Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monks in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Psalms 85 to 89

PSALM 85

Background. A community lament, possibly post-exilic but historically undetermined. Murphy thinks that if the restoration mentioned in v.1 is the return from the exile, then this new plea may have messianic allusions. The anticipated salvation is personified as a “kiss” between earth and heaven: a symbol of the contract. The messiah was still an earthly messiah.

Reflection. This psalm has been given a “prophetic” messianic interpretation, probably originally from the Jewish community after the exile nostalgic for the Davidic kingship and then by Christians who applied it to Jesus. From a general Buddhist point of view, however, “salvation” can only mean enlightenment ― that through fidelity to meditative mindfulness we see clearly the structural impermanence that characterizes the human condition, stop looking for an escape for a fictional “self,” stop calling on help from an outside source that does not exist, and re-train ourselves out of mutual compassion to bind with our fellow humans in a community of justice and loving-kind­ness. Later Mahayana Buddhists would claim that the very possibility of conquest over samsara implies the existence of a True Self, a Buddha-nature, that ante-dates the false self-created by our delusional dreams. What emerges from the stripping away of the layers of meaningless habits of self-indulgence, self-aggrandize­ment and self-protective isolation, is something that was there all along: a Real Self, the resonance of living in accord with the Dharma, LIFE’s path, something we share together with all things. That Real Self the Hindus call Atman, Brahman, and I call LIFE’s energy ― a notion that corresponds to Meister Eckhart’s idea of the “Godhead” and the Sufis’ concept of Allah. We are THAT, every bit as much as the material energy of which we are constructed. They are the same thing.

1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

That is a gross deflection. LIFE is never angry. We are the angry ones, unreconciled to our condition. We rebel at what we are, biological organisms in a world of living matter, and the severe limitations that places on us ― the greatest of which is death. Will we stay angry forever? When will we accept what we are, impermanent, perishing creatures, and start having compassion on one another. We are all in the same boat. Grabbing food from a starving companion only infuriates everyone, including yourself; it intensifies everyone’s suffering.

4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

It means learning to love ourselves, forgive one another for we are all driven by the same conatus to live forever in an entropic universe where all things decompose and die. Reconciling ourselves to our condition brings peace. We are the offspring of LIFE. We can let go. Rest in the flow of LIFE that carries us. There is nothing to do. There is no place to go.

7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

We can dodge death for only so long. Everyone will eventually lose friends, family, and the accomplishments of a lifetime. Building a “legacy” that will live in the memory of others is a pallid alternative to immortality. It only fools us while there are those that even care to remember. But they also disappear in the general emptiness, and the colorless shadows that their pale light had once cast on the wall of history disappear with them. Earth and heaven will finally meet when we accept what we are. That moment will be, for us, like a Cosmic kiss: what we are, and what made us what we are, will finally be one thing.  And living in the present moment — the eternal Now — is a foretaste of that ultimate event.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

 

PSALM 86

Background. A personal lament of generic focus. It appears to have borrowed a great deal from other psalms and so gives the impression of being a “boiler plate” offering used perhaps as stock prayers for sale by the temple priests and paid for by suppliants in court cases. Murphey says “LORD” in this psalm is Adonai, not Yahweh.

Reflection. Regardless of its origins, this poem expresses the same sentiments as others of this genre. The same metaphors apply. The “enemies” are the enemies of LIFE, the Dharma-path of justice and compassion that turns the earth into a community of loving-kindness.

1 Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;

3 be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.

4 Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.

6 Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.

7 In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.

9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

LIFE is our LORD. The world is the work of LIFE. It is everyone’s undisputed LORD and we bow down before it. The Dharma-path is the “truth” of LIFE. To love LIFE is to walk the truth of the Dharma-path with undivided heart.

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.

13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Our enemies are our false selves; those fictional creations of ours meant to conjure up a reality that does not exist and which, at any rate, we do not need.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.

17 Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

 

PSALM 87

Background. A Hymn of praise on the occasion of an undetermined feast. Mt Zion, the place of the Temple, is central to the worship of Yahweh who rules all peoples. As the universal ruler, Yahweh is assumed to have a register of his citizens … and they are from everywhere. Diaspora Jews also live in all these nations mentioned, and many were born there. The image of the presence of Jews in these lands meshes with the universal rule of Yahweh which also paradoxically means that all peoples are also citizens of Mt Zion.

Reflection. LIFE is comfortably metaphorized by the imagery in this poem. The residence of LIFE is in all things composed of living matter, the energy of existence everywhere, but most especially in humankind who are LIFE’s mirror and agent. LIFE’s living matter is the Source from which all things arise. We are all the offspring of LIFE. We are all the mirrors and agents of the Way of Dharma, fundamental morality: justice and compassion. This establishes a reciprocal relationship of all people to one another. We are all born of LIFE, we are all pilgrims on the Way of the Dharma, I belong as much to any one of my brothers and sisters in LIFE as they belong to me. We are one family.

1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

3 Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.

4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia — “This one was born there,” they say.

5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it”; for the Most High himself will establish it.

6 The LORD records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”

7 Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”

 

PSALM 88

Background. An individual lament, conspicuous for the absence of any belief that divine help was forthcoming. It has been described as the only psalm where there is no victory, no redemption, no release … no sense of hope. And yet the psalmist insists on voicing his complaints to “God.” He may not expect help but he expects to be heard.

The poet is “lying in his grave” from some relentless misfortune, and feels utterly forgotten by Yahweh whose “wrath,” he thinks, lies heavy upon him. He sinks beneath Yahweh’s waves, high water being a frequent symbol of death and chaos in the Hebrew scriptures. Not only can he not count on Yahweh’s help, but Yahweh somehow has insured that even his human companions, friends and family, shun him. They look on him with horror. He is utterly isolated.

It is remarkable that this psalm was even included in a collection of what are very often pious formalities built on the common belief of miraculous divine intervention held in common by the tribes of the ancient near east. It stands as a credit to the poetic and religious integrity of the psalmists and redactors. This poet has the courage and candor to “tell it like it is,” a rare virtue.

Reflection. This psalmist speaks to the human condition like no other. His imagery is peppered with allusions to “the Pit,” Sheol, the place of death and lifeless shadows. There is not the slightest hint that there is any way to escape his destiny. This psalm holds our feet to the fire. We are all deniers. We find it very difficult to admit the truth, that, sometimes for everyone, and for some individuals virtually all the time, life can be intolerable. I am reminded of my friend, Tim, an outdoorsman who at 48 years old fell and hit his head. He severed his spinal cord at the base of the cranium and became paralyzed from the neck down. Lack of blood flow to his legs meant that an earlier wound would could not heal and one leg had to be amputated at the hip. He had to breathe with a respirator and he could only speak by having air diverted from the respirator to an artificial sound box. Doing so was dangerous, however, and on one occasion he went into respiratory arrest when the diversion was attempted and failed. I would pray this psalm in his stead for he was indeed a man who was already “lying in his grave” unable to move arms and legs, unable to speak and communicate, left for days on end to the ministrations of a paid staff of caregivers who were all too inclined to use opioids to relieve his anxiety and save themselves from his constant demand for company and communication.   Like Jesus on the cross who could not move either arms or legs, I thought I could hear him crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? Was such suffering pointless, or was it redemptive? Jesus himself, I believe, was not sure. We have no idea to what depths suffering can reach … it seems there is no limit. Our clinging to LIFE and our dedication to the Torah, the Dharma­path, has to include these possibilities, for they are all too real. The Disneyland mirage is a myth of the worst kind. It is a massive cultural collusion designed to encourage confidence that technology’s consumer products, including modern health care, is actually a way out of the human condition.  There is no way out.  The only way is in.  Embracing LIFE as it is, is the only way.

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,

5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.

Suffering that entails isolation is the most awful of all. How do prisoners survive months and years in solitary confinement? At this very moment there are human individuals all over the world who are suffering more than we could ever imagine. Nothing says it couldn’t be me. Nothing says it has to be someone else. It’s almost like LIFE is angry and is punishing me. I feel like a leper. People shun me; they smell the residue of burnt flesh and want no part of it. I am trapped and alone.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.

So I turn to LIFE, but LIFE will not extract me from my sufferings. LIFE is not a god who works miracles. LIFE is not in need of worship and praise so there is no sense cajoling. LIFE needs only a place to live … live, then, in me, but save me!

10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?

11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

But I am what I am. I do not know how to die. I cannot ignore this overwhelming desire to live. LIFE, I bear your face, your features, your character, your conatus, your DNA. I am your offspring. I see my face but I don’t see yours. Does the suffering and isolation have to include blindness as well? Why do you hide your face? Of all my sufferings, this is the worst. Why do you hide your face?

13 But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?

15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.

LIFE, I do not apologize for complaining.  What I need now is a god of miracles: someone out there with power. I am dying. I need help, not insight. Until I can let go of my need to live ― a need I got from you ― I will rail against my fate. I don’t know what else to do. You’ve left me to deal with it alone; my one companion is darkness.

17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.

18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my one companion is darkness.

 

 

PSALM 89

Background. This psalm is divided into two sections: a long first section of formalities of praise and repetition of the standard truisms of Yahweh’s power and fidelity to his promises. The object of the promises, however, is not the Hebrew people, but, in a glaring departure from traditional expression, that of the king alone, and he is emphatic in reminding Yahweh of the promises he made to David. Then the poet turns to the second and last part: a lament and open chiding of Yahweh for not upholding his side of the bargain. Suddenly it becomes clear: part one was flattery. Yahweh was getting an ego-massage to set him up for what the psalmist apparently thought would be an irrefutable argument that Yahweh could not ignore ― that you have not only abandoned your contract with the king, but you have allowed your own honor to be trampled in the dust. What power-soaked near eastern autocrat could allow such sentiments to be expressed without reacting?

Roland Murphy (Jerome Biblical Commentary, OT, p. 592) bizarrely misses the dynamic of this psalm and with astonishing naïveté suggests that there were two authors or two totally different psalms inexplicably redacted together. In my opinion, this unaccustomed obtuseness on his part can only be due to an unwarranted attribution of “divine inspiration” that imagines the psalms as devoid of negative sentiments ― pique, ill-will, deviousness, cynicism, even sarcasm ― toward “God” that a more secular critic would be quick to notice.

It confirms for me that the psalmist is working out of a very primitive and simplistic theological framework. For this poet what makes Yahweh “God,” is power. The poet lives in a world where all human action is a response to and an expression of one person’s power over another, in the family, in the fields and workshops, in business and trade, in politics local and international. Not much has changed in practice since then, and so we can easily be sucked into maintaining these familiar attitudes by allowing them to guide our prayer. But we must honestly acknow­ledge: they are obsolete. They have been superseded. We use them as prayer only out of deference to our tradition. They must be purged of what disqualifies them. If they cannot be reasonably updated without breaking bones they must be discarded.

The psalm is also conspicuous for its almost exclusive focus on Yahweh’s promises to the king, not as usually presented, as part of his contract with the nation. That makes the theology erroneous, even for that time. This is another hint that we are dealing with a self-serving religious manipulation that had the audacity to use some liturgical occasion to shore up autocratic power and avoid “regime change” by appealing to Yahweh. The intention was to utilize whatever resource was available: in this case divine help. It used a prayer format but there was little of sincere religious devotion there.

The later Christian use of this psalm as a prophetic announcement of the universal political power of a future messiah they identified as Jesus the Christ adds to its unacceptability. That distortion derives directly from the psalm’s original exclusive focus on the Hebrew king.   By linking together the exaggerated theocratic intentions of the psalmist and an unwarranted identification of that king with Jesus, it was all by itself as impactful as any other factor in the total gutting of the gospel teaching on power as service. It was used to justify the mediaeval Papacy’s claim to universal secular power. This linkage is a complete fantasy and it must be broken. One way to begin doing that is to strip the psalm from its place in the canonical hours. It should no longer be prayed by Christians.

Reflection. This psalm is another object-lesson in how we have to approach scripture in general, and ancient prayer in particular. Just because the psalms are found in the “Bible” doesn’t mean that they express authentic religious sentiments that we can allow to guide our relationship to LIFE. Our first and most basic reaction to the psalms has to be to read them as literature and history. We have to understand the level of religious and scientific development that the poets of that time reflect. We then have to judge whether these sentiments are appropriate for our relationship to LIFE and the moral path we are enjoined to follow, or can reasonably be understood in our terms. Even ignoring gross literalisms, many of the psalms express a dynamic ― a relational attitude ― that is simply unaccep­t­­able. Giving some “things” mentioned in the psalms (nations, enemies, even Yahweh) a symbolic function may work in some cases, but changing the relational dynamics is another thing altogether. It will often simply distort the poet’s meaning beyond acceptability. I believe this psalm, like others that we have encountered in this study, is in that category. I think we are better off just reading it as an historical religious artifact. An obsolete museum piece.  A primitive religious phase that we are well rid of.

1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:

4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'”

5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.

6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

7 a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?

8 O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD Your faithfulness surrounds you.

9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

11 The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it — you have founded them.

12 The north and the south — you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;

16 they exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness.

17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.

There is no mention made of Yahweh’s power on display at the exodus from Egypt. At times in the OT, “Rahab” is used a symbol of Egypt, but it seems not to be meant that way here, and is simply a symbol of chaos and of Yahweh’s universal power established by creation. It should be noted that “universal power” is what gives Yahweh power over the other gods that represent other nations. This in my opinion is what is driving the poet: getting Yahweh to assert his dominance in the council of the gods to prevent some impending international catastrophe from occurring to the Israelite king.

18 For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.

20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him;

21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.

22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.

23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.

24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.

25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.

26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’

27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.

29 I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure.

The exclusive reference to the king, his line, his special relationship to Yahweh, the range of his power and the complete absence of any mention of the nation, is a clue to the theological eccentricity here. This is not orthodox Yahwism; it is the king arrogating to himself the prerogatives of the whole nation. The people are mentioned as potential transgressors, but even granting the total failure of the people, the psalmist demands that Yahweh’s fidelity to ”his king” should not be shaken.

30 If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances,

31 if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,

32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges;

33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness.

34 I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.

35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.

36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.

37 It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.”

Here begins the lament, and once again it is exclusively centered on Yahweh’s abandonment of the king. The people do not figure in this picture except as failures. Damage done to fortifications and city walls is described as being done to the king. Those that do these things are his enemies. The losses on the battlefield are his losses. Yahweh has abandoned his anointed who is only the king.

38 But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.

39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.

40 You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.

41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not supported him in battle.

44 You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.

46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?

47 Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!

48 Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?

49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

51 with which your enemies taunt, O LORD, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

The traditional Christian application of this psalm to Christ is another reason to reject its use as prayer: the original Hebrew distortion which ignored the community dimension gave rise to the Christian extrapolation, applying it theocratically to Christ. Christians have taken it from the Jews as a prophecy of a messiah who will be given autocratic power over all the peoples of the earth, subverting Jesus’ specific call for leadership as loving service and reverting to the paradigm of coercive power: a subversion that the Catholic Church ratified and arrogated to itself. It provided the theoretical basis for the Church’s claims of universal political dominion over the entire planet and justified harnessing Jesus’ message to serve the theocratic interests of every state self-identified as Christian. It’s time we repudiate these sentiments.

52 Blessed be the LORD forever. Amen and Amen.

This ends Book III of the Psalms

Psalms 81 to 84

PSALM 81

Background. Roland Murphy ( Jerome Biblical Commentary ) says this is a prophetic psalm recited on the occasion of Succoth, the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), a 7 day celebration lived in temporary shelters that commemorated the trek of the Hebrews through Sinai when they lived in makeshift huts. The “prophesy” is the voice of Yahweh announcing the first commandment ― the contract ― and the warning of doom if the people abandon it. The Feast also served as a harvest festival. It was announced with the blowing of the Shofar, the sheep horn trumpet also used at other festivals. The “basket” refers to what was used for carrying clay bricks, the Hebrews’ daily labor as slaves in Egypt.

Reflection. We remember with joy when our ancestors in the service of LIFE “heard a voice they had not known” and trusting that voice they threw off their slavery and became a people. Truly a moment to celebrate, because it began the great trek in response to LIFE in the tradition that formed us. It was an early event in the millennial groping that all traditions have pursued in the search for the face of LIFE. But we have come to learn with increasing certainty that the face of LIFE is our own face. Each of us, one by one, are the mirrors and agents of that in which “we live and move and have our being” … for “we are its offspring”and together we form a new people.

Paradoxically, it turns out that it is also the path to our liberation and ultimate happiness. We become a people dedicated to LIFE ― a nation of those who trust the voice whose footprints are never seen. Our fidelity to that vision reflects the clarity with which we see the path that we must walk ― a path of justice, compassion, forgiveness and generosity. We are all we’ve got in this impermanent universe of matter. What else do we have but LIFE’s selves ― ourselves ― to count on? If we abandon LIFE, we cut the umbilical cord that sustains us and makes us a family of loving-kindness. And we will die, each of us, alone.

1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

2 Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.

3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.

4 For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.

5 He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known:

A voice never heard before is the call to liberation. It is a call that forms disparate individuals into a family of loving-kindness. The “secret place of thunder” was mount Sinai for the Hebrews; for us it is the moment of mindfulness when clarity surfaces rising through the mud to indicate the “way.” That clarity is the voice of LIFE reverberating in the material particles of our biological organism calling us to be exactly and only what we are: impermanet biological organisms. To abandon what we are is to abandon LIFE. To be ourselves is to embrace LIFE. The Dharma is LIFE’s path.

6 “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.

7 In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.

8 Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!

9 There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.

10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

It is all too easy to abandon LIFE and decide that liberation is too difficult, or too far in the future, or calls for too much sharing, gives too much to others, not enough for myself. Better to stay with the multitude of slaves where the feed troughs are full. But when we do, when we abandon LIFE, LIFE abandons us to our own devices and we are quickly engulfed by our insatiable needs; we lose our power to act, to decide. We become chained to our addictions. We become our own worst enemies.

11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.

12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.

But if we return to following the ways of LIFE, our enemies ― the selfishness that redoubles our suffering and isolates us from others ― would be vanquished by LIFE’s potential for more LIFE, redoubling in turn the depth of internal peace and the joys of mutual security that well up like spring water from our loving-kindness for one another.

13 O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

14 Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.

15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.

16 I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

 

PSALM 82

Background. Akin to Psalm 58, this psalm excoriates the gods of other nations for allowing their people to pursue false values. Justice and protection of the poor and destitute are what mark true “godliness” for this poet, and Yahweh, the King and Judge of the gods, announces that they have failed the test. Yahweh pronounces sentence: they may belong to the race of the immortals but because of their crimes “they will die like men.” Murphy points out that belief in a conference of the gods was widespread in Mesopotamia and is found in Ugaritic literature, indicating that Yahwists had adapted this world of thought to their own contract and their belief in Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods. The motif of the “fall of the gods” is borrowed from Canaanite myths.

Reflection. This psalm, like psalm 58, is a remarkable example of the dawning realization, in a polytheistic system of beliefs, that Yahweh’s superiority over all other gods does not reside in his success on the battlefield or in international politics, but in the moral transcendence of the call to live with justice and compassion enjoined by the commandments. This is a major step forward in the evolution of religion. However that did not prevent the possibility of falling back into the still common belief that political and military superiority ― wealth and power ― were a proof of “God’s” favor and election. The fatal deterioration of Christianity as Rome’s guardian of its theocracy being the prime case in point. Augustine of Hippo’s “greatest” work The City of God was written to establish exactly that thesis: Rome’s ascendancy was the “will of God.” It is a deterioration that fundamentalists of all the religions of the book ― and Catholic Christians are included ― continue to espouse today.

1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

LIFE, through our agency, demands justice and compassion. It is a demand, not a request. This is no moral nicety ― a refined hedonism for the morally sensitive “religiously inclined” among us. When justice is thwarted and compassion refused, the very “foundations of the earth are shaken.”  It is akin to what Sophocles believed happened to Thebes because of Oedipus.  This is the same vision evoked by the Dharma, the Tao, the Torah in their original sense: the very way of the cosmos itself. Justice in human society is a cosmic imperative, to disregard it is to invite a disaster of insuperable proportions. To reject LIFE is to die.

5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;

7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

 

PSALM 83

Background. An early lament of the Hebrew tribal federation about the hostile tribes they perceive as arrayed against them. They call on Yahweh to activate his power to save them. The list of nations and allusions to events suggest early history, and the conspicuous absence of Babylon confirms a date before 612. Yahweh’s display of power will result in the acknowledgement that he alone is the Most High.

Reflection. The earlier the psalm the more saturated it is with a political and economic definition of “salvation” and a military interpretation of divine power. There is no way we can avoid unambiguously repudiating this emphasis, especially because, astonishingly, despite the millennia of religious evolution in our tradition, this mindset still dominates the imagination of our people who believe in a “theist” “God.” LIFE simply does not bear any similarity to the “God” we encounter in these early psalms, and we have to acknowledge both what they were literally saying in their context, and what we can no longer accept as valid religion. If metaphor is used it will always be an awkward “stretch.”

Rather than run the risk of recidivism in this matter it might be better simply to use the psalm as a meditation on how far we have come. Reading it then becomes a simple lesson in what is religiously immature … what we should be careful to avoid. It has been our historical challenge to understand that LIFE does not exist separately from what it has evolved into, and therefore all its actions are always and only the activations of the living potential of its emerging (and temporary) forms, one of which is us. The religious development of the individual has to recapitulate the development of the community’s consciousness. We have grown past these childish images. We cannot allow ourselves to slide back into them.

1 O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!

2 Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads.

3 They lay crafty plans against your people; they consult together against those you protect.

4 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more.”

If we use LIFE as the analog of the metaphors, “God,” and “Yahweh,” our enemies then become the enemies of LIFE. And the enemies of LIFE for Buddhism and authentic Christianity are our own immaturity: our failure to understand the impermanence of all things and the impossibility of creating a permanent “self” out of a vanishing, temporary coalescence of the energy gathered from the matter in our bodies. The illusory craving to achieve permanence in an impermanent universe is the source of the suffering that we add to the difficulties of survival and the inevitable deterioration and death that accompanies our life-cycle as biological organisms. These enemies conspire against LIFE as we have it.

5 They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant —

6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites,

7 Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;

8 Assyria also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.

9 Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon,

10 who were destroyed at En-dor, who became dung for the ground.

11 Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna,

12 who said, “Let us take the pastures of God for our own possession.”

The Buddha says in the Dhammapada: “Don’t just dig up one craving or uproot one selfish desire, keep on going and destroy the entire forest. Wipe it all out, every bit of it. Temporary desires are designed to achieve temporary goals. Everything else is illusion.” If we call on LIFE to direct and energize our actions, be careful, this is what we are asking for.

13 O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind.

14 As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,

15 so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane.

16 Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek your name, O LORD.

17 Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace.

18 Let them know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.

 

PSALM 84

Background. Murphy says that reference to the king indicates that this psalm is pre-exilic. Otherwise there is no determinable historical context. It is a poem with a contemplative focus that uses the temple as the symbol and setting for an encounter with Yahweh. Yahweh’s residence is a place of refuge; it provides shelter at once maternal and protective, and like the birds that nest in these monumental buildings, it makes us feel safe and secure; we are at peace. Even the procession on the way to the temple is joyful in anticipation of being embraced by Yahweh ― it is as if the procession were a column of rain passing through the desert and left pools of water in its wake. But the loving embrace of Yahweh is for those who follow his ways; the wicked will never know that peace.

Reflection. A psalm that lends itself easily to our new understanding. Like the temple of old there are many things that symbolize LIFE because they actually throb with it. The primary one for us is ourselves. We who bear LIFE in our human organisms not only can see LIFE all around us in our magnificent universe and teeming earth, but we see it in ourselves. The Dharma, the Tao, the Torah, is the path of LIFE. Through our behavior and attitudes which concretize the Dharma in justice, compassion and loving-kindness for all things, we become a mirror-like display of LIFE. The LIFE that enlivens us becomes outwardly manifest in our actions. As we are slowly transformed through fidelity to meditation and mindfulness we begin to see LIFE’s potential being realized in us. The more we see LIFE faithfully re-displayed in ourselves, we are drawn to love and embrace ourselves ― something that perhaps we never thought could ever happen.

We ourselves are the temple that we enter through meditation and day-long mindfulness. Even anticipating the time of meditation makes us joyful and at peace because we know we are preparing to rest in the embrace of LIFE itself. It is like rain in the desert: it produces LIFE everywhere. The more we perceive ourselves as faithful in putting the Dharma into practice in our lives, the more secure we feel about our own instincts, the more we can accept ourselves, our bodies, these particular material organisms with their weaknesses as well as their strengths, bequeathed to us by our parents and our people. We consent to be what we are as part of a family of people, not as the solipsist, isolated, immortal “god” the false self demands ― a self that does not exist and cannot be created. We embrace ourselves as we are, with pride, without self-pity, in love and gratitude. That is the end and purpose of our pilgrimage.

1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.

4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

To acknowledge that we are embraced by LIFE gives us such joy and peace, that even anti­cipating the time when we will sit quietly and undistractedly abandon ourselves to it in meditation gives us joy. We enter into ourselves as into the very Temple where LIFE itself has its temporary residence. Mindfulness makes our whole day fertile, like rain in the desert, leaving pools of life-giving water as it passes.

5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

It is following LIFE’s path that gives wisdom to our leaders; and it is the wisdom of the Dharma ― to live with justice, compassion and loving-kindness ― that is the source of all happiness among us during our brief stay in this perishing universe. LIFE’s happiness transcends anything our false self-worshipping imagination could ever devise.

8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!

9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.

10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly.

12 O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

Reflections on Emptiness

3,000 words

  • Emptiness, one of the foundational notions of Mahayana Buddhism, is a strictly metaphysical term. It is not primarily psychological or spiritual nor is it merely phenomenological. It refers quite specifically to the fact that all phenomena of whatever kind are not themselves the source and explanation of their existence. They are causally dependent on other phenomena; they are empty of their own being.
  • The concept of metaphysical Emptiness did not originate with Buddha. Buddha’s teaching was experiential; it was about the perception of impermanence ― that things compose and decompose. He deduced no-self (anatman) from the universality of impermanence. All things compose and then pass away with their decomposition. The human self is no exception. He saw it as part of a phenomenon affecting all things. I personally ascribe it to the fact that whatever exists is all and only matter. Emptiness was a later Mahayana metaphysical conjecture articulated to explain impermanence and anatman, but it was not specifically materialist.
  • Emptiness of own-being characterizes the self. It is the basis and reason for the Buddhist claim of “no-self,” anatman, which means that a permanent self separate from the coherence of the body is an illusion. The phenomenological, temporary self, however, is not an illusion, it is quite real. But it is not permanent. In physical, material terms, it is the efflorescence of the integrated energy of the matter of the body.   When the organism disintegrates, ― the self ― the integrated energy of all the various particles, disappears. The self is a reverberation of the complex coherent interrelationship of a vast amount of material energy under the (temporary) control and guidance of a living DNA (which is also all and only matter). What the Buddha decried was the delusional attempt to create a permanent self by amassing wealth, control over others (including God), social status and recognition, etc. No such self can be created. The self dissolves with the body.
  • Living in the present moment is a corollary of emptiness for it accepts as ultimate the fact that there is nothing permanent that can result from any interaction of the self with any other dependently arisen phenomenon (which is everything in our material universe). To “do” anything or to “get” anything, is simply to add more dependently arisen phenomena to the totality. Temporary phenomena do occur and are real but nothing permanent can come from them. No event can ever be anything other than a composing or decomposing of material components. Therefore, enjoying the experience of the event itself in the moment when and as it occurs is a direct and valid derivative of emptiness, for, vanishing as it may be, there is nothing more here than what is occurring now, generated by whatever confluence of factors happen to be operating, and will disappear when that confluence ceases.
  • Pointlessness refers to the same phenomenon as emptiness but from a psychological point of view; it is a teleological corollary of impermanence, i.e., it is impermanence seen from the point of view of purpose. All things are empty: they have no purpose beyond just being-here, and are unaware that their being-here is dependent on evanescent factors whose disappearance will “cause” their own disappearance.
  • Emptiness is metaphysical. Nagārjuna (the principal Buddhist philosopher of emptiness, who wrote in the second century ce) uses the word “essence” the way western philosophy used the word “being.” Emptiness means “things do not have (they are “empty” of) their own “essence” or “being.” They have the power to cause other phenomena to appear, but they do not have the power to prevent them from disappearing or to prevent their own decomposition and disappearance.

The West: idea and spirit

  • In the WEST, on the other hand, where idealism prevailed, philosophers, dominated by Plato’s theory of reality, ascribed real being to ideas alone. Ideas were considered the anti­thesis of matter and were made of a different kind of “stuff” that did not compose and decompose as matter did, and were not limited by space and time as matter was. They were believed to be one of a large category called “spirit” which included the permanent human self, the “soul” (which existed before birth, during life and after death), and the “selves” of other “spirits” believed to exist outside time without bodies, like devils and angels (and for a while, gods, who were a little of both). When the idea of one all powerful, all knowing Creator “God” emerged, it was naturally assumed that it was one of those spirit-persons outside time and without a body.
  • In a universe dominated by spirit, a “thing” was believed to be first and foremost an idea (the definition of whatever that thing was) that gave “being” to a meaningless undefined matter. In that form, the idea was called the “essence” of something, also the “form.” Plato believed all these ideas of things actually existed as real substances in a world of Ideas, which was later identified as the “Mind of God.”
  • Since reality was basically ideas, it had to be permanent; the impermanence that we all experience, therefore, was an anomaly and had to be explained. Plato surmised that ideas were yoked to matter, and that it was the disparate elements of matter that had been organized and connected by the idea lost coherence when the idea departed. Without its principle of coherence matter decomposed. In the case of the human being, decomposition occurred with the departure of the “soul” which, like all spirits, had substantial existence and could continue on without the body.
  • Widespread rejection of belief in the substantial existence of ideas began with William of Ockham who wrote in the 1320’s. Today that rejection is almost universal, but its residual effects are still with us, primarily in the form of belief in the existence and natural immortality of the human soul separated from the body.
  • Aristotle defined “things” as composed of matter and form (matter and a particular idea), but that neither could exist without the other. He called existing things “substances” because they stood on their own while they were-here as opposed to other phenomena that were clearly only variant qualities of things, like their color or their size, which he called “accidents.” Aristotle isolated and identified esse, existence, as an energy that underlay all existing reality. He called it act and contrasted it with unactivated potential. He surmised that the “first mover” in the universe had itself to be pure act without any admixture of potential, or it would have needed to be activated by another, and therefore would not have been the “first mover.” Pure Act, then, became the working definition of existence and therefore, “God.” This was still consistent with the assumption that all act had to be “spirit” and that an isolated “matter” without the energizing of spirit had to be pure potential, utterly incapable of energizing anything. They called it “prime matter.”
  • Thomas Aquinas said that things received “substantial being” from God who “gave” them an inferior kind of existence (that Thomas called esse commune) that was different from God’s own (which he called esse in se subsistens). Thomas’ esse began to lose the quality of an energy and took on the coloration of a “thing.” Meister Eckhart, his successor, demurred. He held (with more Ockham-like simplicity) that esse was act. There is only one esse as Aristotle said, and that esse is God. Therefore if there is any esse anywhere in the universe it has to be an emanation from God’s own esse. This brought Eckhart’s terminology closer to pantheism than Thomas’ and helps explain his problems with the Inquisition.
  • Spinoza’s thinking was similar to Eckhart’s in saying that there was only one esse. He followed Aristotle’s definition of “substance” as “that which exists by itself and on its own” and concluded that the only “stand alone” thing in the universe was “God.” Everything else existed by reason of participating in God’s existence, and therefore could not be called substances. He couldn’t call them “accidents” because that category was already linked the qualities of things, so he called them “modalities” that had emanated from the one substance which was God. His intention was the same as Eckhart’s who said that all things were “nothing” because all their being came from God; they had no being of their own. Nothing outside of God had its own being. Spinoza said that the organic drive for self-preservation, the conatus, was a finite version of God’s self-subsistent esse. All things imitate the “God” from whom they emanate.
  • This development is noteworthy because the very term “own-being” became the Mahayana Buddhist word that identified emptiness. There was no semantic link; it was a purely fortuitous choice of words. Everything was empty because everything lacked its own-being. The Buddhists, for their part said that the phenomenal being that things actuated came from their “causes” which were other things. Everything was dependently arisen because everything owed its existence to causes other than themselves. Nothing was the source of its own being-here and when the causes responsible for its existence disappeared or became inoperative, the phenomenon necessarily disappeared.

Materialism and non-duality

  • The absolute identity (oneness, what the buddhists call non-duality) that I share with my source (the multiple “causes” of my dependent arising, including the components of my organism) is only conceiveable in a scenario like our material universe where the very source of being-here for all the “causes” are the very same components. We are ― causes and effects ― all and only one homogeneous matter’s energy. Our identity with all things (and our source) is metaphysically absolute because in the most profound sense we are the same reality, even though from the point of view of phenomena we experience ourselves and all things as stand-alone substances as Aristotle said. Aristotle’s problem was that he thought “things” were metaphysically substantive because he attributed existential bearing to the idea, whereas Buddhism saw through the illusion of permanence to the true temporariness of the composites and continued to call them all phenomena including their idea.  
  • Now if the source of my existence were other than a material component, as in the case of the West where we believed a “spiritual” person (“God”) was the real cause of everything and that the ideas in the Mind of God actually carried existence and conferred it on the things they defined, there would always be a duality because, no matter how close they come, the one ― the source, “God,” ― is simply not the other ― me ― and never will be. There will always be an identity difference because there are always two “beings,” two “wills” which in a universe with real stand-alone spirits represents two separate and distinct entities. But in the case of exclusively material components, that in and of themselves as sub-atomic particles have no identity at all and no pre-composite “will” of their own, the only identity is the identity of the organic composite: me. There are not two things, only one, but the existential energy comes exclusively from the components whose collective conatus also provide an inchoate pre-composite intentionality to the organism ― toward endlessly continual (permanent) existence. All organisms of whatever kind, no matter how primitive or complex do not anticipate dying.
  • Many claim this is difficult to grasp. I contend it is not, and the only reason why people struggle with it is because they are still dominated by the imagery of a substantial “self” ingrained in their minds. It is this residual imagery that is blocking the understanding of a very simple fact: we and our components are one and the same thing. We are nothing but material energy with a specific configuration that allows us to interact with the rest of the material universe as humans rather than as some other form of organism. But the hardened delusion that we are other than the universal matter that all things share, comes from our spontaneous sense of self-identity reinforced by millennia of conditioning under the tutelage of Plato’s idealist theory of the “soul.”

The Eternal Now ― the present moment

  • Both Mahayana mindfulness and the Eckhartian living in the eternal now are the same in practice. They both encourage focusing exclusively on the present moment. The only difference between the two is the difference in belief about the ultimate nature of the Source. I should say “possible difference” because in some forms of Hindu-Buddhism ― I am thinking of those that hold to the existence of Atman or Brahman ― they may fundamentally be the same as the Eckhartian “God.” But for forms of Buddhism that resemble the more primitive Theravada, where there is no talk of Atman, the source is an undetermined multiplicity of “causes” forming an infinite regress. This infinity of impermanence provides the motivational dynamic for mindfulness, living in the present moment. There is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to get. The present moment, the evanescent product of everything in space and time that has gone before, is the only thing that is here ever and it is always fast disappearing.
  • Eckhart, on the other hand, remarkably focused on exactly the same present moment, and without tinkering with its phenomenal character as evanescent and dependent in the least, embraces it as the point of contact with the eternal Now of a serene and impassive spirit-God emanting the universe of time from his existence ― his esse. Eckhart’s “Godhead” (Spinoza’s “God”) in virtually every respect is indistinguishable from the Hindu Atman. So for Eckhart the very pinnacle, the leading edge, of the infinity of impermanence in flowing time ― the present moment ― is paradoxically the doorway to the permanent “God” who exists in an eternal stillness of self-em­brace. Note that “self-embrace” is also the same phenomenon in both the Hindu-Buddhist and the Eckhartian views. I would also argue that “self-em­brace” and being-here are one and the same thing; they are also the present moment and the Eternal Now. All refer to the same phenomenon, seen through different perspectives.
  • Along these same lines, Eckhart would also agree with the Mahayanists that there were not two worlds. But for a different reason. Eckhart’s experience-based vision sounds like it reduces everything to “God.” But Eckhart would insist that it’s only the temporal nature of ours that prevents us from seeing the one single and undivided esse that is the totality of each. Metaphysical duality at the level of emanation is non-existent, swallowed up in the monism of esse. Multiplicity is only in our heads. Everything that exists in time and space derives its being only and always from the very same esse of the Eternal Now.
  • Now this kind of talk for orthodox Catholics has always been considered pantheistic. Even though under a disciplined philosophical-theological analysis it is not, less educated pastoral personnel, priests, catechists, etc., tended to shy away from it. However, that its conceptualization was beyond the people’s ability to grasp, I believe, was an excuse that functioned right up until our own time. Even Thomistic immanence, a far more domesticated version than Eckhart’s, was labeled “too philosophical” and seminary students were told to disregard it in favor of the anthropomorphic imagery of the Bible. This was the mindset of the Inquisition that drove Eckhart, along with the Beguines who shared his vision, into extinction. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the only vestiges of Eckhart’s spirituality that were still active, as in the case of the Theologia Germanica, had already lost the sense of emanant participation in the metaphysical oneness of God.
  • A serious incorporation of the insights of Hindu-Buddhism could help western Christianity to recover some of its own tradition ― like Eckhart’s vision ― lost to the demands of the theocratic quid pro quo imperative that was imposed on Christianity by Rome and subsequent religious monarchies. Christianity was re-shaped to function as a motivation for harmony in society, an objective that even the sixteenth century reformers ― despite rejecting the dogmatic quid pro quo ― were unable to shed. Correlatively, the incorporation of the metaphysical scope of Eckhart’s philosophy (updated by modern science into a transcendent materialism) could serve to provide Hindu-Buddhism with a cosmic worldview that it now lacks. But in all cases the concurrence between the two traditions confirms the embrace of the present moment as the unique place where, in Buddhist terms, suffering will end and nirvana is found, and in Eckhart’s terms where the breakthrough takes place and the “soul” experiences the stillness and joy of its origins in the common esse that it shares with the “Godhead” and all things that have emanated from it.
  • The experience of the present moment that all seek, however, is to touch reality deeply ― as it really is ― in all its wealth and profundity. This is not a desperate counsel to a cynical and superficial hedonism, a mindless return to the prison of a selfish and shallow samsara. Living in the present moment includes penetrating into the depths not only of the savory and comforting, but also the painful and empty ― the loss, impermanence, pain, decomposition that is equally characteristic of life in our material universe. It means coming to terms with the strange nature of the abundant generosity that has poured out our human organisms into this weird world of entropic time. It is a generosity that is embedded as an innate dynamism in our own material energy. We are born of LIFE, and we are driven to reproduce and protect LIFE. If we fail to understand that, we shrivel and die. Universal love, justice, compassion, generosity, that is what living in the present moment means.

The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

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It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

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In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

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These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

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I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

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Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

2,300 words

The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.

We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.

Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred is not a “person,” it is the living energy of matter. It has no “will” for us beyond the survival and integrity of what has been brought into existence. Obedience in this context is not a valid category and therefore being forgiven for the failure to obey has no meaning.

But this is nothing new. Asking forgiveness from “God” was problematic in our tradition even prior to the modern age. By the standard mediaeval interpretations, “God” was conceived as Pure Spirit, living in a state of impassable perfection and happiness in an eternal “now” outside time. “God” could not be affected in any way either for better or worse by anything occurring in the world of matter. He could not be injured, much less insulted. Since he has everything, “God” really does not want anything, not even our obedience — except as part of a general benevolence for the welfare of all things. No injustice could be done to “God;” nothing can be taken from “God,” especially unintentionally, and I think it can be reasonably assumed that the last thing on any normal sinner’s mind is an intention to insult “God.” So forgiveness, literally speaking, made no sense. There is no objective damage. And yet we pursued it.

Damage in the world of time

No matter what the “offense” perpetrated by a sinner, the only changes that occur are in the world of time. The primary effect is the loss of the moral integrity of the sinning human being who places himself out of sync with the natural order. The individual distorts himself in the perpetration of an act of selfish injustice. But damage is also done to other people by immoral behavior, and indeed, the very definition of immorality is the intentional causing of injury. Injury can also be done to organisms other-than-human and even the earth itself and its life-support systems. These are all potentially vulnerable. Forgiveness is not appropriate in these latter cases, however, because despite the objective damage they are not conscious agents capable of an act of forgiveness.

Trying to understand how “forgiveness” came to be such a transcendent category for us, despite the fact that it only makes sense within human society, and not with “God” or nature, I am led to consider the fear factor, a derivative of the experience of autocratic rule characteristic of the early governments of civilized man where our ancestral Judaism was born. Since “God” was imagined as “king,” disobedience and offense was expected to bring severe punishment as was usual from kings. Even after damage was repaired, the kings’ need to maintain control meant nipping disobedience in the bud. It demanded punishment, unless the offense was forgiven.

In the case of “God” as imagined by Judaism and Islam, mercy and forbearance were emphasized. People knew they could rely on the forgiveness of “God.” In the case of Western Christianity, however, the theology of Augustine of Hippo imagined a universal sin — that everyone was guilty of — that was literally unforgiveable. In such a scenario, this transcendent offense to “God” was the very fulcrum around which all of cosmic history turned. It was inconceivable that a transgression of such magnitude as to have caused the physical and moral deformation of the human race and require the sacrificial death of the very Son of “God,” could be forgiven by a simple apology. The Catholic Church as theologically conjured by Augustine’s theory was given the power to condition “God’s” forgiveness on a greater expression of remorse and acquiescent behavior. Punishment, therefore, was never off the table, unless a Church-guaran­teed forgiveness was obtained.

In this case the emphasis on forgiveness derived from the leverage the Church was given over the lives of people by Augustine’s theory — a leverage that it exploited to the greatest extent possible during the theocratic rule of the middle ages. This helps explain why our western cultural conditioning in this regard is so much greater than other traditions born from the same original sources. Convinced that “God” hated us for the insult of Adam’s disobedience, we spent our lives trying to secure the forgiveness of “God,” always aware that if we failed, eternal torment awaited us.

But once that nightmare is put to rest, forgiveness only seems to make sense as a valid interpersonal exchange among human beings. Let’s consider. People are vulnerable to having their resources stolen or destroyed, their livelihoods undermined, their reputations ruined, their physical integrity compromised. The community itself as a collectivity can also be damaged by having its structures skewed by the waves of repercussion that shake society’s confidence in its members’ benevolence and reliability. Greed, selfishness and injustice generate fear and distrust. Once society has to assume that its people are “like wolves” to one another, its very institutions have to adjust accordingly; they become disfigured and the people who are responsible for maintaining them are inevitably rendered less compassionate in the performance of their duties. One who has caused such damage needs to remedy it; begging forgiveness from the community and the individuals he injured is only one part of the solution. Erasing the damaging effects must include trying to disable their tendency to propagate themselves into the unknown future among generations yet unborn. Unless the perpetrator can convince others that his behavior will not repeat or worsen its effects, society remains damaged no matter how much it wants to “forgive” the perpetrator.

This “chain effect” by which injustice, greed and selfishness expands outward into the future is what the Buddhists call “karma.” What you do has repercussions that are not always foreseeable, and their effects belong to the injustice originally done.

The “original” injustice

In domestic situations the injustices committed by family members against each other can be subtle and profound, creating rancor and bitterness that also rolls on into the future. It generates reactive destruction in the lives of others who were not even alive at the time of the original offense and have no idea of the origin of the violence that is now being directed at them. I believe that it is axiomatic today to consider the family the initial link in the chain of causation that produces people who are predisposed to lack of self-respect, selfishness, defensive hoarding, competitive greed, injustice, disregard for the rights, property and labor of others, disdain for the weak and helpless, hatred towards authority figures.

Distorted attitudes in the parents, however, were likely the result of influences in their own childhood, and damage from the lives of ancestors is now being passed on to these children — brand new organisms which entered the world without predispositions of any kind. So while the causation extends into past lifetimes before the current family, and may be said to be itself the result of cultural factors inherited from outside the home and from unidentified events occurring in the even more distant past, each new birth provides an unencumbered organism, a new hope, as it were, radically capable of avoiding the anti-social proclivities that seem to make human happiness a chimera — an impossible dream. So because the actual “original sin” is not only diffuse and unknowable, it is also in the past — over and done with, and its perpetrators out of reach, beyond correction or control. If society is to be changed it has to be done by the presently existing individuals.

I believe that this more or less represents the analysis that gave rise to the Buddha’s insight that social justice had to be a function of individual transformation. He placed the entire weight for the termination of the chain of karma and the achievement of harmony in society on the back of the individual, regardless of the fact that the individual and his anti-social instincts may themselves be dependent on earlier lifetimes and social sources. The Buddha is saying effectively, “I don’t care how deep into the past its roots extend, if I can gain control over this karmic phenomenon it ends with me here and now! The rest is not my business:”

I have scoured the past looking in vain for the builder of this house. Many indeed are the cycles of life that contributed to it. But now I have seen you, housebuilder, you shall not build this house again. Its rafters are broken, its ridge pole is shattered, the mind, embracing the eternal has attained to the extinction of all selfish desires.[1]

The house is the human organism conditioned to selfishness. The housebuilder, of course, is the energy of the organism’s conatus harnessed to the delusional demands of the false self to achieve a permanence that is impossible. Buddha spent precious little time speculating, dwelling on the past or wallowing in remorse. His entire focus was on ending suffering for oneself and others here and now by transforming the affective life of one’s body into a body of desires that mirror the “way of heaven.” This concept of “the true path” or nature, what the Hindus called Brahma, he called the dharma. The Chinese called it Tao, The Hebrews called it Torah. I have called it LIFE — the living energy of matter. It is concretized for humankind in the universal call for justice, compassion and generosity toward one another and toward the earth that spawned us. Buddhists collapse it into an “eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The fifth category “right conduct” contains the five basic moral norms: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not transgress sexual standards, do not incapacitate yourself with intoxicants.

There is no time or place for remorse or a need for forgiveness in the dharma. Buddha’s dharma — LIFE — doesn’t need your anguish; if you suffer remorse it’s because you have added to the burden of existence for yourself and others by your selfish greed and self-projection. LIFE doesn’t want you to suffer remorse. It wants you to get back on track, transform yourself, and stop creating suffering for others. You only suffer grief and remorse because of the evil that you have done. Do right and you will stop the suffering that comes from remorse. The excessive wailing over your faults and the blame you have earned for yourself, is just another symptom of your illusory belief that you are a permanent fixture in the universe, too good and too impor­tant to have committed such failures. It’s another symptom of the attachment to the ego. You are not immortal; you are vanishing. Do the good you can before you’re gone.

Instead of remorse, change yourself. Instead of moaning and wailing over your failures, putting yourself first again as usual, put others first. Instead of pursuing forgiveness from an imaginary “God”-person, which you may think is some kind of shortcut to rectitude given gratis from on high despite having done nothing to earn it, start pulling your own weight in the effort to create a just, compassionate and generous community of human beings living sustainably on a cherished and well protected planet.

Remorse, after all, is nothing but anger at yourself. Yes, you betrayed yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on. That’s a forgiveness that makes sense. If we are enjoined to control our anger at others, we are also required to control the self-indulgent anger we heap on ourselves for having failed to achieve permanence and eternity in the good memories of others. It is just another ego trip. In the Dhammapada on anger, the Buddha addresses the self-recrimination that is just another example of a waste of time, postponing the real work of self-transformation:

There is an old saying: “People will blame you if you say too much; they will blame you if you say too little; they will blame you if you say just enough.” No one in this world escapes blame. There never was and never will be anyone who receives all praise or all blame.[2]

Rather than worrying about how we look in the eyes of others, the Buddha advises us to engage in the struggle to transform our delusional “self” into the Self that lies at the core of our being, the self that is the mirror and agent of the dharma — LIFE. Take the time and energy you would spend in “securing” forgiveness for yourself and invest it instead in the practices of mindfulness and meditation that will help you identify the disguises of your self-serving self. Turn your efforts to living with justice, compassion and generosity, and whatever you had hoped to gain from forgiveness will be yours and more.

 

 

[1] The Dhammapada ch. 11 ## 153-154, a composite of various translators.

 [2] Siddhartha Gautama, The Dhammapada, ch XVII ## 227-228 tr. Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Tomales CA, 2007.

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.