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A New Christianity

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.

 
 

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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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