The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book


In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest.   We can think of LIFE similarly.   All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.


Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?

The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.




The Sacred and the Profane


For people like myself, trained since childhood for the Catholic priesthood, the “sacred” was neatly divided from the “profane” and easily identified because it was thoroughly exhausted in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

What was sacred was what was declared sacred by the teachings of the ecclesiastical authorities and accepted as sacred by those who submitted to their teaching. “Sacred” was a word, therefore, that labeled a social bond: the Roman Catholic Church, docens et discens, both teaching and listening … and when that bond was broken — when I stopped listening — the word and category became meaningless; the sacred no longer existed. Suddenly, for people like me, nothing was sacred.

The division of reality into sacred and profane has been called a “principle,” following the categorical analysis of social philosophers, like Emile Durkheim. Along with the prestige of his name, saying the distinction between sacred and profane is a “principle” implies that it is grounded in reality, i.e., that there is something intrinsic and necessary about dividing the world into sacred and profane. But in fact it is merely the generalized description of a series of human societies that have, since time immemorial, divided reality into the “sacred and the profane.” So it is not a principle, it is rather a sociological “law” in the sense of a valid description of a repeated pattern of behavior for “larger” societies (not all sub-groups are covered) that, until modern times, seems to have had no exceptions. But it cannot be used as a universal premise from which to deduce incontrovertible conclusions … even when its predictions appear to be confirmed. It’s the nature of a scientific law. The most it can validly claim is that it is an accurate description of observed facts and its predictions have a high degree of probability. It cannot be adduced, for example, to disprove either of its two contraries: that some people may believe everything is sacred, or that some may believe nothing is sacred. Indeed, if the attitude that I once had represents the “truth,” as I believed it did, then the law would be invalidated because for me, temporarily, there was nothing sacred.  On the other hand, perhaps many people will finally come to the same conclusion that I have:   everything is sacred.

The Catholic Church of my formative experience was a perfect example of Durkheim’s sociological law, because it had, at least since the third century of the common era, declared itself to be the only authentic source and repository of the sacred in the universe. “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” was coined by Cyprian of Carthage around 250 ce. It was the same as saying the Church alone is sacred and outside the Church everything is profane. The Church, still to this day in its official documents, claims that anything besides itself that has any sacredness to it at all, has received that sacredness through contact with the Christian message or its ritual … or with Christians whose thoughts and actions had been sacralized by those words and rituals. Until that contact is made and those transformations occur, all of reality remains profane, and being profane according to ancient Christian ideology connotes a measure of corruption; non-Chris­tian reality is un-redeemed, “unregenerate,” under the control of Satan. That means it is not only not-sacred, but it is anti-sacred — actively hostile to the sacred. To one degree or another, non-Christian … and then, after the Reformation, non-Catholic … meant “actively evil.” Thus was the “sacred” made distinct from the “profane” in Western Catholic eyes, a condition that called for a “mission” to transform the profane into the sacred (make everyone Catholic), or if that proved impossible, to preside over their damnation, for the profane had no right to exist. By thus demonizing the existence of non-Catholic, non-Christian, and non-human reality, the core beliefs of the Catholic Church have maintained the perennial justifications for the separation, exploitation and even the extermination of “the profane” which includes all of nature.

A binary system

But notice in the traditional scheme of things: the sacred and the profane are intrinsically bound together in a binary system. You can’t have one without the other; if there were no “sacred,” there would be no “profane” and vice-versa. Once the sacred disappears, the profane disappears with it. We should take note of the transcendent importance of this fact. It means that by doing away with Durkheim’s categories, we immediately do away with the age-old justifications for the traditional hostilities that characterize the human family and condone disregard for species other than man and the earth that spawned us all. It is an absolutely necessary first step on the road to a new way of being-human. So when I thought that nothing is sacred because I realized that the claims of the Catholic Church were false, I also implicitly acknowledged, whether I was aware of it or not, that nothing is profane. Annihilating the sacred/profane dichotomy set me on a promontory with a view of universal reality rarely achieved by religion-bound humans in this vale of tears. By discovering that nothing is sacred I came within reach of its correlate implication which is much more important: nothing is profane.

Once you make that step, and realize there is nothing profane, you have opened a door to a respect and esteem for things (and people) that you may have been taught by your religious tradition to hold in disdain. Words like “respect” and “esteem,” like “cherish” and “love,” come awfully close to what people have in mind when they use the word “sacred.” Opening our eyes to the transcendent significance of that step is the beginning of wisdom: the understanding of what “sacred” really means — that everything is sacred.


So we have stumbled onto a series of paradoxes: the path to understanding that everything is sacred begins by realizing that, in the traditional sense, nothing is sacred. And since the traditional sacred has always been identified with traditional religion, saying nothing is sacred necessarily involves the abandonment of religion in its traditional form. The ultimate paradox is that the universalism that first-century Christians claimed to bring to the religious life of humankind has been vitiated by the sectarian beliefs that have come to define the Christian institution at least since the third century. Clearly we are dealing with two different notions of what “sacred” means, and the traditional, sectarian meaning we are familiar with — which requires a complementary “profane” — is not only at odds with the earlier version but it has clearly displaced it. My rejection of the accepted dichotomy as meaningless represents a first step toward the other. I am on the way toward a new way of being human.

It’s important to keep in mind that both I and Durkheim before me were working off that “traditional” definition of “sacred.” The word “sacred” had been given a sectarian significance by a class-dominated Christianity that was almost two millennia old by modern times and formed the horizon of our lives. We knew nothing else. I contend that the “sacred/profane” dichotomy became a categorical paradigm in Durkheim’s mind because Christianity in its sectarian form dominated the religious environment in which he was formed. From there it was not difficult for him to see that Christianity’s precursors, like Judaism and later Islam, concurred; Christian sectarianism had, in fact, emerged historically from and recapitulated their fundamental assumptions. The “religions of the Book” all divide the world between the sacred and the profane. Asian religions like Jainism, early Buddhism, Taoism are different. They do not fit so easily into that schema.

If we look at the question as a function of logic, my conviction that being “sacred” can only mean being opposed to what is “profane” is really the result of a circular reasoning. The very category is established only by ecclesiastical fiat — an historically conditioned sectarian Christianity taken as a paradigm — and when made to function like a universal “principle” proves only itself. As a premise it is false and misleading. When the term is finally factored out, the equation yields the beginnings of an understanding of the universality of the sacred. A “sacred” that needs a “profane” to make itself intelligible is logically untenable — it floats groundlessly in mid-air — and its effects on the human project, predictably, distorting.

Existence is sacred

If our “classical” sociological definition of “sacred” is indefensible, what then is the true one? The true definition of “sacred” stands on its own.   It has no need for opposition to an imagined “profane.” The sense of the sacred is the primordial human reaction to being-here — existence, LIFE. It is the direct corollary of the irrepressible joy-of-life that accompanies the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation and the inescapable ecstatic embrace of self-identity. It is inescapable because it is embedded in the organic matter of which we are made. It is innate. As such the sacred is revealed as absolutely universal, for all things share that élan, and it is necessarily self-grounded, self-evident, and undeniable. There is nothing profane, as I discovered from my insight that nothing is “sacred,” and therefore no transformation from profane to sacred is required. The spontaneous focus of the conatus’ self-embrace is for the organism to continue to be what it is. To continue in existence as I am is survival. Survival is not optional. It is the “law of nature” that establishes the foundational priority of the sacred. We are in the realm of metaphysical transcendentals here: the sacred is an intrinsic and inalienable property of existence that emanates from the drive to survive. Transcendence — the characteristic of properties that qualify absolutely everything that exists — arises from the very inner depths of mundane reality itself and is intimately identified with it. I am organically predisposed to cherish life.


If the “sacred” is the psychological reflection of the very energy of existence itself, its universality is primordial. How did such a transcendent foundation get trivialized into the sacred / profane dichotomy so characteristic of our religions? Our particular Western Christian way of structuring the sacred-profane divide is rooted in our history. Specifically, it comes from two beliefs inherited from ancient times, each coming from one of the two source cultures which melded in Christianity: (1) the Greek belief that (sacred) spirit “fell” into (profane) matter — the body — a substance distinct from spirit and the cause of all human weakness, corruption and mortality, and (2) the Jewish myth-turned-belief that the events in the garden of Eden literally introduced evil, suffering and death (the profane) into human life, a subsequent corruption of pristine (sacred) reality that reached even to the human spirit. Both were erroneous, but Christians believed them; together they guaranteed that the natural universe including humankind would be considered corrupt and evil without the saving action of the Christian Church.   The Church was sacred, everything else — absolutely everything — was profane. The Greek and Jewish traditions had concurred in this: nature as we know it was the result of an unnatural “fall.” Both agree: the universe is not what it was supposed to be; it had to be “saved” from what it had become and transformed back into what it should have been. “Nature” was corrupt, it needed to be made whole and healthy by something more powerful than nature — something “supernatural.”

Christians then, taking the “fall” as the primary fact of life and the source of all human suffering and mortality, claimed that it was the death of Christ that “saved” us and reversed the effects of the fall. They then said that the Church was the “body of Christ,” the repository and exclusive agent of the “saving power” of Christ’s death through time. This dynamic, in place by the third century, set the clear lines that divided the sacred from the profane for western Christendom for millennia … for me and for everyone else.


But it was not always so. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim is their inspiration, was conspicuous in flouting the customary sacred/profane taboos of the time. In fact, if the gospel accounts can be trusted, it was precisely Jesus’ penchant for disregarding the prohibitions against contact with the profane that was the main cause of contention in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities: he consorted with “tax collectors and prostitutes,” he performed works of healing and condoned his disciples’ gathering grain on the Sabbath, he healed lepers, the possessed, the blind and crippled, a hemorrhaging woman … all of whom were considered unclean, “sinners,” and were to be avoided. Some of the most moving stories about Jesus recounted his characteristic way of treating the “profane” as if they were “sacred:” the story of the prodigal son, the woman taken in adultery, his friendliness with the Samaritan woman at the well, the gentile woman in Sidon who asked him to heal her daughter.

It seems Jesus knew that nothing was profane without having to get there by the “back door” — by way of thinking that nothing was sacred. Everything in his demeanor and what he said indicates that he had a profound understanding of the primordiality and the universality of the sacred. For Jesus, everyone and everything was sacred, nothing was profane.

Some people attribute this to a “special knowledge” he had because he was “God.” But there is nothing in the narratives to indicate that he was telling people something they had never heard of or did not immediately recognize as human and completely familiar. This was not an esoteric “gnosis,” it was the fundamental message that Jesus had gleaned from his formation, life and experience as a Jew who knew the story of his people and the poetry of the prophets who interpreted that story. Jesus had no knowledge that was not available and familiar to all. If there was any source of his simple wisdom outside of his personal experience and family formation, it was the Jewish religion as practiced in Palestine of the first century ce. His vision was entirely human, profoundly human.

The only thing “divine” about him was the depth of his humanity. He was one of us, no more no less. The claim that Jesus was “God” is just another alienating tactic designed to excuse refusal to embrace the natural humanity that we all have. The kind of humanity Jesus was talking about is familiar to us all; and we have all met many people of other traditions and no tradition, who live it with an ease and simple joy that owes nothing to the “sacred” beliefs, rituals and practices hawked by the Catholic Church. Jesus, like any good Jew is a mensch — a human being. That’s all he’s talking about: be a mensch, be what you are. Be a human being. Being a human being means recognizing that being human the way Jesus was human is completely natural; it means living with the understanding that everything is sacred.



Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind.  As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time.  It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours.  For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.

It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine.  The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods.  The Roman occupation was the obvious reference.  Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance.  The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a  consequence of that belief.

Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center.  However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program.  His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.”  Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”  The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.

During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly.  In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.”  One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.

When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared.  Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death.  This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death.  This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.


The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction.  I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s.  It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis.  The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe.  Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled.  There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary.  In the end all would return to the Source from which they came.  In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.

Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries.  Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live.  It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire.  Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose.  Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.

Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom.  Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition.  The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective.  It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law.  It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”

When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace.  Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin.  Luther, following Augustine, rejected that.  But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will.  He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition.  Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit.  Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.

Love, metaphysically

If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”

John’s theology could have prevailed.  But it did not.  What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.

But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love.  To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being.  That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get.  From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong.  “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus.  For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything.  Love “seeks not its own.”  That is the ultimate human achievement.  Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human.  It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.

The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure.  To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is.  “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do.  Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.

All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture.  For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them.  It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood.  We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle.  Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos.  Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge.  Each culture runs by its own set of rules.

There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people.  In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created.  A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate.  Penury entails isolation and death.  It’s the game of life as we have structured it.  It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments.  The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE.  There is no forgiveness for failure.

We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry.  We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it.  Religion is a structure we impose on life.  It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.

The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing.  The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply.  Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.

What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion.  Do we have immortal souls?  That’s a factual question.  We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa.  Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality.  Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other.  The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not.  The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.

To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it.  Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want.  To love is an end in itself.  If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.

And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota.  Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.