Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

“Be holy as I am holy”  (1 Pet 1:16;Lv 11:44-55; 21:26;)

“Be holy as I am holy.”  That striking challenge from the first letter of Peter has always held center stage in the Christian Doctrine of “God.” What it means to say that “God” is “holy,” how­ever, is not immediately clear because the significance of the word has been different in different contexts.

In its original place in Leviticus, the biblical authors used the word “holy” (kodesh) to separate what is pure from what is impure as regards foods, animals and certain activities, and so it means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness.” “Holy” referred to a category that goes beyond the moral and bears on the contract that bound Yahweh to Israel and formed the conditions for his keeping his promises. The items listed for avoidance were all “dirty” in some way and therefore unworthy of those who would associate with Yahweh, who was considered absolutely clean … holy.

As the religious thinking of the Mediterranean peoples came to be dominated by Greek, and especially dualistic Platonic imagery, the notion of “impurity” was easily absorbed into the notion that “matter” was dead and needed “spirit” in order to live. Matter by its nature was composed of parts; it was spirit that held those parts together. Left to itself matter decomposed. Matter was impure in the first instance, therefore, because it is the source of death.

Matter also had a direct relationship to animality for the Greeks, who considered bodily urges, especially for being spontaneous and unresponsive to mental control, to be something less than human. The agitation of the “flesh” was the antithesis of spirit’s characteristic serenity. Hence to be “holy” for the Greeks signified the contemplative quiet­ness of the purely spiritual … nothing made of matter could be expected to achieve any such tranquility and therefore was to that degree “unholy.” Peter’s intention in repeating the phrase from Leviticus seems to assume the Greek meaning of impure as “giving in to passions” and the call to holiness an encouragement to keep a “sober-minded” control over the body.

At the end of the middle ages, the “holiness” of “God” was conceived in Augustinian terms. “God” was holy because, as Plato imagined him he was beyond matter in every way, but also as Augustine taught, because “God” was Mind, the ultimate source of all rationality and the one who created and sustained the universe as the material expression of his self-reflecting ideas. For Augustine it was the Mind of God that made things what they were and gave them their destiny. Everything was created for a reason. The universe was believed to be full of discernible purpose. So God was “holy” because he commanded that the reason embedded in things — the purposes that were the reflections of his perfections, the natural law — be obeyed and not be thwarted. God was holy because he demanded that everything be done and treated “right.” God was “righteous” and demanded that we conform to the rightness of his creation.

This righteous holiness became the source of an imagined infinite gap between God and humankind. It made “God” morally transcendent. For Augustine the counterpart to that transcendence was the utter depravity of man caused by Adam’s disobedience. Not only did men and women have “bodies” made of mortal matter which made them impure and slaves to their lusts, but because of original sin their humanity had become thoroughly corrupt and led them to behavior that was morally “irrational:” it disregarded the right purposes that “God” had put into created things, including the human body; human nature was not “righteous.” The human race, according to those who followed Augustine, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in the searing light of the all holy God deserved nothing but annihilation.

This human experience of the overwhelming holiness of God is identified by Adolf Harnack as the very epicenter of religion.

the religious motive in the strictest sense of the term [is] the motive that asserts itself within the Christian religion as the power of the living God, before whose Holy Spirit nothing that is one’s own retains its independence …[1]

In passage after passage, the Reformers reveal their vision of the degeneracy of man and the overwhelming righteousness of “God.” “Predestination,” which means that “God” intentionally chooses some to be condemned to eternal torment and others to live in endless bliss regardless of merit, was considered a perfectly reasonable thing to do for the supremely holy Creator in his dealings with a thoroughly corrupt humankind. Here is John Calvin:

Since God inflicts due punishment on those whom he reprobates and bestows unmerited favor on those whom he calls he is free from every accusation: just as it belongs to the creditor to forgive the debt to one, and exact it of another. The Lord, therefore may show favor to whom he will, because he is merciful; not show it to all, because he is a just judge. In giving to some what they do not merit, he shows his free favor; in not giving to all, he declared what all deserve.[2]

“What all deserve” is the key notion for Calvin, following Augustine. The entire human race, regardless of the merits of the individuals, deserves eternal torment in hell because of Adam’s infinite insult to “God.” Even infants who died without baptism “deserved” damnation because of Adam’s disobedience. Humanity was congenitally impure, degenerate, unholy. “Salvation,” therefore, was always the gratuitous gift of a holy “God” who was under no obligation to save anyone. “God” made some chosen individuals “holy” by drawing them to himself through faith in the atonement wrought by Christ’s death on the cross. No one was ever capable of a holy act on their own without the miraculous grace of a saving “God.”

Throughout this scenario the transcendent “holiness” of “God” who dwells in light inaccessible beyond the realm of perverse humankind, was the overriding notion.  It was the guiding imagery that brought Christians to their knees in total surrender — shorn of any means of self defense. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”  You could not help yourself in any way.  All you could do was pray you were one of the “elect.” In order to be holy as “God” was holy, you had to be specially chosen, called and miraculously made holy by the irresistible grace of the holy “God.”  According to Augustine, Peter’s invitation omitted a lot of details.

*     *     *     *

Jesus also left out details — not only Calvin’s but also Peter’s.  In his preaching, Jesus frequently called his listeners to “be like” their Father.  The idea of imitating “God” was reminiscent of the sentiments of Leviticus.  But Jesus offered neither kosher purity nor spiritual control as the content of the imitation, much less did he make any reference to “congenital depravity.” Rather Jesus’ terms are about super-abundant generosity, limitless mercy, unbounded forgiveness, measureless love.  This gives a completely different sense to the word “holy,” one that Jesus seems to assume is well within everyone’s grasp without recourse to an elite education, sacraments, membership in a new religion, miraculous intervention by “God” or some special psychological appropriation of moral impotence.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[3]

The last phrase “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” semantically parallels the Leviticus call to be holy, but it imposes a new meaning. What makes the Father “holy” and sets him apart from everything else for Jesus is the absolute universality of his generosity. He is perfect in giving: he treats absolutely everything and everyone the same by showering them with LIFE in rain and sunlight without regard for who they are. But astonishingly, according to Jesus, this “perfection” is also ours simply by imitation.  Just do it! he says.  There are no hidden details.  It is by being universally generous as “God” is universally generous — i.e., without regard to whom it benefits, even if it is those who hate us — that we become “sons of our heavenly Father.” “God’s” holiness suddenly no longer sets him apart from us; to the contrary it turns out to be what we have had in common all along.  There is no infinite gap between the Father and us. “God” does not “transcend” us; he is our genetic source, “our Father.” His holiness is already poured into us because we can do what he does. For Jesus we are not rotting matter facing a “Pure Spirit,” nor are we groveling degenerates begging the all-holy to make us human by the intervention of some miraculous power.  We are the proud legitimate sons and daughters of our Father; we share his genetic material; and we can be perfect as he is perfect.

I contend that the imitation of the selfless love and forgiveness of “God,” based precisely upon the genetic relationship to that “God” whom Jesus never referred to as anything but “Father” was the leitmotiv of his message, repeated in his preaching, his parables and his interactions with people. And I submit that it implies a religious vision that is antithetical to all of the notions of “holiness” derived from philosophical transcendence.

Jesus was not a philosopher.  But make no mistake.  That only means he did not express himself in philosophical terms.  It does not mean that he did not have a solid worldview that was completely consistent with the moral invitations he was issuing to his fellow Jews … invitations that even in his lifetime were recognized and responded to by those who were not Jews.  Jesus’ universal call and its universal recognition by people of various cultures and tongues even thousands of years after he lived and taught, and despite every effort to complicate his simple message and harness its energy to drive one particular political machine or another, still astonishes us.

The often self-aggrandizing attempts to understand why it is that Jesus’ message still has such appeal after so much time, collapse before the evidence that wells up even within the heart of the one searching: we know exactly why Jesus’ message has such appeal.  We hear the echo within us.  It vibrates at our own frequency.  No logic is required to convince us of the truth that simply restates what we intimately know about ourselves.

Be holy as he is holy” in Jesus’ vision of things ultimately means, “be holy, because it is genetically what you are … holiness resides in the very marrow of your bones.”  Be holy because you are holy.

 

 

[1] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. VII, p. 127, Dover, NY, 1900

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ch. XXIII, sect. 11

[3] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Locations 189810-189812). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

“God” is the energy of LIFE

1

“No one has ever seen ‘God’ …” This line from the gospel and the first letter of John contains a multitude of clarifications.  It says, to begin with, that “John” did not think of “God” anthropomorphically as you would expect from someone whose primary reference was the Hebrew scriptures.  For the Bible speaks very clearly about many people having seen “God” or at least met him and heard him speak.  John seems to have believed that the descriptions of those encounters used imagery that was not literal and did not reveal “God.”  His use of the phrase suggests instead that he was a bi-cultural diaspora Jew whose primary categories were Greek; for the Greeks believed that “God” was not knowable.

Then, because that line is a lead-in to the next: “the man Jesus has made him (“God”) visible,” John appears to be claiming a new beginning.  He is not talking about a revelation that simply added to or refined earlier Hebrew revelations — one of a sequence that places Jesus in the line of a tradition of “knowing God” — it is a revelation like no other.  We never really knew “God” before this, he says, now we do.

It also disregards the Hebrew injunction that any image said to represent “God” would be “idolatry.”   It’s no wonder that Jews saw early Christianity as foreign to their tradition; for writers like John were relating to what had gone on before only to say that it was totally superseded.  They were speaking as if things were starting from scratch, that what our fathers thought they saw was not “God” at all — that in Jesus we have seen “God” for the very first time.  John’s use of one word that evoked Yahweh’s “tenting” among the Hebrews wandering in the desert acknowledged continuity with Jewish tradition; but it was poetic allusion.  The direct religious imagery and nomenclature had changed.  The John who wrote the gospel called him Logos and proclaimed he was the beginning of all things, and his appearance was like a new creation.  In the letter that bears his name he called him LIFE, and source, but not Yahweh or even “God.”

Three hundred years later, when the bishops at Nicaea tried to clarify what Christians meant when they prayed to Jesus and referred to him as “God,” they said he was the very same all high “God” who had spoken throughout Jewish history.  They referred to that traditional Jewish “God” as “Father” and Jesus (John’s Logos) as his “Son” and that they were both Yahweh.  The Council declared John’s Logos, homoousios — “the same substance” — as the Father.  That was intended to explain what they thought John was saying: the Logos revealed the Father as never before because he and the Father, though presenting distinct personalities to the world, were — in “essence” — one and the same “God.”

The bishops had already decided that Jesus’ “father” and John’s “LIFE” were the same “God” and they assumed that’s what John meant too — that the Logos was Yahweh.  But John had said Jesus was Logos and LIFE, and source, and beginning, and revealed “God” for the first time.  It was a form of expression that could admit a different interpretation: that the “God” that Jesus revealed was not what the Jews thought it was.  What John’s Jesus revealed was new because no one had ever looked at “God” this way before.  In Jesus we could see for the first time what “God” was really like, for before this “no one had ever seen ‘God’.”

At Nicaea, by simply assimilating Jesus to his “father,” the bishops failed to respect Jesus’ own very clear statements about what “son of God” meant to Jews like him, and second, they did not leave room for what John might have been trying to say … they simply assumed that John’s LIFE was meant to refer to the Jewish Yahweh.  In the first case, if they had really listened to Jesus they would have heard him saying he was not “Yahweh,” and therefore homoousios was inappropriately (and, for a Jew, blasphemously) applied to him, and in the second, they failed to perceive how far from Jewish categories John had ranged to find an apt expression for his understanding of Jesus’ transcendent significance.  What John actually said was that he, the man Jesus, was “God,” but the definition of “God” was different.  It was cosmological, not personal.  It was Greek, not Hebrew.

2

People like John and Paul were thoroughly imbued with Greek cultural assumptions.  They had a concept of “God” that one of their number, the philosopher Philo (“the Jew”) had begun to elaborate.  Philo was a diaspora Jew like they were.  He lived in Alexandria which had come to supersede Athens as the primary center of learning in the ancient Mediterranean world.  Philo was well-educated in Greek philosophy; he had also immersed himself in the Septuagint, the Greek-version of the Hebrew scriptures, and spent his life correlating his Greek knowledge with the words and imagery found in that Bible.

Philo believed that “God” in the Septuagint was the same “God” that the Greeks said was the real reality behind the stories of the gods of the Mediterranean pantheon.  By the sixth century b.c.e. Greek philosophers like Heraclitus had come to the conclusion that their many gods were fictions of the imagination — the remnants of an ancient folk religion that related separately to the various forces of nature.  The gods were primitive attempts to worship what was really a single life-force that underlay all of reality.  The Egyptians had a similar insight 700 years earlier.  The gods were symbols of the living energies of nature — the earth, the sea, the sun and the sky, fertility of the soil, art, music and poetry, love, war, power, and the dark forces of the underworld — but the real source of nature was really “one divine principle” which the Egyptians called Aten and  the Greeks called ho theos — “God.”  There was only one divine energy that was responsible for it all — only one “God.”

This was mind-blowing for a Jew like Philo who had been trained to shun the goyim because they blasphemously asserted there were many gods, in violation of the first commandment.  But here the Greeks were acknowledging there was only one “God.”  Philo was ecstatic about this concurrence; he was convinced they both must be talking about the same thing because, as a Jew, he knew there was only one “God.”  He spent his life trying to convince others of this agreement.  But the two concepts were very different.  The Hebrew “God” was a warrior-king of the Jewish People; he was a “person” who told Jews what he wanted them to do, expected them to comply, and would reward them if they did; the Greek “God,” in contrast, was the principle of LIFE — a universal guiding energy — whom no one has ever seen.

Philo tended to take the Greek categories as literal “science” and the Jewish scriptures as metaphoric equivalencies — “stories” designed for the edification of people who were not philosophers. That was the methodology he used to elucidate the concurrence between them.

The general sense of “God” as the one source of nature’s energies persisted in Greek thinking even after Plato came along 150 years after Heraclitus and tried to introduce “reason” into it.  Plato said  that once you realize what the human mind can do, you have to acknowledge that it is totally different from everything else in the visible universe.  Therefore our minds must be made of something other than the material flesh we share with animals.  He called it “spirit.”  “Spirit” and “matter,” he concluded, are complete opposites.  “Spirit” goes beyond the capacities of “matter,” therefore it is a separate “thing.”  Like oil and water they do not mix.  Plato’s worldview is called “dualism” because it claims the universe is divided between two separate and distinct kinds of reality.

“God” for Plato was the ultimate paradigm for this spirit-matter opposition.  “God” was “Pure Spirit” with no admixture of matter whatsoever, and therefore “pure Mind.”  That “absolute purity” meant that nothing contaminated with matter could ever know “God.” “God” was utterly inaccessible; it required a special mediator — a “Craftsman” — to bridge the gap between the spiritual blueprints in the “Mind” of “God” and the material construction of the physical universe.  Philo identified Plato’s Craftsman with the personified “Wisdom” mentioned in Proverbs 8.  Philo called it Logos.

Philo came well after Plato.  He took his idea of what “God” wanted from the stories in the Bible, but his theoretical definitions of “God” were dominated by the Greek philosophical categories that formed the mindset of his age.  Philo added Plato’s ideas about “Pure Spirit” to the older thinking that saw “God” as the one source of the natural forces represented by the gods.  It was Philo’s triple syncretism — a Biblical “Yahweh” and the “One” of Plato grafted onto ho theos as the life-force of the universe — that his fellow diaspora Jews like Paul and John embraced as their own.  The fundamental and guiding imagery of the life-force was never lost.  For Philo and his fellow diaspora Jews, “God” was always the “energy” that created, sustained and enlivened the natural world.

3

That means that when John and Paul talked about Jesus’ cosmological significance as “divine” it was his embodiment of the LIFE-force that they had in mind.  They took Jesus’ human behavior, relational charism and spiritual attitudes and explained them in terms of that divinity.  (And they explained “God’s” divinity in terms of Jesus’ attitudes and behavior).  They said Jesus made “God” visible because his words, deeds, death and “resurrection” was the mirror image, the human expression of that LIFE-force.  Jesus, they said, was “God,” but it was Philo’s “God” they meant.  That’s why they used the names that they did: LIFE, Logos, source, beginning.  They were all Philo’s.  Later generations with an essentialist worldview converted their dynamic mysticism into a static metaphysics.  Instead of being a “God-energy,” Jesus became a “God-entity,” from being LIFE he became “God.”

John and Paul were not essentialists.  Notice they did not say that “man was God,” but that this particular man, Jesus, was “God.”  Similarly, It was not Jesus’ “humanity” that was “divine” but rather his human life: i.e., how he lived, what he said, the way he said it, what he did, how he defended his message and accepted death, that revealed the “God” that no one knew.  They were not speaking of Jesus being “God” apart from these things … as if he would still be “God” if he had never done any of them.  No.  He was “God” precisely because of what he said and did, the way he lived and died … and his “resurrection” authenticated for Greeks the divinity made visible by the trajectory of his life; for only “God” was immortal.

For John and Paul “God” was a living presence, an energy on display in LIFE … in nature and in the moral / spiritual life of men and women as the manifestation of “God.” “God” was not an entity distinct from Jesus’ human actions and personality.  And Jesus was “God” precisely because his life and actions were the perfect expression of the LIFE-force.  In Philippians, Paul dismisses the relevance of “prior” divinity and emphatically specifies it was Jesus’ human moral achievements that earned him a “name above every name.”  And for the same reason John never suggests “we are in the light” without immediately adding “because we love one another.”  The “divinity” is in the living process — which by reflecting its source also conjures its presence — for there is no difference between what a thing is and what it does; that is the very nature of energy.   Energy is not a “thing” that exists apart from what it does.  “God” is not an entity that exists apart from its energizing action.  “God,” Plato’s “Pure Spirit,” for diaspora Jews like John and Paul, was the energy of LIFE.

Reflecting the LIFE-force in lived human attitudes and behavior meant that this particular man embodied “God;” he personified “God” in material form; he was … “God-made-flesh.”  But that does not preclude the possibility that others may also engage so thoroughly with the LIFE-force that they too become “God-with-us.”  “You can be sure,” John says, “that every one that does right is born of ‘God’.”

There is no pantheism here, because pantheism has to do with entities, things.   It is an essentialist label.  It is an equation of identity; it says “these things are God.”  Process Pan-en-theism is different because it is not talking about “things” it is talking about shared energy.  Energy is not an entity.  By its very nature it “exists” only in its effects and only when it is having an effect, and so it is always a completely shared phenomenon.  It belongs equally and simultaneously to cause and effect, and the effect is energized IN the energy of its cause.  There is no energy off by itself somewhere doing nothing.  The effect energized in turn becomes a display of the energy conveyed to it.  It is LIFE.  Process Pan-en-theism speaks to the sharing of LIFE between source and recipient.  The sharing means both have the same LIFE at the same time — even though one gives and the other receives.  Each becomes present — becomes visible — in the exchange.  In order to be Creator “God” needs to be creat-ing.  Genesis said that on the seventh day “God” rested.  That is literally impossible; or “God” would stop being “God.”

All this implies that the “God-factor” in our lives is not a “thing,” an entity that exists outside of active human relational valences.   And the first witnesses said the “God-factor” in Jesus was the power and precision of his human energy, discharging itself in infallibly effective work.  They  told us that what they had seen and heard — the transparency of Jesus’ unfeigned esteem for others, the incisiveness  of his perceptions, the balance and compassion of his judgments, the accuracy and appropriateness of his counsels, the confident authority with which he spoke and the courageous fidelity of his commitments — activated the autonomous humanness of the people he touched.  He energized them.  For people who found in him support for their own efforts to be human, and for people whose lives had been dehumanized by the exploitive system managed by Rome, this generated a universal enthusiasm.  They became “followers.”  But for those who benefitted from the Roman system, Jesus’ human energies spelled mortal danger because they threatened to elicit — among exploiters and exploited alike — a preference for LIFE and a refusal to participate in that system.  The Roman occupiers and their local collaborators clearly saw him as a threat to order, and to protect their way of life they killed him in an attempt to kill that liberating energy.  They failed.  He may have died but his energy — his “spirit” — lives and multiplies.  John called it LIFE.

The key notion in all this is that “God” is energy.  Embarrassingly for traditionalists, it recapitulates Thomas Aquinas’ “definition” of “God” as ESSE IN SE SUBSISTENS  — which in Aristotelian terms means nothing less than “PURE ACT.”  “Pure act” is conceptually analogous to pure energy.  It corresponds to a reality that is not an entity.  ESSE is not a “thing.”  It is “act,” an energy that is not really there until it activates a potential, i.e., has an existential effect in the real worldThat is esse.  That is “God” for Aquinas.  It is not a “thing,” but an energy that makes things to be.

Four hundred years before Aquinas, Irish mystical theologian John Scotus Eriúgena described this interactive existential relationship between “God” and creatures in very explicit terms:

Eriúgena conceives of the act of creation as a kind of self-manifestation wherein the hidden transcendent God creates himself by manifesting himself in divine outpourings or theophanies (Periphyseon, I.446d). He moves from darkness into the light, from self-ignorance into self-knowledge. …  In cosmological terms, however, God and the creature are one and the same:

It follows that we ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same. For both the creature, by subsisting, is in God; and God, by manifesting himself, in a marvelous and ineffable manner creates himself in the creature … (Eriúgena, Periphyseon, III.678c).[1]

Eriúgena called the material universe “the Mask of God.”  I contend that John and Paul had similar imagery.  Following Philo, they saw “God” as that in which we live and move and have our being — LIFE — which from the beginning has been the source of LIFE for all its living extrusions.  We are the emanations of the superabundant living energies that are not mechanical necessities but rather the products of an infinite sharing and self-emptying.

That’s the interpretation that our traditional metaphors place on the evolving universe.  And we have those metaphors largely because people like John used Jesus’ life and message to clarify exactly what the LIFE-force was.  In traditional terminology it is love.  When we embrace those metaphors as our own, it means we make a choice.  We choose to interpret the energies of LIFE as consistent with a generous self-emptying love as taught by Jesus.  We are encouraged in that choice because we have touched and been touched by it — LIFE — embodied in the living energies of the realities around us, primarily human persons.  That’s how John was certain that what he saw and heard and touched was LIFE.

It may be logically circular, but it is not irrational.  There is more than enough out there to warrant such a choice even though no one is constrained.  The appropriation of LIFE is not coerced; it is a rational option, appropriated by those who recognize that it resonates with their own moral and relational aspirations — their sense of the sacred and the synderesis that grounds their sense of truth and justice.   At the end of the day it is our spontaneous recognition of LIFE — our sense of the sacred — that confirms our acknowledgement of Jesus as LIFE.  WE know him because we know ourselves.

There is no possible one-to-one correspondence between any entity and “God” because as energy “God” energizes absolutely everything and transcends any particularity of whatever kindAs the energy that energizes each and every entity, it is indistinguishable from all of them while being exclusively identified with none.  That excludes pantheism as well as traditional Christian exclusivist theism.  Jesus was never a “God-entity,” neither before his birth nor during his life nor after his “resurrection,” because there is no such thing.  LIFE is not an entity.  But Jesus’ personal energy was the perfect moral analog — the re-presentation in human terms — of the generating energy of the LIFE source.  He was the receptor whose energy faithfully re-produced the energy of his source, not unlike the way a child receives the cells of its parents and begins to live in those very same cells, but now as its own.  But the reality transferred is not one entity from another — a “son” from a “father” — but a shared LIFE, an energy provided and accepted, faithfully reproduced, as fully alive and generative in the receiver as in the source.

To be LIFE as Jesus was LIFE is not exclusive to him.  It is open to anyone.  And in other traditions around the world others have played the foundational role that Jesus played in ours.  There is nothing to prevent any other human being from matching or even surpassing Jesus in the faithful reproduction of LIFE, i.e., being a human being.  John reported that Jesus himself said so explicitly:  those that come after him will do even greater things than he has done.  How could that be possible if John thought there were some sharp line of demarcation separating us from Jesus … as if Jesus were “God” and we were not?  And how would John have even known that what he saw was the source of LIFE unless he knew what he was looking at?  Where did that come from, if John were not already in some sense what Jesus was?  We are all radically capable of recognizing LIFE when we see it and making it visible as Jesus made it visible; thus we can all be the source of LIFE for others.  This is also a solid part of our treasury of Christian metaphors: to follow Jesus is to become increasingly “divinized.”  How could that be possible if divinity were exhausted in a particular entity / person?  But “God” is not an entity; and Jesus is not “God” in that sense. “God” is energy, an energy that can be shared endlessly and is not diminished in the sharing.  The LIFE that enlivened the man Jesus, enlivens us all.  This is what John was saying.

What John said suggests that the community formed by those who consciously join Jesus in this adventure will make LIFE generative in a way that is intensified exponentially: LIFE feeding LIFE.  There are no divine entities.  In this view of things there’s no way a “church” whose leaders live immoral lives, its ritual practices designed intentionally to create dependency and generate profit, and its political alliances complicit in systemic exploitation, could ever be “divine.”  The reformers were right.  A church can only be divine the way Jesus was divine, not by being a sacred “thing” but by activating a profound and available humanness — the mirror-echo of the LIFE in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Moran, Dermot, “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/scottus-eriugena/ .

The point of it all is our sense of the sacred

All religions of “the Book” are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.” “God’s” remoteness is absolute; there is no common ground between Creator and creature.  Any contact must come on the initiative of “God.”  “God” must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact.  Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam do not allow any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a transcendent, inaccessible, absolutely sovereign, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe.  While these traditions also allow for divine immanence, it is always a secondary non-essential feature, generally an esoteric gnosis reserved for monks and other spiritual elite, subordinate to transcendence and easily corrupted into the mere “presence” of the transcendent “God.”[1] It was because Calvin saw “God’s” omnipotent transcendence as the very definition of “Godhood” that he was not only comfortable with predestination, but actually saw it as essential.

“Inaccessibility” was considered the Greek counterpart of Genesis where Yahweh is described as creating all things from nothing and therefore transcendent over and different from everything else that exists.  But in order for Plato’s “One,” dwelling in remote tranquil isolation, to create and control the material world, an intermediary was needed — a lower class workman, who would allow the aristocratic master of the house the leisure to pursue matters of the mind without the tedium and travail of manual labor.  The ultimate issue for Platonists, of course, was matter.  The “One” was “Pure Spirit” living in contemplative serenity, and could not be contaminated in any way with matter and the mental turmoil of wrestling with its resistances.

And so the “Craftsman” emerged from Plato’s fertile imagination the Demiourgos whom Jewish Philo translated for readers of the Septuagint as Logos and assimilated to the personified “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8.  It was a Platonic analogue for Genesis 1, and it shows that the entire fourth century trinitarian development, impelled by Constantine’s demand for a dogmatic clarity that would allow him to enforce universal compliance in the Imperial Religion, evolved from the assumptions of Platonic theory and was not biblical at all.  In the 1540’s the Socinian[2] reformers among others, realized this and insightfully took their “reform” back before Nicaea.

The inaccessibility of Plato’s “One” does not in the least resemble the “loving father” evoked in parable after parable by Jesus in the gospels.  Jesus had no Greek philosophical commitments.  He could read Genesis directly without Platonic overlays and say quite simply that Yahweh was a loving Father who created the world all by himselfThe Hebrew Yahweh had no need of a secondary deity to keep him from getting his hands dirty; Yahweh was the direct maker of all things.  Everything he created was “good,” i.e., it was well-made as one would expect of a good workman who only rested when his work was done.  The difference between the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of “God” clearly reflects the difference between a class-society run on slave-labor by an intellectual elite and a society of herdsmen and farmers, artisans and their helpers, where work was not alienated and dehumanizing but something to take pride in, as Yahweh did when he saw that what he had done was very very good. 

The further connection between a society where manual labor was dehumanized, and the demonization of bodily matter as the antithesis of a mental spirit, should not be overlooked or downplayed.  The domination of Christianity by Platonic philosophical assumptions in the trinitarian affair is a clear indication that by the fourth century orthodox doctrine was being elaborated by the Greco-Roman educated upper-class.  That this development was accompanied by the introduction of a caste system into Christianity arrogating authority and the performance of ritual to a hierarchy alone in a way that contradicted the spirit and practice of the earliest communities, supports an historical hypothesis that otherwise lacks direct documentation: by the late second or early third century Christianity had undergone a revolution.  An upper class coup had taken place that radically altered the apostolic inheritance; it all but eliminated any hope that Christianity might faithfully reflect the Yahwist message of Jesus.  And it was a Christianity firmly under upper-class control that formed the Roman Catholic world whose late mediaeval phase scandalized Luther a thousand years later.

Please do not misunderstand the import of all this analysis.  I am not condemning as willful oppression the Christianity that was in place at the time of the harrowing Diocletian persecutions in 310, nor the various attempts on the part of Late Mediaeval Christians to reform the Church they had inherited.  I am saying they are not our circumstances and we cannot allow them to define our response.  We are not on an historical quest here, as if returning to some status quo ante will recuperate a lost integrity.  The Christians of Late Antiquity restructured Christianity to reflect the class-system and social values of their times, and the reformers in their turn brought Mediaeval Christianity into conformity with the emerging modern world as they saw it.  We may evaluate the effects of their choices, but it is not our place to judge the sincerity of their efforts.

Jesus message, for its part, was no different.  He shared a vision with the people of his time, place and circumstances.  Those conditions are not ours.  There is nothing definitive in any of these visions, much less in their forms of expression, including Jesus’, and while we may learn much from the struggles of each in attempting to stay faithful to a sane and available humanity, no one of them is a rigid blueprint for us.  No less than they, we have the responsibility of discovering what it means to be profoundly human in a way that reflects our current perception of how we are related to this universe that spawned us.

Jesus, as far as we can tell, took the narrative of creation in Genesis as literal.  That narrative no longer applies today.  Only if taken as allegory would it even remotely resemble what we know is the ultimate source of the sacred for us — material energy — and it is our sense of the sacred that is the point of it all.

The Sense of the Sacred

I can’t emphasize this enough.  Our sense of the sacred is the fulcrum of this enquiry.  It is the centerpiece of all religion … because it is the centerpiece of being human.  It is religion’s source and its goal … .  Our sense of the sacred is what evokes all our “absolute” values.  It underpins our awe and gratitude — our love of life — the sheer joy of being-here-now as ourselves; it gives birth to our thirst for fairness, an abhorrence for injustice, a compassion and forbearance for weakness; it embraces law and reasonableness in the resolutions of our conflicts; it generates our desire to nourish the life around us, impelling us to work to sustain ourselves and to sacrifice our own individual “selves” for the benefit of others — our families, our community, other species, and the planet which produced us.  Our sense of the sacredness of life is what makes us human.  It is the energy behind all honest law and politics, all sincere search for truth and understanding, all dedication to beauty, and its expression in word and work: poetry, art, architecture, music.

Our sense of the sacred is the overarching value, the solid ground, the one and only absolute that drives our religious quest.  All other things are secondary, subordinate and ancillary to the evocation of our sense of the sacred.  Its preservation is our responsibility; the failure of religion does not let us off the hook.  Religion receives its entire validity, its entire meaning, its entire reason-for-being by satisfying one and only one requirement: that it realistically nourishes our sense of the sacredness of life.  Nothing — not “God” nor Jesus nor bible nor Church … not ritual nor prayer nor mystical experience … neither vision nor revelation nor dogma nor ancient tradition — is of any value if it does not serve our sense of the sacred here and now which is the reverberation of our specifically human relationship to existence.  “Religion” in other words, is not sacred in itself; religion is a tool.  It is sacred only to the degree that it unveils and uncovers for us the sacredness of the universe and our lives in it.  If it fails us, we have to look elsewhere.  Our religion may have to be discarded, but we cannot allow our sense of the sacred to die; we cannot allow it to be dismissed as robotic illusion, nor can we let ethnic idolatry trap us into thinking that without our ancestral religion there is nothing sacred. 

Can the bible’s concept of “God” support our sense of the sacred?  First we have to acknow­ledge that with “God” we are dealing with a symbol — a human idea and associated imagery not a known entity.  No one has ever seen “God.”  We do not have “God” present to observe, define, measure and test.  Jesus did not elaborate on his imagery about “God.”  He seems to have been content with the common notions about “God” assumed by the Jewish people of his time.

Jesus was not focused on clarifying what “God” was like, nor, besides saying we were “God’s” children, did he emphasize the individual’s relationship to “God.”  Jesus promoted just and compassionate relationships among human beings and made it clear that this was the way the Jewish Nation was to fulfill the “law”— by imitating the generosity of a good “God.”  He was operating within the traditional framework of the “covenant.”  Jesus’ great innovation was to humanize the requirements of the law, and in so doing, he humanized “God.”  But I want to underline: he did not teach any new “doctrine of God.”  His “father” was the Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures.

The key elements of Jesus’ image were that (1) a good “God” made the world from nothing (2) as an expression of his goodness and creative power, and that (3) this “God” wills that what he created good should remain good, and that being good for us means being human toward one another; that was the fulfillment of “his” willThe creative abilities of this “God,” if he is to have literally accomplished what the scriptures said, were assumed by a pre-scientific people to be similar to those of the human craftsmen with whom everyone was familiar: potters, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, bakers and weavers, artists and architects.

Evolution

But we do not live in a pre-scientific age.  We understand “creation” to be a long-term process of material self-extrusion we call evolution.  It was not the past work of a rational craftsman but rather the result of the ongoing blind energy to exist.  Material energy is the source of all the forms and features of the known universe; it is also the source of the human sense of the sacred and mysticism.  Matter’s energy did not create the world from nothing, designing all things for a chosen purpose, but rather drew everything out of itself, purposelessly, mindlessly, by the sheer superabundance of its energy to continue in existence as matter.  Evolution means that the homogeneous “stuff” of which everything is made, incrementally modified by minor variations over time, eventually emerges in new forms.  Those forms, made of the same “stuff,” have the same need to fight and survive; they have populated the universe.

We, humans, are one of those forms.  They (we) are different from one another, yes, but we are only forms of the same one “thing” and we all “do” the same one thing: we survive.  Clearly the “God” of Genesis stands in stark contrast to the actual forces at work in the production of the universe and the myriads of species that inhabit our earth.

These “cosmic details” are vastly different from those assumed by the Palestinian Jews of the first century c.e.  But they still remain “details” — the domain of science and philosophy, not religion — and do not necessarily affect the relationship that Jesus was trying to evoke.  The question, therefore, arises: is it possible that the same relationship to source can obtain even if the “cosmic details” are radically changed?  In other words, can the same three key elements that were the focus of the creation account establishing the nature of our relationship to the world’s “creator” be evoked by the evolution narrative just laid out?  Can we say matter’s energy is “good,” chose to create the world from nothing as an expression of its goodness and wishes it to remain good?

Many contemporary Christians, including the current Pope, Francis, would answer affirmatively.  They imagine the traditional “God” with all the same transcendent characteristics given by Genesis but they locate him “behind the scenes;” they see him designing and employing evolution as a tool — like a sculptor’s chisel or a potter’s wheel — working on the homogeneous “stuff” of the universe to give recognizable shape and purpose to what would otherwise be an amorphous uniformity.

But it won’t work as a literal description because it does not correspond to the observed reality.  There is no plan or purpose behind the evolution of things.  They are simply responses to changing environmental conditions on the part of a material energy that is mindlessly compelled to continue in existence.  It has no purpose, in other words, beyond being-here and remaining itself.  The absence of purpose and plan seems to indicate that there is no rational mind “behind the scenes” pulling the puppet strings, otherwise you would have to say that the puppeteer was intentionally disguising rational purpose beneath appearances which are patently directed by and to self-survival.  It would contradict the Christian claim that Creation was intended as “God’s” self-display, the first of a series of “revelations” to the Jewish people leading up to the revelation of his “Son” in the person of Jesus, announced by John as a kind of new creation — a second Genesis.  Besides even if it were some kind of off-beat self-display, as some have suggested: a divine self-empty­ing, a kenosis, done to emphasize respect for the autonomy of matter as co-creator,[3] why did “Providence” wait so long to reveal this central dynamic with its important message?  Evolution only became a serious hypothesis 150 years ago, and since that time most religions of the Book have resisted it because it contradicts scripture.  Why would the same “God” who revealed himself in scripture choose to reveal his respect for matter’s autonomy in such a self-contra­dict­ing manner?  Readers of the bible who reject “evolution” can hardly be accused of disregarding “God’s” attempt to reveal himself.

Frankly, I believe these efforts fail because they insist on retaining the traditional anthropomorphic imagery of a “God” who is an individual entity, a rational person, distinct and separate from everything else that exists, and with the added feature of an inaccessible “otherness” contributed by Platonic Philosophy and linked to creatio ex nihilo and the notion of “Pure Spirit.”  The Platonists at least recognized that a material creation could not be attributed to a Pure Spirit without fatally compromising the purity of its spirituality.

I think we have to confront this traditional, western “doctrine of God” and frankly acknowledge that it is simply untenable and that is why, throughout our intellectual history, every attempt to reconcile the anthropomorphic imagery of Genesis with a rational explanation has ended in disaster.  The Trinity is the prime example.  The Christian Trinity taken as anything more than poetic metaphor is an irrational absurdity that was generated by Platonists, ironically, from the failed effort to make rational sense out of the dualist anomaly of a material universe proceeding from a “God” who is pure unmixed spirit.  The absurdity is not lessened in the least by calling it a “mystery,” citing vague scriptural allusions, and haughtily dismissing dissent as intellectually puerile.  Not only does the “immanent”[4] Trinity make no sense, how could those men ever have imagined they could come to know the very inner life of “God” just by thinking about it?

Where do we go from here?  If we finally have the courage to abandon these efforts to accommodate an ancient religious tradition that used an anthropomorphic and pre-scientific imagery that is untenable if taken literally, we may begin to move forward based on our sense of the sacred, which is, I contend, what it is all about.

[1] Cf. Raimundo Panikkar’s The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man (Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1973) pp.30-32: Panikkar says this kind of “presence,” like the renter of a room in a house, remains completely separate.  There is no “essential” unity.

[2] Socinians: were the 16th century Followers of Faustus Socinus and the forerunners of the Universalist Unitarians of today.

[3] This “theory” has been adduced by John Haught

[4]Immanent” in the context of trinitarian theology refers to “what ‘God’ is like in ‘him’self,” even if ‘he’ had no relationships ad extram.  Relatively recent studies like God for Us by the late Catherine Mowry La Cugna, clearly call for a de-emphasis on thinking of the Trinity as ontologically “immanent” in the Godhead rather than as an “economic” metaphor — i.e., our perception that “God” acts in the world in three distinct ways.

Universalist Christianity ­— part 2

 

This follows and completes the essay begun in the previous blogpost of Feb 8th.  A re-read of that first part is recommended.

3.

Far from being the source of exuberant joy, sectarian Christianity has made the relationship to “God” elusive and anxiety-ridden, and “God” an ominous task-master whose glaring invasive presence motivates a self-preoccupied obedience through fear of eternal punishment — hardly “good news.”

That these features reproduce exactly the relational dynamics characteristic of authoritarian societies like violent exploitative empires, can hardly escape notice.  It seems undeniable that in this regard the Roman Church was deeply influenced by the Roman State … as one would expect of co-regents.  This authoritarianism stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the familial, forgiving, non-violent, other-validating love that obtains between brothers and sisters, true friends and equals.  It has had the ultimate effect of taking Jesus’ vision of the great-hearted loving Father of us all, so solidly in possession of LIFE that he needs nothing … a “God” who was so big that he could afford to become weak and foolish as Paul effused … and turned him back into a self-absorbed, thin-skinned, tribal war-god, dependent upon the obeisance of his groveling clients and the lugubrious ceremonies of a sectarian Church for the diffusion of his name and glory.  There is an inescapable proportionality here.  The transcendent sovereignty of “God” corresponds to the limitless breadth and independent intimacy of his relationships, just as a limited, sectarian, self-protective, demanding “contract” evokes a needy, unfulfilled and impotent god-effigy that is constructed and needs to be constantly maintained by his minions’ loud obedience and the coerced submission of outsiders if it is to have existence.  The second is not “God,” it is “the work of human hands … it has eyes but sees not … deaf and mute … and those that fall down before it become like it,” — small-souled, grasping, self-involved, insatiably empty, dead and needing to be infused with LIFE from the outside.

Magnanimity and generosity and the universalism they imply are not optional features.  If they are missing from our religion — and our personality make-up — it means we never really heard what Jesus said about his “father, God,” … and we never understood what Paul said it means to know the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  It means we have never appropriated for ourselves what John spoke about: the LIFE that is from the beginning.  For those men, you must understand, all this was prior to membership in the community.  It was the only condition, the natural human LIFE that we were all born with.  It was absolutely universal.  Our relationship to “God” was our self-embrace of the LIFE that is ours.

There is a critical difference between classifying religions according to their beliefs and behavioral requirements … and assessing them from the point of view of the relational dynamics implied in their fundamental structures.  For us humans, there is no choice.  Relational structures must rule the enquiry.  We are our relationships.  Religion’s “facts” are ancillary to the relationships they assume, imply and evoke, and their “truth” must be judged by them.  The nature of “humanity” is “to be in relationship.”  We are not “things.”  There is no substance to us; we are temporary diaphanous formations of material energy that take our reality from our valences, our connections.  We are our relationships.  And shaping our lives by the relationships as understood by our religions will make us who we are … for better or worse.

It’s time we began to evaluate our religions in these terms.  The “truth” of religion has nothing to do with the “facts” it alleges; it has to do with the character and quality of the relationships it calls forth.  We ARE our relationships.  The religion that is “true” for humans is the religion that supports, justifies and encourages the kinds of relationships — to ourselves, to others, to the earth and to our living source and matrix — that make us fully human … that recognize and deepen our identity with LIFE.  The religion that empowers us to activate LIFE is the one that first recognizes that the power of LIFE is resident in our flesh.  We are born with it.  It is ours … it is us.  In contrast, a religion that insists that we are corrupt from birth — devoid of LIFE — and that LIFE must be gotten from another world through mechanisms which are in the exclusive possession and control of a sect, necessarily creates a dependency relationship that ties us to those mechanisms.  If you need to be filled from the outside — if you do not have LIFE within you — you can never cut the umbilical cord, for if LIFE is not yours to start with, you will always have to get it from somewhere else.  Without LIFE you are bound to your little sect and so is everyone else, for all are corrupt, empty, dead, needing to be filled from outside by the one infallible set of mechanisms that work ex opere operato — mechanically, automatically.  This is sectarianism.  It is the antithesis of universalism … even if the whole world were to join the sect, it would annihilate the diversity implied in universalism; human diversity would be submerged in the totalitarianism of a monolith.  There is nothing “universal” about it at all.  To call it “Catholic” is a contradiction in terms.

4.

Christian “facts” are derivatives that come from Christian theology.  That’s what makes them metaphors.  That Jesus was “God,” for example, was not a primary datum.  It was derived from his followers’ interpretation of the crucifixion as the unique fulfillment of the Jewish contract with Yahweh.  No one began by calling Jesus “God.”  Certainly during Jesus’ lifetime and immediately afterwards it would have been considered an unthinkable blasphemy for a Jew.  The very fact that it only dawned on his Hellenic followers as time went by is a prima facie indicator that their “facts” were generated by their theology (and their culture), not the other way around.  That Jesus was “God” was a metaphor that allowed Paul’s interpretation of the contract “paid-in-full” to exist.

In time, however, especially after Nicaea, the idea of Jesus’ divinity came to be taken as a primary scientific “fact” and it distorted the interpretation of his significance accordingly.   By late antiquity Nicaean Jesus had become Pantocrator, the “all ruler,” the judge of the living and the dead, and the cult of Mary began to fill the void created by taking our human mediator from us and making him “God.”  Once Jesus was made “God,” the judge who could send you to hell, the people spontaneously turned to thoroughly human Mary to play the intermediary role that was once Jesus’.  She was a woman, a mother who could “intercede for us with her son.”  The people were sure this was a mediator the authorities couldn’t take away from us, for we all know they would never make a woman “God.”

But at first, in the vision offered by Paul, the dominant guiding notion was the direct perception of the new relationship to “God” in Christ as gratuitous.  There is no quid pro quo possible with “God.”  It was the unfortunate but unavoidable use of the Jewish “contract” categories and terminology by Paul that began the process of reversal and made the reinstatement of the quid pro quo relationship virtually inevitable.

Paul’s analysis was thoroughly Jewish.  It seems clear from New Testament documents, that those Jews who followed Jesus had felt oppressed by the Jewish law.  In the synoptic gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke it was expressed in the form of Jesus’ many adversarial encounters with the “scribes and Pharisees,” culminating in his vitriolic denunciation in Matthew 23.  This included the rigidity of the laws which Matthew attributed to the Pharisees hypocritical interpretations, “laying burdens on men’s’ backs.”  In Acts 15 Peter himself is heard speaking of the Jewish law as “a burden neither we nor our fathers could bear.”  In his letter to the Romans Paul is expressive to the point of anguish on the question of the role of the law in creating a bad conscience … and quite explicit that it had exactly that effect on him personally.  Against this background, the Christ-event was seen as an unexpected liberation for people like Paul — the lifting of an immense burden, and a sign of the boundless generosity of “God.”

This perception of the limitless generosity and all-embracing merciful love of “God,” forgiving all his prodigal children, “running to them when they were still far off to fall on their necks and smother them with kisses of welcome” (Luke 15) is the core religious insight of the Christian way.  Jesus, who seems not to have been distracted by the “pharisaical” misinterpretations of the law, expressed it in terms of his conviction that “Yahweh” was not the holder of an IOU but rather his loving father who asked for nothing but love and validated Jesus’ authentic sonship.  Paul tried to express it theologically as the full compliance of the contract for all humankind achieved by the death of Christ.  It was unfortunate that Paul explained it in terms of the Jewish contract, because in that form it needs translation.

It explains why Christianity, in attempting to free itself from the limitations of sectarianism, projected a universalism that the “contract theology” of Paul did not elucidate clearly in the Greco-Roman world.  The effort collapsed back into a new quid pro quo because the very contract terminology that Paul used to explain the lifting of the Jewish burdens, did not apply to other peoples or to Christians of a later time.  His language was appropriate only for oppressed, humiliated, first century diaspora Jews, miraculously freed from the onerous obligations that identified them as Jews, outsiders in the Roman world.  The perennial attempt to understand what he was trying to say in the extremely constrained terms his pharisaic formation forced him to use, has consistently meant that we missed the universalism embedded in the message.  It was a boundless universalist message unfortunately expressed in extremely narrow sectarian terms.

So what is the “core message” that allows for the true universalism present as a seed in Jesus’ vision?  It was definitely not Paul’s theory of “the fulfilling of the old contract.”  I contend that never for one moment did it ever occur to Jesus that his death would amount to discharging the obligations incurred in the Jewish nation’s contract with Yahweh.  Jesus’ vision, to the contrary, was simple and direct.  No reconciliation was required, for “God” was never angry at us, ever.  It was all a myth.  Jesus caught the spirit and meaning of Job and the prophets: that “God” was love, not the legislator of Sinai, and that we were “God’s” children predisposed by nature to respond in like kind.  Jesus saw that the contract imagery was metaphor and he transcended it … and he was able to do that because he had an independent sense of what “God” was like.  The need of his followers to explain things in terms of the Jewish contract forced them to infer a series of otherwise unknown “facts” for the convoluted explanation demanded by their sectarian mentality to actually be true.  Their problem was not Jesus’ problem.  They could not think “outside the box” of their tribal sect and its sacred contract categories, but Jesus could and did.  That’s why he could say that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and “by their fruits YOU will know them” … that’s why “he spoke as one with authority” … that’s why he could call the legalists “whitened sepulchres” and throw the money changers out of the temple … and, paradoxically, that’s why he could remain a Jew.   That’s why they killed him; he threatened a sectarian Judaism with its own universalist significance … and a “Mafia” empire with fearless, empowered human beings.

The first letter of John captures the spirit of Jesus’ universalist message because it speaks directly about the character of “God.”  John spoke of LIFE that is from the beginning … LIFE that is superabundant love.  His message, like Jesus’ message, is simple: that “God” is love and light, and we are his children.  We are the offspring of LIFE.  We own itIt’s in our blood and bones — it’s our nature — everyone from every nation knows this … everyone has the power of LIFE residing within themselves.  They don’t have to go anywhere to get it, they just need to hear someone like John say out loud what they have always suspected: “… we are “God’s” children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared …”

Tony Equale

Universalist Christianity — part 1

…  So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35).  

~   ~   ~   ~

…  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.  Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’   (Acts 17: 23-28) 

~  ~  ~   ~

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us … and so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1: 1-3) [all from the English Standard Version]

 1.

These citations are representative of the spirit found throughout the New Testament.  It seems clear that the ancient Christians who were responsible for those documents were self-con­scious­ly universalists.  As the historical time-line opens up in these New Testament narratives and letters, the reader quickly discovers that certain critical and defining decisions have already been made by the Christian community.  The principal and most explicit one was that Christians were not Jews.  That focus pervades the entire collection.  But it was not the mere assertion of a new identity.  I believe it runs much deeper than that.  It represents the rejection of sectarianism and the commitment to universalism.

This needs some explanation.  Christians originally considered themselves Jews; Jesus was a Jew and he understood his “way” to be the true interpretation of the Jewish covenant (contract) with Yahweh.  He said it was a love agreement — more like a marriage than a business deal.  There was a universalism implicit in his vision, but he never made it explicit; his message was exclusively to the Jews and he said so.  After his death his followers at first continued as a movement within Judaism with hopes of convincing their co-religionists that Jesus’ message represented authentic Judaism and that he was the messiah whose death had a special significance as foretold by the prophets.  When and why the Christian decision was made to separate from Judaism is a matter of discussion among scholars, but the Acts of the Apostles is very specific about it.  It said it was precipitated by the conversion of Saul the Pharisee who claimed to have a direct personal assignment to preach to non-Jews.  The agreement approving Paul and his mission was given in the concrete form of a revision of “gentile” obligations toward the Jewish law.  They were not to be bound by dietary restrictions, nor were they required to be circumcised.  Effectively this meant there was no attempt to meet the sine qua non conditions under which inclusion in the Jewish national “contract” with Yahweh was understood.  A more definitive “clean break” could not be imagined, at least as far as orthodox Jews were concerned.

Early Christians did not think they were rejecting the “Jewish religion” in order to establish a “Christian religion,” changing one sect for another.  Leaders like Paul were quite clear: Christianity was the full flowering of Judaism.  They knew from Jesus’ message that Yahweh was a “God” of love, and therefore wanted to connect with absolutely everyone.   That meant he stopped being just “Yahweh,” Israel’s tribal war god, and revealed himself to be THE “God,” the only “God,” everyone’s “God” — Jesus’ “loving Father,” Plato’s “One,” and the Stoics Logos — what John called, “the LIFE that was from the beginning.”   It was an unmitigated universalist vision based on a universal monotheism … and Christianity has always claimed to teach it.  Effectively, the early Christians denied there was any split with Judaism.  They insisted that they were the “true Israel” of the Jewish Scriptures, the recipients of the blessings promised, and in turn the only ones making the true response to the Jewish contract.  It was with Christianity that Judaism was revealed to have been the seed that “God” had, all along, intended to grow into a vast universal tree.

It was a tidy package, theologically speaking, for diaspora Jews like Paul, for whom Judaism was as congenital as his Greek culture.  The entire Old Testament was reinterpreted as “prophecy,” meaning symbol, figure, metaphor, and embraced the way one might embrace one’s childhood self, identifying traits that were harbingers of the future adult even though attitudes, behavior and commitments had changed.  “Adulthood” as a Jewish Christian involved some significant modifications as far as Paul was concerned: it meant acceptance of Jesus as the messiah whose death was the fulfillment of the contract with “God,” eliminating the national, sectarian claims of Judaism symbolized in the “law.”  The framework for the explanation was Jewish.  On accepting Christ, in Paul’s view, the Jew remained a Jew but threw open his arms to embrace the whole world, inviting everyone to share the joy of the uniquely intimate Jewish relationship with “God” — the fulfillment of the historic promises to Israel made possible by the death of the messiah.

Paul’s vision of Christianity was elegantly Jewish: in a single act of perfect symmetry, Jesus’ death was simultaneously “God’s” display of self-emptying self-donation to humankind, and humankind’s perfect response to the demands of the Jewish law already completed in the perfect obedience of Christ.  All debts were paid; it left us owing nothing at all.  The one glitch in Paul’s system was that Jesus had to be both divine and human to accomplish such a feat.  Such a hybrid entity, a “god-man,” unthinkable to orthodox Jews, was entirely imaginable to polytheistic Greeks whose pantheon comfortably housed many “sons” of gods.  But, more importantly, there were the studies of Jewish-Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria.   He had uncovered a remarkable confluence in Hebrew texts and Greek philosophy between the Stoics’ Logos and the Old Testament “Wisdom,” the personification of the divine Mind that created and enlivened the universe.  Christians like Paul and John applied it to Jesus.  It made Jesus’ dual role a real possibility for progressive diaspora Jews and a perfect point-of-entry into the Greek world.

The elimination of circumcision and food prohibitions was meant as a way of allowing people of “every nation” who “grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him” to enter his family — to finally know “God’s” name, his family history and what he has done — to know what the “God” they had been worshipping all along was really like (Acts 17).  It was “good news, almost beyond one’s wildest dreams, to finally know the “real God” and his epic deeds of love for us.  It was not a condition of entry into a new sect, and new “rule” or “law,” a “new contract” where failure to comply meant damnation.  It was rather the announcement that the contract had been fulfilled and the Jewish “God” was now showering his gifts on the whole world.  Paul’s was precisely the opposite of exclusionary sectarianism.  No one was excluded for there was no more “law.”  There were no conditions whatsoever.  The doors were wide open.  “God” wanted to connect with us all and the Christian “announcement” was an open invitation to connect with “God.”  It was a relationship, not a contract, an invitation not an imposition.

2.

Early Christian universalism implied a conception of “God’s” relationship to people that did not fit the Jewish paradigm of the tribal contract.  The texts cited at the beginning clearly show that early Christians recognized that everyone was already connected to “God” by nature.  The very possibility of universalism is predicated on a pre-existing relationship that is not determined by local choices.  The source of that relationship could not have been a tribal agree­ment, a covenant, because people would have remembered and recorded it, as the Jews did.  If it were grounded in nature itself, It had to be universal.  So the “only god” of the Jews was reconceived as the “One God” who made all things and was therefore related to all by nature.  Every nation was created by that “God;” he was, therefore, already their “father.”  Everything was in place; the potential for the full flowering of the relationship was there.  The core insight was the recog­nition of this pre-existing connection.  The  tribal contract was no longer relevant.  The “God” of nature implied that the most any religion could offer was a clarification of exactly how that relationship should be understood and lived out going forward, but it did not create it.  The missionary function was to “reveal” and  announce what was already there, not to to bring it into existence.

This “recognition of prior relationship” is unmistakably present in all the texts quoted above.  They indicate that the early Christians were quite conscious of their ancillary role in the announcement of the “new relationship” to “God” — that what they had to say was not new; it was the clarification of “what was from the beginning.”  The very condition of Christian mission was that those who heard their message already understood what they were being told.  It was what they had been “groping” for: to find “God.”

Relationship to “God” based on the creature/creator connection is naturally universal and the early Christians understood it implicitly.  Sectarianism is the antithesis of this universalist respect for prior relationship.  Sectarianism presumes to control the relationship.  But please take note: you can only do that if you control the basis for its existence.  That is the nature of a sect, a cult:  you, the sect, own the relationship.  The members, in fact, are related to you, not to one another, and only indirectly to “God.”  If you have the means to make the relationship come and go, then indeed, members are locked into a dependency upon you as the source of the connection.  The nature of a sect is that it is a closed system, imposing specified conditions controlled by the sect.  A relationship created by contract is of the nature of a sect, unavoidably.  The nature of a universal religion, on the other hand, is that the institution is subordinate, subservient, at the service of a prior and independent natural relationship, one that it did not create and does not control.

What is remarkable is that within a few generations this early Christian way of looking at things came to be reversed.   The Christian movement was turned into a sect that claimed to control the relationship with “God.”  It declared itself the exclusive inheritor of Paul’s letters and the only one authorized to interpret his ideas.  That religion, represented today by the Roman Catholic Church and many of its “reformed” offshoots, was culture-speci­fic to the Mediterranean and later Western Europe; it was exclusivist, offering a relationship to “God” that without the sectarian Church could not exist for “outside the Church there was no salvation.”  Relationship (and “salvation”) were conditioned on membership in the sect, and that in turn involved meeting certain ritual requirements (like baptism), making verbal assent to otherwise unknowable supernatural facts (creeds) and conforming behavior to a rationally deduced “Natural law” codified and promulgated by the sect as “God’s law.”  Catholicism differed from its later “reformed” (protestant) versions only in which rituals, formulas and moral demands were authentic and saved you from damnation … but in all other respects they all claimed to control the relationship to “God’s” love made concrete in “salvation.”

The relational dynamic implicit in this “Orthodox Christianity,” the official religion of the Roman Empire, which dominated Europe in the middle ages, seems to have negated virtually every aspect of the early universalist vision articulated so eloquently by Paul at Athens.  Rather than validating the universal “groping” for “God” and the multitude of means discovered by “every nation” in that search, imperial mediaeval Christianity restricted legitimate religious expression to one set of rituals, formulas and morality — its own — redefining “universal” to mean the reduction of all tribes to one.  Instead of transcending the contract mentality which had limited “God” to sectarian conditions for relationship and “salvation,” it reinstalled it as a “new contract” whose quid quo pro requirements cancel out “God’s” self-emptying self-donating open-armed universal gratuity projected by Paul.  There is no quid pro quo possible with “God” when your very existence — your “you,” the party of the quid — is a free gift from “God,” the party of the quo.

Far from being the source of exuberant joy, in sectarian Christianity the relationship to “God” has been made elusive and anxiety-ridden, and “God” an ominous task-master whose glaring invasive presence motivates a self-preoccupied obedience through fear of eternal punishment — hardly “good news” for us “existentially challenged” humans.

Universalism vs. Sectarianism

…  So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35).  

~   ~   ~   ~

…  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.  Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’   (Acts 17: 23-28) 

~  ~  ~   ~

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us … and so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1: 1-3) [all English Standard Version]

 1.

These citations are representative of the spirit found throughout the New Testament.  It seems clear that the ancient Christians who were responsible for those documents were self-con­scious­ly universalists.  As the time-line of newborn Christianity opens up in these narratives and letters, the reader quickly discovers that certain critical and defining decisions have already been made.  The principal and emphatically explicit one was that Christians were not Jews.  That focus pervades the entire collection.  I believe it represented the rejection of sectarianism and the commitment to universalism.

This needs some explanation for Christians originally considered themselves Jews.  Jesus was a Jew and he understood his “way” to be the real meaning of the Jewish covenant (contract) with Yahweh: that it was a love agreement, a relationship, not a business deal.  There was a universalism implicit in his vision, but he never made it explicit; his message was exclusively to the Jews and he said so.  After his death his followers at first continued as a movement within Judaism with hopes of convincing their co-religionists that Jesus was the messiah and that his death had a special significance as foretold by the prophets.  When and why the Christian decision was made to separate is a matter of discussion among scholars, but the intentionally historical account in the Acts of the Apostles is very specific about it.  It said it was precipitated by the conversion of Saul the Pharisee and his claim to have a direct personal assignment to preach to the Gentiles.  The agreement approving Paul and his mission was given in the concrete form of a revision of gentile Christians’ obligations toward the Jewish law.  They were not to be bound by dietary restrictions, nor were they required to be circumcised.  Effectively this meant there was no attempt to meet the sine qua non conditions under which inclusion in the Jewish national “contract” with Yahweh would be possible.  A more definitive “clean break” could not be imagined, at least as far as orthodox Jews were concerned.

Early Christians did not think they were rejecting the “Jewish religion” in order to establish a “Christian religion” changing one sect for another, and securing “salvation” for those who were willing to adhere to a new set of rules.  Leaders like Paul were quite clear: Christianity was the full flowering of Judaism.  They knew from Jesus message that Yahweh was a “God” of love, and therefore would want to connect with absolutely everyone.   That meant he stopped being just “Yahweh,” Israel’s tribal war god, and revealed himself to be THE “God,” everyone’s “God” — Jesus’ “loving Father,” what John called, “the LIFE that was from the beginning.”   It was an unmitigated universalist vision based on a universal immanentist monotheism … and Christianity has always claimed to teach it.

In their own minds at least, the early Christians reconciled themselves to the split by denying it.  They insisted that they were the real Israel of the Jewish Scriptures, the recipients of the blessings promised, and in turn the only ones making the correct response.  It was with Christianity that Judaism was revealed to have been the seed that “God” had, all along, intended to grow into a vast universal tree.  It was a tidy package, theologically speaking, for diaspora Jews like Paul, whose Judaism was as congenital as his Greek culture.  The entire old testament was reinterpreted as “prophecy,” meaning symbol, figure, metaphor, and embraced the way one might embrace one’s childhood self, identifying traits that were harbingers of the future adult even though attitudes, behavior and commitments had changed.

“Adulthood” as a Jewish Christian involved some significant modifications as far as Paul was concerned: acceptance of Jesus as the messiah whose death was the fulfillment of the contract with “God,” eliminating the national, sectarian claims of Judaism symbolized in the “law.”  But the fundamentals were Jewish.  On accepting Christ, in Paul’s view, the Jew remained a Jew but threw open his arms to embrace the whole world, inviting everyone to share the joy of the uniquely intimate Jewish relationship with “God” — the fulfillment of the historic promises to Israel.

Paul’s vision of Christianity was elegantly Jewish: in a single act of perfect divine symmetry, Jesus’ death was simultaneously “God’s” display of self-emptying self-donation to humankind, and humankind’s perfect response already completed in the perfect obedience of Christ.  All debts were paid; it left us owing nothing at all.  The one glitch in Paul’s system was that Jesus had to be both divine and human to accomplish such a feat.  Such a hybrid entity, a “god-man,”unthinkable to orthodox Jews, was entirely imaginable to polytheistic Greeks whose pantheon comfortably housed many “sons” of gods.  But, more importantly, Philo’s studies in Alexandria had uncovered a remarkable confluence of Hebrew texts and Greek philosophy in the Logos, an emanation of “God.”  Applied to Jesus it made his dual role a real possibility for progressive diaspora Jews like Paul and John.

The elimination of circumcision and food prohibitions was meant as a way of allowing people of “every nation” who “grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him” to enter his family — to finally know “God’s” name, his family history and what he has done — to know what the “God” they had been worshipping all along was really like (Acts 17).  It was “good news.”  It was a long sought-after desideratum almost beyond one’s wildest dreams — to finally know the “real God” (the “God” of the Jews) and his epic deeds of love for us.  It was not a condition of entry into a new sect, and new “rule” or “law,” the human side of a “new contract” where failure to comply meant damnation.  Paul’s was precisely the opposite of exclusionary sectarianism.  No one was excluded.  There were no conditions whatsoever.  The doors were wide open.  “God” wanted to connect with us all and the Christian “announcement” was an open invitation to connect with “God.”  It was a relationship, not a contract.

2.

Early Christian universalism implied a conception of “God’s” relationship to people that did not quite fit the Jewish paradigm of the contract.  The texts cited above clearly show that early Christians recognized that everyone was already connected to “God” by nature.  The very possibility of universalism is predicated on a pre-existing relationship that is not determined by local choices.  The source of that relationship could not have been a “person-to-person” agreement, a covenant, because no one had a recollection of any such a thing.  Any such agreement would have to be local.  The relationship could not be universal unless it were grounded in nature itself.  So the “only god” of the Jews was reconceived as the “One God” who made all things and was therefore related to all by nature.  Every nation was created by that “God;” he was, therefore, already their “father.”  Everything was in place; the potential for the full flowering of the relationship was there.  The core insight was the recognition of this pre-existing connection.  The contract was no longer relevant.  The “God” of nature implied that the most any religion could offer was a clarification of exactly how that relationship should be understood and lived out going forward, but it did not create it.  The missionary function was to “reveal” and  announce what was already there, not to to bring it into existence.

This “recognition of prior relationship” is unmistakably present in all the texts quoted above.  They indicate that the early Christians were quite conscious of their ancillary role in the announcement of the “new relationship” to “God” — that what they had to say was not new; it was the clarification of “what was from the beginning.”  The very condition of Christian mission was that those who heard their message already understood what they were being told.

Relationship to “God” based on the creature/creator connection is naturally universal and the early Christians understood it implicitly.  Sectarianism is the antithesis of this universalist respect for prior relationship.  It presumes to control the relationship.  But please take note: you can only do that if you control the basis for its existence.  That is the nature of a sect, a cult:  you, the sect, own the relationship.  The parties, in fact, are related to you, not to one another.  If you have the means to make the relationship come and go, then indeed, members are locked into a dependency upon you as the source of the connection.  The nature of a sect is that it is a closed system, imposing specified conditions controlled by the sect.  A relationship created by contract is of the nature of a sect, unavoidably.  The nature of a universal religion, on the other hand, is that the institution is subordinate, subservient, at the service of a prior and independent natural relationship, one that it did not create and does not control.  There is no quid pro quo possible when your very existence — your “you,” the party of the quid — is a gift from the party of the quo.

What is remarkable is that within a few generations this early Christian way of looking at things came to be reversed.   The Christian movement was turned into a sect that claimed to control the relationship with “God.”  It declared itself the exclusive inheritor of Paul’s letters and the only one infallibly authorized to interpret his ideas.  That religion, represented today by the Roman Catholic Church and many of its “reformed” offshoots, was culture-speci­fic to the mediterranean and later Europe; it was exclusivist, offering a relationship to “God” that without the sectarian Church could not exist.  Relationship (and “salvation”) were conditioned on membership in the sect, and that in turn involved meeting certain ritual requirements (like baptism), making verbal assent to otherwise unknowable supernatural facts (creeds) and conforming behavior to a rationally deduced “Natural law” codified and promulgated by the sect as “God’s law.”  Catholicism differed from its later “reformed” versions only in which rituals, formulas and moral demands were authentic and saved you from damnation … but in all other respects they all claimed to control the relationship to “God’s” love made concrete in “salvation.”

The relational dynamic implicit in this “Orthodox Christianity” which came to dominate Europe in the middle ages, seems to have negated virtually every aspect of the early universalist vision articulated so eloquently by Paul at Athens.  Rather than validating the universal “groping” for “God” and the multitude of means discovered by “every nation” in that search, mediaeval Christianity restricted legitimate religious expression to one set of rituals, formulas and morality — its own — redefining “universal” to mean the reduction of all tribes to one.  Instead of transcending the contract mentality which had limited “God” to sectarian conditions for relationship and “salvation,” it reinstalled it as a “new contract” whose quid quo pro requirements cancel out the self-emptying self-donating open-armed universal gratuity projected by Paul.  Far from being the source of exuberant joy, the relationship to “God” in traditional sectarian Christianity has been made elusive and anxiety-ridden, and “God” an ominous task-master whose glaring invasive presence motivates a self-preoccupied obedience through fear of eternal punishment — hardly “good news” for us “existentially challenged” humans.

3.

That these features reproduce exactly the relational dynamics characteristic of authoritarian societies like violent exploitative empires, can hardly escape notice.  It seems undeniable that in this regard the Roman Church was deeply influenced by the Roman State … as one would expect of co-regents.  This authoritarianism stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the familial, forgiving, non-violent, self-negating, omni-validating love that obtains between brothers, true friends and equals.  It has had the ultimate effect of taking Jesus vision of the great-hearted loving Father of us all, so solidly in possession of LIFE that he needs nothing and no one, … a “God” whom Paul said was so big that he could afford to “stoop to become one of us,” and turned him back into a self-absorbed, thin-skinned, tribal war-god, dependent upon the obeisance of his groveling clients and the lugubrious ceremonies of a sectarian Church for the diffusion of his name and glory.  There is an inescapable proportionality here.  The transcendent absoluteness of “God” corresponds to the limitless breadth and independent intimacy of his relationships, just as a limited, sectarian, self-protective, demanding “contract” evokes a needy, unfulfilled and impotent god-effigy that needs to be constantly constructed by his minions’ loud obedience and coerced submission of others if it is to have existence.  The second is not “God,” it is “the work of human hands … it has eyes but cannot see … it is deaf and mute … and those that worship it become like it,” — small-souled, grasping, self-involved, insatiably empty, dead and needing to be infused with LIFE from the outside.

Magnanimity and generosity and the universalism they imply are not optional features.  If they are missing from our religion — and our personality make-up — it means we never really heard what Jesus said about his “father, God,” … and we never understood what Paul said it means to know the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  It means we have never appropriated for ourselves what John spoke about: the LIFE that is from the beginning.  For those men, you must understand, all this was prior to membership in the community.  It was the only condition, the natural human LIFE that we were all born with.  It was absolutely universal.  Our relationship to “God” was our self-embrace of the LIFE that is ours.

There is a critical difference between evaluating religions according to the scientific “truth” of their beliefs and behavioral requirements … and assessing them from the point of view of the relational dynamics implied in their fundamental structures.  For us humans, there is no choice.  Relational structures must rule the enquiry.  We are our relationships.  Religion’s “facts” are ancillary to the relationships they assume, imply and evoke, and their “truth” must be judged by them.  The nature of “humanity” is “to be in relationship.”  We are not “things.”  There is no substance to us; we are temporary diaphanous formations of material energy that take our reality from our valences, our connections.  We are our relationships.  And shaping our lives by the relationships as understood by our religions will make us who we are … for better or worse.

It’s time we began to evaluate our religions in these terms.  The “truth” of religion has nothing to do with the “facts” it alleges; it has to do with the character and quality of the relationships it calls forth.  We ARE our relationships.  The religion that is “true” for humans is the religion that supports, justifies and encourages the kinds of relationships — to ourselves, to others, to the earth and to our living source and matrix — that make us fully human … that recognize and deepen our identity with LIFE.  The religion that empowers us to activate LIFE is the one that first recognizes that the power of LIFE is resident in our flesh.  We are born with it.  It is ours … it is us.  In contrast, a religion that insists that we are corrupt from birth — devoid of LIFE — and that LIFE must be gotten from another world through mechanisms which are in the exclusive possession and control of the sect, necessarily creates a dependency relationship that ties us to those mechanisms.  If you need to be filled from the outside — if you do not have LIFE within you — you can never cut the umbilical cord, for if LIFE is not yours to start with, you will always have to get it from somewhere else.  Without LIFE you are bound to your little sect and so is everyone else, for all are corrupt, empty, dead, needing to be filled from outside by the one infallible set of mechanisms that work ex opere operato.  This is sectarianism.  It is the antithesis of universalism … even if the whole world were to join, they would have to suppress their humanity as a condition of entry … it annihilates the diversity implied in universalism … the whole world would become sectarian; human diversity would be submerged in the totalitarianism of a monolith.  There is nothing “universal” about it at all.

4.

Christian “facts” are derivatives that come from Christian theology.  That’s what makes them metaphors.  That Jesus was “God,” for example, was not a primary datum.  It was derived from his followers’ interpretation of the crucifixion as the unique fulfillment of the Jewish contract with Yahweh.  No one began by calling Jesus “God.”  Certainly during Jesus’ lifetime and immediately afterwards it would have been considered an unthinkable blasphemy.  The very fact that it only dawned on his followers as time went by is a prima facie indicator that their “facts” were generated by their theology, not the other way around … in my terms, by their understanding of the new relationships proclaimed by Jesus’ vision and message … in Paul’s terms, by their sectarian belief that with Christ’s death the Jewish contract with Yahweh was fulfilled and therefore discharged and annulledThat Jesus was “God” was a metaphor that allowed that interpretation to exist.

In time, however, the idea of Jesus’ divinity came to be taken as a primary indisputable scientific “fact” and it distorted the interpretation of his significance accordingly.   By late antiquity Nicaean Jesus had become Pantocrator, the “all ruler,” the judge of the living and the dead, and the cult of Mary began to fill the void created by taking our human mediator from us and making him “God.”  Once Jesus was made “God,” the judge who could send you to hell, the people spontaneously turned to thoroughly human Mary to play the intermediary role that was once Jesus’.  She was a woman, a mother who could “intercede for us with her son.”  They were sure this was a mediator the authorities couldn’t take away from us, for we all know no woman would ever be made “God.”

But at first, in the vision offered by Paul, the dominant guiding notion was the direct perception of the new relationship to “God” in Christ as gratuitous.  It was the unfortunate but unavoidable use of the Jewish “contract” categories and terminology that began the process of reversal and made the reinstatement of the quid pro quo sectarian relationship virtually inevitable.

5.

It seems clear from New Testament documents, that those Jews who followed Jesus had felt oppressed by the Jewish law.  In the synoptic gospels it was expressed in the form of Jesus’ many adversarial encounters with the “scribes and Pharisees,” culminating in his vitriolic denunciation in Matthew 23.  This included the rigidity of the laws which Matthew attributed to the Pharisees hypocritical interpretations, “laying burdens on men’s’ backs.”  In Acts 15 Peter himself is heard speaking of the Jewish law as “a burden neither we nor our fathers could bear.”  In his letter to the Romans Paul is expressive to the point of anguish on the question of the role of the law in creating a bad conscience … and quite explicit that it had exactly that effect on him personally.  Against this background, the Christ-event was seen as an unexpected liberation for people like Paul — the lifting of an immense burden, and a sign of the boundless generosity of “God.”

This perception of the limitless generosity and all-embracing merciful love of “God,” forgiving all his prodigal children, “running to them when they were still far off to fall on their necks and smother them with kisses of welcome” (Luke 15) is the core religious insight of the Christian way.  Jesus, who seems not to have been personally distracted by the “pharisaical” misinterpretations of the law, expressed it in terms of his conviction that “Yahweh” was not the “holder of an IOU” but rather his loving father who asked for nothing but love and validated Jesus’ authentic sonship.  Paul tried to express it theologically as the lifting of the burdens of the law achieved through the full compliance of the contract offered by the self-sacrificing Christ.

The difference in these two approaches, Jesus’ and Paul’s, in explaining the sense of liberation and the blinding joy of complete reconciliation with “God” explains why Christianity, in attempting to free itself from the limitations of sectarianism, projected a universalism that the “contract theology” of Paul was ultimately incapable of sustaining into the next generation.  The effort collapsed back into a new quid pro quo because the very contract terminology that Paul used to explain the lifting of the Jewish burdens, did not apply to other peoples or to Christians of a later time.  His language was a propos only of oppressed, humiliated, first century diaspora Jews, miraculously freed from the onerous obligations that identified them as outsiders in the Roman world.  The perennial attempt to understand what he was trying to say in the extremely constrained terms he was forced to use, has consistently meant that we missed the universalism embedded in the message.  It was a boundless universalist message expressed in extremely limited sectarian terms.

6.

So what is the “core message” that allows for the true universalism present as a seed in Jesus’ vision?  It was definitely not Paul’s theory of “the fulfilling of the old contract.”  I contend that never for one moment did it ever occur to Jesus that his death would amount to discharging the obligations incurred in a contract with God.  Jesus’s vision, to the contrary, was simple and direct.  No reconciliation was required, for “God” was never angry at us, ever.  It was all a myth created by the misinterpretation of the sufferings of life.  Jesus caught the spirit and meaning of Job and the prophets: that “God” was love, not the legislator of Sinai, and that we were “God’s” children predisposed by nature to respond in kind.  Jesus saw that the contract imagery was metaphor and he transcended it … and he was able to do that because he had a direct independent sense of what “God” was like.  The need of his followers to explain things in terms of the Jewish contract was their problem; it was not Jesus’ problem.  They could not think “outside the box” of their tribal sect and its sacred contract categories, but Jesus could and did.  That’s why he could say that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and “by their fruits you will know them” … that’s why “he spoke as one with authority” … that’s why he could call the legalists “whitened sepulchres” and throw the money changers out of the temple … and, paradoxically, that’s why he could remain a Jew. 

The first letter of John captures the spirit of Jesus’ universalist message because it speaks directly about the character of “God.”  John spoke of LIFE that is from the beginning … LIFE that is superabundant love.  His message, like Jesus’ message, is simple: that “God” is love and light, and we are his children.  We are the offspring of LIFE.  We own itIt’s in our blood and bones — everyone from every nation knows this … everyone has the power of LIFE residing within themselves.  They don’t have to go anywhere to get it, they just need to hear someone like John say out loud what they have always known: “… we are “God’s” children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared …”

Tony Equale

Willis VA

June 7, 2013