Christianity and authoritarianism

Feb 2017

3,000 words

In its American incarnations, it [Christianity] has come to rule the world. The 20th century saw America shrugging off notions of the Death of God and rising to the position of a Christian empire.  It grows more imperial as it grows more Christian.” (Adam Roberts, “The Atheist Paradox,” Aeon 11/26 2012)

Whether or not the “strongman,” predicted by political philosopher Richard Rorty in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country turns out to be our current president, Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign promises and authoritarian behavior have thrown huge sectors of the nation into turmoil.  Tendencies in the “strongman” direction are unmistakable, and besides strategies of resistance people are search­ing for explanations: how could such a thing happen in the United States of America, the bastion and beacon of democracy in the modern world?

I have already suggested one partial answer: that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump were amenable to the use of America’s military and economic superiority on the global stage to secure their own well being, much as the wealthy elite have always done, even if it meant the impoverishment of other nations.  It is called “imperialism.”  Trump was perfectly clear.  Many see it as a reprise of an old pattern: the stronger sooner or later will use their strength to enhance themselves even if it means oppressing and suppressing others.

This had an internal component: alarmist rejections of “Muslim terrorists” hardly obscured Trump’s true motivations in curtailing immigration; for the same attitudes were directed at Mexicans many of whom were born here and none are Muslim.  “Make America Great Again,” translated to “the hard-earned wealth of working Americans must not be squandered on “free loaders.”  The fact that it is well known that these immigrants are as “hard-working” as anyone, revealed the racism that was the real source of the rejection.

For now, there are stop-gap resistance strategies, but if you’re looking for a durable solution for this problem you’re going to have to wait until people learn what it means to be human.  We have to identify ourselves as a global community, not some local clan, tribe or nation, or we will destroy ourselves, our species and our planet.  This is not just speculation.

The “Christian” contribution

In this reflection, I hope to present what I believe is another piece of the picture: the role of our Religious institutions — Christian Churches, primarily — in conditioning the American People to accept authoritarian government despite it being directly antithetical to the values embedded in the American Constitution.

This has always been a thorny problem, because included in the guarantee of the Constitution is ideological freedom.  We have to realize: Christianity is not only a religion, it is a social ideology.  It has functioned as the underpinning of theocracy in Western Europe for more than a thousand years and continues to offer itself not only as a way to “God” and eternal life, but as a way to secure a divinely protected harmony and prosperity in our earthly societies.  American freedom was always conditioned by the understanding that among various competing religious and political worldviews, one or another may convince the majority to embrace its beliefs and practices.  Would “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion” still be guaranteed under majority rule?  The door has always been open to self-defeating choices.

For a very long time this fear was focused on the question of religious establishment i.e., declaring one religious denomination official.  Because in the early days of the republic Americans were Protestants they shared a general belief in a moral code as well as a revulsion for Catholic Papal autocracy.  Officializing a protestant denomination was not necessary to achieve agreement on these fundamental issues, and establishment would  introduce a level of conflict that would have torn the new nation apart.  Catholics were few and any dangers that Americans would suddenly declare obedience to the Pope were non-existent.

That all changed as first the Irish immigration of 1845-1852 and then the arrival of foreign workers from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and Italy around the turn of the 20th century brought millions of “papist” Catholics into the country.  Catholic immigrants’ children would all be citizens.  But by the late 19th and early 20th century Americans’ fear of Catholics reached a fever pitch and immigration quotas from majority Catholic countries were suddenly and drastically curtailed.

By the end of the second world war the children and grandchildren of immigrant Catholics — now full fledged citizens — had become so integrated into American society that they posed a threat to the smooth running of the traditional political system.  In the lead-up to John Kennedy’s election in 1960, Catholics were subjected to a decade of scrutiny on their American loyalty.  Challengers like Paul Blanchard asked seriously: what would a Catholic President do in the face of a papal decree contrary to the laws and policies of the United States?  Whom would he obey, the Pope or his country?  These issues were seriously debated and Kennedy found himself forced to issue a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution during the campaign, explicitly stating that he would resign the presidency if there were ever a conflict (notice: he did not say he would stop being Catholic).

But lurking in the background was another religious issue that no one suspected would pose a Constitutional challenge of such magnitude that it might bring an end to democratic government in the United States.  The issue was a belief in absolute objective morality which all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, shared, and which had been essential to theocracies in European countries prior to the establishment of Constitutional republics in the nineteenth century.  Together, Christian conditioning prepared people (1) to accept authoritarian (non-democratic) government-by-ruling-class (this is exclusively Catholic), and (2) to profess an objectively true morality coercively imposed as law.  These two things, in my opinion, contributed to Christians in great numbers swelling the ranks of the 63 million people voting for Donald Trump despite the threat to Constitutional democracy that his campaign rhetoric clearly foretold.

Let’s “unpack” these two aspects of the religious (Catholic, Christian) contribution to the breakdown of American democracy:

(1) Authoritarianism: “God” as the Source of all authority

Catholic authoritarianism is not limited to the autocracy of the Pope.  The Catholic system of ecclesiastical governance is pervaded by a patriarchal authoritarianism from top to bottom, and the dogmatic justifications for authoritarian practice are also matters of revelation — truths originating in another world — to which Catholics are expected to adhere.  A personal entity called “God,” not the human community, is the source of all authority, and “God’s” will in this regard is exclusively communicated by men who are themselves un-elected autocrats — the hierarchy.  How is this spelled out in the life of the Catholic community?

(a) Caste status for Catholics is an ontological reality.  The Catholic Church divides Christians into two separate and unequal classes: those who have received holy orders and those who haven’t.  By the Middle Ages church leadership roles had been compressed into one, the priesthood; all other Christians were laity.  The higher clergy were all priests, and all priests were non-married males.  They were the elites: they were educated, exercised whatever authority there was, and through their magical powers were the exclusive mediators of “salvation” to the illiterate and credulous masses.  Once you were ordained a priest, you were a priest forever.  You may cease to function in the role, and may even be released from your vows, but you always retained your magic powers and your status.

Catholics believe that superior social status — the priesthood — is permanent.  It is conferred as an ontological reality independent of function: the equivalent of a genetic code.  If you were looking for some way to make class distinction an immutable social institution, the Catholic belief in priestly ordination provides what you need.

The influence here may be indirect, but it is not insignificant.  The Catholic people have been conditioned for their entire lives to the idea of there being an inherent quasi-genetic ruling class status conferred for life by “God,” exclusively on males, selected by the autocratic leader of a diocese.  There is no room for election of either priests or bishop by the community, despite the ancient practice, and women are excluded entirely.

(b) Political power in the Catholic Church is a “divine right.”  Closely linked to the above is the belief that the source of the right to exercise political power is not the will of the people but rather the will of “God” who is imagined as some sort of rational person who has decided how and by whom authority is to be exercised in the Church and reveals it to his chosen agents.  This proposition is antithetical to the principles of democratic government and as a matter of historical fact is contrary to the universal practice of the Church for almost the first thousand years, when bishops were elected by their people.  Vox populi, vox Dei “The voice of the people is the voice of ‘God’” was the formula that identified the divine source of the democratic ideal.  This democratic mechanism for choice of leaders was still operational as late as the 15th century until the Papacy, in collusion with other European monarchs, completely destroyed the Conciliar movement which tried to install representative Councils as the highest authority in the Church.  Monarchical authority — the Papacy — exercised as a “divine right” completely independent of the will of the people, was an achievement of the Mediaeval Popes, and it has functioned as the exclusive manner of exercising authority in the Catholic Church ever since.

Once again, the idea that such a justification of autocracy — power invested exclusively in the hands of one person bypassing the participation of the people in the selection of their leaders — is a valid and legitimate basis for governance, by its very existence serves to undermine commitment to the principles of democracy.  Catholic people, at least since the Middle Ages, have been accustomed to being ruled by a “hierarchy.”  The word comes from Greek and means “holy authority.”  This doesn’t mean that all Catholics would automatically accept some strongman’s claim to have a divine mandate to rule civil society, but they have been programmed to accept lifelong patriarchal authority conferred by something other than the consent of the people.

(2) Absolute morality and civil law.

Christianity at the pastoral level, the level of family life and daily labor, whether Catholic or any of its reformed versions, has made moral behavior the principal item in a transactional relationship with a punitive “God” — a quid pro quo  — where “salvation” after death is earned by compliant behavior during life.  This contrasts sharply with the  perspective of the ancient Greeks, for whom morality’s primary significance was individual self-development; by living morally you became fully human, and self-fulfillment made you happy.  Christianity did away with that view and redefined right behavior as the individual’s obedient relationship to “God.”  Compliance with the moral code became obedience, and obedience was a form of worship.

Christianity in its current form is the end product of fifteen hundred years of theocratic governance.  Especially in Western Europe, the Roman Empire’s use of the Christian religion to forge a society of homogeneous values and universal compliance, resulted in the inevitable tailoring of Christian beliefs to the needs of “crowd control.”  One of the instruments developed for that purpose was the welding of Christian morality to Roman Law.   Morality was considered submission to “God,” and the Roman Emperors’ efforts to guarantee divine protection for the Empire drove them to place the entire nation in a state of submission to “God.”  This could only be achieved by making Christian morality enforceable by law.  Thus was theocracy reborn under a Christian banner.

In the Christian view, the “moral code” is imagined as imposed not by community agreement but rather by “God” himself.  “God’s” putative “will” is that humans should comply with an abstract “justice” derived from commandments identified with a deducible “natural law” that may or may not have anything to do with the well being of the human community or its individuals.  This is the essence of an absolute morality — characteristic of theistic religions — as opposed to the conventional agreements by which people form a cooperative communities among themselves:  Christian morality is grounded in abstract principles rooted in a world of ideas and made known to humankind by revelation; it is not determined by the discernment of human benefit and a consensus of agreement by the members of the governed community.

A morality believed to be imposed and monitored by a “God” who will punish non-compliance with eternal torment is so dominated by the fear factor that it can hardly be embraced for the purposes of self-development, if one were ever so inclined.  This confluence of law and morality virtually eliminates human authenticity.  Even when behavior conforms to moral norms, the obeisance engendered by the looming judgment of a punitive “God” turns every human choice into a groveling self-interest.  It’s no wonder that the “sacrament” of penance was reconceived in the middle ages as the application of another imagined magic power of the priest “upgrading” what was an unavoidable “imperfect contrition” into something that would be worthy of an eternal reward.  They were honest enough to recognize that fear was the primary motive generated by their “system,” and that a life lived out of fear is hardly “perfect.”

Everything was  obedience; everything was master-slave.  Those that complied out of the “love of ‘God’” were few and far between.  “God” and society’s authorities — the agents of his will — were the masters, and the individual human beings were the slaves.  It is the social paradigm, internally, of authoritarianism, and externally, of empire.   Constantine had chosen wisely.

Christian fascism

Authoritarianism can arise from many different sources.  We are generally accustomed to  military coups where unquestioned authority is imposed by force of arms.  But I believe what put Trump in the presidency is a preference for the kind of authoritarianism that I  call “Christian” fascism.  It is “fascist” because it derives from the will of vast numbers of ordinary people who have chosen an autocrat whom they know will act in their name and “for their best interests” without regard for the rule of law or the interests of others who are not part of his constituency.  I call it “Christian” because I believe a majority of the 52% of Catholics who voted for Trump, and great numbers of others who identify themselves as Christian, were motivated by moral issues that certain strains of Christian fundamentalism, including the Catholic, have identified as Christian: the condemnation of abortion, same sex marriage, contraception.  They believed they were under a divine mandate — communicated to them by their religious leaders — to elect the candidate who would restore “true” morality.  True morality, in their eyes, recapitulates the imperatives of the ancient Roman theocracyEnacting them into law makes the entire nation “right with ‘God’” and therefore supposedly deserving of divine protection and prosperity.  These moral norms are claimed to be equally applicable to all because they reflect the “natural law” which all can discern by reason.  Therefore since they apply to all, they can be legislated for all.  Here’s the way Charles Chaput, the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia put it:

Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, and the purpose of sexuality are clearly unpopular in some quarters. Yet Catholic ideas about the nature of personhood, marriage, and sexuality are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have an inherent nature that is not just the product of accident or culture, but universal and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.  (Dec 8, 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer)

What Chaput takes for granted and I dispute is the proposition that personal morality has a right to be enacted into law, effectively coercing the entire population to obey what some faction of some fundamentalist cult considers divine revelation and the “order of nature.”  There is no such revelation, and behind it all, there is no such “personal” God-entity who wills, or commands or sanctions legal coercion.  This is a Christian myth; and it makes traditional Christianity every bit as mediaeval, archaic and intellectually regressive as the worst forms of Islam.

The fear of Catholic authoritarianism that haunted the early Republic and disturbed Americans as late as the 1950’s, turned out to be well founded, but for reasons that ran deeper than the Popes’ exercise of autocratic power.  The contagion of authoritarianism spread by Catholicism is shared by all fundamentalist versions of Christianity and springs from deeply embedded beliefs that will continue to wreak havoc on the human social experiment.  Christianity in its traditional form, which embodies a divinely mandated morality, the fruit of an absurd belief in a theist humanoid “God”-person, the Creator-craftsman who made the universe and everything in it the way a carpenter builds a house, is utterly false.  It is pure fiction.  It is an incredible belief system, the incoherent vestige of a past era whose view of the world has been completely superseded by the findings of modern science, and whose holy books have been proven to be the religious speculations of an uninformed people as they evolved their understanding of what “worked” in human society.  They projected their discoveries onto “God.”  There was nothing “revealed” about the morality recorded in those books.

From my point of view the election of Donald Trump can be directly attributed in large measure to the completely unreformed state of the Christian religion, despite the ethereal work of theologians whose academic ivory tower elaborations never reach the pastoral level, much less do they challenge the mediaeval authority structures which are the living contradiction of everything theologians claim for a Christianity that exists only in their imaginations.  The state of Christianity today, politically and socially, is the same as it has been for the last 1500 years, since Augustine of Hippo spelled out the theocratic role the Christian Church should play in the ascendeancy of the Roman Empire.  Unreformed traditional Christianity — one version of which is fundamentalist Catholicism — is the DNA of authoritarianism and empire.

Vast numbers of traditional Christians, including a majority of Catholics, were one of the principal sectors who elected Donald Trump.  “By their fruits you will know them.”

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An Imperial People

February 2017

2,200 words

Commenting on the conundrum we find ourselves in, faced with the clearly autocratic mindset of Donald Trump compounded by his lack of emotional maturity, Frank Lawlor, observed recently:

We have … to recognize that, as in most historical cases of upheaval, millions of our fellow citizens have willed this historical event for us all.  We have to save our national values and in the process to respect our brothers and sisters who have chosen this path for our nation.

That statement is as paralyzing as it is profound.

Lawlor’s lament is focused on the central paradox: that the problem is not Donald Trump.  Narcissistic autocrats like Trump have always abounded.  By themselves they are a threat to no one.  The problem is that more than 63 million Americans voted to give him power, even after his racist message and truncated character development had been on public display for a year and a half.  Like an IED, the home-made bomb of the “terrorist” wars, what detonated unexpectedly in our faces was the myth that the American People could be trusted to prevent any such person from getting close enough to do damage to our hallowed values as a democratic republic.  Lawlor’s stunned recognition of popular complicity with Trump’s agenda silently asks: how could such a thing happen?

My thesis is this: vast numbers of the American People embraced Donald Trump’s narcissistic definition of the meaning and purpose of American power as self-aggran­dize­ment — the control of others: Imperialism — as essential to maintaining our way of life.  The American People are an Imperial People — the inheritors of the post-war American Empire that has meant wealth for ordinary working people beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  We have come to believe that such wealth is our “right,” earned by our merits, a natural superiority falsely linked to race, culture and religion, and something we are entitled to hold onto.  Trump supporters are not the only ones who believe that.  All Americans have more than a touch of it, and like any self-exal­ting self-deception, we all have to work at controlling it or it will devour us.

power

At the very base of all this is the famous “ring of power” that Tolkien made the centerpiece of his saga.  Power feels like freedom because it allows us do what we want.  But first we have to recognize that power is a fantasy.  Until power takes on concrete existence by being exercised, it’s only in the imagination.  One can imagine using power for any number of purposes.  This is where the door opens to the demonic.  For when the psychopathic imagination — driven to compensate for personal insecurity — couples power to self-aggrandizement it precipitates a behavior the Greeks called hubris: an irrational identification of personal well-being with supremacy over others and its inverse: the belief that another person’s ascendancy represents a net loss for myself.

Some very experienced doctors of the American Psychiatric Association have publicly written to warn us that, and I quote, “His widely reported symptoms of mental instability, including grandiosity, impulsivity, hyper-sensitivity to slights or criticisms, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.” (Gloria Steinem, 1/21/2017)

When you’re speaking of the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, whose military and economic stature towers over all others, the possibility that a self-exalting hubris will piggy-back on power projections beyond national borders, augurs ominously for the future of global society.   I’m not the only one who thinks this is what drove Mr. Trump to seek the presidency.  Already wealthy beyond measure, like Julius Caesar he was looking to secure his historical immortality by finding a Gaul to conquer, and he sold his legions of followers on the promise of plunder if they helped him do it.  Like Trump, Caesar rode to triumph on the backs of his supporters.  But Caesar was less constrained.  He lived in a culture of competing egos; he did not have to disguise his motivations.  He could admit openly that he wept because by 33 Alexander of Macedon had conquered the world, and he, Caesar, had done nothing.  Trump lives in a “Christian” culture.  He has to disguise his intentions: the rest of the world is ripping us off, he said, putting us down, creating a “carnage” of the American People.  For Caesar, Gaul was not a threat, it was an opportunity.  I believe Trump’s neo-imperialism is the same, and he has harnessed ordinary Americans — an Imperial People — to pull his war chariot because like the Roman legionaries, they think they are going to partake of the plunder. The hubris is collective.

Hubris is an ego-mania that tends to spawn analogous ego-related reactions in others because it threatens their own insecurities.  The human species seems particularly vulnerable to this false identification of individual well-being with the emasculation of others.   The whole scene descends into the madness of a zero-sum game: anything that enhances you diminishes me, and if I am to succeed at my obsessive task of creating myself by my achievements, you are in my way, you must be correspondingly diminished.  It’s bad enough when it’s found in individuals, it’s chaos when it runs rampant in society, but to have it function internationally is the depths of insanity.

I believe that what happened to our country is that the perception of superior power which is a function of our military capability and economic control, was tarnished by the series of debacles in the middle east, starting with the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters and compounded by the failure to control events in Egypt, Libya and ultimately Syria and the “Caliphate” (ISIS) in the aftermath of the “Arab spring.”  For an Imperial People who have come to believe that they are destined by heaven to rule the world (and be rewarded handsomely for doing it), any “self-determi­na­tion” on the part of others that doesn’t mesh with our interests is intolerable.

The crime of unused power

In this context, you can understand the rise of Donald Trump, floated to the surface by none other than the Imperial People of the United States.  After what has been a series of Vietnam-type humiliations, the ordinary American has come to accept the right-wing argument that his aspirations to a living standard above that of the majority of mankind have been undermined by the failure to exercise American power, rather than the failure to control a capitalist economic system that breeds massive inequality.  Rising standards of living in China, India, Brazil, Korea and other erstwhile “third world” countries accompanied by an increase of their international clout are taken as indications of a corresponding American decline.  But I want to emphasize: there is no  decline.  It is pure fiction.  What is causing consternation is that American Imperial status is no longer acknowledged by people who are beginning to feel and act like our equals.  What’s wrong with that?  This is what the Imperial mindset, silently harbored by the American people and rallied into a deafening roar by Trump’s rhetoric, will not tolerate.  The talk of “American carnage” is in reality a nostalgia for an imagined superiority and accompanying wealth that are pure fantasy, and to which, at any rate, we have no right.   The fantasy has been fanned into obsessive demand and made to work in tandem with Trump’s personal megalomania.

Many people agree about Trump’s emotional morbidity, but  what explains the totally unexpected identification of tens of millions of people with those adolescent needs?  In the case of the 2016 elections the perception projected by Trump was that there was American power lying around that was not being used, and that the refusal to use power for our own ascendancy was a direct cause of the ascendancy of our enemies and therefore was contributing to our national abasement which he said was reflected in the ordinary American’s economic stagnation and insecurity.  That was the excuse he offered and the people who supported him rushed to buy it.  But please notice: the rush was a distraction.  Its effect, if not its purpose, was to bypass rationality … because everyone knew it was a lie.  It was meant to blur the undeniable fact that the country was doing quite well economically by every parameter, especially reflected in the continued growth in the upper sectors’ share of national income.  Reality was not allowed to dampen Trump supporters’ eagerness to embrace his message.  Instead of repairing the system that has created the massive inequality that is really responsible for middle class discontent  (and secretly hoping someday to be the beneficiaries of it), I contend that these people consciously decided to join Trump in employing the excuse that their own problems were the  result  of a non-existent national abasement in order to justify the use of American power to control and plunder the rest of the world.  The ultimate reason for the Roman conquest of Gaul was that landless, impoverished Roman soldiers wanted Gallic land as much as Caesar wanted Roman glory.  Likewise, the ultimate reason for the election of Donald Trump is that the Imperial People want to maintain their higher standard of living by lording it over the rest of the world and refusing to share what they have with those they consider non-Americans, even if they happen to live here and are citizens.  They want that as badly as Trump wants to enter Valhalla.  It’s a pact made in hell.

That was Trump’s message, and despite losing by almost 3 million votes, the fact that he got 63 million people to agree with him would pose a major problem for this country no matter who happened to be elected president.  You can’t have half the politically active people of a nation sympathize with the marginalization of large segments of their own population and the employment of international thuggery to plunder other nations in the name of national ascendancy and expect that your democracy is going to endure in anything but name.  Democracy is predicated on mutual respect.  Without it, it is a dry empty shell waiting to shatter into dust. Even if Clinton had won (and it’s not clear that her foreign policy would have been all that different from Trump’s), the presence of massive numbers of these Imperial People ready to follow their next champion in the work of engorging themselves on the wealth and labor of others around the world, and suppressing efforts to share wealth and security among the poorer strata of the American population, would have continued the gridlock obstructionism that the Republican Party has made the hallmark of its contribution to American Politics for the last 20 years.  By making that accusation I do not mean to exonerate Democrats who now can be expected to begin to dance to the tune that Trump has proved is a delight to the ears of so many Americans.  We have to remember what the term “Clinton Democrats” meant.

The fantasy of Empire

Such Democrats would convince us that there is a way of being “Empire” that is “win-win”: i.e., good for us and good for others.  But it’s a contradiction.  Cooperation and collaboration can be “win-win,” negotiation and arbitration can be “win-win,” but no version of “empire,” which means only and always that one people rule and control others, can be win-win no matter what the kick-back arrangement.  For empire means control and servitude even when for some reason and at some moment it doesn’t mean oppression and exploitation.  No such relationship between nations and peoples is humanly valid, therefore it is not durable and must be constantly maintained by force and fear.

It is time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy.  The Age of Empires is over, relegated to the virtual realities of video games; the harsh violence they assume as the functioning motivation of all human enterprise is a thing of the past.  We, as a species, have turned that corner even if there still exists an Imperial People who have yet to accept it.  It’s time we cast these demons out of our heads.  We know better.  “Empire” won’t work because it can’t work.

If we are to have a future as a species it will have to be characterized by international cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration derived from mutual respect and a sincere esteem for all people as people.  We are never going to stop 63 million people from doing what they think is the best thing for them.  Our only hope going forward … and in the long term … is to help them to understand what the best thing for them really is.  They must begin to think of their well being in terms of humankind itself.  That is the enduring task, there is no alternative.

“Trump is a nut,” I shouted at my Trump supporting neighbor before the election.  He agreed with a dismissive grin.  What does that tell you?  Trump’s supporters know all too well the pact they have struck with insanity.  But they have chosen it freely.  There is no point in denying what we are up against.  The blindness and gullibility that may exonerate our “brothers and sisters” of individual guilt, make the situation even more dire and desperate.  If you are blind, you can’t change what you can’t see.

The question for the rest of us is whether we will have the courage and confidence to overcome the paralysis that the fear of that blindness arouses in us.

THE HAIGHT-KNITTER DIALOGUE

January, 2017

3,140 words

I’ve just had what might be called a surreal experience: I’ve been reading an exchange between two Roman Catholic theologians, both 80 years old, imagining a “Religion of the Future” that will not be any recognizable version of Roman Catholicism.  Their dialog is recorded in a new book called Jesus and Buddha and is focused on the potential complementarity of Buddhism and a post-modern version of Christianity.  The friends are Roger Haight, SJ, well known author of the 2000 award winning book Jesus Symbol of God, and Paul Knitter, author of many books, most recently, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Orbis, 2013.

Surreal as it might be that married, ex-priest and retired Catholic theology professor Paul Knitter has committed himself to Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, it is well matched by his interlocutor: silenced theologian Roger Haight who, incredibly, is still a Jesuit priest in good standing.  Haight’s attempts in this dialog to restate traditional Catholic doctrine in a post modern idiom mirrors the surreality of his status.  He was silenced by the Vatican in 2004 because his book contained “statements contrary to Catholic doctrine.”  Given the Papal resistance to doctrinal reform since Vatican II, it was inevitable.  Both men, institutionally displaced in different ways by that resistance, are here  grappling with issues that, in my opinion, should have been resolved a long time ago.  This state of affairs is consistent with my belief that the Catholic Church will never change.  That’s a pity.  For in its current condition official Catholicism does not faithfully represent Jesus’ message, and I think that may explain why it is not capable of carrying on a coherent conversation with Buddhism.  The authors seem to agree, because this dialog from the Christian side conspicuously omits all traditional Catholic articulations.

The conceptual careening of these two Roman Catholic professionals who hold membership in an elite corps of systematic and disciplined thinkers, is an indicator of the utter disarray of Catholic theology after a half-century of officialist resistance to Vatican II.  The Council encouraged the Church to leave the 16th century and become a serious partner in interfaith dialog.  That required theological exploration and innovation that was never allowed to happen.  The result is, as I see it, that these two very old soldiers are just now entering doctrinal territory that should have been conquered and pacified two hundred and fifty years ago, when the American and French Revolutions broke the aristocratic rule of the ancien regime.

1. Theocracy

I believe that the Haight-Knitter dialog is being covertly diverted by a theocratic imperative embedded in Roman Catholic doctrine.  This theocratic imperative has historically exploited the Jesus movement for its crowd-control potential and prevented it from generating a human community of free men and women.  Catholic Christianity is not a faithful repository of Jesus’ vision.  The “Jesus” represented by Roger Haight in this book does not exist anywhere, and certainly not in the Catholic Church.  Moreover, I believe these two Catholic theologians are hampered by their institutional loyalty.

Institutional loyalty in the Roman Catholic Church has, since Trent, become more than a social virtue; obedience to the Church authorities is virtually a matter of latria — internal submission at a level that one would think belonged to “God” alone: worship.  Roman Catholics believe their Church is divine and what it teaches are “truths” revealed by “God” himself.  Both of these professional Roman Catholics, coming from their respective points of view, are in my opinion trying to find ways to outflank an obsolete Roman Catholic ideology without openly contradicting the magisterium.  Knitter, I believe, avoids direct confrontation by claiming that Buddhism is praxis not dogma.  Erstwhile “heresies,” disguised as prayerful exercises and mental training not statements about the nature of Sacred reality, should be of no interest to the inquisitors, while Haight I see as the consummate wordsmith, elegantly crafting new post-modern formulations of orthodox dogma fully confident that he has found a way to “save the words” of ancient formulae while becoming intelligible to the post-modern mind … or at least that it will fly below the radar of the thought police currently under new management.

The overblown role of the hierarchy in managing the belief structure of the Church is never itself the direct object of discussion, validating or invalidating the doctrinal complex of which it is an integral part.  The way authority is exercised can’t be separated from the doctrinal underpinning that justifies it.  Also, authority cannot be given absolute unquestioning obedience without conceding the doctrinal basis claimed for it, or at least allowing others assume it and thus appear to support a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching .

No one considers stating the raw truth: that from the point of view of Jesus’ message the Roman Catholic doctrinal edifice and the authority structure it supports are disfigured beyond repair; they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  These Catholics, I believe, are using a Buddhist-Christian dialog to disguise what they are really doing: trying to find a replacement for a Roman Catholicism that has lost its credibility.

I humbly and respectfully challenge both these men, clearly my superiors in virtually any category you select, to look squarely at the real issue in Roman Catholicism — the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about — the fatal historical distortion of the message and mission of Jesus stemming from the transmutation of the role of the Christian community from proclamation by example to social control by juridical coercion.  Over the course of two millennia the decision of Western authorities to use Christianity for political and social control has caused the erection of a doctrinal complex that both in terms of the alleged “facts” it adduces and the significance of those facts for people’s lives, stands in stark contrast to sacred reality as Jesus understood it and as he encouraged people to respond.  That it is also unintelligible to Buddhists and post-modern westerners reared in the perspectives of modern science is hardly a surprise.

Theocracy is the intent of Roman Catholic Doctrine and the source of its distortion.  Theocracy — “crowd-control” — has functioned from very early times to subvert the fundamentally liberationist dynamic of Jesus’ message.  The Roman authorities took a religious vision based on love and freedom and converted it into an ideology driven by law, and obedience … and fear: they forced Jesus through a metamorphosis that made him the divine Pantocrator, the all-ruling judge of the living and the dead.

The 18th century political upheavals that finally overthrew Roman theocratic governance in the West never penetrated its ideological foundations.  The Roman Catholic Church preserves those underpinnings in its doctrine, and its own authority structures are based on them: caste status as an ontological reality, political power as a “divine right” and obedience as a form of latria.  The Church is the last bastion of anti-demo­cratic aristocratic control welded in steel to “infallible” dogma, and the perennial vector from which its contagion — the divinization of fear, law and obedience, the living embodiment of the master-slave relationship — is always ready to spread.  Latin American liberation theology represented the direct antithesis of this aristocratic intent, and one can understand why, despite its orthodox credentials, it was the object of venomous attack by the counter-conciliar forces in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  They said it was attempting to use Catholic dogmas “contrary to their purpose.”

The implications of this thesis are wider than Christian doctrine.  Because of the iron link between doctrine and practice, authentic doctrinal reform will only occur if accompanied by social-moral-political reform.  Two hundred and fifty years of the rhetoric of “democracy” have yet to persuade the vast populations of the modern world that they no longer need the protection or guidance of a superior elite — an upper class — nor fear its wrath.  A “God” ordained Aristocracy is a myth that will not die.  Populist fascism, based on racist subordination, is a version of it with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in the USA even as we speak.

2. “God” transcendent or immanent

The foundational doctrine of theocracy is a punitive “God.”  Only a punitive “God” inspires fear.  In order for “God” to be punitive he has to be a “person” who “wants” certain things from people.  This personal “wanting” (despite contradicting the very definition of “God”) generates a corresponding obligation to obedience on the part of the individual human being who is terrified of the wrath that non-compliance may engender.

A punitive “God” also needs to be transcendent.  By that I mean very specifically that  “God” must transcend the natural order and not be identified with it.  He must stand over against the material universe and humankind as a separate entity, or he cannot interact with it, command it, punish or reward from outside.

The seminal event that established the transcendence of “God” is creation ex nihilo.  A personal “God,” without any pre-existing substance or force to determine the shape of creation except his choice and artistry, makes the world out of nothing and therefore stands above and apart from it and owns it lock, stock and barrel.  The world makes no contribution to creation and has nothing to say about its direction.   “God” controls and commands.  We obey.

The opposite of transcendent is immanent.  Immanence means that to one degree or another “God” is identified with the natural order and indistinguishable from it.  Modern science has discovered that the story of a separate personal entity/agent creating the world out of nothing has no evidence to support it.  In fact science has discovered that the cosmos and everything in it, from the smallest sub-atomic particles to macro-structures of immense size like galaxies, and complexity like human beings, has self-elaborated in a process called evolution over an unimaginably long period of time.  Far from making no contribution to creation it is now known that matter’s energy to secure continued existence for itself is the exclusive force that has shaped everything that exists in our universe, including the living things whose autonomous pursuit of existence is now an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process.

Insofar, then, that one continues to insist that it is still “God” who is the ultimate ground and dynamism behind this energy and its elaborations, it must be said that “God” is not perceivable as a singular entity or separate agent of evolution and must be understood as indistinguishably identified with the material energy that is actually observed doing the creating.  We are just now learning how profoundly immanent “God” is in the natural order; any creative energy he imparts to it is inseparable and indistinguishable from what it is observed doing.  We know abstractly that “God” is “cause.”  But how exactly “God” is distinct, if indeed his causation is distinct at all, is beyond our ken.  Thomas is clear: God is not an entity and his causation is totally commensurate with secondary causes.

But please notice, an immanent “God” is also indistinguishable from yourself.  The only commanding “God” could possibly do, if indeed “he” were ever to take the form of an entity/person who commands, would derive from primary causality providing the energy of esse (let’s call it LIFE) to your body.  To hear the “will” of such a “God” means to listen to your self in the deepest sense of that word.  That’s why John’s first letter suggests that those who are in touch with LIFE immediately recognize Jesus’ “divineness.”  Similarly, once LIFE is embraced, it has a profound effect on one’s bodily behavior.  The two, God and the conscious human organism, primary and secondary causes, become one again.

The depth of this immanence — this metaphysical and etiological identity — is not sufficiently described by calling it the “within” of things, as Teilhard does, because it evokes the image of a tenant in a garret room, active perhaps but necessarily separate and distinct in a way that is not faithful to the reality.  Ramon Panikkar calls this imagery a pseudo-immanence that is really a disguised transcendence and he excoriates it mercilessly in his little book The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man.  Actually, Aquinas’ Aristotelian imagery in the SCG of “secondary causes” that are the sufficient and necessary cause of all things in a hierarchical relationship with “God” who is the invisible primary cause, the “Pure Act” that activates everything with “his” own esse, is my opinion, remarkably faithful to observed reality.

3. Science, evolution, person

I object to the way evolution is mentioned always ancillary to some other philosophical or theological guiding notions relating to creation; the evolution of material forms is not acknowledged as the sole, exclusive, sufficient and necessary etiology at play in creation.  The lack of focus on matter’s self-elaboration is responsible for the failure to recognize the deep, intimate and pervasive nature of the immanence of “God” in the material universe.  There is an identity here that the West has avoided like the plague.  The esse we deploy by existing is not only “God’s” it is “God.” 

The observable data about “God’s” way of creating do not come from scripture, they come from science.  “God,” if we must insist on saying that it is “God” who creates (constantly confusing ourselves by evoking the anthropomorphic entity/agent imagery associated with the word), does so at the pace and with the exclusive agency of matter at whatever point of development it has reached on its own.  “God’s” presence and action precisely as Creator is not distinguishable from the 13.7 billion year old material evolutionary process, and that includes the extinction of 99.9% of species that failed to adapt.  Humanity and perhaps even all life on our fragile planet are similarly susceptible to that eventuality.  Our traditional assess­ment of the central role of humankind in “God’s” relationship to creation, and therefore a putative guarantee of permanence for our species, is cast into grave doubt once we accept the determinative role of evolution in the creation process.

In this same regard, to say “God is personal but not a person,” as they propose, is unintelligible.  There is no theodicy that justifies traditional micro-manag­ing providence.  Traditional providence implies a rational, interactively relating, living entity who communicates with, hears and responds to other persons.  That’s what “person” means to human beings.  I think it is incontestable that Haight means “personal” in exactly that sense:

In this framework Jesus reveals God to be personal, not a big human person in the sky, but in such a way that the absolute divine power that creates and grounds all being is personal, intelligent, knowing, understanding, willing, and desiring what is good for God’s creatures. This means that all beings, in themselves and in their specific relationships and actions, stand in relation to a ground of being that is personal. The universe is suffused with intelligence and affective attention. Individual beings have a value that is guaranteed by a creating power that personally cares about them. Persons are more than individuals; they are subjects called to respond to an all-encompassing personal attentiveness.  (Chapter 4, Kindle 1250)

If “God” is a person in the sense described above, then he falls onto the horns of MacLeish’s dilemma: “If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good.”  If “God” is personal, the Haitian earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic were a disgrace.  ¾ of the 200,000 people who died were children.

Micro-managing providence is a joke.  There is no such providence.  What “God” provides is the natural order.  The psalms themselves are full of MacLeish’s lament.  The only way out, it seems to me, is the identification of the primal “act” in the universe as a changeless will-to-esse where even “love” as we humans understand it is not yet operational: love is implicit in the will TO BE but must wait for its full explicitation on the secondary causes (conscious organisms) that will elaborate it as a derivative of their own pursuit of survival … the primal “act” (esse) is a living dynamism coming from a suffusive life-source which is not an entity and which does not distinguish among its truly universal effects to favor sentient and intelligent victims.

It is we, human beings, limited material organisms, who awaken in a world of such universal disinterested donation that even the microbes that kill us are sustained by “God” in the form of being that they have been able to achieve on their own.  It is we, then, that interpret LIFE in our case to mean compassion and protection and relief of suffering.  It is we who have invented “love” as part of our evolutionary process.  And as we evolve we are learning that if we are to survive we have to love species other than ourselves.  “Love” is our thing.  “God” is love only because he sustains us too.

Forgiveness

“God” is fundamentally immanent.  It is as immanent that “God” is transcendent, i.e., he cannot be identified with any particular entity, because “he” is the living energy that transcends them all.  “God” is also transcendent because the spectacular elaborations achieved by evolution have, each and every one of them, transcended exponentially the base from which they emerged, belying the age old dictum; ex nihilo nihil fit.  ESSE supports secondary causes that draw from an unfathomable well of creativity what is absolutely new, ex nihilo:  life from non-life, human intelligence from animal consciousness, and sustains all this newness with esse — “him”self. 

An immanent “God” is our very own LIFE.  This kind of “God” cannot punish because he has no “will” that is different from what we are and most deeply want for ourselves.  If he cannot punish, he cannot be harnessed to social control no matter how benevolently it is conceived.  Thugs have known that forever.  The only “God” they ever feared was the autonomy of men.  “God” impacts human politics only through secondary causes, just as he has nothing to say about when and where the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust are going to move in response to pressures from the circulating magma.  Theocracy and the “facts” adduced to justify It — like reward and punishment — are a fraud, a lie, preying on our fears to trick us into surrendering our autonomy to those who claim to rule in “God’s” name.   There is no one to punish us … and we have already received the greatest reward possible: the privilege to be made of living matter and eternally part of this LIFE-driven evolving cosmos.

Can we ever forgive such a “God” for not being the protective parent we think we need and want “him” to be?  Can we love “him” for the anguished autonomy he sustains in us and this fragile material organism that we have evolved?  Indeed, to my mind, that is the only authentic “religious” question … and the final answer to the Grand Inquisitor.

 

Universalism and Catholic Totalitarianism

One of the principal qualities claimed for Christianity as it emerged and separated from Judaism was universalism. The Jewish followers of Jesus carried over from their parent religion virtually everything except its sectarian character which was identified with Jewish nationality. Christians said that the loving Jewish Father whom Jesus preached was open and inviting to everyone because he was their father too, the “God” in whom they lived and moved and had their being, the “God” that all people groped for, whatever their nation and religion.

But once established in the Greco-Roman world, class structure took over and Christianity itself succumbed to the forces of authority and control and became sectarian. Authority requires boundaries and identity. This occurred even before the Roman Imperial marriage conferred divinity on the Catholic Church. In fact, it was the sectarian / authoritarian nature of the version of Christianity that had evolved in post-apostolic times that made the union desirable to both partners. The Church became an apt instrument of Roman theocratic rule because its boundaries were not only fixed, they were lethally obligatory and held carefully in place by an authority for whom such control redounded to personal prestige. It had to be clear who was inside and who was outside, and outside the Church there was no salvation. There was nothing invitational or open about it. It was either the Church or damnation. What had earlier been free became a debt due upon receipt. It had the ultimate effect of making the Empire and the Church commensurate with one another and Roman Law divine. It assured the authorities that compliance with the rule of law would be sanctioned by a level of punishment for the disobedient far beyond anything they could bring to bear on earth: eternal torment in hell. Better than constabularies in every town; each citizen policed himself. The legions could be kept along the Rhine and the Danube.

The Romans liked to project the image that their empire embraced the whole world. It was propaganda; they knew better. Caesar stopped his conquests at the Rhine; the entire Germanic and Slavic world east of France and north of the Danube was not part of the empire. The Romans dismissed them as barbarians, but they were still there. Going eastward from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) the world of the Persians and beyond them the Indians, once part of Alexander’s domains, also lay outside of Rome’s control and often challenged its eastern border.

Regardless, Roman Christianity, named “Catholic” because it was not just some local church but the totality, became the official religion of the empire and therefore “everyone’s” religion everywhere Rome ruled. Hence, the Church also touted itself as “universal.” But there was nothing universal about it. The empire that had earlier been completely pluralist and open to all religions, under the Christian ascendancy became adamantly intolerant. All other religions were outlawed. The plethora of cults from the traditional Mediterranean gods, the homegrown mystery cults of Demeter and Orpheus on which Paul modeled Christian initiation, the imported mysteries of Isis from Egypt, Tammuz from Mesopotamia, Mithraism, Manichaeism, to diaspora Judaism, and all the varied dissident Christian sects who disagreed with the “official” version and were called “heretics,” after centuries worshipping freely throughout the empire were all driven underground by Theodosius’ decree in 380. Suddenly it became a state crime to adhere to any religion but the emperor’s.

Impressed into service to a theocratic empire, Christianity took on all the characteristics of theocracy: it expected that its moral and ritual program would be enforced by the “secular arm” and dissenters punished. Hence, even today we are subjected to the demand of Catholic bishops that their people vote only for politicians who commit to translating the Church’s moral code into legislation. Christianity transformed its inspiring narratives and family legends into codified dogma and, item by item, made them the litmus test of membership in the sect, outside of which there was only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Exile and excommunication were parallel punishments meted out by the state for “heresy.” And later, in the Middle Ages, when fear of the devil surpassed the fear of “God” as a motivation for religious compliance, execution by burning at the stake was the prescribed antidote for failure to respect the boundaries of the sacred: outside the Church there was only the devil.

*

True universalism respects all religions as pathways to full human development — what has traditionally been called “holiness.” One of the indications today that the Roman sect is not universalist is that it insists that whatever holiness may be found anywhere in the world among other religions is actually due to “grace” that comes through the “merits of Christ” and mediated to humankind in a hidden way through the Catholic Church. In an official teaching entitled Dominus Jesus published in 2000 by then Cardinal Ratzinger, it was clearly stated that anything of truth that may be found in the writings of any other religion anywhere in the world was exclusively the prerogative of the Roman Catholic Church to discern and decide. The perennial “missionary” efforts of the Church, often justified under the fiction of “universalism” is simply a repeat of the same imperative: the Catholic Church alone is “God’s” personally founded institution, the only path to human fullness, the only escape from eternal punishment. It is not optional. “Mission’s” purpose was supposedly to lay out the case for voluntary conversion. It didn’t always happen like that. Having the “truth” made Catholic missionaries less concerned about free choice than eternal damnation. An ignorant “native” saved from damnation by baptism, the missionaries reasoned, would be inclined to overlook any coercion applied on his behalf. It was, after all, an act of love … and error has no rights. Mission did not include encouragement to deepen and practice one’s own ancestral religion.

Supporting other people’s religions is universalism; obliging everyone to abandon their religions and join yours is totalitarianism. They may seem similar because in each case everyone seems to be of the same mind, but it is a superficial similarity focused on externals alone. Totalitarianism is anti-human because it leaves no room for religious expression that may correspond to the peculiarity of regions or clans or individuals.  Totalitarianism doesn’t respect others’ names for “God” because it refuses to acknowledge that its own is only metaphor. Totalitarian sectarianism is the handmaiden of empire, the agent of theocracy, and most often co-exists with a tyrannical despotism that can be monarchical, oligarchic and even, as in the case of modern fascist versions, “democratic.” We can’t forget it was an Athenian democracy that condemned Socrates to death in the name of religion for encouraging the young people to think for themselves. He caused them to disrespect the gods.

But in the case of Catholic totalitarianism there is nothing democratic about it. After 500 years of entrenched and unopposed Papalism since the Protestant Reformation, Catholics have come to identify their “brand” of Christianity with the Pope. The identification of the Church with the person of the Pope, an absolute autocratic monarch, was the result of the defeat and demise of the Conciliar movement in the 15th century.

Conciliarism maintains that the Church has been traditionally ruled by Councils since earliest times and that the Pope’s “primacy” is one of respect, not of autocratic power. Indeed, when lust for Papal power had resulted in a Great Schism starting in 1378 in which first two, then three men claimed to be Pope at the same time, and all three had support among the monarchs of Europe, it was Councils in 1408 and 1414 called by the Conciliarists that resolved the problem. Once the Schism was settled and the Papacy restored to one man, however, the Pope’s autocratic power was so great that within thirty years he was able to destroy the movement that had preserved the papacy and prevented the Church from breaking apart. It is significant that half a century after that the Church did break apart, and “Councils,” eviscerated by the Popes, were powerless to stop it. Resentment over the derogation of the Conciliar movement and the perennial belief that “reform” would only come to the Church through Councils, sustained the “Protestants” who were convinced that the reforms they introduced would someday be validated by an Ecumenical Council for the whole Church. They were not interested in starting new churches. That belief never materialized. The Council that was called to deal with the Protestants met in the city of Trent in northern Italy almost half a century after Luther’s revolt began; it showed no interest in reconciling with the Reformers and reaffirmed the absolute autocratic power of the Pope. It was the beginning of the Catholic “brand.”

Catholics have become so accustomed to the idolatrous worship of the Papacy as a “divine” institution that in 1870, when the Pope, in complete control of the first Vatican Council, declared himself to be “infallible,” an outraged world was doubly shocked to see that among Catholics, however intelligent, educated and well intentioned they might be, it barely raised an eyebrow. At this point in time the Papacy is seared into everyone’s brain as an intrinsic element of the Catholic “brand.” Institutional attachment, now, is determined not by scriptural fidelity, consistency with the message of Jesus, compassionate embrace of the suffering victims of injustice or any other religious motivation, but rather by the evocation of an organizational “identity” made recognizable by the display of its brand. Ecclesiastical authority activates its ancient role of maintaining the boundaries that guarantee “identity” and of all authorities, the one simultaneously most cherished and feared is the Roman Catholic Papacy. Like all other anti-evangelical authority, it is a correlate of sectarianism.

There is a great deal written about Catholic “universalism” as if it actually existed. It is all projection. It is fiction: stories that come full blown from the imagination of well-meaning religious who accurately discern the spirit of Jesus’ ancient message in the scriptures. Indeed universalism is implicit in Jesus’ invitation to trust his Father’s endlessly forgiving embrace. One writer uses the word catholicity to refer to a sense of wholeness meant to include in the Father’s embrace not only the totality of humanity, but the entire cosmos. But don’t be fooled. The last place you will ever encounter such attitudes being lived in the flesh is in the organization known to all as the Catholic Church. In this case the word catholicity becomes something of a sleight-of-hand: it makes you think that the wholeness you seek will be found there. The writer, surely, is not being intentionally deceptive. She honestly imagines that the Church that supports her, wants to live the authentic spirit of Jesus’ message, and therefore wants to be catholic, as much as she does. But it cannot do it because an authority invested in its own power and prestige must protect the boundaries. It cannot be universalist. It must convince those who are “inside” that “God’s” love is NOT free, by distinguishing them precisely from those who are “outside” and have no access to “God’s” embrace as they do.

Imagine if “God’s” forgiveness were available to everyone free of all cost and obligation. How could you control the boundaries? How would you identify your organization? How would you get people to obey you? There would be nothing to do but celebrate! Jesus understood the confusion. So in order to make himself perfectly clear he proposed, on more than one occasion, a radically different kind of authority.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all.” Then He had a little child stand among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not only Me, but the One who sent Me.”… (Mk 9:35ff)

And then, at another time:

So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. … (Lk 22:25ff)

The scene of Jesus surrounded by children is one of the most beloved in the gospels. But we fail to notice that Jesus’ used children to make what is probably the most radical and universally disregarded point of his message. Jesus said if you exercise authority you must do it like a child. Note: Children do not command one another. They exercise leadership and organize multitudes by inviting others to play with them … and no one is left out.

Tony Equale, November 12, 2016

 

A Slippery Slope (1)

Some twenty years ago I woke up to the fact that there was no way that Catholics could ever accept other religious traditions as equal to their own, or treat their practitioners as anything but benighted and misled, because they believed that their own founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was God himself. The conclusions were inescapable: Catholic teachings had to be infallible and everyone ought to leave their ancestral religions and become Catholic. There is no way a true dialog — an interchange of equals that respected one another’s religious validity — could ever occur. Suddenly it struck me, the logical results of that position contradicted gospel values and the clear call of Vatican II; they were so absurd, insulting and damaging to the global human family that it provided an indirect “theological proof” that Jesus could not possibly be “God.” As a corollary, it also called into question the existence of a theist (rational, providential, powerful, commanding) “God,” precisely the kind of “God” assumed by the doctrine.

The Catholic Church claims it was started by “God” himself walking on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What more guarantee of absolute truth could you ask for? It was a matter of simple logic for Catholic theologians to say that any truth or holiness that might be found among other religions had to have come through the Church in some way. No “pagan” ritual, moral code or spiritual practice, in itself and apart from the Catholic Church, could ever mediate contact with “God.” The Church was “God’s” chosen instrument of salvation. It had an obligation to bring the truth to the whole world, and Catholic “missionaries” were even persuaded that it would be OK to impose Catholicism by force. Like the rationale for baptizing helpless infants, if those people knew the “truth” they would certainly choose to be baptized Catholic. “Error has no rights,” the motto of the Inquisitors, held sway here as well. In 1992 Pope John Paul II hailed the acquisition of the Americas by the Spaniards and Portuguese (which included a genocidal conquest and the encomienda system of forced labor) as a boon to the Amerindians because it brought them Catholicism.

We have to recognize that these attitudes flow inexorably from the premises. If Jesus was “God,” then the Catholic Church has to have the absolute truth; all other religions are “false” and whatever of truth they may contain is solely the prerogative of the Catholic Church to discern and decide. Any tactic or maneuver that led to the conversion and baptism of non-Catholic, non-Christian people was praiseworthy regardless of the means employed.

Absurd

The divinity of Christ, a doctrine that seems an appropriate reflection of Catholics’ feelings about the man they believe “saved” them, when looked at from outside the Church is utterly absurd: it totally invalidates all other religions and traditions. Catholics who were in close touch with non-Catholics were aware of the absurdity of Catholic claims because they experienced firsthand the goodness and holiness that other faiths produced in their people. So while it was gratifying when the Second Vatican Council affirmed the validity of other religions and called for Catholics to have a sincere interchange with them, the Council’s common-sense call for “ecumenism” in practice undermined the “divinity of Christ” as traditionally stated and interpreted.

Those who took the first steps along the ecumenical path were confronted immediately with the impasse created by Catholic doctrine. Since no rational person could ever consider any other religion the equal of the one founded and instructed by God himself, no respectful dialog could take place until that obstacle was neutralized in some way. So Christians found themselves looking to reinterpret the “divinity of Christ” in terms that levelled the playing field with other traditions.

There were only two ways to do that. The first efforts attempted to assign an equal divinity to the founders of those other religions. But that “solution” didn’t work because the other religions were not interested in having their founders compete with Jesus on those terms. They never called their teachers “God” and they saw no reason why the Catholic obsession about Jesus’ divinity should force them to abandon the cherished sanity of their own tradition. Their founders, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu were not gods. They were men and models of humanity.   For Jews and Moslems, in addition, to claim otherwise was blasphemy and idolatry. The Buddhists, for their part, considered the very thought delusional and at any rate irrelevant to the pursuit of liberating self-knowledge. They would not oblige.

That left only one alternative: Saying “Jesus is God” must mean something other than what Catholics have always claimed it meant. Either the statement is simply false or the word “God” has to be taken in a way that is so different from the traditional theist meaning of an all-powerful, all knowing, rational “other” person who created the universe by fiat and communicates his will to humankind as imagined by the “religions of the Book,” that it effectively ceases to denote “God” as understood since the founding of Judaism.

This was earth shattering. The Catholic Authorities recoiled from any such revision, and those who tweaked doctrine in order to facilitate dialog were silenced. The very title of Roger Haight’s book, Jesus the Symbol of God, clearly declared the import of his study and explains why the Vatican will not let him teach or write about such matters. It was predictable. Once you accept the validity of the world’s religions, Catholic doctrinal claims — as traditionally understood — collapse like a house of cards. Needless to say, except in some areas of minor disagreements, interfaith dialog has stalled.

Other untenable doctrines

Catholics who continued with efforts to communicate realized that the divinity of Christ was not the only example of a Catholic dogma that was contrary to the objectives of the gospel or even just plain common sense. “Original Sin” was another; the doctrine was scripturally indefensible, anti-evangelical, scientifically untenable and theologically incoherent. It forced the narrative of Jesus’ life and death to conform to an atonement theory of the relationship between “God” and humankind thereby re-defining “God” as eternally insulted and implacably punitive. It characterized the human being as an aboriginally corrupt and degenerate biological organism whose bodily urges were debased and unnatural.   It denigrated manual labor, debased childbirth and women and claimed death was unnatural, the result of human guilt.

Simultaneously, Catholics were faced with indisputable evidence of the moral integrity, deep holiness and mystical achievements in other traditions. Claims to moral or spiritual superiority for the Roman Church were obviously self-serving self-deceptions.

It became increasingly clear that the untenability and humanly damaging character of Catholic doctrine required that thoughtful Catholics make a “mental reservation” when declaring their allegiance to the teaching of the Church. Such a maneuver immediately meant that many traditional “truths” of the faith — like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin — if they were to be retained at all, would have to be taken as poetic symbols that referred to truths that the imagery, narratives and explanations did not, in fact, literally denote. This would relegate doctrine to the homiletic role of evoking emotions “as if” the doctrine were factual when it was not. Such a re-assignment would fatally undercut any claim to “truth” in the traditional sense; Catholic doctrine would effectively be discredited and assertions of religious superiority rendered ludi­crous. The Authorities would never tolerate that.

In the case of the “divinity of Christ” I proposed at the time that we make a mental reservation about the literal truth of that teaching and think of it instead as a symbol of an authentic humanity possessed by Jesus that could be considered, poetically speaking, “divine.” Jesus’ sense of the character of “God” as forgiving “father,” his mindset on the human condition, his moral actions and his social interactions would be taken as a model of what “God” might look like if “God” were to become visible to humankind. Jesus’ “divinity,” in other words, would be hyperbole for his deep wisdom as a human being. Or, alternately, one could think of the existence shared among all of us, including Jesus, as a proportional participation in the divine existence that comes from our Creative Source; Jesus in this case would be understood to have an extraordinary degree of participation.

In our common moral struggle to “be like God,” which was the core of Jesus’ message, Jesus was more like “God” than anyone we knew. But “God” in this case is not a metaphysical designation, making Jesus the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but a moral one, acknowledging that he was a most insightful, loving and compassionate member of the human family. Furthermore, by understanding the living energies of which we are all made to be “God” or a symbol for “God,” such an interpretation would also be compatible with a view of the universe that has emerged from the discoveries of modern science. That matter is increasingly acknowledged to be somehow alive means that we share LIFE with our Source and matrix.

I made that suggestion twenty years ago at a meeting of interested Catholics. I was immediately warned by one of our number that such a practice would prove to be a “slippery slope.” I took that to mean that to continue to say that “Jesus was God,” even though qualified as metaphor, would, over time, revert to its literal meaning and ultimately reinforce the traditional belief tied to those traditional words. Nothing would change.

At the time I disagreed. I was convinced that we could sincerely take doctrine as metaphor and simultaneously pursue a “doctrinal restructuring” that would systematically reformulate teachings that were patently untrue, institutionally self-serving and damaging not only to the individual Christian’s psychological health and spiritual growth, but an impassable obstacle to the honest sharing among traditions that would promote the deepening of religious life for everyone on the planet. At the same time, there would be no need immediately to change creeds, rituals and catechisms or scandalize the traditional Catholics among us who were not capable of such adjustments.

But retaining doctrine as metaphor was always something of a concession, in my mind. Leaving intact what needed to be changed means that the theocratic intent embedded in the doctrine remains present, ready to reactivate its oppressive potential. The primary example of this is the divinity of Christ itself. It was elaborated at Nicaea in 325 ce. It was embraced and promoted at the time by the Roman authorities for the purposes of shoring up their over-extended, tottering empire. It justified their claims to universal domination and the expropriation of the goods and human energies of their conquered populations. That means that the doctrine in question — the homoousion — was not only untrue, it became an instrument of oppression.   The doctrine needs to be confronted for what it was used for, and reformulated so that its potential toxicity is neutralized forever. The “divinity of Christ” as traditionally understood must be officially repudiated, apologies must be offered for the damage done by it, and it must be restated in such a way that it can never again be interpreted to mean that “God Almighty” founded the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed any religion. I have come to agree: anything less would indeed prove a slippery slope.

The same can be said mutatis mutandis for the traditional doctrine of “Original Sin.”   Its import was to make Catholic baptism a “necessity for salvation” for the entire world. In the mind of Augustine of Hippo who elaborated the doctrine in its classic form, anyone who died without being baptized was condemned to eternal torment because he/she bore the guilt of Adam’s sin and not just its effects. That included infants who died before being baptized. You can imagine the anguish created by Augustine’s “teaching” in an age when infant mortality is estimated to have been 300/1000, or a rate considerably higher than in modern under-developed nations. Augustine’s “theory” justified the growing innovation of allowing adult baptism to morph into a magical ritual administered primarily to helpless infants that guaranteed “salvation” and bound Rome’s subject populations to the Empire’s Church with hoops of steel. The doctrine made it almost impossible for people to believe Jesus’ message: that “God loves us and we are invited to imitate that love by loving one another.” Sending innocent infants to hell was consistent with a punitive Tyrant, but not a loving father. Augustine’s theory of Original Sin radically altered the way we looked at “God.”

I no longer believe that just declaring that dogma is to be taken as metaphor will provide the necessary stimulus for the kinds of reformulations that are required if these dogmas are to cease having their damaging effect on people’s lives. The continued use of the dogmatic expression in question without being accompanied by an explicit disclaimer and explanation of its metaphoric nature is misleading and invites misunderstanding. It is exactly the slippery slope of the warning.

In terms of spirituality and moral development, the unclarified use of these dogmatic travesties prevents the exploration of new forms of expression — new symbols and rituals for the exercise of faith and deepening the relationship to our Source and Sustainer.

 

 

Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

This is the season when we traditionally celebrate LIFE under the symbol of the newborn child.  The thought of newborn life immediately conjures the image of the family with loving father and mother. The following reflection is taken from a work in progress on the Reformation.  It highlights the anomalies that the Augustinian view-of-the-world presented for the Christian imagination at the beginning of the 16th century … .

Augustine’s worldview

Augustine became Christian at a time when no one doubted that at the end of their individual life there would be a private judgment which would determine the eternal destiny of their “soul:” happiness in heaven, or eternal punishment in hell.  For many people those assumptions are with us to this day.  But in the fourth century they represented a significant change from an earlier Christian view, as recorded in the New Testament: that Jesus’ return was imminent and that he would restore the reign of justice for all on a transformed earth.  Originally there was no talk of immortal souls, heaven or hell, no particular judgment; persons existed after death only temporarily, awaiting their flesh and blood resurrection in a new universe.  The “paradise” anticipated was the human body immortalized by immersion in Christ’s resurrection living on this earth, a material world made completely friendly to humankind.  There was no thought of any world other than this one.

By Augustine’s time that had all changed.  It had become increasingly clear that Christ was not coming any time soon; the immortalized body on a transformed earth had ceased being a realistic expectation.  Christians had come to believe that what was important was not the body but the “soul.”  “God” weighed the moral worth of individual souls without bodies and consigned them to live forever as souls in either bliss or torment in another world ― a world of spirits, minds and ideas familiar to the followers of Plato that would have been foreign to the Jewish followers of Jesus.  This “God” was identified as Jesus.  He had been elevated to Pantocrator (the all-ruler) less than a century before Augustine by Constantine’s Council at Nicaea in 325.  His “mercy” notwithstanding, the “Judge of the living and the dead” was obligated by the order of the universe to see that righteousness was satisfied.

Augustine was convinced that because of the dignity of the office, an insult to “God,” just like an insult to the emperor, was a major crime regardless of how unimportant the offense or how willing the person insulted was to forgive it.  Such insult was a threat to the social order.  Dignity had to be restored.  The juridical interpretation of Adam’s disobedience as a case of laesa majestas1  was clearly in the background and essential to Augustine’s theory of redemption.  Augustine’s Roman “God” could not simply dismiss the offense.  The insult to God was so heinous that the entire human race not only lost its original immortality and was condemned to die because of what Adam did, but each and every human individual born thereafter carried the guilt of the crime and was condemned to eternal punishment — hell — just for being born of Adam’s “seed.”  That included newborn infants.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, while also acknowledging the literalness of the Genesis account, the expulsion from the garden, the loss of immortality, etc., never believed that “God” imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to all of humankind or that all were condemned to hell for it.  That little added detail was the brilliant stroke of the Roman Augustine and it insured that Adam’s sin and the need for baptism would be applied personally to each and every individual across the face of the earth.  It theologically justified the practice of infant baptism already being promoted in the late fourth century as more than a pious practice.  Augustine claimed it was necessary; for the “God” that Augustine painted was obliged to send even innocent infants to hell if they died without baptism.  It was another stone in the foundational claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” — a critically important and very attractive “doctrine” for the managers of the religion of the Roman Empire.  It provided justification for requiring that everyone be “Catholic,” an imperial demand intended to establish the social harmony that was essential if the Romans were going to maintain control over such a vast and culturally disparate conglomeration of conquered peoples.  Constantine had been quite explicit about what he expected from his imperial religion.

But it was also hugely influential in portraying the kind of “God” that Western Christians imagined they would meet at the end of their lives.  It belied any claim that Augustine’s “God” was merciful.  What intensity of hatred must this “God” harbor toward us to even think of anything so utterly inhuman as sending innocent babies to hell just for being born human?  This “God” had to be a monster.  Augustine insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants to the end of his life.

Augustine’s “God” was internally inconsistent.  Consider: “God” was forced to honor the requirement that there be just retribution for and restoration of lost divine dignity; but because he “loved” humankind, Augustine said, “God” devised a clever plan that would circumvent the death sentence and restore human beings to their original immortality.  That plan was our salvation through the death of Jesus whose act of obedience on the cross paid in full the debt owed to “God” in justice, and thus freed the human race from punishment and “God” from wrath.  Augustine’s infinitely merciful all powerful “God” who is unable to forgive is simply incoherent, if not self-contradictory.

As you might expect, this divine plan was perceived as love only by Augustine and other likeminded Romans.  For most others, like late mediaeval Christians, the fact that “God” was bound to the demands of this arbitrary “dignity-as-justice” cultural obligation and could not be moved to simply dismiss the charge for a  humanity that was pleading with “him” for forgiveness … a “God” who would even punish innocent babies … was a clear indication that their “God” did NOT love them.  And in fact most mediaeval Christians were terrified of “God” and some, like Luther, even admitted that they “hated” him.[2]  The loving fathers that they knew, like the one in Jesus’ parable, forgave their prodigal sons.  The open armed father running to embrace his wastrel son was Jesus’ own image of “God,” an image that Augustine somehow missed.  Augustine was so focused on the standard picture of punishment and sacrificial atonement that had become central to the Christian view of the world that Luke’s parable was unable to shake him out of his obsessions.  Jesus’ “prodigal father” was a far cry from Augustine’s insulted emperor.  Jesus’ “God” and Augustine’s “God” were two very different kinds of “father.”

Augustine’s so-called “God” demanded the death of his own son to compensate for his lost dignity.  Imagine the parable of the Prodigal Son being re-told in Augustinian terms:  As the repentant son approached home “… while he was still far off, his father sent his servants to arrest him, and bring him to him in chains.  And he said to him, you have dishonored me and wasted your inheritance.  You have become so dissolute that you are now incapable of doing what it would take to make it up to me.  So I will take your upright brother who has been obedient to me throughout and I will subject him to mutilation and torture and a slow agonizing death in your place so that his steadfast obedience will re-establish respect for me in the eyes of your brothers and sisters, who have become miscreants because of your bad example.  His death will be the salvation of this family.”  Preposterous!  That people ever bought such nonsense, and that even the Reformers, despite having declared that scripture was their only source of information about “God,” continued to imagine such a “God,” speaks to the Augustinian conditioning to which all had been subjected.  Mediaeval Christians were inured to the sadistic violence of the patriarchal Roman system rationalized for them by Augustine.  They considered it “normal.” They had been programmed by the religious practices and beliefs rooted in imperial antiquity that had dominated the Mediterranean world since time immemorial, and Augustine had made it all make sense.

And to make the situation even worse it was all pure conjecture.  The full story with all these bizarre interconnections had never been put together before Augustine.  He was a master at exactly this kind of thing, as we saw from his conversion.  It was a triumph of the synthetic imagination.  Augustine wove it all together: his own personal life experience, current Church belief and practice, a Genesis story with his own personal spin, and the juridical and cultural customs of the Greco-Roman overlords whose slave-based empire was driven by torture, mutilation and, quite specifically, execution by crucifixion.  But even the Roman emperors who punished those who displeased them could still be moved to pardon and forgive.  In that respect they had more freedom and moral depth than the pseudo-“God” of Augustine’s paranoid imagination who apparently had to obey the law of laesa majestas in support of the established order whether he wanted to or not

And then, for Augustine to call “God’s” planned sacrificial death of his own son, “mercy,” was a psychopathic inversion that served to justify the punitive violence that has characterized religion, governance and the relationship among peoples in the lands of the Christian West since that time.  Augustine’s “theology” was little more than a narrative that mirrored and justified the violent autocracy of the Roman Empire.  That his sketch of “God’s” character was familiar to Roman subjects from their experience of punitive authority not only gave it plausibility, but it ultimately justified the way things were.  This has been the fundamental import of western Christianity ever since.  It is the handmaiden of empire and “empire” has been written into its doctrinal configurations since the fourth century.

Luther had been thoroughly imbued with this mindset and not even his new awareness of “God’s” gratuitous donation of salvation by faith could extirpate the violent punitive sadism embedded in this imagery.  It was Augustine’s “God” that had become the unquestioned horizon of mediaeval western Christendom and, as for everyone else who took religion seriously, it had become part of Luther’s idea of “normalcy.”

Luther put it on public display on more than one occasion.  In 1524 when the German peasants rose up against the oppression of their overlords, Luther called on the armed nobility to pitilessly slaughter the “evildoers.”  This is from his second letter on the Peasant Uprising:

Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or diabolical than a rebel.  It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.[3]

And later, when the Jews failed to see the “truth of the Gospel” as he had newly revealed it and did not convert, he called for their enslavement and expulsion from Germany.  His admonition for the treatment of the Jews written in 1543 three years before he died, called for

Firstly, that their synagogues and schools should be burned down and what will not burn should be razed and covered with earth, that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of it again … next, that their houses should be broken and destroyed the same way … Thirdly that all their prayer books and Talmudists … should be taken from them … Fourthly, that their rabbis should be forbidden to teach from now on, at the risk of life or limb … Fifthly, that escort and road should be completely prohibited to the Jews, … Sixthly that they should be prohibited from usury and all their cash and fortunes in silver and gold should be taken from them … seventhly, that young strong Jewish men and women should be given flail, axe, hoe, spade, distaff, spindle, and be left to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows … For as all can see, God’s wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better.  So away with them at all costs.[4]

That the Third Reich sought to exterminate the Jews was a Christian inheritance, not some deformity of the Aryan brain.  I don’t bring this up to indict Luther or Protestantism; these attitudes were common throughout Christian Europe north and south of the Alps.  But it gives a very clear picture of the violent and punitive attitude considered “Christian” in obvious conflation with a “God” of righteous violence that Augustine’s theology had justified.

Augustine’s theology conformed to and served to confirm the ongoing upper-class subversion of Jesus’ message, effectively harnessing it to the goals of the Roman system.  The reversal of Jesus’ image of God — from an empowering, liberating, loving and forgiving father, to a pusillanimous, self-involved, legally rigid, implacable mirror-image of the narcissistic autocrats who ruled Rome — immediately entailed a corresponding reversal in the attitudes required for an authentic relationship to “God.”  Augustine’s Emperor-“God” demanded obeisance, obedience, acquiescence of mind and behavior to his will.  Quid pro quo: “you will obey or you will be punished.”

Jesus’ “Father,” in contrast, asked us for something else entirely: insight into his self-donating gift of creation which we celebrate symbolized in newborn life … and a generous forgiving love for one another, recognizing his image and consciously attempting to imitate his generosity.

The difference could not be more profound.

 

[1] Laesa majestas was a juridical category that judged the seriousness of a crime according to the status of the person offended.  Status always had to do with one‘s position in the body politic and so the offense had the overtones of treason.

[2] Luther explicitly admitted that in the Preface to the First Volume of his Latin Writings (1545) (reprinted in Hans Hillerbrand, The Protestant Reformation, (revised) , Harper Perennial, NY  (1968) 2009, p.29)

[3] Martin Luther, Against the Murdering and Robbing Hordes of Peasants, 1525, reprinted in Michael Baylor, The German Reformations and the Peasants’ War, Bedford/St.Martins, Boston/NY 2012, p.131

[4] Martin Luther On the Jews and their Lies, 1545, reprinted in Oberman, Luther, Yale U.Press, 1989 tr Swartzbart, p.290

Autogenic Disease

The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress.  The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reforma­tion of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations.  This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.

 Autogenic Disease

So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.

Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.  Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend.  We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it.  We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are.  We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind dieWestern culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise.  Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism.  It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies.  That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet.  The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself.  To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault.  It’s a function of having an imagination.  Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well.  If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality.  Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh.  But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous.  In modern times our escape vehicle is technology.  We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness.  At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds.  These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy.  Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own.  We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe.  We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature.  Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination.  We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams.  What we want slips through our fingers.  It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to.  It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago.  Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature.  And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe.  We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other.  While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate.  For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second.  What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it.  That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this.  For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination.  And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist.  The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied.  This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology.  Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth.  Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs.  It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption.  The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people.  What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions.  We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death.  In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are.  Most people have never had the experience.  “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them.  And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services.  That “speech” was also officially protected.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it.  There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc.  The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear.  Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise.  This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need.  Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand.  I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology.  I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset.  I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us.  How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.  

Next post:  Energy and entropy, LIFE and death: