The Sacred and the Profane


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

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

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

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

A binary system

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

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


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

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

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

Existence is sacred

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


Thinking About Edith Stein (II)

This is the second in a series of posts on Edith Stein and builds on what was said in the first.  Stein was a serious philosopher who tried to apply the phenomenological methodology of Edmund Husserl to the philosophy that underlay the theology of Thomas Aquinas.  It was a project she took on after her conversion to Catholicism.  Neither Finite and Eternal Being, the book she wrote in the late ‘30’s to complete that project, nor its forerunner, Potency and Act, written in the ‘20’s, were published in her lifetime, the former because she was a “Jew” and the latter because she was a woman.    

Stein was a Thomist.  This essay is not a critique of Stein but of her Thomism.  As such it may be considered as an addendum to the “page” in the sidebar to the right called “Critique of neo-Thomism” which is focused on the work of Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. 

It should go without saying that it is also an implied critique of the Tridentine Catholic dogmatic constellation which her efforts were designed to protect and promote.  Stein was a formidable proponent of that point of view not only because of her unique resources — she was well versed in both Thomism and phenomenology — but because of the power of her personal witness.  People called her a “saint” long before the Wojtyla Vatican decided to “canonize” her for reasons that had more to do with her “orthodox” ideology than her sanctity.  It’s significant that many cite Stein’s brand of “feminism” as a source of Wojtyla’s “Theology of the body.”  His respect for the “uniquely feminine,” however, while it encouraged participation in politics by women even at the highest levels, did not include membership in the Catholic hierarchy even at the lowest levels.  I wonder how Stein would react to the way her thought has been applied.

Clearly she was an extraordinary human being.  The luster of her fidelity in following her lights, however, should not blind us to the flaws in the worldview that, in ways we are only now coming to recognize, was not only the cause of her death but victimized untold numbers of believers in a myriad of ways.  We will have more to say on this issue in subsequent posts.


It is significant that Stein calls her metaphysical opus Finite and Eternal Being and not “Finite and Infinite Being.”  The reason is that “time” is the fulcrum of her analysis .  Very early in the book she makes a revealing reference to a 1927 article entitled “Time” by fellow Husserlian Hedwig Conrad-Martius.  Stein applauds the article’s “profound analysis” of the ego’s phenomenological experience of the temporal structure of existence and incorporates it into her own work-in-progress.  The phenomenon of “being,” according to Martius, immediately contains within itself the notion of “non-being,” for in the very instant of its “showing itself” as a phenomenon now, it is already in declivity toward an as-yet non-existent future that will put the current existing moment into a non-existent past.  But notice what the phenomenologist is doing with this “knowledge:” she uses it to arrive at what she calls the “essence” of the idea (the phenomenon) of being.  For Stein the idea of being reveals itself to be simultaneously a “now” that is eternally “existent,” riding the crest of a continuous wave-form that is constitutively temporal because it continually passes from non-being into being and back into non-being again.  It is precisely this way of looking at temporality that provides the justification for dividing being into finite and eternal.

For Stein, following Husserl, being is an idea — an idea whose inner structure as an idea is explored and “purified” phenomenologically — but an idea nonetheless.  From there, following Husserl’s belief that the idea as constituted in consciousness is “being” and if properly clarified through phenomenological analysis accurately reflects reality, she makes immediate declarations about the real world.

I believe this is to repeat Plato’s fatal mistake.  She believes her “purified” idea reveals reality-as-it-is.  She declares the “now” part of the three part sequence of past-present-future (abstracting selectively from the phenomenon as an unbroken continuum) is eternal and without any admixture of non-being.  Thus she derives the notion of “eternal being” from the very first phenomenological analysis.  “Being” has an eternal side, for there is always a “now,” and it has a temporal side, because it slides back into non-being.  She calls the latter “finite.”  But I believe the flaw in this analysis is the introduction of an arbitrary division in an experience of an otherwise seamless process.

Others who analyze the same “phenomenon,” like Martin Heidegger, do not reify such ideational divisions.  Heidegger, also a student of Husserl, who wrote a book at the same time (1927) and with virtually the same title as Conrad-Martius’ article (“Being and Time”), uses the temporality of the experience to explain the subjective need of Dasein (the human being) to forge its existence ever-new in each instant, the micro-building block of a lifetime of self-creation, the simultaneous source of human freedom, creativity and a profound anomie. 

But no such immediate “practical” determinations interest Stein.  She is focused on “ideas” — like “being” — which presumably, in the final mix with other “ideas” similarly purified and validated by phenomenological analysis, will provide an overall vision that will eventually open onto the practical paths implied.  But initially the reason for the analysis — true to the thought of Husserl — is the purified “idea” that it produces.  It’s what Husserl called the “essence” of the phenomenon.  He “brackets” the actual existence of whatever is constituted in consciousness (a procedure he calls epoché) and by doing so postpones the examination of its practical applications and prevents them from entering into the definition of the “essence” of the experience.  But please notice: this procedure prevents “matter” from entering into the definition of “being” which is forever dominated by its origins as an “idea.”

Husserl always insisted that his analysis did not abandon the anchor of real existence and that his methodology was a way of knowing the real world — that it was an epistemology not a metaphysics.  But by treating “existence” as an “accident” that an “essence” (a purified idea) may or may not have and therefore is irrelevant to the “being” revealed by the essence in question, despite his “realist” intentions, it is reasonable to ask, as many have, if he has not structurally confined himself to ideas.

The primacy of the “idea” characterizes Stein’s thinking as well, even though her position, following Aristotle’s critique of Plato (she is, after all, a Thomist), gives less independent reality to ideas than Husserl does.  But even while admitting that “essence” (form) only exists embedded in a concrete existing “thing,” by sustaining the scholastic principle that “being comes through the form,” her philosophy does not transcend an “essentialism” that runs counter to the discoveries of science about the real world.  For we have learned from evolution that “essence” (form, what things are), in fact, does not come first; “existence” (survival) comes first, and things evolve the form that works for survival.  This radically impacts Stein’s scholastic assumptions about the separate existence and primacy of “spirit” and of a rational creator-God who inserted “essences” (form) into “matter.”

In her 1929 essay comparing Husserl and Aquinas she herself also suggests Husserl’s thought is “idealist.”  One may assume her allusions there to students who were not convinced by his disclaimers include herself.[1]  In her own work Stein clearly tried to subordinate her phenomenology to Thomism’s “moderate realism,” but as with Husserl himself it is fair to ask whether the very tools she employs, like Husserl’s epoché added to Thomas’ essentialist dualism, do not lock her into a world of ideas, her best efforts notwithstanding.


In the cosmo-ontology that I espouse (see The Mystery of Matter, p. 93ff) the temporality experienced by the human organism is immediately seen to be the very condition of material existence itself; it is correlated with the body of knowledge amassed by science.  It is not just an “idea” or a human experience.  The “phenomenon” of temporality corresponds to what all other “things” in our cosmos are going through simultaneously with us.  We are all subject to the same sequence of past-present-future at the same pace, with the same consequences for survival.  Matter exists as an unbroken continuum and “time” is the mental construct we have created to represent that continuity.  Non-being is a fiction.  There is no such thing as “non-being.”

Temporality is a mental derivative of matter’s energy itself.  Everything made of matter — organic or inorganic, atomic or molecular, sub-atomic particles or pre-particle energy — continues in existence as itself moment after moment in a way that creates what human biological organisms experience as “time.”  “Being” and “time” and “non-being” are mental constructs; they are our ideas for what we are experiencing as the conditions for continuity (survival).  Living organisms must learn how temporal sequence affects their vital needs, their food sources and their predators, or they will not survive.  Time is a function of material identity — organic continuity.  By the organism insisting on continuing in existence (surviving), the existential energy (matter) that is the structural “stuff” of the living material dynamism creates “time.”  That “insistence on existence” in the human organism is experienced as the conatus.  And the result of this insis­tent continuity, “staying the same” (surviving), we experience as “being-here in time.” 

Beyond Platonic Christianity: an immanent “God,”

Stein’s idealism is not unique.  We have to take a broader historical view and recognize that Platonic idealism was itself the “hard science” of its day, believed to rationally supersede the naïve naturalist worldview represented by the ancient cosmic theogonies and the immanentist monotheism that they gave rise to.  Platonic ideas were thought to be “fact” of the most superior kind, groun­ding the transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” that gave humankind (as the only “spirit” in a material world) full, absolute and unaccountable dominion over material “nature.” But the price we had to pay was exorbitant.  In exchange for our lordship over creation we were forced to disown the matter of our bodies and maintain the illusion that we were disembodied spirits exiled from another world.  Mind over matter and life after death became the leitmotiv of the culture nourished by Christianity.  The failure of the mediaeval philosophical “science” that was conjured to justify these illusions was the direct cause of the development of modern empirical science.  Thomas’ holistic insistence, for example, that body and soul in man are only one thing, was immediately contradicted by the simultaneous claim that the “soul” lived on after death.  If Thomas’ Aristotelian subtleties were disregarded by the people, we should not be surprised:   people are not stupid.  A soul that lives after death has got to be a “thing” in its own right, and because it goes to heaven or hell, it is the only “thing” that matters.

Modern science evolved from the work of religion’s most ardent defenders, men like Aquinas, partly in reaction to them and partly by employing the analytical principles and standards of probity they had refined from the inheritance of ancient times.  In promoting Aquinas and his scholastic worldview, Stein’s “return to roots” only reached those closest to the surface.  To find roots with enough depth and pre-scientific authenticity to support new growth one would have to go back before Platonic Christianity.

This is not the only way to rethink Christianity in the post-modern idiom but it is a fruitful avenue, and one that offers an ultimate continuity for the Christian.  It attempts to understand the worldview and mindset of Jesus and his immediate followers, and discovers an entirely new set of heuristic principles that turn the so-called “traditional” Christian value assumptions on their head.  A pre-platonic immanent “God,” for example — generally rejected as “pantheist” by the mediaeval Church — a “God” who is near to every one of us, clearly and unapologetically evoked by Paul in Acts 17 and Colossians 1, and John throughout his writings, stands in glaring contrast with Plato’s “Pure Spirit” who is inaccessible to all things material, including human beings, and requires a divine mediator (and his Imperial Church) to bridge the gap between humankind and “God.”  Plato’s remote and distant “Spirit” provides the context for understanding Nicaean Athanasius’ obsessive need to dogmatize Jesus’ “divinity” and set it in metaphysical stone.  If “God” were naturally near us (which is what Jesus believed), there would be no need to insist that Jesus was “God.”  And quiet as it’s kept, Jesus himself insisted he was not “God.”  Theosis would be open to all and human moral goodness and a selfless attitude would be its manifestation and confirmation.  The mechanisms of a Church which were claimed necessary to overcome a metaphysical incompatibility between “God” and humankind would revert back to what they originally were and should have always remained: rituals that evoke and poetically enhance human moral commitments based on attitudes that imitate Jesus’.

In this light, the entire dogmatic edifice of traditional western (Constantinian-Augustinian) Christianity is revealed as the institutionalized displacement of Jesus’ message from the moral to the metaphysical  plane, from the arena of moral action and attitude to that of conferred status, office and ownership.  The “sacraments,” similarly, were displaced from being the symbols of personal transformation and commitment, to being quasi hydraulic mechanical devices — magic ATM machines — delivering a “currency” (grace as “coin-of-the-realm”) needed to secure a “place” in the “other world.”

It was Platonism that created “the other world” and the only evidence for it was the human mind and the ideas that swim in it.  A Christianity wedded to Platonism — made insuperable by the insistence on the immortality of the disembodied “soul” — results in the alienation of the individual’s sense of the sacred and renders humankind defenseless against the maneuvers of self-appointed “holy rulers” who control a mystified population convinced their destiny is in that other world, and that the priests alone hold the keys to it.  Entrance to the “other world,” dependent on “good behavior” and the means of accumulating “grace,” put enormous power in the hands of the hierarchy.  It turned out to be the most efficient mechanism of social control ever devised.  The fact that it came to be correlated to money was a clue to its true function.  It ran Europe unchallenged for 1700 years, and is even today, far from extinct.

Clearly this was not Stein’s intention, nor, I feel assured, was it Thomas’.  But it is my contention that once you define “being” as an idea and “bracket” the real material conditions under which its energy is activated, you have skewed the picture so radically that whatever later you derive from those premises is bound to go in the wrong direction.  In this case we were off by 1800.   We are not “spirits” that belong in another world; we are biological organisms spawned by and at home on this planet earth.  It confirms what many post-modern Christians say: that we have labored under a distorted vision of ourselves — as disembodied spirits — and from there we have projected an equally distorted image of “God.”  Our Christian tradition took both “God” and ourselves out of the real world, the world of matter … and left the material universe and our human bodies a godless wasteland.

The crux of that error lies in the denigration of matter: the divinization of ideas and the substantial “spirit” they supposedly represent.  It is the creation of a false and unwarranted division in reality that results in the human alienation from its own material organism.  It is responsible for the pathology of Western Man that fulfills the definition of what Thomas Szasz has called “autogenic disease”: a disease in which the organism identifies its own body as the enemy and tries to destroy it.[2]

[1] Stein, op.cit, Knowledge and Faith, pp 32-33

[2] Cf. Thomas Szasz, M.D., “On Autogenic Diseases,” The Freeman, Ideas On Liberty, May 2004.

Inventing Capitalism

Larry Siedentop, emeritus professor of political philosophy at Oxford, published a book at the end of last year called Inventing the Individual (Belknap, Harvard U. Press, 2014)It carries the provocative sub-title The Origins of Western Liberalism and proposes to trace the history of the transformation of the Western political paradigm from ancient Rome’s patriarchal / clan-based class system protected by its legal and moral codes to the one that prevails today of autonomous individuals, all enjoying the same inalienable rights guaranteed by law.  Given the history of the West for the last two millennia it should come as no surprise that Siedentop finds the roots of those political developments in the evolution of western Christianity.

The Christian Church grew from a minority cult struggling to be heard in the religious cacophony of the ancient Roman Empire to the only religion in an officially Christian state, a primacy it held for more than a millennium.  During the Imperial Papacy of the high middle ages the Church elaborated a jurisprudence and a philosophical theology to back it up that reflected the political implications of its worldview.  Those mediaeval developments were the sources of our current political preferences, and they were squarely based on the immortality and post-mortem moral accountability of the individual soul.

It is in the foundational Christian vision of the “soul” that Siedentop sees the roots of the supreme value of the human individual which characterizes modern society.  Ironically, he points out, it was the very effort of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the middle ages to protect its interests against the encroachments of theocratic secular princes that drove the Popes to assert the “Church’s” right of universal jurisdiction.  It was because the Church hierarchy had the “care of souls” that its universal right to rule was codified in law — a law which claimed to extend beyond all boundaries and include everyone everywhere, yes, even the “souls” of the very princes who challenged its power.  In pressing toward that goal, Church authorities created a canonical scaffolding that eventually served as a model for the legal systems of the emerging nation-states of Europe.

Use of the word “soul” immediately evokes a radical egalitarianism that puts every individual, regardless of social status, wealth or role in society, in exactly the same relationship to “God” and therefore to the Church and its ruling hierarchy; it supported the Pope’s claim to ultimate and absolute power.  At the end of the day, in mediaeval society, it was because the hierarchy claimed to rule both the prince and the pauper that it developed laws that treated them as equals.  These Church laws inspired the secular authorities who were desirous of achieving the same kind of central control as the Church.  It was the unwitting source of political liberalism, and it is adduced by Siedentop as the explanation for the modern “democratic” republic with its supreme respect for the equal and inalienable rights of the individual.

But Siedentop’s thesis is not without paradox.  The author has selected the one single thread out of the Christian tapestry of the “soul” that led to “individual equality before the law” because it is the specific focus of his study.  But we shouldn’t be deceived.  The picture of the “soul” is much larger and is woven of many threads which Siedentop does not track, some of which lead to social results with a quite contrary bias.  For example, in societies ruled by the Christian worldview, the very same “individual-destiny-after-death” can be cited to account for the crass tolerance for extreme inequality even to the point of slavery and human exploitation; for it is claimed that all injustices will be adjudicated after death, and the oppressors punished.  Redress need not occur in this life.  The hardships created by these “earthly” disparities are temporary; the sufferings of time are insignificant when compared to the joys of eternity. 

An extreme instance of this mindset was on grotesque display during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade launched to eradicate “heresy” in the lands of what is now southern France.  The “crusaders” felt completely justified in employing extermination tactics, in one case wantonly slaughtering 20,000 men women and children in the city of Béziers in 1209, under the religious battle cry: “Kill them all, let God sort them out.”  Clearly the butchers of “the cross” believed that each of their victims would be judged by “God” for an eternal reward or punishment, and the innocent victims of the Church-sanctioned slaughter (and its obedient agents) would be cleared of guilt and compensated by an eternity of happiness.  The “immortality of the soul” together with the individual judgment for an eternal reward or punishment after death provided a unique permission to slay indiscriminately.  Any residual guilt due to an excess of zeal in the pursuit of such a lofty goal was a minor matter — easily disposed of in the confessional.

Siedentop places great emphasis on the contrast between the ancient and the modern conceptions of the human person.  The older version, he says, identified the person as a member of a patriarchal household and its clan extensions.  He claims that such a starting point immediately involves status and inequality because there is a natural, organic subordination within the family of wife and children to the father; and the constituent clans of a community always possess a “fullness of humanity” that externs: traveling merchants, servants, employees, immigrants, slaves, never achieve.  The legal and moral extensions of that mindset create and protect class distinctions that reflect the superiority / inferiority implied in those genetic relationships.  Your “worth” as a human being was determined by where you were born in the social pyramid.  The author says that basing society on those relationships necessarily entails a structured inequality.

The individual relationship to “God,” in contrast, is said to create an invincible equality based on an inescapable moral (not physical or intellectual) accountability over which class, birthright, status or “earthly” qualifications have no bearing.

The contrast also points up a significant  difference in the thought process employed in each case.  For, under the Christian definition, you are not identified with where you come from but where it is imagined you’re going.  You are not defined by your origins in this world, but by your imagined destiny in another — a world for whose existence there is no evidence whatsoever.  Your very concrete relationships to the earth and the species that spawned you and with whom you necessarily interact for survival are determined by your projected relationship to a “God-person” whom you have never met and with whom alone, whether you like it or not, you will spend eternity.  There is no guarantee that your family or loved ones will have “earned” the right to be there with you.  You are on your own and you are encouraged to maintain an emotional distance from everyone else.  It is from these “facts” that modern society has developed its vision of what the human person is and the laws and moral codes believed necessary to protect and enhance it.

Capitalism and the “immortal soul”

But there was still another paradoxical thread whose social import tacks contrary to the wind of Siedentop’s theory of “individual equality.” Defining the very meaning of life as earning a future happiness not available until one’s total merits are tallied and weighed at death can be said to account for the characteristic western obsession with individual achievement measured by the conspicuous display of amassed wealth.  For the Christian believer the urge to accumulate necessarily becomes internalized.  The curious “discipline” of western Europeans — notorious across the globe — that allows them to postpone satisfaction and to continue working compulsively to stockpile resources long after a secure satiety has been achieved, is a peculiar dynamic that can be attributed to the internalization and progressive social application of the “last judgment” paradigm.  The individual’s drive to amass without limit is protected by an absolute right to “private” property, even after it is indisputably clear that the owner’s superabundance is surrounded by (and even may be causing) the severe deficiencies of others.

“Capitalism” sprang from these roots.  Capitalism is an application of the individual’s right to amass superfluous wealth indefinitely and use it for personal profit, despite the needs of others.  Under the ancient paradigm, superfluous wealth was considered the sole right of nobility; it provided a magnificence reflecting the superiority of the blood-line and no commoner had the right to any such public display.  Under the new “Christian-inspired” vision of man, in contrast, the ownership of great wealth is open to all individuals regardless of birth and is accompanied by the exclusive right to use it however they want.  The change reflected a revolution in human self-definition. “Full humanity” was no longer determined by noble blood but by the immortal soul preparing for its day of judgment.  And in pre-judging one’s chances business acumen was often confused with moral superiority.

In inventing the individual, it may be said that the West also invented capitalism.

Clearly, the Church did not introduce these changes.  Far from it.  The hierarchy’s reactionary resistance to the revolutions of the 19th century — giving unwavering support to the maintenance of aristocratic control and their prerogatives — is well known.  But, as Siedentop repeats over and over, the Church provided a radically egalitarian metaphysical definition of man that, however unwittingly, in the long run undermined the structural inequality of the class system based on patriarchal / aristocratic definitions of man.  The egalitarian implications of Christian doctrine were hypocritically ignored by the authorities even though it was increasingly recognized and embraced by the general population.  The Church hierarchy, in the attempt to shore up its own power, undermined the very system that sustained it.  What was revolutionary was the Christian definition of man that put each individual human being into a one-to-one relationship with “God,” solidly joined to the Platonic belief in the immortality of the human soul and its liability to eternal punishment.


It all seems quite inevitable, in the way that what actually happens always appears inevitable in retrospect.  There was also a relative inevitability about the earlier, second century embrace of Platonism by the Christian culture of the ancient Mediterranean.  Platonism was the conventional wisdom of the age; the upper class take-over of the ascendant sect of Christianity meant that the platonic paradigm with its “particular judgment” would be favored as “orthodox” over the earlier Pauline  vision of community salvation.  The official public “sacrifices” to the gods in which all citizens had participated as pagans were transferred to the Christian agape meal turning it into the “sacrifice of the mass;” and a quid pro quo self-interest that contradicted the fundamental thrust of Jesus’ message came to dominate the Christian religion.

But what, historically speaking, may seem “inevitable” is not so in any absolute sense.  Past contingent events do not determine future choices.  In this case the respect for the individual, so characteristic of Christianity, could as easily be derived from other grounds as from platonic theory.  It is important in this case because the platonic premises are, in my estimation, completely false: there is no “immortal soul;” there is no “particular judgment;” there is no reward or punishment after death and there is no “God”-person who adjudicates individual human lives.  The fact that our hard-won and highly cherished respect for the individual person was ultimately derived from these erroneous doctrines does not imply either that individual rights will suddenly evaporate when these beliefs are shown to have been a mirage or that there is no other ground in which equality can be rooted.  Our instinctive enthusiasm for the ultimate value of each individual has convinced us that there must be a deeper reason — one that is not tied to the platonic fantasy that there is another world where we are going after death.

Rediscovering the community

Defining life in individualist terms stands in stark contrast with basing law on intrinsically communitarian social configurations like the family and its social context.  Siedentop locates the very difference between the ancient and modern social priorities in the shift of the source of the definition of the human person from the family and clan — a source of status and inequality — to the individual immortal soul which is egalitarian.  But it is important to emphasize that the source of the inequality identified by Siedentop is the patriarchal family.  It is not because the human individual is born of a family but because the “father” enjoyed an unquestioned superiority that gave him a permanent “status.”  The father in the ancient household was also “priest” mediating relationship with the gods.  Hence the family and clan took on a sacred reality and the “father” was considered, genetically, a source of sacred value; he possessed a status that could not be lost even by physical or intellectual failures or serious moral lapses; it was his forever.  This image of the “father” was carried over into larger society.  The Roman Emperors considered themselves the “father” of the State; in imitation, the Bishop of Rome was called Papa — “Pope” — and every Catholic priest, in direct disobedience to the explicit command of Jesus, is called “father.”  Equality between levels was never possible.

It is only recently that egalitarianism has begun to penetrate the very structure of the patriarchal family itself.  Prior to this development, equality may have been operative in the public forum, but the private domain of the family was still considered sacrosanct and off-limits.  The legislature, police, courts and judicial systems tended to refrain from interfering with fathers’ rights to discipline their wives, determine the destiny of their children and dispose of the family’s goods as they saw fit.  The sanctity of the patriarchal family, despite the victory of the liberal mindset, had been most resistant to interference.  We never realized how resistant until the unexpected shock of the women’s’ movement of the last 50 years brought it to light.  The drive for women’s equality is only one expression of how far the liberal paradigm has penetrated into the foundational structures of society and, in retrospect, the realization of how little, up to then, it had.

But in the kind of “family” that is emerging, the patriarchal prerogatives are being eroded and a new kind of family relationship is developing.  In the industrialized nations where 16% of all children are reared in single-parent households (in the US it is 25%), more than 80% of which are headed by single mothers, the class structures and inequality that were once associated with the patriarchal family have less fuel to burn on.  Even where the family is comprised of both father and mother, the woman’s ability to earn a living is universally acknowledged and the consequent tendency to parental equality is unmistakable.  Respect for the rights of children in the family is beginning to be reflected in law and the policies of government agencies responsible for the protection of the family.  While these trends are far from dominant, the drift is unmistakable and, I believe, irreversible.

That means that defining the human person as an “organism spawned and sustained by a human community that provides survival, personal-identity and social significance” does not run the risk of either slipping back into a class system of structured inequality, or maintaining an ersatz equality grounded in a truncated individualism devoid of any social meaning and based on a projected destiny in a world that does not exist.  If the human person is conceptualized in exactly the terms of her biological-social reality, not only is each individual immediately validated as fully human but there is no need to search for another ground to justify the social reality by which she survives and is recognized as a person with identity.

With this perspective suddenly Capitalism is shorn of its Christian underpinnings.  The personal accumulation dynamic is exposed as an inhuman “earthly” recapitulation on the eternal Christian theme of “gaining merit,” which was itself, in turn, a corollary of belief in the “particular judgment” of the “immortal soul.”  The entire emotional drive toward personal, individual profit as a display of “merit” begins to atrophy because its “heavenly” model is discredited as delusional, and “salvation” little by little comes to be recognized as a community achievement, constructed from the collaborative contributions of its constituents.  There is no individual future life or other immaterial world to accumulate for, and the individual person begins to see her destiny identified with the survival and fully human development of the community where she lives, receives her identity and makes her contribution to others.

In such a communitarian paradigm the always glaring disjunction between the family dynamics of sharing, and the aggressive self-interest that is claimed to rule the marketplace, begins to cede to a cooperative mindset across the entire spectrum of social institutions.  Every social interaction of whatever kind — whether inside or outside the home — can now be considered part of a communal venture: mutual assistance in survival and in the development of the personal potential required to sustain it.  “Love” dominates the definition of the human person and becomes concrete: the gift of self to the community … it ceases being a “law” that one obeys in order to gain merit for oneself and a safe place in another world … and the market ceases being a place where cutting throats is considered a necessary part of living.

Luther’s “faith”

The post-mediaeval Christianity that resulted from the Reformation was western Christendom’s last self-conscious apparition before the modern age.  It represented a decentralized, nation-state version of the same theocratic and aristocratic system that the “barbarians” had salvaged and re-constructed out of the rubble of the collapsed Roman empire.  It dominated the sub-continent and its colonies until the time of the American and French Revolutions.  Its own immediate predecessor — the Catholicism of the late middle ages — was the version, modified to serve the needs of an imperial papacy, that the reformers tried to bring back to what they believed was authentic Christian tradition.  But the historical momentum of a thousand years of the Christianity of Late Antiquity limited how far “tradition” could go.

Luther’s rejection of Papal Catholicism was not a reform of “first intention.”  He was drawn into that objective only secondarily and little by little.[1]  Authority had not been a problem for Luther.  It was his personal anguish over damnation that impelled him to reject the program of salvation offered by the mediaeval Church.  It was only when his attempts to rectify the distortions that had created his torment met with theologically indefensible resistance from the authorities that he realized that it was the hierarchy that was preventing change because they were benefitting from the way things were.  His structural critique stemmed from there.  Luther believed that his scriptural and patristic discoveries represented authentic tradition and he became convinced that the Papal counter-attack was heterodox and had to be of the devil.  It was then that his cries of “Anti-Christ” directed at the Vatican began to be heard.

I contend that Luther’s original personal anguish, which he attributed to the quid pro quo mechanisms created by a self-serving Roman hierarchy, was in fact due to Late Antique Roman Christianity: the seriously flawed Augustinian concepts of “God” and man — the source of an autogenic disease that has pervaded Western Christendom unchallenged from Augustine’s time to ours.  Luther, like all 15th century Catholics, was infected with the contagion: he had no doubt about his own utter corruption and could find no reason why he should not be condemned to eternal torment by a wrathful “God.”  The discovery he made — the grace of a trusting faith — simply leap-frogged the problem: it saved him without confronting the source of the self-loathing and mistrust of LIFE.  For Luther believed he was just as corrupt, and that “God” was just as wrathful, after his enlightenment as before; the only difference was that he was assured — from scripture and tradition — that because of the death of Christ he would not be punished.  It validated his direct experience of the “free grace” of “God” evoking a trusting faith in his soul … just as it had for Paul and Augustine before him whose written accounts he believed confirmed his own.  What he had experienced was all there in black and white in scripture and the writings of St. Augustine.  Those sources convinced him that what he had gone through — the surrender of faith — was what “God” had planned for those he would save.  Luther was sure he had found the lost key to salvation, hidden by the fallacies promulgated by a priestly caste who would turn free Christians into slaves chained to Catholic ritual ministrations and a concocted list of “mortal sins.”

Luther had no inkling that the problem all along was the erroneous concepts of “God” and humankind, established in Late Roman Antiquity, that dominated mediaeval Christianity; Luther’s “solution” therefore was itself a reinforcement of those flaws.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Roman Christianity in Late Antiquity

It all began with Platonic dualism, embraced by Christianity in the second century.  By pitting the “soul” against the body, platonism set in motion a human dynamic in which the organism was required first to distrust and then to suppress itself.  Once embraced by Christianity with its belief in “sin” as an offense against a “God”-person, failure to suppress the body not only deformed your humanity, it was to risk damnation.

Two hundred years later, Augustine intensified the effect by interpreting the fall of Adam in a way that confirmed Platonism’s worst implications.  “Original Sin,” he said, was the source of an intrinsic corruption that made human flesh incapable of not sinning without the grace of “God.”  This was accompanied by an inherited guilt condemning each human individual — even newborn babies — to eternal torment, unless baptized.

It was a “one-two” punch that produced an insurmountable alienation for the believer at the most intimate level imaginable — the level of the origination of the “self.”  It virtually guaranteed a life of constant internal conflict at very best, and often resulted in something much worse, viz., physical or psychological mutila­tion aimed at the self, or, turned outward, hostility toward others.

That the “self” was a separable spiritual “soul” trapped in a body of corrupt and alien matter, was the central fact of Luther’s world as it was for the Christian world before him for more than a thousand years … and continues for most Christians today.  It’s no surprise it survived the “Reformation;” there was no possible alternative at that point in time.  The existence of “spirit” had long since ceased being a Platonic theory; it had come to be accepted as a cosmological / metaphysical “fact” that no one doubted.  Even William of Ockham, the consummate 14th century “nominalist” who rejected claims that the immortality of the soul could be proven by reason, never challenged it as a fact.  He simply shifted the proof from reason to faith.  Philosophical Platonic dualism, in other words, had so dominated universal opinion, that it even survived the complete demolition of its rational justifications.

Most people are unaware that, for Christians, it was not always so.  The separable disembodied soul/self, fully present after death, was not a feature of the Christian religion until more than two hundred years after the birth of the common era.

For the first Christians the fact that they were spiritual did not mean that there was a separate “soul” that could exist by itself without the body.  They believed, like most of their contemporaries, that reality had a spiritual side but “spirit” was not a separate “thing.”  This belief in the integrity of the human being corresponded to NT imagery about “God” that was not Platonic but Stoic (i.e., pan-entheist) that is unmistakably evident in Paul and in “John.”[2]

The earliest Christians believed the world was coming to an end imminently and that Jesus was coming back to usher in “God’s” definitive triumph over evil, rectifying the horror that life had become under Roman domination.  All this was expected to take place within their lifetime.  Those few that may die before the Apocalypse, would be brought back for judgment, but the “kingdom of ‘God’” was primarily meant for the flesh and blood humans presently alive; it was not meant for their “souls.”

But all that changed.  Platonism displaced Stoicism as the conventional wisdom of the age; and as it became increasingly clear that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon, Christians began to believe that the soul alone was the “person,” just as Plato said, and that it was the soul alone that would be judged after death and given a reward or punishment.  Prior to this time, there is documentary evidence from early Christian theologians, called “Apologists,” that the immortality of the human soul was considered a pagan theory singled out for condemnation as not Christian.[3]  The earliest Christian creed extant, the “Apostles Creed,” originating in the second century, proclaims as essential to Christian faith the “resurrection of the body” and a judgment when Christ returns; but quite conspicuously, it does not mention a “particular” judgment of the individual at death or an eternal punishment, and the word “soul” does not even occur.

Even as late as 208, Tertullian, a latin speaking Christian writing from Carthage, North Africa, thought that the human “soul” was produced by the parents; it was not “infused” independent­ly by “God,” an essential element of the Platonic view.[4]  Tertullian believed  the “soul” died with the body at death and would be resurrected with the body for judgment on the last day.  Given Tertullian’s antiquity and his insistence on apostolic tradition as a norm of doctrine, it is unlikely that he would have held such a position unless it was a general belief at the time.  At any rate it seems indisputable that the particular judgment of the individual “soul” at death was not a universal belief of the Church by the first quarter of the third century in the latin-speaking West.  So the transition did not occur until sometime in the third century.  This puts it at a great remove from apostolic tradition.

But by Augustine’s time It had become an established conviction.  In 387 the year of his “conversion,” the “soul” was considered not only separable at death and subject to judgment, but the newborn monastic movement functioned on the belief that the soul benefitted from being separated little by little from the body during life by the practice of “mortification.”  By “mortifying” the body through celibacy, fasting and other forms of self-denial you “made it die” little by little and thus progressively liberated the “spirit” from its dungeon of matter.  It’s easy to see how such a perception might descend into some form of self-mutilation.

The immortality of the separable human “soul” became such a fundamental assumption that it was not even considered an article of faith peculiar to Christians.  It was just “reality,” taken for granted to such an extent that for a thousand years the Church felt no need to define it as a dogma … and did so only in 1517 at the fifth Lateran Council in response to “Aristotelians” like Ockham, who said it could not be philosophically justified.

But consider: If there is no “self” that lives on after death, then there is no individual judgment.  But strange as it may sound to our ears, such a denial was completely compatible with the earliest Christian creeds.  An individual salvation was not part of the original narrative.  The story found in the NT said that by being grafted into the Body of Christ, growth in divinization (love for one a other in imitation of “God’s”love) was set in motion, and barring an unlikely reversal of intention, one had a guaranteed place in “the communion of saints.”  Immortality was not natural.  It was the gift of “God” sharing divine immortality with the community that was Christ’s “Mystical Body.”  There was no suggestion that there was any immortality without it; Greeks were drawn to Christianity precisely because of the promise of immortality, and immortality was communitarian — a function of incorporation into the Christian community.

The shift to the Platonic paradigm with its belief in the naturally immortal soul demanded a “particular” judgment, otherwise the incentive factor would be lost.  It created a radical individualism which had the effect of overriding the original corporate and bodily view of salvation; for in the Platonic / Augustinian view, even after becoming a member of the Church you were still on your own.  The burden on the individual was crushing; you could rely on nothing but yourself and the “grace” of a whimsical “God.”  Even the sacraments of the Church were reduced to mere preparations for an individualized grace which always remained “God’s” free choice for the “elect.”  You had no control over grace, and yet without it you were doomed.  It was in this fateful transition that the westerm “I” — guilty, terrified and alone — was born.

The individual was driven to resist the obliteration that Christian culture said s/he deserved.  The psychic vulnerability embedded in the platonic doctrine of the separable soul tied to the Augustinian version of “Original Sin” and predestination was fatal.  From birth to death, you lived in a state of trembling insecurity with no defense against “God’s” inscrutable choice.  You could do nothing to insure your salvation … nothing.  “God” would save you or not as “he” wished, and there was no way of affecting the outcome.

You can see how under these circumstances, since you could not change your destiny one way or the other, after years of struggle and despair you might simply give up.

Luther’s faith

For me Luther’s “faith” has the scent of this type of surrender.  Having realized that “salvation” was simply beyond his control, he gave up the way an alcoholic admits powerlessness and throws himself on his “higher power.”[6]  The difference is that while Augustine and other addicts sought respite from what they saw as their own self-destructive behavior, Luther’s surrender was “theologized;” it was called upon to resolve the problem of justification itself — an obsessive fear of damnation created by belief in the moral depravity caused by Original Sin, the main preoccupation of the mediaeval Christian.  Only the miraculous grace of “God” could pull you out of inevitable deterioration … and eternal torment.

In Luther’s case, the psychological release that accompanied being absolved of responsibility while simultaneously assured that he would not be punished, served as a kind of internal proof that he had stumbled upon the very mechanism of salvation.  That there was evidence of the same experience in both Augustine and Paul provided confirmation in scripture and tradition.  Against the background of the self-loathing and terror of doom caused by original sin on the individual immortal soul, faith as “surrender” brought a sense of security and inner peace that Luther had never felt before.  He spent the rest of his life trying to share his discovery which he always characterized as “freedom.”

He fully realized from his own experience such a trusting faith was not the product of effort.  Like Augustine before him who had experienced a similar “brick-wall” moment and surrender, he was sure it was the result of “grace,” the miraculous intervention of “God.”  But Luther applied his experience categorically, and so abstrated from its psychological features; he never demanded of others that it take as dramatic a form.  The faith of the ordinary Christian, if sincere, was sufficient to insure membership in the “community of salvation;” and it was membership in the “true church” that mattered.


But “faith” became a major source of division among the reformers.  Those who focused on the life-transforming nature of conversion insisted that every Christian must experience a similar moment of surrender.  Since Baptism was the outward sign of inward surrender to “God,” infant baptism was seen as a travesty and invalid.  No infant was capable of any such surrender and therefore baptism in infancy could not establish membership in the community of faith.  Those that had been baptized as infants needed to be baptized again as adults.  These reformers were called anabaptists.[7]

Anabaptists were considered “radicals” and were rejected by the mainstream protestants and their aristocratic supporters who collaborated in trying to eradicate them, often by violent persecution.  In the theocratic and aristocratic mindset that remained intact after the Reformation such an assertion of secular authority was not considered inappropriate, and in fact the reformers relied on local authority — even when it was not aristocratic as in the case of the Swiss cantons — to support their efforts.[8]

In all cases, however, it was membership in the “true church” of consenting faith — the community of the predestined — that freed the Christian from slavery to the Catholic pseudo-Church which demanded obedience to its man-made laws, superstitious practices and self-serving mis-interpretations of scripture.  Shifting the definition of “Church” from the “earthly” to the “heavenly” community — taken right from books 20 to 22 of Augustine’s City of God — undermined hierarchical authority.  It provided the justification for local, regional and national churches and created a power vacuum at the papal and curial level that secular rulers were all to happy to fill.

Luther was a conservative.  He believed there was only one church; he never intended to start another one.  His goal was to reform and renew “the Church” and he had always hoped the Vatican would  embrace the authentic traditions he had uncovered.[9]  His reformed church offered a practical program that was virtually the same as the Catholic.  He had no problem with infant baptism and considered the anabaptists fanatics who had abandoned authentic tradition; he insisted on the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic species and had a great falling out with Zwingli over the issue; he acknowledged the priesthood of all Christians but he expected the community to elect and ordain qualified clergy and entrust them alone with public preaching and the liturgy.[10]  The German peasant uprising of 1525 was a direct effect of the social implications of his message and, to my mind, an indication that he was on the right track; but when the revolt turned into revolution and threatened to change the social order Luther condemned it and encouraged its violent suppression by the authorities.  He saw the nobility as divinely appointed to rule and even called on them to put an end to the abuses of the Church.

His main focus throughout was personal conversion; when it came to Church practice Luther was not interested in re-inventing the wheel.  He changed the minimum necessary to ensure separation from the parasitic Papal “abomination” that had disorted the Church with self-serving accretions. Luther’s agenda was very simple: get rid of those distortions and allow authentic tradition to have its full effect.

Luther’s “discovery” made sense only in the context of the worldview that he assumed was real.  For our purposes, however, it is important to emphasize that if none of it is true: … If there is no “immortal soul” … if there is no “particu­lar judgment” … if human flesh is not “corrupt” … if humankind does not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin … then not only do the problems that Luther’s “solution” was designed to resolve, disappear, but the entire post-apostolic Christian vision, based on humankind’s collective liability for Adam’s sin and Christ’s “sacrificial death” in atonement, evaporates as well.  Luther, in other words, was set up big time.  He awoke in a suffocating atmosphere, and he did what he had to do to breathe.  But it was based on illusion.  The Christian chimera had been conjured into existence from even before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.  Luther slew a millennial dragon that had been created from thin air; he found an escape route out of an imaginary dungeon that was a thousand years old, and in doing so confirmed the “existence” of what was never there.  His “reform” served to intensify belief in the very thing that had created his “problem,” the very thing reform needed to eradicate: Western Europe’s autogenic disease.

If there is to be another Christian reform in our time, it is to these depths that it must reach.


[1] Roland Bainton, Great Voices of the Reformnation, Random House, NY, 1952, p. 69

[2] Especially Acts 17 and the Epistles of John.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, U. of Chicago Press, 1971, p.30 cites Tatian (+ late 2nd century).  The immortality of the soul was considered a pagan doctrine that was originally attacked by the early Christian apologists.  cf Adolph Harnack, The History of Dogma, tr. Buchanan, Dover, NY 1904, vol II p.191,fn.4; p.213, fn.1 “Most of the Apologists argue against the conception of the natural immortality of the human soul.” Tatian 13; Justin, Dial. 5; Theoph. II.27

[4] This was re-asserted as recently as 1992 by the Vatican: The Catholic Catechism, editorial vaticano, 1992, ## 365, 366

[6] Steps 1, 2 and 3 of the 12 step AA program was modeled on the paradigm of Christian conversion characteristic of the “faith” of the reformers.

[7] “Ana-“ is a Greek prefix, the equivalent of “re-“

[8] Bainton, Great Voices …, p.71

[9] Ibid.

[10] Luther, Concerning Christisn Liberty (1520); Concerning the Ministry (1523)

Another narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *      *      *

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

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

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

The Eastern Orthodox narrative

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“We are indeed his offspring”

Paul’s interpretation the Christ-event was tied to his expectation of an imminent parousía, and it quickly became obsolete.  Christ never returned.  What did “grace” mean in these new circumstances?  Christians would not conclude that Jesus wasn’t coming at all; they said his return was merely postponed.  It’s not hard to imagine that there was also a gradual dawning that the postponement might be quite extended.  But with it a problem began to arise: the apocalyptic pressure to join the Christian community, participate in its rituals and lead a morally exemplary life before the end, was gone.  So Christians developed a new narrative that had the effect of keeping up the pressure for moral living: reward or punishment for the individual “soul” at death.

This significantly modified the earlier religious aspirations.  Since Christ’s coming was postponed, those who died before his return would be judged and sentenced individually as souls alone and their bodies would be brought back for the final coming of Christ at the end of time to live again in “God’s” definitive kingdom.  Because the real concern became individual salvation or damnation at death, the eschatology radically changed and along with it the community dimension virtually disappeared.

With the new narrative the so-called temporary “particular” judgment turned out to be, in fact, permanent.  Your fate was sealed forever at the moment of death when you were given your eternal reward or punishment; the only addition at the “general” (community) judgment would be that your body would join you in heaven or hell.  Given the focus on “salvation” for your individual bodiless “soul,” few were concerned that their bodies would rise, and while all would hope to see their loved ones again, there was no interest in the installation of a human community built on justice to replace the brutal empires that ruled their lives.  It was all superfluous.  The change insured that Christian individuals would be fixated on that other world where they would live happily after death as isolated spirits, and they saw life on this earth as a burden to be endured of no importance except as a testing ground for earning happiness in heaven.  “Grace,” therefore, no longer referred to “God’s” compassion for oppressed humankind, the model of our love for one another, and became instead divine assistance to the individual “soul” in the struggle to “pass the test” and avoid damnation — the only thing that mattered.  It totally reversed the central dynamic of Christian life from the personal-healing and community-building power of loving others as “God” loves us, to saving your own skin.

There is no documentation to tell us exactly when this transition was made; all we know is that by late in the second century when the last of the Apostolic Fathers were writing we see evidence that it was already underway.  It also coincided with the emergence of hier­archical (class) structure in the Church community and the beginnings of proto-orthodoxy.  Christianity transformed itself from a proclamation of free forgiveness and the establishment of an egalitarian community of the human family lost in a world of voracious empires, to a quid pro quo reward or punishment in another world for the predestined individual based on his/her moral behavior assisted by a “grace” that was channeled through magical rituals administered by the elite managers of an exclusive Church.

Augustine’s “grace”

Quid pro quo was theoretically unacceptable, however, because it contradicted scripture: Paul had insisted that the “law” was abrogated.  Redemption was our love for one another; it came alive in us by our “waking up” to “God’s” free gift of forgiving love.  Augustine’s theory of “grace” claimed to counter the quid pro quo character of the new narrative, but he ended up intensifying it.  For he tried to add grace under the rubric of “divine assistance” to the profile of a transcendent “God” who was necessarily bound to protect the established order and could only “save” by first finding a way to insure that all debts were paid.  Augustine said Jesus’ death was the payment for Adam’s sin and it put the capstone on the ongoing assassination of “God’s” character.  For how could anyone believe that “God” was merciful and forgiving if he was ready to send unbaptized infants to hell and even demanded the death of his own son to “atone” for sin?  Clearly, Augustine’s “God” could not “forgive and forget;” his priority was justice, not mercy.

Besides, one needed Augustinian “grace” even to lead a good life.  This resulted in making “God” indirectly the cause of people’s damnation; for it was “God” himself who chose to intervene with his grace — or not — in the lives of those slated for perdition, saving some and allowing the others to be damned without saying why.  Divine predestination seemed unjust.  Quid pro quo at least had some semblance of fairness.

And so the people clung to quid pro quo as the only thing that made sense.  In practice, if Augustine’s theory of “grace” was intended to inspire a feeling of relief and joy about the free gift of God’s love, it failed pathetically.  A thousand years later at the end of the middle ages, quid pro quo still dominated western Christian religiosity … and it remains so today.  I claim it is due to the concept of “God” that underlay it.  Justice was the priority for Augustine’s “God,” not mercy.  Justice was grounded in the nature of things as ascertained by reason, and both “God” and man had to comply.  “God’s” mercy, on the other hand, was ad libitum, a matter of whim; “God” was under no obligation to save anyone.  This made “God” judge by profession and savior only when he felt like it.  The “law” was not abrogated and “grace” became just another requisite that the individual needed in order to be “saved” but could not count on or control …  just another source of insecurity.

Luther’s “faith”

Luther, for his part, made another attempt to reintroduce free forgiveness, but he used the same maneuver as Augustine — a reified “saving grace” he called “faith” — attributed to the same implacable Augustinian “God,” bound and obligated to defend the rationalized “order of nature” which included immutable moral principles enshrined in the commandments, the scriptural restatement of “natural law.”  Luther’s “faith” wrecked on the same shoals as Augustine’s “grace” and quid pro quo today is as prominent in Protestant religiosity as Catholic.  Luther certainly tried; and his “solution” seems to have worked for him personally.  I believe he saw through Augustine’s contortions and went directly to what was implied by Augustine’s grace: that “God” was so bound to the requirements of justice that in fact he was not capable of forgiveness.  But that was not a problem because for Luther forgiveness was not the issue.  What was called “forgive­ness” was actually “God’s” decision to not punish in acknow­ledge­ment of the fact that the individual bore no responsibility right from the beginning because the human will was not free.  The evil done by a totally corrupt and fallen human nature was not avoidable;  any good performed, therefore, from the conversion of “faith” through perseverance in a life of love, was the exclusive work of “God’s” grace.  But this more radical version of Augustinian “grace” entailed a more radical version of predestination, and it made “God” even more of a monster: for it meant that Luther’s “God” presided over the damnation of those who bore no responsibility whatsoever … Nothing surprising here; it was the same Augustinian “God” who insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants.

There is no way out.  Once you project a scenario where “God” is necessarily committed to the punishment of those who violate the commandments, you must have human responsibility and you must have quid pro quo.  Otherwise law and obedience, reward and punishment, make no sense, and the entire western Christian moral edifice motivated by individual self-interest collapses.

The Western “doctrine of God” evolved in tandem with all this.  Since “God” is totally “other,” we have nothing in common with “God;” all we can do is conform our behavior: we have to obey.  Obedience is an external link between two unrelated moral agents.  No essential “interpersonal” relationship obtains.  A “God” who is pure spirit and other-than-man promulgates a “natural law” that is pure logic and therefore other-than-human.  Humankind is related to the rational “God’s” cosmic order not internally but by extrinsic obligation constrained by rigidly deduced rational principles.  Forgiveness for violators, therefore, can only be an extrinsic pardon — a gratuitous “non-punishment” — in a relationship of infinite insurmountable distance; it can never result in, or be the fruit of, real union.  At the root of it all is the concept of a rational “God” and his relationship to the universe he made, … and humankind as part of it.  The kind of union between God and man which Jesus proclaimed is metaphysically possible only if you are “not-other” than “God.”

Jesus’ message

Jesus was not a philosopher.  His preaching described in personal terms the relationship that should obtain between “God” and man — it was not quid pro quo and it did not include punishmentIt was based on imitation, which implies similarity, sameness — “love one another as ‘God’ loves you,” “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” “forgive us as we forgive one another.”[1]  The message is repeated over and over, and while there is no mention of the metaphysical ground required to make such imitation possible, Greek philosophical Christians later decided that Plato’s science of the transcendent inaccessibility of “God” was the only valid metaphysics, and it had to take priority.  That made “God” not the same as us in any way.  It meant that a remote dissimilar “God” could not really be imitated.  The only relationship you can have with this kind of “God” is obedience and obeisance: you do what you’re told in total awe and submission.  (Other “religions of the Book” function on exactly the same dynamic).  This turned Jesus’ message upside down … and I contend that it is the best argument for saying that the only metaphysics that will support Jesus’ message is some form of pan-en­theism … i.e., that we are part of “God,” where it is understood that we are “indeed ‘God’s’ offspring,” and that by nature we “live and move and have our being” in “God.”[2]

Classic Greek Philosophical Christianity insisted we were totally “other” by nature and said that it was the Christ event applied through the Church’s sacraments that “supernaturally” made us to be “not-other” i.e., to be like “God” (theosis); but in fact the message of Jesus was the other way around: that we were like “God” from the very beginning and that’s why we could live a moral and caring life.  Traditional Christianity bids us become something we are not through the mediation of the Church; Jesus’ Jewish innovation, in contrast, was to invite us to open our eyes to what we always were from the moment of birth without mediation of any kind.  Religion’s classic program is intended to create a relationship where there was none, and reach toward an unknowable divine entity who is always beyond us, always absent; Jesus’ revolutionary program, on the other hand, is dedicated to clearing away the deceptions and confusions that have prevented us from seeing what was there all along, always present.  “We are even now the children of ‘God’ … ”[3]

The only metaphysics that is consistent with his vision is grounded in a source of LIFE — a non-rational “God”— that is immanent in the material universe … and WE ARE THAT.


[1] 1 Jn 4:19; Mt 5:48; Mt 6:12.

[2] Acts 17: 27-28

[3] 1 John 3:2

“No one has ever seen God”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Conatus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Souls, “selves” and eternal LIFE

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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