Christian Universalism (VI)

endless trust

1,250 words

8.

Trust never ends . . . because we are made of matter. I believe no one dies in despair; the sense of trust is an organic and insuppressible material instinct. Despair is an effect of thinking, imagination. Hope is a physical bearing, an innate function of the components of biological life. As one evidence of this I cite the difficulty in committing suicide. 92 to 95% of all suicide attempts end in failure. I credit this to the behavior of the human organism which insists on being-here despite the efforts of the suicidal “self” that has decided to quit living. To be effective, suicide must be as carefully planned as a murder because you cannot count on the body to cooperate. The components of the body, in all other respects lock-step obedient to the “mind,” kick into autonomous mode and cling to life despite clear orders to the contrary from the thinking “self,” even when it “makes sense” as in doctor assisted suicides. Comas are another example. The extenuated nature of comatose life in the absence of brain activity is a testimony to the disregard that the body has for what is going on or not going on in the mind. It’s as if thinking were disconnected from its organic foundations. The organism’s blind desire to live attests to its insuperable sense of belonging to this material cosmos. It confirms the Buddhist claim that suffering ― the suffering that is unique to humans ― is almost entirely due to our imaginations, the mind. And it reinforces the Buddhist counsel to control what we think and let the natural instincts of our biological organisms determine the limits of our desires to accumulate, protect, aggrandize and defend our “selves.” In almost all cases the illusory, socially concocted, empty “self” desires much more ― and other ― than what the body needs and wants. Those socially generated selfish desires are the product of dreaming about filling an emptiness that can’t be filled. Regardless of how negative the reaction to life from the self-serving “mind,” the body at all times is anchored in its unwavering embrace of life with all the trust and hope that goes along with it.

The body is rooted in the present moment. Buddha’s initial step in meditating, according to sutras from the Pali Canon, is to concentrate on breathing in order to get in touch with the body, withdraw from daydreams and enter solidly into the present. Being aware of breathing ― staying within the ambit of the body ― is essential throughout the subsequent steps. Mind is dealt with as a part of the body. We are biological organisms. The function of the mind is to be at the service of the organism not the other way around.

Another example of organic trust: We are normally oblivious to the possibility of death. The announcement of our own terminal illness or the unexpected demise of a young healthy person we know well can be immobilizing. But the heightened awareness of our fragility and the pointlessness of efforts to survive wears off. No one can function normally in an atmosphere of impending death. While it affects our long-term calculations in how we will organize our goals, death is generally suppressed and ignored. Living in the constant awareness of death is extremely difficult to do. In this respect the mind displays its organic basis in the body. We are programmed to live; there is no death-instinct that overrides the spontaneous expectation of living endlessly.

The expectation of endless life might be considered the most characteristically human of all our traits, but, I contend, its source is the body, not the mind. The mind learns to hope from the spontaneous trust of the body. Organically ― i.e., biologically speaking ― the body simply expects to keep on living and demands its mind-directed “self” to make appropriate efforts toward that end. There is no natural “algorithm” that anticipates death and programs the body instinctively to die. Hence the impulse to accumulate endlessly is a function of that same expectation. The obsessive search for a miracle-cure even in the last days of an incurable illness reveals our insatiable hunger for life and innate expectations. There is initially no thought of “life after death” because originally and fundamentally there is no thought of death. We have to learn and remind ourselves we are going to die. Like all living things, the human organism is exclusively oriented toward living; the “endless” part is simply another way of saying there is no other expectation because no “other” experience can be imagined than living in this body.

Once death is transformed from an imminent threat to a mental concept, it continues to function in the mind of the thinking “self” as a modifier of feelings, expectations and reactive behavior. It is through the thought of death that death becomes a “thing,” or a heuristic (guiding) factor (an idea) in the determination of goals and behavior. Things are done, goods accumulated, and some things are avoided in the effort to thwart an imagined death that is not imminent and rarely predictable. It is all a work of the human imagination. Animals cannot relate to any of this because their ability to imagine what is not here, now is extremely limited.   Animals fear death when it threatens. And the minute the concrete danger disappears their fear disappears.

A psycho-conceptual transition takes place when “death” is elevated from a here-and-now experience to a mental concept. Being-dead cannot really be imagined because we cannot imagine non-experience, hence it is transformed into an idea which is then thought of as a “state” ― in fact an imagined “life” after death, often called simply, “the after-life.” Notice: we cannot think “non-life.” Eternal life is precisely an imagined “state” that has been generated from the biological instinct and spontaneous concrete expectations of endless life pushing back against the knowledge (the thought) that we will die. I claim that both the “state of death” and “eternal life” are abstractions ― projections ― generated by the imagination, derived from knowing that death comes to us all despite the felt instinct and expectation of endless living. They are both projections from our experience of living as biological organisms on this earth. We cannot imagine not being-here, and so we imagine that not being-here is really another kind of being-here. I claim that we all die expecting to live on in some way simply because anything else is totally unimaginable to the human organism.

We are matter. Matter is totally and exhaustively what it means to be-here. They are identical. Matter belongs here. The brain, made of organic matter, cannot imagine not being here. And it’s a sheer fact of cosmology that all of the sub-atomic building blocks of matter ― the quanta packets of material energy that constitute the elements in my body ― have been-here uninterruptedly for at least the 13.7 billion years since the big-bang. None of the particles that now comprise the matter of our bodies came from anywhere else, and as far as anyone can see into the future of cosmic history, they will never stop being-here until the cosmos itself stops being-here. Whatever else it might mean to be human, and whatever further destiny we may have, these are the inescapable parameters of our human reality ― the boundaries within which everything else must occur. We are the vortices ― the eddies and whirlpools ― spun out within the flow of the cosmic river. Whatever this cosmos is, that is what we are; its destiny is ours.

“… the most to be pitied”

 “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, of all people we are the most to be pitied.”        1 Corinthians 15:19

It is never good practice to quote anything out of context. That is especially true of the scrip­tures which are so often used for resolving questions they were never meant to address. In this case, however, the phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians succinctly sums up the argument in the paragraph that preceded it. Paul is in Ephesus and has gotten reports of immorality in the Christian community in Corinth. He is encouraging them to transcend the causes of immoral behavior ― the desire for personal gratification ― by keeping in mind that they will come back to life after death. The awareness of their own imperishable future happiness should dominate their lives.

Besides, it’s guaranteed. “How can you doubt that you will rise from the dead. For if you don’t rise, it would mean that Christ never rose.“ Paul is taking the resurrection for granted, and he is using it as an undebatable fact in order to drive home a point. Faith in one’s own resurrection is assured and enters intrinsically into the mindset of the practicing Christian. The result is detachment from the urges that impel immoral behavior. If there was ever any doubt about what he had in mind, the final statement on the issue made at the end of the chapter should dispel it: “For If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

The implied mechanism triggered by our own resurrection is postponement. Selfish desire is not extirpated, or as the Buddhists would say “snuffed out,” but rather deflected and deferred, and we will be gratified in our new life after the resurrection when we will live again as ourselves, in these bodies and on this earth. Paul’s message, in this sense, is more “human” than the Buddha’s because he doesn’t demand a lifetime of asceticism necessary for quelling desire. But he also doesn’t leave any room for alternative paths.

Paul appears to be saying that the happiness guaranteed to Christians by Christ’s victory over death, is a necessary psychological precondition for living a moral life. This necessity was part of a larger worldview that insisted on the indispensability of Christianity for “salvation.” It explains why there is supposedly no alternative to Christianity. There is “no other name” by which we can be saved, because there is nothing short of eternal life that will persuade us to postpone selfishly pursuing the objects of our desire.

There are scriptural reasons for saying that this was Paul’s view. Paul had been a believing, committed Jew, a Pharisee of strict observance. The orthodox Jewish belief system did not encompass any promise of life-after-death but it did enjoin compliance with the moral law, the Torah, as encoded in the Jewish scriptures. This is relevant because in a letter to the Romans dated around the same time as the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul states quite explicitly that it was impossible to comply with the Torah. This impossibility was so indisputable for Paul that he felt justified in concluding that the commandments were issued for the specific purpose of convincing people they were incapable of even being minimally human (i.e., moral) without the help of God in the form of a miraculous force that Christians later called “grace.”

Now this is extraordinary. If that accurately reflects Paul’s thinking, it would mean that he was accusing all the Jews in the world of living in open hypocrisy, because the law they claimed to follow was not given to be obeyed, but to be disobeyed . . . they had to break it and if they were good Jews they were breaking it . . . it was God’s will that they should realize their moral impotence. By disobeying the commandments they would be fulfilling the will of God . . . a gross contradiction and an insuperable moral dilemma. Also the literalist interpretation would imply that Yahweh was not truthful about his “will” that the commandments be obeyed, despite having repeated his demands emphatically and imposed severe punishments, including exile, for non-com­pli­ance.

It is hard for me to believe that Paul was ready to say all that about the same “God” that he was now preaching as the trustworthy loving “Father” who had thrown open the doors of Judaism to the gentiles. If “God” lied about the commandments, who is to say he is not lying about this promise of resurrection?

For these reasons there are many who understand Paul’s explanation in Romans in a very different way. They say it was offered in the spirit of the Genesis parable about the disobedience of Adam. Paul was putting all the pieces of the Christ event together in story form. Similar to a mediaeval morality play, ideas are assigned to personalities whose actions in the drama illustrate the connections among ideas. So in this case, we can all relate to the difficulty of living a moral life. It’s as if we were born with DNA inherited from our disobedient ancestors. That’s why we are prone to be selfish and untrusting of LIFE. “God” knows that, and it’s as if he expected us to fail and didn’t hold it against us. But in order to break the power of Adam’s DNA, God sent Christ who died in an act of perfect obedience. When we are born again in baptism we replace Adam’s DNA with Christ’s. It’s as if we had gained a new ancestor. We inherit Christ’s power to obey; we become fearless. We are able and eager to obey the law that eluded us earlier. We can’t lose. It’s as if “God” injected us with a new human nature.

Please notice the as if’s peppered throughout that paragraph. I contend that’s what Paul meant by his narrative about “Adam’s Sin” and the “obedience of Christ.” It was a parable ― a morality play ― and the characters were Adam and Christ. When Augustine came along almost 400 years later, his Greco-Roman scientific mindset misread the Jewish story-book style that Paul was using to explain things. Augustine took Paul’s statements literally. Besides, his own concept of “God” as an autocratic Roman Lawgiver who was quite capable of trickery and deception in his manipulation of his subjects was altogether consistent with Paul’s narrative.

Paul’s real beliefs stand in stark contrast to Augustine’s ontological interpretation and it is that section of the first letter to the Corinthians that confirms it. Paul saw our own return from the grave as psychologically motivational; there was no hint of an infusion of divine power giving morally impotent creatures an ability that they did not already possess. Human moral behavior was dependent on trust in LIFE, and for Paul the fact that Christ came back from the grave and proved that all human flesh will similarly return to life provided the grounds for a trust that could change our lives from immoral to moral. It allowed us to postpone our desire for gratification.

But notice, trust is the key operator here. It is not the resurrection as a Cosmos-changing event, nor the “grace of God” as a magic potion that miraculously transforms sinners into saints. It is trust. It is knowing that we will transcend death that gives us trust in life. And it’s trust in life that takes away the fear of death and the need for instant and selfish gratification. The resurrection stands as a symbol that death does not define life. Life, and the urges it has implanted in us for more life, can be trusted. Looked at in this way, the Christ event is a human phenomenon and its transformative power is similarly human and non-miraculous. Knowing that we will transcend death motivates us psychologically because it doesn’t demand the negation of our desire for life. It simply gives us a reason to postpone the gratifications that represent life for us. That’s how “salvation” functions. Christ’s sacrifice gave us back the incentive to live a moral life because he himself rose. It gives us back our autonomy. There never was any intention on Paul’s part to define humankind as morally impotent. Paul, like any theologian, was trying to have the facts of faith make sense.

Buddha

But just because Christian motivation based on the resurrection makes sense doesn’t mean that no other way can, which is what Paul’s opening statement seems to imply. The Buddha, for one, does not seem to think an afterlife provides any significant motivation for human behavior. He finds sufficient motivation in the simple desire to be happy living justly and compassionately in human community while we are alive. Like the Jews of the OT, he saw living the moral law ― the Dharma, which guaranteed social harmony ― as the greatest happiness that one can experience as a human being on this earth. He enjoined living morally as the essence of present joy and happiness, not as a condition for some future reward in another life. The Dharma, like the Torah, created a human family characterized by loving-kindness. Buddha was very explicitly calling for moral compliance with this life only in view. And paradoxically for Paul, Buddha thought that knowing you were going to die and disappear was actually beneficial because it exposed short term, gross selfish gratifications ― immoral behavior ― as meaningless and unsatisfying pursuits that did not last, did not produce a just and compassionate community and could not transcend the impermanence that embitters human life.

In this imaginary dialog between Buddha and Paul, it seems we have two dichotomously different beliefs about selfish desire which imply two different views of the human capacity to construct a just society. The Buddha says you can get rid of them by controlling your thinking; Paul says you can’t get rid of them. You can only postpone them . . . which requires that they be satisfied after death. Hence the resurrection is necessary because of the insatiability of human desire. That means to accept Christ without believing in the resurrection, is to miss the heart of the matter. The point was to give us back our power to live like intelligent, autonomous human beings in a community of loving kindness. But that can only happen if we believe we are going to live forever with all desires satisfied.

So it seems there are good reasons for saying that Paul believed that incorporation into the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for all. He was convinced there was no other way we can live a moral life and create a community of loving kindness. Given this scenario about human nature, there is no alternative to being Christian.

No Other Name?

But there is a problem with Paul’s insistence on postponement. If Christian resurrection is absolutely necessary, that leaves the rest of the world absolutely without hopeAlso, even for Christians, if happiness is possible only after death, there is no incentive to construct communities of loving-kindness during life.  Such communities will only occur as an accidental by-product of the trust inspired by resurrection.  They are not what we really want, anyway.  What we want are the postponed gratifications promised after death.

But also, look what happens if suddenly it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a faith-based projection ― that there was no literal physical resurrection — that it was symbolic.   In that case, according to Paul, we are all lost.  There is no possibility for any human being to live a moral life, for without the resurrection there is no motivation sufficient for postponement.  Look also at what it had to have meant for the centuries of Jews who lived and died before Christ.  They had no resurrection to believe in. They had to have failed to achieve the minimum humanity enjoined by the Torah and demanded by Yahweh.  Many claim that this is precisely what Paul was saying in Romans. Humankind could not conquer selfish desire any other way.  The resurrection was necessary because of Original Sin.

Another point that emerges from this analysis is that even though the necessity that Paul projected was not ontological, as Augustine thought, but psychological, nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that Augustine got the essential dynamic right. He caught the drift of Paul’s thinking, if not its literal meaning. For Paul was indeed talking about the necessity of sin, and therefore the necessity of the resurrection. Sin was necessary because of the distrust of life embedded in Adam’s disobedience which all of humankind inherited, and the resurrection was necessary in order to restore that trust.

These observations form the basis of a counter argument to Paul’s. My contention is (1) that belief in one’s own resurrection, while it may be effective in neutralizing dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and (2) the same noetic effect ― the realization that LIFE can be trusted ― can be achieved through an appreciation of one’s possession of the common and universal material that is responsible for the existential presence of our cosmos and everything in it. Detachment as the ground of morality depends on trust in LIFE, which is what resurrection symbolizes. (3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behavior being practiced all over the world, in every culture and religion, many like Buddhism that eschew any talk of resurrection. Paul’s claim that the Torah could not be obeyed was a projection that derived perhaps, from his own failings. His assertion that purpose of the Torah was to reveal moral impotence is a pure self-serving concoction with no basis in reality or scripture. (4) The negative historical effects of the culture-wide belief in the unique and unparalleled necessity of Christianity just to live a moral human life provide evidence of the destructive nature of this belief. In the hands of the Roman Empire which made Christianity its State religion, it provided the justification for the conquest and religious subjugation of other cultures, who had to be, by definition, inhuman, satanic and who would only benefit from enslavement to Christian masters. This “religious imperialism” was in full force a thousand years later during the enslavement of Africa and the Americas carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were Catholics, and continued on for another five hundred years by “Reformed” Protestant Christians in the form of an expanding Western military and economic domination of the third world justified as “mission.”

Finally, when Paul says that “if we have believed in Christ only with this life in view …” he is implicitly saying that Jesus’ message and the example of his life without his resurrection from the dead is worthless. Jesus preaching is of no value, and those of us who have heard his words and embrace him as a wise moral/spiritual teacher “are the most to be pitied.” It is here that Paul’s clear theological priorities emerge into full view. Paul’s idea of Jesus is dominated by what Paul sees as Jesus’ place in salvation history. Jesus is not just a human individual, to Paul, he is “the Christ” ― a concept of salvific significance in the overall Jewish relationship to Yahweh. Jesus’ message and manner of life was of virtually no interest to Paul; and he does not acknowledge the fact that Jesus himself never mentions the salvific impact of his own coming resurrection as creating the emotional detachment necessary for living a moral life.

We have to frankly admit that Jesus’ message of justice, forgiveness, compassion and loving kindness was launched entirely on the standard traditional motivations that characterized Judaism at that time. It’s also true that in all his preaching as recorded in the gospels, Jesus never once mentions Original Sin as being the very reason for his presence on earth and the purpose of his mission, which is what Paul claimed . . .  nor that Original Sin made us incapable of being moral, nor that the commandments were issued only to reveal our inability to obey them. If the very things that Paul is claiming are the core of the Christ event, were not even mentioned by Jesus, it would appear that Christians have an anomaly of mammoth proportions to resolve. That the two primary sources of the Christian vision of things ― Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus ― should display such a profound inconsistency with one another, suggests an elaboration of such originality on the part of Paul as to amount to a new and separate religion entirely. Jesus’ motivation for obeying the Torah was the simple imitation of our loving, generous, forgiving father. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paul’s obsession with (his) addiction to gross gratifications and the motivational impact that coming back to life after death would have on the addict.

So I would say, along with the people to whom Jesus message was originally directed, “what we have heard, what our eyes have seen and we have looked on and our hands have touched” has opened our eyes to what we really are ― what we now realize we have known all along ― that we are the offspring of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It is precisely with this life in view that we have come to embrace the message of Jesus also called the Christ.

 

Surrender

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roman Empire

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

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

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

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

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

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

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

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

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

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

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

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

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

Humility in a material universe

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

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.

 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

 

The Sacred and the Profane

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

 

Eschaton

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.

Restoration

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.