Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

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

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

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

 

THE HAIGHT-KNITTER DIALOGUE

January, 2017

3,140 words

I’ve just had what might be called a surreal experience: I’ve been reading an exchange between two Roman Catholic theologians, both 80 years old, imagining a “Religion of the Future” that will not be any recognizable version of Roman Catholicism.  Their dialog is recorded in a new book called Jesus and Buddha and is focused on the potential complementarity of Buddhism and a post-modern version of Christianity.  The friends are Roger Haight, SJ, well known author of the 2000 award winning book Jesus Symbol of God, and Paul Knitter, author of many books, most recently, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Orbis, 2013.

Surreal as it might be that married, ex-priest and retired Catholic theology professor Paul Knitter has committed himself to Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, it is well matched by his interlocutor: silenced theologian Roger Haight who, incredibly, is still a Jesuit priest in good standing.  Haight’s attempts in this dialog to restate traditional Catholic doctrine in a post modern idiom mirrors the surreality of his status.  He was silenced by the Vatican in 2004 because his book contained “statements contrary to Catholic doctrine.”  Given the Papal resistance to doctrinal reform since Vatican II, it was inevitable.  Both men, institutionally displaced in different ways by that resistance, are here  grappling with issues that, in my opinion, should have been resolved a long time ago.  This state of affairs is consistent with my belief that the Catholic Church will never change.  That’s a pity.  For in its current condition official Catholicism does not faithfully represent Jesus’ message, and I think that may explain why it is not capable of carrying on a coherent conversation with Buddhism.  The authors seem to agree, because this dialog from the Christian side conspicuously omits all traditional Catholic articulations.

The conceptual careening of these two Roman Catholic professionals who hold membership in an elite corps of systematic and disciplined thinkers, is an indicator of the utter disarray of Catholic theology after a half-century of officialist resistance to Vatican II.  The Council encouraged the Church to leave the 16th century and become a serious partner in interfaith dialog.  That required theological exploration and innovation that was never allowed to happen.  The result is, as I see it, that these two very old soldiers are just now entering doctrinal territory that should have been conquered and pacified two hundred and fifty years ago, when the American and French Revolutions broke the aristocratic rule of the ancien regime.

1. Theocracy

I believe that the Haight-Knitter dialog is being covertly diverted by a theocratic imperative embedded in Roman Catholic doctrine.  This theocratic imperative has historically exploited the Jesus movement for its crowd-control potential and prevented it from generating a human community of free men and women.  Catholic Christianity is not a faithful repository of Jesus’ vision.  The “Jesus” represented by Roger Haight in this book does not exist anywhere, and certainly not in the Catholic Church.  Moreover, I believe these two Catholic theologians are hampered by their institutional loyalty.

Institutional loyalty in the Roman Catholic Church has, since Trent, become more than a social virtue; obedience to the Church authorities is virtually a matter of latria — internal submission at a level that one would think belonged to “God” alone: worship.  Roman Catholics believe their Church is divine and what it teaches are “truths” revealed by “God” himself.  Both of these professional Roman Catholics, coming from their respective points of view, are in my opinion trying to find ways to outflank an obsolete Roman Catholic ideology without openly contradicting the magisterium.  Knitter, I believe, avoids direct confrontation by claiming that Buddhism is praxis not dogma.  Erstwhile “heresies,” disguised as prayerful exercises and mental training not statements about the nature of Sacred reality, should be of no interest to the inquisitors, while Haight I see as the consummate wordsmith, elegantly crafting new post-modern formulations of orthodox dogma fully confident that he has found a way to “save the words” of ancient formulae while becoming intelligible to the post-modern mind … or at least that it will fly below the radar of the thought police currently under new management.

The overblown role of the hierarchy in managing the belief structure of the Church is never itself the direct object of discussion, validating or invalidating the doctrinal complex of which it is an integral part.  The way authority is exercised can’t be separated from the doctrinal underpinning that justifies it.  Also, authority cannot be given absolute unquestioning obedience without conceding the doctrinal basis claimed for it, or at least allowing others assume it and thus appear to support a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching .

No one considers stating the raw truth: that from the point of view of Jesus’ message the Roman Catholic doctrinal edifice and the authority structure it supports are disfigured beyond repair; they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  These Catholics, I believe, are using a Buddhist-Christian dialog to disguise what they are really doing: trying to find a replacement for a Roman Catholicism that has lost its credibility.

I humbly and respectfully challenge both these men, clearly my superiors in virtually any category you select, to look squarely at the real issue in Roman Catholicism — the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about — the fatal historical distortion of the message and mission of Jesus stemming from the transmutation of the role of the Christian community from proclamation by example to social control by juridical coercion.  Over the course of two millennia the decision of Western authorities to use Christianity for political and social control has caused the erection of a doctrinal complex that both in terms of the alleged “facts” it adduces and the significance of those facts for people’s lives, stands in stark contrast to sacred reality as Jesus understood it and as he encouraged people to respond.  That it is also unintelligible to Buddhists and post-modern westerners reared in the perspectives of modern science is hardly a surprise.

Theocracy is the intent of Roman Catholic Doctrine and the source of its distortion.  Theocracy — “crowd-control” — has functioned from very early times to subvert the fundamentally liberationist dynamic of Jesus’ message.  The Roman authorities took a religious vision based on love and freedom and converted it into an ideology driven by law, and obedience … and fear: they forced Jesus through a metamorphosis that made him the divine Pantocrator, the all-ruling judge of the living and the dead.

The 18th century political upheavals that finally overthrew Roman theocratic governance in the West never penetrated its ideological foundations.  The Roman Catholic Church preserves those underpinnings in its doctrine, and its own authority structures are based on them: caste status as an ontological reality, political power as a “divine right” and obedience as a form of latria.  The Church is the last bastion of anti-demo­cratic aristocratic control welded in steel to “infallible” dogma, and the perennial vector from which its contagion — the divinization of fear, law and obedience, the living embodiment of the master-slave relationship — is always ready to spread.  Latin American liberation theology represented the direct antithesis of this aristocratic intent, and one can understand why, despite its orthodox credentials, it was the object of venomous attack by the counter-conciliar forces in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  They said it was attempting to use Catholic dogmas “contrary to their purpose.”

The implications of this thesis are wider than Christian doctrine.  Because of the iron link between doctrine and practice, authentic doctrinal reform will only occur if accompanied by social-moral-political reform.  Two hundred and fifty years of the rhetoric of “democracy” have yet to persuade the vast populations of the modern world that they no longer need the protection or guidance of a superior elite — an upper class — nor fear its wrath.  A “God” ordained Aristocracy is a myth that will not die.  Populist fascism, based on racist subordination, is a version of it with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in the USA even as we speak.

2. “God” transcendent or immanent

The foundational doctrine of theocracy is a punitive “God.”  Only a punitive “God” inspires fear.  In order for “God” to be punitive he has to be a “person” who “wants” certain things from people.  This personal “wanting” (despite contradicting the very definition of “God”) generates a corresponding obligation to obedience on the part of the individual human being who is terrified of the wrath that non-compliance may engender.

A punitive “God” also needs to be transcendent.  By that I mean very specifically that  “God” must transcend the natural order and not be identified with it.  He must stand over against the material universe and humankind as a separate entity, or he cannot interact with it, command it, punish or reward from outside.

The seminal event that established the transcendence of “God” is creation ex nihilo.  A personal “God,” without any pre-existing substance or force to determine the shape of creation except his choice and artistry, makes the world out of nothing and therefore stands above and apart from it and owns it lock, stock and barrel.  The world makes no contribution to creation and has nothing to say about its direction.   “God” controls and commands.  We obey.

The opposite of transcendent is immanent.  Immanence means that to one degree or another “God” is identified with the natural order and indistinguishable from it.  Modern science has discovered that the story of a separate personal entity/agent creating the world out of nothing has no evidence to support it.  In fact science has discovered that the cosmos and everything in it, from the smallest sub-atomic particles to macro-structures of immense size like galaxies, and complexity like human beings, has self-elaborated in a process called evolution over an unimaginably long period of time.  Far from making no contribution to creation it is now known that matter’s energy to secure continued existence for itself is the exclusive force that has shaped everything that exists in our universe, including the living things whose autonomous pursuit of existence is now an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process.

Insofar, then, that one continues to insist that it is still “God” who is the ultimate ground and dynamism behind this energy and its elaborations, it must be said that “God” is not perceivable as a singular entity or separate agent of evolution and must be understood as indistinguishably identified with the material energy that is actually observed doing the creating.  We are just now learning how profoundly immanent “God” is in the natural order; any creative energy he imparts to it is inseparable and indistinguishable from what it is observed doing.  We know abstractly that “God” is “cause.”  But how exactly “God” is distinct, if indeed his causation is distinct at all, is beyond our ken.  Thomas is clear: God is not an entity and his causation is totally commensurate with secondary causes.

But please notice, an immanent “God” is also indistinguishable from yourself.  The only commanding “God” could possibly do, if indeed “he” were ever to take the form of an entity/person who commands, would derive from primary causality providing the energy of esse (let’s call it LIFE) to your body.  To hear the “will” of such a “God” means to listen to your self in the deepest sense of that word.  That’s why John’s first letter suggests that those who are in touch with LIFE immediately recognize Jesus’ “divineness.”  Similarly, once LIFE is embraced, it has a profound effect on one’s bodily behavior.  The two, God and the conscious human organism, primary and secondary causes, become one again.

The depth of this immanence — this metaphysical and etiological identity — is not sufficiently described by calling it the “within” of things, as Teilhard does, because it evokes the image of a tenant in a garret room, active perhaps but necessarily separate and distinct in a way that is not faithful to the reality.  Ramon Panikkar calls this imagery a pseudo-immanence that is really a disguised transcendence and he excoriates it mercilessly in his little book The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man.  Actually, Aquinas’ Aristotelian imagery in the SCG of “secondary causes” that are the sufficient and necessary cause of all things in a hierarchical relationship with “God” who is the invisible primary cause, the “Pure Act” that activates everything with “his” own esse, is my opinion, remarkably faithful to observed reality.

3. Science, evolution, person

I object to the way evolution is mentioned always ancillary to some other philosophical or theological guiding notions relating to creation; the evolution of material forms is not acknowledged as the sole, exclusive, sufficient and necessary etiology at play in creation.  The lack of focus on matter’s self-elaboration is responsible for the failure to recognize the deep, intimate and pervasive nature of the immanence of “God” in the material universe.  There is an identity here that the West has avoided like the plague.  The esse we deploy by existing is not only “God’s” it is “God.” 

The observable data about “God’s” way of creating do not come from scripture, they come from science.  “God,” if we must insist on saying that it is “God” who creates (constantly confusing ourselves by evoking the anthropomorphic entity/agent imagery associated with the word), does so at the pace and with the exclusive agency of matter at whatever point of development it has reached on its own.  “God’s” presence and action precisely as Creator is not distinguishable from the 13.7 billion year old material evolutionary process, and that includes the extinction of 99.9% of species that failed to adapt.  Humanity and perhaps even all life on our fragile planet are similarly susceptible to that eventuality.  Our traditional assess­ment of the central role of humankind in “God’s” relationship to creation, and therefore a putative guarantee of permanence for our species, is cast into grave doubt once we accept the determinative role of evolution in the creation process.

In this same regard, to say “God is personal but not a person,” as they propose, is unintelligible.  There is no theodicy that justifies traditional micro-manag­ing providence.  Traditional providence implies a rational, interactively relating, living entity who communicates with, hears and responds to other persons.  That’s what “person” means to human beings.  I think it is incontestable that Haight means “personal” in exactly that sense:

In this framework Jesus reveals God to be personal, not a big human person in the sky, but in such a way that the absolute divine power that creates and grounds all being is personal, intelligent, knowing, understanding, willing, and desiring what is good for God’s creatures. This means that all beings, in themselves and in their specific relationships and actions, stand in relation to a ground of being that is personal. The universe is suffused with intelligence and affective attention. Individual beings have a value that is guaranteed by a creating power that personally cares about them. Persons are more than individuals; they are subjects called to respond to an all-encompassing personal attentiveness.  (Chapter 4, Kindle 1250)

If “God” is a person in the sense described above, then he falls onto the horns of MacLeish’s dilemma: “If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good.”  If “God” is personal, the Haitian earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic were a disgrace.  ¾ of the 200,000 people who died were children.

Micro-managing providence is a joke.  There is no such providence.  What “God” provides is the natural order.  The psalms themselves are full of MacLeish’s lament.  The only way out, it seems to me, is the identification of the primal “act” in the universe as a changeless will-to-esse where even “love” as we humans understand it is not yet operational: love is implicit in the will TO BE but must wait for its full explicitation on the secondary causes (conscious organisms) that will elaborate it as a derivative of their own pursuit of survival … the primal “act” (esse) is a living dynamism coming from a suffusive life-source which is not an entity and which does not distinguish among its truly universal effects to favor sentient and intelligent victims.

It is we, human beings, limited material organisms, who awaken in a world of such universal disinterested donation that even the microbes that kill us are sustained by “God” in the form of being that they have been able to achieve on their own.  It is we, then, that interpret LIFE in our case to mean compassion and protection and relief of suffering.  It is we who have invented “love” as part of our evolutionary process.  And as we evolve we are learning that if we are to survive we have to love species other than ourselves.  “Love” is our thing.  “God” is love only because he sustains us too.

Forgiveness

“God” is fundamentally immanent.  It is as immanent that “God” is transcendent, i.e., he cannot be identified with any particular entity, because “he” is the living energy that transcends them all.  “God” is also transcendent because the spectacular elaborations achieved by evolution have, each and every one of them, transcended exponentially the base from which they emerged, belying the age old dictum; ex nihilo nihil fit.  ESSE supports secondary causes that draw from an unfathomable well of creativity what is absolutely new, ex nihilo:  life from non-life, human intelligence from animal consciousness, and sustains all this newness with esse — “him”self. 

An immanent “God” is our very own LIFE.  This kind of “God” cannot punish because he has no “will” that is different from what we are and most deeply want for ourselves.  If he cannot punish, he cannot be harnessed to social control no matter how benevolently it is conceived.  Thugs have known that forever.  The only “God” they ever feared was the autonomy of men.  “God” impacts human politics only through secondary causes, just as he has nothing to say about when and where the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust are going to move in response to pressures from the circulating magma.  Theocracy and the “facts” adduced to justify It — like reward and punishment — are a fraud, a lie, preying on our fears to trick us into surrendering our autonomy to those who claim to rule in “God’s” name.   There is no one to punish us … and we have already received the greatest reward possible: the privilege to be made of living matter and eternally part of this LIFE-driven evolving cosmos.

Can we ever forgive such a “God” for not being the protective parent we think we need and want “him” to be?  Can we love “him” for the anguished autonomy he sustains in us and this fragile material organism that we have evolved?  Indeed, to my mind, that is the only authentic “religious” question … and the final answer to the Grand Inquisitor.

 

Eschaton

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

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

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

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

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

Restoration

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

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

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

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

Love, metaphysically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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