Christian Universalism

1,800 words

Universal religion does not exist. The only thing in our world that even comes close seems to be an imagined ideal round table where the various religious traditions sit and talk, sharing the understanding of their beliefs with one another. Whatever universal agreements may come out of such exchanges, if they ever actually occur, remain momentary, serendipitous events; they have significance only for the few people privy to it. They are not codified anywhere and generally have no impact on the institutional life of any of the participating members.

Nobody is keeping a record; and for sure no one is building a consensus that might be said to represent a universal understanding of religion and its significance for humankind. The purport of this reflection is to say, very clearly and unambiguously, it’s about time we started doing this. The point of view adopted here is that, much to the chagrin of absolutist authoritarian hierarchies like that of the Roman Catholic Church, religion ― institutional structure, beliefs, ritual and moral behavior ― is undebatably relative to the cultural, historical and linguistic groups that embrace it. Religion is a universal human phenomenon; it is found everywhere, and its factual ubiquity suggests that a thorough, disciplined, sincere, honest, humble, and religiously sensitive study would reveal why. The “why” is the common core of the universal religion we seek. It will embody the reason why humans are religious.

Academic courses and departments of Comparative Religion abound. But I want to emphasize, except for a few creative students of that discipline, the kind of consensus that I am talking about has not emerged there, and in fact is not even contemplated. Comparative Religion is an academic discipline whose objective is the tabulation of the way practitioners of the various religions resemble one another or diverge in the areas of religious life mentioned above. It is a branch of social science; it is not itself either a religion or a religious pursuit, search or quest.   Its most accomplished students need not be religious or even have any respect for the relation­ships that are the objects of their expertise. They are solely interested in the knowledge of what religion is and how it functions for the varied human populations across the globe.

The quest I am talking about, while it might have the same material content as Comparative Religion, is vastly different. I am proposing the religious pursuit of the universal religion that lies hidden and dormant beneath the various historically and culturally conditioned forms in which we actually find it functioning in our world. This proposal obviously assumes that there actually is such a reality, but it also recognizes that such a religious pursuit can only be carried out from inside the religious relationship, by those who know what it is. What is being sought is the accurate identification and description of the human event ― the embrace, the surrender ― that practitioners recognize as the mark of authentic religion.

This essay will be an attempt to confirm the claim that there is such a common core, and that clarifying what it is will enhance and purify all the various traditions. In fact, I hope to show that it is only the faithful conformity to the common core that legitimizes any given religion and serves as a standard by which to evaluate its authenticity.

Hence, this study will be circular in character, by which I mean it is committed beforehand to its conclusion: it presumes that a universal religion “exists,” what it seeks to do is sketch out its contours and understand the dynamics of the religious relationship, how it works in itself and therefore how and why it works everywhere in all the various disparate forms in which it has arisen among us.

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Coming at this question as I do from a Roman Catholic background, I am quite aware that such a point of view contradicts the absolutist claims of the official Catholic hierarchy and dogma, which, I would quickly add, are merely the explicit expression of what is tacitly held by most Christian churches. Christians in general believe their religion is the definitive word and will of “God” which mysteriously confers legitimacy upon all other religions in the world. In the words of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Jesus, August 2000, “ . . . the sacred books of other reli­gions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.” [I,8]

Ironically, what “universalist Christianity” might mean is unusually well expressed in the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of it. The following quotations, interspersed with my observa­tions, reproduce in its entirety a single paragraph of Section V, #19 of the same Vatican declaration cited above. The characteriza­tions that the Vatican finds so abhorrent ― not unpredictably ― are exactly the qualities we desire in an authentic universalist Christianity.

The declaration singles out for criticism:

. . .   conceptions [of the Church] which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as ‘kingdom centred.’ They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally con­cerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a ‘Church for others,’ just as Christ is the ‘man for others’ . . . [elipsis in the original]. Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well.

The document acknowledges “positive aspects” without mentioning what they are. But we have no problem imagining how refreshing it would be to have a Church which was not eternally preoccupied in proclaiming its own importance  . . . and so concerned with maintain­ing an image of holiness before the world that it covered-up the most heinous crimes of sexual abuse of children.   Wouldn’t we all rather it be a humble and penetential “Church for others,” aware and forthcoming about its own failings and interested only in pro­moting God’s image in humankind wherever it is found? The Church we dream of will praise the effective­ness of other traditions’ symbols and practices for the building of the kingdom, and encourag­e its people to remain committed to their ideals and their traditional practices. But no, instead we get pum­meled for having the satanic audacity to put others first:

First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is ‘theocentrically’ based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures, and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.

The universal Christianity that I am speaking about is not at all “silent” about Christ. In fact it is based on the universalist insight that Jesus himself gleaned from the prophets and preached to his Jewish contemporaries. That insight was not about his own “divinity,” it was about the “Fatherhood” of “God,” which means precisely that Jesus himself was theocentric and not self-centered. He explicitly rejected any claim that he was “God.” It is the self-centeredness of the Roman Catholic Church that accounts for its inability to recognize Jesus’ message as a call to be “for others.” It was an insight that called for the rejection of any sectarian claims to exclusivity and uniqueness in favor of the “one divine reality by whatever name it is called” . . . exactly as Paul of Tarsus evoked it at the Areopagus in Athens. It was, moreover, that same Christ-inspired universalism that emboldened Paul to propose a universal membership in the commu­nity of the followers of Jesus which eliminated compliance with the conditions of joining the Jewish national sect. It was theocentric; it was not self-centered.

For the same reason, they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed ‘ecclesiocentrism’ of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity”.76 [the footnote references Redemptoris missio, an instruction of John Paul II]. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God.

Indeed, it is the “mystery of creation” that is uniquely responsible for generating religion. It establishes the existential dependency that is the ground for Jesus’ insight into the Fatherhood of God;   . . .   for the Greek poetic acknowledgement of the divinity in which we ALL live and move and have our being;   . . .  for the recognition of our common humanity demanding a compassion and moral responsibility that means justice for all, everywhere and without consideration for ethnic origin, language, color of skin, economic condition, or level of cultural development.   The “kingdom” ― every last bit of it ― is totally dependent on the “mystery of creation.”

And indeed, the traditional emphasis on the superiority of the Christian Religion is uniquely responsible for the crimes that permitted Christianity to be used as justification for the con­quest and exploitation of third world peoples, and for the virulent Christian anti-Semitism that provided the fuel for the Nazi Holocaust. Nor can we forget the horrors perpetrated by the Christians on the Arab world in the Crusades and the expropriation and expulsion of the Moors from Spain.   These were undebatably the products of “ecclesiocentrism” whose bitter fruits we are reaping today in the violent attempts of people to regain their dignity, achieve autonomy, create equality, and transcend the debilitating racism that poisons human social interaction. The horrors of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians can be seen as a dis­traught and grasping over-compen­sa­tion by frightened Jews and guilt-ridden Christians for the millennia of hatred and genocide born of Christian arrogance. If we set any store by Jesus’ terse wisdom that “by their fruits you will know them,” then by the actual historical fruits of Christian mission to the third world, and its criminally negligent stewardship of the defenseless people under its own roof ― women, children, enslaved Africans and their descendants, Latin Americans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, gypsies ― we know that what supports the outrageous claims for the uniqueness of Christianity must be uniquely inhuman.

My purpose is not to deny the religious legitimacy of Christianity, but I claim the contrary of the arrogant hubris of the Vatican. Far from conferring validity, whatever validity the various Christian sects ― including the Roman Catholic sect ― have, they get from their conformity to the essential characteristics of “religion,” the common legacy of humankind, a natural deriva­tive of the human organism itself.

“. . . and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

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The question Jesus asks, as framed by Luke, has a non-sectarian, universalist focus. He is not asking about whether Israel will still believe in Yahweh, or whether his new followers, who later called themselves Christians, will still believe he is the Messiah, but whether people (any people, all people), who are, like a defenseless widow, seeking “justice,” ― the vindication of their humanity in an inhuman system of murderous oppression ― will still believe they can find it. It is a one-line commentary following on the parable of the unjust judge which Jesus uses to “prove” that if persistent pleading can obtain justice even from the worst of men, how much more from a loving Father.

This, according to Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (NT p.151), is an attachment to the warning in 17:22-37, immediately above, that the coming horrors (surely, an allusion to looming persecutions) would fall indiscriminately on everyone. In the maelstrom of a generalized “crucifixion,” who will remain standing? . . . who will continue to trust? The verses cover a wide spectrum of events where the only imaginable human reaction would seem to be despair. It is in an ordeal of that intensity that Luke’s Jesus promises justice to those who have faith.

 

Whether the evolving material universe can be trusted with the human thirst for fulfillment (“justice”) embedded in our organisms, is a modern version of that question. “Faith” here is bedrock: it is trust in LIFE. Jesus’ question applies to every human being living in every human community across the face of the earth. It is not a riddle seeking solution: “who will be saved and who will not?” It’s not a call to take refuge in some imaginary ethnic or institutional protection, much less an excuse for despair. Faith corresponds to our ultimate human challenge: can we, destined as we are to die, beset as we are with pain and loss, trust LIFE? That Luke’s Jesus was aware of the true anguished depths of the human condition suggests that, given the established injustice of the Roman Empire, the path that led to resurrection could only pass through a crucifixion for everyone. Faith in Jesus is enjoined upon all not because he’s “God,” or Messiah, but because he “proved” that a human being ― he himself ― could trust LIFE through anything.   And Jesus’ trust in his loving Father was itself the very kingdom he heralded.

But the challenge is universal, and the solution, the faith it calls for, is neither sectarian nor propositional. It is trust in LIFE whatever the metaphor, whatever the narrative, whatever the rituals, whatever the imagery we use to relate to it. Jesus is offered as teacher and guide for surmounting the ultimate barrier to trust: crucifixion ― which may be “defined” as the demonic inversion of human community, the intentional dehumanization of one human being by another. It is our ultimate enemy. Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval mystic, for reasons of his own would call it “perfect joy.”

The universal message of Jesus’ death is not that an infuriated Monster-god has finally been placated, but that we can trust LIFE as we would a loving Father no matter what happens ― even crucifixion by our fellow human beings. This is “salvation.” It is what gives Jesus a universal relevance.

 

Any suggestion that salvation is to be found after death in another world, conditioned by institutional membership and dependent on propositional and behavioral conformity in this world, is wide of the mark. It misses entirely the clear vision and profound universal compassion of Jesus for the human condition. The universalism of the early Christians was the echo of attitudes they picked up from Jesus despite his exclusive focus on preaching to the Jewish community.

By the second century, however, early Christian universalism in the hands of the Greco-Roman upper classes would shortly yield to the demands of authoritarian control and deteriorate into a rigid sectarianism fully in place by the time of the election of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The control of the conditions of membership and of “saving” ritual, eventually evolved a propositional panoply ― a compendium of orthodox doctrine ― that served as a protective barrier for upper-class control. These controls ultimately resulted in the ethnic identities, class divisions and political preferences of the Roman Catholic Church, predictably mirroring Greco-Roman social structures and competitive dynamics. “Salvation” became a sectarian expression of Mediterranean culture claiming a universalist mandate for itself. It was the mystification of Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire and its inheritors claimed “permission from heaven” to despoil the world.

Jesus’ question ultimately came to be answered in the negative as propositional, behavioral and ritual conformity took the place of the “faith” that Luke was interested in. Universalism was subverted and Christianity degraded into a punitive, moralistic, misogynistic, imperialistic, slavery-based two-tier sect whose overriding function was not justice ― human wholeness, compassion, mutual assistance ― but imperial political success: internal crowd control and external conquest. Christianity came to represent a cult from hell that shaped our western world and even now continues to sculpt the contours of the global community conquered and controlled by Christians. If the tribes of the global community are still at one another’s’ throats, it’s because compassion has never prevailed among us.

 

“Theology” is a misnomer. It is not the “study of God.” It is an attempt to make rational sense of faith. Theology is a secondary event. The primary phenomenon, faith, is a spontaneous response of trust by human beings in a material universe-in-process from which our human organisms emerged and to which we remain umbilically connected. Faith has been a feature of human life for as long as our records indicate ― long before any of the institutions or programs we now call “religion” existed. It has been integral to the formation and cohesion of human community at all levels; its principal correlate has been human behavior, especially interpersonal support and assistance, hence society, justice, and also the proclivity to theocracy.

To start the process of reflection anywhere else is to fail to acknowledge the universalist nature of the theological enterprise: theology is reflection on a universal, global phenomenon that is as characteristic of humankind as society itself and essential to the human project. I believe this has to be the overriding perspective, the high ground, from which the theologian is always looking at his subject matter. This caveat is especially applicable to the Christian theologian because Christianity has been so notorious in disregarding all other traditions and acting as if “faith” began in the Mediterranean basin in the first century of the common era. That is the “heresy” of Roman Christianity ― the one single “error” that sets it furthest from the message and mind of Jesus.

Roman Catholic reform must be understood in this universalist context. Universalism was the unmistakable implication of Jesus’ profound compassion and it was the immediate “next step” taken by the communities of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of his death. While it is always valuable to focus on the glaring propositional anomalies of Christianity as the target of reform, such a narrow perspective may fail to see the overall arrogant assumptions of sectarian superiority that can fly under the radar of efforts at reform. Doctrinal error has many facets. But the primary schism is between universalism and sectarianism. You cannot save humanity from tribal and interpersonal self-destruction by denying the very bonds that make us a family.

The primary obligation enjoined by Jesus is compassion.  It is the moral corollary of faith.  Faith’s compassion is “salvation,” the kingdom.  What are the necessary conditions that must be in place if compassion is to prevail?  That is the theologian’s question.

 

 

“… the most to be pitied”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddha

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

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

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

No Other Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Commentary on the Psalms … 2,3,4,5.

  • This is the third installment of “A Commentary on the Psalms” begun on October 2.
  • Future installments may or may not appear as a new post and be placed on this opening screen. But all will be added directly to a “page” called “Materialism and Mindfulness: A Commentary on the Psalms.” which I have included in the “pages” listed on the sidebar to the right under the pictures of the books. As they are added to the “page,” the new commentaries will be appended to the end of the document, in contrast to the way essays added to the post screen always end up being on top of older posts, reversing the order. All the installments will eventually appear on the “page” and in the proper sequence.
  • “Pages” are accessed by “clicking” on the title.
  • Background notes for all commentaries are based on material from the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

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PSALM 2

Background. A royal psalm for the accession of a new king. It is focused on affirming the legitimacy of the king by establishing his choice by Yahweh. Canaanite tributaries are warned not to use the occasion to revolt. After the exile when Israel had no subordinates it would have been taken to refer to a future fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise of ascendancy to David’s successors. Yahweh, after all, is the universal God of creation and disposes of all “the nations” as he sees fit. The universal dominion of Yahweh’s king is rooted in the promises to David, hence it was assimilated into the Messianic expectations. Israel’s kings are Yahweh’s anointed, his adop­ted sons following a Mesopotamian model, therefore to oppose the king is to oppose Yahweh and face his destructive wrath.

Roland Murphy says “in one of the variant readings to Acts 13:33, Psalm 2 is called the first psalm.”[1] This suggests that for some pre-Christian Hebrew manuscripts, placing the royal psalm of Yahweh’s promises to David at the beginning of the book established the theme of the entire collection.   Early Christians would naturally see this as another Messianic prophecy, and one that would bring all of the psalms in its train. It helps us understand why Jewish Christians, whose belief that Jesus was the messiah was confirmed by a chain of messianic prophesies that traditionally served for Jewish reflection and anticipation, would have emphatically applied this psalm both to Christ and to the (royal) persons designated to rule in his name.

Augustine saw Christ as the king and the “bonds” and “cords” of control as the Christian religion imposed on all the lands and peoples of the Roman Empire: “the Name and rule of Christ is to pervade posterity and possess all nations.”[2]

Famously set to triumphant music by Handel in 1742 as part of the Messiah oratorio, this psalm has entered western culture as an affirmation of the Christian belief in the universal dominion of Christ and by implication the Christian religion. Christian nations like England, where Handel was living when he composed the music in the 18th century, were even then eagerly conquering, colonizing and exploiting people all over the globe in the name of Christian mission.

Reflection. The fixed features of this ancient psalm have all changed for us. We know that it is not Yahweh but LIFE that creates and enlivens this universe of matter. If Christians insist on thinking of Christ as the psalmist’s king, we know it can no longer be taken as a prophetic literalism the way it has been traditionally understood. Jesus is not the “only-begotten son” of LIFE itself requiring that all people take him as model and teacher or submit to the Church that claims to represent him. We have to adjust the dynamics: Jesus is “son” like the rest of us. We are all the offspring of LIFE. Jesus unreservedly embraced LIFE as his “father” and when we do the same we join with him as agents of LIFE along with any other human being who makes that choice. We are free to accept Jesus as model and teacher, but the LIFE he reveals is the same LIFE that enlivens all of us, regardless of religious tradition. Jesus is LIFE the way we all are: he displays LIFE’s contours in his moral choices, affective attitudes and social commitments. Like all of us Jesus was enlivened by matter’s living intelligent human energy … the difference, perhaps, was his flawless fidelity to LIFE’s selfless profligate generosity, but it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Jesus can be a model for us because he is made of exactly the same clay as we are.

We reject the theocratic implications of Augustine’s reading. We are completely opposed to the belief that a preeminent empire or religious institution represents LIFE and has been given hegemony over the human race. We do not believe LIFE chooses rulers or religions to act in its name, any more than it intervenes with the processes of plate tectonics to prevent earthquakes. LIFE acts by enlivening the people who confer legitimacy on the systems of governance and religious practices that they have chosen, just as LIFE sustains the natural order in every respect without interference or interruption. There are no miracles … not even psychological ones.

It cannot be emphasized enough: the tribalism that is intrinsically embedded in the ancient Hebrew view of the world … a tribalism upgraded by Augustinian Catholicism into Roman theocratic imperialism … is the most stubborn of the pathological legacies inherited by us from our tradition. It seems almost impossible to extirpate, especially after it has been applied to such devastating effect in an exploitive global colonialism whose dynamics continue to produce enormous wealth for its historical perpetrators. The West is invested in the belief in its own superiority and the Christian religion was an essential factor in the creation of that fantasy. It is our demon par excellence, and if the psalms are to become an instrument of LIFE, that demon must be exorcized.

The very fact that Jesus and his message could have been taken hostage for so long and at such depths of moral inversion by the Roman theocracy and its successors, should be standing proof that Christianity … and more emphatically its primitive Roman Catholic iteration … could not possibly be the special choice of LIFE. Moreover, if at some future moment, leveraged by the economic and political power of the imperialist west, Christianity should ever come to be the world’s dominant religion, it will be further proof that there is no divine providence.

Augustine’s naïve version of divine providence had to conclude that “the way things are” has been foreseen and willed by “God.” It is the most pernicious (and transparent) of deceits, and stands cheek by jowl with humanoid theism at the foundational underpinnings of injustice in human society. The institutionalized acceptance of injustice, evidenced in the perennial existence of the master-slave relationship in Christian society inherited from Rome, is a persistent outrage against LIFE’s synteresis; it constitutes a raw open wound that threatens to go septic at any moment and destroy the entire organism. To tolerate injustice is to contradict human intelligence — to disconnect yourself from LIFE. You cannot do that without precipitating your own death.

The social “bonds” and “cords” that we acknowledge and impose upon ourselves are the norms of justice that create a brotherly harmony and creative equality among all the peoples of the earth. But universalism does not mean a robotic homogeneity. The norms of justice and love apply to sustaining cultures and traditions as well as the eradication of economic and political inequality. The human surrender to the dictates of conscience creates a family of peoples who are empowered to come to a collaborative consensus on the issues of economic production and distribution that work for the survival of all. Our “Israel” is the global community; and the “rebel nations” are those people and groups, blinded by their erroneous self-definition as superior to others, who currently refuse to submit to the demands of LIFE, deny our global family identity and would consign us to the eternal nightmare of internecine warfare. Their interest in others is limited to pillaging their possessions and exploiting their labor. This is not merely repugnant to our sensibilities, no one committed to LIFE will tolerate it.

[Psalm 2]

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,

3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling

12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

 

Why do people pursue the interests of their tribe alone? Why do they set themselves against LIFE and the human family? Why are they ever planning ways to dominate, exploit and enslave others?

 

They refuse to obey the demands of LIFE.

 

But LIFE will not be thwarted.

By rejecting LIFE they isolate themselves. Mutual hatred ultimately spells death.

 

But as for you, LIFE wants to make you its champion. And it will transform you into the offspring of LIFE itself.

 

You will bring people together; the tribal blindness will disappear,

 

the age-old walls of separation will crumble into dust at your touch.

 

Be warned, therefore, you who take your stand against LIFE and the human family.

This is not a trifling matter … LIFE will not allow it. Obey LIFE!

Serve LIFE or you will shrivel and die.

 

Embrace LIFE and you will flourish.

 

PSALM 3

Background. This begins a series of five “laments.” This one was attributed to David. It appears to have been originally designed as a prayer uttered by the king, which later became “democratized” for use by any client of the priests in a similar situation. The theme is trust. Yahweh’s help can be relied on; it sustains the king’s dignity and self-confidence. He can afford to sleep, i.e., he can relax his vigilance, because he knows Yahweh will protect him even in battle surrounded by tens of thousands of enemies. Yahweh responds to the king’s call by actively engaging in combat, not only on his behalf but, because he is the king, for the sake of his people.

Reflection. The issue for us is also combat. But from our perspective in history the combat we face is for the transformation of humankind into a global family energized and committed to LIFE. This is true both for the individuals who use this prayer, as well as the community of LIFE’s global offspring to which the individuals belong and whose wellbeing they serve.

Those on the path to personal transformation are beset by “foes,” the great multitude of selfish urges, negative thoughts, cultural beliefs and cynical acquaintances that undermine our determination to become empowered, thoroughly compassionate, generous, just and loving human beings. We must contend with the fury of our emotional demons which, in defense of a false “self,” focus not only on our delusions of grandeur as well as defects, failures and impotence, but also on what appears to be the indifference of LIFE itself. You can’t trust LIFE to help you, they say, it just doesn’t care.

But we are in touch with our own LIFE at the interior depths where LIFE and our own life mesh and are one and the same thing, and we feel the undeniable presence of our own potential — the insuperable moral power that derives from that co-existence. It’s a voice we hear quite clearly. It is real. We are not alone in this combat. We are energized by LIFE itself and we know other people are as well. It changes our state of mind completely. We can stop worrying. LIFE is present; it is in command and can be trusted. We will win this struggle.

But the coherence of the global community of justice is also under assault from a multitude of “enemies:” nay­sayers and predators dedicated to exploiting every opportunity for their own advantage and to advance the narrow interests of their tribe with its claims to preeminence. LIFE’s power in the hands of its champion, the “king,” the servant of LIFE, redounds to the welfare of LIFE’s global community.

 

[Psalm 3]

1 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;

2 many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.”

3 But you, O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

4 I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill.

5 I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.

6 I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around

7 Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.

8 Deliverance belongs to the LORD; may your blessing be on your people!

 

 

 

Restatement

O my LIFE, my head is filled with negative thoughts. They tell me personal transformation for the service of others is a meaningless pursuit. LIFE doesn’t care.

But I don’t believe that! You are my source, LIFE, the ground of my identity, my dignity and my strength.

I called out to my LIFE, and it answered from the place deep within me where it lives. I heard it clearly. LIFE itself is there. I can stop worrying. I am in good hands. I am safe.

The ten thousand voices that tell me I’m just wasting my time are delusion.

 

Help me, LIFE, feel the strength in your arm. Drive those fears away once and for all.

I had a victory today, but I know it was really you, LIFE, that won it; may the strength we wield together serve your people.

 

 

PSALM 4

Background. An individual lament and a psalm of trust, similar to the previous psalm without the royal allusions. The context here seems to have been a forensic situation of some kind and the petitioner unjustly accused, perhaps of idolatry. “God of my right” means God knows of the rightness of his claims, and has seen him through similar accusations before (“gave him room”). His accusers are liars and are dragging his reputation through the dirt. But Yahweh protects those who keep his covenant therefore he knows that he will be vindicated.

The rest of the psalm seems to address others who may be in similar circumstances, are worried and may be tempted to turn to idols for help. But they should wait it out; don’t turn to idols, trust in Yahweh and offer sacrifices to him alone. They lack confidence; they want to see some sign of Yahweh’s support. The psalmist offers himself as a sign. He enjoys a peace of mind that’s like the feeling you have after a good harvest when your granaries are full and your wine barrels are overflowing. He can take off his armor and sleep peacefully for he knows Yahweh will keep him safe.

Reflection. From our perspective our “enemies” are essentially of our own making, either from our individual demons or from other human beings who disrespect and exploit the community. In either case calling on LIFE means calling on the energy that lays coiled at the confluence of LIFE and human life both for myself and for others. It is a sacred energy driven by justice and full of natural confidence in oneself and trust in the just instincts of others. This is the energy that the “enemies” would undermine. Their defeat, at either the individual or community level, coincides with a release of energy — a clarity of mind and a sense of confidence — that had been so suppressed earlier that its emergence almost seems like the work of some outside source. The resulting elation is something to sing about.

It is LIFE itself that is the source of this sacred power, our own LIFE, not the pseudo energizers like drugs, alcohol and other gross distractions, or the more refined substitutes that seem to enhance the ego and provide a limited and short-term peace of mind: adulation, exoneration, consolation, justification, explanation … yes even meditation. We can use virtually anything to take the place of activating our own potential for more LIFE. And the reason is that the true activation of LIFE, every time it occurs, reduces the hegemony of the false ego, replacing it little by little with another “self” identified with the totality, with LIFE; it is the false self-protec­tive and self-worshipping ego that thinks it is the authentic definer and authorized protector of the organism’s destiny and place among men. The power of LIFE reshapes the conatus into a new “self.”

[Psalm 4]

1 Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?

3 But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.

4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.

6 There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”

7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.

8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

 

My LIFE, you know WE are falsely accused, we’ve been through this before. Help me again.

Respect yourself even if others don’t.   (“lies.” substitutes for the energy of LIFE.)

 

Our reality comes from LIFE. We belong to LIFE. Therefore we can trust LIFE to provide the energy we need to protect ourselves.

If negative thoughts persist, wait them out patiently.   They are delusions and will pass.

Trust LIFE. Don’t look for substitutes.

 

We want LIFE to perform a miracle. But it doesn’t work that way. LIFE is our LIFE. The miracle is our activation of our potential.

Once that sinks in, I feel a confidence and peace of mind like no other.

I feel safe because I know I can trust my LIFE.

 

PSALM 5

Background. Another lament and call for help. This time it seems to be the cry of someone who ministers in the Temple and whom others are trying to get rid of. He is asking Yahweh for help against his enemies so he can gain access to the Temple and worship Yahweh in awe. But it may also be a symbolic reference; true worship at the temple brings to mind the struggles of Samson. Yahweh’s help can be trusted by those who are in the thick of lifelong combat.

Reflection. If Roland Murphy’s background assessment of this psalm is accurate, the literal meaning limits its direct usefulness for us. Taking it metaphorically means we confine our understanding to generic terms — terms that are characterististic of all the psalms of lament and trust. Those whose lives are a constant struggle with the enemies of LIFE, whoever they are and whatever the battle they are waging, will find respite in realizing that they will win because the LIFE that is active in the struggle is theirs, and cannot be destroyed. The point is to make it one’s own.

This psalm quietly introduces an argument that is expressed more loudly in other psalms: that Yahweh needs and wants worship and praise. The hint that the psalmist wants access to the temple (in fact have his career restored) so that he can praise Yahweh, is apparently supposed to convince Yahweh that it’s in his (Yahweh’s), best interest to help him out. Other psalms that pray for healing sickness boldly remind Yahweh that if he lets the psalmist die, there will be one less human out there to praise him “because the dead do not offer sacrifice.”

Applying our customary understanding that LIFE is a shared possession between the source energy and the energized living organism suggests that this argument is meaningless. No such dynamic can exist because LIFE is not outside and other than us. We are not dealing with “an other person” who does things for us. What LIFE does is activate our own creative potential: the power to produce more LIFE.

But what generates the spontaneous instinct to be enraptured in awe and struck dumbfounded with gratitude is not miracles but precisely the existential confluence of LIFE with my life. I am alive with LIFE’s own living energy. I can palpably feel a divine potential bubble up instant by instant as my intelligent life emerges and is sustained uninterruptedly through the “nows” of flowing time by an energy source that resides within me, is me, but at the same time is also everything else. I know very clearly that I am not the source of the life I am living, because I cannot prevent it from disappearing nor give it back to myself once it is gone. Somehow, then, this LIFE that is me, is also not me, preceded me, is beyond me, shaped and sustains me, and will continue to energize other things and other people long after I’m dead and gone. The awe, praise and gratitude are not directed to an outside source of miracles, but rather to the interior source of the only miracle there is: that I am alive with LIFE and carry LIFE’s creative power around with me like the hammer of Thor.

[Psalm 5]

1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.

2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.

3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.

5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.

6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house,

I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.

8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

9 For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.

10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.

12 For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

 

 

 

 

 

The psalmist presents his case to LIFE at the time of prayer — the morning — and waits quietly.

 

Somehow “wickedness” equates to boastfulness as well as lying and murder. These are all actions that disregard LIFE and are destructive of the human family.

 

 

The psalmist is overwhelmed with LIFE’s steadfast love, sustaining us as human beings. He is drawn to LIFE’s place of residence, in the deep interior of the human organism and its community, to sit awestruck in LIFE’s presence on display in humankind.

But in order to get there, he needs to overcome his enemies who are trying to stop him. They are the demons of the false self who lie and seduce and keep him from his intended purpose.

LIFE itself will unmask them as lies, delusions. They reject LIFE.

 

 

But those who embrace LIFE are embraced by LIFE and are safe under its protection.   Realizing LIFE is securely ours, we know we will be OK.

We can rest and bask in the presence and secure possession of LIFE.

 

[1] Brown et al eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, NJ, 1968, p. 526a (OT)

[2] St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.