Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (III):

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National underdogs and “their” religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast: “God” as LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, October 2018

THE HAIGHT-KNITTER DIALOGUE

January, 2017

3,140 words

I’ve just had what might be called a surreal experience: I’ve been reading an exchange between two Roman Catholic theologians, both 80 years old, imagining a “Religion of the Future” that will not be any recognizable version of Roman Catholicism.  Their dialog is recorded in a new book called Jesus and Buddha and is focused on the potential complementarity of Buddhism and a post-modern version of Christianity.  The friends are Roger Haight, SJ, well known author of the 2000 award winning book Jesus Symbol of God, and Paul Knitter, author of many books, most recently, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Orbis, 2013.

Surreal as it might be that married, ex-priest and retired Catholic theology professor Paul Knitter has committed himself to Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, it is well matched by his interlocutor: silenced theologian Roger Haight who, incredibly, is still a Jesuit priest in good standing.  Haight’s attempts in this dialog to restate traditional Catholic doctrine in a post modern idiom mirrors the surreality of his status.  He was silenced by the Vatican in 2004 because his book contained “statements contrary to Catholic doctrine.”  Given the Papal resistance to doctrinal reform since Vatican II, it was inevitable.  Both men, institutionally displaced in different ways by that resistance, are here  grappling with issues that, in my opinion, should have been resolved a long time ago.  This state of affairs is consistent with my belief that the Catholic Church will never change.  That’s a pity.  For in its current condition official Catholicism does not faithfully represent Jesus’ message, and I think that may explain why it is not capable of carrying on a coherent conversation with Buddhism.  The authors seem to agree, because this dialog from the Christian side conspicuously omits all traditional Catholic articulations.

The conceptual careening of these two Roman Catholic professionals who hold membership in an elite corps of systematic and disciplined thinkers, is an indicator of the utter disarray of Catholic theology after a half-century of officialist resistance to Vatican II.  The Council encouraged the Church to leave the 16th century and become a serious partner in interfaith dialog.  That required theological exploration and innovation that was never allowed to happen.  The result is, as I see it, that these two very old soldiers are just now entering doctrinal territory that should have been conquered and pacified two hundred and fifty years ago, when the American and French Revolutions broke the aristocratic rule of the ancien regime.

1. Theocracy

I believe that the Haight-Knitter dialog is being covertly diverted by a theocratic imperative embedded in Roman Catholic doctrine.  This theocratic imperative has historically exploited the Jesus movement for its crowd-control potential and prevented it from generating a human community of free men and women.  Catholic Christianity is not a faithful repository of Jesus’ vision.  The “Jesus” represented by Roger Haight in this book does not exist anywhere, and certainly not in the Catholic Church.  Moreover, I believe these two Catholic theologians are hampered by their institutional loyalty.

Institutional loyalty in the Roman Catholic Church has, since Trent, become more than a social virtue; obedience to the Church authorities is virtually a matter of latria — internal submission at a level that one would think belonged to “God” alone: worship.  Roman Catholics believe their Church is divine and what it teaches are “truths” revealed by “God” himself.  Both of these professional Roman Catholics, coming from their respective points of view, are in my opinion trying to find ways to outflank an obsolete Roman Catholic ideology without openly contradicting the magisterium.  Knitter, I believe, avoids direct confrontation by claiming that Buddhism is praxis not dogma.  Erstwhile “heresies,” disguised as prayerful exercises and mental training not statements about the nature of Sacred reality, should be of no interest to the inquisitors, while Haight I see as the consummate wordsmith, elegantly crafting new post-modern formulations of orthodox dogma fully confident that he has found a way to “save the words” of ancient formulae while becoming intelligible to the post-modern mind … or at least that it will fly below the radar of the thought police currently under new management.

The overblown role of the hierarchy in managing the belief structure of the Church is never itself the direct object of discussion, validating or invalidating the doctrinal complex of which it is an integral part.  The way authority is exercised can’t be separated from the doctrinal underpinning that justifies it.  Also, authority cannot be given absolute unquestioning obedience without conceding the doctrinal basis claimed for it, or at least allowing others assume it and thus appear to support a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching .

No one considers stating the raw truth: that from the point of view of Jesus’ message the Roman Catholic doctrinal edifice and the authority structure it supports are disfigured beyond repair; they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  These Catholics, I believe, are using a Buddhist-Christian dialog to disguise what they are really doing: trying to find a replacement for a Roman Catholicism that has lost its credibility.

I humbly and respectfully challenge both these men, clearly my superiors in virtually any category you select, to look squarely at the real issue in Roman Catholicism — the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about — the fatal historical distortion of the message and mission of Jesus stemming from the transmutation of the role of the Christian community from proclamation by example to social control by juridical coercion.  Over the course of two millennia the decision of Western authorities to use Christianity for political and social control has caused the erection of a doctrinal complex that both in terms of the alleged “facts” it adduces and the significance of those facts for people’s lives, stands in stark contrast to sacred reality as Jesus understood it and as he encouraged people to respond.  That it is also unintelligible to Buddhists and post-modern westerners reared in the perspectives of modern science is hardly a surprise.

Theocracy is the intent of Roman Catholic Doctrine and the source of its distortion.  Theocracy — “crowd-control” — has functioned from very early times to subvert the fundamentally liberationist dynamic of Jesus’ message.  The Roman authorities took a religious vision based on love and freedom and converted it into an ideology driven by law, and obedience … and fear: they forced Jesus through a metamorphosis that made him the divine Pantocrator, the all-ruling judge of the living and the dead.

The 18th century political upheavals that finally overthrew Roman theocratic governance in the West never penetrated its ideological foundations.  The Roman Catholic Church preserves those underpinnings in its doctrine, and its own authority structures are based on them: caste status as an ontological reality, political power as a “divine right” and obedience as a form of latria.  The Church is the last bastion of anti-demo­cratic aristocratic control welded in steel to “infallible” dogma, and the perennial vector from which its contagion — the divinization of fear, law and obedience, the living embodiment of the master-slave relationship — is always ready to spread.  Latin American liberation theology represented the direct antithesis of this aristocratic intent, and one can understand why, despite its orthodox credentials, it was the object of venomous attack by the counter-conciliar forces in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  They said it was attempting to use Catholic dogmas “contrary to their purpose.”

The implications of this thesis are wider than Christian doctrine.  Because of the iron link between doctrine and practice, authentic doctrinal reform will only occur if accompanied by social-moral-political reform.  Two hundred and fifty years of the rhetoric of “democracy” have yet to persuade the vast populations of the modern world that they no longer need the protection or guidance of a superior elite — an upper class — nor fear its wrath.  A “God” ordained Aristocracy is a myth that will not die.  Populist fascism, based on racist subordination, is a version of it with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in the USA even as we speak.

2. “God” transcendent or immanent

The foundational doctrine of theocracy is a punitive “God.”  Only a punitive “God” inspires fear.  In order for “God” to be punitive he has to be a “person” who “wants” certain things from people.  This personal “wanting” (despite contradicting the very definition of “God”) generates a corresponding obligation to obedience on the part of the individual human being who is terrified of the wrath that non-compliance may engender.

A punitive “God” also needs to be transcendent.  By that I mean very specifically that  “God” must transcend the natural order and not be identified with it.  He must stand over against the material universe and humankind as a separate entity, or he cannot interact with it, command it, punish or reward from outside.

The seminal event that established the transcendence of “God” is creation ex nihilo.  A personal “God,” without any pre-existing substance or force to determine the shape of creation except his choice and artistry, makes the world out of nothing and therefore stands above and apart from it and owns it lock, stock and barrel.  The world makes no contribution to creation and has nothing to say about its direction.   “God” controls and commands.  We obey.

The opposite of transcendent is immanent.  Immanence means that to one degree or another “God” is identified with the natural order and indistinguishable from it.  Modern science has discovered that the story of a separate personal entity/agent creating the world out of nothing has no evidence to support it.  In fact science has discovered that the cosmos and everything in it, from the smallest sub-atomic particles to macro-structures of immense size like galaxies, and complexity like human beings, has self-elaborated in a process called evolution over an unimaginably long period of time.  Far from making no contribution to creation it is now known that matter’s energy to secure continued existence for itself is the exclusive force that has shaped everything that exists in our universe, including the living things whose autonomous pursuit of existence is now an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process.

Insofar, then, that one continues to insist that it is still “God” who is the ultimate ground and dynamism behind this energy and its elaborations, it must be said that “God” is not perceivable as a singular entity or separate agent of evolution and must be understood as indistinguishably identified with the material energy that is actually observed doing the creating.  We are just now learning how profoundly immanent “God” is in the natural order; any creative energy he imparts to it is inseparable and indistinguishable from what it is observed doing.  We know abstractly that “God” is “cause.”  But how exactly “God” is distinct, if indeed his causation is distinct at all, is beyond our ken.  Thomas is clear: God is not an entity and his causation is totally commensurate with secondary causes.

But please notice, an immanent “God” is also indistinguishable from yourself.  The only commanding “God” could possibly do, if indeed “he” were ever to take the form of an entity/person who commands, would derive from primary causality providing the energy of esse (let’s call it LIFE) to your body.  To hear the “will” of such a “God” means to listen to your self in the deepest sense of that word.  That’s why John’s first letter suggests that those who are in touch with LIFE immediately recognize Jesus’ “divineness.”  Similarly, once LIFE is embraced, it has a profound effect on one’s bodily behavior.  The two, God and the conscious human organism, primary and secondary causes, become one again.

The depth of this immanence — this metaphysical and etiological identity — is not sufficiently described by calling it the “within” of things, as Teilhard does, because it evokes the image of a tenant in a garret room, active perhaps but necessarily separate and distinct in a way that is not faithful to the reality.  Ramon Panikkar calls this imagery a pseudo-immanence that is really a disguised transcendence and he excoriates it mercilessly in his little book The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man.  Actually, Aquinas’ Aristotelian imagery in the SCG of “secondary causes” that are the sufficient and necessary cause of all things in a hierarchical relationship with “God” who is the invisible primary cause, the “Pure Act” that activates everything with “his” own esse, is my opinion, remarkably faithful to observed reality.

3. Science, evolution, person

I object to the way evolution is mentioned always ancillary to some other philosophical or theological guiding notions relating to creation; the evolution of material forms is not acknowledged as the sole, exclusive, sufficient and necessary etiology at play in creation.  The lack of focus on matter’s self-elaboration is responsible for the failure to recognize the deep, intimate and pervasive nature of the immanence of “God” in the material universe.  There is an identity here that the West has avoided like the plague.  The esse we deploy by existing is not only “God’s” it is “God.” 

The observable data about “God’s” way of creating do not come from scripture, they come from science.  “God,” if we must insist on saying that it is “God” who creates (constantly confusing ourselves by evoking the anthropomorphic entity/agent imagery associated with the word), does so at the pace and with the exclusive agency of matter at whatever point of development it has reached on its own.  “God’s” presence and action precisely as Creator is not distinguishable from the 13.7 billion year old material evolutionary process, and that includes the extinction of 99.9% of species that failed to adapt.  Humanity and perhaps even all life on our fragile planet are similarly susceptible to that eventuality.  Our traditional assess­ment of the central role of humankind in “God’s” relationship to creation, and therefore a putative guarantee of permanence for our species, is cast into grave doubt once we accept the determinative role of evolution in the creation process.

In this same regard, to say “God is personal but not a person,” as they propose, is unintelligible.  There is no theodicy that justifies traditional micro-manag­ing providence.  Traditional providence implies a rational, interactively relating, living entity who communicates with, hears and responds to other persons.  That’s what “person” means to human beings.  I think it is incontestable that Haight means “personal” in exactly that sense:

In this framework Jesus reveals God to be personal, not a big human person in the sky, but in such a way that the absolute divine power that creates and grounds all being is personal, intelligent, knowing, understanding, willing, and desiring what is good for God’s creatures. This means that all beings, in themselves and in their specific relationships and actions, stand in relation to a ground of being that is personal. The universe is suffused with intelligence and affective attention. Individual beings have a value that is guaranteed by a creating power that personally cares about them. Persons are more than individuals; they are subjects called to respond to an all-encompassing personal attentiveness.  (Chapter 4, Kindle 1250)

If “God” is a person in the sense described above, then he falls onto the horns of MacLeish’s dilemma: “If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good.”  If “God” is personal, the Haitian earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic were a disgrace.  ¾ of the 200,000 people who died were children.

Micro-managing providence is a joke.  There is no such providence.  What “God” provides is the natural order.  The psalms themselves are full of MacLeish’s lament.  The only way out, it seems to me, is the identification of the primal “act” in the universe as a changeless will-to-esse where even “love” as we humans understand it is not yet operational: love is implicit in the will TO BE but must wait for its full explicitation on the secondary causes (conscious organisms) that will elaborate it as a derivative of their own pursuit of survival … the primal “act” (esse) is a living dynamism coming from a suffusive life-source which is not an entity and which does not distinguish among its truly universal effects to favor sentient and intelligent victims.

It is we, human beings, limited material organisms, who awaken in a world of such universal disinterested donation that even the microbes that kill us are sustained by “God” in the form of being that they have been able to achieve on their own.  It is we, then, that interpret LIFE in our case to mean compassion and protection and relief of suffering.  It is we who have invented “love” as part of our evolutionary process.  And as we evolve we are learning that if we are to survive we have to love species other than ourselves.  “Love” is our thing.  “God” is love only because he sustains us too.

Forgiveness

“God” is fundamentally immanent.  It is as immanent that “God” is transcendent, i.e., he cannot be identified with any particular entity, because “he” is the living energy that transcends them all.  “God” is also transcendent because the spectacular elaborations achieved by evolution have, each and every one of them, transcended exponentially the base from which they emerged, belying the age old dictum; ex nihilo nihil fit.  ESSE supports secondary causes that draw from an unfathomable well of creativity what is absolutely new, ex nihilo:  life from non-life, human intelligence from animal consciousness, and sustains all this newness with esse — “him”self. 

An immanent “God” is our very own LIFE.  This kind of “God” cannot punish because he has no “will” that is different from what we are and most deeply want for ourselves.  If he cannot punish, he cannot be harnessed to social control no matter how benevolently it is conceived.  Thugs have known that forever.  The only “God” they ever feared was the autonomy of men.  “God” impacts human politics only through secondary causes, just as he has nothing to say about when and where the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust are going to move in response to pressures from the circulating magma.  Theocracy and the “facts” adduced to justify It — like reward and punishment — are a fraud, a lie, preying on our fears to trick us into surrendering our autonomy to those who claim to rule in “God’s” name.   There is no one to punish us … and we have already received the greatest reward possible: the privilege to be made of living matter and eternally part of this LIFE-driven evolving cosmos.

Can we ever forgive such a “God” for not being the protective parent we think we need and want “him” to be?  Can we love “him” for the anguished autonomy he sustains in us and this fragile material organism that we have evolved?  Indeed, to my mind, that is the only authentic “religious” question … and the final answer to the Grand Inquisitor.

 

Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

In the narrative of one of the earliest Christian training manuals, the gospel of Luke, Jesus introduces himself publicly for the first time in a local synagogue of Nazareth as the suffering servant of deutero-Isaiah. Using the words of the prophet, he announced that he was “sent to embolden the poor, to heal the broken in spirit, to free the slaves, to open the prisons, to comfort the grieving.” It later becomes clear that he also identified with the suffering people he was sent to serve because that announcement is repeated at key junctures through­out his career with an ever sharper focus on his own torture and death as a required feature of his mission.

It is my contention, that this man had a unique perspective on religion gleaned from his own personal interpretation of the significance of the poetry of Isaiah and other post exilic Jewish writers. Those powerful passages on redemptive suffering stood in striking contrast to mainstream Jewish theories about the cause and meaning of their national abasement which by Jesus’ time had gone on for centuries.

The author of “Luke,” following the narrative sequence laid out by “Mark,” says that Jesus had a foundational vision of his own vocation that occurred as he emerged from the waters of John’s baptism. “Sonship” was the dominating sentiment at that moment and it was taken to imply a commission from his “father.” Not unlike Isaiah himself who had a pronounced sense of being chosen and sent, Jesus was driven by his “father’s will.” Thereafter, allusions to his “mission” are unmistakably associated with a personal mandate: that his message included his death.  Jesus saw it as a “command” from his father that as son he was bound to “obey.” Later in a letter to the Philippians Paul would claim that it was that very “obedience unto death” that earned Jesus a “name that was above every name.”

Who structured this interpretation of Jesus’ life?  In the misty realms of gospel authorship, we cannot determine whether the focus on Isaiah’s poetry is Luke’s or Paul’s who was traditionally believed to be the inspiration for Luke.  But there is also nothing to prevent it from actually being Jesus’ himself, presented by Luke as the origin of a series of predictions of his own death built on the jarring counter-cultural assertions of Isaiah, and never comprehended by his followers.  The narratives reported that it was Jesus who appropriated Isaiah’s “servant” poetry as his own personal destiny.  We are not under any obligation to deny these reports.  That was the poetry that Jesus’ followers heard him proclaim — a poetry which he immortalized by giving his life for it — and which they never understood.

So here we have the beginnings of a radically new perspective on religion.  Never before had humankind suspected that the traditional notion of “sacrifice” to placate the gods was anything more than a gripping symbol of a quid pro quo relationship with the invisible forces that protected or punished them.  Never before had they thought to identify the elements of the human condition itself — suffering culminating in death — as the force that bound them umbilically to their Source and Sustainer.

I believe that the man Jesus had an extraordinary perception of the central place of brokenness and impoverishment in human life, traceable to the insights of Job and the post exilic Hebrew poets as well as his own experience of life under the systemic exploitation of the subjugated Jews by the Roman Empire.  That insight was the source of his remarkable compassion for the poor, the sick, the crippled, the lepers, the possessed, the accused, all of whom were considered outcasts by the standards of mainstream Judaism.   The ease with which he sided with social rejects suggests that he had seen through the self-deceptions of self-righteousness promoted, perhaps unwillingly but by all calculations inevitably, by the quid pro quo mainstream interpretation of the place of Jewish law and ritual in the contract with Yahweh.  Jesus seems never to have been fooled by the official “holiness” of the Jewish authorities and the practices they fostered much less by the officialist interpretation of the perennial Jewish national humiliation as punishment for breaking the contract.

I may be forgiven if I find this extraordinary to an extreme degree.  In a world where theocracy ruled undisputed, no one doubted for an instant that “divine providence” was behind the ascendancy of conquering empires and the degradation of the conquered.  Rome was universally considered “diva” — divine — by all nations because “God” had clearly ordained its conquests and its universal ruleJesus seems not to have believed that. What, then, did that imply about his belief in traditional “providence”? Political power as a sign of divine approval and sanction to rule was a universal belief with which Jesus’ own Judaism was in complete agreement.  Probably today a majority of people around the world still believe the same thing.  How did he get past that?

The same convictions held true for individual health and strength, success and good fortune, status and position.  In Jesus’ world “God” was behind it all, rewarding those who were faithful to the contract, and punishing in this life those who were not.  Failure, poverty, destitution, loss, chronic illness, disability, isolation, demonic possession, death — it was all a sign of “God’s” displeasure and punishment.  Job himself could never get beyond all that; how did Jesus do it?  That Jesus was able to see his father in a way that his contemporaries did not, besides the influence of Job and the Jewish poets, remains a mystery; for we do not know what youthful experiences may have contributed to it.  What we do know, however, because it is not possible to deny it, is that he had to have a “doctrine of God” that was contrary to the accepted wisdom of his age and his own ancestral tradition.  He had to know that his father was not the “God” who rewarded and punished behavior, littering the streets with lepers and blindmen, paralytics and cripples, the tormented and the insane.  He had to know it was not his father who sent the legions of Rome to pollute the Jewish temple with abomination, to plunder and enslave the world, to destroy languages and peoples, creating desolation and calling it peace.  Jesus’ father was not “God.” He knew it from the moment he emerged from the Jordan.  He knew the “God” who ruled the Sabbath was not his father, because his father had given the Sabbath to man.  His father was the Source of his humanity, and so he called himself the Son of Man. Jesus knew who he was.

But even in his lifetime some tried to call him the “son of ‘God.’ ” He would not stand for it.  He wouldn’t even let them call him “good,” for he said that word was reserved for “God” alone.   He knew who he was, and he was not “God.”

Others got the same impression. The Marcionites, a successful but later suppressed Christian community that flourished a century later in the polytheist Greek-speaking world, were convinced that there were indeed two separate and distinct “Gods” opposed to one another: the Promulgator of the Law, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

It appears Jesus had created an insuperable dilemma for his followers. How were they to understand this new doctrine of “God” that contradicted everything they had learned about the way things were? They believed he was the Messiah and they thought that meant that soon the legions of “God” would engage the legions of Caesar and “save,” “redeem,” and restore Israel to its inheritance.  They didn’t count on him being the Son of Man who embraced death — the very human condition that they had been taught to believe was a punishment for sin.

They thought long and hard but they never understood him.  In the long run they could not get past the reality of it all.  No one could embrace the human condition. No one could embrace death.  If death is not overcome in this life then it must be that we finally get beyond it in the next.  What were they to do with Jesus’ macabre dance that made him turn toward death every time he had the chance to avoid it.  Some were sure he was a madman.  His raving even brought his mother and brothers calling out to him at the edge of the crowds to come home and stop all this nonsense.  One of his followers, determined not to follow him to the death he so clearly seemed to desire, sold him out to the religious authorities who represented “God,” the Law, the Romans, and the way things were.  What they were saying was right.  It wasn’t just one man’s morbid fascination with the underclass, Jesus’ mania for liberation would cause the whole nation to perish at the hands of the Roman overlords, sent by divine providence itself to control a lawless world.  Everyone knew what side “God” was on; Judas was not about to be fooled by Jesus’ trust in some “father” no one had ever met.  There was only one “God” and Judas knew what he was like … everyone knew what he was like.

Jesus, it must be acknowledged, was not entirely free of that misperception, either.  When, at the end, he cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it wasn’t only a culminating literary allusion to the suffering servant in the “prophecies” of Psalm 23.  It was because he too had come to believe that his insight into the redemptive power of suffering should have made his death an event of unalloyed triumph for him and for all of Israel.  It was not.  At the end, I believe, Jesus saw what we all see.  His despair was real, and full of disillusionment because he saw that Isaiah’s “prophecy” was not literal fact but poetry.  It was the final hurdle.  At the end, like all of us, he had nowhere to turn but to his father.

His followers were thrown into a panic.  The dreamy poetry about trusting LIFE and Isaiah’s version of redemptive death had turned into hard reality. Death was no longer a metaphor. It had happened.  They had been so mesmerized by him that they were no longer able to turn back and go the way of Judas.  What had following him gotten them? Nothing.  He had left them with nothing but death — his humanity shorn of any delusion of a grandiose triumphant messiahship.

They couldn’t handle it.  They convinced themselves that the wisps of stories they were hearing were true: he had to have come back from the grave like the way Job was rewarded for his long-suffering.  I contend that his followers’ belief in the resurrection was the sublimation of death, the transferal of Jesus’ embrace of the human condition into a symbolic triumph over death that never occurred.  They had no framework in which to insert the raw fact of death and the diminishments that are its equivalent.  Jesus’ unqualified embrace of the human condition and the Source from which it came could not be seen as the profound spiritual victory it was without some scaffolding that would illuminate its significance.  Resurrection as a symbol would have done that.  But it was not taken as a symbol.  It was offered as literal reality, eternal life, designed to overcome literal reality, organismic death.  It was like the imagined restoration of Job: it offered an answer where there was no answer.

I believe the entire later development of Christian Doctrine including especially the unconscionable homoousion of Nicaea, promoted over the open protests of the Council Fathers by the emperor of Rome, was the further elaboration of that scaffolding.  It surrounded Jesus’ humanity with blankets of protective gauze effectively insulating him from the human condition that was the centerpiece of his vision. Making him to be the very “God” that his experience at the Jordan had revealed as bogus was the ultimate in demonic irony. That this claim to be “God,” this betrayal of the Judaic tradition, which Jesus himself explicitly denied in the only written records we have, should now be considered the litmus test of authentic Christianity is beyond my ability to fathom.

I contend the millennial development that we call “traditional Christianity” is based on a “God” that never existed. It is the direct antithesis of the man Jesus’ vision of his relationship to his father and the embrace of the human condition that was its moral and spiritual face.  Jesus’ “father” is our father: the Source and Sustainer of entropic LIFE as we know it in this material universe. Like Jesus, we have nowhere else to turn.

 

 

 

The Limits of Knowledge (2)

the human being — time and death

Existence is time.[1] It’s not coincidental that time caused us to look at being-here separately from abstract “being” and ask what it otherwise would not have occurred to us to ask, why do I die, or “Why does being-here seem to end?”

My life is both temporal and temporary.  There’s a connection between the two.  It seems the very nature of the modulations of existence is to find better ways to be-here, to survive and extend survival.  The vitality displayed by matter’s energy is not a leisured aesthetic creativity, an unhurried pastime.  There is an urgency here that derives from a conatus, a drive to survive, that is integral to a developing universal entropy that results from the energy expenditure of any “thing,” whether it be the hydrogen fusing into helium in stars or the respiratory activity of the cells of the human brain.  Entropy is the exhaust from combustion — the smoke that is the sign of fire — the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move toward a state of uniform inertia through the expenditure of energy for the performance of work.  Work is energy applied in the endeavor to survive. The aggregation and integration forged by matter’s energy is part and parcel of the “downhill” flow of the existential cataract initiated at the big-bang that drives the Universe to produce its effects — like the eddies and vortices that spin off in a raging current.  These pyramidal vortices (one vortex cumulatively building on another and another) are an anti-en­tro­pic phenomenon — they struggle against dissolution, to survive — even though they add to universal entropy as a result.

My life is the inner force of existence because it is matter’s energy.  It is driven in the direction of perdurance in an obsession to continue the dance of presence.  Time is the effluence of my own presence.  As my existence perdures from moment to moment — as each “now” molts into the next — it emanates time as the sweat of its creative labors; the vapor trail of its endless explorations.  I embrace my being-here, and so I embrace time.

The transcendence over death, not only through evolutionary integration but also with other communitarian strategies like daily alimentation and organismic reproduction, harnesses even as it recapitulates the patterns and primordial energies let loose within the first second of the big bang.  The energy that drives my hunger for existence, is the energy of matter itself.

We live in a banquet of existence.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are dependent on the entire material matrix within which we evolved.  In our lifetime, each human organism consumes in sustenance probably 40 or 50 tons of the matter’s energy — in the form of carbon — of other living things who must die in order that we might live.  Add to that another 50 tons of oxygen continuously drawn in from the atmosphere and utilized together with carbon in the cellular combustion we call metabolism.  At death we return our “stuff” to be used as food by others as part of an endless cycle of interchange within the one organism produced and energized by the cascade of existence.  Matter’s energy is a totality.

At a certain magical moment, also, the very cells of my body, by utilizing another communitarian tactic, combine with another’s to create a new identity — my daughter, my son — which is automatically granted a full allotment of time, slipping under the entropic radar of death.  How was this miracle accomplished?  The living cells are mine, but their age and accumulated karma are erased.  Death is cheated, fooled, outwitted.  The new individual with my cells, my DNA, eludes the death they were otherwise destined to endure.  Do we share this adventure in survival with love and gratitude? … Only if we understand!

But if we mis-under­stand — if we originally mis-interpreted that moment of crisis, the perception of death, as the cessation of what’s really there, we are quite capable of turning this banquet of sharing into a selfish grab-bag where the desperate “eat drink and make merry” in a display of bitter disillusionment against a morrow of imagined nothingness.  It is precisely the fact that “I” am metaphysically insignificant except as an integra­ted function of matter’s energy that opens me to a new dimension.   I realize that what is really there and really important is the matrix, the universal “stuff” of which I am made, the homogeneous substrate of which all things are made, the single organism of which we are all the leaves and branches, and which will go on in other forms endlessly.  It was with those micro-threads of existence that I was woven.  The primacy here, as always, belongs to the stuff of existence, the matter-energy of the universe.  It is material energy “congealed” in me.  And in short order, the same existence will use “me” to do something else in a constant search for survival — existence.

So time is the expression of process; it is the measure of groping and the tracks of creativity.  It marks the work in progress of evolutionary development.

endless or “eternal”

The re-cycling is endless.  Isn’t that the same as “eternal,” and doesn’t it imply transcendent, necessary, absolute etc., all those abstract, essentialist characteristics derived from the “concept of being” that we rejected in chapter 1?

No.  Endless is not “eternal” because endless is open and empty.  “Eternal” is closed, fixed and finished, full and complete; “eternal” is the absence of time.  Endless, on the other hand, is time … time without end; it contemplates development without term, a presence that is forever thirsty.  “Eternal,” is synonymous with unchanging, impassible and immutable, Pure Act, pure stasis, without a shred of unfulfilled potential — perfect.  It’s a completely foreign concept to us, pure conceptual projection.  We’ve never experienced anything the least bit like it.  For us, being-here as we know it is an endless phenomenon that throbs always with unrealized potential, with an ever perceived emptiness seeking to be filled and asking for nothing but more time.  We have never encountered existence in any other form.  Its current modality is always in the process of becoming, apparently without limit, itself — existence.

Being-here in our world, is endless becoming.  It’s all we know.  Where, then, do we get the notion of a fixed and finished “eternal”?  I believe it’s another of our fantasies based on the requirements of the imaginary ancient “concept of being.”  Existence, matter’s energy, as found in the real world, however, is a function of power — potentia as Spinoza discerned insightfully — potential; it is focused on survival and constantly ready to change tactics in order to achieve it.  Matter’s creative power is the drive to exist (survive) by extruding new forms out of itself creating time.

“Eternal” is unthinkable.  Endless is not.  We can understand endless perfectly because it’s no different from time itself.  To conceptualize “endless” requires no more insight than imagining present moments, “nows” in an open-ended flow into the future.  In our very own awareness of ourselves-exist­ing, which is the unfolding of our personal presence in time, we actually experience this pheno­menon most intimately as our own sentient selves.  We experience ourselves in a temporal flow into a potentially endless future.  To experience temporal flow is to experience that part of “endless” which will always be here — the present moment, “now,” the only part of “endless” that ever … and always, exists.  To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.

We are reminded that for the 14th century mystic Johannes Eckhart, “now” was the most sacred of all locations, the center of the universe.  It was precisely where “God,” he said, who exists in an Eternal “Now,” was actively sharing “being” with creation in an effluence of love and self-donation.  If you want to touch “God,” he said, you can only do it “now.” The fact that “now” — the present moment — is the only moment that really exists and that, at the same time, it goes almost universally unattended, may be a measure of exactly how alienated from existence we are.

Can we say that our conception corresponds to the emphasis on living in the present moment promoted by the Buddhist, Thich Nat Hanh?  The Bud­dhists insist their counsel is a discipline not a doctrine.  They don’t speak about metaphysics, “being” or existence, so we can’t say for sure.  But for the Buddhists, as for Meister Eckhart, the present moment is all there is.  We are-here only in the present moment.  To live in the present moment is to embrace the impermanence, the “emptiness” that drives reality always to the next moment, creating time.

[1] The similarity of this proposition to Heidegger’s thesis expounded in his Being and Time is only semantic. For H. time is the pulse and measure of Da-sein’s anguish of being-toward-death, which alone brings Da-sein’s authentic care to bear on the beings-in-the-world. In my conception, on the other hand, I make every effort to exclude the subjective factors. Time for me is foundationally a physical property exuded by the physical perdurance in existence of a physical entity — matter’s energy.

American Exceptionalism: the theocratic imperative

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

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

 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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