Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

The mystics, east and west, are a key resource in the pursuit of the universalism that I am convinced lies at the heart of all religions and traditions, among which I include compassionate atheism. The mystics are cherished everywhere, but in the west particularly, they are not taken seriously as a source of “truth.” They are considered rather as visionaries, poets, holy to be sure and inspiring but not entirely reliable because the considerable emotion they display gives rise to the suspicion that they are subjective.

In the Christian west, Jesus fared no better. Observers will notice that gospel accounts do not record that Jesus enunciated virtually any of the “doctrines” that were later counted as core truths of Christianity. Hundreds of years later, as Christian doctrine came to be “defined,” mainly by councils sponsored by the Roman emperors, Jesus was divinized and treated more like an object of worship than a source of doctrinal truth. He was sidelined like all the mystics, even though it was his “defined” divinity that was called upon to “prove” doctrinal infallibility.

In the east, in contrast, the words and practice of Buddha became the subject of discussion, debate, interpretation and eventually canonization in the form of written documents considered by consensus to accurately reflect the mind of the founder. What there is of authentic dogma and ritual in Hindu-Buddhism, is closely linked to practice and bears no reference to the anatomy of the universe or the favor of the gods. The focus is what in our tradition we would call “prayer life,” and spiritual transformation; that practice, among Buddhists, is specifically meditation. Doctrine amounted to accurately identifying and applying the methods of meditation and, of course, achieving its goals: individual peace and social harmony in this world.

This was not true for Christianity where the words and attitudes of Jesus were used to justify a religion structured around dogma and rituals created by the Roman Empire broadly patterned on its earlier state religion. Early Roman religion was a local version of the polytheism common to the Mediterranean region built on the myths of the gods. It was not complex. Its purpose was to secure divine favor for the advancement of the interests of the polis. Social harmony and consensus among the citizens came as a byproduct of that, but were hardly secondary. By the beginning of the fourth century the old state religion of the mythological gods, whose adolescent antics were ridiculed relentlessly by the philosophers, had lost all credibility and the Roman Empire needed a replacement. It selected Christianity. As part of that award, not only the buildings and temple paraphernalia of the gods were turned over to the Christian Church, but with the “donation of Constantine” came a responsibility: to sustain the worldview and purposes of the Roman state religion. Christianity re-invented itself as the ground for Rome’s theocracy.

The “Way of Jesus” which had produced the gospels was ultimately swallowed up by the Imperial embrace. Jesus himself was not interested in using “God” as a prop for state power, so if his followers were to fulfill the role offered to them by Rome they would have to stop following Jesus. Effectively, the religion that came to bear the name “Christian” found itself required to reinterpret Jesus’ words, attitudes and behavior, lifestyle and motivations, in order to subordinate them to Roman priorities. It made Jesus an inspirational, even consoling figure, but it prevented the codification of his message, which was so thoroughly opposed to the demands of the Roman state that it got him killed. Jesus’ use of the words “kingdom of God” was precisely intended to situate ultimate loyalty and behavioral compliance in justice and compassion among people not in any state authority, whether it be the Jewish nation or the Roman Empire. In the frenzy to accommodate themselves to the windfall of Constantine’s “donation,” Christians had to ignore all this. They did. Some say they still do.

Roman “Christian” Doctrine came to be determined on other bases, some a crass, politically motivated exaggeration, like the Greek philosophical divinization of Jesus pressured by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicaea, and others the result of the interpretative fantasies of Hellenizing Jews like Paul of Tarsus and John following Philo, and neo-Platonic Roman philosophers like Augustine of Hippo who concocted “doctrines” like Original Sin which were not part of the Jewish doctrinal legacy and never even alluded to by Jesus. Nicaea, taking place in Constantine’s own private villa and with his dominating personal participation, proceeded to its decisions despite the fact that not only did the assembled bishops try to resist the emperor who insisted they use the word “homoousios” to describe Jesus’ divinity, but also with Jesus himself who, as recorded in the gospels, explicitly denied being “God.”

What “divinization” missed was the heart of the matter.   What made Jesus a great spiritual teacher was the fact that he was an ordinary human being whose extraordinary human experience had brought him to a profoundly human reinterpretation of the theocratic Jewish tradition and turned it into a potential universalism of irresistible appeal. It was providential that his message was preserved in the gospel narratives of his life and work or we may never have known what it was, for it is not borne forward by the dogmas of the religion. He saw “God” as a loving Father, not a demanding and punitive Monarch who would reward you with conquest and slaves if you obeyed him. The gospels, written by his earliest followers for whom it was entirely enough to say that Jesus was God’s messenger, have preserved for us the character and significance of his message. The claim that he was a “god.” or even, outrageously and blasphemously that he was “God” himself, served to distort, undermine and fatally emasculate the radical transformative power of his discovery and his invitation.

Re-forming Christianity

But while the theocratic exploitation of Christianity has created outrageous doctrine that because of its antiquity, we realize now, will never be repudiated by the Churches whose success is tied to the appearance of tradition, the authentic religious endeavor should nevertheless move resolutely to the task of a new kind of codification: to identify and articulate the vision of Jesus in the light of the universalism it shares with all other religions. And in pursuit of that end, as a first and immediate item of common data across time and traditions, the experience of the mystics should be considered foundational. What Jesus and the mystics all have in common is the recognized superlative nature of their lived religious experience and practice. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus is recorded as saying. Indeed. It is the only test of religious truth.

Religion is practice. It is the art of living humanly. It is not primarily focused on “truth” taken as objective “scientific” knowledge. This should not be misunderstood. Knowing what things really are is important for determining what they can and should do; that holds true for humankind as well. But in our case, knowing what we are as human beings comes at the end of a process of discovery. We know what we are by seeing what we do that works. So practice, the lived experience of people like Jesus and the mystics who have achieved unequaled success in the art of living, has been the origin and energizer for most religions throughout history.

Unfortunately, because of the “other worldly” emphasis of mediaeval Christianity, some mystics expressed their discoveries in terms of visionary experiences. Despite their own clear rejection of assigning any importance to these forms of expression, the word “mystic” in the popular mind evokes enthusiasts who have psychedelic and hallucinatory experiences. But in reality, as a serious reading of their work will show beyond any doubt, their “doctrines” were about the moral and emotional transformation of the selfish individual into a generous and compassionate human being, for the benefit of all, and the practices necessary to achieve it.

Religious reform, then, which amounts to a re-appropriation of religion’s original vitality, should be equally based on the experience of these extraordinary people.

Jesus was one of the mystics. Christianity originally began as an attempt to follow and elaborate on his lived experience. That process got sidetracked and in many ways actually reversed by the Roman take-over. That reversal is not an insignificant development in the history of humankind. Among other things it has meant, after two thousand years of Christian “truth,” the domination and exploitation of the rest of the globe by White European Christians who falsely identified the wealth and power of their nation-states with the success of their “faith” applying the theocratic justifications embedded in Romanized Christian doctrine.  Correcting the false directions taken by Christianity and undoing the damage done by Christian theocracy will require reinstalling the lived experience of Jesus and other mystics from across the globe at the foundation of a new doctrinal edifice. There is no alternative. Many who have accurately seen the source of the problem, and yet, in an attempt to respect traditional institutions, believed that somehow the damaging effects of doctrine could be ignored and authentic religious experience pursued on a parallel track, have again and again had their hopes dashed as “reform” has been demolished by theocratic doctrine. We should have known better. The very attempt is schizoid. It belies the obvious integrity of the human organism whose thoughts and actions can be split from one another only at the cost of sanity. It is not insignificant that some have defined holiness as a profound and available sanity. What is eluding us transcends “truth.”

The mystics’ vision

I suggest starting here: Mystics, east and west, broadly speaking, agree on one foundational experience that characterizes their practice: the self is intimately one with all things. It has two aspects: (1) There is an intimate connectedness among all things creating an inescapable bond of unity with the whole universe. This is, in practice, most often seen in action within the human community in the form of justice, compassion and mutual assistance. (2) The practitioner’s self has a unique role in the establishment of the religious relationship which grounds universal connectedness. The human individual’s intimate relationship to all things originates in the depths of the self. The self is the wellspring of the principle of unity.

In practice, while the first expresses itself most often in human society, it is fundamentally universal; we see it functioning today in a concern for the whole planet. The second corresponds to a sense of ground residing in one’s own interior depths. It also sets up a relationship with that ground which may or may not be interactive as between two “persons.” All this remains to be explored in detail.

Both of these aspects of common practice give rise to other secondary explanatory “doctrines” which differ among the traditions depending on the “scientific” (philosophical) context provided by the local culture in which they are occurring. But I want to emphasize: the two foundational items are features of direct experience. They are not beliefs or objective truths “out there;” they are the descriptions of personal experience that are universal among the mystics. There is, initially, no talk of “God” or of any explanatory “entities” not encountered directly in the process of living. Such second tier explanations are claimed to be “revealed,” or conjectured, or inferred, but in all cases they are ancillary and, despite the dominant role they may come to play for the particular tradition, they are the doctrines that vary most among the mystics. What all mystics have in common with little divergence is the originating experience: a oneness with all things realized through the source of unity found in the depths of one’s self.

This is absolutely universal among them. For the mystics, we are intimately related, by dint of something resident in the self, to everything that exists, even the inanimate. I want to sit quietly with this for a while as experience before analyzing it in future posts. I think it is fair to say that it is not unfamiliar territory for any of us.

Christian Universalism (II)

an evolution of The Book

2,500 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… the most to be pitied”

 “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, of all people we are the most to be pitied.”        1 Corinthians 15:19

It is never good practice to quote anything out of context. That is especially true of the scrip­tures which are so often used for resolving questions they were never meant to address. In this case, however, the phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians succinctly sums up the argument in the paragraph that preceded it. Paul is in Ephesus and has gotten reports of immorality in the Christian community in Corinth. He is encouraging them to transcend the causes of immoral behavior ― the desire for personal gratification ― by keeping in mind that they will come back to life after death. The awareness of their own imperishable future happiness should dominate their lives.

Besides, it’s guaranteed. “How can you doubt that you will rise from the dead. For if you don’t rise, it would mean that Christ never rose.“ Paul is taking the resurrection for granted, and he is using it as an undebatable fact in order to drive home a point. Faith in one’s own resurrection is assured and enters intrinsically into the mindset of the practicing Christian. The result is detachment from the urges that impel immoral behavior. If there was ever any doubt about what he had in mind, the final statement on the issue made at the end of the chapter should dispel it: “For If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

The implied mechanism triggered by our own resurrection is postponement. Selfish desire is not extirpated, or as the Buddhists would say “snuffed out,” but rather deflected and deferred, and we will be gratified in our new life after the resurrection when we will live again as ourselves, in these bodies and on this earth. Paul’s message, in this sense, is more “human” than the Buddha’s because he doesn’t demand a lifetime of asceticism necessary for quelling desire. But he also doesn’t leave any room for alternative paths.

Paul appears to be saying that the happiness guaranteed to Christians by Christ’s victory over death, is a necessary psychological precondition for living a moral life. This necessity was part of a larger worldview that insisted on the indispensability of Christianity for “salvation.” It explains why there is supposedly no alternative to Christianity. There is “no other name” by which we can be saved, because there is nothing short of eternal life that will persuade us to postpone selfishly pursuing the objects of our desire.

There are scriptural reasons for saying that this was Paul’s view. Paul had been a believing, committed Jew, a Pharisee of strict observance. The orthodox Jewish belief system did not encompass any promise of life-after-death but it did enjoin compliance with the moral law, the Torah, as encoded in the Jewish scriptures. This is relevant because in a letter to the Romans dated around the same time as the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul states quite explicitly that it was impossible to comply with the Torah. This impossibility was so indisputable for Paul that he felt justified in concluding that the commandments were issued for the specific purpose of convincing people they were incapable of even being minimally human (i.e., moral) without the help of God in the form of a miraculous force that Christians later called “grace.”

Now this is extraordinary. If that accurately reflects Paul’s thinking, it would mean that he was accusing all the Jews in the world of living in open hypocrisy, because the law they claimed to follow was not given to be obeyed, but to be disobeyed . . . they had to break it and if they were good Jews they were breaking it . . . it was God’s will that they should realize their moral impotence. By disobeying the commandments they would be fulfilling the will of God . . . a gross contradiction and an insuperable moral dilemma. Also the literalist interpretation would imply that Yahweh was not truthful about his “will” that the commandments be obeyed, despite having repeated his demands emphatically and imposed severe punishments, including exile, for non-com­pli­ance.

It is hard for me to believe that Paul was ready to say all that about the same “God” that he was now preaching as the trustworthy loving “Father” who had thrown open the doors of Judaism to the gentiles. If “God” lied about the commandments, who is to say he is not lying about this promise of resurrection?

For these reasons there are many who understand Paul’s explanation in Romans in a very different way. They say it was offered in the spirit of the Genesis parable about the disobedience of Adam. Paul was putting all the pieces of the Christ event together in story form. Similar to a mediaeval morality play, ideas are assigned to personalities whose actions in the drama illustrate the connections among ideas. So in this case, we can all relate to the difficulty of living a moral life. It’s as if we were born with DNA inherited from our disobedient ancestors. That’s why we are prone to be selfish and untrusting of LIFE. “God” knows that, and it’s as if he expected us to fail and didn’t hold it against us. But in order to break the power of Adam’s DNA, God sent Christ who died in an act of perfect obedience. When we are born again in baptism we replace Adam’s DNA with Christ’s. It’s as if we had gained a new ancestor. We inherit Christ’s power to obey; we become fearless. We are able and eager to obey the law that eluded us earlier. We can’t lose. It’s as if “God” injected us with a new human nature.

Please notice the as if’s peppered throughout that paragraph. I contend that’s what Paul meant by his narrative about “Adam’s Sin” and the “obedience of Christ.” It was a parable ― a morality play ― and the characters were Adam and Christ. When Augustine came along almost 400 years later, his Greco-Roman scientific mindset misread the Jewish story-book style that Paul was using to explain things. Augustine took Paul’s statements literally. Besides, his own concept of “God” as an autocratic Roman Lawgiver who was quite capable of trickery and deception in his manipulation of his subjects was altogether consistent with Paul’s narrative.

Paul’s real beliefs stand in stark contrast to Augustine’s ontological interpretation and it is that section of the first letter to the Corinthians that confirms it. Paul saw our own return from the grave as psychologically motivational; there was no hint of an infusion of divine power giving morally impotent creatures an ability that they did not already possess. Human moral behavior was dependent on trust in LIFE, and for Paul the fact that Christ came back from the grave and proved that all human flesh will similarly return to life provided the grounds for a trust that could change our lives from immoral to moral. It allowed us to postpone our desire for gratification.

But notice, trust is the key operator here. It is not the resurrection as a Cosmos-changing event, nor the “grace of God” as a magic potion that miraculously transforms sinners into saints. It is trust. It is knowing that we will transcend death that gives us trust in life. And it’s trust in life that takes away the fear of death and the need for instant and selfish gratification. The resurrection stands as a symbol that death does not define life. Life, and the urges it has implanted in us for more life, can be trusted. Looked at in this way, the Christ event is a human phenomenon and its transformative power is similarly human and non-miraculous. Knowing that we will transcend death motivates us psychologically because it doesn’t demand the negation of our desire for life. It simply gives us a reason to postpone the gratifications that represent life for us. That’s how “salvation” functions. Christ’s sacrifice gave us back the incentive to live a moral life because he himself rose. It gives us back our autonomy. There never was any intention on Paul’s part to define humankind as morally impotent. Paul, like any theologian, was trying to have the facts of faith make sense.

Buddha

But just because Christian motivation based on the resurrection makes sense doesn’t mean that no other way can, which is what Paul’s opening statement seems to imply. The Buddha, for one, does not seem to think an afterlife provides any significant motivation for human behavior. He finds sufficient motivation in the simple desire to be happy living justly and compassionately in human community while we are alive. Like the Jews of the OT, he saw living the moral law ― the Dharma, which guaranteed social harmony ― as the greatest happiness that one can experience as a human being on this earth. He enjoined living morally as the essence of present joy and happiness, not as a condition for some future reward in another life. The Dharma, like the Torah, created a human family characterized by loving-kindness. Buddha was very explicitly calling for moral compliance with this life only in view. And paradoxically for Paul, Buddha thought that knowing you were going to die and disappear was actually beneficial because it exposed short term, gross selfish gratifications ― immoral behavior ― as meaningless and unsatisfying pursuits that did not last, did not produce a just and compassionate community and could not transcend the impermanence that embitters human life.

In this imaginary dialog between Buddha and Paul, it seems we have two dichotomously different beliefs about selfish desire which imply two different views of the human capacity to construct a just society. The Buddha says you can get rid of them by controlling your thinking; Paul says you can’t get rid of them. You can only postpone them . . . which requires that they be satisfied after death. Hence the resurrection is necessary because of the insatiability of human desire. That means to accept Christ without believing in the resurrection, is to miss the heart of the matter. The point was to give us back our power to live like intelligent, autonomous human beings in a community of loving kindness. But that can only happen if we believe we are going to live forever with all desires satisfied.

So it seems there are good reasons for saying that Paul believed that incorporation into the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for all. He was convinced there was no other way we can live a moral life and create a community of loving kindness. Given this scenario about human nature, there is no alternative to being Christian.

No Other Name?

But there is a problem with Paul’s insistence on postponement. If Christian resurrection is absolutely necessary, that leaves the rest of the world absolutely without hopeAlso, even for Christians, if happiness is possible only after death, there is no incentive to construct communities of loving-kindness during life.  Such communities will only occur as an accidental by-product of the trust inspired by resurrection.  They are not what we really want, anyway.  What we want are the postponed gratifications promised after death.

But also, look what happens if suddenly it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a faith-based projection ― that there was no literal physical resurrection — that it was symbolic.   In that case, according to Paul, we are all lost.  There is no possibility for any human being to live a moral life, for without the resurrection there is no motivation sufficient for postponement.  Look also at what it had to have meant for the centuries of Jews who lived and died before Christ.  They had no resurrection to believe in. They had to have failed to achieve the minimum humanity enjoined by the Torah and demanded by Yahweh.  Many claim that this is precisely what Paul was saying in Romans. Humankind could not conquer selfish desire any other way.  The resurrection was necessary because of Original Sin.

Another point that emerges from this analysis is that even though the necessity that Paul projected was not ontological, as Augustine thought, but psychological, nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that Augustine got the essential dynamic right. He caught the drift of Paul’s thinking, if not its literal meaning. For Paul was indeed talking about the necessity of sin, and therefore the necessity of the resurrection. Sin was necessary because of the distrust of life embedded in Adam’s disobedience which all of humankind inherited, and the resurrection was necessary in order to restore that trust.

These observations form the basis of a counter argument to Paul’s. My contention is (1) that belief in one’s own resurrection, while it may be effective in neutralizing dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and (2) the same noetic effect ― the realization that LIFE can be trusted ― can be achieved through an appreciation of one’s possession of the common and universal material that is responsible for the existential presence of our cosmos and everything in it. Detachment as the ground of morality depends on trust in LIFE, which is what resurrection symbolizes. (3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behavior being practiced all over the world, in every culture and religion, many like Buddhism that eschew any talk of resurrection. Paul’s claim that the Torah could not be obeyed was a projection that derived perhaps, from his own failings. His assertion that purpose of the Torah was to reveal moral impotence is a pure self-serving concoction with no basis in reality or scripture. (4) The negative historical effects of the culture-wide belief in the unique and unparalleled necessity of Christianity just to live a moral human life provide evidence of the destructive nature of this belief. In the hands of the Roman Empire which made Christianity its State religion, it provided the justification for the conquest and religious subjugation of other cultures, who had to be, by definition, inhuman, satanic and who would only benefit from enslavement to Christian masters. This “religious imperialism” was in full force a thousand years later during the enslavement of Africa and the Americas carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were Catholics, and continued on for another five hundred years by “Reformed” Protestant Christians in the form of an expanding Western military and economic domination of the third world justified as “mission.”

Finally, when Paul says that “if we have believed in Christ only with this life in view …” he is implicitly saying that Jesus’ message and the example of his life without his resurrection from the dead is worthless. Jesus preaching is of no value, and those of us who have heard his words and embrace him as a wise moral/spiritual teacher “are the most to be pitied.” It is here that Paul’s clear theological priorities emerge into full view. Paul’s idea of Jesus is dominated by what Paul sees as Jesus’ place in salvation history. Jesus is not just a human individual, to Paul, he is “the Christ” ― a concept of salvific significance in the overall Jewish relationship to Yahweh. Jesus’ message and manner of life was of virtually no interest to Paul; and he does not acknowledge the fact that Jesus himself never mentions the salvific impact of his own coming resurrection as creating the emotional detachment necessary for living a moral life.

We have to frankly admit that Jesus’ message of justice, forgiveness, compassion and loving kindness was launched entirely on the standard traditional motivations that characterized Judaism at that time. It’s also true that in all his preaching as recorded in the gospels, Jesus never once mentions Original Sin as being the very reason for his presence on earth and the purpose of his mission, which is what Paul claimed . . .  nor that Original Sin made us incapable of being moral, nor that the commandments were issued only to reveal our inability to obey them. If the very things that Paul is claiming are the core of the Christ event, were not even mentioned by Jesus, it would appear that Christians have an anomaly of mammoth proportions to resolve. That the two primary sources of the Christian vision of things ― Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus ― should display such a profound inconsistency with one another, suggests an elaboration of such originality on the part of Paul as to amount to a new and separate religion entirely. Jesus’ motivation for obeying the Torah was the simple imitation of our loving, generous, forgiving father. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paul’s obsession with (his) addiction to gross gratifications and the motivational impact that coming back to life after death would have on the addict.

So I would say, along with the people to whom Jesus message was originally directed, “what we have heard, what our eyes have seen and we have looked on and our hands have touched” has opened our eyes to what we really are ― what we now realize we have known all along ― that we are the offspring of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It is precisely with this life in view that we have come to embrace the message of Jesus also called the Christ.

 

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (III):

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National underdogs and “their” religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast: “God” as LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, October 2018

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monks in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monks in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Semitism?

1,900 words

On February 21, 2017 the Washington Post printed this caption under a photograph of overturned headstones in a St Louis cemetery:

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, on Feb. 21, 2017.

The accompanying article by Post editor Kayla Epstein went on to observe:

For Jews, the act of desecrating cemeteries recalls a dark history of prejudice and intimidation against Jewish communities.

In the 19th century there was an outburst of pogroms against Jews under the Russian empire. “One of the aspects of these pogroms, these violent outbursts against the Jewish community, is targeting Jewish property. A very common target is a synagogue or a Jewish store, but also Jewish cemeteries,” explained Michael Meng, associate professor of history at Clemson University.

During World War II, under the Nazi regime, many Jewish cemeteries were damaged across Europe, including in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Poland, Germany and Greece. During Kristallnacht in November 1938, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass,” Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, along with businesses and synagogues, by anti-Semitic mobs throughout the Reich.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times said on Feb 23rd, “social media was filled with anti-Semitism last year: Journalists who said they had never been subject to bigotry before came to expect it, usually from Trump supporters.”  The event came on the heels of the Trump statement of January 27 commemorating the Holocaust which came under criticism because it omitted any mention of Jews or anti Semitism.

The sudden spate of anti-Semitic hostility is widely understood to be part of the resurgence of white supremacist attitudes prevalent among certain sectors of the American population who supported Donald Trump.  Trump has been accused of having sympathy for such views, in part because of the prominent place he assigned in both his campaign staff and then as national security advisor to Steve Bannon, whose editorial policy at Breibart News was believed by many to support white supremacy.  But also Trump’s derogatory statements about Muslims, his distrust of refugees, his claims about the immoral behavior of Mexican immigrants, his disparaging characterizations of African American neighborhoods, confirm for many that the attitudes attributed to Bannon and the views of Mr. Trump are one and the same.  The unmistakable similarity of skin color among the groups that Mr. Trump denigrates has led some to label these attitudes a thinly veiled racism.

The traditional association of anti-Semitism with white supremacy is well known from recent history, and so its emergence in the current context is not surprising.  But there are certain anomalies that beg for an explanation.  One is that Trump himself is not anti-Semitic; he never criticized Jews in his speeches; his son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter converted to Judaism.  Also Trump is  pro-Zionist to an extreme.  He has even reversed the traditional American preference for a “two state solution” concurring with the Israeli right wing.  Even though his delay in condemning these attacks on Jews suggests he is aware that they are being carried out by people who support him, their occurrence can hardly be laid at his feet.  But if he did not call them forth, what did?  The Jews, stereo-typically speaking, have nothing in common with the other groups that Trump has identified as a threat to America’s “greatness.”  American Jews are citizens; they are considered educated, successful, wealthy and white.  So how do they end up in the doghouse with poor and marginated third world people?

To ask it in a different way: what does hatred of the Jews have in common with hatred of Muslims, blacks, and brown skinned Latinos?  Why does racism elicit anti-Semitism?  This shifts the issue away from Donald Trump and to his followers, where I believe it belongs.  It  suggests that there is a pool of negative attitudes that are shared by the people he appeals to.  When he stimulates the loyalties of this sector of the population, what emerges is not just what he explicitly and intentionally calls forth but other elements which no one suspected were whole cloth with it.

Fear and hatred of the unbaptized

I believe what we are dealing with here are ancient Christian attitudes that continue to reside embedded in the emotional subconscious of large sectors of the American population whose ethnic heritage has passed them on.  I claim there is a structural logic stemming from the ancient traditional Christian view of the world which gives rise to a visceral abhorrence for the non-baptized.  What Jews have in common with those other groups is that they were all at some point in time identified by Christians as heathen.  The non-baptized are pariahs in the traditional view; they are slated for eternal punishment because “God’s” wrath, directed at all the children of Adam, is assuaged only by individual incorporation into the Christian Church by baptism.  You have to realize: this has nothing to do with current crimes or immoral acts.  It’s due to the insult of “Original Sin” at the time of creation. “God” hates the non-baptized because of what Adam did, not because of what they did.  If he is so angry as to punish these people after death who have done nothing wrong, what wouldn’t he do to them during life, and their “Christian” neighbors with them, as collateral damage.

Jews in particular were destined to suffer as a public display of their inherited guilt.  That theory was given a compelling articulation by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century; it was accepted without challenge as the dominant worldview for all of Western Europe for the next 1500 years.  Its theological justification — “Original Sin” and the damnation of the non-baptized — is still taught by the Vatican Catechism of 1992.  The fear and hatred that Christians bore the non-baptized took concrete form in the specific identification of Jews, Muslims, “heretics” and primitive, pre-civilized natives of Africa and the Americas as “enemies of ‘God.’”  The key point is that the presence of the non-baptized — the Jews, for example — in any locality was believed to be a magnet for divine punishment in the form of earthquakes, plagues, famines, droughts, foreign conquest and other calamities.  I claim that, once identified, the non-rational feelings of fear and loathing remained attached to these ethnic and religious groups long after the theological justifications were forgotten.

The violence perpetrated against Jews during the black plague in Europe in the 1350’s is a case in point.  The Jews were blamed for the plague.  Whole communities, men women and children were locked in their synagogues and burnt alive, among other forms of slaughter.  The anti-Semitism of the Nazis and the silent complicity of all of Europe in the genocidal Holocaust that was responsible for the mass murder of six million Jews is another example.  Hatred and punishment of Jews was indisputably a traditional Christian phenomenon; when the Nazis, who claimed to be stone atheists, picked up the baton of anti Semitism they did not have to produce one shred of justification.  The ground had already been prepared.  The imputation of “evil” to the Jews was an unquestioned assumption of all Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike.  The hatred was so deeply embedded that the Nazis didn’t need to be Christian themselves to be energized by the millennia of animosity they had inherited from their Christian forebears.

I claim this is what is functioning in the perplexing emergence of anti-Semitism at this point in time and in response to Donald Trump’s evocation of enmity against the Muslims, Mexicans, refugees and American blacks.  The phenomenon is worth dwelling on.  For it serves as an object-lesson of how these motivations continue on in irrational sub-conscious feelings long after the original logical reasons are gone and forgotten.  I doubt that Trump’s current followers are  worried that the presence of Jews in their communities will call down the “wrath of ‘God.’”  The grave-vandals probably couldn’t even articulate, if questioned, what created such anger in their hearts.  They are blind to the archaic roots of their emotions.

The Reform of sociopathic Christianity — everybody’s responsibility

They may be blind, but we shouldn’t be.  The point of this exercise is to enjoin everyone, not only Christians, to bring these sick mis-perceptions to light and challenge the validity of their origins.  There is no other way to rob them of their power to do harm.  Because of the mythic nature of the sources of these culturally inherited feelings, just becoming aware is usually enough to quell them.  Who still believes that “God” hates the Jews and will punish their neighbors along with them for the “murder” of Christ?

Who, indeed!  But, in this case, we are dealing with a strange twist.  The Catholic / Christian doctrine of “Original Sin,” the source of these feelings, has never been repudiated or denied by the Christian Churches despite a universal consensus that the Genesis story of the sin of Adam was a fable written to encourage moral compliance, not an account of literal events.  The Vatican Catechism, however, published under direct Papal auspices in 1992, continues to promote as “infallible truth” the doctrine that those who die without baptism are the object of “God’s” wrath and deserving of eternal damnation unless baptized into Christ’s saving death.  Why else would the Catechism say that in the case of infants who die unbaptized, if “God” does not punish them it is “a mystery of his mercy.” (Vatican Catechism 1261 & 1283)

Many claim “Original Sin” is archaic doctrine and that no one takes it seriously anymore.  Excuse me.  It’s still “on the books” and there is nothing to stop some future Christian zealot from resurrecting the dogma and following through on its logical implications.

It’s time that the people take responsibility for this ideological insanity that continues in our midst to be perpetrated on a daily basis in the name of “freedom of religion.”  Christians have a moral obligation to the rest of society to reform their archaic dysfunctional religion.  A religion that espouses the superiority of one belief system over another and on that basis tacitly justifies the kinds of anti-Semitic attacks that we see emerging in our society, undermines the very basis of the American Constitution: the equality of all human beings regardless of religion or ethnic origin.

In the 1950’s the contradiction of giving freedom of speech to groups that espoused the violent overthrow of the US government, was duly noted.  In the case of Communists the courts acknowledged that the Constitution respected even those who would speak about revolution, but it would not tolerate actions directed to that end.

I believe we are at a similar place with Catholicism and other forms of Christian fundamentalism.  The same law that will punish the cemetery vandals for toppling the gravestones in St Louis will permit the mediaeval Catholic magisterium to make the absurd claim that Jews, Muslims, and unbaptized infants are the special object of divine wrath.  But by the same token the law permits the rest of us to raise our voices against the stupidity and potential violence caused by obsolete religious claptrap.

Extreme sociopathic attitudes should be denounced as anti-human no matter who displays them.  Freedom of speech cuts both ways.

March 2017

Tony Equale

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.

American Exceptionalism: the theocratic imperative

“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that is becoming part of our common parlance.  It was given heavy traffic in the later Bush years to justify American foreign policy goals and prerogatives as projected by neo-conservative ideology.  It was a signature theme of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

The notion that America is exceptional has been with us for a very long time.  It originated with Alexis de Tocqueville whose observations in 1835 are often cited as a source for early attitudes toward the nascent American experiment in republican government.  But what he meant came from a straightforward comparison between American democracy and the restored monarchies of Europe.  It had none of the apocalyptic overtones projected by the modern neo-cons and tea-party fanatics.  For them, America represents the chosen instrument of “God” himself for the carrying out of the “divine plan” for the world.  It is precisely this theological dimension that I find religiously grotesque and politically dangerous.  The term may have originated with de Tocqueville as the historians say, but the theocratic notion as we have it today has an origin of its own.  I would like to trace that provenance.

 1

 In the late fall of 2003, six months after President Bush officially declared “victory” and the US settled into the unofficial protracted bloodletting known as the Iraq War, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne sent out Christmas cards containing these lines:

 “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,

is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Cheney’s greetings never used the phrase “American exceptionalism” but the sentiments express the core concept:  Empire may have traditionally been considered diametrically opposed to American democratic values, but America is special.  Its wealth and power are a proof of divine “blessings.”  If we are an empire — and Cheney’s card says, why deny it? — “God” himself must be behind it.  This is a religious, not a political sentiment.  And it derives from an American self-perception that developed far earlier than the 1830’s.  It came from the initial colonial experience itself.

The Puritans who landed near Boston in 1620 were not particularly interested in democracy.  In fact, politics was not their main concern.  They came to these shores because they were escaping a religion they could no longer abide — the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church — and if they were going to have the reformed “pure” Christianity they wanted, they would have to get away from the King to do it.  Kings were not the issue … kings were fine.  The problem was with this particular English king for whom the all-too-Catholic Anglican Church had been made an agent of the monarch’s theocratic rule.  Subjects of the king had to embrace his religion or face punishment.  Hence, to escape what they saw as an unreformed religion, the Puritans had to escape the English King.

The King, for his part, could not have been more pleased.  The massacre by Indians of the colony founded at Jamestown in Virginia made it very likely that these Puritan troublemakers would be similarly dispatched.  Yes, go to America!  The Puritans were well aware of the dangers and the attitude of the King who would not protect them.  But they went because they were willing to invest their lives in what they believed was “true Christianity.”  “God” was with them and through them “God” would build a “new world.”

The colonization of New England was a foundational religious undertaking; it had nothing directly to do with the rejection of monarchy or a desire for democratic government.  Evidence for this abounds.  Colonists who refused to hew to the Puritans’ creed and standard of behavior were expelled or even executed as the infamous witchcraft trials attest.  The Puritans believed they had founded “God’s” “City on the Hill,” a “pure” Christianity, and the “blessings” that they would accrue in prosperity and dominion would prove it.  Their goal for this City was religious truth and “Christian” behavior.  That its government was democratic and respected the freedom of religious conscience of its dissident citizens was the last thing on their mind.  They were as religiously intolerant as the King.

It is my contention that the Puritans’ attitude toward their new life in America was shared, broadly speaking, by most of the people emigrating from Europe who followed them.  Immigrants were leaving places where things were being done wrong and coming to America where they were going to do them right.  They were convinced that “God” was squarely on their side in this adventure in founding a new and better world.

This sense that America was “God’s” promised land remained as an unofficial but often expressed truism — the assumed underpinning of the complex constitution drawn up to guarantee the religious rights of competing visions of the “City on the Hill.”  It came to reside, often dor­mant, in the American subconscious and would suddenly awake and emerge when least expected.

Take, for example, the Church of Latter Day Saints, known as “Mormons.”  This millenarist ersatz-Christian religion was founded in 1830, the same year as de Tocqueville’s visit.  Few are familiar with the Mormons’ bizarre beliefs and the traumatic history that resulted from them.  According to the Mormon faith, shortly after the Palestinian ministry that culminated in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Jesus himself preached in America, giving his law to an ancient tribe of Native Americans.  Another of their beliefs that energized the early Mormon years was a revelation announced by their founder, Joseph Smith, that the imminent Second Coming of Christ was going to occur at the “center place” of Zion (the United States), located near Independence, Missouri, which they believed had also been the site of the Garden of Eden.  The attempt to establish their community there in 1844 ran into violent resistance from the local residents.  The Mormons were driven out, and eventually settled in Utah.  The Mormon faith teaches that God, himself, inspired the Constitution of the United States, much as he inspired the Bible.[1]   The United States was not just another country.  It was “God’s” chosen place.

It would be wrong to single out Mormonism as the source of “American exceptionalism.”  I offer it as only the most extreme example of an attitude which is shared by many religious Americans.  Fundamentalist Protestants seem especially prone to express similar beliefs, but they are not alone.  It’s interesting to note how the Mormon perspective emerged spontaneously without any influence from the outside.  That meant it had been there all along, subconsciously, as it were, among the rural people of Western New York State since the days of the Puritans.  This speaks to its widespread existence among the colonial and early American population.  It is a national characteristic and can be reasonably assumed to continue on today.

 2

 Simply put, these attitudes provide the basis and justification for theocracy — the ideological projection of a set of religious “truths,” required behavior and ritual practices as the norms of civil society and governance.   When the term “American exceptionalism” is used, it is usually associated with a conservative form of Christianity and a belief that the “God” who is identified as the Hebrew “God” and the Father of Jesus Christ micro-manages events through­out the world through the use of “chosen servants” who are the agents of his “plan.”  “American exceptionalism” assumes that the United States is one of those agents, and the principal one.  As a social dynamic, except for the details of doctrinal content, it functions remarkably like the Islamist theocracies that Americans fear and condemn.

Theocracies have existed since time immemorial and everywhere on the planet.  Politics has rarely been separated from religion.  In fact, given the organic integrity of the human phenomenon, ideological homogeneity between ruler and religion would naturally occur unless prevented.  At root and initially there are no hard distinctions between the political, economic, moral and religious side of humankind’s presence in the world.  It is only later, when aspects of social existence are rationalized for the purposes of organizational control that the political came to be distinguished from the religious, the social from the individual, the moral from the doctrinal.  Let’s look at some examples of how this played out in Western history.

The Greek experiment in republican government, on which the American constitution was modeled, coincided with the birth of philosophical rationalism around the 6th century bce but always functioned within a set of religious assumptions and ritual practices.  It turned out to be a relatively short lived phenomenon.  Around 400 bce Socrates himself was executed by democratically elected officials on religious grounds because he “corrupted the youth” of Athens undermining their faith in the gods.  And representative government itself disappeared from Greece barely 75 years later when Alexander the Great conquered the then known world and assumed the mantle of empire.

The gods were important to Alexander and his three successor monarchies.  The Seleucids’ attempt to install idols of the Greek gods in the Temple at Jerusalem in the 2nd century bce sparked a fierce resistance from the Jews that led to the Maccabean War recorded in the Old Testament.  The Roman Republic, too insignificant at the time for inclusion in Alexander’s Empire, had begun its history around 500 bce and lasted until dictatorship was finally established with the Caesars at the end of the 1st century bce.  The gods were central to Republican Rome’s belief about itself throughout the time of its phenomenal growth through conquest.  Rome’s last major expansion took place under Julius Caesar who at the time was a military commander still answerable to the Senate.  The loyalty of the legions to his person came from their conviction that the gods were with him personally.  “Fortuna” was a goddess the soldiers worshipped.  It was this belief in his divine destiny that allowed him to defy the Senate, cross the Rubicon and turn the republic into a dictatorship.

Military success and unparalleled wealth “proved” Rome’s divine status.  That was a generalized undisputed conviction of the ancient world (and still is for many today).  Known as diva Roma, “divine Rome” ruled its conquered subjects on this reputation.  When Caesar Augustus encountered difficulty in maintaining control over Rome’s vast empire he attributed it to the moral laxity of the Roman ruling classes and the consequent displeasure of the gods.  The two issues, of course, religion and morals, were always intimately linked, and empire was the will of the gods.  Augustus was so convinced of these connections that he called adultery “treason.”  He introduced draconian measures designed to tighten morality, going so far as to exile even his own daughter Julia for “immorality.”  He used dictatorial power in an attempt to restore the moral fiber of the republic and secure the good will of the gods.  Long before Christianity, the Roman Empire was a theocracy.[2]

 3

 With the election of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, Rome was finally able to ground the moral reform that the emperors had been seeking for so long.  They had failed because trying to motivate moral behavior by appealing to gods whose own behavior was flagrantly immoral was an exercise in futility.  Christianity provided the whip they needed.  The central focus on reward and punishment in the afterlife, presided over by a sinless “God” who was both all-powerful and all knowing, was perfect for their purposes.  This providential “God” micro-man­aged every event that occurred anywhere in the universe including political success.  Hence the Romans, well before Cheney, could justifiably ask “… could our empire have arisen without his aid”?  It was precisely this rhetorical question that St Augustine, the 5th century Roman Catholic theologian, answered emphatically in his book De Civitate Dei, “The City (Rome) of God.”  The Roman Empire, he confidently declared, had been predestined by “God” to universal dominion — no matter what theft and slaughter was perpetrated in the offing — precisely to be the instrument of the universal diffusion of Christianity.  Hence was established a new principle: The true purpose of the state was to advance true religion.  With Augustine’s theology the religious and political orders were united in Christianity and never completely separated until the French revolution in 1789.  Even the American “separation of Church and State” was guaranteed by a constitution that continued to use the western theist “God” for its justification and legitimacy.  Quiet as it’s kept, for most people, despite official toleration of other traditions, the American republic was always a Christian nation.

Due to the dominance of Roman culture, Western Europe, from Portugal to Poland, from Norway to the Danube was solidly Roman Catholic for the next thousand years.  Augustine’s interpretation of the ancillary role of the state in promoting Christianity as the true religion was accepted without question.  The Puritans were no different.  And it was precisely because they had not changed their theology that they changed their religion.  When the Puritans decided the King, not unlike the Pope before him, could not be trusted with the protection and advancement of true Christianity, they rejected the King, just as they had rejected the Pope.  The mantle of “divinely approved authority” thereupon devolved upon them, the Puritans and other Christians who shouldered the task of spreading the “truth of God’s salvation” throughout the world by establishing it first in America.  If people of this persuasion embraced democracy it was not for its own sake.  It was a way of bypassing a retrograde King; it was a tool for advancing their reformed theocracy.   For them it was a tactic driven by the theocratic imperative — the need to have a government that allowed true religion to flourish.  So long as “democracy” served that purpose, they would live with it.  But once it threatened Christian pre-eminence all bets were off.  Thus was born an “Exceptionalism” that subordinated the American constitution and the foreign policy adventures of its government to the “plan of God.”

4

 There are things that emerge from this quick survey that are extremely important, and they bear emphasizing:  Once you posit a micro-managing personal “God” who providentially guides all events that occur in the universe including the affairs of men, theocracy becomes the default position and it is logically very difficult, if not impossible to escape from it.  If you want out, your one recourse is arbitrary and subjective: you have to claim — without evidence — that “God” really does not want things the way they are but permits them because “he” respects human freedom and the laws of nature.  Then, you are stuck with finding reasons that fly in the face of the “proofs” of wealth and power for your claim that “God” really wants things to change.  Without that escape clause, your theology tells you that everything that happens is part of “God’s plan,” and that what “God” wants is indicated by where he bestows his “blessings.”

This means the way things are is the way “God” wants them to be.  This tends to canonize the status quo and insulates it from criticism.  It justifies the elite beneficiaries who want to keep things just the way they are no matter how damaging it might be to other people.  If furthermore you are convinced that your own prosperity and economic security are “blessings” that are sent you personally by “God,” then, you probably also believe that you (or your race or your ethnic origins) are superior — that those who are not so “blessed” are somehow genetically and morally inferior, and are destined to immorality, laziness, lack of initiative, stupidity, etc. and therefore deserve what they get. 

Moreover, it means that the wealthiest and most powerful nation — the current empire? — and its way of life (its language, culture, government, laws, religion and esthetic taste) must be the very best because it is “blessed” by “God,” and others should at least emulate it if they can’t actually become part of it.  For many immigrants, in this scenario, coming to America corresponds as much to a kind of idolatry — entering “God’s” promised land — as to a rational choice for economic opportunity and political freedom.  If, again, this nation’s people promote what they claim is one true religion — in this case Christianity — founded and given its governing structure by “God” himself, then it follows that the national government should be dedicated to its protection, and every human being across the face of the earth should be encouraged to incorporate into it for their own good.  It would seem predictable that over time a fundamentalist Christianity will come to dominate and eventually displace or distort other traditions.  It happens with all empires … the Celtic and Teutonic religions have all disappeared … the religions of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas have all disappeared … religious, linguistic, cultural homogeneity is the inevitable by-product of empire.

Notice that in all of the above, human rational choice and decision are pre-empted by a sacred order preordained and managed by “God.”  What theocracy requires of human beings is, fundamentally, to leave things alone.  Do not presume to determine your own destiny, it has already been determined for you by “God” as articulated by the true religion and as the status quo providesThis is the “accepted wisdom” inherited from our multi-millennial culture.  Some of these notions go back to the ancient totalitarian empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt and were inherited by the Roman Imperial theocracy.  They became embedded in the dogmas of Rome’s Church and formed the attitudes of its people; they are the common heritage of theocracy and empire.  Indeed it might be reasonably argued that empire, which needs to control a multiplicity of diverse cultures and populations, could not function without the extraordinary compliance and self-submission to the established order that universal religion alone can inspire.  Empire must somehow convince its people that by submitting to it, they are submitting to “God.”  This may help explain why people who do not share the religion of the overlord often have to be controlled by military force.  They are not inclined to self-submit to a “God” they do not believe in.

Now, on the other hand entirely, if you do not share this perspective … if you are convinced that governments and their constitutions do not come from  “God” but are created and installed by men for the purposes that they decide in common … if you realize that wealth and power are the products of a particular way that we have organized the distribution of goods necessary for human survival and well-being and are not the “blessings” of “God” as a reward for moral or intellectual superiority … if you recognize that all religions are the conditioned efforts of culturally diverse peoples across the planet to express their sense of the sacred and to discern the “God” who is the source of LIFE, and therefore are all equally valid … then you have to rethink your idea of “God” and religion.  The traditional concept of “God” as a rational, micro-managing “person” and the traditional western conviction that “God” established Christianity as the “one true religion” for whose protection the state exists, lead inevitably to the kind of theocracy that fueled the siege engines of ancient Rome.  These doctrines may be justly called, “the theology of theo­cracy” … and empire is impossible without it.

 5

  Cheney’s card was right to this extent: there is a logical connection between theology and politics.  You will have to adjust your theology to your politics, or you can be certain that your politics will ultimately adjust to your theology.  Dump religion altogether?  It may work for you personally, but as a solution it will not carry over into the next generation or beyond your little clique.  There is no real “solution” to the human problem that does not deal with the radical transformation of mass religion.  Humankind has a sense of the sacred and religion will not go away.  Religion, like everything else we do, has to be made subordinate to human needs.  When it seemed the Roman Empire was good for all of humanity, our Roman Catholic religion was made subordinate to the needs of the Roman Empire, and Rome’s successor states through the next millennium and a half were all made in its image and likeness through the conscientious formation of Christian doctrine.  It is time now to acknowledge this imperial etiology and subordinate religion to another political vision, one that we in our time determine is good for all of us.  We no longer believe in Empire or in empire’s “God.”

Cheney, finally, was quite wrong.  His card omitted the second half of what Jesus said:  “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  He was referring to our intrinsic value.  We can trust this LIFE we bear as our own: it makes us sacred and calls us to determine our own destiny.


[1] Richard T. Hughes, “The Mormon Faith and the Romney Doctrine of American Exceptionalism,” Huffington Post  9/12/2012

  [2] Catherine Edwards The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome, Cambridge U. Press, (1993) 2002, p.44-45, 61