Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

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Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Evolution and Prayer

January 2017

3,300 words

In a recent piece in the NCR, Thomas Reese reported on the efforts of fellow Jesuit Robert Daly to bring the discoveries of science into the religious life of Catholics by reformulating the Eucharistic prayer — the liturgical center of the Church’s life.  Reese gives examples of Daly’s work, and while I agree, from what I read, that the results are poetically beautiful and scientifically updated, it hardly qualifies as the achievement that Reese claims for it.

Reese associates Daly’s efforts with contemporary Catholic theologians who are attempting a dialog between Christianity and science, and says

These theologians are imitating the great theologians of the past — Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — who used the intellectual thought of their times to explain Christianity to their contemporaries. Augustine used Neo-Platonism and Aquinas used Aristotelianism because these represented the intellectual worldviews of their times. Today’s theologians who use science and contemporary thought are very traditional; they are simply following in the footsteps of Augustine and Aquinas.

Augustine and Aquinas formulated theology.  The systems they worked out represented an objective effort, using the logical procedures current in their times, to understand the beliefs of their faith and express them in scientific terms and thus, as a by product, they effectuated a convergence of science and religion.  The prayer that flowed from that achievement was an integral component of a living synthesis.

Robert Daly is not doing that.  And I question whether any of the theologians Reese cites as Daly’s mentors are doing that either.  Claiming to follow their lead, Daly is taking Augustine’s theology built on ancient and obsolete science and without changing much more than the descriptive details of the natural order, is rewriting some of the prayers of the Church.  He is not really trying to correlate Jesus’ life and message with the science and thought processes of our times; he avoids incorporating any of the really significant changes demanded by the discoveries of modern science into this prayer.  I suspect he knows  such changes would result in something the ordinary Christian would not recognize as prayer.

Daly recognizes this challenge and says his “goal has been to formulate prayer/praying in which both people comfortable in a pre-modern, pre-critical, pre-scientific worldview and people comfortable in a quantum-cosmological, developmental, evolutionary worldview can happily pray together.”

Science deals with reality.  By insisting on including “a pre-modern, pre-critical, pre-scientific worldview” Daly is repeating the theology which assumes attitudes and interpersonal relationships that people now believe to be unreal.  To the modern mind the achievement of such relationships is impossible, therefore, its continued pursuit is unreasonable.

Inversion — the “God” that is not

These impossibilities turn on a major inversion in our understanding of the universe, what we traditionally call “creation.”  That inversion occurred in the last century when it became generally accepted that evolution was the exclusive agent of the origin of species.

“That organisms have evolved rather than having been created is the single most unifying principle of modern biology.”  (Brooks & Wiley, 1988)  It is also the single most important event for traditional western religion — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — theologically and liturgically in its entire multi-millennial history.  Prior to evolution creation was understood in the West to have been the product of a rational Mind — “God” — a person who both designed and brought into existence all “creatures” according to their kind.  Evolution established beyond the shadow of a doubt that that view of creation was not only not true, but had actually inverted the natural order.  For instead of design and its implied rationality coming first and being the “cause” of the existence of things, evolution showed that it was the existence of things and their insistence on remaining in existence in whatever way that worked that was responsible for the evolution of all things at every point in time over the course of the 13.7 billion years of the history of our universe.

That fundamental inversion affected all established priorities.  “Purpose,” believed to have been embedded in creation’s design and the principle motivation driving it, suddenly disappeared altogether.  There was no “purpose” that explained what something was and why it occupied the place it did in its environment.  The only “purpose” involved was the desire to survive which dominated all living organisms equally.

In scholastic terms, the hallowed primacy of essence over existence was inverted; evolution revealed that existence had priority over essence.  The famous scholastic dictum that “existence comes through the form” and that it was “form” that gave shape to “matter,” was similarly reversed; “form” came through existence and it was matter’s energy to survive that determined the form it would assume.

Ultimately the belief that a rational Mind — the Mind of “God” — was behind it all lost all evidentiary support.   But also it lost its rationale; it was no longer needed to make sense of the way things were.  It is beyond dispute that matter’s energy self-elaborated all the forms and features of our universe.  “God” as an independent cosmic agent had no scientific basis and was relegated to a matter of “faith.”

That wasn’t true in Aquinas’ day.  For Aquinas “God” was a cosmological factor as scientific as any other.  Prayer directed to the “God” who personally created and providentially managed all of creation was completely consistent with the most up-to-date science of the times.  There were three things that made “prayer” an integral part of the worldview that no one disputed;   (1) “God” was a rational “person” who thought, understood, and willed as we humans do though at an infinitely greater level of breadth, depth and knowledge.  (2) As a “person” “God” was intimately present to each human person, heard what was said to “him” and was capable of making “him”self understood in return if “he” wanted.  If “he” did not do so, it was because “he” chose to remain silent.  (3) “God” was also all powerful, capable of changing reality by his thought and will alone.  “God” controlled the events that occurred in time.  Whatever happened was either “God’s” direct will or “his” indirect permission.  “God” can change the course of history and natural events at any point, and if he does not, it is because he has chosen not to.

All this served as a premise for prayer.  “God” could be asked for things, even changes in the natural order, because he was an all powerful person, who heard our prayers and knew our inmost thoughts and loved us.  Given what we thought “God” was like, it was most “reasonable” to pray to that “God” and ask “him” for favors.  But unfortunately, we have since learned that that “God” does not exist.

The “God” that is

Evolution threw everything into question; it contradicted all the assumptions of the traditional view.  Once the evidence for “God’s” work and character evaporated, people realized that there was no such “God.”  It was simply not debatable: the “God” imagined by Genesis, the intelligent designer and creator of the material universe, even nuanced to include the discoveries of modern science, does not exist. 

People reacted to that realization in different ways.  Some concluded simply that the entire religious phenomenon was an imagined substitute for modern science, explaining the unexplainable.  Once science clarified the evolutionary mechanisms involved in “creation,” the need for religion disappeared.  We have to face reality: we are material organisms in a purely material universe.  There is no “God,” and we are alone.

Others, trusting in their faith experience, insisted that it was premature to draw that conclusion.  They said that the only thing you could validly conclude from evolution was that whatever “God” there was, is clearly not like the “God” described by Genesis.  The issue, they said, is not the existence of “God” but “his” character — what “he” is like.  Evolution taught us more about “God” than Genesis  ever could.  Where both groups agreed was that the data were clear: as far as was observable and provable there was no other agent functioning in the elaboration of every form and feature of our universe besides the material particles released at the time of the “big bang.”  Evolution, in other words, has determined that the only way to continue to say that “God” created the universe, is to assert that “God’s” activity is completely commensurate with and indistinguishable from the activity of matter evolving itself.  That means that, effectively, whatever other source of formal distinction there might be, there is no observable material distinction between “God” and matter.  “God,” in other words, is totally imperceptible (you may have noticed).

Once you begin moving in this direction, you leave the realm that imagines “God” as a transcendent entity separate and apart from all other entities.  That theological view is called “theism,” and it is the traditional view of “God” provided by Genesis.  It is untenable.  With evolution we enter a new realm which conceives of “God” as immanent in the material world, identified with it and indistinguishable from it.  This view is called pan-entheism: everything (pan) exists within (en) God (theos).  Each of those views has a different take on “God’s” distinctness from matter.  Theism said that “God” is distinct because “he” is an entity apart from the world.  Pan-entheism says “God” is distinct only by reason of his ontological relationship to matter as its cause and energizer, but not in any other way.

“God” and matter, therefore, as far as the ordinary observer is concerned, are one and the same thing. How­ever, strange as it seems to say that, it turns out that we moderns were not the first to consider such a scenario.  Someone of no less prestige and antiquity than Thomas Aquinas held a similar belief in the middle of the 13th century.

Thomas said that “God” was esse in se subsistens (self-subsistent being) and therefore was not an entity but rather “Pure Act,” the continuous source of the existence of all entities, and as such was commensurate with and in no way separate from matter’s action in any form.  This was possible in his system because he thought of ESSE (Being) as a subsistent idea and therefore “God“ as Pure “Spirit.”  But a fortuitous by product of this obsolete dualism was that matter always retained its own integrity as autonomous agent according to the level of development it had achieved on its own, all the while energized as itself by a spirit-“God.”  This concurrence of “causes” Aquinas divided into primary and secondary.  While secondary causes — the natural order and its principle modus operandi: evolution — were entirely responsible for the effects achieved by their struggle to survive, all of it was sustained as itself by the primary cause “God,” providing esse, “his” very own “spiritual” self, as the energy that enlivened all, making “him” equal­ly the cause of what matter elaborated.

Secondary Causation is the philosophical proposition that all material and corporeal objects, having been created by God with their own intrinsic potentialities, are subsequently empowered to evolve independently in accordance with natural law. …

Secondary causation has been suggested as a necessary precursor for scientific inquiry into an established order of natural laws which are not entirely predicated on the changeable whims of a supernatural Being. Nor does this create a conflict between science and religion for, given a Creator, it is not inconsistent with the paradigm of a clockwork universe.

This is what Thomas meant by providence: “God” provides the natural order and the existential energies that it needs to sustain itself.  This “God” never acts apart from the natural order, and it is clear from the role “he” plays in the evolution of  the universe, that “his” action collaborates seamlessly with the initiative and autonomy of matter.  This kind of “God” does not perform miracles.  “God” only acts through secondary causes.

While Aquinas’ doctrine is compatible with evolution as we see it unfolding, his dualism gets in the way of the profound immanence that we must presuppose if we are going to fully match our idea of “God” to the data of scientific observation.  In a dualist system “God,” precisely as Pure Spirit, stands apart from the Universe of matter because spirit is by definition the antithesis of matter, while the observed facts suggest otherwise: “God” is in no way separate from matter.

Even to call “him” a “person,” another corollary of “spirit,” is a humanoid projection of ours which is belied by the evidence: “God” is not an entity that relates to other entities except by being their living energy.  “God,” by being my “primary cause,” is as much myself as I am.  “God” does not hear and respond to us because “he” is not separate from us.  The bond we have with “God” is far deeper and more intimate than any interpersonal relationship.  “God” is our very identity.  “God” is the very LIFE that I experience as mine, and that we humans as a mutual support community experience as ours.  Our thirst for love and for justice ineluctably stems from there.

Prayer in an evolutionary Universe

The first thing to realize out of all this is that the donation of “God” to the existence and development of the universe is greater, more intimate and more selfless than anything we imagined under the obsolete pre-modern worldview.  Evolution goes far beyond Genesis and reveals “God” to be utterly self-donating with no will to interfere in the way matter pursues secure existence.  This complete absence of self-interest establishes a new and exponentially expanded definition of “generosity” and provides the solid ground for Jesus’ metaphoric characterization of “God” as a loving father, forgiving without limit, and Mohammed’s acclamation of Allah as “the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.”  It also concurs quite literally with the statement in Acts 17 that it is “God” “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  It also elucidates Paul’s use of the word kenosis ­— “self-emptying” — to characterize Jesus’ imitation of his self-donating “father.”  The primary cause of creation by evolution is that “God” pours “him“self out completely into the material universe.  There is no remainder.  Such a view is not compatible with dualism.  “Being” is not a subsistent idea.  There are no subsistent ideas.  Being, ESSE, is a concrete measurable observable thing: it is matter’s energy.  “Pouring out” is a metaphor.

The immediate implication is that “prayer of petition” in the context of such magnanimous self-emptying is not only futile, because “God” is not in a position to answer anyone’s prayers, but it is also totally meaningless because what the newly revealed character of “God” provokes is not a groveling recitation of petty needs, but a great-hearted generosity that corresponds to the selfless donation that is, simultaneously, our very persons and “God.”

What kind of “prayer” is appropriate now?  The more suitable reaction is a profound awe that collapses in a surrender that is totalizing: it consumes our life because it reveals our LIFE to be “God” “him”self.  It renders us as individuals humble to the point of utter quiescence.  It’s no surprise that a stunned silence has been one of the spontaneous reactions across the traditions and throughout history.  Elijah’s “gentle breeze” was an example of silence as a reaction to the encounter with the numinous.  The various forms of Hindu / Buddhist / Zen silent meditation are authentic practices that could easily be used in community prayer by Christians.  The Quakers have made silent “sitting” the centerpiece of their community worship to great spiritual benefit, but it never happened in mainline Christianity.  Our noisy and whining liturgies have yet to acknowledge the global consensus and incorporate silence into their program.

The experience of our common possession of LIFE also explodes outward in respect for all other things and other people.  Francis of Assisi’s legendary love of the animals and Gandhi’s hunger and thirst for justice were equally valid and universal reactions.  Social action / liberation is so clearly the extenuation of love and generosity that it should have some liturgical link, minimally the remembrance and evocation of the “martyrs” of social justice regardless of their religious stance.  This would include atheists.  Many people have had and described this experience without necessarily knowing the intimacy of “God’s” presence to the living organism from evolutionary biology or from the tenets of any official religion.  But the correspondence between the experience evoked by evolution and the experience of the mystics and liberators of past ages is remarkable and corroborating.

Please notice how evolution opens a view onto the character of “God” that is contrary if not contradictory to the premises of traditional western Christianity:  … (1) that “God” is distant and inaccessible, insulted, angry and demanding.  The “God” of evolutionary creation, to the contrary, is not far from us, either by a creator’s ownership, ontological transcendence or moral alienation, requiring that we do something to overcome a fatal separation.  There is no separation between us and “God.”  Any sense of separation is purely psychological on our part — an illusion that needs to be overcome; and that is the basis for an ascetical program.  … (2) that humans and “God” are immaterial “spirit.”  The idea that our persons are really immaterial “souls” able to exist without our bodies after death, or that “God” is not the very living dynamism of matter itself, or that there is an immaterial world of subsistent spirits other than this one, becomes both unimaginable and unnecessary.  Our material bodies are natural and the primary residence of divine energy — LIFE.  Our endless LIFE has already begun with “God’s” sharing “his” material energy every bit of which has in fact been here for 13.7 billion years and will be here for as long as matter continues to evolve.  We are full equal partners with “God” in “God’s” ongoing material  project whose astonishing evolutionary accomplishments to date portend a cosmic future that is yet to be seen.  … (3) that “God” will punish us for our sins.  There is no “God” that is not identified with our very selves.  The “God” that punishes us is our own conscience, enlivened as it is by LIFE itself.

It is hard to imagine that Catholic liturgy will ever change.  The false belief in miracles and the millennial encouragement of the hierarchy for people to seek divine help mediated by the (remunerated) intercession of the clergy, will prevent any liturgical departure from the status quo.  But this should be no surprise.  It parallels the adamant refusal to revamp doctrinal and authority structures that are equally archaic and dysfunctional.  Much of this was anticipated in the case of Thomas Aquinas almost a thousand years ago.  It’s difficult to suppress the suspicion that the need to maintain absolute power over a fearful, gullible and paying constituency caused the hierarchy to suppress his ideas.  Thomas’ concept of providence-as-the-natural order and “God” as ESSE enmeshed with secondary causes, established divine immanence as the correct relationship between “God” and us.  But none of it ever reached the pulpit, and those in Thomas’ own time like Eckhart and the Beguines who attemp­ted to bring it to the people were condemned as heretics.  In its universal pastoral practice the hierarchy continued to impose a wrathful, insulted, punitive, miracle-working, humanoid “God” and wrapped its sacramental life around it.  The similarity of Aquinas’ vision to the work of evolution in the material universe predicts a similar fate for the people today.  The Church will not change.  Theologians have often sketched a Church that only exists in their imagination not in reality.  It’s important that we keep clear that it’s not just the dreams of theologians that constitute the “reform” our times call for.  Our liturgical prayer must change beyond just superficial tinkering; but for that to happen, the Church must change … and that’s the rub.