Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.

 

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.

 

In search of a new doctrine of “God” (II)

The “sense of the sacred” in my view stands on its own as a human phenomenon — a common psychological and social experience. It does not immediately imply the “existence of God,” as some claim. Nor does it appear to be derived from religious socialization; for people who do not believe in “God” also have a sense of the sacred.

Rather, in recognition of the intense emotional investment in whatever is considered sacred, it may be reasonably understood as a derivative of the conatus, our drive to survive as human beings. I will dare define it here: the sense of the sacred is a by-product of our existential self-em­brace. It is the affective resonance of our appreciation of our existence — an appreciation innate to our organic matter which radiates out to everything that has to do with it, from its source, to all those things believed necessary to maintain it.

[ Note: Some readers may object to the use of the term “sacred” because of its religious associations through the millennia. I recognize that it is a problem word in this regard. I will gladly accept the use of another word or phrase for “sense of the sacred” so long as it continues to refer to a subjective feeling imputing an ultimate value requiring recognition. Its interpretation may be a matter of legitimate dispute, but the existence of the phenomenon is not.
Also I am intentionally bracketing the effect of society’s collective appropriation of the conatus’ energy to create religion.]

So we start with a sense of the sacred as a human experience, and pursue an enquiry that tries to determine whether or not it has a justification that transcends cultural programming and personal predilection … or to say it in a different way, an enquiry to determine exactly what may explain it, and what it, in turn, explains. Effectively we are examining the root and ground of the conatus.

Essentialist-spirit­ua­list philosophy grounded the traditional “sacred” in two ways: (1) It said that “Being” was a spirit-“God” who designed and sustained our being with a participation in “his” being, and (2) that human beings each had an eternal personal destiny with “God” precisely and only because we were “spirits” as “he” was.

The cosmo-ontology that we are proposing here affects each of those points differently. As far as (2) is concerned, eternal personal destiny was called into question because our position challenges the existence of the separable immortal individual soul. Personal destiny from now on will have to be calculated on a different basis, and with an entirely different result. To the degree that the sense of the sacred was tied to the (eternal) existence of the immortal individual soul, it is gone.

participation-in-being

But in the case of (1), participation in “God’s” being, the question remains open. In the non-dualist view we are proposing in this study, the sacred is theoretically sustainable based on the “participation” cre­ated by the com­­mon possession of the substrate, matter’s energy. What it comes down to is this: material existence as we have been studying it, performs the theoretical role once assigned to “God” as “Being” — it is that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

How do these competing “grounds of the sacred” compare:

First, traditional participation suffers under an insuperable liability. It is premised, as we saw, on subsistent ideas. But there is no “World of Ideas” that makes traditional “participation in being” possible and there is no world of separable spirit. This will affect the “concept of Being” as the ground of participation. “Being” is an idea; it is not a “thing.”

The term “God” has been so wedded to the essentialist view that some feel it is impossible to use the word “God” without evoking essentialist spiritism. But the issue in this case is the word, not the reality.  There is no question that material energy is an existential factor of sufficient ontological heft to sustain the self-em­brace that gives rise to the conatus and our sense of the sacred. Matter’s energy is indisputably that “in which we live and move and have our being” and therefore, objectively, can explain and justify the sense of the sacred derived from the conatus.

Second, process, that aspect of matter’s energy revealed and mea­­s­ured in time, is fundamental to our definition of existence. The basic “stuff” of reality is not a “thing,” but a dynamism with a non-rational intentionality, a self-embrace for which rational consciousness is secondary, emergent, not antecedent, not directive. Anything built of it, therefore, will also be a self-embracing process, not an idea with a purpose embedded in a “thing.” To the extent that “sacredness” was dependent on the presence of static essences wed to final causes (purposes) and possibly a “divine” terminus, an Omega Point, it is gone. What kind of “sacred” does non-rational process, reflected in the conatus, evoke? My answer: only itself, an endless pro­cess of existing, a self-embrace that is equally functional at every point along the timeline of development.

Third, we can say that a shared substrate that evolves all things suggests a participation that is material, genetic and thoroughly a posteriori. It is not built on an a priori plan moving toward an Omega; it’s built on the aggregation of constituent parts, reproduction, symbiosis, a “genetic” relationship — family, community — the result of a process of invention and integration driven by an existential self-embrace.

If the energy at the base of matter — which I call existence — now performs the existential functions once assigned to “God,” there is no reason, as far as I can see, why it cannot provide the philosophical grounds for our sense of the sacred. But I want to emphasize, the sense of the sacred is a first-level phenomenon; it is indisputably there whether we find sufficient and necessary grounds to explain ity or not. Even further removed is whether such grounds approximate to what we used to call “God.”

“God” has always been considered “pure spirit.” The energy of matter cannot be postulated of “God” with­out imputing materiality to “God.” This is a critical issue for our tradition. That “God” might be material has been considered entirely unthinkable in the history of western philosophy. (But, see the appendix to the Mystery of Matter on the materiality of God.) The word “God” carries an ideological overload connoting “spirit.”

Matter is a living dynamism … does that make it sacred?

So let’s bracket the word “God” for now. Hasn’t the function of the concept, “God,” in fact, been replaced with matter’s energy?

The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is explained by a conatus, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, “good,” by which I mean “sacred.” But the conatus — the human drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo­geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred.

But the conatus requires a recognition of its creative power that was in evidence in even its most primitive state. Accepting the conatus as a living dynamism at the sub-atomic level, however, takes an understanding that transcends the information available to particle physicists working in isolation. Recognizing the homogeneity of the dynamism of the conatus across the levels of existence requires the use of a retroactive interpretation that looks at, not only what physics can directly observe and infer about the big bang revealed by particle colliders, but at what these particles are observed doing later on at virtually every level of evolutionary emergence. The panoply of forms, pre-living and living, conscious, intelligent and purposeful, that result from the repeated application of the “stuff” and collective strategy initiated at the big bang, is exclusively built of quarks and electrons … unless there is an outside “spirit,” the conatus must come from there.

The evidence for it is clear. Its character as existential self-embrace is within us, and it is through the intimate “experience” of one’s own conatus that it becomes more than a syllogism and overflows into a deeper understanding of all reality. But, that having been said, I want to emphasize, it always remains a syllogism:

Major premise: “life” cannot be reduced to mechanical reflexes (i.e. there is a qualitative difference between life and non-life);
Minor premise: but our planet is teeming with life, and every living thing is constructed only of a physical substrate which on its own and in isolation appears absolutely lifeless.
Conclusion: therefore, either there is another, immaterial, source that introjects life into “matter,” or the substrate, despite all appearances and reductionist claims, is itself a living dynamism.

The syllogism is inductive and after examining premises and evidence concludes that “matter is a living dynamism” activated proportionately (analogically) across the phyla of living things as we have been saying. If it cannot validly do that, the argument fails, and the reductionist position holds, although always with a condition … reductionism, in turn, must itself explain “life.”

Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean­ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like (however true that may be), I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor­phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists metaphorization. And meta­phor is the only valid use that that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al­ter­native imagery.

[ Note: It’s important to emphasize that in this study I am trying to remain strictly philosophical. I am not rejecting religion … how “religion” may respond to the new understandings we are discovering here is a separate topic altogether. By emphasizing the damaging power of the “G” word I am simply attempting to maintain the in­de­pen­dence of a very fragile, easily derailed speculative imagination, which is the only instrument we have for exploring the sacred depths of reality as it has been revealed to us by science. ]

Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost anything that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

“Be holy as I am holy”  (1 Pet 1:16;Lv 11:44-55; 21:26;)

“Be holy as I am holy.”  That striking challenge from the first letter of Peter has always held center stage in the Christian Doctrine of “God.” What it means to say that “God” is “holy,” how­ever, is not immediately clear because the significance of the word has been different in different contexts.

In its original place in Leviticus, the biblical authors used the word “holy” (kodesh) to separate what is pure from what is impure as regards foods, animals and certain activities, and so it means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness.” “Holy” referred to a category that goes beyond the moral and bears on the contract that bound Yahweh to Israel and formed the conditions for his keeping his promises. The items listed for avoidance were all “dirty” in some way and therefore unworthy of those who would associate with Yahweh, who was considered absolutely clean … holy.

As the religious thinking of the Mediterranean peoples came to be dominated by Greek, and especially dualistic Platonic imagery, the notion of “impurity” was easily absorbed into the notion that “matter” was dead and needed “spirit” in order to live. Matter by its nature was composed of parts; it was spirit that held those parts together. Left to itself matter decomposed. Matter was impure in the first instance, therefore, because it is the source of death.

Matter also had a direct relationship to animality for the Greeks, who considered bodily urges, especially for being spontaneous and unresponsive to mental control, to be something less than human. The agitation of the “flesh” was the antithesis of spirit’s characteristic serenity. Hence to be “holy” for the Greeks signified the contemplative quiet­ness of the purely spiritual … nothing made of matter could be expected to achieve any such tranquility and therefore was to that degree “unholy.” Peter’s intention in repeating the phrase from Leviticus seems to assume the Greek meaning of impure as “giving in to passions” and the call to holiness an encouragement to keep a “sober-minded” control over the body.

At the end of the middle ages, the “holiness” of “God” was conceived in Augustinian terms. “God” was holy because, as Plato imagined him he was beyond matter in every way, but also as Augustine taught, because “God” was Mind, the ultimate source of all rationality and the one who created and sustained the universe as the material expression of his self-reflecting ideas. For Augustine it was the Mind of God that made things what they were and gave them their destiny. Everything was created for a reason. The universe was believed to be full of discernible purpose. So God was “holy” because he commanded that the reason embedded in things — the purposes that were the reflections of his perfections, the natural law — be obeyed and not be thwarted. God was holy because he demanded that everything be done and treated “right.” God was “righteous” and demanded that we conform to the rightness of his creation.

This righteous holiness became the source of an imagined infinite gap between God and humankind. It made “God” morally transcendent. For Augustine the counterpart to that transcendence was the utter depravity of man caused by Adam’s disobedience. Not only did men and women have “bodies” made of mortal matter which made them impure and slaves to their lusts, but because of original sin their humanity had become thoroughly corrupt and led them to behavior that was morally “irrational:” it disregarded the right purposes that “God” had put into created things, including the human body; human nature was not “righteous.” The human race, according to those who followed Augustine, like the Reformers of the sixteenth century, in the searing light of the all holy God deserved nothing but annihilation.

This human experience of the overwhelming holiness of God is identified by Adolf Harnack as the very epicenter of religion.

the religious motive in the strictest sense of the term [is] the motive that asserts itself within the Christian religion as the power of the living God, before whose Holy Spirit nothing that is one’s own retains its independence …[1]

In passage after passage, the Reformers reveal their vision of the degeneracy of man and the overwhelming righteousness of “God.” “Predestination,” which means that “God” intentionally chooses some to be condemned to eternal torment and others to live in endless bliss regardless of merit, was considered a perfectly reasonable thing to do for the supremely holy Creator in his dealings with a thoroughly corrupt humankind. Here is John Calvin:

Since God inflicts due punishment on those whom he reprobates and bestows unmerited favor on those whom he calls he is free from every accusation: just as it belongs to the creditor to forgive the debt to one, and exact it of another. The Lord, therefore may show favor to whom he will, because he is merciful; not show it to all, because he is a just judge. In giving to some what they do not merit, he shows his free favor; in not giving to all, he declared what all deserve.[2]

“What all deserve” is the key notion for Calvin, following Augustine. The entire human race, regardless of the merits of the individuals, deserves eternal torment in hell because of Adam’s infinite insult to “God.” Even infants who died without baptism “deserved” damnation because of Adam’s disobedience. Humanity was congenitally impure, degenerate, unholy. “Salvation,” therefore, was always the gratuitous gift of a holy “God” who was under no obligation to save anyone. “God” made some chosen individuals “holy” by drawing them to himself through faith in the atonement wrought by Christ’s death on the cross. No one was ever capable of a holy act on their own without the miraculous grace of a saving “God.”

Throughout this scenario the transcendent “holiness” of “God” who dwells in light inaccessible beyond the realm of perverse humankind, was the overriding notion.  It was the guiding imagery that brought Christians to their knees in total surrender — shorn of any means of self defense. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.”  You could not help yourself in any way.  All you could do was pray you were one of the “elect.” In order to be holy as “God” was holy, you had to be specially chosen, called and miraculously made holy by the irresistible grace of the holy “God.”  According to Augustine, Peter’s invitation omitted a lot of details.

*     *     *     *

Jesus also left out details — not only Calvin’s but also Peter’s.  In his preaching, Jesus frequently called his listeners to “be like” their Father.  The idea of imitating “God” was reminiscent of the sentiments of Leviticus.  But Jesus offered neither kosher purity nor spiritual control as the content of the imitation, much less did he make any reference to “congenital depravity.” Rather Jesus’ terms are about super-abundant generosity, limitless mercy, unbounded forgiveness, measureless love.  This gives a completely different sense to the word “holy,” one that Jesus seems to assume is well within everyone’s grasp without recourse to an elite education, sacraments, membership in a new religion, miraculous intervention by “God” or some special psychological appropriation of moral impotence.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[3]

The last phrase “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” semantically parallels the Leviticus call to be holy, but it imposes a new meaning. What makes the Father “holy” and sets him apart from everything else for Jesus is the absolute universality of his generosity. He is perfect in giving: he treats absolutely everything and everyone the same by showering them with LIFE in rain and sunlight without regard for who they are. But astonishingly, according to Jesus, this “perfection” is also ours simply by imitation.  Just do it! he says.  There are no hidden details.  It is by being universally generous as “God” is universally generous — i.e., without regard to whom it benefits, even if it is those who hate us — that we become “sons of our heavenly Father.” “God’s” holiness suddenly no longer sets him apart from us; to the contrary it turns out to be what we have had in common all along.  There is no infinite gap between the Father and us. “God” does not “transcend” us; he is our genetic source, “our Father.” His holiness is already poured into us because we can do what he does. For Jesus we are not rotting matter facing a “Pure Spirit,” nor are we groveling degenerates begging the all-holy to make us human by the intervention of some miraculous power.  We are the proud legitimate sons and daughters of our Father; we share his genetic material; and we can be perfect as he is perfect.

I contend that the imitation of the selfless love and forgiveness of “God,” based precisely upon the genetic relationship to that “God” whom Jesus never referred to as anything but “Father” was the leitmotiv of his message, repeated in his preaching, his parables and his interactions with people. And I submit that it implies a religious vision that is antithetical to all of the notions of “holiness” derived from philosophical transcendence.

Jesus was not a philosopher.  But make no mistake.  That only means he did not express himself in philosophical terms.  It does not mean that he did not have a solid worldview that was completely consistent with the moral invitations he was issuing to his fellow Jews … invitations that even in his lifetime were recognized and responded to by those who were not Jews.  Jesus’ universal call and its universal recognition by people of various cultures and tongues even thousands of years after he lived and taught, and despite every effort to complicate his simple message and harness its energy to drive one particular political machine or another, still astonishes us.

The often self-aggrandizing attempts to understand why it is that Jesus’ message still has such appeal after so much time, collapse before the evidence that wells up even within the heart of the one searching: we know exactly why Jesus’ message has such appeal.  We hear the echo within us.  It vibrates at our own frequency.  No logic is required to convince us of the truth that simply restates what we intimately know about ourselves.

Be holy as he is holy” in Jesus’ vision of things ultimately means, “be holy, because it is genetically what you are … holiness resides in the very marrow of your bones.”  Be holy because you are holy.

 

 

[1] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. VII, p. 127, Dover, NY, 1900

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ch. XXIII, sect. 11

[3] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Locations 189810-189812). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

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.

“God” is the energy of LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Alternatives

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.