Luther’s “faith”

The post-mediaeval Christianity that resulted from the Reformation was western Christendom’s last self-conscious apparition before the modern age.  It represented a decentralized, nation-state version of the same theocratic and aristocratic system that the “barbarians” had salvaged and re-constructed out of the rubble of the collapsed Roman empire.  It dominated the sub-continent and its colonies until the time of the American and French Revolutions.  Its own immediate predecessor — the Catholicism of the late middle ages — was the version, modified to serve the needs of an imperial papacy, that the reformers tried to bring back to what they believed was authentic Christian tradition.  But the historical momentum of a thousand years of the Christianity of Late Antiquity limited how far “tradition” could go.

Luther’s rejection of Papal Catholicism was not a reform of “first intention.”  He was drawn into that objective only secondarily and little by little.[1]  Authority had not been a problem for Luther.  It was his personal anguish over damnation that impelled him to reject the program of salvation offered by the mediaeval Church.  It was only when his attempts to rectify the distortions that had created his torment met with theologically indefensible resistance from the authorities that he realized that it was the hierarchy that was preventing change because they were benefitting from the way things were.  His structural critique stemmed from there.  Luther believed that his scriptural and patristic discoveries represented authentic tradition and he became convinced that the Papal counter-attack was heterodox and had to be of the devil.  It was then that his cries of “Anti-Christ” directed at the Vatican began to be heard.

I contend that Luther’s original personal anguish, which he attributed to the quid pro quo mechanisms created by a self-serving Roman hierarchy, was in fact due to Late Antique Roman Christianity: the seriously flawed Augustinian concepts of “God” and man — the source of an autogenic disease that has pervaded Western Christendom unchallenged from Augustine’s time to ours.  Luther, like all 15th century Catholics, was infected with the contagion: he had no doubt about his own utter corruption and could find no reason why he should not be condemned to eternal torment by a wrathful “God.”  The discovery he made — the grace of a trusting faith — simply leap-frogged the problem: it saved him without confronting the source of the self-loathing and mistrust of LIFE.  For Luther believed he was just as corrupt, and that “God” was just as wrathful, after his enlightenment as before; the only difference was that he was assured — from scripture and tradition — that because of the death of Christ he would not be punished.  It validated his direct experience of the “free grace” of “God” evoking a trusting faith in his soul … just as it had for Paul and Augustine before him whose written accounts he believed confirmed his own.  What he had experienced was all there in black and white in scripture and the writings of St. Augustine.  Those sources convinced him that what he had gone through — the surrender of faith — was what “God” had planned for those he would save.  Luther was sure he had found the lost key to salvation, hidden by the fallacies promulgated by a priestly caste who would turn free Christians into slaves chained to Catholic ritual ministrations and a concocted list of “mortal sins.”

Luther had no inkling that the problem all along was the erroneous concepts of “God” and humankind, established in Late Roman Antiquity, that dominated mediaeval Christianity; Luther’s “solution” therefore was itself a reinforcement of those flaws.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Roman Christianity in Late Antiquity

It all began with Platonic dualism, embraced by Christianity in the second century.  By pitting the “soul” against the body, platonism set in motion a human dynamic in which the organism was required first to distrust and then to suppress itself.  Once embraced by Christianity with its belief in “sin” as an offense against a “God”-person, failure to suppress the body not only deformed your humanity, it was to risk damnation.

Two hundred years later, Augustine intensified the effect by interpreting the fall of Adam in a way that confirmed Platonism’s worst implications.  “Original Sin,” he said, was the source of an intrinsic corruption that made human flesh incapable of not sinning without the grace of “God.”  This was accompanied by an inherited guilt condemning each human individual — even newborn babies — to eternal torment, unless baptized.

It was a “one-two” punch that produced an insurmountable alienation for the believer at the most intimate level imaginable — the level of the origination of the “self.”  It virtually guaranteed a life of constant internal conflict at very best, and often resulted in something much worse, viz., physical or psychological mutila­tion aimed at the self, or, turned outward, hostility toward others.

That the “self” was a separable spiritual “soul” trapped in a body of corrupt and alien matter, was the central fact of Luther’s world as it was for the Christian world before him for more than a thousand years … and continues for most Christians today.  It’s no surprise it survived the “Reformation;” there was no possible alternative at that point in time.  The existence of “spirit” had long since ceased being a Platonic theory; it had come to be accepted as a cosmological / metaphysical “fact” that no one doubted.  Even William of Ockham, the consummate 14th century “nominalist” who rejected claims that the immortality of the soul could be proven by reason, never challenged it as a fact.  He simply shifted the proof from reason to faith.  Philosophical Platonic dualism, in other words, had so dominated universal opinion, that it even survived the complete demolition of its rational justifications.

Most people are unaware that, for Christians, it was not always so.  The separable disembodied soul/self, fully present after death, was not a feature of the Christian religion until more than two hundred years after the birth of the common era.

For the first Christians the fact that they were spiritual did not mean that there was a separate “soul” that could exist by itself without the body.  They believed, like most of their contemporaries, that reality had a spiritual side but “spirit” was not a separate “thing.”  This belief in the integrity of the human being corresponded to NT imagery about “God” that was not Platonic but Stoic (i.e., pan-entheist) that is unmistakably evident in Paul and in “John.”[2]

The earliest Christians believed the world was coming to an end imminently and that Jesus was coming back to usher in “God’s” definitive triumph over evil, rectifying the horror that life had become under Roman domination.  All this was expected to take place within their lifetime.  Those few that may die before the Apocalypse, would be brought back for judgment, but the “kingdom of ‘God’” was primarily meant for the flesh and blood humans presently alive; it was not meant for their “souls.”

But all that changed.  Platonism displaced Stoicism as the conventional wisdom of the age; and as it became increasingly clear that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon, Christians began to believe that the soul alone was the “person,” just as Plato said, and that it was the soul alone that would be judged after death and given a reward or punishment.  Prior to this time, there is documentary evidence from early Christian theologians, called “Apologists,” that the immortality of the human soul was considered a pagan theory singled out for condemnation as not Christian.[3]  The earliest Christian creed extant, the “Apostles Creed,” originating in the second century, proclaims as essential to Christian faith the “resurrection of the body” and a judgment when Christ returns; but quite conspicuously, it does not mention a “particular” judgment of the individual at death or an eternal punishment, and the word “soul” does not even occur.

Even as late as 208, Tertullian, a latin speaking Christian writing from Carthage, North Africa, thought that the human “soul” was produced by the parents; it was not “infused” independent­ly by “God,” an essential element of the Platonic view.[4]  Tertullian believed  the “soul” died with the body at death and would be resurrected with the body for judgment on the last day.  Given Tertullian’s antiquity and his insistence on apostolic tradition as a norm of doctrine, it is unlikely that he would have held such a position unless it was a general belief at the time.  At any rate it seems indisputable that the particular judgment of the individual “soul” at death was not a universal belief of the Church by the first quarter of the third century in the latin-speaking West.  So the transition did not occur until sometime in the third century.  This puts it at a great remove from apostolic tradition.

But by Augustine’s time It had become an established conviction.  In 387 the year of his “conversion,” the “soul” was considered not only separable at death and subject to judgment, but the newborn monastic movement functioned on the belief that the soul benefitted from being separated little by little from the body during life by the practice of “mortification.”  By “mortifying” the body through celibacy, fasting and other forms of self-denial you “made it die” little by little and thus progressively liberated the “spirit” from its dungeon of matter.  It’s easy to see how such a perception might descend into some form of self-mutilation.

The immortality of the separable human “soul” became such a fundamental assumption that it was not even considered an article of faith peculiar to Christians.  It was just “reality,” taken for granted to such an extent that for a thousand years the Church felt no need to define it as a dogma … and did so only in 1517 at the fifth Lateran Council in response to “Aristotelians” like Ockham, who said it could not be philosophically justified.

But consider: If there is no “self” that lives on after death, then there is no individual judgment.  But strange as it may sound to our ears, such a denial was completely compatible with the earliest Christian creeds.  An individual salvation was not part of the original narrative.  The story found in the NT said that by being grafted into the Body of Christ, growth in divinization (love for one a other in imitation of “God’s”love) was set in motion, and barring an unlikely reversal of intention, one had a guaranteed place in “the communion of saints.”  Immortality was not natural.  It was the gift of “God” sharing divine immortality with the community that was Christ’s “Mystical Body.”  There was no suggestion that there was any immortality without it; Greeks were drawn to Christianity precisely because of the promise of immortality, and immortality was communitarian — a function of incorporation into the Christian community.

The shift to the Platonic paradigm with its belief in the naturally immortal soul demanded a “particular” judgment, otherwise the incentive factor would be lost.  It created a radical individualism which had the effect of overriding the original corporate and bodily view of salvation; for in the Platonic / Augustinian view, even after becoming a member of the Church you were still on your own.  The burden on the individual was crushing; you could rely on nothing but yourself and the “grace” of a whimsical “God.”  Even the sacraments of the Church were reduced to mere preparations for an individualized grace which always remained “God’s” free choice for the “elect.”  You had no control over grace, and yet without it you were doomed.  It was in this fateful transition that the westerm “I” — guilty, terrified and alone — was born.

The individual was driven to resist the obliteration that Christian culture said s/he deserved.  The psychic vulnerability embedded in the platonic doctrine of the separable soul tied to the Augustinian version of “Original Sin” and predestination was fatal.  From birth to death, you lived in a state of trembling insecurity with no defense against “God’s” inscrutable choice.  You could do nothing to insure your salvation … nothing.  “God” would save you or not as “he” wished, and there was no way of affecting the outcome.

You can see how under these circumstances, since you could not change your destiny one way or the other, after years of struggle and despair you might simply give up.

Luther’s faith

For me Luther’s “faith” has the scent of this type of surrender.  Having realized that “salvation” was simply beyond his control, he gave up the way an alcoholic admits powerlessness and throws himself on his “higher power.”[6]  The difference is that while Augustine and other addicts sought respite from what they saw as their own self-destructive behavior, Luther’s surrender was “theologized;” it was called upon to resolve the problem of justification itself — an obsessive fear of damnation created by belief in the moral depravity caused by Original Sin, the main preoccupation of the mediaeval Christian.  Only the miraculous grace of “God” could pull you out of inevitable deterioration … and eternal torment.

In Luther’s case, the psychological release that accompanied being absolved of responsibility while simultaneously assured that he would not be punished, served as a kind of internal proof that he had stumbled upon the very mechanism of salvation.  That there was evidence of the same experience in both Augustine and Paul provided confirmation in scripture and tradition.  Against the background of the self-loathing and terror of doom caused by original sin on the individual immortal soul, faith as “surrender” brought a sense of security and inner peace that Luther had never felt before.  He spent the rest of his life trying to share his discovery which he always characterized as “freedom.”

He fully realized from his own experience such a trusting faith was not the product of effort.  Like Augustine before him who had experienced a similar “brick-wall” moment and surrender, he was sure it was the result of “grace,” the miraculous intervention of “God.”  But Luther applied his experience categorically, and so abstrated from its psychological features; he never demanded of others that it take as dramatic a form.  The faith of the ordinary Christian, if sincere, was sufficient to insure membership in the “community of salvation;” and it was membership in the “true church” that mattered.


But “faith” became a major source of division among the reformers.  Those who focused on the life-transforming nature of conversion insisted that every Christian must experience a similar moment of surrender.  Since Baptism was the outward sign of inward surrender to “God,” infant baptism was seen as a travesty and invalid.  No infant was capable of any such surrender and therefore baptism in infancy could not establish membership in the community of faith.  Those that had been baptized as infants needed to be baptized again as adults.  These reformers were called anabaptists.[7]

Anabaptists were considered “radicals” and were rejected by the mainstream protestants and their aristocratic supporters who collaborated in trying to eradicate them, often by violent persecution.  In the theocratic and aristocratic mindset that remained intact after the Reformation such an assertion of secular authority was not considered inappropriate, and in fact the reformers relied on local authority — even when it was not aristocratic as in the case of the Swiss cantons — to support their efforts.[8]

In all cases, however, it was membership in the “true church” of consenting faith — the community of the predestined — that freed the Christian from slavery to the Catholic pseudo-Church which demanded obedience to its man-made laws, superstitious practices and self-serving mis-interpretations of scripture.  Shifting the definition of “Church” from the “earthly” to the “heavenly” community — taken right from books 20 to 22 of Augustine’s City of God — undermined hierarchical authority.  It provided the justification for local, regional and national churches and created a power vacuum at the papal and curial level that secular rulers were all to happy to fill.

Luther was a conservative.  He believed there was only one church; he never intended to start another one.  His goal was to reform and renew “the Church” and he had always hoped the Vatican would  embrace the authentic traditions he had uncovered.[9]  His reformed church offered a practical program that was virtually the same as the Catholic.  He had no problem with infant baptism and considered the anabaptists fanatics who had abandoned authentic tradition; he insisted on the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic species and had a great falling out with Zwingli over the issue; he acknowledged the priesthood of all Christians but he expected the community to elect and ordain qualified clergy and entrust them alone with public preaching and the liturgy.[10]  The German peasant uprising of 1525 was a direct effect of the social implications of his message and, to my mind, an indication that he was on the right track; but when the revolt turned into revolution and threatened to change the social order Luther condemned it and encouraged its violent suppression by the authorities.  He saw the nobility as divinely appointed to rule and even called on them to put an end to the abuses of the Church.

His main focus throughout was personal conversion; when it came to Church practice Luther was not interested in re-inventing the wheel.  He changed the minimum necessary to ensure separation from the parasitic Papal “abomination” that had disorted the Church with self-serving accretions. Luther’s agenda was very simple: get rid of those distortions and allow authentic tradition to have its full effect.

Luther’s “discovery” made sense only in the context of the worldview that he assumed was real.  For our purposes, however, it is important to emphasize that if none of it is true: … If there is no “immortal soul” … if there is no “particu­lar judgment” … if human flesh is not “corrupt” … if humankind does not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin … then not only do the problems that Luther’s “solution” was designed to resolve, disappear, but the entire post-apostolic Christian vision, based on humankind’s collective liability for Adam’s sin and Christ’s “sacrificial death” in atonement, evaporates as well.  Luther, in other words, was set up big time.  He awoke in a suffocating atmosphere, and he did what he had to do to breathe.  But it was based on illusion.  The Christian chimera had been conjured into existence from even before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.  Luther slew a millennial dragon that had been created from thin air; he found an escape route out of an imaginary dungeon that was a thousand years old, and in doing so confirmed the “existence” of what was never there.  His “reform” served to intensify belief in the very thing that had created his “problem,” the very thing reform needed to eradicate: Western Europe’s autogenic disease.

If there is to be another Christian reform in our time, it is to these depths that it must reach.


[1] Roland Bainton, Great Voices of the Reformnation, Random House, NY, 1952, p. 69

[2] Especially Acts 17 and the Epistles of John.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, U. of Chicago Press, 1971, p.30 cites Tatian (+ late 2nd century).  The immortality of the soul was considered a pagan doctrine that was originally attacked by the early Christian apologists.  cf Adolph Harnack, The History of Dogma, tr. Buchanan, Dover, NY 1904, vol II p.191,fn.4; p.213, fn.1 “Most of the Apologists argue against the conception of the natural immortality of the human soul.” Tatian 13; Justin, Dial. 5; Theoph. II.27

[4] This was re-asserted as recently as 1992 by the Vatican: The Catholic Catechism, editorial vaticano, 1992, ## 365, 366

[6] Steps 1, 2 and 3 of the 12 step AA program was modeled on the paradigm of Christian conversion characteristic of the “faith” of the reformers.

[7] “Ana-“ is a Greek prefix, the equivalent of “re-“

[8] Bainton, Great Voices …, p.71

[9] Ibid.

[10] Luther, Concerning Christisn Liberty (1520); Concerning the Ministry (1523)

Is Nothing Sacred?

The following piece is the promised reflection on the play “HolyHolyHoly” by William Duncan. It is a “religious” critique, for want of a better word. I think the play tries to make a major statement about the place of the sacred in our lives. I disagree with it, and I offer these reflections in response.


“The play’s the thing … wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Thus does Shakespeare, through the dramatist efforts of his character Hamlet, acknowledge the furtive power of “the play” to communicate ideas and opinions.

Hamlet is in a bind. Enjoined by the spectral visitations of his recently deceased father to avenge his “most foul” murder, Prince Hamlet promises he will do it, but does not. “Conscience,” he says, justifying his inaction, “doth make cowards of us all.” He plots instead to “out” the murderer, his uncle, by putting on a play for the court, written and directed by himself, that depicts “someone” pouring poison in the king’s ear as he naps in the garden. Like Billy Budd, Hamlet is full of rage but cannot speak. He uses the play to vent the feelings he cannot express in thoughts and words.

Not all playwrights have Hamlet’s problem, but they all use their plays instead of speaking directly. It’s the nature of the medium. They are trying to convince the audience of something they cannot or choose not to express conventionally. Plays communicate through the display of narrative interaction. The display evokes feelings in the audience who experience the attitudes even without necessarily hearing an argument; it communicates by sympathetic effect. Once the play is over, reality re-enters and the listener ratifies or rejects the imaginary world the author had wrought along with the attitudes that were embedded there. But in any case the point has been made.


William Duncan’s play, HolyHolyHoly, offers to lift the curtain on the “inside story” of the lives, loves and motivations of three Roman Catholic ex-priests (a pedophile among them) ordained in the 1960’s. Its “voyeur” appeal is undeniable; and many in the audience, perplexed by the scandals affecting the Church and unfamiliar with Catholic clerical culture, will doubtless find it riveting. For others it will be entertaining and nostalgic: Duncan’s dialog captures the era and his deftly portrayed characters interact with compelling energy. But still other people like myself who actually were ordained priests in that era and went through the very transitions related in the play, do not find it riveting or entertaining. For me the characters are composite caricatures of people I know and the play presents one person’s view of religion skewed by an intransigent Catholicism that, as the play opens, had just then fatally embarked on its current course toward terminal disintegration. The play uses the power of sympathetic effect to evoke an attitude about religion that is, in my opinion, shallow and shortsighted.

The narrative is almost entirely psychological; nothing much happens except the progressive self-revelation of the characters disclosed through time. As we watch this long evolution unfold (from high school in 1955, to 2030 in a “euthanasia clinic”), a realization begins to dawn for the reader: men who had been formed from the time they were boys in Catholicism’s obdurate absolutism, despite its discreditation and their own rejection of it, are locked into it emotionally, morally, spiritually … and they cannot escape.

The principal character’s name, not surprisingly, is Will. His leadership in the social activism of the sixties gives the narrative its shape and direction. What Will reveals without saying it directly is that whatever was “sacred” in life had been so absolutely and irrevocably identified with Roman Catholic “truths,” that with their passing the sense of the sacred disappeared for him altogether. The very word “sacred” is no longer a legitimate word. Will is still encased in the exoskeleton of the “one true Church,” but the problem is he no longer believes in it. When the Church went down, for Will “the sacred” went down with it.

Will is eternally nostalgic for what he no longer has and knows he absolutely does not want.  But the play goes further.  Will argues that not only do some people end up in this pathetic state, which is true enough, but that this is just the way life is — it’s the human condition — end of story. We are all locked into our illusory beliefs — the “fog” — and besides illusion there is nothing.  We stay in the fog because we can’t bear to live in the open air.  To say anything else is “bullshit.”

But is it fair to say that the author is intentionally trying to make that point? It is only a play, after all; plays don’t have to be carrying on an argument by other means. Duncan may not be arguing for nihilism at all. It could be that he is simply holding Will up for our compassionate consideration as an example of the sorry state that some people find themselves in. It doesn’t matter. Let’s leave Duncan out of it. The characters have declared where they stand and must answer for themselves. “Will” is the character who is espousing ideas and attitudes that I find false and misleading, and it is what Will says and does that I challenge.

The two characters who are foils for Will’s declamations are also ordained priests. There is Avery, who remains a priest but becomes an Episcopalian.  He is described as an academic “nerd” for whom religion is an intellectual pastime. Avery conspicuously opts out of the social justice struggles of the sixties; he’s also a repentant “one-time” pedophile and recovering alcoholic.

And then there’s Zeke, the comic relief, a nice guy who loves people, not entirely “with it,” but funny and benevolent. Zeke was forced out of the priesthood when it was discovered that he had married clandestinely; he is the totally innocent victim, devoid of doctrinal issues, sacrificed to the absurdity of mandatory celibacy and the Church’s obsession with its traditions. These characters contrast with Will for whom religion was “warfare.”


Avery’s nerdiness comes to be associated in the ‘90s with a “new theology” labeled “metaphor” about which he has written a book. Will informs us that it is “bullshit.” He attacks it as mere deception — he might have said “sleight-of-hand” — a sleazy attempt to maintain religious feelings in the complete absence of “truths,” like the Resurrection, once held as literal historical fact but now considered myth by many experts in scripture.

In my reading of the play, it is significant that Will’s most heated confrontation is not with some traditional Catholic who is insisting that Church doctrine is literally true, but with Avery on the issue of metaphor. It’s not immediately clear how a metaphoric interpretation can be called “deception” unless the accuser is a dogmatic fundamentalist who feels that it dilutes the “real truth.” Metaphor means that doctrine is not a literal fact, and Will the atheist, one would presume, should have no trouble with that at all. So what’s his problem? That people “have no right” to feelings that come from taking religion as poetry?  Why is “metaphor” more of a problem for Will than belief?

We have to remember Will is a cyclopean “soldier” whose one-eyed stare is still fixed inerrantly on what he was vowed to defend: the Roman Catholic Church and its infallible absolutes — the only “sacred” thing in the universe. You’re not allowed to have religious “feelings” unless they are based on those absolutes. Now that those absolutes are gone, you can’t have those feelings … period.

I ask: what might have been said about “metaphor” if it were being defended by someone other than the unsavory Avery using words that Duncan put in his mouth? Might it have been explained that, inspirational value aside, first and foremost metaphor clarifies the objective truth-content of religious doctrine: supernatural “facts” do not exist and miraculous events never happened. “Religion,” therefore, is not the quid pro quo “salvation” business the Church taught us it was. Religion is not about earning life in another world after death, but how to live with justice and joy in this one. The “resurrection” is a prime example. A different Avery might have said:

“The religious question, Will, is not whether Jesus rose from the dead. For thousands of years before Jesus, god-men (and women) who died and rose were a prominent feature of the religions of the Mediterranean world. It doesn’t need to be said that none of them died and rose. The question is not whether the claims made for Jesus are any more factual but where that constant human drum­beat comes from. Religion is not created by some miraculous event, or some great story-teller, it arises from the unquenchable thirst for life in the heart of man. That is the undeniable datum, the source of what drives us. Life is the miracle, the sacred “fact” that will not go away. It is the only “fact” — it’s always been the only fact — the rest is all projection, and “God” is the personal human face we put on it; we really don’t know what it is. All we know is that Life is precious to us, sacred.  Life is to die for.  That’s why fighting injustice is more than a sport, or someone’s personal hobby. Death is abhorrent to the very marrow of the living matter of which we are made. We are inclined to trust our  thirst for life … we hardly have a choice.

If Jesus did not rise, so what? How are we going to deal with it? Say “bullshit” and die? Humankind faced the dilemma of death long before religions were invented to resolve it. Christianity was just another attempt to answer this life-death contradiction that we carry like a plague in our gut. Our religions … all of them, from the beginning of time and from all over the globe … came from people just like us caught between the poles of this fatal counterpoint and they didn’t know how else to cope with it … and now it’s our turn. What do you propose will help us trust life? Metaphor is not trying to keep a lie alive, it’s acknow­ledging that “resurrection” is an ancient symbol that encourages us to trust life so we don’t tear ourselves to pieces. Religion is not science, it is poetry. If you try to make it science, then It is “bullshit.” Whe­ther we live forever or not, life is precious, sacred, and religion is its poetry. That’s what metaphor means.”

“Metaphor” would turn religious dogma from being the false locus of the sacred into a “search engine” — a poetic guide — for finding the sacred “out there” in the world and in people and in the depths of living, evolving matter. What’s at stake is our sense of the sacred which the Church expropriated, exploited and then used to control us.  “Metaphor” would make the Church subordinate to the sacred, its servant, not its proprietor. … None of this is given expression.

To reduce the hierarchy’s dogmatic authority justifications to metaphor would break its control over the minds of men. I believe Will senses exactly that: metaphor would vaporize dogma, and his subconscious Catholic atavism will not allow it. Like all of us Will believed what they told him; there is nothing sacred but Catholic truth — for Will, “the fog” — everything else is profane. Once the fog is gone, there is no sacred; to use Dogma as “guide” to a sacred universe is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing sacred “out there” to find, and therefore no need for a guide to find it. There is no possibility that this natural world and its living, evolving matter is sacred, evoking a response that engages our awe, care, service … and trust. Saying so makes him mad, and “mad” is what Will does best.


As they enter retirement age Will’s acknowledged “eternal anger” is described adoringly by his estranged but still loving wife Brenda as his need to “be eternally at war.” Sorry. I don’t buy it. There are plenty of reasons for Will to be angry, but for me this “warrior” stuff reeks of Hollywood. I see it as a dramatic turn that correlates with the superficial religious bearing of the play, and I select it for criticism for that reason.

Hollywood’s muscular “theology” says that the “warrior’s” anger is innate, primordial. It gives him a genetic superiority over others which also makes him incapable of partnering with a woman. Brenda had to leave Will but … she understands. An American audience will recognize the familiar features of every heroic leading man from the old westerns to the current superheroes. These men are too involved with their own incredible machismo to share life with a woman. We have all been conditioned to the genre: there is no domestic life in Valhalla and fighting injustice is not for women and children. The celibate mystique was part of the same male warrior ethos, and historically, may even have been a factor in its creation. Will may think he’s a warrior, and Brenda may know he needs to hear it — but it’s adolescent crap.

In the Hollywood version of life, the pursuit of justice is not a universal responsibility, it belongs only to the warriors, the guardians. And courage is not a virtue achievable by all, developed by shouldering responsibility and struggling to overcome fear. Courage, for Hollywood, comes only from being a warrior by birth, born with a full measure of divine testosterone. The brave are fearless by nature. You either have it or you don’t. And … do I hear hissing in the background … those who need “religion” don’t?

Then, the “surprise” ending will be no surprise to anyone who watches TCM with any degree of regularity. In 2030 while his two friends are dying from self-admini­s­­tered and Churchpermitted (sic!) euthanasia, at the very last minute Will takes Brenda’s hand, dumps the death pill in the trash and lives! … (Yay!!). Note that true to Hollywood form, he “gets the girl” at the very end of the movie … because she is a trophy, not a partner. It is announced by Flora our personal Greek chorus that Will finally found the answer to life. Curtain falls. End of play. Yikes! Burbank studios may be lining up for options even as we speak.

Here’s my take: the play exploits past commitments, friends and serious current concerns for their “entertainment value,” which is entirely acceptable, but Will’s narrative also conforms to the fatuous standards and stunted values of the entertainment industry — the “fog” that keeps us shopping — which isn’t. But it is entirely consis­tent with Will’s persona: a man who has decided that there is nothing sacred.

If there is nothing sacred, nothing “out there” to stand in awe at and serve, the only thing left is yourself, your image in the eyes of others. It would explain Will’s relationship to the adoring Brenda. Brenda does not represent something sacred “out there” for Will to stand in awe at and allow himself to be expanded by. No, for Will Brenda is the mirror, the still pool in which his adorable “warrior” image is reflected. Note that it’s only when she re-assumes that role that their estrangement ends.

Similarly, Will never gets past Catholicism’s veneer to the sense of the sacred universe that underlays it all. His creepy attachment to his chalice at the end of his life is not explicable otherwise. When those externals stopped being “holy” he was blindsided; Will doesn’t like being fooled.

No one does. There is good dose of “Will” in all of us. Will was made a fool of by historical forces, too big to blame, that made fools and victims of us all, including those teachers who fed us the “bullshit,” and the supervisors who made sure we ate it. Will cannot let it go. As with Melville’s classic anti-hero: Ahab can never forget what that whale did to him. Nothing must get in the way of its destruction!   … that’s why Will found “metaphor” so threatening!

The Church is, in fact, withering. But no one is destroying it; the Church is destroying itself. Starting in the era depicted in the opening scene of the play, the Church went on a narcissistic orgy that has shamed and humiliated us all. It revealed to the world the self-cen­tered­ness of its vision and the irrationality of its intransigence: on sexual issues, simultaneously inflexible and degenerate, in politics, despite its “social doctrine,” as always, in bed with wealth and power — all the result of a seriously flawed understanding of man and “God” and itself — earning a long-overdue catastrophic loss of credibility. Like Joyce’s Finnegan, whose avatar shamed himself in a public park, the Catholic Church committed moral suicide and we find ourselves in mourning at its wake. To one degree or another we are all like Will. We are the children of a Church that told itself it was “divine.” It preferred the morbid adoration of its own self-image to the muddling business of bringing justice and joy to the living present. We can all identify with his anger. The redeeming value here is that the play holds up a mirror for us — all of us, including the Church — to see what we have, or could have, become … and be glad to be moving on.

Plays, and lives, and eras end; but LIFE does not. Finnegan himself, remember, when his body was splashed with whiskey by those celebrating his passing, sat up in his casket … demanded a drink … and joined the revelers!

L’chaim …


The “branding” of Catholicism

This reflection includes some material from earlier posts


As our tribal identities recede into the oblivion of history, religions that are nothing more than ethnic identifiers will follow them. By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that ethnic identification is a superficial phenomenon. The ferocity it can generate was on horrific display in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool soccer enthusiasts attacked rival Juventus fans and many were killed. Religion can play a similar role, and many of us come out of such a tradition. “Catholic,” for many, was simply another word for being Irish or Polish … or some other tribe that perhaps had to defend itself historically against a non-Catholic invader or overlord. “Dogmas” became shibboleths … passwords for who was really in the tribe and who wasn’t. Doctrine came to be used principally to contrast with what was “non-Catholic;” it was a “brand” identifier.

So branding is not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. But in our post-tribal globalized age, when even nation-states can fail, it has a wider application. Branding identifies the successful transnational business corporation which has become the very symbol of solidity, viability and social preeminence. The Roman Catholic Church has lately begun to exploit this potential by identifying itself as a commercial enterprise which offers quality products for sale. Marketing those products is the key to corporate success, and an essential part of marketing is establishing a clearly recognized profile in the global marketplace, a coherent package of visible symbols — a “brand” — that sets the corporation apart from others in the eye of the prospective consumer. These symbols must be immediately associated with its desirable “product line.” As tribal support wanes, the Church needs something it can sell to anyone, anywhere.

“Preserving the Vision”?

Is this just more hyperbole … a fantasy I have conjured to focus my axe-to-grind, my criticism of the Church? Let me assure you it is not.

In the spring of 2012 when the Bishop of Brooklyn NY, USA was questioned about the documented loss of over 200,000 Catholics from his diocese, he responded: “we’ve still got 1.5 million. We can live with a quarter million less.” Coming from someone who professes to believe traditional Catholic doctrine which includes the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” this is astounding! Concern for the salvation of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to do so were never mentioned. The only thing that seemed of interest to the bishop was his organization’s viability.

Is this one man’s idiosyncrasy? In a letter to the NYT dated May 20, 2012, ex-Jesuit Tim Iglesias of Oakland, Calif., wrote:

… I believe that [Catholic church leaders] are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unruly one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy.

If what Iglesias is saying is true, the Brooklyn Bishop is not alone. His attitude is part of a “deliberate strategy” of the hierarchy — corporate manager-bishops — who have unilaterally opted for downsizing the Church based on the efficiency criteria of successful business organizations, not on the definitions and goals set by the Church itself.

The fact that these episcopal sentiments mirror the mindset of the CEOs of major corporations must be seen square­ly for what it is: a redefinition of Church — the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations and operating dynamics of a commercial business enterprise in place of a community that claims to be inspired by the vision of Jesus. We are not dealing with morality here; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a matter of fundamental identity. Are you a Christian community concerned about people, personal liberation, gratitude for life, justice, widows and orphans, or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned about your survival: your “products,” your customers, your income, your assets, your buildings, their utilization and productivity?

As if in answer to that question, less than six months earlier in November 2011 the Diocese of Brooklyn published a “Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools 2011-2014” whose language recapitulates this corporate commercial mindset. It is labeled “Preserving the Vision” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website ( ). It includes the clear order that all Catholic parochial schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing their privatization, their final separation from the parish and any semblance of being the project of a “Christian community.” Education for the paying elite, whether Catholic or not, will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells. The mission statement for the “strategic plan” makes this clear:

Goal #2: Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.

Effective marketing? Outreach to diverse communities? Those phrases reveal the commercial nature of the ecclesiastical efforts. The fact that we are talking about conversion to “academies” should dispel any illusion that “diverse” might mean an outreach to the poor … when would you ever “market” to people who, by definition, cannot pay? It is precisely to bypass traditional commitment to the poor in favor of paying customers that this qualifies as a “strategy.” “Diverse” clearly refers to “non-Catholics” who are willing to pay for high quality, private education, where their children can pursue excellence undistracted by “under-achieving” needy Catholics — immigrants’ children — shunted to the public schools.

There is a whole section on “marketing.” The following is from a list (p.13) of strategic goals for the “marketing” effort. Notice the conspicuous use of the word “branding”:

Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and acade­mies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand through­out the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.


16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the dio­cesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.

16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.

This uncharacteristic use of terminology coincided, in a most revealing way, with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on his June 11th 2012 meeting with the nuns of LCWR Levada said:

“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” [1]

Product identity”? This kind of untraditional talk used in such unconnected circum­stances fairly compels the conclusion that the corporate managers — the bishops — are in agreement defining the Church as a commercial enterprise; and they are spontaneously using terminology that reflects their objectives.


Based on this I am going to extrapolate and make a serious accusation and prediction: that the morally discredited hierarchy of the American Catholic Church, saddled with an obsolete, incoherent doctrinal inheritance, and faced with the erosion of support from preferred ethnics, is deciding to turn an irrational doctrinal liability to corporate advan­tage by marketing its beliefs as “ancient tradition” regardless of their lack of “truth” value. “Tra­­di­tion” gives an aura of depth and quality to its various services — its “product line” — which include education. This might seem a commonplace observation about a “common sense” strategy. But it takes on a severe condemnatory significance because it means that the Church, far from grappling with the reformulation or repudiation of erroneous, useless and even damaging dogmatic anomalies, is … for “branding” purposes only … entrenching itself behind them, and thus becoming a cynical purveyor of delusion. In its desperation to find a way to escape its terminal obsolescence, the Church leadership has abandoned any concern for the truth.

“Truth,” I contend, has been abandoned. What at one time, and not that long ago, was a sincere belief in the inerrancy of the magisterium, is no longer held by the well-educated Church authorities who are as savvy and modern as the rest of us. The corpus of doctrine is cynically being kept unchanged by men who really do not believe these doctrines are relevant any longer, in order to promote the corporate “branding” for its product line. Pope Francis’ recognition that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church … cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,”[2] reflects this attitude; it suggests that his pastoral style could easily be made to coincide with the strategy of rehabilitation through corporate re-definition. The pope suggests doctrinal insistence is irrelevant, but he does not offer to retract one iota from the dogmatic absurdities hallowed as “tradition.”

This is disturbing. The entire human family appreciates Francis’ warm, familial, humble demeanor and pastoral priorities. His style is a welcome change in the leadership projections of the Catholic Church, which has been, historically, arrogant and overbearing in the extreme.

But it has become clear in the year since the beginning of his papacy that he has absolutely no intention of moving to reform doctrine, even those easily modified like the absurd rationale for the ban on contraceptives and the utterly hollow basis for denying priesthood to women. Our feelings for Francis should not excuse a profound betrayal. The autocracy of Roman Catholicism has been consolidated to the point where no change of any significance can take place unless it is initiated or at least actively supported by papal authority. If Francis has decided he will not attempt to modify the inherited teaching on faith or morals in any way, it cannot happen. There is no other agent of change in the Church. He has to realize if he has any interest in change — and many believe his actions imply he does — he is the one who has to do it. Others may be willing to assume the burdens of “cleaning up” the dogmatic mess and allowing him to live a simple life as he seems to desire, but they cannot; as the Church is currently structured they are not the custodians of doctrine, he is.

The ironic thing is that the first doctrines that need to be changed are those that justify the exclusive power of the pope in these matters. The fact that they are accepted as doctrines means that they are not readily perceived as the typical self-serving justifications always trotted out by autocrats determined to maintain their exclusive grip on power. They are touted as “sacred” dogma. All Catholics (in theory) believe in (1) the inerrancy of the magisterium managed solely by the hierarchy, (2) the infallibility of the pope when teaching ex cathedra on faith or morals, and (3) the apostolic succession of all bishops. These doctrines are declared to be “truths” revealed by “God.”

But I claim the battle ground has shifted. These doctrines are no longer promoted because they are “true,” nor even because they mystify the faithful. The doctrines are clung to because they are “Catholic” and the Catholic “brand” sells. The hierarchy owns the corporation, and the corporation needs those doctrines for its identity. Up-scale families want to send their kids to private “Catholic” schools. The preservation of “tradition” now means things cannot be allowed to change not because they are eternally true, but because they are the essence of the Catholic corporate “brand.”

The hierarchy’s decision to recuperate legitimacy in the form of corporate success through “product identity” and the “branding” that it requires, promises to compound the intransigence against doctrinal reform exponentially. Catholic doctrine is central to its “branding.” There is nothing that symbolizes Catholicism and sets it apart from all other institutions more than the three doctrines just mentioned above. Imagine a Catholic Church without a pope! The papacy is an essential symbol for the corporate Catholic “brand.” If our morally discredited Church with its baggage of destructive, erroneous and irrelevant doctrines continues to survive, it will be thanks to its corporate success in marketing its “product line” and the “branding” that accompanies it. “Branding” by the very nature of what it is designed to do, will reinforce the resistance to doctrinal change; for if Catholic doctrine is allowed to change, the Church will no longer be recognizable as Catholic. Once ethnic community is supplanted by mass impersonal entities like the transnational ecclesiastical corporation, branding recognition is indispensable to survival.


“Loss of recognition” is disastrous for the mass organization. It was the “mistake” made at Vatican II and it helps explain the confusion among the ordinary Catholic people precipitating a devastating fifty-year conservative backlash led by, but by no means limited to, the hierarchy. It affected many areas of Church life, but let’s just look at one: the Eucharist.

For many Catholics in 1965, changing the way they related to the Eucharist changed the Church beyond recognition. That generation is almost gone, but many of us remember the bewilderment that people of our parents’ age went through when it was announced that the worship of the Eucharistic host was no longer the point of the mass. They were told the mass is to be understood as a symbolic meal evoking love of neighbor … after having been taught all their lives that what distinguished Catholics from Protestants was that the mass brought “God” to earth; we had “God” in the tabernacle, they didn’t. The “real presence” was the centerpiece of counter-reforma­tion Catholicism. Vatican II, by emphasizing the symbolic value of the Eucharistic bread and changing the focus of the mass from “God” to the human community, overturned all that. It had the practical effect of diminishing the importance of the real presence and ending Catholicism’s insistence on its radical superiority over Protestantism. It simultaneously undermined other associated doctrines like the ex opere operato (automatic) function of sacramental ritual and the absolutely indispensable role of the priestly sigillum (“indelible seal”) with its magical power to transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. All that changed.

Consider the devastating effect of announcing the primacy of symbolism: If the mass were truly more than a symbol, then the symbolism should have remained secondary to the literal, factual reality of the real presence, because “reality” trumps all ancillary factors. But if the symbolic is validly given highest priority then you really don’t need a priest, anyone can make and recognize a symbol. How is this different from what the Protes­tants have been saying? What started out as a necessary course correction for a doctrine that had yawed too far in the direction of scientific fact, turned out to completely upend the Catholic worldview as it then existed precisely because the entire interconnected worldview had been taken as scientific fact.

So the Catholic Church lost its uniqueness in the eyes of its own people. The view being encouraged by the Council tended to put Catholicism on the same level as other Christian religions, no better, no worse, to be judged by fidelity to the gospel not by its magical powers. Despite the ensuing conservative backlash, there really was no going back. The cat was out of the bag. The sacraments are symbols, not vending machines. The Roman Catholic priest was no longer a mystical Merlin bringing Christ back to earth in the mass which was also supposed to sustain his life of celibate “holiness.” Celibacy lost its mystique. The ideological source of Catholic exceptionalism was swept away and the Church stood naked before the world … the victim of centuries of self-delusion, painted into a corner by its own insistence that its doctrines were scientific fact and its priests performed miracles. Catholics’ supreme self-confidence collapsed because their divinized self-image evaporated. Such catastrophic loss of self-esteem could never be reversed.


Or could it? I believe recourse to corporate success as compensation for that loss was predictable for an organization that had inherited a massive infrastructure of property: land, buildings, schools, hospitals … and a tradition of service. Indeed, the Church’s identity as a “service provider” in education was already well established. Once all that infrastruc­ture was stripped of its self-involved religious meaning what was left was its value to larger society, hence the pursuit of recog­nition as a corporation that provides “quality” education and other services.

The Church does not use its doctrines, like the “real presence” for their truth value any longer but only for their “branding” power. The truth value of the “real presence” had already been devalued by Vatican II. The Church can no longer return to that worldview. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is symbolic; its “reality,” i.e., its sacramental efficacy, derives from its symbolism, not the other way around. The “spirit” of Jesus becomes present in the community of love evoked by the symbolic meal of sharing. The power of symbols is the new paradigm that rules this sea-change in Catholic self-definition and ritual practice. Doctrine, as usual, lags behind prayer-life and needs to catch-up. Catholicism must begin reformulating (or repudiating) doctrines — like the “real presence” — that had originally been falsely articulated in terms of magic words and scientific “fact” and restate them as necessary to accommodate their reality as symbol.

But if the Church becomes captive to the siren call of the marketplace, and refuses to allow its ancient formulations to change because it is now committed to preserve the purity of its “brand,” it continues proclaiming doctrines known to be false or falsely stated, and now without even the excuse that it believes them. This would explain the Brooklyn bishop’s lack of concern that 200,000 Catholics had left his Church. He isn’t a monster; like the rest of us he simply no longer believes that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

This is the dilemma facing the present pope. He cannot absent himself from these developments. Catholic doctrine is burdened with the delusions of millennia. Ignoring doctrine will not make it go away; that is the greatest delusion of all. Doing nothing is itself a choice to continue the mystifications of the past, and no one is fooled by them any longer.

The money changers are starting to take over the temple. It was something that Jesus could not ignore and would not tolerate. It’s what got him killed. The bishops are turning their churches into business corporations right before Francis’ eyes, and their doctrinal conservatism is cynical and insincere in service to it. This is all happening on his watch. It is time to ask the hard question: is Francis’ “benign neglect” passively complicit with this development? I am inclined to say that even granting him the benefit of my doubt, it is still a cop-out … it avoids accepting responsibility for what the Church has done with what it calls the “truth.”


The Church has always claimed it was the guardian of the “truth” and the “truth” was the basis of its claims to power. Throughout its history, no matter how venal and morally corrupt its leadership, no matter how it compromised with wealth and power, no matter how it betrayed the widow and the orphan, it has never wavered on what it insisted was the “truth” that grounded its right to rule. For the pope to dismiss that “truth” now as an irrelevant “obsession” and not own up to the damage it has caused, is grossly irresponsible.

The “truth” was used to justify genocidal crusades launched by direct papal initiative against Islam and dissident “heretical” Christians. The “truth” mattered so much that the Church was willing to encourage Christians to kill people in its defense and in its promotion. And in the matter of the Jews, beginning with the gospels themselves the Church’s version of the “truth” provided the rationale for Jew-hatred that has lasted throughout Christian history. Christian rhetoric about the “truth” of divine providence drove the Christian population of Europe to conclude that only the physical elimination of the Jewish people who denied the “truth” of the divinity of Christ and the necessity of baptism for “salvation” would guarantee that natural disasters would not be visited upon them by “God” in punishment for the presence of Jews in their midst. Every outbreak of plague brought pogroms of slaughter to the Jews.

The virulent anti-Judaic attitudes that seethed beneath the surface in all the countries of Europe in the years leading up to the Nazi holocaust insured that what was happening at Auschwitz and Buchenwald would be ignored if not tacitly approved, and we know now that the Vatican itself was part of that “passive complicity.” The holocaust was the “final solution” prepared for by two thousand years of Christian “truth.” To treat the doctrinal complex that comprises Christian “truth” now as of no relevance is a betrayal of integrity of monstrous proportions. There is no impunity for genocidal Pinochets and Milosevics and the machete-killers of Ruanda. There is no “statute of limitations.” The Church must account for its claim to be custodian of a “truth” that precipitated so much horror. To walk away in silence when you have finally come to know that your “truth” was all along nothing but a self-serving delusion that harbored a psychopathic murderous paranoia toward others, is a crime against humanity in a class by itself.

Tribal “Catholicism” is on the way out. It is disappearing because tribal identity is disappearing in a globalized world … I say, good riddance. People can find other ways to protect their cultural heritage. But there is a new monstrosity coming to birth in its wake, a globalized Church with a new identity: the corporate commercial enterprise, supine before the forces of the market which would make us all commodities to be bought and sold. We don’t need this Church either. When will we learn? Roman Imperial Christianity made Jesus “God” and chained him to its program of conquest and control; it created a machinery that, even as things changed, has functioned, inerrantly, for that same purpose ever since.

If we are to liberate ourselves from its grip, we will have to liberate Jesus along with us.


[1]John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012

[2] From Interview w/ Antonio Spadaro pub in America Sept.30, 2013



The Sense of the Sacred (II)

This is not a separate essay.  As the section numbers indicate, these reflections are the continuation of the last post “The Sense of the Sacred,” Aug 2, and are built on those premises.


The sense of the sacred is always associated with the community on which survival depends.  So the religious rituals of self-sacrifice performed the secondary function of sacralizing social life by grounding the community — its routines, its regulations, its castes and its “values” — in the wellspring of the sacred, but always in terms of religion’s separation of the sacred from the profane.  As society changed — specifically in how it guaranteed survival — what religion had narrowly sanctioned as “sacred” had to change with it; if it didn’t, society would generate a religion that would.  Society and religion are integral.  Theocracy is the normal state of affairs; it is natural.  Religion is society’s sounding board for declaring its values sacred.  Those values are what justify society’s survival system guaranteeing existence.

The adjustments made by Christianity in the second century of the common era is an example of a change of this type.  It adapted to living permanently with and within the Roman Empire instead of actively anticipating Rome’s downfall in the Second Coming.  Those modifications were responsible for allowing Rome to feel confident that in selecting Christianity as its state religion it was not shooting itself in the foot.  There were a number of features that assured the empire that its own existence and values were safe with Christianity: hierarchy, a rigid upper-class control of authority and ritual, a quid pro quo “salvation” conditioned on compliant behavior judged by a demanding “God” who sanctioned Rome’s right to rule.  It was a far cry from the original invitation to join Jesus’ “Way,” an egalitarian movement of the common people wrapped in the arms of a merciful “God” who promised the final overthrow of Rome’s system of injustice and idolatry.  Christianity effectively re-invented itself, choosing to function on a dynamic that was quite the opposite of that of its founder.  It changed its world-view from one-world to two, and embraced as its own the class structures that were at the very heart of Roman exploitation.  Christianity never challenged the ancient Mediterranean economic system which was based entirely on slavery on a vast scale.  Control by an aristocratic hierarchy and serfs bound to the land remained in place throughout the subsequent history of Europe in all the nations of the West including the Americas, until the late 18th century.  And all through that time its sacred justification was provided by the Catholic Church and its many reformed versions, very few of which ever challenged those structures.

We can’t fail to appreciate the political implications of all this.  These dynamics are not just the fall-out of ancient illusions; they are invariables that do not change with time or with the symbols that objectify them.  The Catholic/Christian hierarchy was tied to the Roman Imperial, class-based world-view.  They have not officially represented European nations since Europe’s “democratizing” project began with the French and American revolutions.  The Christian state religions of Europe disappeared but left a great tension in their wake.  Society requires a “religion.”  We are still defined by the inescapable need to sacralize the social realities by which we survive and work out our destiny.  Our sense of the sacred will not go away, and the connection between survival (being-here, existence), the community, what we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for, and “God” is a constant.  “God” is a projection of human existential dependency.  It is naturally dominated by society’s existential (survival) role.  Young men have always killed one another and died willingly for their clan and nation even though they were of the same religion.  Religion did not create this disposition; it was an innate inclination and ancient religion was the expression of it.  The human proclivity to be of service to the “sacred” as determined by the survival community will continue to function in the absence of an established religion; it will ineluctably interpret as sacred the processes by which the community currently guarantees survival, and it will eventually develop symbols and rituals — however “irreligious” they may at first appear — that objectify and externalize those “sacred” processes.  In the United States politically conservative Christians, the most socially prominent of whom are the Roman Catholic hierarchy, are currently attempting to redefine Christianity along the lines of the “modern” sacred categories of economic wealthmaking — the corporate business model — in an attempt to align their religion with the values that rule our societies.  The fact that this redefinition stands in stark contrast to the words and spirit of their founder is generally not a matter of serious concern — nor has it ever been.

This is not the willful immorality of greedy and arrogant men, it is the normal process by which society attempts to find a way to declare itself sacred.  A new sacred world view begins to emerge and to function as the old religion did, shaping and subordinating all of economic, political and social activities to the new values.  If a traditional religion can re-tool itself to do this, all the better.  In the case of Christianity, impossible as it was to imagine, it changed itself to reflect the sacred structures and values of the Roman Empire.  If it wants to become the “state religion” of today’s global capitalist empire currently managed by the United States, it will have to reinvent itself once again.  Some believe that transformation is, in fact, well under way and that a return to theocracy, now openly part of political discourse, lies ahead.


 In our times, traditional hieratic controls and their associated values in the West began to be abandoned two hundred years ago with the collapse of the ancien regime and its birth-right nobility rooted in land and agricultural wealth.  The Catholic/Christian hierarchy had been wed to that nobility.  Simultaneously, the industrial and political revolutions spawned a technology-led world of values focused on “freedom,” increasingly interpreted in our day to mean the opportunity for any individual to pursue the unlimited accumulation of wealth for the purposes of consuming at levels once available only to the aristocracy — the “good life.”  The “divine birth-right” class structures supposedly razed in that transition, were quickly re-erected under the rubric of the “superiority” displayed by individuals who had the ability to produce and accumulate wealth.  Wealthmaking took the place of nobility of birth; it became an ultimate value and qualified the economically successful — despite their lack of political credentials and experience (like movie stars)— for membership in the ruling elite.  Political power was now a derivative of wealth and not birth.  By our time it has already become “tradition” and is given the deference reserved for venerable elders.

The current survival pattern in mass society is based on industrial production.  Even our food is produced in industrial modes.  Production and consumption are mutually dependent aspects of this system.  This is the mechanism by which the community provides actual survival and security to its individual members, hence it has become sacred and its sacredness radiates out to sacralize whatever serves and strengthens the system.

Each side of the cycle of production and consumption requires the other.  Production must be aimed at providing what consumers want, and consumers must be encouraged to want what is being produced or the system will fail.  Success in selling, and active participation in buying not just anything, but specifically the products that are being made by the production machinery, take on a value — a “sacredness” — determined by the needs of the survival system as it has evolved regardless of its relevance to the optimal physical and spiritual health of the human organism.  In order to guarantee survival, the system itself must first survive, and consumers must be made to “sacrifice themselves” for it.  These are common patterns that have defined the “sacred” life of the species since time immemorial.  People sacrifice themselves for the survival of their way of life.  Human society is like a “superorganism” and its parts and members spontaneously live for what they see is the good of the whole … by which they survive.

This accounts for some of the anomalies that characterize our times.  For example: national governments like our own, dedicated to keeping the system alive, use public funds to shore up industries and enterprises which provide dubiously important goods and services on the claim that they are so essential to society’s survival that they cannot be allowed to fail.  Governments are also officially in the business of finding overseas clients (consumers) for their producing industries.  Where a country like ours has, for historic reasons, developed a machinery for making weapons of war, the government encourages other governments, however poor their people, to buy these military supplies, effectively transforming themselves into warmaking nations pushing their neighbors to arm themselves in self-defense.  In 2012 The US accounted for 79% of arms sold to third world countries.  This insanity does not come from a satanic desire to foment wars or to divert much needed resources from the poor, it is the result of having to support the nation’s productive sector and the high paying “jobs” that it supports.  No religion denounces it.

An entire industry has developed — advertising — dedicated to manipulating consumers so they will desire the items that are being produced regardless of quality or need.  The tools of persuasion employed to these ends can be so seductive, and their public display so unavoidable, that they undermine the individual’s self-posses­sion and self-control.  Studies have shown that the high American obesity rate and associated disorders like type 2 diabetes correlate with the avalanche of advertising by large restaurant and fast-food chains.  Despite everyone’s recognition that this is more than a mere annoyance, and that the damage to the public’s health is significant and costly, there is no effort to control it; rather, consistent with the analysis presented here, it is declared constitutionally protected speech: advertising is essential to the running of the system, and so is “sacred.”  The churches, of course, never say a word about it.

Few remain unaffected by the brainwashing.  People find themselves drawn into habits of “conspicuous consumption” where a decision to buy is not made because of need, but for other reasons:  a visible proof of their worth as consumers — their value as participating members of society — and a response to subconscious desires created by commercial advertising.

Valid members of society are certified as such by their participation in the consumption of what the economic machinery is producing.  The pursuit of “social justice” is co-opted and rendered acceptable because it is seen as the attempt to include more people in the consumption benefits of the “good life,” thus strengthening the system.  Those who don’t agree with these values are considered eccentric if not sociopathic.  This applies to those who dare to pursue “other” goals: the formation of an egalitarian, classless society, the radical equalization of wealth and international power, the enrichment of human relationships, a pursuit of know­ledge for wisdom and not for “higher paying jobs,” the enjoyment of manual skills and communal labor, eliminating reliance on the production machinery of the system, solitude, silence, and the contemplation of LIFE.  These “sociopaths” are often (self) quarantined in asylums of varying degrees of coercion and respectability, from jails to monasteries.  Why do we all find this “normal”? … because the definition of what is “sacred” is dependent on the actual survival systems that are in place.  We all know what is expected of us even if it is never articulated: producers must provide what will sell (this includes intellectual, esthetic and religious “products”), and consumers must buy what is being sold (however superfluous) … and we comply.

Careers and life-styles are chosen, not because of interest in the work, but because people want to secure for themselves sufficient consumer power to sustain their recognized membership in “respectable” society.  “Respectability” is the system reinforcing itself by transforming what it needs into “sacred values;” those who do not venerate those values are ostracized.  This is the role of religion.  It sanctions the status quo — it “baptizes” how we actually survive and galvanizes people into the common effort.  Those that think it functions otherwise are living in illusion.

Contrary to what many believe, this is not a corruption of religion, it is rather its authentic historic role.  Society is normally and naturally a theocracy.  Mystics like Jesus and the Buddha were eccentrics — sociopaths — who were so appalled at conditions and so transfixed by the universality of the sacred and its echo in us that they were able to transcend society’s mediation of existence entirely and relate directly to its source in our sense of the sacred.  Their sense of the sacred did not correspond to any existing social structures and so could not be immediately utilized.  Each of them took the symbol of “God” from their ancestral religion and revised it so radically (Buddha eliminating it altogether) that it could no longer serve to support their society’s sacred claims.  Each ended up negating the social order of his day.  Jesus projected the end of the world and the beginning of a society ruled by “God” himself, and the Buddha counseled leaving society entirely and permanently living in the sangha, an alternative community sheltered from society’s false “sacred.” Their visions implied a new society.  Their message was a rebellion against the status quo.  Each was later co-opted and harnessed into service by being integrated into their contemporary society’s religious project.  And so their visions were deformed.  Now we have the delicious irony of a Jesus who said we had a “loving Father” who forgave all, himself being turned into the “Terrible Judge” of the living and the dead, and a Buddha who rejected belief in the gods entirely, being made a god who grants what people desire.


 There are a number of ways people have reacted to modernization and the end of state religions, but they never go so far as to challenge consumer-focused wealthmaking as sacred and the consuming individual as the symbol of respectability the “proper” (sacred) way of being-here as a human being.  Conservatives loudly bemoan the loss of the “old values” embedded in traditional religions and claim to seek to reimpose them.  But it is significant and very revealing that they do not challenge the heuristic role of wealth in the exercise of political power: they do not advocate for the re-installation of birthright aristocracy.  But while their own self-interest is surely a factor here, what I want to emphasize is that they are promoting a value that has gained credibility as the sacred symbol of the system by which we all currently survive; wealth­making and the wealthy consumer are icons that are now old enough to be respected as tradition.

Then there are the people conservatives call “liberal” whom they accuse of simply letting the “takers” (non-wealthmakers) guide economic and social policy.  In an “Ayn Rand” scenario, conservatives equate the accumulation of wealth with hard work and intelligence, the qualities of “superior” human beings.  You don’t have to know someone personally to know their “worth” as human beings, you just have to look at their level of consumption.  Liberals are accused of not respecting the accumulation of wealth as the sacred guiding principal of personal superiority, social aspiration and the true indicator of the right to rule.  It is similarly revealing, however, that liberals for their part do not argue with the premise, but rather vociferously deny the charge. They make it a point to declare the goal of public policy to be the “good life” for all, an expansion of the power to consume at high levels identified as “middle-class,” a maneuver they insist will strengthen the system.  There is no commitment whatsoever to reduce superfluous consumption, to pursue the equalization of wealth or the elimination of the enormous disparities of income in a world where one half of the population of the earth, 3 billion people, live on less than $3 per day.  Conservatives seem not to hear any of this this and insist on denouncing liberals as “socialists” which identifies them as demonic — the anti-Christ.  Their sense of the sacred is clearly in play here.  But in fact, from the perspective of sacred values there is no difference between them and they are both supported by religion.

Practically, however, those differences can be very important because even a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth can spell the difference between life and death for people on the edge; but I want to emphasize, that is more a by-product than a goal.  Liberals’ redistribution efforts are rarely couched in such basic terms; they prefer to describe their policies as functions of upward mobility — giving more people access to the “middle class” and the power to consume at respectable levels.  It reveals that whatever else is going on, the system will always be served and preserved.  There is, in fact, no serious talk of socialism, and for conservatives to call the adjustments proposed by liberals socialism is ludicrous.

They are both illustrations of the undisputed place of the power to consume as the sacred value in the culture of our time.  The entire globe is now infected with its pursuit.  Whether in the long run this will be good or bad, beneficial or not, for a human species that must find ways to sustain the earth’s life-support systems and sister species if it is itself to survive, remains to be seen.  But we can be sure of one thing in advance: whatever guarantees being-here will eventually become “sacred” and society will find some way to proclaim it loud and clear.


 The upshot of the discussion so far is that the sense of the sacred is an abiding feature of humankind as it has evolved.  The claim that the loss of tradition entails the loss of the sense of the sacred is simply not true.  The sense of the sacred cannot be lost.  The loss of tradition involves a change in the focus of the sense of the sacred and therefore a change in what symbols are used to objectify it, and what kind of society it sanctions, but the sense of the sacred remains.  It can be manipulated, deformed and exploited, but it cannot be eliminated for it is our instinctive predisposition to recognize and cherish the matrix in which we live and move and have our being. 

As a non-rational instinct, our sense of the sacred functions less like reason and more like taste.  The principal source of taste is tradition.  People tend to like what their ethnic and family traditions have liked.  Food is a prime example, but tradition determines taste in many areas, like politics and religion.  Tradition is an objectified set of symbols — a world-view — whose values are held in high regard because of precedent alone.  It is the power of social inertia.  What is sacred is what everyone believes has always worked for community survival.  Like the common instinct to do what you see everyone else doing, respect for what people “have always done” is an non-rational survival mechanism, hard-wired in us by evolution, of awesome weight and momentum.

Traditional taste is dominated by assurances that are not rationally grounded.  They come only from a trust in what we believe worked for our ancestors. The naïve attempt to make the current system conform to the traditional “sacred” is pathetic and doomed to failure; few really try it though they couch their goals in those terms.  The truth, as always, is rather the opposite: religion tends to conform to the system within which it lives and survives. 

Part of what complicates these issues in our times is the simultaneous presence of multiple obsolete historical traditions and their availability for the refined taste of the discriminating consumer.  In this form religion has become a “product” of commercial enterprise.  Like a museum that provides an esthetic experience of life in another era, the “Church” makes a business of offering the experience of an ancient tradition as an item for sale, and thus secures a respectable place for itself as a wealthmaking business in a business society.  The traditional “sacred” it brokers, however, is irrelevant to the times we live in, as its own submission before the “god” of the marketplace for its self-identity shows.  The overt call, quite explicit in documents coming from the Catholic hierarchy, for church personnel to concentrate on promoting the “Catholic brand” and the crass marketing of “Catholic education” to those who can pay regardless of religious affiliation makes the case clearly.  The corporate business model dominates Catholic policy in practice and is more consciously articulated as such all the time.


Whatever “new sacred” might be emerging under pressure from new survival imperatives created by our global economy at the present moment does not (yet) enjoy the assurances that come with time and tradition.  Conservatives are afraid, correctly in my opinion, that future survival for our self-consciously global community depends upon an abandonment of many of the practices that are proving to be destructive of the earth’s ability to sustain life, and will require an equalization of wealth and power across the globe.  Both these inevitabilities will entail a radical reduction in consumption as currently enjoyed by the heretofore privileged “first world.”  Traditional focus on wealth and the wealthy will no longer work.  Emerging needs will require “socialism,” and tradition cannot support it.  Accepted tradition, per se, carries weight regardless of the incredibility or even absurdity of the objectified symbols it happens to rest on.  Conservative ideologues attempt to provide some rational support to what is really cherished and chosen for other reasons, not for their relevance to what the human community actually needs.

It is proverbial that you cannot argue with taste.  You can argue with the rationalized world-view that is adduced to support it, but since taste is tied to a tradition embraced for itself and ultimately without needing any further reason, demolishing its rational supports will change nothing.  It will simply reveal the non-rational roots of these preferences.

It hardly needs stating that when conservatives claim that the loss of tradition has caused a loss of the sense of the sacred, what they are really complaining about is that the sense of the sacred is now beginning to project different sacred objects — symbols and rituals that do not accord with their taste.  They simply do not like the emerging world-view, which they presciently call socialist; but they cannot claim that it represents a loss of the sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred cannot be lost, it can only be changed.  They do not want these newly emerging values to determine how society will structure itself.  They want to preserve “old” structures.  It is not surprising; those structures are the very ones that preserve (their) wealth and privilege.

Catholicism is not Universalism

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd made a catchy attempt to idealize Catholicism using Joyce’s phrase from Finnegan’s Wake, “here comes everybody!”  But the suggested universalism is one of those fictions we have told ourselves.  It is simply not true.  It is not only contradicted by current Vatican attitudes, it belies the reality of Catholicism’s birth and history.  The Catholic Church, despite its enormous global nominal membership, is anything but universal, it is a local, Western European self-idolizing sectarian association — more of an ethnic-cultural than a religious phenomenon — and grossly intolerant.

The name “Catholic” comes from the adjectival form of an ancient Greek shorthand: kata holon, which literally means “according to the whole,” or “pertaining to the whole.”  It is traditionally translated “universal,” but while that is semantically defensible, from a religious point of view it is a complete distortion of the reality.  The label kat’holica was only applied to Christianity after it had become the official religion of the Roman EmpireThe significance of the new word “Catholic” was not religious, it referred to Christianity’s social role in the Empire.  Christianity was the Empire’s official religion — the only one permitted, all others were banned — and was therefore “obligatory for everyone,” kat’holica.

The word “Catholic” had dark implications for those who weren’t.  In the Roman Empire all other religions — and any but the official version of Christianity — were suppressed, and violently.  The Gnostics were closed down and their books all burned by order of the emperor.  The few writings of theirs that we have is the result of secretive action by monks, hiding their precious books in remote locations.  Arianism was actively persecuted by the Imperial authorities, and even though it took centuries to complete, was only eradicated by physical coercion.  Even the Jews, already dispersed throughout the empire for a millennium when Catholicism was spawned and familiar to all, suddenly became the object of persecution and could no longer count on state protection. “Catholic” meant that the official “orthodox” Christian dogmas and the authorities who guarded them were made the exclusive ideological agent of a narrow totalitarian vision — the policy of the Roman State.  The Imperial Church was the primary instrument for the complete homogenization of thought and guarantor of compliance within the empire.  The two — Church and State — became one flesh.  Rome was a theocracy, it ruled by divine right, and the Catholic Church made sure the “divine” part would fulfill its assignment.

The Church was also responsible for the narrowness, the sectarianism.  In August of 388, a mere eight years after Catholicism’s official establishment, a Jewish synagogue and a chapel of Valentinian Christians in Mesopotamia were burned down by Catholics at the instigation of the local bishop.  The emperor Theodosius’ spontaneous reaction was to punish the bishop and require that he rebuild the synagogue.  But he was publicly excoriated from the pulpit by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan where the emperor resided, and demanded he rescind his order.  The emperor acceded.  That Judaism, whose teachings were the source and inspiration for Jesus’ vision of universal love should have become the object of such opprobrium, is an indication of how narrowly sectarian the “Catholic Church” had become, and how pliant the State was in its service.  The way the events unfolded provided clear evidence that the violence was inspired and justified by Catholic sectarianism — the conviction that it was the one and only Church, kat’holica. 

Keep in mind how early this was.  Note too that it was not simply a case of anti-Semitism, for dissident Christians were included in the attack.  It was a violent affirmation of Catholic sectarian identity and an attempt to physically eliminate others.  Nor was this the only incident of its kind.  Within 20 years of that event, Augustine of Hippo prevailed upon the emperor Honorius to send Roman Legions to Africa to dislodge the Donatists from their churches.  This was a blatant suppression of a local sect of Berber lower class North Africans in favor of the Catholic sect, obedient to the emperor, comprised of the Roman residue of the occupiers following the Punic Wars.

Sectarian Christianity has always been violently intolerant, and it began with its promotion to being “Roman Catholic.”  Violent sectarianism has resurfaced again and again throughout the history of the lands ruled by Catholicism and its offshoots.  Persecution of heretics, slaughter and enslavement of “heathen,” crusades against Moslems, were accompanied by a perennial maltreatment of the Jews.  Neither Luther’s call for their extermination nor the genocide of the Nazis were disconnected isolated phenomena; they are whole cloth with the Catholic intolerance so clearly manifest in the fourth century.

There is nothing universal about Roman Catholicism, not now, not ever.  Totalitarianism is not universalism; it is quite the opposite.  It is the forced imposition of local custom and control on everybody.  The true Jewish universalism implied in Jesus’ message which the first Christian communities followed and fostered, esteems the efforts of “every nation to grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him.”  The “good news” announced by the earliest Christians was that the Jewish “God’s” love for humankind, was neither a demand nor a condition, it was an invitation.  That it became a requirement for “salvation” under the control of upper-class authorities was a deviation that guaranteed Catholicism’s imperial favor leading to its selection as the Religion of the State.

These days there is great talk of reform.  A reform that does not include a return to true universalism is a sham.  Roman Catholic intolerance is bound up with a self-idolatry that must be acknowledged: the Church considers itself divine and it claims it was made so by Jesus himself; “divine foundation” is the ground of its sectarian intolerance and inevitable violence toward others.  Dealing with that horror is the first order of business.


In the ancient world political success — wealth and power — was considered in itself a proof of divine favor.  It is arguable that it still is.  It was a belief that was shared and promoted by Augustine of Hippo, the principal  ideologue of Roman Catholicism.  Augustine’s belief was completely consistent with a theological definition that made “God” into some kind of humanoid “person” who, like the godlings of the Mediterranean pantheon, dispensed “blessings” in the form of material success and punished with poverty and failure.  There was no difference in the kind of divinity imagined, only the size and level of its power: the “God” of Augustine’s imagination had no limits and no competitors.  Its providence embraced every detail of every event, natural or man-made.  The very success of the Roman Empire, despite its bloody and rapacious history, according to Augustine, was clear evidence of “God’s” providential design, for the Empire became the instrument for the diffusion of Christianity to the ends of the earth, giving the Romans a continuance of the divine permission for conquest.  Thus was “God” “paganized” and re-conceived as a god of war and the atavistic texts from the old testament supporting Hebrew expansionism suddenly came to life again in their literal sense.

This notion of a separate “God,” out there apart from us, to whom we are related by command and control and not by blood, is at variance with Paul’s and John’s “aboriginal LIFE in which we live and move and have our being.”  Once you project a “theist” anthropomorphic “God” who is not immanent in our humanity, who micromanages every occurrence of the natural world and makes use of the free choice of men to accomplish his purpose, you cannot challenge the way things are, nor appropriate the “divinity” necessary to change them … for the way things are must be the way “God” wants them.  You have nothing to say about it.  Wealth and power no matter how criminally obtained were “blessings” from “God.”  They had to be, or “he” would never have permitted them.  Internal consistency demands that you accept the status quo no matter how unjust it represents the “will of God.”  To Paul’s eternal discredit, this belief was enunciated clearly in Romans 13.  But it is not a museum piece, it is endemic to traditional “theist” Christianity and it is with us to this day.  It is exactly the attitude that only months ago prompted an American politician to affirm that if a pregnancy resulted from rape it had to be the will of “God.”  Events as recent and as unconnected as American Imperial prerogatives justifying the Iraq war, the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake have been explained similarly as the will of “God” by religious and political leaders.

It should not escape notice that Augustine’s “Christian” interpretation of history confirmed what the Romans had always claimed about themselves: that they were destined by the gods to rule the world.  This belief long preceded Christianity.  Even while Rome was still a Republic, the great “City” was called diva Roma, “divine Rome.”  Military victory, conquest and the enormous wealth and power that accrued were considered proof of the Empire’s divine status.  The emperor was called divine, but only by extension … the primary “divinity” belonged to the ascendant State.  The occasion for Augustine to write De Civitate Dei, “The City of God,” was the sack of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths in 410.  That unprecedented humiliation prompted an outcry from the “pagans” that the old gods had abandoned Rome because Rome had thrown them off for Christianity.  Augustine’s book was written to assure them that Rome could count on the very same providence from the Christian “God” that they had always enjoyed under the gods of Rome.  Rome, “the City,” remained “of God,” but its destiny was now borne forward in intimate association with Church.  The sack of Rome was a punishment for failing to follow the commands of the true “God” and his Catholic Church.  The rape of Christian women by Alaric’s Christian troops was interpreted by Augustine as “God’s” punishment of those women for taking pride in their chastity.   ( sic ! The City of God, Bk 1, ch. 28)

Ultimately, Augustine’s work provided an ideological justification for the continuity of Roman theocracy.  By Augustine’s time, Rome had enjoyed “divinity” for a thousand years, long before Christianity was born.  That divinity, guaranteed by the providence of “God,” now passed to the Church as Rome’s intimate consort.  The Church was now “God’s” Rome — the “City” of “God.”  No less than the divinization of the emperor, the divinization of Catholicism was a derivative of the indisputable divinity of the Roman Empire and the canonization of its wealth and political  power.  If the Catholic Church considers itself divine, it’s because it was the co-regent of Rome.  It was Rome, not Jesus, that made the Catholic Church “divine.”  And it was ultimately Rome that defined for its own purposes what kind of “divinity” Jesus was to have — Pantocrator, “The All-Ruler,” homoousios, “as high a ‘God’ as the Father himself.”  The Church became divine by marriage, not by birth — the bride of the empire, not of Christ.  Bride?  The discernible inspiration behind its behavior and attitudes throughout history has prompted reformers to call it a whore — The Whore of Babylon.[1]

Please be advised: “bride,” like the “body of Christ” is only a metaphor.  And even if you claim it was more than a metaphor for Paul, he never intended it to be applied to a transnational corporation.  The Roman Catholic corporation is not Christ.  Even when poetically applicable, as in the case of small authentically Christian communities, the error arises from taking poetry literally.  It’s one of the many “doctrinal” deceptions keeping Catholics from assuming the universalist perspective implicit in Jesus’ message — a major element in true Church reform.  The Catholic Church is only one religion among many, Christian and non-Christian, all of whom are “groping” to find “God.”  Reform does not mean the mere forensic rehabilitation of an archaic self-serving institution which has lost moral credibility due to the ineptness of its managers.  It calls for nothing less than the radical re-appro­pria­tion of the message of Jesus and the public repudiation of those “dogmas” that divinize the Roman sect and its authorities.

[1] Identifying the pagan Rome referred to in the Book of Revelations with the Vatican was invoked in the past by reformers such as Savonarola, as well as by Luther and Calvin. … [It] is in the Smalcald Articles of Luther’s time and the 1646 Westminster Confession of Calvinists. It is still professed by churches who have embraced these documents … “ Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, “The Whore of Babylon.” Washington Post, May 20, 2008.

Caveat Emptor


Caveat Emptor is latin for “let the buyer beware.”  It will eventually become clear why I chose it for a title.  I had originally planned to call this piece “On the Nature of Things” as an intentional reference to the poem De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.  It was also meant to evoke the work of almost the same name, “On Nature,” Periphyseon, by the ninth century Irish monk John Scotus Eriúgena (Erse) who was brought to France in 845 by the grandson of Charlemagne to educate and civilize the barbarians.  He failed.  It’s important to understand why.  So, despite the change in title, I still need to begin there.

With this double reference I am trying to call attention to the congruence of vision that existed between Lucretius, an ancient pagan “atheist” writing in the golden age of the Roman Empire, and Eriúgena, a Christian mystic from the farthest edge of the then known world credited with being the last expression of Hellenic theology before the middle ages.  The conflation elucidates a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion and the European culture that emerged from it.  Lucretius and Eriúgena shared the last vestiges of a world-view that was soon to disappear, swept away by the pecuniary proto-capitalism of mediaeval Christianity.

As one would expect, there are differences between these two men.  But what they have in common is so fundamental that it provides the basis for a potential reconciliation from which mediaeval Christianity, despite its historical provenance, is excluded.  What Lucretius and Eriúgena both profess, and mediaeval theology does not, is the metaphysical primacy and heuristic pre-eminence of nature.  It is nature and nature alone that is not only all of being, but is its own exclusive interpreter.

Nothing else exists except nature, and everything we know about nature is revealed to us by nature itself.  For Eriúgena, as for Philo Judaeus and all the early Fathers, “revelation” meant that the metaphors, symbols and stories found in the Hebrew scriptures taught the very same “truth” for the benefit of the ordinary people, that the learned philosophers discovered by other means.  Nature provided the philosophers — the scientists of their day — with facts by which the scriptures were to be interpreted, not the other way around.  Both men were focused only on this one world; they concurred that its source and destiny — where it came from and where it’s going — remain entirely within it.  Scholastic dualism, on the other hand, the interpretive language of the mediaeval version of Christianity, locates the source and destiny of this natural material world in a second world, a supernatural world of immaterial spirit, which “reveals” information — facts — about our world that we would otherwise have never known.

For both Lucretius and Eriúgena nature rules.  But it goes further than you might expect.  Even the “God” of the Christian monk is comprehended under the category of “nature.”  Eriúgena identified the Source of all things as “Nature which creates, but is not created” … and the universal Destiny of all things, “Nature that neither creates nor is created.”  The theme was taken up later by Spinoza who described “God” as natura naturans (Nature giving birth) and creation as natura naturata (Nature born).  We are obviously in the realm of imagery and terminology here that is foreign to our own.

Lucretius and Eriúgena, despite being centuries apart, lived in an era when the gods had lost their credibility for pagan and Christian alike.  People were looking to the “divinity within.”  We may be on the brink of doing so again in our times, but so far we have not.  We still think of “God” as mediaeval Christianity imagined — an entity/person “out there,” not only distinct but separate from and “other” than us, whose personal providence and perplexing permissions determine what happens to us from day-to-day.  It was different in the ancient world.  Both pagan and Christian believed that an immanent power — sacred LIFE — dwelt at the core of nature like a creative transforming seed, spewing things out into life and then drawing them all to itself in a great cycle of birth and return.  Jesus’ resurrection for Eriúgena was the first fruits of the great return, the réditus of Plotinus.  The réditus was a natural event — a part of nature — the natural evolution of LIFE.  It would have occurred even if there were no incarnation.

The first stanzas of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura assimilates nature’s creative power to the charisma of the love-god Venus in a poetic allusion that anticipates Freud’s use of eros for the energy of LIFE.  In our era, we tend to divide the world into those who “believe in God” and those who don’t, and if you are “pagan” it means you don’t.  That wasn’t true of Lucretius and Eriúgena.  They both believed that the universe was hot with a divine fire that was on shameless passionate display in the natural order.  For them “God” was not the issue.  The only difference between them, as Paul explicitly declared in his speech at Athens, was that for “pagans” “God” was unknown — they did not know his name, history, family, and “will” — Christians did.

But for both men there was no other world; this one world was itself the revelation of divine LIFE.  I contend that whether you think there is one world or two-worlds is more important to the authenticity of your response to LIFE than whether you believe in “God.”  For believing there are two worlds, and that you don’t belong here, necessarily generates a distance — an emotional disconnect — that makes love … and justice, impossible.  Some call it alienation.  You become a stranger to yourself and your world.

For his part, the Irishman, like the Greek Fathers who taught him, did not believe there was a place called “heaven” any more than Lucretius.  Following his mentor Gregory of Nyssa, Eriúgena taught that heaven was not a place, it was a state of mind … and “hell” was the misery we experience when we intentionally choose to separate ourselves from LIFE.  “God” sends no one to this personal hell; the freely choosing human being is the only one who can do that.  Eriúgena’s “heaven” was the very same state of mind that Lucretius was trying to evoke with his poem, newly appreciated today for what it is, a religious manifesto calling its readers to drop their superstitions about miracles and punishments and commit themselves to LIFE as it is.  But make no mistake.  For Lucretius every bit as much as for Eriúgena, LIFE included the resident power to create, change and grow … everything in nature was a clone of the love that spawned it.  LIFE was sacred.  For us humans it meant activating our role as agents of LIFE, transforming our communities into oases of justice and mutual esteem.  For the contemplative in all of us, it meant to taste and see the liberating “truth:” that we are at home in the material universe … that we are the children of LIFE … that we belong here.   Our human hearts are the place where “God” resides and reveals “him”self.  Eriúgena called it “theophany.”  There are no gods beyond us to help us or hurt us, as Lucretius reminds us constantly:  whether it were one “God” or many, it was superstition.  The only divine power we can call on resides within us; and the only power that can destroy us is ourselves.  We are theotokoi, the bearers of LIFE; Lucretius and Eriugena both want us to see that, because if we don’t, we will never activate it.


In contrast to this ancient vision, we in the West are living in the last years of mediaeval Christianity.  If what drove the ancient world was the derogation of the gods, mediaeval Christianity was their reinstatement.  This reversal was a long time in coming; for, original Christianity — the “way” of John and Paul — was born of the ancient world’s rejection of the gods.

Five hundred years before the common era the early Greek “philosophers” challenged the stories of the gods … as did the Buddha in India … and Lao Tzu in China.  What they all saw, almost simultaneously, was that the gods were myths — poetic symbols of something immanent, something interior to us.  They introduced an insight that became a planetary movement that never won, but never entirely died out either.  The earliest Christians shared that view, as we know from Paul and John.  Eriúgena was still bearing it forward when he died in 877.

But it is not the one we were formed in.  The Catholicism that our generation inherited was the finalized version of a pecuniary, two-world, quid pro quo Christianity, born sometime after the “apostolic age,” made the consort of the Roman empire by Constantine, and rationalized by the Roman philosopher, Augustine.  It was a vision that came to dominate western Europe in the middle ages.  With it, the “gods” returned with a vengeance in the form of the humanoid “God” of the book and brought with them the demons of the “other world” and the crushing fear of hell.  If the ancients began the process of internalizing the Sacred, discovering the true depths of what it means to be human, mediaeval Christianity externalized it once again, set it off in another world.  It resulted in human beings becoming alienated from the earth and from themselves, bitter at life and terrified of death.

I have called mediaeval Christianity “pecuniary proto-capita­lism” because it was premised on buying a LIFE that we were told we did not own.  In this version LIFE did not belong to us.  Mediaeval Catholicism imagined another world, supernatural, not part of nature, and a separate “God-person” who lived in that other world, as capricious and as easily provoked as any Greek godling, ruled by fate and “logic,” who sent plagues and earthquakes to punish us now as a foretaste of what he had in store for us later.  This alien “God” lived in an immortal immaterial world to which we mortals and our material bodies were barred but could gain entrance by accumulating the coin of the realm — grace and merit.  And we had better do so; for the alternative was an unthinkable eternity of torment applied by this same monster “God” who mercilessly punished anyone who had the misfortune of being born human, including unbaptized infants.  What a storyWhat did mediaeval theologians offer as a way of coping with this nightmare?

They said entrance to the other world and avoidance of the wrath of hell could be obtained by trade.  We could dodge the bullet and get what we wanted — eternal LIFE — but we had to pay for it.  It took the form of a business deal brokered exclusively by the ChurchIt was exactly the appropriate instrument for dealing with this irascible “God.” “God” was the “owner” of this other world.  We insulted him so he threw us out.  We  belonged there, not here, but our way was blocked by an angel with a flaming sword.  To whom can we turn?  The Church is “God’s” sole agent.  We can gain entrance only by giving “God” what “he” wants, which only the Church knows, paying a price here that otherwise would be extracted from our tormented bodies after death.  The “solution,” if you ask me, was almost as much of a nightmare as the problem.


Mediaeval Christianity brokered a “contract” with “God” — a quid pro quo — a business dealThe “business transaction” was its central ritual — a cell-like symbol from which all things derived their significance; it became the image that dominated western culture.  Business.  It may take many forms but in all cases it presupposes independent unconnected individuals each with his/her own needs, resources and desires.  The paradigm is based on dissatisfaction, for why else would there be any interest in someone contacting anyone else unless one wanted to acquire what one didn’t have?  If I dare to contact “God,” it can only be for one reason: because there is something he has that I want to get … and there is something I suspect he wants.

Excuse me before we go any further, but this is totally absurd; “God” needs and wants nothing.  No quid pro quo is even possible.  The lameness of the analogy is obvious.  How in the West it became the principal interpretive symbol for all of life — all our interactions and all our relationships — once we understand the thrust of mediaeval Christianity, is less of a mystery than we might have thought.  It may remain absurd, but at least it becomes intelligible.

“Business” is driven by demand, need.  Someone lacks something … and is willing to part with something he treasures — money, goods, services, labor — in order to get it.   Humans are presumed to be eternally needy.  Mediaeval Christianity grounded that by following Augustine and dogmatically defining the human being as congenitally corrupt and therefore so needy as to be fundamentally insatiable.  For consider: if I can never be whole, complete, I can never be satisfied.  It’s as simple as that.  Thus was created the penchant for calculating every human action as a response to self-interest.  We were gollum-like creatures incapable of humanity: generosity, magnanimity, love.

A second presumption of the business model of life is that I own what I have — it is mine to trade or keep or even destroy as I see fit.  There is no acknowledgement that we have not provided ourselves with our bodies nor the earth’s resources which sustain them.  These things are freely given; they cannot be bought, and the claim that we own them is a fiction necessary for trade that is erroneously taken as literal.  Reality is grossly distorted in the shallowness of using the business transaction as the model for life.  Ownership is a metaphor.  It is not real!

Thinking of life in terms of buying and selling might seem normal enough at first glance.  Trade is a function of need, and need of one type or another is simply a pervasive fact for everyone.  Buying and selling has been a characteristic of social life at all times among all people everywhere.  It is a virtually unavoidable part of life … but it’s only a part.  What is unique about our culture is that the business transaction — and by implication, the individual need and self-interest that drives itbecame the paradigm, the template, the model for every relationship and every interpersonal interchange among us.

Note also that the business transaction presupposes separate individuals, from start to finish.  Union never occurs.  The individual remains always the individual, even afer the transaction is complete, for the contract is never about what you become or whom you embrace and bind yourself to, or what you commit to.  You never lose yourself in anything.  The contract is not about what you are but what you get … and what you are willing to do to get it. 

The “contract” also presupposes that the contracting parties are capable of defending themselves and therefore freely enter into the relationship.  It places the burden for fairness on the wariness of the contractors, watching out for their own self-interest.  Justice becomes a matter of individual self-defense, not a communal responsibility.  The implications of this dynamic are far-reaching: it explains the principal warning of the business transaction: caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.”  It also explains why the defenseless are so consistently exploited: they are expected to defend themselves, even though, by definition, they cannot.  Each party is presumed to be looking out for him/herself.  And finally, it explains how the crass depredation of the environment can have occurred: for nature cannot defend itself.  Nature stands mute and helpless before our runaway technology and senseless extractions leading to the depletion of natural systems we all need for survival.  From there come the anthropogenic extinctions of life forms other than ours currently estimated at over 35,000 species annually.


The business contract takes the place of human union, and in fact by standing in the place of union, precludes it.  The “two” parties of a business deal never become “one.”  Three examples: Marriage … Society … and Myself.   Marriage was understood to be an economic entity defined by contract — whether or not human union occurred was irrelevant.  Society was imagined to be the result of a “social contract” between individuals and the ruler “vertically,” and not among the individual members “horizontally.”  And third: even one’s relationship to one’s self was alienated, i.e., objectified and externalized in a quid pro quo arrangement with a separate “God”-person (my creator/owner) managed by contract (“covenant”).  Let’s take a closer look at these three examples.

(1) Marriage has been categorized as a contract and treated as a business agreement since before records were kept, and the interested parties were most often other than the marriage partners.  Arrangements were made by the parents, with dowries and other compensations included as essential elements.  Then, at least since Roman times, marriage became an economic entity regulated by the State.  The emperor Augustus actually issued edicts not only making the reproductive function (not the “relationship”) the “matter” of the contract, but he assigned penalties for those who did not reproduce in complete disregard of the quality that the relationship might otherwise have.  Augustus had an explicit political intention in all this: to raise Roman citizens to run the empire and prevent “foreigners and barbarians” from taking over.  We have the residue of this with us in the shrill insistence of the Catholic Church that it has the right to exercise the imperial role of regulating marriage.  And true to form, its regulations are designed to prevent the dilution of Catholic constituency.  The current controversy over same-sex marriage has nothing to do with interpersonal commitment and vows — relationship — which the parties are always free to make anyway, but rather with society’s recognition of the contractual form which acknow­ledges certain economic rights and responsibilities.  The contract — the business deal — rules.

(2) Since the 17th century, the collaborative structures that constitute Larger Society have been described as the result of a tacit social contract between individuals and their government.  The paradigm is exclusively vertical.  Society is not interpreted as “family” or even “mutual help neighbors” where all have a prior natural relationship to each other involving rights and responsibilities as one might have imagined.  One “retains” the State and pays for certain clearly defined services — police, fire protection, education, national security, etc., — with taxes.  The failure to provide the services, or the failure to pay taxes is a breach of contract.  Outside of those specified duties, neighbors have no legal responsibility to one another for they are all independent, unrelated individuals who happen to live side by side on the same piece of land.   The binding relationship exists between the government and the individual.  Relationship among citizens is ad libitum and all mutual support is supererogatory.  There are no social crimes except violations of the social contract.  We like to call this horizontal unconnected­ness, freedom. 

Christianity got trapped in this verticality by having too close an association with the State.  Following a path opened in chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Christianity lent itself as practical support for social harmony within the Roman world obtained through compliance with the law.  It was underway long before Constantine and dove-tailed perfectly with the individuation of “salvation” inherent in the “two-world” version of Platonized Christianity .  This, to my mind, was a fatal alliance that compromised the Christian vision.  Society — and the State / Church as its guardian — is interested only in behavior that guarantees social stability; it is exclusively vertical.  It does not care about the depth of your horizontal “relationships.”  It means, ultimately, that the state as “law,” and Jesus’ message as uncompromising justice and generative love, are completely incompatible, because the message is precisely about the quality and depth of our relationships.  The two  operate on contrary dynamics.  “Love” as “law” becomes a question of what you do, not how you understand who you are or how you are related and bound to others.  The ersatz “freedom” of the business contract is not freedom at all; it is simply a distance between contracting parties that eschews all responsibility except for the narrow terms of the contract.  True freedom, in contrast, is the ability to rest in union … union with others, … union with oneself … and union with that “in which we live and move and have our being.”  True freedom is the ability to embrace and be embraced … to face the elimination of distance without fear of losing oneself. 

(3) Even the relationship with “God,” as we’ve suggested, was originally imagined in our Judeo-Christian tradition as a quid pro quo contract (covenant) in which “God” promised victory and prosperity for the nation, in exchange for ritual acknowledgement and obedience to “his” law.

The Christian “new” covenant, on the other hand, as articulated by Paul, claimed to abrogate the “law” and therefore eliminate the quid pro quo nature of the “old” contract; but please notice: Paul still used the contract imagery and terminology.   Paul was a Jew.  He had no other terms in which to express his understanding of the Christ-event.  His letter to the community at Rome is a good example of the convoluted efforts he had to make to say what he meant while still using covenant categories and terminology.  In spite of this, however, it was perfectly clear that he was talking about LIFE as gratuitous.   But, unfortunately, by characterizing Jesus’ death as the “full payment” of the Jewish contractual obligations with Yahweh, he already laid the foundations for the skewing that occurred in later generations.

This explains how the mediaeval version of Christianity could even have arisen.  Covenant terminology was taken literally, not metaphorically.  As Christianity insisted on usurping the place of the Jews and their scriptures in the Greco-Roman world, they began to take the “contract” imagery embedded in the Old Testament texts literally and applied it to their religion as the “new contract.”  A literal “contract” implied a “God” who was a literal “person” who wanted something in return for “salvation.”  It completely undermined Paul’s gratuitous vision.  This development was reinforced by the belief in the literal divinity of the man Jesus imposed by Roman imperial edict in 325.   Making an individual human person “God,” made “God” an individual person.  That conflated with the individualization of sin and damnation / salvation rationalized by Augustine.  It had the final effect of imagining life as a “business transaction”  between the individual “God” and the individual soul using the contractual metaphors of the OT as literal descriptors.

Christians, not unlike the “mortal” pagans who believed in the immortal Olympian gods, came to consider themselves “different” from “God” and alien to that “other” immortal world where they supposedly really belonged but had lost the rights of entry.  They had to “buy” their way back into that world.  This “buying” became the central dynamic of mediaeval Christianity.  Subsequently every kind of social interaction has come under the rubric of the business transaction.  Many see the commodification of life as the central and defining feature of modern society.  It began and grew in late antiquity and was set in place as the overarching western paradigm with mediaeval Christianity.  It displaced the vision of Eriúgena and Lucretius, John and Paul.

The rituals and observances of Christianity were transformed by this central dualist dynamic into accumulative mechanisms.  The sacraments stopped being “mysteries of immersion” and became automatic apparatuses for “gaining” the grace necessary to avoid sin and thus “earn merit” without which entrance into “heaven” would not be granted.  Since the sufferings of life and the human “inclination to sin” were believed to be a living proof that “God,” implacably furious at humankind for the sin of Adam (Augustine’s thesis), withheld the grace necessary to earn direct entrance into “heaven,” the majority would either go to hell or, if they were lucky, spend a considerable amount of time in Purgatory.  This “temporal punishment due to sin” set up a secondary search for ways to shorten the time in stir.  Responding to market demand, the Catholic Church cleverly devised a “product” called “indulgences” — utterly without scriptural or theological grounds — which were offered as a quid pro quo exchange of religious obser­vance for “time off” in purgatory, calculated to the day.  One could gain a year’s indulgence, or 5 years etc.  And highly prized “plenary indulgences” were also available.  These were originally exchanged for “good deeds” or prayers.  But it quickly became clear that since almsgiving was a corporal work of mercy, it was itself a “good deed.”  From there it was a short step to offering plenary indulgences in exchange for donations to the Church.  It was this particular practice, so egregiously pecuniary that people would no longer tolerate it, that precipitated Luther’s challenge at Wittenberg in 1517.   But it was only the most extreme result of a metaphysical and religious worldview that saw all of human life in terms of business transactions.

We live with these patterns even today; we are so accustomed to them that they pass without notice.  People still “buy masses” for the deceased.  While we may overlook the monetary charge as a way of supporting the clergy, there is no overlooking the absurd quid pro quo premise behind the practice: that the “sacrifice of the mass” pleases “God” to such an extent that “he” will change his mind about the amount of “temporal punishment due to sin” meted out to that person whose name is on the next card in the stack, or, in rare cases, actually muttered by the priest.  It might be mediaeval in origin, but it is common and current practice.

Moreover, the transactional paradigm has turned the “Church” itself into a self-defined corporate enterprise, legally identified with the person of the bishop alone, whose success is routinely assessed in economic terms: income, market share, brand recognition.  Services once considered works of charity like hospitals, social and relief agencies, schools, are now known to be targeted efforts calculated for their ability to generate income and maintain constituency.  The present strategy of turning parochial schools into independent “Catholic” academies open to whoever can pay the tuition regardless of church affiliation, even indicates that income supercedes membership as a corporate priority.  The business model rules.  And this is the Church that holds the keys to your eternal destiny?  Let the buyer beware.

The entire picture is at variance with the unitary, immanent and therefore communal vision espoused by Lucretius and Eriúgena … and John and Paul.  By laying out the very foundations of human life and society along transactional lines — as quid pro quo between opposing interests — mediaeval Christianity established the paradigm that promotes capitalism, not only as an economic system, but as a social ideology using business success as a tool of social Darwinism.  By changing our very image of the nature of things from a self-embracing communal love internally energized by its own LIFE, to a fearful, self-interested, calculating attempt to acquire LIFE in another world to which we have no right and little interest, mediaeval Christianity institutionalized a profound alienation which is now becoming global in its reach and penetration.  Besides the enormous toll in human destruction through the centuries since its ascen­dency, the ultimate by-product — the environmental degradation of nature that cannot defend itself in a transactional universe — the flip-side of our technological acquisitions — may with poetic justice, do us in.

But it would be wrong to motivate ourselves to change the “contract” paradigm just to get what we want.  The point is to stop thinking obsessively about what we don’t have and want to get and where we want to go and begin to appreciate what we are — what we have been freely given — our bodies, one another, and the earth that sustains us.  We are not needy; we are wealthy beyond measure.  If we reach out to others, it is to share, not to get.  We are the children of LIFE and the mirrors of love.  It’s time we opened our eyes to the nature of things.