Self-embrace

1

In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

2

I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

3

The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

4

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

5

We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing.

But perhaps it is not. Emptiness means that the realities that we see directly also throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, not monkeys, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.[4]

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations makes it clear that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.”[5] But it is quite possible that Buddha may have meant to include both the state of mind and the metaphysical reality because they are one and the same thing and in the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, they are explicitly identified as such. For if, as Eckhart claimed, there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless and silent self-embrace, then they are indeed the same thing. To enter nirvana is to enter an energy field that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here with everything else and in the way everything is-here.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cults and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned Johannes Eckhart, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT!

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda

[4] Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

[5] itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

 

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

Christianity 2017

Reflections on the Protestant Reformation

by Tony Equale

mos snapshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid., main text #3 ¶13

[3] JDDJ, Preamble #1

 

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

Spinning Your Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Church and Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale