Religion in the Modern World

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Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.

 

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

 

In anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s attempt to reform Roman Catholicism, I am happy to announce the publication of

Christianity 2017

Reflections on the Protestant Reformation

by Tony Equale

mos snapshot

On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The Declaration summarized and officially sanctioned the many reports of earlier dialogue commissions going back to 1972. In the Preamble the signers state that

on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.[1]

Given the centuries of division that resulted from the mutual condemnations of these two Churches on this very doctrine, that the signatories can announce “a common understanding” leaves many observers baffled and incredulous. If the Churches can now say that “in the light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner”[2] it immediately raises the question of just exactly how important could those once contrary expressions have been?

One is daunted by the thought of parsing the verbal niceties that must have gone into this “consensus” when one also learns that “these condemnations are still valid today.”[3] Apparently this most remarkable concurrence has been achieved without any significant modification by either party.

The correct articulation of the function of faith in justification was of primary dogmatic importance to both Churches in the sixteenth century. If that function was indeed never really a source of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration states, then it has to be asked: besides the dispersal of political power, did anything of significance occur in the transformations we call the Reformation?

In the reflections that follow, the “com­mon understanding” of 1999 must serve as an ever-present caveat, providing us with an ongoing corrective as we reflect on the events that tore Christendom apart starting in 1517. For, however authentically “evangelical” a Reformation event might appear to his­tory, we will be constantly reminded by the JDDJ that in five hundred years time it will be dismissed as irrelevant.

This preliminary analysis, therefore, allows us to begin with a tentative conclusion: the true significance of the Reformation might not lie on the visible surface but somewhere deep underground where neither Church could see it at the time … and still may not. It asks a second question: what still needs reforming?

This is much more than a pious resolution. It has to do with religious truth. We are talking about an alleged foundational distortion in the mediaeval view of the world — an error that made life unbearable for the ordinary Christian — that Lutheran evangelical “justification” claimed to have identified and corrected. But, since the doctrine was never in dispute, it means that no such correction ever took place. Reform at the doctrinal level, in other words, never occurred. In all likelihood the error is with us still, affecting “Protestants” as much as “Catholics.”

It suggests there is a doctrinal “reform” of Christianity as a whole that still remains to be achieved — a reform at depths that “justification” never reached.

Christianity was chosen and overhauled by Constantine to be a new engine for a theocratic Roman machine that was already a thousand years old. Everything important was already in place; all Christianity had to do was to keep it all going. In fulfilling that role Rome’s official religion found it necessary to elaborate a new “doctrine” of “God” that was contrary if not contradictory to the Jewish Yahweh that Jesus knew as “Father.” It is this doctrine, I contend, conformed to the needs of the Imperial apparatus that dares to define a “God” that is transcendent, immutable — a pure spirit ruling a purely material universe — in every sense an emperor that mirrored the society that had conjured him.

This imperial “God,” accepted by all without question from then on, lay beyond reach of “justification by faith,” articulated by Luther in the sixteenth century. Like “justification” itself, “God” is a doctrine that all Christians have shared since the days of Augustine.

I submit for the readers’ evaluation the following reflections as prima facie evidence that the traditional “doctrine of ‘God,’” is the source of Christianity’s intrinsic defects.

[1] JDDJ, Preamble, #5 The document can be found at the Vatican website

[2] ibid., main text #3 ¶13

[3] JDDJ, Preamble #1

 

Christianity 2017 will be available shortly at Amazon and other booksellers.  Until then it can be ordered at Boundary Rock Publishers, 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380, or at Lulu.com.  The price is $23.53 which, if you order from Boundary Rock, includes shipping.  You may order by e-mail at the following address: boundaryrockpublishers@swva.net or you may call: (540) 789-7098.  Please leave a name, address and phone number, and speak slowly and loudly.

Eckhart and Materialism

In the early fourtheenth century Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, didn’t have to contend with the sense of doom that confronted the sixteenth century Reformers. The neo-Platonic mysticism that dominated his thinking seemed impervious to institutionalized guilt. Unlike Luther and his Catholic colleagues two centuries later who were forced to find mechanisms to circumvent the permanent “original” alienation of the Augustinian worldview, Eckhart was able to ground intimacy with “God” on what the science of his day — scholasticism — had asserted about the very nature of reality itself. No by-pass mechanism was necessary. For creation was not only “God’s” doing, it was “God’s” very Being. Union with “God” was innate, primordial, permanent and inalienable.

I contend a metaphysics based on modern materialism supports the same conclusion.   The relationship between the human organism and its existential source is genetic.

As a scholastic, Eckhart understood both creation and spiritual transformation to be a function of participation in being. We are not familiar today with the Platonic pattern of locating existence primarily in the conceptual “genus” or over-class (the idea) and in the individual only derivatively. The super-essential or super-generic idea of being ― which was taken to be “God” ­― defined and characterized the individual. If you existed, you shared “God’s” essence which was existence itself. In fact, in this arrangement, you were a very minor partner: “God” defined both what and that you were.

In Eckhart’s world no one had their own being. The shared concept was the precise mirror-image of the shared reality. There is only one “being,” and it is not only owned by God, it is “God’s” own. It is not only God’s; it is “God.”

Relationship to God, therefore, in the scholastic system, was not a personal choice on our part nor is it in any way dependent on our consequent behavior or God’s. It is not a human achievement. It cannot be lost. It is not created by redemption, merely “upgraded.” It is not voluntary. It comes first; it is our very existence itself. The “act” in which we exist is “God.”

This helps explain why accusations of “pantheism” always dogged the theology of the high middle ages. Many said such ideas naïvely assumed oneness with “God” and ignored the distance created by divine transcendence and human depravity. When the Black Plague hit Europe in 1350, it was a cause of great disillusionment. People came to believe that their former clarity about God’s forebearance was benighted. “God” was suddenly a dark and brooding presence: even more wrathful and punitive than Augustine had warned. Christians began to march to a different drummer; it led eventually to the Reformation.

A Material Universe

Things have changed. “Ideas” are no longer believed to create and shape reality as they did in the middle ages. In our time science has discovered that the cosmos is made of a homogeneous energy substrate that takes various forms some of which we have traditionally called “matter.”   Because all of its manifestations are made of the same underlying energy packets, I call this substrate matter’s energy or material energy. It is all there is. Everything is made of it.

Matter’s energy is existence in our modern scheme of things. The spiritual “essence” or immaterial idea no longer explains what something is nor is it believed to be the conduit for existence. Living organisms differ from one another because each species is brought to maturity and sustained in its uniqueness by a controlling bio-chemi­cal template called DNA derived from the parents and passed on by sexual reproduction. DNA is entirely material. It has been clearly established that DNA, which performs the functions once attributed to “essence” in the Platonic system, is an endogenous product of matter’s energy, self-elaborated over eons of geologic time by the successive generations of material ancestors that preceded the current phenotype.

While DNA controls the development of progeny, it was itself constructed bit by bit by the inclusions of successful variations that resulted from the living organism’s drive to survive. In other words, it was the fortuitous survival of evolving organisms that created a DNA that now allows their inheritors to survive. DNA does not suddenly appear full blown out of the blue … or out of the Mind of God. In the modern view survival, i,e., existence, is the driving factor, DNA, essence, is the derivative.

What needs to be emphasized is that the two “systems,” the modern and the mediaeval, the materialist and the idealist, are totally incompatible with one another. Either some version of Plato is right, or some version of modern science is right. Either “matter” is dead and mindless and it needs a living “Spirit” to populate the universe with a myriad of things by implanting spiritual “ideas” (essences) into it, or matter is itself alive, evolving on its own in order to survive, and by evolving creates the substructural combinations later used to elaborate the almost infinite number of species of living organisms visible on earth including those, like us, with mind.

Evolution

Some will insist that something needs to explain why there is such a thing as evolution capable of forging both a material substructure and later living species. “God,” they say, designed evolution as a tool to accomplish his creative will.

The suggestion shows that its proponents do not understand how evolution works. Evolution is the result of survival, it does not create it. What survives is what happens to remain after a variety of experimental modifications were launched to confront a particular environment. Those organisms with variations that failed, cease to exist. Those that survive do so because the changes they incorporated permit them to continue in existence. Species evolve because they pile up modification on top of modification, each one the key to survival for the organism in some environment hostile enough to have wiped out its sister modifications. Evolution necessarily produces what survives or the phenotype would not be here. The process is entirely after the fact and therefore does not require a designing intelligence to explain it.

Furthermore, why would a rational “God” who is supposedly Pure Spirit ever design a process like evolution that works entirely on random — irrational — and material factors. Is “God” trying to disguise who he is and how he works? If we define rationality as the use of purpose in the pursuit of goals, there is, besides survival itself, clearly no purpose evident in evolution and therefore no rationality. Evolution is exclusively about existence and its energy, the blind urge to be. Evolution will produce terrifying dinosaurs as quickly as gentle butterflies. The only thing evolution does not produce is non-being. On our own planet it has created an earthful of organisms that heartlessly feed on one another to survive. A rational loving “God” could hardly be said to have created a world such as ours in order to display his rational and benvolent nature. The predation inherent in the food chain is a fatal scandal for many. “Atheists” adduce it as evidence against the existence of “God,” or at least the “God” that we have imagined.

I agree with them. There is no such “God.” Our universe is not the result of “ideas” generated by an “Intelligent Designer.”

LIFE

Yet it is teeming with life. Both life and the rationality seen in humankind are the result of the same evolutionary groping for survival as every other material modification among living organisms. They suggest that matter’s drive to survive — its insistence on existence — is an energy more fundamental than mind or rationality.

This is difficult for us to accept. We tend to apotheosize mind as far superior to any other thing in existence. We used to think mind was immaterial spirit. We did not realize until very recently that mind was elaborated by matter out of some unseen potential deep within its own wells of energy. And if, as I claim, intelligence is the mirroring of the nature of organic reality as the source-paradigm of the “one and the many” (multiple specimens generated by the same DNA) then from an evolutionary point of view the emergence of mind from matter becomes comprehensible. Mind is not primarily a “seeing:” a disinterested “spiritual” contemplation of objective reality. It is rather a sub-function of human survival that enhances the individual organism’s ability to thrive in a world dominated by biological life. By the increasingly accurate identification of individuals as members of species, the human being with mind was better able to defend against predators and gather and multiply food. Mind — the ability to grasp the “one and the many — was a modification that worked.

I am inclined to pause here and point out the parallels in the two systems — platonic idealism and modern materialism — that we have been comparing. For even though they are internally incompatible, the overriding conceptual structures are similar. This isn’t coincidental. They both have identified the source of all existence, and that source in each case has to perform a similar function within its respective system.

Consider: matter’s energy performs a function in the modern paradigm that resembles the role of esse in se subsistens (self-subsistent being) in the mediaeval paradigm. Keep in mind that for Eckhart esse was “God.”

All things are created by matter’s tireless energy to continue on in existence and always remain exclusively itself no matter how elaborate the evolution. Being may be fairly considered the conceptual mirror of matter’s energy. The material substrate, analogous to being, is potentially eternal because it is neither created nor destroyed. It is obsessively focussed on existing (being-here) and every new version of itself shares that obsession. (That explains the presence of the conatus in all organismic life.) Existence is proliferated by the internal sharing of matter’s energy with ever-new versions of itself and so its creativity may be called “maternal” in the sense that it passively allows itself to “be partaken of,” it does not pro-actively generate objects that are “other” than itself. If something is not built of matter’s energy in our universe, it does not exist. Since everything is matter’s energy, it can be said that the only “thing” in the universe is matter’s energy not unlike the way Spinoza said that Being, “God,” was the only “substance” and everything else was a “modality” of “God.”

Please note: this quick sketch limns a new image of “God” not as Father but as a Mother who creates by allowing her children to autonomously extrude themselves from her substance. This passive supplying of her substance gives an entirely new non-interventionist meaning to the word “providence.”

In the scholastic system that Eckhart thought of as “science,” all these same functions were ascribed to esse in se subsistens, “being,” another word for “God.” Just as all things elaborated by matter’s energy share the fundamental qualities and features of the substrate, so too in the fourteenth century all existing things shared in the existence that was the essence of “God.”

While these parallels are analogous, they are not identical. Any direct comparison would reveal major discrepancies due to the radical difference in metaphysical content. The cosmo-ontology I espouse is a materialist philosophy germane to modern science; it is completely contrary to a platonically harmonized Aristotelian idealist scholasticism.

But mysticism goes beyond philosophy. Mysticism is the human resonance of a relationship. It is Eckhart’s mystical message that puts on display the similarities between how the ruling concepts function in each system. The imagery he uses when talking about “the Godhead beyond God,” as we will see in the next post, is quite remarkable and may be said to derive from his neo-Platonic scholasticism centered on the concept of being. I believe the fact that “being” plays a role analogous to that of matter’s energy, accounts for the perennial appeal of Eckhart’s writings. The imagery he generated to describe the “being” he encountered in the depths of his own conscious existence — an existence that was primarily that of “being” itself and only secondarily his own — can work for us as a guide as we try to descibe our experience of the material energy we share with everything else in the universe — a material energy that is so available to us that we use it to produce our very selves.

 

 

Divine Transcendence and the “Holiness” of “God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

“Other” or “not-other”

The religions of the book are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.”  In the western Christian tradition this transcendence is ultimately grounded in the complete opposition between spirit and matter.  “God’s” remoteness is infinite; there is no common ground between Creator who is Pure Spirit and any creature made of matter.  Any contact must come on the initiative of “God” who must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact.  Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in all their forms, will not permit any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a relationship of utter submission to a pure transcendent Spirit, absolutely sovereign, personal, rational, freely choosing, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe.  This “God” that they insist on — a separate rational entity “out there” — is claimed to play exactly the creative cosmic role for which science can find no evidence whatsoever.

Science’s associated philosophical systems assert that the only creativity observable belongs to material energy’s self-elaborations driven by the need to exist.  This same material energy, moreover, seems to be the source of our sense of the sacred by passing on to us its intrinsic need to exist which we experience internally as the conatus, the drive to survive.  Unlike the “God” of the book, material energy did not create the world from nothing, designing its features and forces by rational personal choice.  As the energy at work in cosmic development, biological evolution and all human personal and social constructions, matter’s need to exist provides the necessary drive and sufficient explanation for everything in the known universe — that it exists and how it exists — as extrusions of itself and carriers of the same existential dynamism.

Matter-energy is convertible; it seems to be neither created nor destroyed, as the first law of thermodynamics states; it stands at the end of the chain of causes and does not need any explanation beyond itself.

transcendence

It must be acknowledged that the insistence on the traditional doctrine of a transcendent “God” has led to an impasse.  Elaborated in pre-scientific times as a rational explanation for the universe and humankind’s sense of the sacred, it has lost all rational credibility due to science’s discoveries.  If our sense of the sacred is to be validated and protected, it must be grounded in a rational explanation.  The traditional concept of a transcendent “God” no longer provides such a ground.

Science and the immanentist current in our tradition — represented by the scholastic doctrine of “participation in being” — concur in a most intriguing and provocative way: characteristics that our tradition has claimed to be features of divinity are clearly identifiable attributes of the material energy that pervades the universe.  Let’s review these concurrences:

First, science is talking about energy.  In our Thomist philosophical tradition, “God” was defined as pure act.  And in each case — “act” and energy — the focus is esse (existence) itself.  These notions are different because the systems in which they function are different, but within their respective systems each performs exactly the same function: they create by sharing their own existential dynamism.

Then, both this energy and this “act” are claimed, by their respective proponents, to be the ultimate source — the “creator” — of the existence and the nature of everything in the universe, visible and invisible, known and currently unknown — both what and that things are.  And in each case, to repeat what was mentioned above, they create by sharing themselves.

Third, self-subsistence is claimed for both these conceptual ultimates.  The source of existence must necessarily be the absolutely independent proprietor of being.  If not, then whatever it is dependent on, is.  “God” and matter-energy are each said to be ultimate in this sense: they exist in their own right; they have always existed; they can never go out of existence; everything depends on them; they depend on nothing.  The existence of everything else that exists is a derivative of that uniquely “stand-alone” existence.  In the case of material energy it is self-extrusion; for the Thomists it is procession and emanation from “God” resulting in a “participation in being.” (ST 1, qq. 44-45).

Fourth, the divine immanence that is referenced in both NT Paul and John becomes intelligible only when the kind of physical / metaphysical continuum that “participation in being” and the shared energy of matter represent, are acknowledged to be the structural foundation of reality.  If Paul did not believe “God” was immanent, then his use of Epimenides’ poetic description in Acts 17 was an insincere rhetorical ploy.

Conceptually speaking there is nothing to prevent the identification of “God” with material energy except for the claim that “God” is a rational “person” and as such must be “spirit” and cannot be matter; in fact, as “God,” he needs to be “Pure Spirit.”  These two features, historically, have been interconnected in our tradition.

Person and spirit

“Person,” stems originally from “God’s” imagined interventionist role in human history that later got “ontologized” as “mind.”  Religions of the Book insist on this feature because they are all constructed on obedience to “God” as the source of social coherence and personal integration.  You cannot elicit obedience for an impersonal force.

The root of all this was the tribal nature of the Hebrew people who, from the eighth to the sixth centuries b.c.e., built their “nation” on their god, Yahweh.  International survival and the relationships of domination, dependency or alliance among peoples were imagined as a drama being played out among the various gods who were their champions.  Yahweh was not only Israel’s warrior among the other gods but he also consolidated the nation by promulgating a moral and ritual regimen its individual members were expected to follow.

Even after the Greek and Roman Empires made international competition obsolete (and the various national gods evaporated) all these dynamic relational features of Yahweh were kept in place, used for other purposes and given corresponding explanations to justify them.  When Christianity inherited the Hebrew scriptures, at first it totally denationalized the role of “God.”  Yahweh was claimed to be everyone’s “God” and among Greek converts was thought of as someone who had the features of the Stoic’s “divine fire,” the life that enlivened all things.  Christianity’s elevation to imperial status in the fourth century made him Rome’s “God” and his tribal role resurfaced and was made to function for the unity and ascendency of the Empire.

The explanation for “God” that was in place at the time of Constantine was provided by Platonic philosophy.  Platonism was characterized by two things: (1) substance dualism (that spirit and matter are separate substances, not just different aspects of the same substance) and (2) the reification of ideas and the ontologization — making metaphysical realities — of moral attitudes, intentions and commands.  In the Platonic system only a “Mind,” could do what Yahweh had done: design a world of living things, call a nation into being as his representative in the world, give moral and ritual commands, and reward the “chosen people” with prosperity and international success in exchange for compliance.  This was now all applied to Rome.  The earlier notion of a “divine fire” that enlivened all things was foreign to the Platonic system and so “God” as a transcendent “person” — “Mind” — came to dominate the imagery.

But this “rational entity” was now acknowledged as the all ruler, the one and only “God,” Pure Spirit, remote and inaccessible to this world of matter, who required a compliance of a different sort: the surrender to a “plan” for the universal “salvation” of humankind.

Reinventing Christianity in the fourth century

I maintain that it was the Platonic insistence that “God” is Pure Spirit, Mind, totally unlike matter and therefore immutable and inaccessible, that drove the theological innovations at Nicaea and Augustine’s theory of redemption.  For this “God,” who was now ontologically defined as “Mind,” by dint of his transcendent nature suddenly lost the flexibility enjoyed by “persons.”  In Augustine’s Roman hands “God” became a juridical force that could not change.  Because he could not change he could not forgive.  When Adam sinned, a state of irreparable injustice and eternal guilt was created that would affect every human being ever born, even to the end of timeA “plan” therefore, immutably conceived from all eternity, had to be devised that would overcome the insuperable obstacles created by divine immutability: “God,” now in his new role (invented at Nicaea) as “Son,” became man and paid the price for Adam’s sin which otherwise would have been unpayable.  That “man” was Jesus, and the payment was his death on the cross.  Nicaea and Augustine laid out these fundamental lines of the Western Christian edifice, and those lines are with us to this day.

So “God” over a period of 300 years went from being the Hebrews’ warrior who made them a nation, to the Stoic “divine fire” that enkindled Jesus’ moral triumph, and finally to the neo-Platonic Triune Deity who, in the form of the “Son” and his Mystical Body, the Roman Empire’s Church, ruled the entire human race.  For the individual, that meant your “salvation” was mediated by your compliance with the law as determined by Rome’s Church and your participation in its saving rituals.

Reformers

The reformers of the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant, rejected scholasticism and with it the immanence latent in “participation in being,” and returned to the Nicaean-Augustinian concept of a solely transcendent “God.”  Their principal focus, however, was not “God.”  It was Constantine’s Imperial Church which had become thoroughly corrupt.  Protes­tants tried to reverse the quid pro quo elements introduced into Christian life by Roman theocracy.  They rejected the Catholic identification of the Mystical Body with the actual Church and its rituals and made “salvation” the unmediated effect of personal “faith” in the interior privacy of the soul.  In this scenario the Church became secondary, ancillary to the individual, a social scaffolding that assisted the personal quest for salvation.  Salvation was between the individual and “God;” the Church could be helpful, but it was not essential.  This shift occurred, in practice, in Catholicism as well.

But the real driving force behind the Christian worldview for both remained in place: Augustine’s transcendent Platonic “God,” whose immutability made Adam’s “Original Sin” infinitely unforgiveable, and human individuals,  inescapably, the object of the implacable wrath of an immutable “God.”  Augustine’s claim that “God’s” plan to circumvent his own inability to forgive was a great display of love and compassion, was incomprehensible and gained little traction in the popular mind.  “God” remained as implacable as ever.

Luther’s efforts to resurrect Augustine’s convoluted solution met the same fate.  People continued to live in the only way that made sense: a quid pro quo morality that expected reward for good behavior, and an imaginary relationship with a living Jesus who may perform miracles of fortune, healing and “grace.”  This was true for both Catholics and Protestants.  The tortuous explanations imagined by the theologians were unintelligible, and “God” remained, as always, some “other” person, invisible but really there watching what you do, whom you must obey or be punished, and to whom you may relate for favors or companionship. 

Augustine’s insistence on “God’s” immutability had the effect of depersonalizing “God,” and people could not relate to it.  People continued to imagine “God” anthropomorphically because no one can imagine a “person” who is not human.  Thus Christian doctrine lives in a schizoid state at all times: it is “metaphysical” in theory and anthropomorphic in practice.  Doctrinal statements made for popular consumption refer to “God” in terms that presume that he changes his mind.  All official public prayer, for example, is premised on persuading God to do something he is not already doing … clearly impossible if “God” is immutable.

Living comes first, theology — the “explanations” — come afterward.  In our time the implacable and punitive character of the traditional “God,” which was a derivative of his transcendent immutability, is now suddenly declared “incorrect” based on a re-reading of the scriptures.  Philosophical tradition is ignored, but doctrine based on it remains on the books.  Coincidental with a more permissive social mindset, “God” is now imagined as primarily “compassionate,” and “forgiving” and no longer rigid and demanding.  But the belief still imputes these “nicer” attitudes to a humanoid “person.”  It does not address the fact that such “feelings” are incompatible with the accepted metaphysical definitions about “God,” specifically divine transcendence, that Christians trot out to “explain” the contradictions of anthropomorphism when they arise.  The outrage at “God’s” providence, for example, when it is thought to “permit” disasters like the Haitian earthquake of 2010, is answered by saying the events had been foreseen from all eternity by an immutable all-seeing “God.”  Notice the “explanation” makes no mention of any “feelings” of compassion for the 150,000 children that died or were left orphans by the event.  An immutable “God” could also have had compassion from all eternity!  The explanation doesn’t work.

Sometimes, in a flagrant disregard for rational integrity, humanoid imagery is gratuitously declared a metaphysical premise from which other conclusions are then deduced.  The “fatherhood” of “God,” for example, obviously a metaphor, is adduced as the eternal paradigm and archetype of earthly paternity and the “reason” for an exclusively male hierarchy in the Church.  These examples, just two of many, illustrate the dysfunctionality of the entire traditional  western “concept of God.”  It doesn’t work because it makes no sense.  There is no such “God”-person.  People realize it and are abandoning those churches that insist on it … but they are not abandoning their sense of the sacred or the search for how to respond to it.

“Other” or “not other”

The claim that “God” is “other” than what we are is a projection.  It objectifies as a “thing out there” what is really our own existential dynamic — the material energy that constitutes the material cosmos and our human organisms which are part of it.  By separating us from our own inner dynamism, it prevents awareness of the intrinsic nature of our existential dependency, i.e., that we are internally conditioned by the very stuff of which we are constituted.  Thinking of “God” as “not-other,” in contrast, encourages a recognition of authentically human action as a requirement of our own inner conditioned nature, not the imposed demands of an “other” personOnce we realize that “God” is “not-other,” humility, the need for human community with its concomitant sense of justice, respect for other species, compassion and solidarity for the existential dependency of all things and a profound gratitude for our shared life, are all perceived as inner imperatives, not outside commands, or counsels, or poets’ flights of fantasy.  The divine energy that bears us aloft into existence is simultaneously our consciousness of being borne aloft IN it — that our ability to “fly” is a function of our being part of a material totality.  We are exactly where we belong.

“Other” is the very heart of transcendence in a dualist universe, it is a corollary of spirit’s opposition to matter.  Transcendent materialism, on the other hand, refers to material energy’s ability to transcend itself and evolve new and unexpected forms; it does not imply “opposition.”  In transcendent materialism there is no “other” of any kind, for everything shares the same “substance.”  We are like the leaves of an immense cosmic tree, and our being-here as humans is a function of our place in the whole.

Divine transcendence in a universe conceived along substance-dualist lines is both cause and effect of human alienation, what I call autogenic disease.  It guarantees we will feel like strangers to — and perhaps even victims of — the very energies “in which we live and move and have our being.”   A recent commentator called it “a genuinely sad state of affairs.”

“God” is the energy of LIFE

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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