Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

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

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

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

 

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Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Slippery Slope (1)

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

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

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

Absurd

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

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

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

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

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

Other untenable doctrines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“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

1

“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.

2

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.

3

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/ .

Everything is Sacred

1.

The character of “Will” in William Duncan’s play, HolyHolyHoly, like the author himself, may have gone to school for a post graduate degree in sociology.  The hypothesis is plausible because it would explain why Will treated the “sacred” as a sociological category.  By the time we meet him, “sacred” did not refer to anything perceptible by any other measure than human social convention.  For Will, trained since childhood for the Catholic priesthood, the “sacred” was neatly divided from the “profane” and easily identified because it was thoroughly exhausted in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

3.

If the “sacred” is the psychological reflection of the very energy of existence itself, its universality is primordial.  How did such a transcendent foundation get trivialized into the sacred / profane dichotomy so characteristic of our religions?  Mircea Eliade believes that when it becomes self-conscious and reflexive, the very transcendence of the experience of the sacred is so different from the way “ordinary” things are perceived that it was categorically set apart and given a privileged place in society’s efforts to provide safety for its members; hence, it was associated with the gods.  The sacred appeared to be “other” than normal reality.  However, transcendence — the characteristic of properties that qualify absolutely everything that exists — arises from the very inner depths of mundane reality itself and is intimately identified with it.  Its projection into “otherness” is a metaphoric displacement — an example of the symbol-making process that in humans has turned consciousness into creative intelligence.

Besides this generic tendency to think of the sacred as “other,” our particular Western way of structuring the sacred-profane divide is rooted in our history.  Specifically, it comes from two beliefs inherited from ancient times, each coming from one of the two source cultures which melded in Christianity: (1) the Greek belief that (sacred) spirit “fell” into (profane) matter — the body — a substance distinct from spirit and the cause of all human weakness, corruption and mortality, and (2) the Jewish myth-turned-belief that the events in the garden of Eden literally introduced evil, suffering and death (the profane) into human life, a subsequent corruption of pristine (sacred) reality that reached even to the human spirit.  Both were erroneous, but Christians believed them; together they guaranteed that the natural universe including humankind would be considered corrupt and evil without the saving action of the Christian Church.   The Church was sacred, everything else — absolutely everything — was profane.  The Greek and Jewish traditions had concurred in this: nature as we know it was the result of an unnatural “fall.”  This concurrence suggests there was more collusion between Greeks and Jews in the sixth century bce than is normally acknowledged.  For both agree: the universe is not what it was supposed to be; it had to be “saved” from what it had become and transformed back into what it should have been.  “Nature” was corrupt, it needed to be made whole and healthy by something more powerful than nature — something “supernatural” — for nature was incapable of “saving” itself.

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

4.

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

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

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

The only thing “divine” about him was the depth of his humanity.  He was one of us, no more no less.  The claim that Jesus was “God” is just another alienating tactic designed to excuse refusal to embrace the natural humanity that we all know we are not only capable of but that we have as our destiny.  The kind of humanity Jesus was talking about is familiar to us all; and we have all met many people of other traditions and no tradition, who live it with an ease and simple joy that owes nothing to the “sacred” beliefs, rituals and practices hawked by the Catholic Church.  Jesus, like any good Jew is a mensch — a human being.  That’s all he’s talking about: be a mensch, be what you are.  Be a human being.  Being a human being means recognizing that being human the way Jesus was human is completely natural; it means living with the understanding that everything is sacred.

 

Is Nothing Sacred?

The following piece is the promised reflection on the play “HolyHolyHoly” by William Duncan. It is a “religious” critique, for want of a better word. I think the play tries to make a major statement about the place of the sacred in our lives. I disagree with it, and I offer these reflections in response.

 1

“The play’s the thing … wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Thus does Shakespeare, through the dramatist efforts of his character Hamlet, acknowledge the furtive power of “the play” to communicate ideas and opinions.

Hamlet is in a bind. Enjoined by the spectral visitations of his recently deceased father to avenge his “most foul” murder, Prince Hamlet promises he will do it, but does not. “Conscience,” he says, justifying his inaction, “doth make cowards of us all.” He plots instead to “out” the murderer, his uncle, by putting on a play for the court, written and directed by himself, that depicts “someone” pouring poison in the king’s ear as he naps in the garden. Like Billy Budd, Hamlet is full of rage but cannot speak. He uses the play to vent the feelings he cannot express in thoughts and words.

Not all playwrights have Hamlet’s problem, but they all use their plays instead of speaking directly. It’s the nature of the medium. They are trying to convince the audience of something they cannot or choose not to express conventionally. Plays communicate through the display of narrative interaction. The display evokes feelings in the audience who experience the attitudes even without necessarily hearing an argument; it communicates by sympathetic effect. Once the play is over, reality re-enters and the listener ratifies or rejects the imaginary world the author had wrought along with the attitudes that were embedded there. But in any case the point has been made.

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William Duncan’s play, HolyHolyHoly, offers to lift the curtain on the “inside story” of the lives, loves and motivations of three Roman Catholic ex-priests (a pedophile among them) ordained in the 1960’s. Its “voyeur” appeal is undeniable; and many in the audience, perplexed by the scandals affecting the Church and unfamiliar with Catholic clerical culture, will doubtless find it riveting. For others it will be entertaining and nostalgic: Duncan’s dialog captures the era and his deftly portrayed characters interact with compelling energy. But still other people like myself who actually were ordained priests in that era and went through the very transitions related in the play, do not find it riveting or entertaining. For me the characters are composite caricatures of people I know and the play presents one person’s view of religion skewed by an intransigent Catholicism that, as the play opens, had just then fatally embarked on its current course toward terminal disintegration. The play uses the power of sympathetic effect to evoke an attitude about religion that is, in my opinion, shallow and shortsighted.

The narrative is almost entirely psychological; nothing much happens except the progressive self-revelation of the characters disclosed through time. As we watch this long evolution unfold (from high school in 1955, to 2030 in a “euthanasia clinic”), a realization begins to dawn for the reader: men who had been formed from the time they were boys in Catholicism’s obdurate absolutism, despite its discreditation and their own rejection of it, are locked into it emotionally, morally, spiritually … and they cannot escape.

The principal character’s name, not surprisingly, is Will. His leadership in the social activism of the sixties gives the narrative its shape and direction. What Will reveals without saying it directly is that whatever was “sacred” in life had been so absolutely and irrevocably identified with Roman Catholic “truths,” that with their passing the sense of the sacred disappeared for him altogether. The very word “sacred” is no longer a legitimate word. Will is still encased in the exoskeleton of the “one true Church,” but the problem is he no longer believes in it. When the Church went down, for Will “the sacred” went down with it.

Will is eternally nostalgic for what he no longer has and knows he absolutely does not want.  But the play goes further.  Will argues that not only do some people end up in this pathetic state, which is true enough, but that this is just the way life is — it’s the human condition — end of story. We are all locked into our illusory beliefs — the “fog” — and besides illusion there is nothing.  We stay in the fog because we can’t bear to live in the open air.  To say anything else is “bullshit.”

But is it fair to say that the author is intentionally trying to make that point? It is only a play, after all; plays don’t have to be carrying on an argument by other means. Duncan may not be arguing for nihilism at all. It could be that he is simply holding Will up for our compassionate consideration as an example of the sorry state that some people find themselves in. It doesn’t matter. Let’s leave Duncan out of it. The characters have declared where they stand and must answer for themselves. “Will” is the character who is espousing ideas and attitudes that I find false and misleading, and it is what Will says and does that I challenge.

The two characters who are foils for Will’s declamations are also ordained priests. There is Avery, who remains a priest but becomes an Episcopalian.  He is described as an academic “nerd” for whom religion is an intellectual pastime. Avery conspicuously opts out of the social justice struggles of the sixties; he’s also a repentant “one-time” pedophile and recovering alcoholic.

And then there’s Zeke, the comic relief, a nice guy who loves people, not entirely “with it,” but funny and benevolent. Zeke was forced out of the priesthood when it was discovered that he had married clandestinely; he is the totally innocent victim, devoid of doctrinal issues, sacrificed to the absurdity of mandatory celibacy and the Church’s obsession with its traditions. These characters contrast with Will for whom religion was “warfare.”

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Avery’s nerdiness comes to be associated in the ‘90s with a “new theology” labeled “metaphor” about which he has written a book. Will informs us that it is “bullshit.” He attacks it as mere deception — he might have said “sleight-of-hand” — a sleazy attempt to maintain religious feelings in the complete absence of “truths,” like the Resurrection, once held as literal historical fact but now considered myth by many experts in scripture.

In my reading of the play, it is significant that Will’s most heated confrontation is not with some traditional Catholic who is insisting that Church doctrine is literally true, but with Avery on the issue of metaphor. It’s not immediately clear how a metaphoric interpretation can be called “deception” unless the accuser is a dogmatic fundamentalist who feels that it dilutes the “real truth.” Metaphor means that doctrine is not a literal fact, and Will the atheist, one would presume, should have no trouble with that at all. So what’s his problem? That people “have no right” to feelings that come from taking religion as poetry?  Why is “metaphor” more of a problem for Will than belief?

We have to remember Will is a cyclopean “soldier” whose one-eyed stare is still fixed inerrantly on what he was vowed to defend: the Roman Catholic Church and its infallible absolutes — the only “sacred” thing in the universe. You’re not allowed to have religious “feelings” unless they are based on those absolutes. Now that those absolutes are gone, you can’t have those feelings … period.

I ask: what might have been said about “metaphor” if it were being defended by someone other than the unsavory Avery using words that Duncan put in his mouth? Might it have been explained that, inspirational value aside, first and foremost metaphor clarifies the objective truth-content of religious doctrine: supernatural “facts” do not exist and miraculous events never happened. “Religion,” therefore, is not the quid pro quo “salvation” business the Church taught us it was. Religion is not about earning life in another world after death, but how to live with justice and joy in this one. The “resurrection” is a prime example. A different Avery might have said:

“The religious question, Will, is not whether Jesus rose from the dead. For thousands of years before Jesus, god-men (and women) who died and rose were a prominent feature of the religions of the Mediterranean world. It doesn’t need to be said that none of them died and rose. The question is not whether the claims made for Jesus are any more factual but where that constant human drum­beat comes from. Religion is not created by some miraculous event, or some great story-teller, it arises from the unquenchable thirst for life in the heart of man. That is the undeniable datum, the source of what drives us. Life is the miracle, the sacred “fact” that will not go away. It is the only “fact” — it’s always been the only fact — the rest is all projection, and “God” is the personal human face we put on it; we really don’t know what it is. All we know is that Life is precious to us, sacred.  Life is to die for.  That’s why fighting injustice is more than a sport, or someone’s personal hobby. Death is abhorrent to the very marrow of the living matter of which we are made. We are inclined to trust our  thirst for life … we hardly have a choice.

If Jesus did not rise, so what? How are we going to deal with it? Say “bullshit” and die? Humankind faced the dilemma of death long before religions were invented to resolve it. Christianity was just another attempt to answer this life-death contradiction that we carry like a plague in our gut. Our religions … all of them, from the beginning of time and from all over the globe … came from people just like us caught between the poles of this fatal counterpoint and they didn’t know how else to cope with it … and now it’s our turn. What do you propose will help us trust life? Metaphor is not trying to keep a lie alive, it’s acknow­ledging that “resurrection” is an ancient symbol that encourages us to trust life so we don’t tear ourselves to pieces. Religion is not science, it is poetry. If you try to make it science, then It is “bullshit.” Whe­ther we live forever or not, life is precious, sacred, and religion is its poetry. That’s what metaphor means.”

“Metaphor” would turn religious dogma from being the false locus of the sacred into a “search engine” — a poetic guide — for finding the sacred “out there” in the world and in people and in the depths of living, evolving matter. What’s at stake is our sense of the sacred which the Church expropriated, exploited and then used to control us.  “Metaphor” would make the Church subordinate to the sacred, its servant, not its proprietor. … None of this is given expression.

To reduce the hierarchy’s dogmatic authority justifications to metaphor would break its control over the minds of men. I believe Will senses exactly that: metaphor would vaporize dogma, and his subconscious Catholic atavism will not allow it. Like all of us Will believed what they told him; there is nothing sacred but Catholic truth — for Will, “the fog” — everything else is profane. Once the fog is gone, there is no sacred; to use Dogma as “guide” to a sacred universe is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing sacred “out there” to find, and therefore no need for a guide to find it. There is no possibility that this natural world and its living, evolving matter is sacred, evoking a response that engages our awe, care, service … and trust. Saying so makes him mad, and “mad” is what Will does best.

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As they enter retirement age Will’s acknowledged “eternal anger” is described adoringly by his estranged but still loving wife Brenda as his need to “be eternally at war.” Sorry. I don’t buy it. There are plenty of reasons for Will to be angry, but for me this “warrior” stuff reeks of Hollywood. I see it as a dramatic turn that correlates with the superficial religious bearing of the play, and I select it for criticism for that reason.

Hollywood’s muscular “theology” says that the “warrior’s” anger is innate, primordial. It gives him a genetic superiority over others which also makes him incapable of partnering with a woman. Brenda had to leave Will but … she understands. An American audience will recognize the familiar features of every heroic leading man from the old westerns to the current superheroes. These men are too involved with their own incredible machismo to share life with a woman. We have all been conditioned to the genre: there is no domestic life in Valhalla and fighting injustice is not for women and children. The celibate mystique was part of the same male warrior ethos, and historically, may even have been a factor in its creation. Will may think he’s a warrior, and Brenda may know he needs to hear it — but it’s adolescent crap.

In the Hollywood version of life, the pursuit of justice is not a universal responsibility, it belongs only to the warriors, the guardians. And courage is not a virtue achievable by all, developed by shouldering responsibility and struggling to overcome fear. Courage, for Hollywood, comes only from being a warrior by birth, born with a full measure of divine testosterone. The brave are fearless by nature. You either have it or you don’t. And … do I hear hissing in the background … those who need “religion” don’t?

Then, the “surprise” ending will be no surprise to anyone who watches TCM with any degree of regularity. In 2030 while his two friends are dying from self-admini­s­­tered and Churchpermitted (sic!) euthanasia, at the very last minute Will takes Brenda’s hand, dumps the death pill in the trash and lives! … (Yay!!). Note that true to Hollywood form, he “gets the girl” at the very end of the movie … because she is a trophy, not a partner. It is announced by Flora our personal Greek chorus that Will finally found the answer to life. Curtain falls. End of play. Yikes! Burbank studios may be lining up for options even as we speak.

Here’s my take: the play exploits past commitments, friends and serious current concerns for their “entertainment value,” which is entirely acceptable, but Will’s narrative also conforms to the fatuous standards and stunted values of the entertainment industry — the “fog” that keeps us shopping — which isn’t. But it is entirely consis­tent with Will’s persona: a man who has decided that there is nothing sacred.

If there is nothing sacred, nothing “out there” to stand in awe at and serve, the only thing left is yourself, your image in the eyes of others. It would explain Will’s relationship to the adoring Brenda. Brenda does not represent something sacred “out there” for Will to stand in awe at and allow himself to be expanded by. No, for Will Brenda is the mirror, the still pool in which his adorable “warrior” image is reflected. Note that it’s only when she re-assumes that role that their estrangement ends.

Similarly, Will never gets past Catholicism’s veneer to the sense of the sacred universe that underlays it all. His creepy attachment to his chalice at the end of his life is not explicable otherwise. When those externals stopped being “holy” he was blindsided; Will doesn’t like being fooled.

No one does. There is good dose of “Will” in all of us. Will was made a fool of by historical forces, too big to blame, that made fools and victims of us all, including those teachers who fed us the “bullshit,” and the supervisors who made sure we ate it. Will cannot let it go. As with Melville’s classic anti-hero: Ahab can never forget what that whale did to him. Nothing must get in the way of its destruction!   … that’s why Will found “metaphor” so threatening!

The Church is, in fact, withering. But no one is destroying it; the Church is destroying itself. Starting in the era depicted in the opening scene of the play, the Church went on a narcissistic orgy that has shamed and humiliated us all. It revealed to the world the self-cen­tered­ness of its vision and the irrationality of its intransigence: on sexual issues, simultaneously inflexible and degenerate, in politics, despite its “social doctrine,” as always, in bed with wealth and power — all the result of a seriously flawed understanding of man and “God” and itself — earning a long-overdue catastrophic loss of credibility. Like Joyce’s Finnegan, whose avatar shamed himself in a public park, the Catholic Church committed moral suicide and we find ourselves in mourning at its wake. To one degree or another we are all like Will. We are the children of a Church that told itself it was “divine.” It preferred the morbid adoration of its own self-image to the muddling business of bringing justice and joy to the living present. We can all identify with his anger. The redeeming value here is that the play holds up a mirror for us — all of us, including the Church — to see what we have, or could have, become … and be glad to be moving on.

Plays, and lives, and eras end; but LIFE does not. Finnegan himself, remember, when his body was splashed with whiskey by those celebrating his passing, sat up in his casket … demanded a drink … and joined the revelers!

L’chaim …