The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.
It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)
The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emergence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.
The evolution of “God”
The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.
As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.
The Song of Songs
These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract. In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual. It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.
These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.
There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.
Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church. Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.
While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”
Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”
These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself. Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.
“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.
This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.” New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity. Many consider him a martyr. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured. He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D. Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers. Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.
By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.
Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity
The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage; however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist. As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.
An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.
Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.
Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.
The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.
Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.
Faith in the “magic” Church
Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest. It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession). These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it. The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.
It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.
The Nature of “God”
The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible. What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.
I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like. That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.
Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female. It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.
The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.
“God” and true mysticism
“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.” “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act. Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE. When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.
This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted. “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE. It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics. Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda. LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.
So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought. We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake. How could they have known otherwise? Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock. How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way. We know better now. Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”
I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:
The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefor God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.
“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should. “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence. If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.
 From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201