“God” is the energy of LIFE (II)

This is a follow-up on the April 23rd  post called “ ‘God’ is the energy of LIFE.”  I believe aspects of that post can be relevant to the difficulties that some people have with the rational option to see the universe as “benevolent.”  The term “matter’s energy,” after all, is not very poetic.  But it is the source of the existence of the conatus, which is the wellspring of our sense of the sacred.  “Material energy” is a prosaic label for what drives our spectacular universe as well as our own sense of awe.  It deserves to be recast by our religious poets in terms more evocative of its indestructability, its vast and lavish abundance, its selfless availability, its inexhaustible vitality and its evolutionary creativity that has always been self-transcending; material energy displays divine characteristics.

The April 23 post contends that in the first century of the common era, Philo’s “God” was still an immanent nature-“God” and had not yet been essentially changed by the addition of the Platonic characterization as “Spirit” in a universe divided into spirit-matter.  Later, “Pure Spirit” came to dominate the scene so completely that it created a new paradigm which replaced Philo’s “God” with a Platonic “God” that provided a philosophical explanation for Genesis’ transcendent “Creator.” Plato’s absolute transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” set up granite divisions in a cosmos that up until then had been physically / metaphysically continuous with the “nature-God:” “God” was integral with nature as its logos or guiding energy.

This immanentist tradition continued on in the East, but in the West it became a “minority report” — sometimes tolerated by the hierarchy, sometimes not.  Ninth century Eriúgena’s Periphyseon divided “nature” (physis) between “nature that creates and is not created” and “nature that is created and does not create.” In the fouteenth century Meister Eckhart found Aquinas’ esse itself at the existential core of the human person.  Nicolas of Cusa in the fifteenth century said “God” was “non aliud,” not other (than nature).   Similarly seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza used the terms natura naturans for “God” and natura naturata for creation.  In all cases “God” was part of nature — the originating, guiding, enlivening part.

At the time of John’s letter, one of the effects of assimilating Jesus’ life and message to “God” was to specify exactly what Philo’s nature-“God” was like.  As the amalgam of the pantheon, “God” would naturally have been expected to enliven the dark and cruel aspects of nature (once represented by Hades, Ares, etc.) as well as the creative and benevolent.  John clarified that once and for all: Jesus’ life showed us that “God” was light, and there was no darkness in him.  It would be hardly necessary to say that, unless there were some ambigüity.  No such confusion would have attended Plato’s “One.”

Jesus’ life made things clear.  Nature’s immanent “God” was benevolent; and Jesus’ moral goodness — Paul identified it as a self-emptying  generosity — was the mirror-image of the creative LIFE-force itself.  While we usually read John as using “God” to help us understand what Jesus was, I contend that John’s point was that Jesus life helps us understand what “God” is.  His approach is “inductive.” John learns from his direct, personal experience of the man Jesus, what “God” is like.

Fast forward to today: the discreditation of traditional religious sources leaves religion as we knew it scientifically high and dry.  This is the heart of the problem for “religion” in a material universe.  We are forced to find our reasons for the “benevolence option” not in some authoritarian other-worldly source, like scripture or the magisterium which have been discredited as sources of knowledge about the cosmos, but from what we know of our material reality using the tools we now trust.  And I claim that following the example of the the dynamic inductive perspective on “God” assumed by John, there is nothing to prevent an analogous correlation of our human moral and relational energy to the energy of the matter of which we are made.  Reading John’s letter in this way means John stops being an “authority” with infused know­ledge from another world which he “reveals” to us in “scripture,” and instead becomes one of us — a earth-bound seeker who has “seen, heard and touched” what he was convinced mirrored the heart of nature itself, and is passionate to share his discovery.

John’s theological method is inductive not deductive, and it works on the assumption of immanence.  He starts with what he experienced.  Jesus’ personal kenosis reveals “God” not because Jesus was a “God entity” and spoke to us of “truths” from another world but because all human moral and relational energy is an expression of the LIFE-force and Jesus’ life was so extraordinary that it had to be the mirror-image of the LIFE-force itself.  It’s a conclusion evoked by what he saw and heard … but like all the conclusions of inductive reasoning it remains hypothetical until the successes of experimental practice move it toward certitude.  But John insists that he has confirned it and it is certain: “By this we may be sure we are in him … that we walk the way he walked.” (2:5)  Notice it’s the walking that conjures the presence of the LIFE-force and provides certainty.  “You can be sure that everyone who does right is born of ‘God’.” (2:29)  “No one born of God commits sin because God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” (3:9)  These extraordinary statements confirm both John’s method and his worldview.  “Doing right” makes the divine energy present and visible … and confirms the authenticity of Jesus’ witness.

Analogously, in our times, our spontaneous, unsolicited recognition of the authenticity of human justice, generosity and compassion allows us to project that it is reflective of the material energy of which our organisms are made, for our organisms are nothing else.  Like John, we start with what we experience: our instincts for right behavior

There is nothing new about starting there.  Daniel C. Maguire bases his Ethics on a sense of justice — right and wrong — and makes no (explicit) appeal to any deeper justification.  He’s able to begin his ethics there because no one argues with him about it.  Noam Chomsky calls for international justice on no other grounds than people’s sense of fairness and right and wrong.  Even though he has acknowledged — and it may be fairly said to be the leitmotiv of his contribution as a linguist — his belief that all human behavior is an expression of innate organic structures, he clearly feels he does not need to have recourse to such structures (or even claim that they exist) when it comes to justice.  Apparently, his many readers agree.  David Brooks recently wrote a book appealing for a return to what he calls personal virtues (the virtues of moral character) as opposed to marketable virtues (the virtues for knowing and making and selling) without any further justification, because everyone knows what he’s talking about and no one disagrees with him.  This is what was meant by syndéresis: our human instincts for right and wrong … and it is where we start.  You have to start there … everyone starts there … and I claim it is where John started.

The point of departure is our humanity.  It’s all we really know.  We resonate with benevolence, and, as Sartre noted, the thought that the material universe (which includes us) is a meaningless mechanism makes us nauseous (and then, bitter and angry).  Why is that?  Some claim this is our inveterate Judaeo-Christianity speaking.  But in my estimation, our spontaneous predilection for benevolence cannot be explained as the result of a mere few thousand years of brain-washing.  A survey of world religions shows the same choice virtually everywhere and from the dawn of history.  It is more ancient in time and more universal geographically than Christianity.  It speaks to the existence of the innate “sense of the sacred” and the syndéresis (instinct for justice and truth) that is its corollary which I contend are reactions to our organic conatus’ instinct for self-preservation.  Then, unless you want to claim some hard wall of division between humankind and the rest of the natural world (including the component elements of our own organisms), there is every reason to concede that “benevolence” in the human idiom translates the superabundant life that we see teeming everywhere driven to survive by the lust for life … the insistence on existence … characteristic of organic matter in whatever form it has evolved.

Rationally speaking it’s not the same as in earlier times when benevolence was a logical “deduction” from infallible premises — the irrefutable conclusion of theological “science.”  But I believe it is sufficient to support the practical choices we have to make; for our own need to survive drives us toward justice and compassion … for ouselves and for our natural world.  This may be called the “argument from practical necessity.”  It’s ironic but true: we need to cherish and esteem other life forms and the earth that spawned us all if we want to survive.

But really … am I the only one who sees that the deck is stacked?  What other choice do we have? … say “bullshit” and die?  Kill anyone who is different from us?  Destroy our planet for our short-term enjoyment?  If we want to survive we have to cherish ouselves and our world.  We’re stuck.  But the criteria by which we evaluate and choose belong to us, not to “scripture.”  Some of the legacy of John, however, like the divine immanence he believed enlivened the natural world (and Jesus’ personal energies), in my opinion, is remarkably consonant with what modern science has observed about the evolution of the cosmos driven by matter’s energy to exist.

But I want to emphasize: this does not suddenly ground and justify the supernatural illusions proposed by authoritarian Christianity.  It rather evokes an entirely different religion, one  that is more like the kind that John was trying to construct at the beginning of the second century: a religion whose data all come from this world — the human sense of the sacred and its moral requirements — not from some other world.

This way of looking at things has certain other corollaries:

(1) no one is ever constrained to see life as benevolent … not even the most fortunate.  There is enough random destructiveness out there to support those who choose to accept the Steven Weinberg hypothesis: the universe is pointless.  But by exactly the same token, there is also more than enough to support the hypothesis of a creative power and self-emptying generosity so immense that, regardless of ideology, and eschewing absurd claims to providential micro-manage­ment, no one with a modicum of poetic sensitivity is inclined to reprove those who call it “divine.”

(2) the perception of benevolence is always, therefore, an intentional appropriation … a choice … without which even a religiously formed individual’s sense of benevolence will atrophy and disappear.  But a choice requires some a priori recognition … even if only in the form of desire.  There has to be some internal basis in the human organism.  The “command” to cherish and esteem does not come from another world; it arises from the matter of our bodies.  Our material organisms need to love, not only to reproduce, but to survive.

(3) those who cannot connect emotionally to “benevolence” for lack of parental inculcation (or, as with Weinberg, because of experiences like the Holocaust) may still connect indirectly through the mediation of others.  This is one of the roles of the religious “fellowship” (and other “therapeutic communities”).  Once the koinonía  is functioning it provides the “matter” for resonance: a loving community.  (“Look at these Christians [fellow addicts, fellow mourners, fellow workers, fellow activists, friends and family], how they love one another!”).  Then the “Weinbergs” of this world might find themselves drawn to what their formation (or experience) had failed to provide.

If you are a theologically traditional western Christian, at some point you still have to admit there is a bedrock place in the human organism that allows it to appropriate “benevolence” based on its own connatural recognition and need.  Will you reject even this as “semi-Pelagian”?  If you do, as many of the sixteenth century reformers did, you will have to fall back on the absurd predesti­narian position that the entire “salvation” business is a matter of divine permissions and miraculous interventions … from sin through conversion to perseverance … foreseen and managed by “God” for a display of his glory … all of which further depends on a discredited supernatural theism based on allegedly infallible “sources of revelation.”  Ultra-absurd! … and no one is buying it anymore.

(4) I am also realist enough to recognize that none of this will fly institutionally, because the institution continues to chug along on that same authoritarian track it inherited from Constantine and Augustine.  The reform I’m speaking of is not a mere “revision” of Catholicism, like the one that occurred in the sixteenth sentury.  So if by “reform” you mean something that will work “politically” you’ll have to kick the can down the road like they did at the Reformation … and maybe for as many centuries more.

“God” is the energy of LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another narrative

The key to understanding Augustine’s theory of Redemption (and its untenability) is that it works in tandem with his version of the doctrine of Original Sin.  Divine intervention — grace — is absolutely necessary because, according to Augustine, Original Sin has rendered human nature so thoroughly corrupt that no merely human effort, no matter how heroic and sustained, could ever avoid much less reverse human moral degeneration.  “Sin,” in this sense, affected the whole human race … no one was excepted:

… [Adam] through his sin subjected his descendents to the punishment of sin and damnation, for he had radically corrupted them in himself by his sinning.  As a consequence of this all those descended from him and his wife … — all those born through carnal lust on whom the same penalty is visited as for disobedience — all these entered into the inheritance of original sin. … ‘Thus by one man sin entereed the world and death through sin and thus death came upon all men …’ By “the world” in this passage, of course, the apostle is referring to the whole human race. (Augustine, Enchiridion, VIII,26)

Augustine’s innovation imputing guilt and moral impotence to absolutely everyone, clearly, was crucial if he was going to provide a rational ground for the universal necessity of the Church and its ritual ministrations.  His predecessor, Cyprian of Carthage, had ennunciated the principle 150 years earlier during the Decian persecution: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  But think of what it meant that every human being who died without baptism went to eternal torment.  As we saw, Augustine’s consistency required he apply it rigorously, even in the case of unbaptized newborn infants.  He had to insist that “God’s” justice completely trumped his mercy.

Besides its utter absurdity, Augustine’s theory of Original Sin falls on a number of factual counts.  First, it contradicts what anyone could see even without the advantages of modern science, namely, that death is natural.  All organisms die.  The claim that we were created naturally immortal because of our “spiritual” soul, was a Platonic theory that was philosophically contested even in ancient times and became a generally accepted “fact” only with the ascendancy of Christianity and the outlawing of other religions and philosophies by Rome.  This was not limited to the West.  The eastern Orthodox to this day continue to insist that death is not natural.

Second, from the clear evidence of an abundance of good, just and loving people, who in those days were all pagans, it is patently clear that human nature is absolutely not corrupt, and quite capable of living morally on the resources provided by nature.  Claims of universal depravity in Roman times was a “spin” created by Christians to justify their call to abandon ancestral religions and “convert.”  The inability to ac­know­ledge even the innocence of newborn infants was the most egregious example of this myopia.  It was an extrapolation.  Augustine’s primary evidence for the corruption of human nature was, in fact, his own sexual addiction — actually, what he himself admits was a deep attachment to his common-law wife interpreted as a moral trap by his own vaulting ambition and delusional belief in the superiority of celibacy.  All he had to do was to fully embrace his marriage and his “sense of corruption” would have ended then and there.  He couldn’t do that because it would have meant career suicide: he was upper class, she was lower class.  

Besides, Augustine’s obsessive pursuit of celibacy was, in my opinion, an attempt at self-aggran­dizement propelled by 9 years as a “second-class” (non-celibate) Manichee.  Moreover, the denigration of all forms of sexuality as “carnal” and “imperfect” was a pervasive attitude in the mediterranean world which included the Christian Church of his time; and it was a cherished conviction of Ambrose of Milan, his mentor at the time of his conversion.

Third, Augustine’s metaphysical interpretation of what happened in the Garden of Eden (i.e., that nature was metaphysically changed) is entirely gratuitous.  It is contrary to the obvious intentions of the Jewish biblical authors and the current Jewish scholarly understanding of the story as a parable encouraging obedience to the moral counsels of Israel.  Yahweh’s rejection of inherited guilt, explicit in both Exodus and the prophets,[1] is quite unambiguous and totally belies the fundamental premises of Augustine’s treatment.  The Eastern Orthodox have always rejected Augustine’s interpretation as non-apostolic.

Fourth, according to Augustine, and his 16th century Western defenders in the reformed tradition, “God” predestines every human being to heaven or hell by choosing to save the (undeserving) elect while he knows but does not choose to save the (equally undeserving) reprobate.  Such convoluted contortions presuppose a real distinction between “knowing” and “willing” in “God,” which, even in the case of human beings is a contrived conceptual fiction, and for “God” whose every act and thought are acknowledged by classical theology to be identical with “his” essence, there is no distinction between knowing and willing.  The entire effort is revealed for the circularity that it really is: the attempt to justify a theory of “redemption” that was concocted out of thin air, and hang it on a “sky hook” suspen­­ded from non-existent premises.

Besides, why does “God” choose to save some and not others?  No one knows, and we are advised not to inquire.

… [God] simply does not bestow his justifying mercy on some sinners.  …  God decides whom to withold mercy from according to a standard of fairness which is most hidden and far removed from the power of human understanding.[2]

Predestination is presented as a matter of pure whim, without rhyme or reason.  This gives rise to the Christian’s complaint: when it comes to punishment, reasons abound … and “God” himself is bound by them — he must punish the guilty, even newborn infants.  When it comes to mercy, however, there is no such obligation; all we are told is that he saves some and abandons others to their fate “for the sake of his glory.”  Augustine’s “God” was definitely not a liberal.

 *      *      *

Here is where I stand: There was no “Original Sin” as Augustine claimed, and there is no such “God.”  Therefore the perennial Christian belief that we are “saved by Jesus’ death” from selfishness and isolation may very well be true in some other sense entirely, but in the traditional sense that they have been given in Western Christian history — as atonement to an insulted “God” for the sin of Adam and the recuperation of a lost immortality — they are unjustifiable nonsense, rationally and scripturally.  Augustine’s attempt to “explain” redemption in those terms is pure fiction, a tale of zombies, resident evil and “fate” — a paranormal nightmare, the horror movie of the Western World.  That Hollywood and Burbank continue to pour out great quantities of films and TV series based on these themes speaks to the depth of the imagery in the popular mind inculcated by 1500 years of Augustinian Roman Catholicism.

Luther and Calvin did not have an option.  They awoke at the end of the middle ages lost in the maze created by Augustine’s tormented Roman mind: a humanity thoroughly corrupted by “Original Sin” and an an emperor “God” whose commitment to the rights of authority was more fundamental than his compassion for the human condition.  The “reformation” was their attempt to find a way out of the labyrinth.

They never did find their way out, because given the premises there is no way out.  They did the only thing you could do: trust “God” and ignore it all.  It’s an historical lesson that we cannot afford to forget.  For look what it did: it left everything in place, by which I mean Augustine’s dysfunctional “concept of ‘God.’”  That “God,” dreaded by his worshippers and ridiculed by his skeptics, is the very same “God” that mainstream religion imagines today.  From my point of view, the “reformation” reformed nothing.

The Eastern Orthodox narrative

Christians in the West have so internalized this scenario that they think there can be no other story; but it is only one explanation among many.  A different one is told by the Eastern Orthodox and it’s a story they claim the Church Fathers have been telling since Apostolic times.  I present it here not because I espouse it or because it is any less incompatible with the world as science understands it, but simply to show that the same events seen through the eyes of the same ancient pre-scientific worldview can be given a very different interpretation from Augustine’s.  It is an interpretation that has as much ancient tradition behind it as our own, it does not assassinate the character of “God,” and does not require the personal dehumanization and political emasculation of its adherents.

The following is a précis of that narrative taken from the book, The Ancestral Sin, by John S. Romanides.[3]  He begins with an “Original Sin” that did not pass the guilt on to the entire human race.  Adam and Eve were the only ones guilty of that sin of disobedience, no one else.  Human individuals were not born guilty and infants did not merit eternal damnation.  What got passed on were the bodily effects: death, hardship, toil, and a humanity less disposed to strive for theosis, “perfection,” because of death.  The fear of death had predisposed us to selfishness and made forgiveness, mildness and generosity the object of derision.

The great enemy is the fear of death … and it was introduced in the garden by Satan, they insist, not God.  It is the fear of death that makes us grasping and ungenerous.  Jesus died and rose, not to atone for sin or placate the Father, but in order to conquer the fear of death for us.  Jesus’ resurrection and our incorporation into it overcomes the sting of death and with it the selfishness that death inspires.  He thus leads his brothers and sisters to a life of compassion and unstinting generosity in imitation of the boundless generosity of “God.”  We become like God — divinized — by being immersed through baptism in Jesus’ divine humanity and learning how to love one another without measure as “God” loves us; the human family is transformed and the earth along with it.  This is theosis, human perfection; it is immediately, intrinsically social.  We become fearless; we can afford to fight for justice and live with joyous abandon.  We learn to love one another the way “God” loves us.

Notice: there is no insulted “God,” no infinite offense, no atonement, no compensating for the disrespect to “God’s” authority, no universal guilt, no “double predestination,” no moral impotence, no infants condemned to  eternal torment.  The “God” imagined by the Greek Orthodox narrative “seeks not his own” and wants nothing except to have us understand him and share his joyous life of boundless love.  There is also little talk of “heaven,” it being understood that to love one another as God loves is itself paradise, and if indeed there is such a place, what makes it “heavenly” is the love that will bind us all together there even as it does here.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Ex 20:5; Ez 18:20

[2] To Simplicianus, I. 2,16 quoted in Fredricksen, op.cit. p.182

[3] John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, tr. George Gabriel, Zephyr Press, Ridgwood NJ, 2008 (1957).  Fr. Romanides was a theologian and Patristic scholar who taught theology at Universities in Thessalonica, Greece and Balamand, Lebanon.  He died in 2001.

“No one has ever seen God”

This phrase, used in the fourth gospel and the first letter of John, is like a Zen koan.  It is an obvious fact that everyone knows but no one takes the time to think about.  A minute’s reflection, however, will show that it opens the door to a potential enlightenment on the whole issue of “God.”

It tells us not only have we never seen “God,” it intimates that we never will.  What we “see” is what is here: ourselves and our world.  The rest — the “facts” of traditional anthropomorphic religion — is pure projection, and in our day much of it proven false.

But what we do see is massive.  What ishere is immense beyond description: … this universe, too vast, too lost in “deep time,” too complex to even hold in our minds, … this earth, teeming with life forms whose variety seems beyond limit, … and these human organisms of ours whose depths and capacities, even as we use them with ease and agility, we do not understand.  Whatever else might be “out there” that we cannot see, the “elephant in the room” that we can see, is huge.  And except for general categories, we are still very far from even cataloguing it, much less understanding how it all works.

But it’s not a total mystery.  We have already discovered that earlier conjectures about our origins were completely off base.  We know now that we were not fashioned by some rational intelligence for a purpose.  Our bodies were not designed by a divine craftsman to interact with the forces of our world so that we might ultimately “discover” that we really belong to a different one.  We know that our organisms and everything else we see (and even what we can’t) is made of an energy to be-here that we call matter.  Matter’s energy constitutes every form and feature in our universe, from galaxies like our own milky way, billions of stars a hundred thousand light years in diameter spinning around their singularities, to the infinitesimally small nano-consti­tuents of the atom itself — the quarks and leptons that we know exist and the vibrating strings that we suspect are their components.  This energy, which takes various forms and is found continually morphing between invisible energy and visible matter, is what has “created” everything, including whatever it is in our brains that allows us to ask these questions.  We may not know how matter does its tricks, but it is undeniable that it does them, and the result is beyond spectacular: it is this universe of things that spawned and cradles us.

Evolution

Evolution, from our point of view, is the most spectacular trick of all because it is responsible for us being here, and being what we are.  Evolution puts on display in the most unmistakable way, what matter’s energy is all about.  Matter’s energy is about being-here.  And in pursuit of that compulsion it will do absolutely anything … anything that will work.  How our improbable humanity emerged out of that formula for selfish mayhem has been the subject of debate since Darwin: If “survival” is responsible for what things become, how did “being human”  and the “purpose” that characterizes our behavior, get to be here? 

The answer to that, apparently, is that as evolution moved along, increasingly complex biological organisms began participating in their own “natural selection,” at first ever so slightly and then to a greater and greater degree.  “Selection,” which includes mate selection, seems to have hit upon the enhanced survivability that results from working together.  As the social skills necessary for successful life-in-community came to dominate the selection process, physiological changes like the ability to use language and the development of mirror neurons that make empathy possible were teased out of prior structures and, because they worked, remained.  The result, after some millions of years of genetic drift in the direction of community of life, is this human organism as we now have it, adapted to intense and intimate social interaction, and at this point so committed to that path that we are no longer able to survive on our own as individuals.

At one time we thought our minds and hearts belonged to another world — a world of “spirits” — and yearned to return there.  We know now they were really developed by matter’s obsession with continuing to exist as itself in this world.  Our so-called “spiritual” faculties, which we thought were patterned after a spiritual “God” are really the exponentially heightened abilities to understand one another and communicate among ourselves.  Our minds and hearts are the tools for communal survival in this world, not for escape into another.

The Conatus

We humans are a function of material energy.  At no point in our long development did we ever lose the foundational intent of matter’s energy: to be-here.  Despite the range of our interests and intellectual capacities, and the depth of our ideals and cultivated altruism, we are still driven uncontrollably by matter’s instinctive thrust to survive.  Following Spinoza, I call that instinct the conatus.  It is a universal characteristic of every living organism on the planet, and because we experience it within ourselves, there is little need to describe it.  Everyone knows what it’s like.  It comes from being alive.  It dominates our activities.  Our religious tradition thought it was the selfish effect of “Original Sin” and told us it was an ongoing sign of our corruption and guilt.  But now we know better: it’s because we are matter and matter is an energy for being-here.  Another word for that energy is LIFE.

The conatus is not just an “instinct for self-preservation” activated when danger is imminent, but functions as the driving force behind every aspect of organic life that is focused on being-here.  It is the conatus that activates the lust to reproduce … the hunger that impels the search for food … the empathic need to know what others are thinking … the paranoia to protect ourselves from potential threats … the ambition to accumulate security against an uncertain future … and the violence to defend ourselves when we are under attack.

And it is the conatus that is responsible for our sense of the sacred, for it is our need to survive that causes us to trust and worship whatever it is that we think gives LIFE and can guarantee that it will never be taken away.  We are matter’s energy; and therefore we want to be-here.

Survival is not optional.  The perception of what it is that guarantees continued existence changes with time and circumstances, and because of the power of human imagination it may even be pure projection, but whatever it is, we are inclined to surrender to it and drink from its existential well-spring.  It is the spontaneous reaction of the organism.  In our times and emerging from our peculiar religious history, we have a set of complex perceptions in that regard that are unique to us: some are positive, deriving from our knowledge of where existence actually comes from, and some are negative; they are the repudiation of perceptions of the past that have proven erroneous.

Whatever the perception, however, clinging to LIFE is an irrepressible feature of organisms constructed of material energy and for humans it necessarily includes the community.  Our community, without which we cannot survive, is sacred to us.  Material energy is focused on survival, and what secures survival must necessarily dominate the affective life of the organism.  It is a biological inevitability which is borne out by our observations of every biological organism on earth: we are all driven by our conatus.

It is exactly here that any thought that the conatus  leaves us subjectively enclosed is vanquished.  For the conatus is common to all biological organisms, not just human.  Thus our sense of the sacred, which is unique to us, is seen to have a ground that crosses specific (i.e., species) boundaries.  We are all made of the same clay and it is that “clay,” i.e., matter, that is at the base of everything we are, everything we have and everything we doLIFE is sacred to us: we can’t help it! 

Unless you could prove that LIFE came from something other than material energy, the display of its characteristics in biological matter is reasonably “retropolated” to inanimate matter.  Matter, in other words — all matter — contains within itself the power of LIFE.  Matter is somehow “alive.”

“God”

“God,” we have to acknowledge, is first and foremost an idea of ours.  “No one has ever seen ‘God’” is another way of saying that.  “God” is not an entity we can point to; “God” is the product of the imagination of those pre-scientific ancestors of ours who assumed that a rational person was the artisan and architect of the universe.  They can hardly be blamed.

First of all “God” was imagined as “Creator.”  Then, mystics who experienced an affective “oneness” with the universe believed they were in direct contact with this “God,” the one source of it all.  The characteristics of their experience, however, have been shown to be consistent with an organism made entirely of matter becoming conscious of sharing an identity with the universe of matter.[1]  (The two propositions, however, might ultimately be identical.)  Third, we have seen that matter’s energy as the source of the conatus is also responsible for our sense of the sacred and the affective intensity surrounding it.  Our sense of the sacred is a function of existential need.

Matter’s energy is completely immanent.  It is the matrix in which we live and move and have our being; it is constitutive of everything that we are as human beings and everything with which we interact on this earth, beginning with human community; it is the source, the archē, the LIFE force dwelling at the intimate core of all things.  It seems to fulfill in every way the conditions once met by “God” except those that projected a rational “person”-entity.  If we take the concept “God” functionally, matter’s energy is “God.”

Souls, “selves” and eternal LIFE

Matter’s energy grounds our sense of the sacred, but it does it by way of responding to existential need.  One of the characteristics of our ancestral religion of the Book was that its “God” made promises that related to that need.  The Jewish “contract” with Yahweh promised survival in the form of community prosperity and national ascendancy.  The earliest Christians saw the fulfillment of that promise in the imminent coming of “God’s” kingdom on earth, an apocalyptic event that would immortalize the earth and divinize the flesh of the “chosen” community.  When that promise failed to materialize, “salvation” lost its earthly dimension; “survival-after-death” was projected onto an imaginary world of spirits and reinterpreted as the immortality of the individual bodiless “soul” whose happiness is earned — quid pro quo — exclusively through obedient membership in the Christian Church identified with the Roman Empire and its successor states.

How, for its part, does matter’s energy guarantee LIFE for needy mortals? … through the aware­ness that WE ARE matter’s energy and matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed.  It is existence itself … something as close to esse in se subsistens as we will ever see.  There is no other esse, and we are exactly THAT, nothing less. 

WE ARE our bodies.  Our “selves” are not “things” like “souls,” independent of our bodies.  The “self” is the self-consciousness that characterizes all living things without which no organism would be able to defend itself: respond to its need for food, find mates, escape danger, fight off enemies.  “Selves” are the emanation of the living biological organism and its social identity; they are the gathered self-interest, the conatus collected from hundreds of billions of cells locked together in organismic collaboration and with other organisms.  Selves do not exist apart from the organism-in-community that emanates them.  The “self” is the self-awareness of this socialized body.  When this body loses its coherence and returns to less complex configurations of material energy at death, the human “self” disappears.  In fact, if key areas of the brain are damaged or destroyed, the “self” may even disappear before death.  But the material energy does not.

Once our perception of who we are shifts from an imaginary permanent “self” to an identification with the totality of matter’s energy as the real permanent reality in a material universe, our demand for an individual “salvation” ceases to make sense.  During life the conatus still functions as always, prioritizing the survival of the living organism-in-community, but we will be discouraged from allowing that instinct to construct an imaginary afterlife.  Our new angle of vision provides the basis for a significant reduction in self-concern, and a reason to bask securely in the well-being of the whole — the LIFE of this universe in which we live and move and have our being — and to trust where it is taking us … because where it goes, everything we are goes with it..

Every particle in our body has been here since the beginning of our cosmos, and it is guaranteed to be part of whatever happens in the future.  If in the course of the last 13.7 billion years beginning with just quarks and leptons evolution has achieved such marvels as populate our world, what should we expect from the next 13.7 billion years?  We can’t imagine.  Everything will still be here and part of that development … everything, that is, except our “selves.”  We will be re-used endlessly, just as our matrix-creator — matter’s energy — is used and re-used so totally that there is no “Self” there at all.

Kenosis

Our “selves” disappear.  Our shift to the primacy of the totality upends the extreme focus on the individual that has characterized mainstream western cultural development since the middle ages, impelled by Christianity.  It seems to correspond appropriately and in parallel with the de-individualization of the god-function that accompanies that shift.  With our new cosmo-ontology, the emphasis is no longer on a transcendent solitary “One” as Plato imagined it, lost in the narcissistic bliss of self-contemplation, but rather on a diffuse immanent LIFE that is “self-less-ly” held in common by all things, and in which “we live and move and have our being.”  In our case it allows human participation in the extrusion process even to the point of self-extinc­tion if we so choose.  Borrowing from our tradition an apt term and imagery I call this dynamic a kenosis — a “self-emptying” — fully aware of the paradox: that it is a personalist metaphor for a communal process that is in fact utterly devoid of self … a process with which we merge fully and can embrace as our own at death.

But we do not relate to existential issues outside of personalist categories, because our conatus as interpreted by our culture has made us “selves,” “persons.”  Our very survival is interpersonal.  Creative interactions of this significance in our human world are only done by persons and persons “read” them as a “self-dona­tion.”  The “self” that we received from our parents, even though their coitus was not directed toward us personally, we gratefully acknowledge as their gift to us.  It is entirely understandable that we would ascribe analogous phenomena occurring on a cosmic scale to a cosmic “person.”  And, as long as we are aware that it is a metaphor, I see no reason why we should stop.  As a metaphor that captures the intense feelings that the gift of LIFE evokes in us, nothing else comes close.  But as an analogue for an imaginary “entity” like Plato’s “One,” it is completely misleading.  LIFE is not an individual entity of any kind, much less a “person” who does these things for reasons.  It is present, shared and fully operational in all things.  It is esse, the existential energy of matter.

But for those of us who have been subjected to the assumptions of reductionist materialism — the orphaned residue of Cartesian dualism — the question always remains: is this LIFE really alive? … is it benevolent?  … or is it a mere physical force like gravity or voltage that only creates the illusion of being alive?

Obviously it is not “personal” in our sense of the word.  The ultimate question is whether LIFE represents some kind of transcendent benevolence.  The answer, it seems to me, lies in how it displays itself in what it has become.  For it is material energy that has emerged as LIFE, and in our case human LIFE.  Not only is our world full of LIFE flourishing in forms too numerous to count, but we have our very selves as lab rats to probe and question.  We are the observable display of matter’s properties and intrinsic capacities and we have a privileged insider’s view.  What are we?  Are we alive?  Are we “benevolent,” or as Daniel Dennett suggests, are we just robots and zombies and our very self-consciousness merely another robotic propertyAfter all, we ourselves ARE what we are asking about, for we are matter’s energy in one of its living organic forms.  We are the ones who have to answer that question.

The Psalmist asks: “When will I see the face of God?”  Those who share that yearning should keep in mind “John’s” warning: “No one has ever seen God.”  The visible manifestations of material energy that abound in our universe and in our human organisms-in-community are the only indications of “God” that we have, and if we follow the counsels in John’s letter, our love for one another — which mirrors and re-activates the universal kenosis of our source and matrix — is what makes “God” visible.

[1] Cf previous posts on this blog: “Matter and Mysticism” I and II, Nov 30 and Dec 7, 2014 respectively.

The point of it all is our sense of the sacred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sense of the Sacred

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

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

Augustine’s worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The difference could not be more profound.

 

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

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

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

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

Athanasius’ “theosis”

Rowan Williams’ conclusions at the end of his fine book (Arius Heresy and Tradition, Eerde­mans, 2001) are not a simple historical assessment; they are theological.  They have more to do with a trans­historical significance than actual history.  They identify what many Christians see as the unique and irreplaceable contribution of Christianity to the religious needs of humankind as they played out in later centuries.  One may disagree.  Athanasius claimed that Arius’ theology was a pale and bloodless version of the real meaning of the Christ event; redemption was more transcendent than Arius would have us imagine.  Arius’ belief that the Logos was a second, lesser and created “god,” according to Athanasius, would fundamentally eliminate the real “God” from the equation and thus obviate theosis (“divinization”).

Arians insisted that they took theosis seriously, but Athanasius “denies that this can be done while still clinging to the idea of a mediatorial created redeemer.”[1]

[Arians] seem to have argued that the creaturely status of the Son did not affect the power of the divine word uttered through him; the agent of redemption remains God alone.  Athanasius’ retort is to ask why, in this case should there be an incarnation at all. … The only decisive redemption — as opposed to continual acts of grace and pardon — is the transfiguration of the human condition from within, the union of grace with the body, as Athanasius puts it (con.Ar. II 68).  The argument returns to the point of the absolute newness and difference of redeemed humanity; for this newness to make sense, we must suppose a critical rupture in the continuities of the world; and for this God alone is adequate … [2]

It is important to clarify: the “critical rupture” Williams refers to in this paragraph can only be something that functions like Augustine’s “original sin” recapitulating Platonic substance dualism, i.e., something that drives an “ontological” wedge between humankind and God.  And the “transfiguration” mentioned has to be some kind “ontological” repair that makes theosis, “divinization,” more than a metaphor.  We know what theosis meant to Athanasius’ Platonic mindset: it meant immortality — setting humankind on the level of the gods, erasing the “unnatural death sentence” incurred by the human material condition aggravated by original sin.  It needs to be emphasized: theosis in Athanasius is not just the emotional aspiration of a Christian romantic who feels close to Jesus, it is inextricably part of the cosmology of alienation stemming from Plato’s dualism, reformulated as “original sin” by Paul and Augustine forming the fundamental tradition of Catholic Christianity.  We must understand this: they are talking about science: a metaphysical not just a relational or moral rupture. This metaphysical rupture was then “healed” by baptism which created a new ontological bond between God and humankind; they are talking about what for them was cosmology, science, not poetry.

Now, I want to say this and say it very clearly: If there is no dualism dividing matter from spirit, and no “original sin” …  if our alienation from “God” is moral  and relational and not ontological, then this entire worldview with its many variants falls like a house of cards.  None of it makes any sense, philosophically or theologically, except as metaphor, meaningful only to those who understand Platonism.  It is not religion, it is a phantasmagorical cosmology.  The Jews, who wrote Genesis, reject it unequivocally.  They claim that the story of original sin (their story) was not literal, and was intended from the very beginning as simply a fable — an allegory, a catechetical device chosen for its pedagogical ability to illustrate the importance of obeying “God’s” commands and relating to one another morally.  Genesis is not a record of scientific and historical “facts.”  There was no “critical rupture” in the “continuity” between God and man.  Such a theory, even for Paul, was tangential: it was not central to his view of the Christ-eventIt was increasingly used to justify the “supernatural” nature of the Christian claims as Platonism came to predominate in the ancient mindset; for as Williams admits in the above citation, without such a supposition Christian sot­er­i­ology “makes no sense” nor does the incarnation.   Indeed!

alienation

The view of things officialized in the Nicene version of the incarnation contrasts with the “pagan” religiosity which it was even then displacing.  Peter Brown (The Making of Late Antiquity, Harvard, 1978) claims that the Christian vision amounted to “a denial of the ease of access to the supernatural that would have put ‘heavenly’ power in the hands of the average sinful believer.”[3]

Pagans watched this development [the focus on the “other world”] with deep religious anger.  For in the “debate on the holy” Late Antique pagan sentiment maintained to the last, one feature of the traditional position: the supernatural was constantly available to men. … the easy-going unity of heaven and earth somehow mirrored the unity and solidarity of the civilization they had inherited, which had passed on to them a richness of well-tried means of access to the other world.[4]

The Jews who wrote Genesis did not have any need for a mediator, like Plato’s “Craftsman,” no matter what its divine pedigree.  They were in direct contact with Yahweh at all times because they were his natural creatures, the children he created to share existence with — his family.  The theory of a mediator between God and humankind — Plato’s Craftsman, who served as model for the incarnate Word — is Greek and was required by Plato’s substance dualism in order to interface between a Spirit-God and a world of corrupt matter.  The theory of the fall is Greek and it was concocted to explain how we came to have a spirit-soul in a body of matter.  Philo distorted the Jewish Scriptures in order to have them mesh with Plato’s substance dualismHe took a human fantasy like Plato’s Craftsman in the Timaeus, called it Logos and poetically suggested that it was the “Wisdom” of Proverbs 8, an entity a real person, a subordinate “god.”  Christianity then applied Philo’s fantasies to Jesus.  Nicaea, by ultimately insisting that Plato’s Craftsman was really the high God himself, ironically eliminated the very mediator that was so important to Plato’s view of the world.  It was an indirect hit on substance dualism and while it obviously was not fatal, it introduced a fundamental incoherence into the once tidy Platonic picture that Arius was trying to preserve with his clear and logical explanations.

Brown sees the ancient pagan mysteries as having evoked a different worldview from that of the ascendant “otherworldliness” of fourth century Christianity.

Among the pagans, therefore, the crisis of a great tradition was sensed as nothing less than a crisis in the relations of heaven and earth. … ‘The central claim of the mysteries to authority and legitimacy rested precisely on this complex of correspondences with the nature and order of the cosmos.’[5] The pagan still expected to feel embedded in this cosmos.  The Christians had brutally torn the network of correspondences on which pagan belief depended.  Hence the anger with which Plotinus rounded on the Christian-influenced “Gnostics,” who refused to be either humbled or consoled by the majesty of the cosmos.[6]

Brown quotes from Iamblichus of Apamea (+ 327, a follower of Plotinus’ Neoplatonism) lamenting the loss of simple religiosity brought about by the focus on philosophical transcendentalism, an accusation that is applicable to both sides of the Nicene dispute:

… placing the physical presence of the superior beings outside this earth … amounts to saying: the divine is at a distance from the earth and cannot mingle with men; this lower region is a desert, without gods.[7]

I would like to take that accusation seriously and advance an argument for another and entirely different way of conceiving the relationships that were in contention in the Nicene controversy.  It is a view that “places humankind correctly against the overwhelming backdrop of the cosmos.”[8]


[1] Williams, op.cit., p. 241

[2] Ibid., p. 240-1 (emphasis is mine)

[3] Brown, p. 99

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., Brown quotes from an article by Richard Gordon in The Journal of Mithraic Studies 1976

[6] Ibid., p. 99-100

[7] Ibid., p. 101

[8] Ibid., p. 100