Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monks in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It is what it is.”

“It is what it is … it is only what it is.  There is nothing more there than what is there.”

Before going any further I want to acknowledge the simple clarity and absolute ultimacy of those words. I totally agree with them. They are the sole basis and authority for the following discussion on how we relate to our material universe. These reflections limit themselves to the phenomenological dimension: they eschew metaphysics altogether.

 

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It’s because they are clear and ultimate that those words offer a challenge to our understanding of the material universe and the way we humans, who are its genetic offspring, relate to it. We are all and only matter. For over nine years in these essays, I have tried to be as clear and as ultimate about my understanding of reality and what that understanding means for religion. This particular articulation I’ve quoted advances my project significantly, and I am supremely grateful for its assistance. Why should I be so grateful?

Because most of the metaphysical ways of saying what I meant have run the risk of re-introduc­ing a fatal duality back into reality, a duality that I have struggled mightily to eradicate. Metaphysics is not our idiom, and we tend to take its abstractions and imagine them as “things.” I tried to address my apprehensions in two essays posted in August of 2016 titled “A Slippery Slope.”

That traditional duality is expressed in many ways: the “sacred and the profane,” “natural and supernatural,” mind and body, matter and spirit, “God” and creation. All are reducible to the notion that what we call “God” is an entity — a real separate independent stand-alone being, existing alongside of and opposed to other real individual “things” like the things in our material universe, including us. None of those dichotomies are real because the statement about a separate “God-entity” is not real. The differences and separations that they all assume — between “God” or a divine sphere and other things — do not exist. They are conceptual contraries that at one time, perhaps, were believed to be real ontological opposites, but are now recognized as chimeras. Trying to explain this in metaphysical terms is difficult to grasp.

Hence, I use the word “eradicate” intentionally because it evokes the image of “tearing up by the roots.” Using less surgically terminal language often will be taken to mean “the duality is officially deleted but we surreptitiously use it when no one is watching,” i.e., something we claim does not exist but we have recourse to in practice. The practice, of course is religion. Our western religions of the book have habituated us to a hopelessly anthropomorphic imagery about “God” and we tend to interpret any recognition of a divine principle to mean what our imagery has always evoked: a separate divine person. To insist that we are pursuing a meaningful synthesis of our understanding of reality and then refuse to integrate basic practice with the theoretical ground we claim to have established, is to fail at the very doorstep. For how true can our vision be if we can’t live with it? These reflections avoid that approach.

The way we have understood the presence of the Sacred in our lives is the source of the problem; it has created the difficulty we have in describing that presence in a way that sustains a consistency between vision and practice. It is difficult because, due to the conditioning of our religious heritage we do not seem to be able to conceptualize presence without evoking entity, and a rational humanoid entity besides.

Words betray us. They come to us already forged. In this case, the use of the word “presence” has already skewed the discussion. For the word implies that what we are talking about is a “thing.” So how do I both evoke the sense of a “presence that is really there” that goes beyond wishful thinking or the evocation of poetic symbols but that does not simultaneously imply the existence of a “thing,” an “entity,” a “substance” or a “person”?

 

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I am going to suggest the use of a word that I have used many times before that I believe speaks to the heart of matter — I believe it explains what I am talking about, and it is able to do that because, in fact, it is itself the real basis for the explanation. That word is “relationship.”

Now this word, like all our words has a charged history. The scholastics used it but gave it an ontological meaning. We still have a tendency to imagine relationship as a chemical valence, or an interaction of force fields between entities, suggesting an entity in its own right, invisible perhaps, but there, nonetheless … i.e., present.  So when we insist that a relationship is real we tend to slip into thinking of it as some thing that stands beside and alongside of other things, an example of the duality we are trying to eradicate. It is not. It is a bearing, an intentionality of the one thing toward another. (As a corollary it deserves mention that, in fact, relationship tends to reduce duality to unity because it generates a concurrence in the two things that are relating to one another that mimics a common identity.)

The mediaeval scholastic application of the category of relation to the persons of the Trinity was both the result of that ontologizing tendency and the cause of a Christian belief that took what were three different ways that human beings relate to the Source of their sense of the Sacred and imagined them to be metaphysical structures — real persons — that are internally constitutive of Deity itself. The absurdity here has been suppressed for so long that a rational discussion is virtually impossible today, not even in the closed door meetings where theologians talk to themselves. But I believe that relationship, correctly understood, is the best way to describe the entire realm of reality consigned to religion: the sphere of the Sacred. Let’s unpack all of this.

First, let’s consider how relationship is real. We’ll begin with an innocuous example: the relationship between me and my cat. I used to have a cat that I fed and took to the vet when she was sick. She was friendly to the point of appearing affectionate. I acknowledge it may only have been an evolutionary adaptation. Whatever my cat’s true feelings were, it worked with me. I “loved” my cat. She was not just a cat. She was my cat.

I may have seen a cat out on the street and couldn’t care less, but once I realized it was my cat my entire reaction changed. Before recognition and acknowledgement the animal was only what she was. After recognition she physically remained exactly what she was the second before but now she is transformed. Has anything changed? No! But then, Yes! because now she is the object of my loving-kindness. And these changes are real. Her entire significance in the human world where significance is significant has changed and following hard on that, so has her destiny in this vale of tears. The precarious life and possible violent death of a stray alley-cat is no longer her anticipated trajectory. And yet nothing has changed. She is what she is … she is only what she is and what’s there is the only thing that’s there.

But of course, what’s changed is my bearing as a member of the planet’s ruling species transforming the environment where she will eke out her survival. But even here, nothing’s changed except my attitude, or better, my acknowledgement of a relationship. That cat was my cat.

This kind of paradigm shift is even more pronounced in the case of human beings. The ability to observe and react to human beings differentially inside and outside of personal relationships actually characterizes much of human behavior and the complex history of clans and nations that has evolved from it. Our being … and our consequent destiny … is determined exclusively by relationship. The astonishing change in attitude that occurs when we accept people as known persons with whom we have a relationship is a prime example of the severely limited scope of the maxim that opened these reflections. “We are only what we are” until we are in a relationship. Then everything (metaphorically speaking) changes (it’s metaphorical precisely because, in fact, nothing changes). For the personal relationship transforms the individual not only in the eyes of the relator but in the individual’s own eyes as well. Relationships reduce discreteness and separation even as they preserve distinction and diversity. Such transformations can, and actually do change the course of human history. They do not affect the “thing,” but they do affect the process in which the thing works out its destiny.

Now this is really a no-brainer, but we don’t turn our attention to the fact that relational factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with “what is really and only there,” profoundly transform reality in the human sphere. And what, after all, are we talking about when we talk about religion, but the significance of the effects of relationship in the human sphere. Religion is not science. Religion is the activation of a bearing — a specific direction in the human process, an intentionality. Religion is what happens when we assume a certain relationship toward the material universe. The material universe includes us humans, who are a slightly more evolved version of biological organisms that share exactly the same matter as everything else there is.

 

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Well, what exactly is that relationship that is supposedly so transformative? It’s a relationship wherein human beings acknowledge that we are the product of a massive elaborative process going on within the super-abun­dant matter of which we are constructed and from whose more primitive forms we evolved. The very genetic modulations in form and function resulting from evolution already represent something of a challenge to the declaration that things are “only what they are.” For in the case of our own organism at one level we are “only” quarks and leptons, the sub-atomic quanta packets that are the building blocks of everything there is. And yet at another level here am I. At the level of my fully evolved organism I am something entirely and significantly different from the very elements of which I am constituted. The biological evolution occurring over eons and eons of deep geological time could not have taken place if the multiple sustained and consistent interactions evident in the availability of the material components and favorable environmental conditions were not there. No human being like myself, looking at this scenario rationally, could be anything but supremely grateful that the multiplicity of factors that comprised the conditions that allowed my humanity, which I enjoy so intensely, to exist— embodied in a material organism that is so much my own that it has given rise to my very self — were so stable, and that my ancestors had the ability to adapt to whatever instabilities continued to exist within that environment.

Gratitude. Now we are getting into the thick of it. I am grateful that I am here. Doesn’t gratitude imply that there is someone to whom I am grateful? And if there is someone to thank, aren’t we speaking about something other than what is “just there”? How can things be “just what they are” if as a matter of fact their presence is being provided (or has been provided) by someone or something else … which by implication must also be there if indeed it is the real provider of what is there?

Clearly this is what the author of the opening maxim was getting at: he was insisting there is no “God.” Please be advised, so do I. There is only the material universe doing what it has done on its own for the 14 billion years that we can verify its existence. Therefore a sentiment like gratitude that seems to imply something else, must be, in principle, an illusion.

Now this creates a problem, because the sense of gratitude is not only spontaneous and very intense, it is also sustained even after having been informed by modern science about the way evolution functions. As a matter of fact the sense of gratitude is as sustained, continuous and insuppressible as the sustained positive magnanimity that human beings perceive gives rise to it. Gratitude and magnanimity appear to be correlated, for we human beings, by being in an uninterrupted sense the product of a process like biological evolution, which we did not initiate and about which we have little knowledge and over which we have virtually no control, we have a profound sense of have been given, or provided … or to speak more impersonally: thrown, spawned, emanated, evolved … so the very interior feeling of “being only what I am” becomes difficult to maintain. I am constantly confronted with the evidence that I am not what I have chosen or made myself to be but rather I am the product of a multitude of contributing factors that are not me: the reproductive cells of my ancestors and theirs, the quality and availability of food in my now socially controlled environment, the accessibility of health care, police protection, infrastructure adequate to the prevailing climatic conditions, etc. These are the proximate causes of my existence. Even without referring to more remote cosmic conditions that made my existence possible I see that “what I am” depends in large measure on other things — on what I am not.

I really have no choice: like it or not, I have to be grateful, because the very thing that I cherish the most, my life, my self, is dependent upon a host of “other things.” Of course, in terms of strict logic, you may say you have no obligation to be grateful, because there is no one person or self-iden­ti­fied collectivity of persons who are responsible for all these things which make it possible to be here. My existence is not the result of any observable benevolence. But since when does obligation characterize gratitude, any more than the acts that gave it rise? The feeling of gratitude, I contend, does not come from the identification of a donor, it comes from the acknowledgement of dependency — the awareness of being a recipient. I love my life, hugely, and I am supremely grateful to whatever it is — no matter how many disparate and unconnected factors there are — that make my life possible. Gratitude is first and foremost the recognition of having received myself from elsewhere … of not having made myself. It is a spontaneous reaction that arises and is sustained in total ignorance of the source of such largesse.

If we are going to analyze this accurately I believe we have to keep this sequence of discovery in mind and acknowledge what is primary and what is secondary. Nothing “objective” except other conditioned material factors have been mentioned as the source of my precarious existence. What we know is what we are, and what we are is the end product of a multiplicity of agents, the majority of which we are ignorant of and, in fact, we may never know. This indisputable reality that conditions what we are, i.e., that we are radically dependent, is the starting point; it absolutely determines our self-embrace. To accept ourselves for what we really are is to accept ourselves as received from elsewhere, and so totally NOT in control of our own existence that we don’t even know all the things on which we are actually dependent to continue being here and being what we are.

Clearly, in this view, what we are is an item in a vast network of things and processes that transcend our organism in whatever direction we look.   So from this angle it seems that anyone who would claim that “what is there is the only thing that’s there” must recognize that the “what” is really an immense totality in motion in which I am borne along like a drop of water in a great river, about which we are all generally aware but which is unknown in all its depth and detail both in things and the forces operative in the process. Without knowing all of what goes into our being here as ourselves, we are not in a position to make any definitive statement about etiology: source and causation. We are utterly agnostic about everything except the one known and clear fact: that we are totally dependent on a vast collectivity that is not us for our being-here and being what we are. And the practical and unavoidable psychological counterpart of this perception is gratitude.

 

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Now I am going to claim that this self-perception entails a correlative self-embrace that is a crucial step in the establishment of humankind’s moral posture. In other words, the recognition and acceptance of dependency — and its associated gratitude — is constitutive of the moral embrace of the human being functioning within a community of human beings who are necessarily affected as a community by this mutual common acknowledgement. The acceptance of dependency (which includes social inter-dependency) brings a particular moral bearing to the business of living together in community that is achieved by no other means. The community of people who are all personally aware of this fact about themselves and all the members of their community are predisposed to making collective decisions that are compassionate and cooperative: advantageous to each and all.

I believe that this is the primary and foundational level of human social/personal life. This is “ground zero,” the absolutely unavoidable constituent bedrock of human social cooperation. It is essential to human survival because the human individual cannot live outside of human community physically or psychologically. Everything else is secondary to this ground. The perception of dependency and the feeling of gratitude for life are critical to human well-being.

Religion is secondary. There is nothing primary or foundational about religion. Religion has no “facts” of its own. Religion is a tool that the human community has developed to assist in the establishment and the continued protection of the instinct to gratitude with all its sources, viz., the perception of dependency.  In this effort to preserve this personal bearing that society needs so desperately in order to maintain its cooperative character, in ancient times an entire sphere of causes was invented out of the poetic imagination of our earliest ancestors in order to fill the gap in our ignorance. Today we call it myth. This is religion.

The perception of dependency and the concomitant feeling of gratitude is indisputable fact. It is the only religious fact. The rest is projection. The sources and causes of the dependency and the sources and causes of the sustained magnanimity of available resources are fundamentally unknown even to this day. To eliminate this hiatus in our knowledge, which was much more pronounced before the discoveries of modern science, religion was invented and the unknown sources and causes of the desired attitudes imagined. This occurred wherever human community was found, accounting for the plethora of religious forms across the globe. In each case the result was the same: the unknown source and sustainer of existence was imagined and projected as real, generally in the form of a sphere of creative power, both benevolent and malevolent, that were entities humanoid in character — “gods.”

 

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The gratitude founded on the awareness of dependency that I am now evoking as constitutive of human society and therefore religion, is fundamentally the same as what I have called in other contexts, a sense of the sacred. I spoke of the sense of the sacred as the spontaneous reaction of the individual human being, driven by the innate conatus to survive, aware of his own precarious possession of existence, and the consequent thirst and hunger for a secure source.   They are the same phenomenon seen in the first case from a social perspective, and an individual in the second. In each the phenomenon I am talking about is a human psychological bearing, an attitude, an intentionality that derives from the human perception of its own vulnerability … i.e., that human beings do not possess a stand-alone locked-down control over their having been born, or being this person or that, or how long their existence as human organisms will last or where it is going … but nevertheless love cherish and will do anything to preserve their life.

It is what the Buddhists call the awareness of “dependent arising” which is often conceptualized in later Buddhism as “emptiness.” Everything is “empty” because everything is characterized by the absence of independent existence. Please notice: there is no mention of, much less identification of a metaphysical source of existence, or an objective remedy for emptiness. The entire exercise has been on the subjective side. The analysis attempts to plumb the human source of the religious phenomenon and finds it in the common experience of humankind of its depen­dency which generates religion as its universal response. Essential to that response is gratitude.

Putting all this together with the transformative power of relationship that we explored in sections 2 and 3, we can see what religion has come to mean for the human species. The relationship to life that is characterized by gratitude sustains and justifies a cooperative spirit in the human community. A sense of gratitude deriving from an awareness of dependency transforms the perception of the material environment from being neutral or even hostile to patently familiar, magnanimous and profligate, if not benevolent.

I want to emphasize: the transformative factor in this view of things is not the identification of some “God” person, despite the fact that people will tend to imagine a sustained magnanimity as the gift of a benevolent source, and benevolence evokes personality, as does gratitude. In the view I am espousing, however, all things remain exactly and only what they are and always have been: the evolved versions of material energy released at the big bang. There is nothing else there. The only change is the relationship generated by the community of human individuals who — prodded by an insuppressible innate material instinct for self-preservation — love and cherish the human life they possess and everything that has gone into creating and sustaining it. The individual comes to realize that he or she isn’t just “what he is, or what she is.” They realize they are the point of coalescence of all their multiple causes and therefore bear within themselves each of those causes. They recognize themselves as the spawn and representative of a totality in process about which they know almost nothing.

Ultimately, then, it can be said that gratitude is reducible to the love of life, and the love of life to the embedded conatus. It must be acknowledged that we are to that extent utterly determined. We cannot help ourselves. “We cannot keep from singing,” as the old Baptist hymn proclaims, not because we have positively encountered some divine benevolent donor who has blessed us with the gift of human life, but simply because we cannot do otherwise. We love material life because WE ARE MATERIAL LIFE and we are programmed to love what we are. We can’t help it. If we try to suppress it we make ourselves sick. We are grateful because we have exactly what we are programmed to want; our only problem is we do not have it permanently. (The vain attempt to create this absent permanence by accumulating things and aggrandizing the “self” at the expense of others is the source of all self-inflicted human suffering, conflict, injustice and disharmony among us. Correlatively, the acceptance of impermanence accompanied by an unconditioned gratitude gives rise to an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness toward the entire cosmos of dependent entities which gave us birth and to which we belong.)

These minimalist conclusions may not satisfy those who have become dependent on their fantasies about “God” persons and other “spiritual” entities imagined to live in a parallel world invisible to us, but it helps make clear what exactly we are dealing with. These are the phenomena we are confronted with. As far as facts are concerned, it is all we know. It exhaustively describes our present condition; it is indisputable. How all this began and is able to sustain itself and what it will all become, is a matter of legitimate metaphysical conjecture, and in the context of our universally acknowledged ignorance, no reasonable possibility can be validly dismissed beforehand as untenable. Those who have decided to opt for the traditional western humanoid “God” person(s) have no greater claim to factuality than any other theory about the origins and destiny of our reality. It is all the work of the imagination — every bit of it.

But in addition I want to emphasize: it is all secondary. The primary event is the acceptance of the full depth of dependency that characterizes organic life and the whole hearted embrace of the spontaneous gratitude and loving-kindness that wells up in the human heart toward the multiple factors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, proximate and remote that have concurred so marvelously in producing and sustaining my existence. I embrace in an act of loving-kindness all the cosmic forces that produce my existence. This is the ultimate religious act. It transforms the cosmos itself from being “just what it is” to being my cosmos — the beloved ancestor that spawned me. This is not metaphor. It is raw fact. And the love I have for myself is transmitted to my cosmos, my environment, my community, making it cherished, the object of loving-kindness, compassion and concern. There may not have been any affect of love toward me functioning in any of the various “causes” of my existence, including my parents whose copulation may have been devoid of any focus outside of themselves and their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter. I don’t love them because they loved me but because they gave me existence. It is my existence that I love. The relationship is created unilaterally by my gratitude as recipient — by my love of my LIFE — and it transforms the universe by bathing it in the light and heat of loving-kindness. It turns the universe into my universe, and the earth into my earth, and gathers all the human beings around me into that embrace. All people become my people because I love LIFE.

Imagine, then, a community of people each individually grateful for his or her LIFE and mindful of the many sources of mutual conditioning among us by which each one affects each other. We each embrace all, in our gratitude and compassion, and we are each embraced by all in theirs. For we know what we are made of. We are well aware of our radical dependency. We are dust and fast disappearing. This I contend is the religious event. The one thing necessary. The act of cosmic gratitude is constitutive of the authentic human individual and the cooperative human community. Without it full humanity remains only a potential of the individual organism which continues being “just what it is” until energized by the transforming power of the community’s gratitude, evoking loving-kindness.

So it’s true. Things are “just what they are.” In one sense they never change because “they are only what’s there, and they are there the way they just happened to get there.” But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the cosmic forces that went into our makeup, the relationship of loving-kindness that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially. If you doubt that you have that power, try cosmic gratitude for just one day. You’ll see.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not some washed-up ancient war-god with a dubious and unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends “dependent arising.” This is where metaphysics begins.

 

 

Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

Originally posted Sep 1, 2016

2,100 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

2,600 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Aristotle

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

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

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

Return to symbol?

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

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

Human reality

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

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

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

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

We discover

that the face of God

we have been searching for

is our own.

“Catholics”

A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

2,500 words

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.

Anachronism

The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Human Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely.  While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue.  The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930.  Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.

critique

I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed.  Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed.  You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks ingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

 

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017

Obedience and the doctrine of “God”

 2000 words

Religion in the West has come to us in the forms practiced by the powerful societies that ruled our part of the world eons ago. The enormous geographic extent and longevity of the Roman Empire accounts for its influence on what religion was able to survive into subsequent eras. The fact that Christianity predominates in the West, and through Christianity that the ancestral Judaic tradition has been preserved, is due exclusively to Rome. Rome outlawed and systematically exterminated not only any and all rivals to Christianity, but also all versions of Christianity that could not co-exist with the one embraced by the emperors. The Jews were a strange exception: simultaneously protected and persecuted, their existence and their torment alike were integral to the distorted Christian view of the world.

Christian supremacy existed throughout the Mediterranean well before the 7th century when the unexpected rise of the Arabs and their lightening conquest of the southern and far-eastern regions of the Roman Empire brought their own indigenous religious vision into the area once exclusively Christian and Jewish. By the 7th century Roman influence had already insured that “The Book,” the Jewish scriptures which Christianity had embraced as its own, was accepted as the only authentic source of the knowledge of sacred reality. The result was that the indigenous religion of the Arabs, what they called Islam, acknowledged the uncontested primordial truth of the Hebrew Scriptures to which they appended their Quran, prophecy and poetry written by Mohammed, as a theological addendum.

Thus the three religions that are native to the Western World — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all outgrowths of the same primitive doctrinal formulations of the Hebrew Scriptures. It should come as no surprise, then, that the central moral and theological themes of all three religions would be the same. They are all cults of obedience. The word Islam itself means submission. It all revolved around the Torah, “The Law,” the terms of the contract that Yahweh made with the Hebrews: “You obey my law and I will make you great.”

Essential to obedience is the assumption about the “nature of ‘God.’” This is also the same for all three. Stemming from the anthropomorphic imagery offered in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by the mythic tales in the cosmogonies of the ancient Mediterranean, “God” was imagined as a “person” who gave commandments that humans were expected to obey. Obedience was a function of an interpersonal relationship in which the “will” of “God” was directly focused on obtaining the acquiescence of human beings expressed in their behavior. The import of obedience, ultimately, was its personal context: you were being commanded by a person who would punish you for disobedience; when you obeyed you also showed respect for that person … continued habitual respect resulted in a confluence of wills that would eventually develop into love.

There are two things to note, in this scenario. The first is that initially the psychological aspect was not the object of interest; the commandments were focused on literal compliance and the social harmony they effected. It was only later that attention was drawn to the act of “willing” as an interior event separate from the behavior it contemplated. Writers like Augustine who were obsessed with the self and its motivations, opened up a whole new interior landscape where the relationship with God was seen as a function of one’s intimate feelings and dispositions. Obedience was recognized not only as external compliance affecting society and meriting reward or punishment, but functioned on a different plane altogether, the plane of relationship; it was seen as the internal meshing of wills, God’s and yours, leading to a greater union of persons. This prioritizing of the interior dimension may be considered a seminal moment in the moral and religious development of the West.

Of course it was all dependent on the original premise about “God” being a “person.” It was because of this anthropomorphism that an external social non-compliance became an interior and inter-personal disobedience. Disobedience was not only a mistake, or a social infraction, it was a sin, a personal affront to the lawgiver that incurred “his” wrath; “God” was understood to be necessarily insulted and infuriated by the disobedience. This was the sum and substance of Augustine’s rationale for Original Sin and Redemption.

It accounts for the existence of the fear factor associated with religious codes of conduct in the religions of the book. But it also helps explain the direction religion took in Late Antiquity under the influence of the highly interior, self-scrutinizing and individualistic ascetical practices of celibate anchorites (monks and nuns), whose extraordinary lives were considered the apex of Christian perfection. Monasticism saw obedience not as compliance but as a meshing of wills, and therefore as a direct path to “divinization.” It was confirmed by the poetry of the nuptial relationship celebrated by the Song of Songs promoted in the third century by Origen of Alexandria. As the human will became more and more aligned with the divine will through obedience to God’s commands, it necessarily became more and more “like God,” which was the ultimate goal of Greco-Roman Christianity, theosis. Jesus’ call to Jews to “be like your Father” was seen as the harbinger of this new philosophical understanding of human destiny.

But the Platonists of the Mediterranean expanded Jesus’ appeal beyond mercy and forgiveness, compassion and generosity, and included the entire moral code because it was the will of God, and therefore it provided more fuel for the fire of theosis. The more obedience, the more the two wills became one. Your goal was to shed your humanity and become divine.

Hence, Eckhart’s counsel of “total detachment” was not hyperbole; he was serious. It not only represented the negation of the false ego, unconscious of its origins in Being, it was the reflection of the theosis goal set in the context of the discoveries of the latest Mediaeval science: “God” was Being. And since “being” embraces everything it is literally no-thing: it is everything and needs nothing. That such a detachment for a human being was absurd and impossible has not deterred many from trying, and doing harm to themselves in the offing. Their failure should have been a clue to the misconception that lay at the root of it all: that “being” was spirit and not matter. The ancients, unfortunately, had it stone backwards. Matter’s energy is being. We cannot be detached from matter because we are matter.

“God” is the LIFE of matter

What is most salient for us now, however, is that under the impact of the discoveries of modern science our understanding of the nature of God has changed — radically. “God” is not spirit but the LIFE of matter, its source and energy. And that has to have a profound effect on what we think Christian perfection is, and therefore what have been traditionally considered the practices that lead to it.

The position assumed in this blog is that the source of the human sense of the sacred — the source of the conatus, the will to live is the material energy that lies at the foundation of all things, responsible for their existence, their anatomy as evolved entities and their corresponding behavior driven by innate instinct. Material energy performs the role of Creator and Matrix in our world. It is not only responsible for everything there is, including evolution and the entities that have resulted from it, it also is that “in which we live and move and have our being.”

Some call that living dynamism “God.” I won’t quibble, but I prefer to call it LIFE, a word that evokes its reality as pervasive, generalized energy and its common possession by all things, without implying a separate entity that stands apart from them all. In this regard Eckhart’s remarkable “definition” of “God” must be highlighted for its congruence with the material energy I call LIFE:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

Eckhart didn’t say that because he was a materialist, but because he was a spiritual monist. He saw everything that exists as participating in the very same act of existence — esse — God, as understood in the concept of being. Eckhart was, as a result, a pan-entheist. Neutral (materialist) monists are also pan-entheists for the same reason: all things participate in the same existential energy, LIFE, the source of existence.

Eckhart was an idealist (spiritualist) like everyone else before the modern era. “Being” for Eckhart was “spirit.” All of the spiritual practices and goals of Christian perfection that we have inherited from 2000 years and more of the Judaeo-Christian-Platonic tradition are all premised on “God” being spirit — an idea/person who related to us rationally. This “God” had a vision for our behavior embedded in a moral code that represented his WILL for us. Since God was a person with a WILL, we had to relate to him by bending our will to his. That made us like him. And that is what it meant to be “holy.” But things have changed.

If God is not what we thought he was, then the ancient traditional practices and goals we set for ourselves will no longer work and may even be damaging, as we suggested in the case of Eckhart’s detachment.   If indeed, as I contend, “God” is matter’s LIFE and NOT some separate spirit-entity with a will of his own, then an entirely new set of goals and practices that are consistent with what God really is and what we, as his offspring, really are, has to be identified. This is where the rubber meets the road. What does it mean to be “like God” if God is not a rational humanoid person with a “will” but rather the LIFE of matter? And what does it mean if, as we are saying, we ourselves are all and only living matter, the very “stuff” of LIFE?

We have a new task: to discover how to align ourselves with LIFE now that obedience no longer functions as a reliable guarantee of theosis, not because we no longer know what “God” wants (we probably never really knew), but more radically, because as Eckhart says, we have come to understand that God wants nothing. It is not a question of meshing our will with “God’s,” the issue has nothing to do with a particular “will.” LIFE wills to live in us … as us. We have to redefine humility when we can no longer use our ego-negating obedience to accurately define and effectuate it. And what does detachment mean when we are no longer deceived into think­ing that God is “spirit” and to be like God is to suppress or ignore our bodies?

I am confident that these and other associated questions about the ascetic practices appropriate to our new appreciation of reality will be answered as time goes on. But we can already say there is one central characteristic that will have to be present and operative in anything validly proposed: that we are already in personal, unassailable possession of the source and wellspring of our own permanent existence, rendering egoic self-protection and the appropriation of the goods and energies of others meaningless. Our alignment with LIFE, if it is authentic, must generate an enthusiasm for the expansion and enhancement of LIFE outside ourselves.  

We need to “practice” what will help us become like LIFE itself: generous, self-emptying, magnanimous, forgiving and exalting of others. Since we are made of LIFE we are instinctively nudged in that direction. What should we do? As a start, perhaps a few unsolicited acts of sheer munificence where nothing redounds to our self interest in any way, not even gratitude or recognition. If nothing else, it will tell us how far we are from being like the LIFE “in which we live and move and have our being” … what we really are … how far we have to go to be ourselves. It’s time we listened to ourselves and obeyed LIFE.

Tony Equale, June 2017

 

 

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

Surrender

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roman Empire

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

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

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

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

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

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

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

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

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

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

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

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

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

Humility in a material universe

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017