The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

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It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

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In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

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These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

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I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

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Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

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This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

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Christianity and authoritarianism

Feb 2017

3,000 words

In its American incarnations, it [Christianity] has come to rule the world. The 20th century saw America shrugging off notions of the Death of God and rising to the position of a Christian empire.  It grows more imperial as it grows more Christian.” (Adam Roberts, “The Atheist Paradox,” Aeon 11/26 2012)

Whether or not the “strongman,” predicted by political philosopher Richard Rorty in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country turns out to be our current president, Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign promises and authoritarian behavior have thrown huge sectors of the nation into turmoil.  Tendencies in the “strongman” direction are unmistakable, and besides strategies of resistance people are search­ing for explanations: how could such a thing happen in the United States of America, the bastion and beacon of democracy in the modern world?

I have already suggested one partial answer: that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump were amenable to the use of America’s military and economic superiority on the global stage to secure their own well being, much as the wealthy elite have always done, even if it meant the impoverishment of other nations.  It is called “imperialism.”  Trump was perfectly clear.  Many see it as a reprise of an old pattern: the stronger sooner or later will use their strength to enhance themselves even if it means oppressing and suppressing others.

This had an internal component: alarmist rejections of “Muslim terrorists” hardly obscured Trump’s true motivations in curtailing immigration; for the same attitudes were directed at Mexicans many of whom were born here and none are Muslim.  “Make America Great Again,” translated to “the hard-earned wealth of working Americans must not be squandered on “free loaders.”  The fact that it is well known that these immigrants are as “hard-working” as anyone, revealed the racism that was the real source of the rejection.

For now, there are stop-gap resistance strategies, but if you’re looking for a durable solution for this problem you’re going to have to wait until people learn what it means to be human.  We have to identify ourselves as a global community, not some local clan, tribe or nation, or we will destroy ourselves, our species and our planet.  This is not just speculation.

The “Christian” contribution

In this reflection, I hope to present what I believe is another piece of the picture: the role of our Religious institutions — Christian Churches, primarily — in conditioning the American People to accept authoritarian government despite it being directly antithetical to the values embedded in the American Constitution.

This has always been a thorny problem, because included in the guarantee of the Constitution is ideological freedom.  We have to realize: Christianity is not only a religion, it is a social ideology.  It has functioned as the underpinning of theocracy in Western Europe for more than a thousand years and continues to offer itself not only as a way to “God” and eternal life, but as a way to secure a divinely protected harmony and prosperity in our earthly societies.  American freedom was always conditioned by the understanding that among various competing religious and political worldviews, one or another may convince the majority to embrace its beliefs and practices.  Would “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion” still be guaranteed under majority rule?  The door has always been open to self-defeating choices.

For a very long time this fear was focused on the question of religious establishment i.e., declaring one religious denomination official.  Because in the early days of the republic Americans were Protestants they shared a general belief in a moral code as well as a revulsion for Catholic Papal autocracy.  Officializing a protestant denomination was not necessary to achieve agreement on these fundamental issues, and establishment would  introduce a level of conflict that would have torn the new nation apart.  Catholics were few and any dangers that Americans would suddenly declare obedience to the Pope were non-existent.

That all changed as first the Irish immigration of 1845-1852 and then the arrival of foreign workers from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and Italy around the turn of the 20th century brought millions of “papist” Catholics into the country.  Catholic immigrants’ children would all be citizens.  But by the late 19th and early 20th century Americans’ fear of Catholics reached a fever pitch and immigration quotas from majority Catholic countries were suddenly and drastically curtailed.

By the end of the second world war the children and grandchildren of immigrant Catholics — now full fledged citizens — had become so integrated into American society that they posed a threat to the smooth running of the traditional political system.  In the lead-up to John Kennedy’s election in 1960, Catholics were subjected to a decade of scrutiny on their American loyalty.  Challengers like Paul Blanchard asked seriously: what would a Catholic President do in the face of a papal decree contrary to the laws and policies of the United States?  Whom would he obey, the Pope or his country?  These issues were seriously debated and Kennedy found himself forced to issue a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution during the campaign, explicitly stating that he would resign the presidency if there were ever a conflict (notice: he did not say he would stop being Catholic).

But lurking in the background was another religious issue that no one suspected would pose a Constitutional challenge of such magnitude that it might bring an end to democratic government in the United States.  The issue was a belief in absolute objective morality which all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, shared, and which had been essential to theocracies in European countries prior to the establishment of Constitutional republics in the nineteenth century.  Together, Christian conditioning prepared people (1) to accept authoritarian (non-democratic) government-by-ruling-class (this is exclusively Catholic), and (2) to profess an objectively true morality coercively imposed as law.  These two things, in my opinion, contributed to Christians in great numbers swelling the ranks of the 63 million people voting for Donald Trump despite the threat to Constitutional democracy that his campaign rhetoric clearly foretold.

Let’s “unpack” these two aspects of the religious (Catholic, Christian) contribution to the breakdown of American democracy:

(1) Authoritarianism: “God” as the Source of all authority

Catholic authoritarianism is not limited to the autocracy of the Pope.  The Catholic system of ecclesiastical governance is pervaded by a patriarchal authoritarianism from top to bottom, and the dogmatic justifications for authoritarian practice are also matters of revelation — truths originating in another world — to which Catholics are expected to adhere.  A personal entity called “God,” not the human community, is the source of all authority, and “God’s” will in this regard is exclusively communicated by men who are themselves un-elected autocrats — the hierarchy.  How is this spelled out in the life of the Catholic community?

(a) Caste status for Catholics is an ontological reality.  The Catholic Church divides Christians into two separate and unequal classes: those who have received holy orders and those who haven’t.  By the Middle Ages church leadership roles had been compressed into one, the priesthood; all other Christians were laity.  The higher clergy were all priests, and all priests were non-married males.  They were the elites: they were educated, exercised whatever authority there was, and through their magical powers were the exclusive mediators of “salvation” to the illiterate and credulous masses.  Once you were ordained a priest, you were a priest forever.  You may cease to function in the role, and may even be released from your vows, but you always retained your magic powers and your status.

Catholics believe that superior social status — the priesthood — is permanent.  It is conferred as an ontological reality independent of function: the equivalent of a genetic code.  If you were looking for some way to make class distinction an immutable social institution, the Catholic belief in priestly ordination provides what you need.

The influence here may be indirect, but it is not insignificant.  The Catholic people have been conditioned for their entire lives to the idea of there being an inherent quasi-genetic ruling class status conferred for life by “God,” exclusively on males, selected by the autocratic leader of a diocese.  There is no room for election of either priests or bishop by the community, despite the ancient practice, and women are excluded entirely.

(b) Political power in the Catholic Church is a “divine right.”  Closely linked to the above is the belief that the source of the right to exercise political power is not the will of the people but rather the will of “God” who is imagined as some sort of rational person who has decided how and by whom authority is to be exercised in the Church and reveals it to his chosen agents.  This proposition is antithetical to the principles of democratic government and as a matter of historical fact is contrary to the universal practice of the Church for almost the first thousand years, when bishops were elected by their people.  Vox populi, vox Dei “The voice of the people is the voice of ‘God’” was the formula that identified the divine source of the democratic ideal.  This democratic mechanism for choice of leaders was still operational as late as the 15th century until the Papacy, in collusion with other European monarchs, completely destroyed the Conciliar movement which tried to install representative Councils as the highest authority in the Church.  Monarchical authority — the Papacy — exercised as a “divine right” completely independent of the will of the people, was an achievement of the Mediaeval Popes, and it has functioned as the exclusive manner of exercising authority in the Catholic Church ever since.

Once again, the idea that such a justification of autocracy — power invested exclusively in the hands of one person bypassing the participation of the people in the selection of their leaders — is a valid and legitimate basis for governance, by its very existence serves to undermine commitment to the principles of democracy.  Catholic people, at least since the Middle Ages, have been accustomed to being ruled by a “hierarchy.”  The word comes from Greek and means “holy authority.”  This doesn’t mean that all Catholics would automatically accept some strongman’s claim to have a divine mandate to rule civil society, but they have been programmed to accept lifelong patriarchal authority conferred by something other than the consent of the people.

(2) Absolute morality and civil law.

Christianity at the pastoral level, the level of family life and daily labor, whether Catholic or any of its reformed versions, has made moral behavior the principal item in a transactional relationship with a punitive “God” — a quid pro quo  — where “salvation” after death is earned by compliant behavior during life.  This contrasts sharply with the  perspective of the ancient Greeks, for whom morality’s primary significance was individual self-development; by living morally you became fully human, and self-fulfillment made you happy.  Christianity did away with that view and redefined right behavior as the individual’s obedient relationship to “God.”  Compliance with the moral code became obedience, and obedience was a form of worship.

Christianity in its current form is the end product of fifteen hundred years of theocratic governance.  Especially in Western Europe, the Roman Empire’s use of the Christian religion to forge a society of homogeneous values and universal compliance, resulted in the inevitable tailoring of Christian beliefs to the needs of “crowd control.”  One of the instruments developed for that purpose was the welding of Christian morality to Roman Law.   Morality was considered submission to “God,” and the Roman Emperors’ efforts to guarantee divine protection for the Empire drove them to place the entire nation in a state of submission to “God.”  This could only be achieved by making Christian morality enforceable by law.  Thus was theocracy reborn under a Christian banner.

In the Christian view, the “moral code” is imagined as imposed not by community agreement but rather by “God” himself.  “God’s” putative “will” is that humans should comply with an abstract “justice” derived from commandments identified with a deducible “natural law” that may or may not have anything to do with the well being of the human community or its individuals.  This is the essence of an absolute morality — characteristic of theistic religions — as opposed to the conventional agreements by which people form cooperative communities among themselves:  Christian morality is grounded in abstract principles rooted in a world of ideas and made known to humankind by revelation; it is not determined by the discernment of human benefit and a consensus of agreement by the members of the governed community.

A morality believed to be imposed and monitored by a “God” who will punish non-compliance with eternal torment is so dominated by the fear factor that it can hardly be embraced for the purposes of self-development, if one were ever so inclined.  This confluence of law and morality virtually eliminates human authenticity.  Even when behavior conforms to moral norms, the obeisance engendered by the looming judgment of a punitive “God” turns every human choice into a groveling self-interest.  It’s no wonder that the “sacrament” of penance was reconceived in the middle ages as the application of another imagined magic power of the priest “upgrading” what was an unavoidable “imperfect contrition” into something that would be worthy of an eternal reward.  They were honest enough to recognize that fear was the primary motive generated by their “system,” and that a life lived out of fear is hardly “perfect.”

Everything was  obedience; everything was master-slave.  Those that complied out of the “love of ‘God’” were few and far between.  “God” and society’s authorities — the agents of his will — were the masters, and the individual human beings were the slaves.  It is the social paradigm, internally, of authoritarianism, and externally, of empire.   Constantine had chosen wisely.

Christian fascism

Authoritarianism can arise from many different sources.  We are generally accustomed to  military coups where unquestioned authority is imposed by force of arms.  But I believe what put Trump in the presidency is a preference for the kind of authoritarianism that I  call “Christian” fascism.  It is “fascist” because it derives from the will of vast numbers of ordinary people who have chosen an autocrat whom they know will act in their name and “for their best interests” without regard for the rule of law or the interests of others who are not part of his constituency.  I call it “Christian” because I believe a majority of the 52% of Catholics who voted for Trump, and great numbers of others who identify themselves as Christian, were motivated by moral issues that certain strains of Christian fundamentalism, including the Catholic, have identified as Christian: the condemnation of abortion, same sex marriage, contraception.  They believed they were under a divine mandate — communicated to them by their religious leaders — to elect the candidate who would restore “true” morality.  True morality, in their eyes, recapitulates the imperatives of the ancient Roman theocracyEnacting them into law makes the entire nation “right with ‘God’” and therefore supposedly deserving of divine protection and prosperity.  These moral norms are claimed to be equally applicable to all because they reflect the “natural law” which all can discern by reason.  Therefore since they apply to all, they can be legislated for all.  Here’s the way Charles Chaput, the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia put it:

Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, and the purpose of sexuality are clearly unpopular in some quarters. Yet Catholic ideas about the nature of personhood, marriage, and sexuality are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have an inherent nature that is not just the product of accident or culture, but universal and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.  (Dec 8, 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer)

What Chaput takes for granted and I dispute is the proposition that personal morality has a right to be enacted into law, effectively coercing the entire population to obey what some faction of some fundamentalist cult considers divine revelation and the “order of nature.”  There is no such revelation, and behind it all, there is no such “personal” God-entity who wills, or commands or sanctions legal coercion.  This is a Christian myth; and it makes traditional Christianity every bit as mediaeval, archaic and intellectually regressive as the worst forms of Islam.

The fear of Catholic authoritarianism that haunted the early Republic and disturbed Americans as late as the 1950’s, turned out to be well founded, but for reasons that ran deeper than the Popes’ exercise of autocratic power.  The contagion of authoritarianism spread by Catholicism is shared by all fundamentalist versions of Christianity and springs from deeply embedded beliefs that will continue to wreak havoc on the human social experiment.  Christianity in its traditional form, which embodies a divinely mandated morality, the fruit of an absurd belief in a theist humanoid “God”-person, the Creator-craftsman who made the universe and everything in it the way a carpenter builds a house, is utterly false.  It is pure fiction.  It is an incredible belief system, the incoherent vestige of a past era whose view of the world has been completely superseded by the findings of modern science, and whose holy books have been proven to be the religious speculations of an uninformed people as they evolved their understanding of what “worked” in human society.  They projected their discoveries onto “God.”  There was nothing “revealed” about the morality recorded in those books.

From my point of view the election of Donald Trump can be directly attributed in large measure to the completely unreformed state of the Christian religion, despite the ethereal work of theologians whose academic ivory tower elaborations never reach the pastoral level, much less do they challenge the mediaeval authority structures which are the living contradiction of everything theologians claim for a Christianity that exists only in their imaginations.  The state of Christianity today, politically and socially, is the same as it has been for the last 1500 years, since Augustine of Hippo spelled out the theocratic role the Christian Church should play in the ascendeancy of the Roman Empire.  Unreformed traditional Christianity — one version of which is fundamentalist Catholicism — is the DNA of authoritarianism and empire.

Vast numbers of traditional Christians, including a majority of Catholics, were one of the principal sectors who elected Donald Trump.  “By their fruits you will know them.”

Catholic Universalism?

1800 words

I come out of a Catholic background, and based on the ecumenical projections of Vatican II I have tended to be sympathetic to the possibility that an updated Catholicism could provide if not exactly a universal religion, at least a reasonably universalist version of itself and contribute to the humanization of the global community.  Roman Catholicism is, after all, the largest and most prestigious of Christian denominations; a universalist modernization — which would include admitting that its doctrinal narrative was largely metaphorical — would set an example that others would be moved to emulate.  But in recent years I have become firmly convinced that, certainly in the case of Roman Catholicism, and almost as surely in the case of its “reformed” western Christian successors, such an evolution is simply never going to happen.  There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Western Christianity is the quintessential example of a supernatural religion, allegedly revealed by a transcendent humanoid “God,” a Roman Imperial version of the local war god of the ancient Hebrews.  A supernatural religion must necessarily be revealed because its elements have been designed in “another world;” there is no way humans could be expected to discern the features of such a religion on their own, much less feel they could modify it.  Revelation traditionally has also meant a humanoid “God,” that is, a personal “God” who communicates to humankind in human terms and expects a human response.  Such a religion is eternal and changeless from its very foundation.

Western Christianity’s convoluted belief system concerning the origin and significance of sin and the role of Jesus in human redemption based on his allegedly divine personality are firmly in the hands of a hierarchy who are now invested in it as a “brand” identifier — they will never allow it to change.  The con­viction of being the “one true church,” inherited from the ancient Roman theocracy and caste system, pervades all of Christianity but has been most aggressively asserted in the Latin West after the Greek and Latin Churches divided in 1054.  The claim of “divine foundation” is used in the case of Roman Catholicism to sustain the upper-caste hierarchy’s exclusive hold on power.  Anyone who thinks that these ideological guardians will ever allow the source of Christianity’s self-proclaimed superiority to evaporate by acknowledging parity with other religions is delusional.  The entire system of western global dominance, created in the colonial era, is held in place by belief in that superiority.  If  the current leaders of the Christian churches failed to support that myth, there are plenty of others, religious and secular, who would take their place.

The Roman Catholic (Augustinian) version of the Christian story — redemption from Original Sin by the atonement of Christ — by its very nature, demands universal submission to the exclusive saving power of the death of Christ applied to the individual in baptism.  There are no options.  The alternative is eternal damnation.  The story cannot be universalized for it does not acknowledge the possibility of a similar salvific effect coming from anywhere or anyone else.  Universal submission is the opposite of universalism.  For instead of encouraging and strengthening the work of other religious traditions in the same universalist direction, this version of Christianity requires that all other religions must accede to the demand (supposedly of “God” himself) that each of their members submit to Christian baptism.

An alternative Christian narrative of redemption has been offered by the Greek Church claiming to follow the apostle Paul.  In that version Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of a promised universal salvation.  It gives hope to a humankind made desperate and selfish by mortality.  Christ conquers the fear of death and so inspires selflessness.  There is nothing in this interpretation that would prevent any other religion from similarly inspiring hope, helping their believers to conquer the fear of death and living lives of selfless love.  Jesus, in that scenario, is one inspiration among many other potential inspirations.  There is no metaphysical transformation needed to repair a metaphysical deformation created by Adam’s disobedience as is prominent in Augustinian Christianity, nor is there an absurd insulted “God” whose anger is assuaged only by the death of his own son.

Prior to the opening of the Second Vatican Council in the early ‘60’s, Catholic theologians were rediscovering the ancient Greek Fathers and wrote innumerable books highlighting the alternative interpretations found in them.  Those theologians and their discoveries were integral to the vision that produced the Council.  It might be fair to say that the Council was predicated on this rediscovered way of looking at the “Christ event” and the kinds of changes anticipated and encouraged by the Council were not at all unthinkable in the light of this new understanding.

But the Curial establishment did not agree.  The Popes and Vatican Officials responsible for the recalcitrant rejection of the ecumenical spirit in the aftermath of the Council had to have been aware of the theological basis for the more progressive vision, for they accompanied their negative decrees and instructions with a theological document designed to put an end to all discussion about alternative narratives of Christ’s significance.  They called it the “Catholic Catechism.”  It was published by John Paul II in 1992 after years of preparation.  It was meant as a compendium of the faith, and emphatically re-presented the traditional story of “redemption” as it had been concocted by Augustine of Hippo less than a century after Constantine and elaborated by the mediaeval and Tridentine doctors of the Latin Church for the next thousand years.  It obviated recourse to any other narrative.  That Catechism and the systematic appointment of conservative bishops across the globe are enough to preclude even the possibility that the universalist spirit awakened by the Council would survive the death-blow dealt it by the Vatican authorities.  Their intention is clear: ecumenism shall mean only one thing, submission to the Pope and the Roman vision for the world.  This is what the Church teaches.  All you have to do is read the Catholic Catechism.

There is to be no “dialog” because dialog will necessarily change “doctrine.”  Another way of putting it is: Catholic “doctrine” is so hostile to other traditions that it would have to change in significant ways if any mean­ingful conversations are to take place.

Just the Christian claim that Jesus is “God” exactly as the Father is “God” is enough to stop any conversation with non-Christians cold.  It is my belief that as far as universal humanity is concerned, all energies that are focused on the reform of Catholic Christianity are a waste of time.  For no matter what the reformers’ level of influence, and that includes the Pope himself or even an ecumenical council (haven’t we already seen it happen?), whatever “changes” they may be able to install during their lifetimes will be swallowed up in the historical tsunami of Catholic knee-jerk reaction, and eradicated.  The Catholic hierarchy, the heir and symbolic placeholder of the recently overthrown European aristocracy, will never change; therefore the modernization of religion, if it is ever to occur, is in other hands, and that means ours.

Catholic “democracy”?

An acknowledgement of this magnitude, for a Catholic, is a game-changer.  For there has been nothing more defining of “practicing Catholics” than obedience to their religious authorities.   To suddenly declare that those authorities are incapable of guiding people through precisely those changes necessary to make religion relevant to the modern world, is to pronounce the hierarchy unfit to implement the decrees of Vatican II.  The Catholic authorities, over the course of the last 50 years, have enervated the decrees of the Council and attempted to do nothing less than invert its fundamental intentions with regard to ecumenism.  To convict the Catholic hierarchy of insuperable resistance to the commands of an ecumenical council, is to deny that they any longer exercise legitimate authority over the Church.

They have abdicated their responsibility.  In doing so they have simultaneously robbed obedience of its significance and gospel power.  Obedience in the Church, as in the military, correlates with authority to theoretically guarantee unity of purpose and coordination of collective action.  Without legitimate authority, there is no legitimate obedience.  Concerted action, guaranteed to be gospel-inspired, is no longer a real possibility.  We know that to obey what the bishops are commanding us at this point in time is in gospel terms to be led astray, and responsible Christians universally have opted to select among the instructions of the hierarchy what they believe to be authentic Christian belief and practice.  Picking and choosing means the people have begun to fill in the gaps left by the bishops’ abdication of gospel leadership.   The people are already making auto­nomous choices inspired by (1) their own understanding of Jesus’ message disregarding that of the bishops and (2) relying on their own discernment of the needs of the people in our world.  In other words, laypeople, without explicitly intending it, have begun to exercise gospel authority in the Church.

This development is fortuitous if not providential, and cannot be allowed to wither and die.  It represents an evolution of major significance.  It must be encouraged and expanded as the point of the lance bringing a long overdue democracy into the last bastion of the ancien regime: the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has 1.2 billion “members.”  It is an unmitigated autocracy / oligarchy and as it is currently governed stands in direct contradiction to the principles of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries that installed republican forms of government across the globe.  While hardly utopia, these republics are a great step forward.  Such meager democracy as we now enjoy is prevented from being swallowed up by a money-based ruling class only by the constitutional protections that these republics provide.  That the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has resisted those changes historically, and  as we speak refuses to incorporate even a modicum of democratic participation in the exercise of gospel oversight and responsibility, confirms the conclusions of this analysis.  The hierarchical abdication of gospel responsibility has effectively left the Church, as a gospel community, in a state of anarchy.  The hierarchy’s claims for an unbroken episcopal succession of divinely conferred authority is not only pure fable, it is contrary to gospel values and Jesus’ explicit instructions about the exercise of authority.  There is absolutely nothing in Jesus’ message and chosen mission that would condone or tolerate the way authority is currently exercised in the church.

This second phase of our reflections on modernization, as far as Catholics are concerned, has helped answer the dilemmas unearthed the first.  For Catholics, reform is not only necessary, it has suddenly become possible because the hierarchy — in fact — has stepped aside.  The people have assumed the mantle of authority abdicated by the hierarchy, and from now on any appeal for reform has to be made to the people.  The future of religion is in their hands; it will be what they make it.

 

Universalism and Catholic Totalitarianism

One of the principal qualities claimed for Christianity as it emerged and separated from Judaism was universalism. The Jewish followers of Jesus carried over from their parent religion virtually everything except its sectarian character which was identified with Jewish nationality. Christians said that the loving Jewish Father whom Jesus preached was open and inviting to everyone because he was their father too, the “God” in whom they lived and moved and had their being, the “God” that all people groped for, whatever their nation and religion.

But once established in the Greco-Roman world, class structure took over and Christianity itself succumbed to the forces of authority and control and became sectarian. Authority requires boundaries and identity. This occurred even before the Roman Imperial marriage conferred divinity on the Catholic Church. In fact, it was the sectarian / authoritarian nature of the version of Christianity that had evolved in post-apostolic times that made the union desirable to both partners. The Church became an apt instrument of Roman theocratic rule because its boundaries were not only fixed, they were lethally obligatory and held carefully in place by an authority for whom such control redounded to personal prestige. It had to be clear who was inside and who was outside, and outside the Church there was no salvation. There was nothing invitational or open about it. It was either the Church or damnation. What had earlier been free became a debt due upon receipt. It had the ultimate effect of making the Empire and the Church commensurate with one another and Roman Law divine. It assured the authorities that compliance with the rule of law would be sanctioned by a level of punishment for the disobedient far beyond anything they could bring to bear on earth: eternal torment in hell. Better than constabularies in every town; each citizen policed himself. The legions could be kept along the Rhine and the Danube.

The Romans liked to project the image that their empire embraced the whole world. It was propaganda; they knew better. Caesar stopped his conquests at the Rhine; the entire Germanic and Slavic world east of France and north of the Danube was not part of the empire. The Romans dismissed them as barbarians, but they were still there. Going eastward from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) the world of the Persians and beyond them the Indians, once part of Alexander’s domains, also lay outside of Rome’s control and often challenged its eastern border.

Regardless, Roman Christianity, named “Catholic” because it was not just some local church but the totality, became the official religion of the empire and therefore “everyone’s” religion everywhere Rome ruled. Hence, the Church also touted itself as “universal.” But there was nothing universal about it. The empire that had earlier been completely pluralist and open to all religions, under the Christian ascendancy became adamantly intolerant. All other religions were outlawed. The plethora of cults from the traditional Mediterranean gods, the homegrown mystery cults of Demeter and Orpheus on which Paul modeled Christian initiation, the imported mysteries of Isis from Egypt, Tammuz from Mesopotamia, Mithraism, Manichaeism, to diaspora Judaism, and all the varied dissident Christian sects who disagreed with the “official” version and were called “heretics,” after centuries worshipping freely throughout the empire were all driven underground by Theodosius’ decree in 380. Suddenly it became a state crime to adhere to any religion but the emperor’s.

Impressed into service to a theocratic empire, Christianity took on all the characteristics of theocracy: it expected that its moral and ritual program would be enforced by the “secular arm” and dissenters punished. Hence, even today we are subjected to the demand of Catholic bishops that their people vote only for politicians who commit to translating the Church’s moral code into legislation. Christianity transformed its inspiring narratives and family legends into codified dogma and, item by item, made them the litmus test of membership in the sect, outside of which there was only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Exile and excommunication were parallel punishments meted out by the state for “heresy.” And later, in the Middle Ages, when fear of the devil surpassed the fear of “God” as a motivation for religious compliance, execution by burning at the stake was the prescribed antidote for failure to respect the boundaries of the sacred: outside the Church there was only the devil.

*

True universalism respects all religions as pathways to full human development — what has traditionally been called “holiness.” One of the indications today that the Roman sect is not universalist is that it insists that whatever holiness may be found anywhere in the world among other religions is actually due to “grace” that comes through the “merits of Christ” and mediated to humankind in a hidden way through the Catholic Church. In an official teaching entitled Dominus Jesus published in 2000 by then Cardinal Ratzinger, it was clearly stated that anything of truth that may be found in the writings of any other religion anywhere in the world was exclusively the prerogative of the Roman Catholic Church to discern and decide. The perennial “missionary” efforts of the Church, often justified under the fiction of “universalism” is simply a repeat of the same imperative: the Catholic Church alone is “God’s” personally founded institution, the only path to human fullness, the only escape from eternal punishment. It is not optional. “Mission’s” purpose was supposedly to lay out the case for voluntary conversion. It didn’t always happen like that. Having the “truth” made Catholic missionaries less concerned about free choice than eternal damnation. An ignorant “native” saved from damnation by baptism, the missionaries reasoned, would be inclined to overlook any coercion applied on his behalf. It was, after all, an act of love … and error has no rights. Mission did not include encouragement to deepen and practice one’s own ancestral religion.

Supporting other people’s religions is universalism; obliging everyone to abandon their religions and join yours is totalitarianism. They may seem similar because in each case everyone seems to be of the same mind, but it is a superficial similarity focused on externals alone. Totalitarianism is anti-human because it leaves no room for religious expression that may correspond to the peculiarity of regions or clans or individuals.  Totalitarianism doesn’t respect others’ names for “God” because it refuses to acknowledge that its own is only metaphor. Totalitarian sectarianism is the handmaiden of empire, the agent of theocracy, and most often co-exists with a tyrannical despotism that can be monarchical, oligarchic and even, as in the case of modern fascist versions, “democratic.” We can’t forget it was an Athenian democracy that condemned Socrates to death in the name of religion for encouraging the young people to think for themselves. He caused them to disrespect the gods.

But in the case of Catholic totalitarianism there is nothing democratic about it. After 500 years of entrenched and unopposed Papalism since the Protestant Reformation, Catholics have come to identify their “brand” of Christianity with the Pope. The identification of the Church with the person of the Pope, an absolute autocratic monarch, was the result of the defeat and demise of the Conciliar movement in the 15th century.

Conciliarism maintains that the Church has been traditionally ruled by Councils since earliest times and that the Pope’s “primacy” is one of respect, not of autocratic power. Indeed, when lust for Papal power had resulted in a Great Schism starting in 1378 in which first two, then three men claimed to be Pope at the same time, and all three had support among the monarchs of Europe, it was Councils in 1408 and 1414 called by the Conciliarists that resolved the problem. Once the Schism was settled and the Papacy restored to one man, however, the Pope’s autocratic power was so great that within thirty years he was able to destroy the movement that had preserved the papacy and prevented the Church from breaking apart. It is significant that half a century after that the Church did break apart, and “Councils,” eviscerated by the Popes, were powerless to stop it. Resentment over the derogation of the Conciliar movement and the perennial belief that “reform” would only come to the Church through Councils, sustained the “Protestants” who were convinced that the reforms they introduced would someday be validated by an Ecumenical Council for the whole Church. They were not interested in starting new churches. That belief never materialized. The Council that was called to deal with the Protestants met in the city of Trent in northern Italy almost half a century after Luther’s revolt began; it showed no interest in reconciling with the Reformers and reaffirmed the absolute autocratic power of the Pope. It was the beginning of the Catholic “brand.”

Catholics have become so accustomed to the idolatrous worship of the Papacy as a “divine” institution that in 1870, when the Pope, in complete control of the first Vatican Council, declared himself to be “infallible,” an outraged world was doubly shocked to see that among Catholics, however intelligent, educated and well intentioned they might be, it barely raised an eyebrow. At this point in time the Papacy is seared into everyone’s brain as an intrinsic element of the Catholic “brand.” Institutional attachment, now, is determined not by scriptural fidelity, consistency with the message of Jesus, compassionate embrace of the suffering victims of injustice or any other religious motivation, but rather by the evocation of an organizational “identity” made recognizable by the display of its brand. Ecclesiastical authority activates its ancient role of maintaining the boundaries that guarantee “identity” and of all authorities, the one simultaneously most cherished and feared is the Roman Catholic Papacy. Like all other anti-evangelical authority, it is a correlate of sectarianism.

There is a great deal written about Catholic “universalism” as if it actually existed. It is all projection. It is fiction: stories that come full blown from the imagination of well-meaning religious who accurately discern the spirit of Jesus’ ancient message in the scriptures. Indeed universalism is implicit in Jesus’ invitation to trust his Father’s endlessly forgiving embrace. One writer uses the word catholicity to refer to a sense of wholeness meant to include in the Father’s embrace not only the totality of humanity, but the entire cosmos. But don’t be fooled. The last place you will ever encounter such attitudes being lived in the flesh is in the organization known to all as the Catholic Church. In this case the word catholicity becomes something of a sleight-of-hand: it makes you think that the wholeness you seek will be found there. The writer, surely, is not being intentionally deceptive. She honestly imagines that the Church that supports her, wants to live the authentic spirit of Jesus’ message, and therefore wants to be catholic, as much as she does. But it cannot do it because an authority invested in its own power and prestige must protect the boundaries. It cannot be universalist. It must convince those who are “inside” that “God’s” love is NOT free, by distinguishing them precisely from those who are “outside” and have no access to “God’s” embrace as they do.

Imagine if “God’s” forgiveness were available to everyone free of all cost and obligation. How could you control the boundaries? How would you identify your organization? How would you get people to obey you? There would be nothing to do but celebrate! Jesus understood the confusion. So in order to make himself perfectly clear he proposed, on more than one occasion, a radically different kind of authority.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all.” Then He had a little child stand among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not only Me, but the One who sent Me.”… (Mk 9:35ff)

And then, at another time:

So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. … (Lk 22:25ff)

The scene of Jesus surrounded by children is one of the most beloved in the gospels. But we fail to notice that Jesus’ used children to make what is probably the most radical and universally disregarded point of his message. Jesus said if you exercise authority you must do it like a child. Note: Children do not command one another. They exercise leadership and organize multitudes by inviting others to play with them … and no one is left out.

Tony Equale, November 12, 2016

 

A Slippery Slope (2)

If we are to avoid the “slippery slope” that we were warned about, we have to realize that retaining obsolete doctrine redefined as “metaphor” is risky business. Even expressions of moral endeavor and spiritual aspiration should be explicitly based on the new understanding of doctrine that metaphor is intended to elicit. Without such explicitation, the practice in question will itself, out of sheer inertia, evoke and reinforce the traditional doctrinal ground in which those expressions have been rooted for centuries. Current Catholic “spiritual” writers like the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who absolve themselves of responsibility for challenging dogma, continue to support the doctrines that their writings otherwise seem to ignore. For in fact the spiritual practices they encourage have been historically inspired by those archaic doctrines even if now they are not being called on for that purpose. Certainly the divinity of Christ as traditionally understood is the principal one.  These writers do not specify another ground. The doctrinal base remains the same and tends to reproduce the same literalist results.

A familiar example of this process is the skewed emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It has been taken by Catholics in such a literal sense for centuries that prior to Vatican II Catholics actually worshipped the eucharistic bread as if it were physically “God” himself. Flat out adoration in a ceremony called “Benediction” and attempts at interpersonal contact encouraged by all-night vigils before the “Blessed Sacrament” were encouraged and served to emphasize the divine presence in the eucharistic bread and the vital role of the priest-magician who made it all happen; it was an interconnected group of literalist beliefs that had displaced the symbolic nature of the sacrament and the “public servant” role of the presbyter. It became the very centerpiece of Catholic prayer life. The emphasis in that direction was so great that the egalitarian nature of the eucharist as the symbol of the “body of Christ” — which is the Christian community — or as a symbolic representation of the memorial meal celebrated by Jesus with his friends on the night before he died, was totally eclipsed. Ritual acts like genuflecting at the consecration, raising the host with the ringing of bells, processions with the Sacrament accompanied by hymns, incense and other gestures of adoration are all presently ongoing practices which of their nature tend to evoke the literalist understanding of eucharist and indeed of the central relationship of a divine Christ (and the priest-magician) to the community of Christian believers. The continued use of those ritual practices without an unambiguous clarification of where the doctrinal priorities reside promotes regression into that obsolete mindset. It is the proverbial “slippery slope.” Those “doctrines” as stated and believed for centuries are simply false, and they will lead believers into blind alleys and dead ends if they are not clarified.

There has to be an integrity between ritual and doctrine, between preaching and practice. Practices that grew out of an erroneous “reification” of symbols will continue to evoke that distortion and draw the practitioner into it. It is not avoidable. Integrating ritual and doctrine sometimes means adjusting the ritual to reflect the doctrinal narrative, but at other times it will require changing the doctrine to conform to an established practice of known and undisputed value — like treating other religions as equals. In the case we are considering here recognition of the validity of other religions trumps the dogma of the literal theist divinity ascribed to Christ. Doctrine must adjust to “truth” discovered by other means. If religion is to grow and develop there is no other way; the refusal to allow that process to take place leaves religion lifeless, hardened and toxic to the humanity of those it touches.

Changes in the Catholic “mass” applying the reforms of Vatican II utilized both these approaches. The intention was clear: the new rite and narrative of the eucharist as symbol was expected to eventually displace the old even while avoiding any direct doctrinal contradiction. Many are now convinced that these minor modifications were not enough to overcome the inertia of centuries, and indeed it seems that even after 50 years the doctrine of the “Real Presence” is as firmly in place as ever, but of course the rituals of adoration have not been abandoned either.

Such a neat and minimally controversial package, however, cannot be expected in all cases. The more difficult issues like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin have up til now been avoided precisely because they will require a substantial modification that corresponds to the radical shift in worldview that has occurred over the last few centuries, due mainly to the discoveries of modern science. The very concept of a theist “God” has been impacted by these discoveries. Progress in these areas is impossible without public acknowledgement and repudiation of the offending doctrines.

Also, there are other issues that aggravate matters from a different angle. Changes in moral perception and practice in the sexual arena will require a radical reformulation of the traditional doctrinal underpinnings used to support them. Blanket condemnations of artificial birth control, homosexuality, and the continued insistence on maleness and celibacy as the conditions for positions of responsibility in the Church are another interlocked set of practices that will never change without confronting the doctrinal roots of the problem. Refusing to confront these doctrinal foundations means addictive knee-jerk attachment to traditional behavior will upend rationality — and the tail will wag the dog.

The kind of doctrinal reformulation required in these areas is extremely threatening for the Roman Catholic Church precisely because all its doctrines, creedal and moral, are ultimately grounded in the infallibility supposedly granted its magisterium by the “divinity” of its founder. Change is theoretically precluded because it would imply error, and an infallible magisterium cannot be in error or the very claim to divine foundation is eviscerated. Doctrine must not only integrate with ritual, morality and prayer, but it is a collection of elements that must be consistent with itself. It is an internally harmonious network of conceptually separable beliefs expressed as a single coherent narrative. It is the coherence of the whole — a coherence sculpted and forged over centuries of tradition — that welds the totality together into a single entity making change in one area virtually inconceivable without change in all.

These diatribes and denunciations reflect the frustration of the Catholic people; but in and of themselves they do not solve the problem. It is precisely the unwillingness of the Authorities to face the depth of change required that has driven so many out of the Church. For people have come to realize two things: (1) that the doctrinal complex as we have inherited it from the middle ages is totally dysfunctional in every category of valid Christian interest: the gospel message, the place of scripture, the role of theology, the evolution of morality and spirituality and especially in the failure to connect with science, and (2) that the Catholic Church Authorities continue to promote as literal the very doctrines, like the infallibility of the magisterium strictly constructed, that make any accomodation impossible. Under these circumstances there is nothing that would even remotely suggest that the Catholic Church will change at the depth required by the extent of the anomalies.

Stop complaining

Catholics complain, and they are right to complain, but they do not seem to understand that they are not trapped; the doctrines that they rail against are, in fact, chimeras. They are false. That means that no one is under any obligation to “save the words” of the doctrines — not even as metaphors. To the contrary, unless accompanied by unambiguous clarifications, the use of metaphor can serve as an excuse for not breaking out into the new understanding of Christianity to which we are being prodded by, among other things, our self-revealing dialog with other traditions. Catholics rail against the control of the magisterium, but they continue to look exclusively to the magisterium for the changes they want as if their abdication of creedal responsibility were somehow a guarantee of truth. But we already know from the patently false doctrines that the Catholic magisterium has declared to be infallibly true that such a guarantee is the greatest of illusions. Catholics have been brainwashed into thinking that all change must come from the hierarchy. They have to get over it. The hierarchical Catholic Church will never change. Therefore, Catholics have no choice but to live the changes in their own lives by courageously taking the steps that the hierarchy is incapable of: (1) reformulating the entire doctrinal magisterium with an end to derogating the doctrines that have been used to crassly establish the institutional Catholic Church as a theocratic ruler over the beliefs, morals and spirituality of all people; (2) redesigning the central rituals — baptism, the eucharist, ordination, etc., — to reflect and to deepen the new understanding of doctrine; (3) institutionalize these changes so they they can transcend this generation and be carried on into the future.

I recognize the radical nature of such an undertaking. But there is no alternative. Change at the depth required will never even be attempted much less carried out faithfully by the hierarchy. If it is to take place at all the people have to do it.

This will be a difficult and scary step, just as it was for the Reformers of the sixteenth century. But they had an advantage: their sense of “the Church” was not overwhelmed with a false belief in the infallibility of the Papacy. Papalism had not become the idolatrous expropriation of authority that we have today. The preparatory step for us, therefore, is the re-appropria­tion of the ancient egalitarian definition of “Church:” the whole Christian people managed by Councils. The fear and reticence induced in the Christian people by the expropriations of an elite hierarchy must be exorcized. But perhaps an even earlier and more remote preparation might be found in the choices to pursue a new spirituality based on the doctrinal changes projected under the rubric of “metaphor” and already underway. Confronting the “divinity of Christ” has got to be at the top of the list.

“We are ALL his children”

These radical changes — like grounding spirituality in the humanity rather than the “divinity” of Christ … like embracing Jesus’ gospel message of forgiveness rather than the codified rationalized morality of mediaeval scholasticism — mean stepping out beyond the ancient paths worn smooth by our ancestors’ feet as they searched for the face of “God.” It is definitely a frightening decision for us. Especially because at one point those very paths led many of us to a vision of things that changed our lives.   Our commitments were not made lightly but they were based on the very same doctrinal foundations whose literal truth we have come to recognize is false. The same conscientious analysis that grounds the validity of other traditions, has undermined the security of our own past personal decisions. How can we be sure the new things we are discovering will be firm enough to support our weight as we step out into what appears to be a void?

Poet-activist Patrick Overton wrote:

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have

and take the step into the darkness of the unknown,

we must believe that one of two things will happen:

There will be something solid for us to stand on

or we will be taught to fly.

The faint light that has enticed us into taking the first steps into the darkness in this new phase of the journey — the scariest yet by far — can be trusted to continue to lead us to the place of promise … and we need to remind ourselves: we are the children of promise. We have remained together as a community because we responded to that promise.

Can we trust this organic material LIFE that we now bear with such a sense of ownership and right of inheritance? Like children in our own home: we know we belong here. That is solid ground. How could such magnificence — this improbable humanity emerging from this universe of matter whose potential was so beautifully epitomized by the message and character of the man Jesus — be the harbinger of ultimate disaster? LIFE and its processes can be trusted; and as the sons and daughters of LIFE we have a right to seek “God,” the Source

… that gave us life and breath and everything, and that made every nation of mankind to live across the face of the earth, establishing the periods of their ascendancy and the boundaries of their lands

so that they might seek and, by feeling their way, succeed in finding “God,” their Source; and indeed “God” is not far from any of us, since it is in “God” that we live, and move, and have our being, as some of your own writers have said: We are all “God’s” children. (Acts 17:25ff)

 

Spinning Your Wheels

“Spinning Your Wheels”the image evokes futility: activity without movement, work without result, redundancy, frustration and a measure of myopia. All the moral issues that the Pope’s “Exhortation” Amoris Laetitia addresses have already been settled by the people.

The absence of any mention of contraception suggests that the Pope may not be unaware of that. Artificial contraception has not only been recognized as morally acceptable by the people, it has been heartily embraced as essential to reproductive responsibility. The people decided long ago to stop listening to their teachers in this matter and their behav­ior directly contradicts what the hierarchy commands. The Pope’s silence on this is most welcome.

On the question of divorce and remarriage, not only have the people opted for the freedom to dissolve dysfunctional marriages, but the hierarchical Church itself at the local diocesan level has for over forty years pursued a policy of expanding the category of annulment to include virtually all the circumstances that used to characterize divorce. Failure to acknowledge the complicity of the Church in the granting of divorce in practice as annulment tends to confirm the suspicion that there is a selective blindness in play here.

On the issue of gay marriage, after a great deal of debate the majority of Americans have decided that a committed relationship between partners who are drawn to physical union with those of the same sex, should be considered valid and respected by society.   Same sex marriage is supported by Catholics in the same percentages as by people associated with other religious institutions or no religion.

While many welcome the Pope’s more “liberal” attitudes, others criticize his unwillingness to attempt any structural change in these matters, even though the voice of the people is clear. That leaves tradition in place. Hence the nature of the document is merely an “exhortation.” But who is being exhorted, if the people are already convinced and have decided? The target of the exhortation seems to be the hierarchy itself, the majority of whom are conservatives appointed by the two previous Popes as an element of their strategy to chill the reform-enthusiasm generated by the Second Vatican Council. It is addressed to those clergy who continue to base their pastoral practice on the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage, teachings that the exhortation itself declares will remain unmodified as law.

Therefore, while using the “family” as excuse, the real doctrine that is in question here is the self-projection of the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. A thorough reading of Amoris laetitia reveals that this current Pope is not rejecting in any way the traditional teaching about the infallibility of the Catholic magisterium, the primacy of law and obedience to the teachings of the Church with regard to marriage, and the essential mediatorship of the Church hierarchy in the person of its priests and the rituals they administer in the pursuit of a right relationship to “God.” What the Pope “exhorts” is that the members of the hierarchy who come in direct contact with people, apply traditional unmodified “law” with a modicum of compassion … and in order to do that he asks them to relax the uncompromising rigidity with which compliance has been traditionally enforced.

I say Amoris laetitia is a case of the Pope “spinning his wheels” because on the one hand for the laity the exhortation is pointless, and on the other, the predominantly reactionary hierarchy, having identified themselves not as the heralds of the “good news” of God’s free forgiveness, but rather as the agents of imperial theocracy for the control of the masses, will, at best, simply embrace compassion as a clever way of “attracting” a reluctant laity in preparation for ultimately confronting them with the infallible truth codified in Catholic law. How else is one to interpret the section of Chapter Eight with the heading: “Gradualness in Pastoral Care” where it is clearly stated that irregular unions “can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacra­ment of marriage.”

There is no acknowledgement that the marriages of billions of people around the globe whether Catholic or not are valid, and just as certainly attain the “ends of marriage” as any conjugal union between Christian partners solemnized at a Christian ceremony. Since the Pope insists on defining marriage as having a necessarily ecclesial-mystical significance “as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church,” other natural unions that “attain a particular stabili­ty, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials …” are still regarded as second-rate and the legitimate target for being upgraded into Christian marriage.

These marriages that have proven their value are still treated as sub-standard because the ends of marriage as far as the Pope’s mindset is concerned are not just what is natural and good for people, but also include what expands the control of the institutional Church administered by the self-appointed, unelected hierarchy. And since we know that the marriage contract is validly sealed by the mutual consent of the partners, it is the extraneous ecclesial dimension that has been cemented into Catholic “law” and requires the “witness” of the hierarchical Church.

The “law” remains the tacit premise of virtually every “exhortation to compassion” in the document which in their turn then become “exceptions to the law” not gospel imperatives. There is no acknowledge­ment that the only message the Church should have, following St Paul, is the “good news,” not law, neither old nor new, but rather the announcement of a general amnesty — a pardon of limitless proportions. Therefore the “exhortation” to enforce the law compassionately contradicts the gospel message and ultimately the nature of the Church.

Of course, one might say what it really reveals is the nature of the Church as the document conceives it. Far from humbly admitting that the Church is one groping religious institution among many in a world teeming with sincere people dedicated to live lives of moral integrity and deep gratitude, the document tacitly insinuates the transcendent superiority of the Catholic Church, its peculiar view of things and its rules of conduct over all other traditions and Churches. At no point are people, Catholic or not, encouraged to associate with any other religious organization nor attempt to find human wholeness by following other possibly non-religious programs. The document does not contemplate the possibility that these other traditions, or no traditions, may provide opportunities for spiritual growth for those who for one reason or another find the Catholic or Christian or traditional religious worldview inadequate or incompatible with their own.

“Human” is the key notion. The hierarchical Church assumes the arrogant attitudes that it does because it thinks it is not human, it is divine.   Please stop for a second and let that sink in. The Catholic Church thinks it is a divine entity and enjoys one of the properties that belong to “God” alone: infallibility in matters of religion, which includes faith and morals. Those of us that come from a Catholic background find this statement all too familiar. We have heard it since we were children. The hierarchical Church thinks it is the specially chosen, protected and guaranteed agent of “God” himself and that acceptance of its message and inclusion in its institutional membership with its ritual requirements is the only way to authentically connect with “God.” All other “ways” are inadequate, even those of other Christian Churches who are committed to following Jesus’ message and differ from the Catholic only in the refusal to accept the authority of the Pope.

Now if we could lay the blame for all this at the feet of Jesus, we might feel more forgiving toward the current hierarchs. But, as a matter of fact, even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus was opposed to any such blasphemous arrogance like the claim to be divine, and was notorious for insisting that “law” should not be the guiding category in human behavior.

So the source of the Catholic Church’s outrageous claim to divine status and infallibility was not Jesus. That particular inheritance came from the Roman Empire which had already been a theocracy for a thousand years when Constantine chose Christianity to be his state religion. Christianity was expected to fill the role once played by the now discredited gods who were responsible for victory in battle and therefore for distributing power, wealth and slaves among the people of the world.   Rome had clearly been their favorite. Rome enjoyed divine protection. Diva Roma it was called: “Divine Rome.”

The “divinity” of the Roman Empire and its highest representative was such an axiom that when early Christians refused to acknowledge it they were persecuted with torture and death. In 410 when the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome, Christianity was faced with the accusation that the gods punished Rome for betraying their contract and switching to the Christian God.  Augustine wrote The City of God to prove that Constantine’s new Christian “God” was just as effective at justifying Roman conquest and the ensuing rape and pillage of other nations as “preparing the world for Christianity.” Augustine was convinced that the Roman Empire — regardless of the methods it used — was the agent of “God.” It was still diva Roma.

Roman Christianity — Catholicism — reshaped and fine-tuned by Constantine himself for its new role, became the Imperial “Department of State Religion.” It was the handmaiden of the Empire in its work of ruling the world. Catholicism was the religious side of Roman governance, but like the “secular arm” which was its partner, it was always focused on only one thing: crowd control. The soft-side of control was to elicit obedience; when that failed compliance was coerced by the sword. The claim to infallibility was a function of theocracy.

Hence the Church turned from transcending law, as Paul explained it, to promulgating law and finding ways to punish those who did not obey. It was now Rome’s Church. It’s job was to rule the world and it transformed itself from the messenger of a Forgiving Father, to the policeman of a Demanding Emperor.

The document fairly reeks of these assumptions. The Catholic Church needs more than a compassionate Pope who is courageous enough to confront the unmerciful among his fellow bishops. It needs to re-appropriate its own humanity before it dares to talk to others about what it means to be human. A Church that cannot err is not human. And a Church that has erred conspicuously and yet refuses to admit its error, beg forgiveness and display a “firm purpose of amendment” will never be free of the weight of its errors. It is speaking to a world that has moved on and is no longer listening. It will stay stuck in place forever insisting on its divine prerogatives, spinning its wheels.

 

The Church and Reformation

1

The reforming intentions of Conciliarism in the fifteenth century were severely challenged by one of the fundamental issues that was in contention at the time of the Reformation: the nature of the Church.  How the following century’s triumphant movement for reform could have divided Europe the way it did will forever remain a mystery until it is understood that for mediaeval Christians, the Church — which included the entire population of Europe — was not an ordinary social entity; it was unique, a divine institution established by Christ himself, which bore only a superficial similarity to other societies.  The “divinity” of the Church raised discourse to a supernatural level where all the natural factors of the political equation — power, office, decision-making, command and control, obedience, election, remuneration, crime and punishment, membership, expulsion — took on a new meaning and were no longer subject to the same criteria as in secular societies.

The sixteenth century reformers’ efforts to identify and eliminate the source of Christianity’s resistance to reform resulted in the de-mysti­fi­ca­tion of the Church as a divine entity.  For no one knew how to change what was unchangeable, indestructible, infallible, and eminently holy in head and members: the “Mystical Body,” the “Bride of Christ,” the “dwelling place of the Holy Spirit” whose decisions to “bind and loose” bound heaven itself.  The Church was virtually a fourth divine person.  In order for the Church to change, it would have to cease being “God.”  Those who came to be known as “Protestants” quickly realized what they had to deal with.

The “divinity” of the Church was key to the whole affair; it was the ring of power and I insist that it still is.  Those who were seriously committed to reform found they had to abandon any pretensions to divinity and treat themselves and their assemblies as human, not divine.  And for those others, i.e., the papal Catholics who refused to let it go, it proved to be a millstone collar, crippling every effort at reform and reconciliation.  To this day the “divine establishment” of the Church remains the principal claim of the Roman Catholic sect and the single most impenetrable shield protecting papal autocratic absolutism.

We tend to identify this “divine establishment” with Papal Infallibility, but it is much broader than that.  It is a property of the Church itself.  The conciliarists who challenged Papal power a hundred years before the Reformation did so by grounding “divine infallibility” in the universal community and in Ecumenical Councils as its representative agent, not the person of the pope.  But far from questioning the divine status of the Church, it was its very divinity and infallibility — now considered resident in the whole people — that they said defied the popes’ arrogant claims to absolute power.  No matter what their perspective, conciliarist and papalists alike, no one questioned the divinity of the Church.

The divine establishment of the Church implying its infallibility and the immutability of its doctrines, definitions, rituals and hierarchical structures remains to this day the single most important datum for those who would understand — root and branch — the current state of conflict in the Catholic Church over the implementation of Vatican II.  Doctrinally speaking the issue of the “divinity” of the Church is fundamentally the same for Catholics today as it was in the sixteenth century, the only difference — and it is an important one — is that “divine” infallibility, in glaring contrast with the truly ancient conciliar tradition, has come to be invested in the pope alone.  The Conciliar movement of the fifteenth century attempted to restore and protect the ancient tradition of governance by Councils, and for a time it actually succeeded.  But the effort ultimately collapsed, and its failure was one of the principal reasons why a reformation, which all mediaeval Christians acknowledged was long overdue, rather than rejuvenating the Church as reforms had done in the past, ended up breaking it apart.

That in our day Catholics are experiencing something of the same divisiveness attributable to the same causes — a hierarchical recalcitrance born of self-mystification — should help us understand what was happening at the time of the Reformation.  For, fundamentally, nothing has changed.  Catholics today face exactly the same obstacles as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. Current day conservative Protestants, having made peace with Augustine’s “God” through mechanisms developed in the sixteenth century, are now some of the most ardent defenders of doctrinal immutability.

Mediaeval Catholic reformers — later known as “Protestants” — in an effort to prevent the “divine” element in the Church from quashing reform, tended to distinguish the “true Church,” which they claimed was the invisible community of the saved, from the visible earthly institution which, according to the parable of the tares and the wheat in Mt 13, was made up of both the saved and the damned, the holy and the unholy.  This “two church” notion came straight from Augustine’s City of God, books 20 -22

For Augustine, this notion of an invisible true Church dovetailed with his theory about divine predestination.  The invisible community of the saved had been preordained by “God” from all eternity to live in his presence forever.  It was supremely egalitarian.  Status and station on earth (like priests or nobles) did not matter, all were equally destined for the embrace of God’s love.  This eternal Church was unchangeable, because God’s will would always be carried out, while the visible temporary Church of popes and bishops, Inquisitors and heretics, priests and layfolk, saints and sinners, was human and could be changed as all agreed it should be because it had become thoroughly corrupt.  In fact, it was precisely because the earthly Church was so vulnerable to the influence of the world that it had become the venal institution that all of Christendom cried to heaven to change.  Reform was possible for the same reason that corruption had occurred: the Church-in-the-world was a human gathering that had accumulated all kinds of structures, beliefs, habits and practices that did not owe their origins to divine foundation as seen in scripture.  The “protestants” took Augustine’s distinction to its logical conclusion: This Church was not immutable, indestructible, infallible.  Its claims to be one holy catholic and apostolic were a ruse to protect papal and hierarchical power.  It was as human as any other institution and therefore subject to the norms of justice and truth (and scripture) and by those standards it must change or be condemned.

Needless to say, other mediaeval Christians disagreed.  They came to be known later as “Roman Catholics” and identified with the claims of papal autocracy.  Christians were divided between two parties: those in favor of reform were willing to radically alter the structures of Church life and authority, and those who claimed that all the prerogatives of the Church found in the promises of Jesus belonged to the real visible Church-in-the-world as it was with all its “imperfections.”  Thus, for them, authority structures could not be changed or substituted for others; doctrine was infallibly true as stated and believed; discipline and obedience were due to the constituted authority no matter what the level of immorality they displayed.  The Church was immutable because it was “divine,” and being good or evil had nothing to do with it.

This “Catholic” position recapitulated the status priorities and definition of “Church” developed in conjunction with the doctrine of the ex opere operato effect of the sacraments that had emerged from the Donatist controversy in the fifth century; it was another of Augustine’s elaborations.  So, since both parties, the “reformers” and the “papalists,” had Augustine to fall back on, his authority could not be cited to resolve the question.  Reconciliation and unity eluded the age.  The inability to achieve unity eventually meant that where people ended up had to do with the politics of the region where they lived.  What was convenient for the ruler — whether it was more advantageous for a King or Duke to ally with the Pope or to escape his control — was usually what determined what kind of “Church” was protected and permitted to function in their realm.

2

For both Protestants and Catholics, the Church was “divine.”  By projecting its divinity into a future “communion of saints” the Protestants demystified the earthly Church and turned it into a strictly human institution, radically capable of reform (or rejection) while simultaneously maintaining the traditional teaching.  Catholics, however, (i.e., the “Papal” party) continued to claim it was the earthly Church in the real world that was the residence of the divine prerogatives promised in Matthew 16.  No analogous solution was open to them then or now because the “God” they assume and project makes revelations and erects structures that correspond to a truth and an eternal “will” that does not admit change.  Everyone believed in that kind of “God.”  The Protestants with their emphasis on the “Church of the predestined,” however, were able to avoid its implications for ecclesiastical immutability without having to reject belief in it.  It was another instance of the leap-frogging — like Luther’s “faith” — that contributed to the survival of the West’s autogenic disease rooted solidly, even irretrievably you might say, in a metaphysically dualist, supernatural theism.  They found a way around a doctrine that needed to be removed, and in so doing contributed to its survival.

From this point of view the very basis for the Catholic vision of the Church is, and always has been, the traditional theist concept of “God” — “Pure Spirit,” anthropomorphic (taking biblical imagery literally), personal, paternal, authoritarian, providential to the most minute detail, issuing commandments and punishing those who do not obey them.  It was a “God” made in the image and likeness of a human monarch, the work of human hands.  The salient point is that once you drop that untenable concept of “God” in favor of a pan-entheism that is compatible with what our science and other modern disciplines have revealed about reality, it doesn’t matter how “divine” you think the church is, it will not get in the way of its thoroughly human character.  The pan-entheist “God” is the material LIFE all things share in this cosmos; it is that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Changes in structure, doctrine, practice and self-projection can occur because what is “divine” about the Church is its full organic humanity.

The traditional theist “God” by definition is “other” than human — transcendent and inaccessible.  Divine reality is “spirit,” the only thing that is “fully real” in our universe, and it has nothing in common with all the various “less-than-real” things made of matter.  “God’s” interventions in our world are imagined to originate in that other world of “spirit” and to “reveal” a changeless and otherwise unknowable spiritual truth to human material (changing) history obviating any further need for search and discovery.

The notion of a theist “God” produces a log-jam of conceptual incompatibilities: eternity and time, immutability and evolution, the permanent and the passing, the supernatural and the natural … all historically rooted in the Platonic ground of spirit and matter.  The “Church,” as one of those revealed truths, becomes permanent and unchangeable.  Suddenly, an historically evolving human community becomes an immutable “supernatural” entity.

A pan-entheist vision on the other hand, says that what we are calling “God” is “not-other” than human.  The term “God” is a placeholder that stands for that unknown factor that gives rise to our sense of the sacred; it falls into the categories of participation-in-being, immanence, sameness, and shared reality.  Paul himself referred to “God” as that “in which we live and move and have our being.”  With such a “God” revelation does not mean some new and unknowable conceptual truth introduced from another world, but rather the discovery and thorough comprehension of the hidden depths of this one.  The “Church” is one of the historical edifices which we humans have constructed to express and direct the energies released by our sense of the sacredness of LIFE.  There is no other world.  Nothing is “supernatural.”  The Church is a natural human phenomenon — a tool that our “God-sense” has forged to help us live humanly — and that is precisely the source of its “divinity.”  The Church is “divine” to the degree that it is creatively human as an integral part of a sacred material universe.  And of course … it is open to development, and reform.

Notice that the difference in these visions does not turn on whether the earthly Church is “divine” or not, but whether “divinity” refers to an eternally changeless humanoid “person” who manages the universe minute by minute from a world apart from this one and stands in relation to humankind as a transcendent inaccessible source of revealed truth, behavioral obligations and the post-mortem recovery of a “lost immortality.”  I contend there is no such entity, and therefore those relational items do not exist.

If you lock yourself into that traditional pre-scientific definition of “God,” you are stuck with the “Catholic” version of a permanent changeless and infallible Church … unless you tack on innumerable gratuitous nuances in the form of disclaimers, riders and amendments to the immediate implications of an institution founded and managed by “God” himself.  Contrariwise, once you allow that there is no opposition between what humankind is and what “God” is — that they share a fundamental reality — the “divinity” of the Church is no longer an obstacle to its reform and restructuring, for it is authentic response to our sense of the sacred and its creative development that is the principal characteristic of the divine LIFE that all things share, not an other-worldly changelessness.

To the objection that this would basically erase any difference between the Church and every other social institution, I answer that other social institutions which are not intentional mutual-support communities whose only explicit purpose is the full flowering of our sense of the sacred, achieved through the use of poetry: in drama, dance, art, architecture, song and story and expressed in a life of justice and love, are not churches.  Those that do those things fulfill that role, whatever they may call themselves.  “Churches” in this ideal sense, are communities dedicated to a constant creative self-renewal driven by their own enhanced sense of the sacred without being seduced into narcissistic self-worship by exclusivist delusions of superiority.  They are eager to recognize the “divine” in other communities and traditions which are attempting to accomplish the same goals.  Protestant and Catholic disappear.  These churches display an ecumenical character that is one of the sure signs of the “divine” energy pulsing at their core.

Tony Equale