In a recent blog post (“What is Post-Theism?”) I explored how Western culture since the ancient Greeks evolved through three creative phases, where an earlier function of god (behind nature, above politics, and ahead of morality) was internalized and transcended by the human being.
The revolutions of science (natural philosophy) and democracy in Greece essentially took over for god (or the gods) and elevated humans to a new level of control, freedom and responsibility in the world. As each of these “progression thresholds” was crossed, Western culture entered upon a new post-theistic age.
That isn’t too difficult to accept, as far as it goes. But then I suggested that we crossed over into post-theistic morality with the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus redefined the moral function of god away from exclusion, retribution, and final vengeance on enemies, toward a model of inclusion, generosity, and unconditional forgiveness. He called upon his disciples to accomplish in loving their enemies what god had been unwilling and unable to do.
Let’s refresh this theory in our minds before we proceed, since so much hinges on it.
The moral function of god historically has been not only to enforce proper behavior, but to serve as the advancing ideal of human evolution. As the principal attractors of human moral development, gods possess certain ethical attributes and propensities. These “powers” are raised into the focus of aspiration whenever we praise god, meditate on the perfection of god’s virtues, and worship him for being such-and-such and acting thus-and-so towards us.
Because worship and aspiration – praising god and striving to be like him – are so close as to be nearly identical, the interesting progress in all this devotional activity involves awakening these same virtues in ourselves, activating them into the forefront of our moral concerns, and eventually expressing them in the way we live in the world.
The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah prepared the way by daring to speak not just on god’s behalf, but as god to their generations. Once god was thus internalized, as it were, compassion for the outcast and justice for the poor (the twin obsessions of prophetic literature) became active humanitarian concerns. With a new human ability to embody and express these virtues, an idealized and external representation of them (in god) was no longer necessary.
With Jesus we might say the final step was taken. Not only preferential love for insiders or compassionate love for outsiders, but unconditional love for one’s enemies was first professed by Jesus to be the way god really is. He went on to demonstrate this same love in the way he lived, and then called his friends to do the same.
It’s absolutely crucial that we try to grasp how revolutionary Jesus was in calling his followers to outdo even god (the tribal, retributive deity) in their practice of love. Even god couldn’t forgive unless and until all the conditions of repentance had been fulfilled, yet Jesus exhorted his disciples to begin with forgiveness, without expectation of repentance, and to never stop.
Tragically, later Christian orthodoxy would go back to retrieve the vengeful deity and proceed to make the cross of Jesus a satisfaction of conditions against god’s willingness (ability?) to forgive sinners. For another two thousand years (and counting), Christianity would revert to the very model of god that Jesus had helped us transcend and leave behind.
The earliest Christians could appreciate the repercussions of what Jesus had said and done. His community of followers (at least some of them) stepped bravely into a post-theistic age. They came to believe they were living in the fulfillment of time, as god had completely emptied himself (kenosis) into humanity, and humanity had at last risen to its divine potential (apotheosis) in Jesus.
Such a realization is rather esoteric (meaning deeply interior), to say the least. So in their effort to communicate its meaning to the larger culture, second-generation Christian storytellers began the work of painting him into a mythological frame. In a series of strategic moves, the Jesus of memory opened out into an elaborate story about Jesus the Christ: the messenger became the message.
According to the Christian myth, after his death on a cross Jesus was raised back to life and taken up into heaven, where he became (as the apostle Paul says) a life-giving spirit. Not long thereafter he descended as the holy spirit (an identification made explicit by Paul) upon the small community of his huddled and discouraged disciples, bringing them to life (in a second-order resurrection) as his new body on earth.
So in their religious (mythic) imagination, the Jesus they remembered and heard about – the one with this radical message and example of unconditional forgiveness – went up into god and came down into humanity. This was precisely the dynamic that had transpired while he was alive as one of them: he took them up into a new conceptual definition of god (with his teaching), and brought them down for an embodied demonstration (in his action).
As an example of post-theistic mythology, the early Christian myth effectively introduced newcomers to Jesus, as it facilitated the plunge into a more grounded and mystical spirituality for those farther along. Problems emerged, however, as the avant-garde post-theistic Christian movement became an established state-sanctioned dogmatic orthodoxy. The more radical and esoteric edge of the movement was sanded down into a popular religion, fully stocked with administrative officials, membership requirements, and a fantastic post-mortem benefits package.
Jesus would soon be rewritten in doctrine into the world savior who swept in from somewhere else, accomplished the critical transaction for our salvation, and went away again. He is expected to come again someday, at which time he will gather his favorites and throw the rest in hell for not believing when they had the chance. All the while, we hunker down in our denominational boxes and recite the company line with heads bowed.
If Jesus could see us now.