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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Surrender

2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017

Poetry and Religious Truth

Truth” in the west has been identified with “science” from well before the advent of modern times. The ancient Greeks sought a rational understanding of the world we live in; they called their quest philosophy, the love of wisdom, but they thought of it the way we think of science.

Theology was born in this context. At the dawn of western science there did not exist any clear separation between theology and physics as we have it today. For millennia, theology was not only considered a science, it was the science, the instrument that reached to the inner nature and operations of reality.

But science had to compete with poetry. That was a problem for the scientists. Socrates, you’ll remem­ber, had great difficulty with the poets because they could not use other words to explain what they wrote.[1] He considered them alien to the rational-scientific quest he was pursuing.

I believe Socrates was blinded to the value of poetry because of the solid possibilities that logic seemed to offer: clarity, precision, verifiability, therefore “truth.” Poetry seems to have none of that. Multi-layered, peppered with mixed imagery and allusions, full of intense personal feelings, poetry seemed entirely subjective. Socrates wanted to know “what the poets meant.” They answered by telling him to go back and re-read their poetry; apparently they felt their words had been very precisely chosen. There was no other way they could say it. Socrates could not understand that. His demand to “explain your poetry using other words,” was, as far as the poets were concerned, an attack on the jugular. What better way to tell a poet s/he’s failed? Perhaps there was an odist or two among those who voted for the hemlock.

One modern poet calls his own poetry a “raid on the inarticulate.”[2] He speaks of “shabby equipment,” words — the poor, worn implements of daily life — that were never meant to carry the weight of the realities that the poet imposes on them. So, because words are not quite adequate, the “metho­dology” of the poets is special. And it’s used to communicate a special truth, a truth that is in a class apart from the measure­able realities of the so-called exact sciences. The methodology is metaphor, and the special truth is “relational truth.” What do these terms mean?

 

1

Relational Truth

“Relationship” is a very specific feature of our lives as human beings. It is a complex and interior experience of inter-personal connectedness of which our own participation is an integral part. Our relation­ships are difficult enough to perceive accurately but even more difficult to communicate to others. How do I express the unique relationship that I have with some­one I love. I am aware that scientific descriptors, even from a science spe­ci­fically dedicated to human perceptions and emotions like psychology, are totally inadequate for this purpose. Enter the poet. Her task is to try to find that combination of metaphors — symbols and images that lie outside the range of ordinary speech — which may convey with greater human accuracy the multi-faceted dimensions of the relationship. “Human accuracy” here is “truth” and refers to the ability to evoke in another person, an experience as close as possible to the poet’s experience in its individuality, com­plexity, scope and depth of feeling. Solomon’s poet, for example, might say:

“You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.”

How is the poet’s “love” as “terrible as an army set in battle array”? You may “get it” or you may not. But if you connect with it, you will understand what experience the poet is trying to convey, and in that act of understanding you will provide a “third party verification” both for the experience and the accuracy of its articulation. Poetry is not (only) entertainment, an elective pastime for the literati. It’s the only instrument we have for communicating “truth” at this level, relational truth.

So, I believe Socrates was wrong. The poets labor with as much commitment to accuracy and clarity as any sincere scientist or philosopher. Their art is the attempt to find those precise phrases, that precise sequence of words, that evoke human relational experience. And religion is our human relationship with the source of our existence … whatever it may be.

My point is that “relational events” or “inter-personal events” differ as object from other objects and therefore are communicated by a different kind of discourse. These “relational realities,” which include the existential relationship — i.e., my relationship to the source of my existence — are experienced by the knower as objects that include his/her self. The resonating subject is the predominant component of the object known, making the object inaccessible to another subject except through a recognized similar experience. So communication in this area involves “construc­ting” (poiein in Greek) something that evokes the same experience in the hearer. The “constructor,” the poeta, tries to create external conditions (words, dramatic dialogue, paintings, music, dance, ritual, etc.), a symbolic “construct,” a poema that accomplishes that task. And metaphor is its instrument of choice because it uses words not as concepts that try to comprehend and define the object, but as symbols that refer to and evoke the object in the experience of others. Evocation invites the hearer to find the object within his/her own file-cabinet of experience and thus interpret, compare and verify its truth. There is no other way these com­plex, interiorly experienced realities can be communicated and verified except by speech that of its very nature can only evoke and not denote, describe and not define, invite and not impose.

Traditional western theology has historically been considered an exact science in the rationalist sense. Realities that we know in and through our own experience, and whose inner workings apart from us we can only adumbrate, we in the west have historically claimed to know with quasi-mathe­ma­tical precision. All our religious discourse, doctrine, creed, dogma, even ritual formulae, have been infected with this rationalist contagion. Religion has been subsumed under the heading of “truth,” and “truth” in the west is prejudicially the result of rational inquiry.

But what gets lost in our scientistic scenario is that “true” religious speech is indeed critical to our lives but in a way that antecedes and bypasses logic. Religious discourse, — ritual, creed, doctrine — is not science; it is poetry and as such it provides evocative descriptions of our relationship to realities whose inner mechanical workings are irrelevant to the relationship whether I do or even could come to know them or not.

For example, the perception in which I relate to my wife does not include knowledge of the vegetative functions of her organism or the neurological operations of her brain. And yet I claim to have an accurate grasp of “who she is.” I may call her a butterfly today and a soaring eagle tomorrow, but even though literally she is neither, I know exactly what I’m talking about, and so does the reader. The ruling element that gives those words meaning is relational experience.

Now, in the case of “God,” the relationship stands on its own: I understand myself to exist and that I am not self-originating. I immediately understand — from my side — the relationship I bear to the existential source of existenceeven if I don’t know what that source is. Religion is the reflective description of my experience in the form of “doctrine,” which is symbol, metaphor, poetry. I say “’God’ is my Creator.” Literally, scientifically, I know neither “God” nor what it means to create. All I know for a fact is that I am not self-origina­ting; but that is sufficient to establish the relationship. Both “God” and “creation” are metaphors for what I do not know but to which I bear a constant and inescapable relationship. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip had no knowledge of his anonymous benefactor, and his conjectures were upended in mid-stream, but his awareness of what he had received and his sense of loyal gratitude was the same regardless.

Doctrine’s interpretative tool, theology, comes next. It is simply a kind of literary criticism that evaluates religious poetry in the light of the “facts” and how well the words chosen convey the indicated experience. At no point in the process does the presumption of claiming to know the object — “God” — apart from the relational experience of it, intrude.

All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating.

 

2

Metaphor

… an implicit comparison between two unlike entities … The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make a new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought anteceding or bypassing logic.[4]

Metaphor is a symbol. As a symbol it does not conceptualize its object, it “refers to” it … or, as Wittgenstein might say, it “points to it.” Metaphor is a linguistic device that applies words to realities they were not meant to define. Metaphor is a word adequate for one reality which is used “improperly” to stand for another which has no adequate word, or whose usual word has been judged inadequate. Metaphor does not define, it rather evokes and suggests; it “points to.” But the metaphor’s very “impropriety” accounts for its evocative quality, for it throws the listener back onto his own experience for under­standing. It contributes a new, fresh and vital element that other­wise would be absent. “The winter wind with its long fingernails tore the canvas to shreds.” The wind does not have hands and fingernails, but the imagery evokes the destructive action of the wind. “Long fingernails” are symbols. They do not define any “scientific” reality; they rather describe how the wind’s action makes us feel ― and therefore how we relate to it.

Poetic metaphor is a most appropriate instrument for speaking about our relationship to “God.” For, besides more accurately communicating the experience, its symbolic character guarantees and protects apo­phasis: “God” remains ineffable, undefinable, unknowable. Metaphor is conceptually empty. Metaphor makes no pretense at grasping and comprehending its object. The believer using a metaphor is consum­mately aware that its employment is improper, therefore temporary, provisional, and compelling only in the personal sense. No one is compelled to assent unless their own experience verifies it.

If we say that the concept “God” is itself derived only from human experience, it means that the “objective” element in our knowledge of “God” includes the experiencing subject. I am not using the word “objective” to mean “the thing in itself apart from its being the object of a knowing subject;” there is no such thing. In the case under consideration here — knowledge of “God” — there is nothing known outside of the insepar­ably subjective feature of experiencing “God” in the intimate realization of our own “non self-origination.”

Does this mean that “God” is not real? … only on the gratuitous assumption that what can’t be verified independently of experiencing subjects is non-existent. But no one would say that. The most that even a scientist would claim is that you cannot compel assent to the existence or character of things that are not independently verifiable. That in itself does not prove that they do not exist, nor does it establish their character, i.e., what they are like. Unfortunately, the word “truth” has been arrogated by the over-enthusiastic scientism of our times to refer exclusively to “know­ledge” that has been subjected to the kind of probity demanded by science. Relationship — the intentional valence between conscious organisms — may be accessible to scientific measurement as far as its emotional resonance or other observable by-products are concerned, but no one would say that those things were themselves constitutive of the relationship. The emotions of elation that accompany a realization, for example, might be measurable, but they do not constitute the realization. Religion is not about what things are, but how we relate to them. I relate to the source of my existence as to “God,” and the nature of that relationship is determined by the nature of my existence and how I experience it, not by what I have been led to think “God” is. I articulate the nature of my existence, i.e., that it is not self-originating, and celebrate it in poetry. That is religion.

I call metaphor a tool of poetry and that poetry reaches “truth” — but not a scientific truth that is verifiable independent of the experience of the subject, demanding acknowledgement without concurrent experience. This “poetic truth” that I speak of, however, is also truth, it is objective and it is verifiable. It’s the communi­ca­tion and sharing of experience; as such it cannot be communicated without being verified. You verify it with your own experience, however, not some independent measuring device or a logical syllogism.

Religion tries to turn the experience of “God” into words. Poetry is our almost exclusive tool for com­muni­cating truth in these interpersonal regions. But I want to emphasize, it’s aim is truth: what is real and really there — the relationship.   We are not talking about fabrications of the imagination.[5] I am objectively related to the source of my existence — in which I live and move and have my being, whether I scientifically “know” what it is or not — and I express that relationship in religious poetry. Poetry uses metaphor, symbol, fables and allegory, to express relational truth that cannot be expressed in any other way. The very nature of the realities we’ve been talking about, realities whose existence is knowable only as interpersonal relational events, must necessarily use metaphor for their expression.

This is true of all relationships. Who would ever deny that the relationships between spouses, or friends, or siblings, or parents and children were real, even though there is no physical or chemical or laboratory test that could verify their existence?

“God-talk”

The root of religious speech is human experience which is historically and culturally conditioned. Speech about “God” that was forged at a particular time and place bears the stamp of that particularity and will need constant translation and renewal if it is to correspond to what is experienced by other people at other times and under other circumstances. The words of one age do not necessarily communicate in another. “Original sin,” for example, may have captured a Greco-Roman’s intuition that something was radically wrong with life under the Empire, but a modern South Asian may find such an idea unthinkable and an insult to the goodness of God. “In our countries,” says Sri-Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balusuría, “the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.”[6] Metaphor preserves the relativity of local expressions.

Moreover, the uniqueness of metaphorical projection introduces a fragrance and intensity to religious communication that more adequately corresponds to the nature of the human experience in question here, mystical experience. The mystics speak of “the cloud of unknowing,” for example, a haunting image to describe the ineffability of “God.” If this evocative quality should be lost, religious truth, as we are defining it, would not be adequately transmitted; metaphor is critically important in this respect.

Again, in this same connection, while metaphor communicates, and communicates well, it also retains the quality of indefinability, a fundamental characteristic of all interpersonal encounter. It evokes, it does not define. The “doctrinal terms” are temporary because of their evocative function. Once they cease to evoke, they no longer communicate. The experience to which they refer, how­ever, remains always what it was. New conditions may require new metaphors. This is most relevant to our reflection. For it means that metaphor preserves inviolate the apophatic principle of Christian tradition, that is, the radical unknowability of God. For metaphor is essentially empty.

Theologians must analyze, weigh and judge all these terms used to define elements of religious experience. It hardly needs saying that much of what is most sordid and shame­ful in the history of humankind is directly trace­able to the unwarranted ascription of literal scientific objectivity to locally conditioned religious experience and the metaphors used to evoke them. The conviction that one has the absolute truth about “God” and how one should live has provoked and excused wars, pogroms, conquests, slavery, persecutions and xenophobic hatred of all kinds. What’s at stake, as we’ve unfortunately come to realize in these times, is nothing less than genocide carried out in the name of “God.”

 

[1]Plato, The Apology in The Works of Plato, tr.Jowett, Tudor, NY, vol.III, p.107.

[2]T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” V

[3]Song of Solomon 6:4

[4]Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Mic VI, p.831

[5] H. and H.A. Frankfort, “Myth and Reality,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, U of Chicago Press, 1946 & 1977 p.7; and also “The Logic of Mythopoetic Thought,” pp. 10-11

 [6]Sri Lankan Catholic theologian, Rev.Tissa Balasuriya on original sin, quoted by Celestine Bohlen, NYT article 1/15/97