Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

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.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

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.[1]

“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.

 

 

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

 

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A Slippery Slope (1)

Some twenty years ago I woke up to the fact that there was no way that Catholics could ever accept other religious traditions as equal to their own, or treat their practitioners as anything but benighted and misled, because they believed that their own founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was God himself. The conclusions were inescapable: Catholic teachings had to be infallible and everyone ought to leave their ancestral religions and become Catholic. There is no way a true dialog — an interchange of equals that respected one another’s religious validity — could ever occur. Suddenly it struck me, the logical results of that position contradicted gospel values and the clear call of Vatican II; they were so absurd, insulting and damaging to the global human family that it provided an indirect “theological proof” that Jesus could not possibly be “God.” As a corollary, it also called into question the existence of a theist (rational, providential, powerful, commanding) “God,” precisely the kind of “God” assumed by the doctrine.

The Catholic Church claims it was started by “God” himself walking on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What more guarantee of absolute truth could you ask for? It was a matter of simple logic for Catholic theologians to say that any truth or holiness that might be found among other religions had to have come through the Church in some way. No “pagan” ritual, moral code or spiritual practice, in itself and apart from the Catholic Church, could ever mediate contact with “God.” The Church was “God’s” chosen instrument of salvation. It had an obligation to bring the truth to the whole world, and Catholic “missionaries” were even persuaded that it would be OK to impose Catholicism by force. Like the rationale for baptizing helpless infants, if those people knew the “truth” they would certainly choose to be baptized Catholic. “Error has no rights,” the motto of the Inquisitors, held sway here as well. In 1992 Pope John Paul II hailed the acquisition of the Americas by the Spaniards and Portuguese (which included a genocidal conquest and the encomienda system of forced labor) as a boon to the Amerindians because it brought them Catholicism.

We have to recognize that these attitudes flow inexorably from the premises. If Jesus was “God,” then the Catholic Church has to have the absolute truth; all other religions are “false” and whatever of truth they may contain is solely the prerogative of the Catholic Church to discern and decide. Any tactic or maneuver that led to the conversion and baptism of non-Catholic, non-Christian people was praiseworthy regardless of the means employed.

Absurd

The divinity of Christ, a doctrine that seems an appropriate reflection of Catholics’ feelings about the man they believe “saved” them, when looked at from outside the Church is utterly absurd: it totally invalidates all other religions and traditions. Catholics who were in close touch with non-Catholics were aware of the absurdity of Catholic claims because they experienced firsthand the goodness and holiness that other faiths produced in their people. So while it was gratifying when the Second Vatican Council affirmed the validity of other religions and called for Catholics to have a sincere interchange with them, the Council’s common-sense call for “ecumenism” in practice undermined the “divinity of Christ” as traditionally stated and interpreted.

Those who took the first steps along the ecumenical path were confronted immediately with the impasse created by Catholic doctrine. Since no rational person could ever consider any other religion the equal of the one founded and instructed by God himself, no respectful dialog could take place until that obstacle was neutralized in some way. So Christians found themselves looking to reinterpret the “divinity of Christ” in terms that levelled the playing field with other traditions.

There were only two ways to do that. The first efforts attempted to assign an equal divinity to the founders of those other religions. But that “solution” didn’t work because the other religions were not interested in having their founders compete with Jesus on those terms. They never called their teachers “God” and they saw no reason why the Catholic obsession about Jesus’ divinity should force them to abandon the cherished sanity of their own tradition. Their founders, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu were not gods. They were men and models of humanity.   For Jews and Moslems, in addition, to claim otherwise was blasphemy and idolatry. The Buddhists, for their part, considered the very thought delusional and at any rate irrelevant to the pursuit of liberating self-knowledge. They would not oblige.

That left only one alternative: Saying “Jesus is God” must mean something other than what Catholics have always claimed it meant. Either the statement is simply false or the word “God” has to be taken in a way that is so different from the traditional theist meaning of an all-powerful, all knowing, rational “other” person who created the universe by fiat and communicates his will to humankind as imagined by the “religions of the Book,” that it effectively ceases to denote “God” as understood since the founding of Judaism.

This was earth shattering. The Catholic Authorities recoiled from any such revision, and those who tweaked doctrine in order to facilitate dialog were silenced. The very title of Roger Haight’s book, Jesus the Symbol of God, clearly declared the import of his study and explains why the Vatican will not let him teach or write about such matters. It was predictable. Once you accept the validity of the world’s religions, Catholic doctrinal claims — as traditionally understood — collapse like a house of cards. Needless to say, except in some areas of minor disagreements, interfaith dialog has stalled.

Other untenable doctrines

Catholics who continued with efforts to communicate realized that the divinity of Christ was not the only example of a Catholic dogma that was contrary to the objectives of the gospel or even just plain common sense. “Original Sin” was another; the doctrine was scripturally indefensible, anti-evangelical, scientifically untenable and theologically incoherent. It forced the narrative of Jesus’ life and death to conform to an atonement theory of the relationship between “God” and humankind thereby re-defining “God” as eternally insulted and implacably punitive. It characterized the human being as an aboriginally corrupt and degenerate biological organism whose bodily urges were debased and unnatural.   It denigrated manual labor, debased childbirth and women and claimed death was unnatural, the result of human guilt.

Simultaneously, Catholics were faced with indisputable evidence of the moral integrity, deep holiness and mystical achievements in other traditions. Claims to moral or spiritual superiority for the Roman Church were obviously self-serving self-deceptions.

It became increasingly clear that the untenability and humanly damaging character of Catholic doctrine required that thoughtful Catholics make a “mental reservation” when declaring their allegiance to the teaching of the Church. Such a maneuver immediately meant that many traditional “truths” of the faith — like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin — if they were to be retained at all, would have to be taken as poetic symbols that referred to truths that the imagery, narratives and explanations did not, in fact, literally denote. This would relegate doctrine to the homiletic role of evoking emotions “as if” the doctrine were factual when it was not. Such a re-assignment would fatally undercut any claim to “truth” in the traditional sense; Catholic doctrine would effectively be discredited and assertions of religious superiority rendered ludi­crous. The Authorities would never tolerate that.

In the case of the “divinity of Christ” I proposed at the time that we make a mental reservation about the literal truth of that teaching and think of it instead as a symbol of an authentic humanity possessed by Jesus that could be considered, poetically speaking, “divine.” Jesus’ sense of the character of “God” as forgiving “father,” his mindset on the human condition, his moral actions and his social interactions would be taken as a model of what “God” might look like if “God” were to become visible to humankind. Jesus’ “divinity,” in other words, would be hyperbole for his deep wisdom as a human being. Or, alternately, one could think of the existence shared among all of us, including Jesus, as a proportional participation in the divine existence that comes from our Creative Source; Jesus in this case would be understood to have an extraordinary degree of participation.

In our common moral struggle to “be like God,” which was the core of Jesus’ message, Jesus was more like “God” than anyone we knew. But “God” in this case is not a metaphysical designation, making Jesus the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but a moral one, acknowledging that he was a most insightful, loving and compassionate member of the human family. Furthermore, by understanding the living energies of which we are all made to be “God” or a symbol for “God,” such an interpretation would also be compatible with a view of the universe that has emerged from the discoveries of modern science. That matter is increasingly acknowledged to be somehow alive means that we share LIFE with our Source and matrix.

I made that suggestion twenty years ago at a meeting of interested Catholics. I was immediately warned by one of our number that such a practice would prove to be a “slippery slope.” I took that to mean that to continue to say that “Jesus was God,” even though qualified as metaphor, would, over time, revert to its literal meaning and ultimately reinforce the traditional belief tied to those traditional words. Nothing would change.

At the time I disagreed. I was convinced that we could sincerely take doctrine as metaphor and simultaneously pursue a “doctrinal restructuring” that would systematically reformulate teachings that were patently untrue, institutionally self-serving and damaging not only to the individual Christian’s psychological health and spiritual growth, but an impassable obstacle to the honest sharing among traditions that would promote the deepening of religious life for everyone on the planet. At the same time, there would be no need immediately to change creeds, rituals and catechisms or scandalize the traditional Catholics among us who were not capable of such adjustments.

But retaining doctrine as metaphor was always something of a concession, in my mind. Leaving intact what needed to be changed means that the theocratic intent embedded in the doctrine remains present, ready to reactivate its oppressive potential. The primary example of this is the divinity of Christ itself. It was elaborated at Nicaea in 325 ce. It was embraced and promoted at the time by the Roman authorities for the purposes of shoring up their over-extended, tottering empire. It justified their claims to universal domination and the expropriation of the goods and human energies of their conquered populations. That means that the doctrine in question — the homoousion — was not only untrue, it became an instrument of oppression.   The doctrine needs to be confronted for what it was used for, and reformulated so that its potential toxicity is neutralized forever. The “divinity of Christ” as traditionally understood must be officially repudiated, apologies must be offered for the damage done by it, and it must be restated in such a way that it can never again be interpreted to mean that “God Almighty” founded the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed any religion. I have come to agree: anything less would indeed prove a slippery slope.

The same can be said mutatis mutandis for the traditional doctrine of “Original Sin.”   Its import was to make Catholic baptism a “necessity for salvation” for the entire world. In the mind of Augustine of Hippo who elaborated the doctrine in its classic form, anyone who died without being baptized was condemned to eternal torment because he/she bore the guilt of Adam’s sin and not just its effects. That included infants who died before being baptized. You can imagine the anguish created by Augustine’s “teaching” in an age when infant mortality is estimated to have been 300/1000, or a rate considerably higher than in modern under-developed nations. Augustine’s “theory” justified the growing innovation of allowing adult baptism to morph into a magical ritual administered primarily to helpless infants that guaranteed “salvation” and bound Rome’s subject populations to the Empire’s Church with hoops of steel. The doctrine made it almost impossible for people to believe Jesus’ message: that “God loves us and we are invited to imitate that love by loving one another.” Sending innocent infants to hell was consistent with a punitive Tyrant, but not a loving father. Augustine’s theory of Original Sin radically altered the way we looked at “God.”

I no longer believe that just declaring that dogma is to be taken as metaphor will provide the necessary stimulus for the kinds of reformulations that are required if these dogmas are to cease having their damaging effect on people’s lives. The continued use of the dogmatic expression in question without being accompanied by an explicit disclaimer and explanation of its metaphoric nature is misleading and invites misunderstanding. It is exactly the slippery slope of the warning.

In terms of spirituality and moral development, the unclarified use of these dogmatic travesties prevents the exploration of new forms of expression — new symbols and rituals for the exercise of faith and deepening the relationship to our Source and Sustainer.

 

 

In search of a new doctrine of “God” (II)

The “sense of the sacred” in my view stands on its own as a human phenomenon — a common psychological and social experience. It does not immediately imply the “existence of God,” as some claim. Nor does it appear to be derived from religious socialization; for people who do not believe in “God” also have a sense of the sacred.

Rather, in recognition of the intense emotional investment in whatever is considered sacred, it may be reasonably understood as a derivative of the conatus, our drive to survive as human beings. I will dare define it here: the sense of the sacred is a by-product of our existential self-em­brace. It is the affective resonance of our appreciation of our existence — an appreciation innate to our organic matter which radiates out to everything that has to do with it, from its source, to all those things believed necessary to maintain it.

[ Note: Some readers may object to the use of the term “sacred” because of its religious associations through the millennia. I recognize that it is a problem word in this regard. I will gladly accept the use of another word or phrase for “sense of the sacred” so long as it continues to refer to a subjective feeling imputing an ultimate value requiring recognition. Its interpretation may be a matter of legitimate dispute, but the existence of the phenomenon is not.
Also I am intentionally bracketing the effect of society’s collective appropriation of the conatus’ energy to create religion.]

So we start with a sense of the sacred as a human experience, and pursue an enquiry that tries to determine whether or not it has a justification that transcends cultural programming and personal predilection … or to say it in a different way, an enquiry to determine exactly what may explain it, and what it, in turn, explains. Effectively we are examining the root and ground of the conatus.

Essentialist-spirit­ua­list philosophy grounded the traditional “sacred” in two ways: (1) It said that “Being” was a spirit-“God” who designed and sustained our being with a participation in “his” being, and (2) that human beings each had an eternal personal destiny with “God” precisely and only because we were “spirits” as “he” was.

The cosmo-ontology that we are proposing here affects each of those points differently. As far as (2) is concerned, eternal personal destiny was called into question because our position challenges the existence of the separable immortal individual soul. Personal destiny from now on will have to be calculated on a different basis, and with an entirely different result. To the degree that the sense of the sacred was tied to the (eternal) existence of the immortal individual soul, it is gone.

participation-in-being

But in the case of (1), participation in “God’s” being, the question remains open. In the non-dualist view we are proposing in this study, the sacred is theoretically sustainable based on the “participation” cre­ated by the com­­mon possession of the substrate, matter’s energy. What it comes down to is this: material existence as we have been studying it, performs the theoretical role once assigned to “God” as “Being” — it is that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

How do these competing “grounds of the sacred” compare:

First, traditional participation suffers under an insuperable liability. It is premised, as we saw, on subsistent ideas. But there is no “World of Ideas” that makes traditional “participation in being” possible and there is no world of separable spirit. This will affect the “concept of Being” as the ground of participation. “Being” is an idea; it is not a “thing.”

The term “God” has been so wedded to the essentialist view that some feel it is impossible to use the word “God” without evoking essentialist spiritism. But the issue in this case is the word, not the reality.  There is no question that material energy is an existential factor of sufficient ontological heft to sustain the self-em­brace that gives rise to the conatus and our sense of the sacred. Matter’s energy is indisputably that “in which we live and move and have our being” and therefore, objectively, can explain and justify the sense of the sacred derived from the conatus.

Second, process, that aspect of matter’s energy revealed and mea­­s­ured in time, is fundamental to our definition of existence. The basic “stuff” of reality is not a “thing,” but a dynamism with a non-rational intentionality, a self-embrace for which rational consciousness is secondary, emergent, not antecedent, not directive. Anything built of it, therefore, will also be a self-embracing process, not an idea with a purpose embedded in a “thing.” To the extent that “sacredness” was dependent on the presence of static essences wed to final causes (purposes) and possibly a “divine” terminus, an Omega Point, it is gone. What kind of “sacred” does non-rational process, reflected in the conatus, evoke? My answer: only itself, an endless pro­cess of existing, a self-embrace that is equally functional at every point along the timeline of development.

Third, we can say that a shared substrate that evolves all things suggests a participation that is material, genetic and thoroughly a posteriori. It is not built on an a priori plan moving toward an Omega; it’s built on the aggregation of constituent parts, reproduction, symbiosis, a “genetic” relationship — family, community — the result of a process of invention and integration driven by an existential self-embrace.

If the energy at the base of matter — which I call existence — now performs the existential functions once assigned to “God,” there is no reason, as far as I can see, why it cannot provide the philosophical grounds for our sense of the sacred. But I want to emphasize, the sense of the sacred is a first-level phenomenon; it is indisputably there whether we find sufficient and necessary grounds to explain ity or not. Even further removed is whether such grounds approximate to what we used to call “God.”

“God” has always been considered “pure spirit.” The energy of matter cannot be postulated of “God” with­out imputing materiality to “God.” This is a critical issue for our tradition. That “God” might be material has been considered entirely unthinkable in the history of western philosophy. (But, see the appendix to the Mystery of Matter on the materiality of God.) The word “God” carries an ideological overload connoting “spirit.”

Matter is a living dynamism … does that make it sacred?

So let’s bracket the word “God” for now. Hasn’t the function of the concept, “God,” in fact, been replaced with matter’s energy?

The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is explained by a conatus, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, “good,” by which I mean “sacred.” But the conatus — the human drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo­geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred.

But the conatus requires a recognition of its creative power that was in evidence in even its most primitive state. Accepting the conatus as a living dynamism at the sub-atomic level, however, takes an understanding that transcends the information available to particle physicists working in isolation. Recognizing the homogeneity of the dynamism of the conatus across the levels of existence requires the use of a retroactive interpretation that looks at, not only what physics can directly observe and infer about the big bang revealed by particle colliders, but at what these particles are observed doing later on at virtually every level of evolutionary emergence. The panoply of forms, pre-living and living, conscious, intelligent and purposeful, that result from the repeated application of the “stuff” and collective strategy initiated at the big bang, is exclusively built of quarks and electrons … unless there is an outside “spirit,” the conatus must come from there.

The evidence for it is clear. Its character as existential self-embrace is within us, and it is through the intimate “experience” of one’s own conatus that it becomes more than a syllogism and overflows into a deeper understanding of all reality. But, that having been said, I want to emphasize, it always remains a syllogism:

Major premise: “life” cannot be reduced to mechanical reflexes (i.e. there is a qualitative difference between life and non-life);
Minor premise: but our planet is teeming with life, and every living thing is constructed only of a physical substrate which on its own and in isolation appears absolutely lifeless.
Conclusion: therefore, either there is another, immaterial, source that introjects life into “matter,” or the substrate, despite all appearances and reductionist claims, is itself a living dynamism.

The syllogism is inductive and after examining premises and evidence concludes that “matter is a living dynamism” activated proportionately (analogically) across the phyla of living things as we have been saying. If it cannot validly do that, the argument fails, and the reductionist position holds, although always with a condition … reductionism, in turn, must itself explain “life.”

Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean­ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like (however true that may be), I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor­phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists metaphorization. And meta­phor is the only valid use that that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al­ter­native imagery.

[ Note: It’s important to emphasize that in this study I am trying to remain strictly philosophical. I am not rejecting religion … how “religion” may respond to the new understandings we are discovering here is a separate topic altogether. By emphasizing the damaging power of the “G” word I am simply attempting to maintain the in­de­pen­dence of a very fragile, easily derailed speculative imagination, which is the only instrument we have for exploring the sacred depths of reality as it has been revealed to us by science. ]

Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost anything that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

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.

 

Eschaton

Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind.  As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time.  It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours.  For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.

It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine.  The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods.  The Roman occupation was the obvious reference.  Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance.  The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a  consequence of that belief.

Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center.  However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program.  His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.”  Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”  The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.

During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly.  In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.”  One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.

When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared.  Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death.  This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death.  This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.

Restoration

The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction.  I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s.  It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis.  The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe.  Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled.  There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary.  In the end all would return to the Source from which they came.  In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.

Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries.  Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live.  It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire.  Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose.  Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.

Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom.  Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition.  The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective.  It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law.  It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”

When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace.  Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin.  Luther, following Augustine, rejected that.  But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will.  He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition.  Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit.  Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.

Love, metaphysically

If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”

John’s theology could have prevailed.  But it did not.  What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.

But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love.  To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being.  That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get.  From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong.  “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus.  For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything.  Love “seeks not its own.”  That is the ultimate human achievement.  Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human.  It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.

The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure.  To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is.  “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do.  Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.

All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture.  For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them.  It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood.  We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle.  Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos.  Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge.  Each culture runs by its own set of rules.

There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people.  In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created.  A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate.  Penury entails isolation and death.  It’s the game of life as we have structured it.  It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments.  The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE.  There is no forgiveness for failure.

We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry.  We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it.  Religion is a structure we impose on life.  It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.

The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing.  The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply.  Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.

What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion.  Do we have immortal souls?  That’s a factual question.  We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa.  Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality.  Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other.  The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not.  The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.

To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it.  Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want.  To love is an end in itself.  If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.

And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota.  Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.

“God” is the energy of LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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