Christian Universalism (II)

an evolution of The Book

2,500 words

Universalism is not just an idea. It has had a long and tortuous history in the lands of the West ― lands that are now dominated by religions whose origins are in “The Book.” By “The Book,” of course, I am referring to what is known as the “Bible,” which is a large collection of documents, compiled and organized by religious officials at the time when the nation of Judah was being reconstructed after the Babylonian Captivity, about 600 years before the common era.   It contained earlier accounts that were simultaneously religious and historical, of events cherished and passed on by the remnants of people who identified themselves as members of one extended family, the offspring of a man named Abraham, who came from a city in ancient Sumeria, present day Iraq, located where the Euphrates once entered the Persian gulf.

Originally, there was no distinction between religious and historical. Later material began to be included that was more identifiably poetic and moralistic, what people in our time call “religious.” But the Bible was originally constructed on the premise that the history of the nation of Israel (later called Judah) was actually the narrative of the exploits and accomplish­ments of a near-eastern war god, named Yahweh, who had selected the descendants of that one extended family to be his representatives. The history of those people, who called themselves Hebrews, was the history of Yahweh.

The relationship between the Hebrew people and Yahweh was conceived as contractual. It resulted in what came to be known as the promises of the “Covenant” or Testament.” Yahweh promised he would guarantee success in war and prosperity in peace to the descendants of Abraham in return for obedience, praise, sacrifice and the promotion of his reputation among the gods. It was definitely a quid pro quo. Yahweh was to be their only god, hence idolatry, the worship of other gods, was the greatest of crimes. The worship of Yahweh, which evolved into the Jewish religion, was an ethnic, national, political, necessarily theocratic state of affairs. The relationship maintained these features of national ascendancy until Israel’s fortunes turned permanently sour at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar uprooted the entire population of the kingdom of Judah (what was left of Israel) and deported them to Babylon, it became clear in a way that could not be disputed, that the “contract” between Yahweh and the nation of Israel as traditionally understood had fallen apart.

Since political success was tied to fidelity to Yahweh, it was always assumed that if there was defeat or calamity, it had to be because some “sin,” known or unknown, had been committed by the people to merit Yahweh’s “punishment.”  But after the exile, awareness of the overwhelming power of the successive Mesopotamian empires disabused the returning Jews of any hope in their own eventual supremacy in the world of geo-politics, despite Yahweh’s promises; it was dawning on them that defeat was a matter of political impotence, not a punishment for sin. The “contract” had to be re-thought. They were faced with a choice: either abandon Yahweh (which would mean the loss of national identity and absorption into another nation and god), or stay faithful to Yahweh and abandon the traditional terms in which relationship to one’s “god” was to be understood..

New religious thinkers of deep traditional faith who had experienced the exile and come in contact with other “nations” began to look at Yahweh with fresh eyes enlightened by their own widening vision. Authors like the writers of the book of Job and of Qoheleth refused to delude themselves about reality. Face it, they said. Yahweh permits the just to suffer. Why? The ancient formula that all suffering is a punishment for sin . . . that if you suffer it is by default because of you  . . . was challenged. But it was not only challenged, the challenge was published and read and its depth and significance recognized, for it came to be included in the collection of the sacred writings of the nation. These included the prophets whose unwavering conviction of Yahweh’s goodness began to adumbrate the importance of justice across national boundaries despite disparities of political power.   The very injustice done to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was an affront to Yahweh, not because they were his people, but because injustice was wrong, and Yahweh was the guardian of right and wrong everywhere. The psalmists were clear: the perpetrators of injustice were following other gods, and they should be ashamed. The psalmists also upbraided Yahweh without apology for not punishing those who make the just to suffer, but they never embraced the fiction that suffering was on Yahweh’s initiative. Suffering is caused by human injustice perpetrated by unjust selfish people who follow false gods; Yahweh does not condone injustice, he does not reward those who cause suffering . . . why, he even fails to punish the guilty.

This unmistakable universalism developed in tandem with a growing sense that Yahweh was Israel’s “one” god because, in fact, he was the only god there was. A monotheistic Zoroastrianism had become dominant in Mesopotamia around the time of the exile and seems to have been the religion of Cyrus the Great of Persia who ended the Jewish exile in 538 b.c.e. An earlier monotheism which had a brief ascendancy in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten was squashed by the religious elite but obviously was not eradicated from people’s minds. Some have suggested that Mosaic monotheism was inspired by that phenomenon.

The conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 b.c.e. introduced Greek philosophical thought to the region and monotheism was clearly part of it. Theological monotheism ― that there was in reality only one god ― as opposed to henotheism which recognized a supreme god among many gods, was a correlate of universalism, because it said unequivocally, the same one god ruled everyone. And the belief that it was the same “God” who legislated the moral code, meant that all of humankind was enjoined by the same morality.

In the second century b.c.e., the successor state to Alexander’s conquests ― the Seleucids ― occasioned a nationalist reaction in Judah known as the Maccabean revolt.   It was a reassertion of the vision of a Yahwist theocracy against the Hellenizing that came with Greek domination of the region which was once the chess board for the maneuvers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After a century of civil war within Israel, the victorious rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, came to rule an independent theocratic Jewish nation of Judah for about 70 years in a respectful alliance with the Seleucid Greeks. That ended in 63 b.c.e. when Judah became a client state of the Roman empire.

In Jesus’ time, the Jewish debate between religious nationalists and those who favored collaboration with the “Greeks” that had been at the root of Judah’s civil wars, continued on in the divisions of Palestinian Jewish society among Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, with the Pharisees and Essenes disputing between themselves the inheritance of the Maccabean vision. Whether Yahwism was a viable political possibility was an issue that many saw as a specifically religious question, to be solved not by political analysis and a realistic assessment of possibility, but only by an accurate theological interpretation of the “promises of Yahweh.” Not only are there indications that Jesus was well aware of this debate, but also it seems plausible that both Jesus and his cousin John had been associated in some way with the Essenes. Reports in all the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus believed that an apocalyptic event was about to occur. Was this a retro-projection made by Christian communities suffering Roman persecution? We may never know.

I believe that Jesus’ message contained, tacitly, a universalist insight ― a potential religious “revolution” of huge significance ― derived from the essential premises of Judaism. It was fundamentally the insights of Job, Qoheleth, the later prophets and psalms. It was an authentically Jewish development that transcended the primacy of the nation of Judah as a political theocracy, and therefore implicitly went beyond the sect (“Judaism”) that was its ideological justification. Jesus, in other words, without making it the center of his vision, embraced the elements of a universalist view that was being spontaneously generated by an evolving Judaism whose ancient forms of expression remained sectarian. Jesus’ views, surely, were spurred in part by a realistic evaluation of the actual course of Mediterranean political history and Israel’s unavoidable subordination. In his frequent evocation of the “kingdom” there was no indication that Jesus meant to lead a return to political power and autonomy. In his statements he was careful about the way he challenged Rome.

That realization ― acknowledging that the ancient promises were not realistic ― had begun as early as the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century b.c.e. It marked the transformation of Yahweh from a minor Mesopotamian tribal war-god into a supra-national, universal “Deity” of which there could only be one.   However, the dream of Israel’s national-tribal ascendancy continued along with these universalist developments. Many Jews remained attached to the fantasies of national autonomy and supremacy until the Jewish-Roman wars of 70 c.e. and 150 c.e. put an end to them for good.

Was Jesus himself ever partisan to those fantasies? The evidence is not entirely clear, but for sure the purport of his message as recorded in the gospels was moral, spiritual and, explicitly non-political. Jesus’ followers, then, picked up the essence of his tribe-transcending insight and began to find ritual and propositional expression for this non-sectarian message about Judaism, authenticated, confirmed and inspired by his extraordinary personality. Jesus was a Jew; he directed himself only to Jews and remained a Jew until his death, but the implication of his religious vision was a universalized Judaism. Given Judaism’s tribal origins, this may have been a bridge too far, for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities of his time concurred in effectuating his elimination.

With Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew who was reared in Greek culture, the embrace of Jesus’ universal insight led to the attempt to find a justification that was not based on a Judaism that remained tribal and sectarian. Jewish universalism was limited to Jesus’ followers. As a “Greek,” Paul’s own membership in the Christian community was the embodiment of Judaic / Christian universalism. Paul found a ground of support in the person of Jesus himself and the divine mandate that Paul believed was created/revealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. With this new “direct” source of legitimacy, Christianity no longer looked to Judaism as its source of divine authority and relied rather on a “divinely chosen” messiah, the risen Christ, whose “obedience unto death” had earned him “a name above every name” and, surely, a direct line to God himself.

Once Christianity began to function in observable cultic groupings in the Greek-speaking world, the Christians’ “god” ― Christ ― was informally assumed into the pantheon of the Mediterranean gods by the all-tolerant, all-embracing blithely polytheistic Greco-Romans. Jesus’ later ascendancy to the position of “highest god” made Christianity a powerful tool for the legitimation of Roman rule, and that fact was certainly a primary motivating factor for Constantine’s pressure on the bishops to adopt the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea.

Roman rule, unfortunately, was precisely about wealth and power. It was not Jesus’ “kingdom,” even though it appropriated that language for itself. Christianity became the Imperial recapitulation of the tribal theocracy that had originated in the city-state of Rome. This had the effect of totally reversing Jesus’ universalist insight and using his “divine authority” to support the political ambitions of this one particular state which, even after the profession of Christian beliefs, still operated with its more primitive tribal structures. These included a “mandate from heaven” to rule the world for the Empire now made one flesh with its Church. Christianity was dragooned to fulfill the theocratic role once performed by Roman religion; and it turned itself inside out ― literally ― in order to do it.

The changes in Christian priorities occurred well before Constantine and Nicaea. It was a long development that took three hundred years to mature, driven by the Greco-Roman educated classes who came to dominate Christianity, bringing their two tier ― master / slave ― class system and Platonic philosophical idealism with them. The Roman embrace of Christianity by Constantine was the final step in a long process of acculturation that was in fact a much more natural evolution than history has traditionally portrayed. Christianity became the new face of Roman religion: the guarantor of divine protection and the justification for Roman conquest and rule.

The transfer of the functions of state religion for the protection and advancement of the “city”-become-empire from the traditional gods to Christ, tapped the residual theocratic potential embedded in the original Judaic literature from which Jesus emerged, and turned Christianity back into an Old Testament-inspired sectarian expression of a political theocracy: it became the sect of Rome, and effectively turned the “Father” of Jesus back into an ethnic war-god. The universalism that was at the heart of Jesus’ message was annulled and absorbed into Rome’s claim of universal dominion (a corollary of “God’s” providential will), and Jesus’ “kingdom of justice” came to mean simply a minimally oppressive imposition of Roman law.

Jesus spiritualized the word “kingdom” and insisted, as did the prophets, that “God” ruled the hearts of men because he was the Father of them all. The message was just that simple, but the implications have been impossible for western man to swallow; for it meant that we are all one family . . .   we are all brothers and sisters, and western Europeans, for some reason, could not accept that.  We need a universal religion to express that reality. The Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, which continues among us as the Roman Catholic Church and its “reformed” iterations, is not that religion.

Could this anti-universalist development ever be reversed? A return to the universal insight and message of Jesus would have to refuse all sectarian identification because it would eschew all political pretenses. Jesus’ “kingdom” can only be a metaphor for what rules the heart of man. Augustine’s identification of it with the Roman Empire ― and the Roman Empire and its successors as “God’s” providential will for the diffusion of the “gospel” ― was a theological travesty of the first order. It is this travesty that has come to define an intolerant and supremacist Christianity, the principal tool that created the racism, inequity, and the exploitation of people and the earth characteristic of our times. It has inspired a rebellion of the marginated in virtually all the continents colonized by Christians.  The violent rejection and repression of the exploiters in reaction to this demand for justice — effectively reasserting the supremacy of Christian ethnicity — may have already sealed our fate as a species.

Christian Universalism

1,800 words

Universal religion does not exist. The only thing in our world that even comes close seems to be an imagined ideal round table where the various religious traditions sit and talk, sharing the understanding of their beliefs with one another. Whatever universal agreements may come out of such exchanges, if they ever actually occur, remain momentary, serendipitous events; they have significance only for the few people privy to it. They are not codified anywhere and generally have no impact on the institutional life of any of the participating members.

Nobody is keeping a record; and for sure no one is building a consensus that might be said to represent a universal understanding of religion and its significance for humankind. The purport of this reflection is to say, very clearly and unambiguously, it’s about time we started doing this. The point of view adopted here is that, much to the chagrin of absolutist authoritarian hierarchies like that of the Roman Catholic Church, religion ― institutional structure, beliefs, ritual and moral behavior ― is undebatably relative to the cultural, historical and linguistic groups that embrace it. Religion is a universal human phenomenon; it is found everywhere, and its factual ubiquity suggests that a thorough, disciplined, sincere, honest, humble, and religiously sensitive study would reveal why. The “why” is the common core of the universal religion we seek. It will embody the reason why humans are religious.

Academic courses and departments of Comparative Religion abound. But I want to emphasize, except for a few creative students of that discipline, the kind of consensus that I am talking about has not emerged there, and in fact is not even contemplated. Comparative Religion is an academic discipline whose objective is the tabulation of the way practitioners of the various religions resemble one another or diverge in the areas of religious life mentioned above. It is a branch of social science; it is not itself either a religion or a religious pursuit, search or quest.   Its most accomplished students need not be religious or even have any respect for the relation­ships that are the objects of their expertise. They are solely interested in the knowledge of what religion is and how it functions for the varied human populations across the globe.

The quest I am talking about, while it might have the same material content as Comparative Religion, is vastly different. I am proposing the religious pursuit of the universal religion that lies hidden and dormant beneath the various historically and culturally conditioned forms in which we actually find it functioning in our world. This proposal obviously assumes that there actually is such a reality, but it also recognizes that such a religious pursuit can only be carried out from inside the religious relationship, by those who know what it is. What is being sought is the accurate identification and description of the human event ― the embrace, the surrender ― that practitioners recognize as the mark of authentic religion.

This essay will be an attempt to confirm the claim that there is such a common core, and that clarifying what it is will enhance and purify all the various traditions. In fact, I hope to show that it is only the faithful conformity to the common core that legitimizes any given religion and serves as a standard by which to evaluate its authenticity.

Hence, this study will be circular in character, by which I mean it is committed beforehand to its conclusion: it presumes that a universal religion “exists,” what it seeks to do is sketch out its contours and understand the dynamics of the religious relationship, how it works in itself and therefore how and why it works everywhere in all the various disparate forms in which it has arisen among us.

*       *        *       *       *

Coming at this question as I do from a Roman Catholic background, I am quite aware that such a point of view contradicts the absolutist claims of the official Catholic hierarchy and dogma, which, I would quickly add, are merely the explicit expression of what is tacitly held by most Christian churches. Christians in general believe their religion is the definitive word and will of “God” which mysteriously confers legitimacy upon all other religions in the world. In the words of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Jesus, August 2000, “ . . . the sacred books of other reli­gions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.” [I,8]

Ironically, what “universalist Christianity” might mean is unusually well expressed in the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of it. The following quotations, interspersed with my observa­tions, reproduce in its entirety a single paragraph of Section V, #19 of the same Vatican declaration cited above. The characteriza­tions that the Vatican finds so abhorrent ― not unpredictably ― are exactly the qualities we desire in an authentic universalist Christianity.

The declaration singles out for criticism:

. . .   conceptions [of the Church] which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as ‘kingdom centred.’ They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally con­cerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a ‘Church for others,’ just as Christ is the ‘man for others’ . . . [elipsis in the original]. Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well.

The document acknowledges “positive aspects” without mentioning what they are. But we have no problem imagining how refreshing it would be to have a Church which was not eternally preoccupied in proclaiming its own importance  . . . and so concerned with maintain­ing an image of holiness before the world that it covered-up the most heinous crimes of sexual abuse of children.   Wouldn’t we all rather it be a humble and penetential “Church for others,” aware and forthcoming about its own failings and interested only in pro­moting God’s image in humankind wherever it is found? The Church we dream of will praise the effective­ness of other traditions’ symbols and practices for the building of the kingdom, and encourag­e its people to remain committed to their ideals and their traditional practices. But no, instead we get pum­meled for having the satanic audacity to put others first:

First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is ‘theocentrically’ based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures, and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.

The universal Christianity that I am speaking about is not at all “silent” about Christ. In fact it is based on the universalist insight that Jesus himself gleaned from the prophets and preached to his Jewish contemporaries. That insight was not about his own “divinity,” it was about the “Fatherhood” of “God,” which means precisely that Jesus himself was theocentric and not self-centered. He explicitly rejected any claim that he was “God.” It is the self-centeredness of the Roman Catholic Church that accounts for its inability to recognize Jesus’ message as a call to be “for others.” It was an insight that called for the rejection of any sectarian claims to exclusivity and uniqueness in favor of the “one divine reality by whatever name it is called” . . . exactly as Paul of Tarsus evoked it at the Areopagus in Athens. It was, moreover, that same Christ-inspired universalism that emboldened Paul to propose a universal membership in the commu­nity of the followers of Jesus which eliminated compliance with the conditions of joining the Jewish national sect. It was theocentric; it was not self-centered.

For the same reason, they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed ‘ecclesiocentrism’ of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity”.76 [the footnote references Redemptoris missio, an instruction of John Paul II]. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God.

Indeed, it is the “mystery of creation” that is uniquely responsible for generating religion. It establishes the existential dependency that is the ground for Jesus’ insight into the Fatherhood of God;   . . .   for the Greek poetic acknowledgement of the divinity in which we ALL live and move and have our being;   . . .  for the recognition of our common humanity demanding a compassion and moral responsibility that means justice for all, everywhere and without consideration for ethnic origin, language, color of skin, economic condition, or level of cultural development.   The “kingdom” ― every last bit of it ― is totally dependent on the “mystery of creation.”

And indeed, the traditional emphasis on the superiority of the Christian Religion is uniquely responsible for the crimes that permitted Christianity to be used as justification for the con­quest and exploitation of third world peoples, and for the virulent Christian anti-Semitism that provided the fuel for the Nazi Holocaust. Nor can we forget the horrors perpetrated by the Christians on the Arab world in the Crusades and the expropriation and expulsion of the Moors from Spain.   These were undebatably the products of “ecclesiocentrism” whose bitter fruits we are reaping today in the violent attempts of people to regain their dignity, achieve autonomy, create equality, and transcend the debilitating racism that poisons human social interaction. The horrors of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians can be seen as a dis­traught and grasping over-compen­sa­tion by frightened Jews and guilt-ridden Christians for the millennia of hatred and genocide born of Christian arrogance. If we set any store by Jesus’ terse wisdom that “by their fruits you will know them,” then by the actual historical fruits of Christian mission to the third world, and its criminally negligent stewardship of the defenseless people under its own roof ― women, children, enslaved Africans and their descendants, Latin Americans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, gypsies ― we know that what supports the outrageous claims for the uniqueness of Christianity must be uniquely inhuman.

My purpose is not to deny the religious legitimacy of Christianity, but I claim the contrary of the arrogant hubris of the Vatican. Far from conferring validity, whatever validity the various Christian sects ― including the Roman Catholic sect ― have, they get from their conformity to the essential characteristics of “religion,” the common legacy of humankind, a natural deriva­tive of the human organism itself.

“. . . and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

1,300 words

The question Jesus asks, as framed by Luke, has a non-sectarian, universalist focus. He is not asking about whether Israel will still believe in Yahweh, or whether his new followers, who later called themselves Christians, will still believe he is the Messiah, but whether people (any people, all people), who are, like a defenseless widow, seeking “justice,” ― the vindication of their humanity in an inhuman system of murderous oppression ― will still believe they can find it. It is a one-line commentary following on the parable of the unjust judge which Jesus uses to “prove” that if persistent pleading can obtain justice even from the worst of men, how much more from a loving Father.

This, according to Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (NT p.151), is an attachment to the warning in 17:22-37, immediately above, that the coming horrors (surely, an allusion to looming persecutions) would fall indiscriminately on everyone. In the maelstrom of a generalized “crucifixion,” who will remain standing? . . . who will continue to trust? The verses cover a wide spectrum of events where the only imaginable human reaction would seem to be despair. It is in an ordeal of that intensity that Luke’s Jesus promises justice to those who have faith.

 

Whether the evolving material universe can be trusted with the human thirst for fulfillment (“justice”) embedded in our organisms, is a modern version of that question. “Faith” here is bedrock: it is trust in LIFE. Jesus’ question applies to every human being living in every human community across the face of the earth. It is not a riddle seeking solution: “who will be saved and who will not?” It’s not a call to take refuge in some imaginary ethnic or institutional protection, much less an excuse for despair. Faith corresponds to our ultimate human challenge: can we, destined as we are to die, beset as we are with pain and loss, trust LIFE? That Luke’s Jesus was aware of the true anguished depths of the human condition suggests that, given the established injustice of the Roman Empire, the path that led to resurrection could only pass through a crucifixion for everyone. Faith in Jesus is enjoined upon all not because he’s “God,” or Messiah, but because he “proved” that a human being ― he himself ― could trust LIFE through anything.   And Jesus’ trust in his loving Father was itself the very kingdom he heralded.

But the challenge is universal, and the solution, the faith it calls for, is neither sectarian nor propositional. It is trust in LIFE whatever the metaphor, whatever the narrative, whatever the rituals, whatever the imagery we use to relate to it. Jesus is offered as teacher and guide for surmounting the ultimate barrier to trust: crucifixion ― which may be “defined” as the demonic inversion of human community, the intentional dehumanization of one human being by another. It is our ultimate enemy. Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval mystic, for reasons of his own would call it “perfect joy.”

The universal message of Jesus’ death is not that an infuriated Monster-god has finally been placated, but that we can trust LIFE as we would a loving Father no matter what happens ― even crucifixion by our fellow human beings. This is “salvation.” It is what gives Jesus a universal relevance.

 

Any suggestion that salvation is to be found after death in another world, conditioned by institutional membership and dependent on propositional and behavioral conformity in this world, is wide of the mark. It misses entirely the clear vision and profound universal compassion of Jesus for the human condition. The universalism of the early Christians was the echo of attitudes they picked up from Jesus despite his exclusive focus on preaching to the Jewish community.

By the second century, however, early Christian universalism in the hands of the Greco-Roman upper classes would shortly yield to the demands of authoritarian control and deteriorate into a rigid sectarianism fully in place by the time of the election of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The control of the conditions of membership and of “saving” ritual, eventually evolved a propositional panoply ― a compendium of orthodox doctrine ― that served as a protective barrier for upper-class control. These controls ultimately resulted in the ethnic identities, class divisions and political preferences of the Roman Catholic Church, predictably mirroring Greco-Roman social structures and competitive dynamics. “Salvation” became a sectarian expression of Mediterranean culture claiming a universalist mandate for itself. It was the mystification of Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire and its inheritors claimed “permission from heaven” to despoil the world.

Jesus’ question ultimately came to be answered in the negative as propositional, behavioral and ritual conformity took the place of the “faith” that Luke was interested in. Universalism was subverted and Christianity degraded into a punitive, moralistic, misogynistic, imperialistic, slavery-based two-tier sect whose overriding function was not justice ― human wholeness, compassion, mutual assistance ― but imperial political success: internal crowd control and external conquest. Christianity came to represent a cult from hell that shaped our western world and even now continues to sculpt the contours of the global community conquered and controlled by Christians. If the tribes of the global community are still at one another’s’ throats, it’s because compassion has never prevailed among us.

 

“Theology” is a misnomer. It is not the “study of God.” It is an attempt to make rational sense of faith. Theology is a secondary event. The primary phenomenon, faith, is a spontaneous response of trust by human beings in a material universe-in-process from which our human organisms emerged and to which we remain umbilically connected. Faith has been a feature of human life for as long as our records indicate ― long before any of the institutions or programs we now call “religion” existed. It has been integral to the formation and cohesion of human community at all levels; its principal correlate has been human behavior, especially interpersonal support and assistance, hence society, justice, and also the proclivity to theocracy.

To start the process of reflection anywhere else is to fail to acknowledge the universalist nature of the theological enterprise: theology is reflection on a universal, global phenomenon that is as characteristic of humankind as society itself and essential to the human project. I believe this has to be the overriding perspective, the high ground, from which the theologian is always looking at his subject matter. This caveat is especially applicable to the Christian theologian because Christianity has been so notorious in disregarding all other traditions and acting as if “faith” began in the Mediterranean basin in the first century of the common era. That is the “heresy” of Roman Christianity ― the one single “error” that sets it furthest from the message and mind of Jesus.

Roman Catholic reform must be understood in this universalist context. Universalism was the unmistakable implication of Jesus’ profound compassion and it was the immediate “next step” taken by the communities of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of his death. While it is always valuable to focus on the glaring propositional anomalies of Christianity as the target of reform, such a narrow perspective may fail to see the overall arrogant assumptions of sectarian superiority that can fly under the radar of efforts at reform. Doctrinal error has many facets. But the primary schism is between universalism and sectarianism. You cannot save humanity from tribal and interpersonal self-destruction by denying the very bonds that make us a family.

The primary obligation enjoined by Jesus is compassion.  It is the moral corollary of faith.  Faith’s compassion is “salvation,” the kingdom.  What are the necessary conditions that must be in place if compassion is to prevail?  That is the theologian’s question.

 

 

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.

Trust

By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (III):

Tribal Identity, Political Humiliation and Nietzsche’s Rejection of Christianity

 

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Nietzsche had a unique take on Christianity. He accused it of being the last recourse of “losers.” He claimed it was the concoction of people who could not achieve a sense of self-worth in the harsh world of reality. Despairing of achieving a human existence in life, they generated a pathetic belief in an imaginary world where all their aspirations would be realized after they died.

The flip-side of Nietzsche’s rant was his belief that the human individual’s appropriation of his humanity in the face of all the obstacles against it would result in the emergence of a superior kind of human being: a “superman” who owed his self-worth to no one but himself, loved the earth, rejected any thought of the after-life and necessarily shunned all those who lived by some other standard. Even though Nietzsche himself was opposed to anti-Semitism and the ethnic German nationalism of his day, the Nazis used his thinking to support their vision of Aryan superiority.

Abstracting from the horrific purposes to which others applied his thought, It seems that there might be some historical support to Nietzsche’s claim. Christianity was a development of later Judaism, and Judaism, we have to remember, was a religion that evolved in a most dramatic and intriguing way. It went through an inner transformation that turned it 180o from a religion of tribal superiority into a religion of salvation for the oppressed.

It began as a contract (“covenant”) with a warrior god, Yahweh, who freed the Hebrews from their enslavement to the Egyptians and conquered an extensive territory in Palestine along with the tribes that lived there for their possession. He was a god of armies, more powerful than all other gods.

But it was Israel’s destiny to return to servitude. In 587 bce, Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and the people carted off to work for their conquerors. The evidence was clear. Yahweh was no longer providing military victory. This struck at the very core of national identity for the Jewish people. Either Yahweh was impotent or he was uncaring; both were considered impossible. The fault had to lay with the Jewish people. They were not upholding their side of the contract, hence Yahweh’s abandonment.

The Jews were about to disappear as a nation. When they were “miraculously” allowed to return and rebuild their city and their Temple 50 years later, they took it as a sign of Yahweh’s compassion. But because their exile was surely the result of their failure, this miraculous act on Yahweh’s part had to be in the form of forgiveness. Thus Yahweh evolved from a war god into a God of forgiveness and compassion, ready to help the failures who begged him for help.

This is extraordinary. Suddenly, with the post exilic prophets, strength and power are no longer the instruments of life and prosperity. What draws down divine help is precisely the opposite: neediness, failure, poverty, vulnerability and sin … . For the Jews’ return from Exile there was an added factor: the new Persian conquerors gave the permissions and provided the protections for the return. They had to be acting as the agents of Yahweh’s will. The logic was undebatable: Yahweh wasn’t only the god of the Jews, he ruled all of Mesopotamia as well. Political impotence translated to a new universalist concept of “God.” If “God” is indeed all powerful, he must be guiding those who rule the world. How else could Israel have come back to life?

Of course, the earlier imagery of a god of tribal military triumph still remained. But it was braided into the new vision, became muted and went underground. It took the form of hope: that Yahweh would, at some future time “awake from sleep” and keep his “promises” to Israel of tribal supremacy. This meant that the collaboration with the current empire was a “holy” albeit temporary strategy. It established a paradigm that was in place when Jesus appeared at the start of the common era.

Enter Christianity

Jesus’ life coincided with that point in history when Rome changed from a powerful city-state that grew by making alliances, to a plundering despotic world empire. Rome’s oppressive control, which involved enslavement and heavy tribute extorted from its vassals, awakened the aspirations for national independence among the Jews, and these two “Yahwehs,” the conquering, liberating warrior of the Exodus and the compassionate, forgiving father of the Exile who was grooming the Romans for Israel’s ultimate glory, vied for control of the Jewish imagination. Jesus, some say, following the Essenes, melded the two images by declaring the coming “kingdom,” which many believed to be imminent, to be both Yahweh’s long expected military assertion of Israel’s world domination and the installation of a completely new way of organizing society run by justice and compassion. There would be a final battle ― an Armageddon ― between the forces of good and the forces of evil and after Yahweh’s victory, justice, compassion and forgiveness would rule the relationships among men, not force, greed, lies and larceny.

Others say Jesus opted for the forgiving father and used kingdom terminology only because of its universal currency among the Jews. It’s hard to dismiss the first theory entirely, however, because after his death his followers took up a stance of awaiting Jesus’ return in power which they claimed would usher in Yahweh’s kingdom. The imagery was clearly political; the condemnation of Roman oppression was implicit in this expectation. They called themselves Christians and demanded a transformation of life into the ideals promoted by the compassionate Yahweh in anticipation of the coming kingdom of justice.

As time went by two things happened that radically changed the Christian version of post exilic Yahwism. The first was that Jesus never returned. This was more disrupting than we may realize. For it resulted in the dismissal of Jesus’ radical morality of non-violence and compassion as poetic exaggeration.

The second was that ethnic Jews no longer dominated the Christian community either in numbers or influence. Most new Christians were Greco-Roman converts who had been brought up in the polytheism of the Mediterranean basin and did not see Rome as an alien conquering power or Israel as “God’s” favored nation. Their political acquiescence and the categories of their ancestral religion re-shaped Christianity. These factors conspired to bring Christians to disregard any thought of a revolutionary Jewish “kingdom” installed by a conquering Yahweh, and to transfer any hopes they may have had for a better life to an imagined existence after death. These developments occurred during the three centuries prior to the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and, in fact, made that decision possible.

When that history-changing event occurred in 312, the new “Greco-Roman” Christian world­view got set in stone. Christians, almost universally, interpreted Constantine’s windfall as the establishment of the promised kingdom.  But the kingdom was not Israel, it was Rome, which is apparently what “God” had in mind all along.  For them, the struggle was over. The laws and statutes of Rome were to be accepted as the rules and regulations of the kingdom. The warrior god had come back to life, and both conquest and obedience to law were re-installed as the fundamental dynamics that ruled the kingdom.

This development was explicitly sanctioned earlier by Paul the apostle himself who had referred to the Roman Empire as having been instituted by “God:” “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Letter to the Romans 13: 1). Augustine’s City of God, written a century after Constantine’s choice, picked up the thread and claimed the Roman Empire had been prepared for its role in the spread of Christianity by God himself. That meant that conquest, plunder, enslavement and cultural extermination were officially acknowledged as appropriate tools for a providential “God” who micro-manages human history. This served as a paradigm for Christian thought throughout subsequent millennia. Power and wealth were “blessings” from “God,” no matter how they were gotten. That’s what “providence” meant.

Evolution

Don’t be fooled by the smooth transitions occurring here. The evolution of the Christian view of political power ended up co-opting Jesus’ message and harnessing it to the goals of empire for external conquest and the internal control of the conquered. Slaves accounted for about 25% of the population of the Empire, mostly obtained through conquest. The economy of the empire was totally dependent on slave-labor. The compassionate, post-exilic Yahweh was actually made subordinate to the warrior king (whom Constantine’s Council at Nicaea identified as Jesus himself) who led the Roman legions to victory, his cross emblazoned on their shields. Jesus and the conquering emperor Constantine were assimilated to one another and Jesus was apotheosized as the Roman Pantocrator: the all ruler who sat in judgment on humankind ― specifically condemning disobedience to the laws of the kingdom and its authorities. Correlatively, the emperor ruled, and conquered, and plundered, and enslaved, in the name of Christ.

Rome took Christianity in stride; the hum of daily life never skipped a beat. Emperor and Church were one entity, a theocracy exactly as it was under Jupiter and Venus. The “secular arm” legislated and imposed sanctions, punishing those who disobeyed, and the Church provided the narrative that divinized Rome as the “kingdom.” No one challenged slavery. And whatever justice was missing in “God’s” kingdom on earth was dismissed by the Church as of no consequence when compared to the pleasures of heaven. All the bases were covered.

It was not in the interest of the Empire to encourage any aspirations toward an end-of-time “kingdom of Justice” that challenged empire’s slave-based economy. Therefore it was extremely convenient that the new state religion wanted people to think of themselves as moral cripples ― losers ― deserving of punishment and thoroughly dependent on the forgiveness of “God,” a promissory note that was brokered exclusively by the Empire’s Church and cashed in only after death. Judaism’s inheritance from the post-exile experience served the Empire well.

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Thus it would seem that there are historical reasons that would support Nietzsche’s characterization. Subsequently, the states in the West reproduced the patterns established by Rome: that “God” worked alongside (Christian) government to insure peace and harmony. The fact that peace and harmony were necessary for the smooth operation of the Imperial machine made the Christian religion something of a windfall for the Empire.

Please note the dynamics operating in this paradigm which has become our common legacy in the West. The “God of compassion” works in the service of the “God of political supremacy,” not the other way around. The ultimate definition of “God” identifies “him” as “all powerful,” the ally and guarantor of power. All other functions of divine intervention were ordered to it as means to an end. Any other belief would be inconsistent with “providence.”

This “theocratic imperative” ― the marriage of religion and political power ― is true everywhere in the West. For many, even “liberation theology” follows this paradigm; they think of it as a reprise of the “Armageddon” theology of the Essenes in modern, progressive garb. In this view “God’s” kingdom is not a spiritual metaphor, but rather a real social/political entity with laws and sanctions and the ability to defend itself. These new structures will guarantee justice for everyone. The “God” who reigns over this kingdom is still the “God of power” and armies; that’s the way “he” has always worked as illustrated by the supremacy of Rome. The only thing that has changed is the identification of the social class that legitimately wields power, makes laws and imposes sanctions.  There are many who are persuaded that “God” has chosen the United States to be the latest version of the “kingdom.”

My reaction is to say that people have a right to decide the social and political structures they want to live by, and to do what is necessary to install them. But they do not have a right to claim that it is “God” who is doing it.

National underdogs and “their” religion

The political character of our concept of “God” in the West is also on display in the national character of western religious denominations. By “national character” I mean that being from a particular local tribe (nation or clan) is invariably linked to a particular religion. When we think of the Irish or the Polish, for example, especially in the United States, we are accustomed to them being Catholic, while we anticipate that Brits and Germans, despite being from neighboring countries in each case, will be Protestant.

I singled out those nationalities not just as examples, but as particularly supportive of my thesis: that religion follows politics. The thesis, however, is double-edged. For the political choices also in turn shape the religion, sometimes in ways that are not anticipated. Who would have expec­ted, for example, that Jesus, who taught that those in authority in his community should be “like children” inviting compliance from their flock and never “lording it over them as the gentiles do,” would eventually be crowned as Pantocrator of the slave-based Roman Empire and be used as divine justification for its brutal and larcenous projects?

In the case of the Irish and the Polish, the national humiliation suffered at the hands of their dominating neighbors impelled them in each case to cling fiercely to a Catholicism that represented opposition to their oppressors. But look how the second “edge” comes into play. The autocratic infallibility claimed by the Catholic Church served as a welcome psychological prop for the humiliated nations against the debasement being dealt out by their enemies. The Irish and Polish people became invested in Catholic ideology. Catholicism made them superior to their antagonists. Certainly for these people, any suggestion that the doctrines of Catholic superiority ― like doctrinal and moral infallibility ― that they found so supportive in their humiliation were actually contrary to the spirit and even explicit counsel of Jesus, or that the “Reformation” embraced by their hated neighbors was actually closer to the mind of Christ, would be rejected at the doorstep. One might reasonably claim that dogmas that otherwise might have evolved into more mollified form if left alone were actively kept in the strictest construction by these ethnic minorities for the purposes of their national/ethnic interests. What they may have bequeathed to the world by their tribal Catholicism is the most potent tool for the dismantling of the democratic experiment that exists to date: a reactionary obdurate Roman Catholic Church ― whose dogmas are the ideological blueprint for the re-establish­ment of Roman Imperialism, and the last bastion of the Ancien Régime in the modern world.

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Everything that this version of events describes can have occurred for only one reason: that people believed that “God” was a supernatural humanoid person. “He” has a will, thinks and chooses, intervenes in history in order to ensure the accomplishment of his intentions, and rewards and punishes humans for compliance or non-compliance with his “commands.” “Providence” means God controls everything.

It seems that the theist humanoid “God” of the traditional western imagination not only was used in place of science to explain phenomena that mystified the human mind, but also functioned to justify the conquests that enslaved the conquered. And just as science has eroded confidence in any personal divine agency in the operations of the physical world, so too, modern political self-deter­mination has challenged the theocratic premise that all power forma­tions, no matter how oppressive, were the will and work of God.

But if, as I have been proposing in this blog since 2009, we were to consider “God” not to be an acting, willing person, but rather the source of our spontaneous sense of the sacred, which I identify as the living material energy ― LIFE ― of which we and everything else in our cosmos is constructed, then much of our historical narrative is exposed as just so much myth. It is all a mirage, a projection, the fantasies of primitive ignorance. They are a major source of the suffering that we have inflicted on one another, for they have been used to justify the exploitation of man by man.

A personal “God” who has a specific will narrows the options open to humankind and, in the hands of a multitude of tribes, necessarily pits them against one another. The level of the resulting slaughter and enslavement is proportionate to the divine approval imagined. The more “religious” the people, the more convinced they are that “God” wills their success and rejects that of others, and the less inhibited they will feel about unleashing unspeakable atrocities on people they identify as their “enemies.”

One could legitimately elaborate a theological argument along the lines of the “ex convenientia” logic of the scholastics and say, if all this follows inevitably or even most probably from the premise of belief in a personal “God,” then it suggests the premise is false, for it makes “God” either an unwitting dupe, if he does not really “will” these things, or a moral cretin if he does. It forces us to re-think our assumptions. Minimally it means the theist “God” of traditional western faith does not exist.

In contrast: “God” as LIFE

LIFE, on the other hand, does not narrow the options open to humankind, it expands them. LIFE supports the autonomous management of our way of life. Our political/economic structures are ours to decide. LIFE has no enemies because it has no “will,” and it has no will because it is not an entity, and certainly not a “person” as we understand the word.

We all know what LIFE is because we are alive and surrounded by living things; we experience it directly and first hand. We may have a hard time defining it in terms other than itself, for we have nothing to compare it to, but we know what it is intimately and interiorly for we are alive. It is responsible for the developments of evolution that have filled our teeming earth with a near infinitude of life forms culminating (from our point of view) in the human species. LIFE does not think except in us; it does not choose except in us; it does not have preferences or a “will” except in us; it does not command or cajole or persuade or punish. It is only in us that it is “personal.”

It is this LIFE that impels us to live and do all those things, positive and negative, necessary for life to continue, that gives rise in us to a sense of the sacred. Existence, being-here, is the grail ― the great quest. We know LIFE in living things because we know LIFE in ourselves; and what we all want is to be-here.

To be-here, ESSE, is to die for. We “live move and have our being” in the living material energy of this cosmos. Matter’s energy is all we are … there is nothing more to us. The living material energy of this cosmos is ESSE, and we are THAT.

So where does that leave us? All of the functions, from the elaboration of the universe to the configurations of our social/political structures, that we have heretofore claimed were the work and will of “God,” are the work of living material energy ― LIFE. But that means they are ours … for we are living matter in its most evolved form on our planet. LIFE enters into those functions as ourselves. What we do is what living matter is capable of. We are the expressions of its potential, the outward manifestation of its inner dimensions and dormant properties. LIFE does not intervene in these issues “personally” for it is not an entity; it is a universal energy. It acts as the forms into which it has evolved. There is a sacredness to these things, but the sacredness does not come from an outside “God” … it comes from within, from energy ― creative, abundant, generous and utterly disinterested ― the characteristics of LIFE that impel our work, our morality, our social constructions, and our environmental responsibilities. This what being-here looks like.

We are the mirrors and agents of the living matter ― the LIFE ― of which we are made. There is a reason why we resonate with all the living things around us, from the smallest one-celled organisms to the great animals in our zoos. We all flee from enemies; we all defend ourselves; we all spend our days hunting for food and shelter; we all seek partners for company and to reproduce our kind; and we all want passionately to be-here. We are all made of the same clay. And that clay is alive and has a bearing that elicits a similar response in us all.

Against this background our theist history is revealed as pure projection ― the creation of a primitive imagination that could not cope with being alone. Did that make us all “losers”? Our modern technological prowess has given us confidence that perhaps we are not. We may be, after all, capable of taking care of ourselves, especially if we don’t delude ourselves with expectations that go beyond the possibilities of material energy. Belief in eternal life, is one of those, as is the thought that we are not biological organisms evolved from and living on this earth with all the needs and limitations that entails. But the business of organizing our communities on this earth so that we can be what we are ― the just and generous, empathetic and sharing, exemplars of the living material energy that we bear as our own ― belongs to us alone.

Tony Equale, October 2018

Reflections on Emptiness

3,000 words

  • Emptiness, one of the foundational notions of Mahayana Buddhism, is a strictly metaphysical term. It is not primarily psychological or spiritual nor is it merely phenomenological. It refers quite specifically to the fact that all phenomena of whatever kind are not themselves the source and explanation of their existence. They are causally dependent on other phenomena; they are empty of their own being.
  • The concept of metaphysical Emptiness did not originate with Buddha. Buddha’s teaching was experiential; it was about the perception of impermanence ― that things compose and decompose. He deduced no-self (anatman) from the universality of impermanence. All things compose and then pass away with their decomposition. The human self is no exception. He saw it as part of a phenomenon affecting all things. I personally ascribe it to the fact that whatever exists is all and only matter. Emptiness was a later Mahayana metaphysical conjecture articulated to explain impermanence and anatman, but it was not specifically materialist.
  • Emptiness of own-being characterizes the self. It is the basis and reason for the Buddhist claim of “no-self,” anatman, which means that a permanent self separate from the coherence of the body is an illusion. The phenomenological, temporary self, however, is not an illusion, it is quite real. But it is not permanent. In physical, material terms, it is the efflorescence of the integrated energy of the matter of the body.   When the organism disintegrates, ― the self ― the integrated energy of all the various particles, disappears. The self is a reverberation of the complex coherent interrelationship of a vast amount of material energy under the (temporary) control and guidance of a living DNA (which is also all and only matter). What the Buddha decried was the delusional attempt to create a permanent self by amassing wealth, control over others (including God), social status and recognition, etc. No such self can be created. The self dissolves with the body.
  • Living in the present moment is a corollary of emptiness for it accepts as ultimate the fact that there is nothing permanent that can result from any interaction of the self with any other dependently arisen phenomenon (which is everything in our material universe). To “do” anything or to “get” anything, is simply to add more dependently arisen phenomena to the totality. Temporary phenomena do occur and are real but nothing permanent can come from them. No event can ever be anything other than a composing or decomposing of material components. Therefore, enjoying the experience of the event itself in the moment when and as it occurs is a direct and valid derivative of emptiness, for, vanishing as it may be, there is nothing more here than what is occurring now, generated by whatever confluence of factors happen to be operating, and will disappear when that confluence ceases.
  • Pointlessness refers to the same phenomenon as emptiness but from a psychological point of view; it is a teleological corollary of impermanence, i.e., it is impermanence seen from the point of view of purpose. All things are empty: they have no purpose beyond just being-here, and are unaware that their being-here is dependent on evanescent factors whose disappearance will “cause” their own disappearance.
  • Emptiness is metaphysical. Nagārjuna (the principal Buddhist philosopher of emptiness, who wrote in the second century ce) uses the word “essence” the way western philosophy used the word “being.” Emptiness means “things do not have (they are “empty” of) their own “essence” or “being.” They have the power to cause other phenomena to appear, but they do not have the power to prevent them from disappearing or to prevent their own decomposition and disappearance.

The West: idea and spirit

  • In the WEST, on the other hand, where idealism prevailed, philosophers, dominated by Plato’s theory of reality, ascribed real being to ideas alone. Ideas were considered the anti­thesis of matter and were made of a different kind of “stuff” that did not compose and decompose as matter did, and were not limited by space and time as matter was. They were believed to be one of a large category called “spirit” which included the permanent human self, the “soul” (which existed before birth, during life and after death), and the “selves” of other “spirits” believed to exist outside time without bodies, like devils and angels (and for a while, gods, who were a little of both). When the idea of one all powerful, all knowing Creator “God” emerged, it was naturally assumed that it was one of those spirit-persons outside time and without a body.
  • In a universe dominated by spirit, a “thing” was believed to be first and foremost an idea (the definition of whatever that thing was) that gave “being” to a meaningless undefined matter. In that form, the idea was called the “essence” of something, also the “form.” Plato believed all these ideas of things actually existed as real substances in a world of Ideas, which was later identified as the “Mind of God.”
  • Since reality was basically ideas, it had to be permanent; the impermanence that we all experience, therefore, was an anomaly and had to be explained. Plato surmised that ideas were yoked to matter, and that it was the disparate elements of matter that had been organized and connected by the idea lost coherence when the idea departed. Without its principle of coherence matter decomposed. In the case of the human being, decomposition occurred with the departure of the “soul” which, like all spirits, had substantial existence and could continue on without the body.
  • Widespread rejection of belief in the substantial existence of ideas began with William of Ockham who wrote in the 1320’s. Today that rejection is almost universal, but its residual effects are still with us, primarily in the form of belief in the existence and natural immortality of the human soul separated from the body.
  • Aristotle defined “things” as composed of matter and form (matter and a particular idea), but that neither could exist without the other. He called existing things “substances” because they stood on their own while they were-here as opposed to other phenomena that were clearly only variant qualities of things, like their color or their size, which he called “accidents.” Aristotle isolated and identified esse, existence, as an energy that underlay all existing reality. He called it act and contrasted it with unactivated potential. He surmised that the “first mover” in the universe had itself to be pure act without any admixture of potential, or it would have needed to be activated by another, and therefore would not have been the “first mover.” Pure Act, then, became the working definition of existence and therefore, “God.” This was still consistent with the assumption that all act had to be “spirit” and that an isolated “matter” without the energizing of spirit had to be pure potential, utterly incapable of energizing anything. They called it “prime matter.”
  • Thomas Aquinas said that things received “substantial being” from God who “gave” them an inferior kind of existence (that Thomas called esse commune) that was different from God’s own (which he called esse in se subsistens). Thomas’ esse began to lose the quality of an energy and took on the coloration of a “thing.” Meister Eckhart, his successor, demurred. He held (with more Ockham-like simplicity) that esse was act. There is only one esse as Aristotle said, and that esse is God. Therefore if there is any esse anywhere in the universe it has to be an emanation from God’s own esse. This brought Eckhart’s terminology closer to pantheism than Thomas’ and helps explain his problems with the Inquisition.
  • Spinoza’s thinking was similar to Eckhart’s in saying that there was only one esse. He followed Aristotle’s definition of “substance” as “that which exists by itself and on its own” and concluded that the only “stand alone” thing in the universe was “God.” Everything else existed by reason of participating in God’s existence, and therefore could not be called substances. He couldn’t call them “accidents” because that category was already linked the qualities of things, so he called them “modalities” that had emanated from the one substance which was God. His intention was the same as Eckhart’s who said that all things were “nothing” because all their being came from God; they had no being of their own. Nothing outside of God had its own being. Spinoza said that the organic drive for self-preservation, the conatus, was a finite version of God’s self-subsistent esse. All things imitate the “God” from whom they emanate.
  • This development is noteworthy because the very term “own-being” became the Mahayana Buddhist word that identified emptiness. There was no semantic link; it was a purely fortuitous choice of words. Everything was empty because everything lacked its own-being. The Buddhists, for their part said that the phenomenal being that things actuated came from their “causes” which were other things. Everything was dependently arisen because everything owed its existence to causes other than themselves. Nothing was the source of its own being-here and when the causes responsible for its existence disappeared or became inoperative, the phenomenon necessarily disappeared.

Materialism and non-duality

  • The absolute identity (oneness, what the buddhists call non-duality) that I share with my source (the multiple “causes” of my dependent arising, including the components of my organism) is only conceiveable in a scenario like our material universe where the very source of being-here for all the “causes” are the very same components. We are ― causes and effects ― all and only one homogeneous matter’s energy. Our identity with all things (and our source) is metaphysically absolute because in the most profound sense we are the same reality, even though from the point of view of phenomena we experience ourselves and all things as stand-alone substances as Aristotle said. Aristotle’s problem was that he thought “things” were metaphysically substantive because he attributed existential bearing to the idea, whereas Buddhism saw through the illusion of permanence to the true temporariness of the composites and continued to call them all phenomena including their idea.  
  • Now if the source of my existence were other than a material component, as in the case of the West where we believed a “spiritual” person (“God”) was the real cause of everything and that the ideas in the Mind of God actually carried existence and conferred it on the things they defined, there would always be a duality because, no matter how close they come, the one ― the source, “God,” ― is simply not the other ― me ― and never will be. There will always be an identity difference because there are always two “beings,” two “wills” which in a universe with real stand-alone spirits represents two separate and distinct entities. But in the case of exclusively material components, that in and of themselves as sub-atomic particles have no identity at all and no pre-composite “will” of their own, the only identity is the identity of the organic composite: me. There are not two things, only one, but the existential energy comes exclusively from the components whose collective conatus also provide an inchoate pre-composite intentionality to the organism ― toward endlessly continual (permanent) existence. All organisms of whatever kind, no matter how primitive or complex do not anticipate dying.
  • Many claim this is difficult to grasp. I contend it is not, and the only reason why people struggle with it is because they are still dominated by the imagery of a substantial “self” ingrained in their minds. It is this residual imagery that is blocking the understanding of a very simple fact: we and our components are one and the same thing. We are nothing but material energy with a specific configuration that allows us to interact with the rest of the material universe as humans rather than as some other form of organism. But the hardened delusion that we are other than the universal matter that all things share, comes from our spontaneous sense of self-identity reinforced by millennia of conditioning under the tutelage of Plato’s idealist theory of the “soul.”

The Eternal Now ― the present moment

  • Both Mahayana mindfulness and the Eckhartian living in the eternal now are the same in practice. They both encourage focusing exclusively on the present moment. The only difference between the two is the difference in belief about the ultimate nature of the Source. I should say “possible difference” because in some forms of Hindu-Buddhism ― I am thinking of those that hold to the existence of Atman or Brahman ― they may fundamentally be the same as the Eckhartian “God.” But for forms of Buddhism that resemble the more primitive Theravada, where there is no talk of Atman, the source is an undetermined multiplicity of “causes” forming an infinite regress. This infinity of impermanence provides the motivational dynamic for mindfulness, living in the present moment. There is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to get. The present moment, the evanescent product of everything in space and time that has gone before, is the only thing that is here ever and it is always fast disappearing.
  • Eckhart, on the other hand, remarkably focused on exactly the same present moment, and without tinkering with its phenomenal character as evanescent and dependent in the least, embraces it as the point of contact with the eternal Now of a serene and impassive spirit-God emanting the universe of time from his existence ― his esse. Eckhart’s “Godhead” (Spinoza’s “God”) in virtually every respect is indistinguishable from the Hindu Atman. So for Eckhart the very pinnacle, the leading edge, of the infinity of impermanence in flowing time ― the present moment ― is paradoxically the doorway to the permanent “God” who exists in an eternal stillness of self-em­brace. Note that “self-embrace” is also the same phenomenon in both the Hindu-Buddhist and the Eckhartian views. I would also argue that “self-em­brace” and being-here are one and the same thing; they are also the present moment and the Eternal Now. All refer to the same phenomenon, seen through different perspectives.
  • Along these same lines, Eckhart would also agree with the Mahayanists that there were not two worlds. But for a different reason. Eckhart’s experience-based vision sounds like it reduces everything to “God.” But Eckhart would insist that it’s only the temporal nature of ours that prevents us from seeing the one single and undivided esse that is the totality of each. Metaphysical duality at the level of emanation is non-existent, swallowed up in the monism of esse. Multiplicity is only in our heads. Everything that exists in time and space derives its being only and always from the very same esse of the Eternal Now.
  • Now this kind of talk for orthodox Catholics has always been considered pantheistic. Even though under a disciplined philosophical-theological analysis it is not, less educated pastoral personnel, priests, catechists, etc., tended to shy away from it. However, that its conceptualization was beyond the people’s ability to grasp, I believe, was an excuse that functioned right up until our own time. Even Thomistic immanence, a far more domesticated version than Eckhart’s, was labeled “too philosophical” and seminary students were told to disregard it in favor of the anthropomorphic imagery of the Bible. This was the mindset of the Inquisition that drove Eckhart, along with the Beguines who shared his vision, into extinction. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the only vestiges of Eckhart’s spirituality that were still active, as in the case of the Theologia Germanica, had already lost the sense of emanant participation in the metaphysical oneness of God.
  • A serious incorporation of the insights of Hindu-Buddhism could help western Christianity to recover some of its own tradition ― like Eckhart’s vision ― lost to the demands of the theocratic quid pro quo imperative that was imposed on Christianity by Rome and subsequent religious monarchies. Christianity was re-shaped to function as a motivation for harmony in society, an objective that even the sixteenth century reformers ― despite rejecting the dogmatic quid pro quo ― were unable to shed. Correlatively, the incorporation of the metaphysical scope of Eckhart’s philosophy (updated by modern science into a transcendent materialism) could serve to provide Hindu-Buddhism with a cosmic worldview that it now lacks. But in all cases the concurrence between the two traditions confirms the embrace of the present moment as the unique place where, in Buddhist terms, suffering will end and nirvana is found, and in Eckhart’s terms where the breakthrough takes place and the “soul” experiences the stillness and joy of its origins in the common esse that it shares with the “Godhead” and all things that have emanated from it.
  • The experience of the present moment that all seek, however, is to touch reality deeply ― as it really is ― in all its wealth and profundity. This is not a desperate counsel to a cynical and superficial hedonism, a mindless return to the prison of a selfish and shallow samsara. Living in the present moment includes penetrating into the depths not only of the savory and comforting, but also the painful and empty ― the loss, impermanence, pain, decomposition that is equally characteristic of life in our material universe. It means coming to terms with the strange nature of the abundant generosity that has poured out our human organisms into this weird world of entropic time. It is a generosity that is embedded as an innate dynamism in our own material energy. We are born of LIFE, and we are driven to reproduce and protect LIFE. If we fail to understand that, we shrivel and die. Universal love, justice, compassion, generosity, that is what living in the present moment means.

“God” is the energy of LIFE

Originally published Apr 24, 2015

3,600 words

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“No one has ever seen ‘God’ …” This line, common to 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 said 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 to the various forces of nature as separate divinities. The gods were primitive attempts to worship what was really a single life-force that underlay all of reality. The Egyptians had a similar insight 700 years earlier. The gods were symbols of the living energies of nature — the earth, the sea, the sun and the sky, fertility of the soil, art, music and poetry, love, war, power, and the dark forces of the underworld — but the real source of nature was really “one divine principle” which the Egyptians called Aten and the Greeks called ho theos — “God.” There was only one divine energy that was responsible for it all — only one “God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key notion in all this is that “God” is energy. Embarrassingly for traditionalists, it recapitulates Thomas Aquinas’ “definition” of “God” as ESSE IN SE SUBSISTENS — which in Aristotelian terms means nothing less than “PURE ACT.” “Pure act” is conceptually analogous to pure energy. It corresponds to a reality that is not an entity. ESSE is not a “thing.” It is “act,” an energy that is not really there until it activates a potential, i.e., has an existential effect in the real world. That 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 bias even though no one is constrained. The option for LIFE is not coerced; it is a rational choice, 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 kind. As 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 (Jn 14: 12). 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.

“God” is the energy of LIFE (II)

From May 3, 2015

2,200 words

This is a follow-up on the April 23rd post called “ ‘God’ is the energy of LIFE.” I believe aspects of that post can be relevant to the difficulties that some people have with the rational option to see the universe as “benevolent.” The term “matter’s energy,” after all, is not very poetic. But it is the source of the existence of the conatus, which is the wellspring of our sense of the sacred. “Material energy” is a prosaic label for what drives our spectacular universe as well as our own sense of awe. It deserves to be recast by our religious poets in terms more evocative of its indestructability, its vast and lavish abundance, its selfless availability, its inexhaustible vitality and its evolutionary creativity that has always been self-transcending; material energy displays divine characteristics.

The April 23 post contends that in the first century of the common era, Philo’s “God” was still an immanent nature-“God” and had not yet been essentially changed by the addition of the Platonic characterization as “Spirit” in a universe divided into spirit-matter. Later, “Pure Spirit” came to dominate the scene so completely that it created a new paradigm which replaced Philo’s “God” with a Platonic “God” that provided a philosophical explanation for Genesis’ transcendent “Creator.” Plato’s absolute transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” set up granite divisions in a cosmos that up until then had been physically / metaphysically continuous with the “nature-God:” “God” was integral with nature as its logos or guiding energy.

This immanentist tradition continued on in the East, but in the West it became a “minority report” — sometimes tolerated by the hierarchy, sometimes not. Ninth century Eriúgena’s Periphyseon divided “nature” (physis) between “nature that creates and is not created” and “nature that is created and does not create.” In the fouteenth century Meister Eckhart found Aquinas’ esse itself at the existential core of the human person. Nicolas of Cusa in the fifteenth century said “God” was “non aliud,” not other (than nature).   Similarly seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza used the terms natura naturans for “God” and natura naturata for creation. In all cases “God” was part of nature — the originating, guiding, enlivening part.

At the time of John’s letter, one of the effects of assimilating Jesus’ life and message to “God” was to specify exactly what Philo’s nature-“God” was like. As the amalgam of the pantheon, “God” would naturally have been expected to enliven the dark and cruel aspects of nature (once represented by Hades, Ares, etc.) as well as the creative and benevolent. John clarified that once and for all: Jesus’ life showed us that “God” was light, and there was no darkness in him. It would be hardly necessary to say that, unless there were some ambigüity. No such confusion would have attended Plato’s “One.”

Jesus’ life made things clear. Nature’s immanent “God” was benevolent; and Jesus’ moral goodness — Paul identified it as a self-emptying generosity — was the mirror-image of the creative LIFE-force itself. While we usually read John as using “God” to help us understand what Jesus was, I contend that John’s point was that Jesus life helps us understand what “God” is. His approach is “inductive.” John learns from his direct, personal experience of the man Jesus, what “God” is like.

Fast forward to today: the discreditation of traditional religious sources leaves religion as we knew it scientifically high and dry. This is the heart of the problem for “religion” in a material universe. We are forced to find our reasons for the “benevolence option” not in some authoritarian other-worldly source, like scripture or the magisterium which have been discredited as sources of knowledge about the cosmos, but from what we know of our material reality using the tools we now trust. And I claim that following the example of the the dynamic inductive perspective on “God” assumed by John, there is nothing to prevent an analogous correlation of our human moral and relational energy to the energy of the matter of which we are made. Reading John’s letter in this way means John stops being an “authority” with infused know­ledge from another world which he “reveals” to us in “scripture,” and instead becomes one of us — a earth-bound seeker who has “seen, heard and touched” what he was convinced mirrored the heart of nature itself, and is passionate to share his discovery.

John’s theological method is inductive not deductive, and it works on the assumption of immanence. He starts with what he experienced. Jesus’ personal kenosis reveals “God” not because Jesus was a “God entity” and spoke to us of “truths” from another world but because all human moral and relational energy is an expression of the LIFE-force and Jesus’ life was so extraordinary that it had to be the mirror-image of the LIFE-force itself. It’s a conclusion evoked by what he saw and heard … but like all the conclusions of inductive reasoning it remains hypothetical until the successes of experimental practice move it toward certitude. But John insists that he has confirned it and it is certain: “By this we may be sure we are in him … that we walk the way he walked.” (2:5) Notice it’s the walking that conjures the presence of the LIFE-force and provides certainty. “You can be sure that everyone who does right is born of ‘God’.” (2:29) “No one born of God commits sin because God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” (3:9) These extraordinary statements confirm both John’s method and his worldview. “Doing right” makes the divine energy present and visible … and confirms the authenticity of Jesus’ witness.

Analogously, in our times, our spontaneous, unsolicited recognition of the authenticity of human justice, generosity and compassion allows us to project that it is reflective of the material energy of which our organisms are made, for our organisms are nothing else. Like John, we start with what we experience: our instincts for right behavior

There is nothing new about starting there. Daniel C. Maguire bases his Ethics on a sense of justice — right and wrong — and makes no (explicit) appeal to any deeper justification. He’s able to begin his ethics there because no one argues with him about it. Noam Chomsky calls for international justice on no other grounds than people’s sense of fairness and right and wrong. Even though he has acknowledged — and it may be fairly said to be the leitmotiv of his contribution as a linguist — his belief that all human behavior is an expression of innate organic structures, he clearly feels he does not need to have recourse to such structures (or even claim that they exist) when it comes to justice. Apparently, his many readers agree. David Brooks recently wrote a book appealing for a return to what he calls personal virtues (the virtues of moral character) as opposed to marketable virtues (the virtues for knowing and making and selling) without any further justification, because everyone knows what he’s talking about and no one disagrees with him. This is what was meant by syndéresis: our human instincts for right and wrong … and it is where we start. You have to start there … everyone starts there … and I claim it is where John started.

The point of departure is our humanity. It’s all we really know. We resonate with benevolence, and, as Sartre noted, the thought that the material universe (which includes us) is a meaningless mechanism makes us nauseous (and then, bitter and angry). Why is that? Some claim this is our inveterate Judaeo-Christianity speaking. But in my estimation, our spontaneous predilection for benevolence cannot be explained as the result of a mere few thousand years of brain-washing. A survey of world religions shows the same choice virtually everywhere and from the dawn of history. It is more ancient in time and more universal geographically than Christianity. It speaks to the existence of the innate “sense of the sacred” and the syndéresis (instinct for justice and truth) that is its corollary which I contend are reactions to our organic conatus’ instinct for self-preservation. Then, unless you want to claim some hard wall of division between humankind and the rest of the natural world (including the component elements of our own organisms), there is every reason to concede that “benevolence” in the human idiom translates the superabundant life that we see teeming everywhere driven to survive by the lust for life … the insistence on existence … characteristic of organic matter in whatever form it has evolved.

Rationally speaking it’s not the same as in earlier times when benevolence was a logical “deduction” from infallible premises — the irrefutable conclusion of theological “science.” But I believe it is sufficient to support the practical choices we have to make; for our own need to survive drives us toward justice and compassion … for ouselves and for our natural world. This may be called the “argument from practical necessity.” It’s ironic but true: we need to cherish and esteem other life forms and the earth that spawned us all if we want to survive.

But really … am I the only one who sees that the deck is stacked? What other choice do we have? … say “bullshit” and die? Kill anyone who is different from us? Destroy our planet for our short-term enjoyment? If we want to survive we have to cherish ouselves and our world. We’re stuck. But the criteria by which we evaluate and choose belong to us, not to “scripture.” Some of the legacy of John, however, like the divine immanence he believed enlivened the natural world (and Jesus’ personal energies), in my opinion, is remarkably consonant with what modern science has observed about the evolution of the cosmos driven by matter’s energy to exist.

But I want to emphasize: this does not suddenly ground and justify the supernatural illusions proposed by authoritarian Christianity. It rather evokes an entirely different religion, one that is more like the kind that John was trying to construct at the beginning of the second century: a religion whose data all come from this world — the human sense of the sacred and its moral requirements — not from some other world.

This way of looking at things has certain other corollaries:

(1) no one is ever constrained to see life as benevolent … not even the most fortunate. There is enough random destructiveness out there to support those who choose to accept the Steven Weinberg hypothesis: the universe is pointless. But by exactly the same token, there is also more than enough to support the hypothesis of a creative power and self-emptying generosity so immense that, regardless of ideology, and eschewing absurd claims to providential micro-manage­ment, no one with a modicum of poetic sensitivity is inclined to reprove those who call it “divine.”

(2) the perception of benevolence is always, therefore, an intentional appropriation … a choice … without which even a religiously formed individual’s sense of benevolence will atrophy and disappear. But a choice requires some a priori recognition … even if only in the form of desire. There has to be some internal basis in the human organism. The “command” to cherish and esteem does not come from another world; it arises from the matter of our bodies. Our material organisms need to love, not only to reproduce, but to survive.

(3) those who cannot connect emotionally to “benevolence” for lack of parental inculcation (or, as with Weinberg, because of experiences like the Holocaust) may still connect indirectly through the mediation of others. This is one of the roles of the religious “fellowship” (and other “therapeutic communities”). Once the koinonía is functioning it provides the “matter” for resonance: a loving community. (“Look at these Christians [fellow addicts, fellow mourners, fellow workers, fellow activists, friends and family], how they love one another!”). Then the “Weinbergs” of this world might find themselves drawn to what their formation (or experience) had failed to provide.

If you are a theologically traditional western Christian, at some point you still have to admit there is a bedrock place in the human organism that allows it to appropriate “benevolence” based on its own connatural recognition and need. Will you reject even this as “semi-Pelagian”? If you do, as many of the sixteenth century reformers did, you will have to fall back on the absurd predesti­narian position that the entire “salvation” business is a matter of divine permissions and miraculous interventions … from sin through conversion to perseverance … foreseen and managed by “God” for a display of his glory … all of which further depends on a discredited supernatural theism based on allegedly infallible “sources of revelation.” Ultra-absurd! … and no one is buying it anymore.

(4) I am also realist enough to recognize that none of this will fly institutionally, because the institution continues to chug along on that same authoritarian track it inherited from Constantine and Augustine. The reform I’m speaking of is not a mere “revision” of Catholicism, like the one that occurred in the sixteenth sentury. So if by “reform” you mean something that will work “politically” you’ll have to kick the can down the road like they did at the Reformation … and maybe for as many centuries more.

 

[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/.