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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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What is Post-theism?

The representation of god in myth and belief has served three key functions over the long course of history: as (1) the hidden agency behind the forces and events of nature, (2) the transcendent legitimation of political authority, and as (3) the advancing ideal of our moral development as a species. In some cases, these three functions have been taken up into different deities, while in monotheism they were incorporated into a single supreme god.

Since roughly the fifth century BCE, the West has been progressing through a series of cultural transformations, where each of these “functions of god” was taken over, absorbed, and transcended by the mythological god’s human creators. What was once projected outward – behind nature, above the throne, or ahead of our moral striving – was gradually and steadily internalized by the human spirit. With each step, our evolution has progressed into a new “post-theistic” era, relative to the function of god that has been rendered obsolete.

Early on, the gods of nature dissolved into physical laws, material forces, and mathematical formulations. Personified hidden agencies were no longer needed to explain weather events, the movement of planets, or the revolution of seasons. The rise of natural science pushed the Western experience into a post-theistic age, with respect to the mysteries of the cosmos.

It took longer for the political and moral frames to advance, however.Post Theism

Kings, tyrants and despots continued to claim ordination by the gods, which partly explains why temple religion has received royal and state support for centuries – even to this day. Nevertheless, the rise of democracy began to take the power to rule away from the god and his monarch. A republican or constitutional form of government might still anchor its legitimacy in a vision of human nature as possessing certain inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, but responsibility for the political order is now firmly on our own shoulders.

The rise of science and democracy, then, marked two major transitions to post-theism in the West. Today we are on the progression threshold of a third shift, now focused on morality and what it means to be “good.”

No doubt, the democratic revolution – first in Athens, then later in Philadelphia – compelled this ethical shift, since the king’s order or a denominational moral code has less warrant when the divine authority once believed to stand behind it is no longer taken literally.

But one key moment in this transformation came with the teachings of Jesus.

The prophets of Israel – particularly Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah – had already dared to internalize the voice of god and speak not just for him, but as him:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5)

No longer the priests, who were religious insiders of temple/throne religion, but outsiders (some ex-priests) took on the challenge of redefining traditional standards of moral obedience, righteousness, justice and compassion. By standing in god’s place and exhorting the people to stretch out for higher truth and a wider (more inclusive) love, the prophets prepared the way for Jesus.

Like no one before him or since, Jesus somehow had the audacity to not only redefine god’s will but his very identity. The deity who had been identified with holiness, separateness, vengeance and retribution was made-over into a “prodigal god” – wastefully kind, benevolent, compassionate, and forgiving. This last virtue particularly, forgiveness, was radically deconstructed by Jesus.

In his life and teaching, forgiveness – also known as loving your enemy – became a gracious and unconditional initiative, and not just a considerate response to repentance. As a proactive virtue of love, forgiveness could become a redemptive force inside the individual, between enemies, and across the world. To get there, the old god of morality who still operated according to the logic of retribution (“you get what you deserve”) needed to be absorbed and then transcended. Jesus was so bold as to invite his disciples to outdo god by forgiving without even the expectation of repentance.

In the ensuing decades after Jesus, some of his fans and followers grasped the radical nature of what he had done. By constructing a myth about his resurrection, his ascension into identification with god, and then descending as spirit one last time to become incarnate in the community carrying on in his name, the early Christians fulfilled his vision and ushered in the last great post-theistic age.

With the prophets and later Jesus, the Western trajectory of human evolution (by co-opting the near-eastern influence of Jewish history) had internalized and gone beyond the moral ideal of god. Now such advanced virtues as universal compassion and unconditional forgiveness were not just represented and glorified in Christian worship as “the god of Jesus Christ,” but they were expected to be embodied and lived out on the ground of daily life as well.
                                                                                                

This quick review of post-theism as it progressed through the cultures of Greece and Israel should clarify where it is different from the quasi-philosophical position of atheism. While atheism is energized by its opposing stance relative to theism (“no” to its “yes”), post-theism involves not a refutation of god but rather his assimilation by the human being.

Imagined, composed, projected, glorified, obeyed, emulated, internalized and finally transcended – thus god is not so much displaced by natural science, liberal democracy and a radical ethic, as taken over and his “functions” assumed by his original creators.

For this reason, post-theism does not bother with lampooning religion or engaging in sacrilegious irreverence. It has no interest in exposing belief in god as weak-minded and childish – although it has an obligation (we might say, in the “spirit of Jesus”) to address and resolve the tendencies in religion toward dogmatism, bigotry, repression and violence.

Essentially, post-theism understands god differently than atheism. Our human representations of god are products of our own curiosity, speculation, creative imagination and spiritual insight. Even though we once needed to regard them as objectively real, we can now appreciate this need as a critical phase in the longer advancement of humanity into a way of life increasingly more grounded and responsible, more caring and inclusive, more daring and authentic.

One other important difference: in its evolutionary view of religion, post-theism affirms belief in god as developmentally appropriate. Until an individual is ready to “take god back,” an external deity provides the necessary security and support, confidence and inspiration, to both relax in faith and reach out into a higher purpose.

The historical progress of the larger culture must be repeated and fulfilled in each living generation.

 
 

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