and we cannot return there. We are still in Aristotle’s camp with regard to the basics. Concepts and their words are not independently existing entities for us. We see the concrete thing as the only existing reality. We do not see the idea as real nor that its symbol participates in the divine reality. Many observers have identified the abandonment of Platonism in the 14th century as the beginning of the “disenchantment” of western culture — its turn toward an arid scientism. If we are going to insist on the real presence in terms of that worldview we have no choice but to claim the “thing” in front of us, the bread and wine, is Christ.

This is patently absurd. Take a step back and you realize that the exclusively “Aristotelian” perspective on reality represented by this absurd interpretation has consigned all reality to “things,” and leaves out the reality of the entire world of human social interaction and personal development. This is a truncated view. None of what is specifically human is about “things” or “substantial forms.”

Human reality

Religion is about human reality. Human reality is interpersonal relationships and the individual transformations that turn those relationships either into “hell” or something we can call “divine.” Religion would have us become like “God.” Religion is not about entities or places or “things” — gods, angels, devils, magic rituals, cowled robes, statues, candles, incense, churches, reward in heaven, punishment in hell. It’s about moral and spiritual transformation, the unfolding of individual personalities that sustain just and loving relationships that would turn this earth into a paradise.

The reality of the religious message is inner transformation, and for us from a Christian background, Jesus is the teacher, model and energizer of that transformation. Rituals that claim to provide his real presence, therefore, are real to the extent that they evoke and activate that transformation. The reality of the eucharist is to be found in its transformative power, not in its physical or metaphysical constitution.

In this view, everything remains what it is. There is no supernatural alchemy, there are no magic material transformations. The only thing that changes is the human being who, through the imagery evoked by the eucharistic symbols and using Jesus’ message and life as a blueprint and invitation, transforms himself by consciously re-evaluating the social conditioning that, in order to give him a place in an unjust society, inculcated an egoic defensiveness, a greedy self-projec­tion and a fear and rejection of others as competitors for scarce resources. As the communicant progresses over time in these transformations a new “self” begins to emerge — ironically, the self that preceded the distortions of the social conditioning to selfishness. This is really a return to the unvarnished coherence of the material organism that came to us with birth. It’s not surprising that some have called it a re-birth, and that what emerges is selfless, generous, compassionate and committed to LIFE.

As the conditioning to selfishness and domination of others is incrementally neutralized by the evocative power of the eucharistic ritual and other transformative practices, the “still small voice” of our fleshly organism can be heard clearer and clearer. We come to discover that we were perfect bodies all along, a perfect mirror of the material LIFE that enlivens the universe, now increasingly cleansed of the deformities … the insanities of our delusional, paranoid, egomaniacal culture. We no longer look on our companions in life with anything but compassion for the suffering and anxiety that we continue to heap on one another under the delusion of the need to acquire existence in competition with others. We assume the burden of assuring that no one suffers injustice or rejection. We come to recognize our material organism for the “divine” thing it really is and has been all along. We no longer make the mistake about where “God” is to be found, or what he looks like.  

We discover

that the face of God

we have been searching for

is our own.



2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.


It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017