Book Review by Joe O’Leary
Theological revisionism is a dangerous investment, and fearless critical negativity can easily lead to shipwreck with regard to faith (cf. 1 Tim 1:19). Tony Equale’s impassioned book, Arius and Nicaea: Science and Religion in a Material Universe (Willis, VA: Boundary Rock, 2014), is a disturbing read. Its author, a Catholic and formerly a priest, is radically disenchanted with the Christian tradition except for some virtues it has inculcated. Like many in the mid-19th century, when scientific materialism had brought ‘an unbridgeable caesura in the history of humanity on earth, before and after Hope, that noble Hope which made man raise his brow to heaven, and which, leaving him, lets him fall back on four paws’ (letter of Eugène Lefébure to Stéphane Mallarmé), Equale thinks that the facts of evolution eliminate ‘the bright promise of immortality.’ His book can be read as a cry of pain. Behind its loud assertions I hear ‘An infant crying for the light:/ And with no language but a cry,’ as Tennyson confessed in In Memoriam, probably the best counterstatement to the despair induced by ‘the disappearance of God.’
But of course it is not only poets and philosophers who wrestle with these questions and who risk succumbing to what Newman called ‘the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world.”’ Many a pious Irish Catholic grandmother will ask if religion is not just a fictional palliative for the grim finality of death, and many a priest has been hard put to it to find the effective word to affirm that the Creator is leading all things to a final consummation and that even now the living and the dead are bound together in a Communion of Saints.
Sincere and heartfelt in his effort to reconstruct a viable ethical and spiritual path in the age of the death of God, Equale sees himself as recovering the true teaching of Jesus and as saving him from his betrayal by the Church over the centuries. While Equale’s surviving convictions may seem thin gruel, he carries over from his background much religious zeal in serving them up. Should so much zeal and concern not be read as an indicator of thwarted consciousness that there is more to be said about the meaning of being than the author’s dogmatic materialist presuppositions allow him to articulate?
The book’s dedication reads: ‘To the memory of the Jewish Jesus and his lost message.’ Christianity began well, as an effort to bring out the full meaning of this Jewish prophet’s message: ‘The earliest followers of Jesus quickly discovered that they could not put into practice the full reform of the Judaic tradition called for by Jesus’ message without affirming the universal human significance of that tradition—and paradoxically transcending it’ (2). But everything went wrong with the Jesus movement, both institutionally and doctrinally, when it succumbed to the embrace of Constantine, the first Christian emperor.
The rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus by scholars such as Geza Vermes, Paul Van Buren, and Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquart certainly pushes in the direction of reconceiving Jesus as a teacher without any divine identity, which would lead to a rewriting of the history of dogma such that the Ebionites, Adoptianists, and ‘dynamic monarchians’ emerge as closer to truth than the Logos theologians (Origen, Tertullian), the Arians as closer to truth than Athanasius or the Cappadocians, the councils of Nicaea or Constantinople, and the Nestorians closer than Cyril or Leo, Ephesus or Chalcedon. Equale fully embraces the critique of the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD, articulated by Jewish theologian Richard E. Rubenstein (misspelt ‘Rubinstein’ throughout this book) in When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome (Orlando: Harcourt, 1999). He also draws on the scholarship of Timothy Barnes, Peter Brown, Richard Hanson, and Rowan Williams. The critique extends to a double background: the Roman Empire and Platonist philosophy. Finally he expounds his own philosophy of ‘monistic materialism’ (113), which he asserts is the dominant and mandatory outlook of our age.
While Equale stresses heavily the innovative character of the Nicene dogma, pre-Nicene Christianity can scarcely escape his scathing critique. The New Testament itself gives Jesus Christ a status as Redeemer (for instance Rom 5-8), ‘Saviour of the world’ (Jn 4:42; 1 Jn 4:14), and cosmic mediator (Heb 1:2-3; Jn 1:1-18) that must be whittled away if he is only a ‘prophet’ (which is not a prominent New Testament title for him despite Acts 3:22; Jn 4:19 and 6:14 represent an imperfect understanding). Basically, if Equale is right, the entire New Testament was barking up the wrong tree, except for some ethical teachings of Jesus. It is hard to see how Equale could read it with less loathing than he has for the Nicene Creed, even if he treated all its language as merely metaphorical. Nicaea and its homoousios have always been the butt of negative comment, and Equale subscribes to all the anti-Nicene clichés with total conviction. But logically he should single out the New Testament for the brunt of his attack, since it launched the claim that Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son (Jn 1:18; 3:16 Rom 8:3). Nicaea merely sharpened the ontological profile of the divine Logos, though Equale sometimes speaks as if it made the humanity of Jesus (rather than the divinity of the Word that became incarnate) consubstantial with the Most High God.
The discovery by the Jesuit theologians Denis Pétau (1583-1652) that the pre-Nicene Fathers were all subordinationists drew strong resistance from the Anglican bishop George Bull in his Defensio Fidei Nicaenae (1685). As it was recognized that there had indeed been a change in teaching at Nicaea, the theory of the development of doctrine took shape; see Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development (Cambridge University Press, 1957). Unitarians, and Deists such as Voltaire (Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764) seized on this pre-Nicene subordinationism to denounce the doctrine of the Trinity as an artificial and unintelligible pseudo-philosophical construction, imposed by an authoritarian State and Church. But careful study of the history of dogma shows Nicaea as a legitimate expression or development of what Newman calls the Christian ‘Idea’ and not as a sudden imposition by an impatient Emperor.
The Council of Nicaea had to choose between the idea that the Logos incarnate in Jesus Christ was a demi-god of some sort or was actually truly divine, ‘true God from true God.’ The idea that Jesus was just a human being (psilos anthrôpos) was not on the agenda at all. Equale writes: ‘Jesus was a man. If Jesus’ personal holiness… justified saying he was one with the very Logos of God, the metaphorical character of his “divinity” remained intact because the Logos itself, even if more than a poetic personification of the “Mind of God,” was for Arius still a creature’ (62). But is there any fourth-century theologian, even among extreme Arians, who would agree that Jesus is only metaphorically divine? The human Jesus grows and is transformed until he is established as ‘both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36), ‘appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead:’ (Rom 1:4), and ‘glorified (Jn 13:31-3; 17:1-5). This needs to be studied in order to find a phenomenological bridge between the historical Jesus and the incarnational vision of Jn 1:14. Whatever the prospects of such a ‘Christology from below,’ they are not helped by whittling down John’s divine Logos to the status of a creaturely entity, since this only adds new complications, both for the nature of God and for the significance of Jesus. Nicaea brought clarity: the God at work in Christ (2 Cor 5:19) is not other than the one God, and the one in whom ‘the fulness of divinity’ dwells (Col 2:9) is not some kind of amalgam either, but truly human. A perfectly divine Logos on one side, a perfectly human Jesus on the other, such are the données that were the starting point of the subsequent controversy about their conjunction.
Equale, following Rubenstein, sees Constantine as imposing the divinity of Christ by fiat: ‘As a Latin-speaking Westerner, Constantine had little patience for Greek theological niceties. So far as he was concerned, the Christ who had appeared to him in a dream, led him to victory, and given him an empire to govern, was God’ (65). The Nicene Creed was ratified in an atmosphere of awe before Constantine, who had liberated the Church from two centuries of persecution. ‘“Dogmas” elaborated under these circumstances are historically and culturally limited artifacts with little support for a claim to universal validity’ (67). But in fact the Nicene dogma was ‘received’ by the Church only in a long battle, in which the Emperors offered little support to the defenders of the Council. Unitarian theologian Kegan A. Chandler, in Constantine and the Divine Mind: The Imperial Quest for Primitive Monotheism (Wipf & Stock, 2019), argues that Constantine was himself an Arian (as his baptism by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia suggests), whose personal interpretation of the homoousios was derived from Gnostic sources and the Hermetic text Poimandres, frequently quoted by his counsellor Lactantius. All his life, in Kegan’s account, Constantine defended a Roman monotheism, the cult of the Sol Invictus, continued by Julian in his devotion to Helios. Constantine’s son Constantius was the most powerful and detested opponent of Athanasius and Hilary, and it was only with Theodosius that Nicene orthodoxy first enjoyed full imperial support. The Nicene dogma won out due to its inner coherence, and all the alternatives, despite imperial backing, revealed fatal flaws in the course of the controversy. Equale’s judgement on Nicaea is that ‘something entirely antithetical to the spirit of Jesus’ life and message had become incorporated into the essential belief system of the Christian religion’ (72). This implies that the authentic Christian faith had lasted less than two hundred years. But others will go further and say with Nietzsche that ‘there was only one true Christian, and he died on the cross,’ or that as soon as early Christians made Jesus the Messiah they distorted his self-understanding. The oak tree may look ‘entirely antithetical’ to the acorn, but it is in fact the full revelation of what the acorn was.
Equale claims that the Nicene dogma had little popular support: ‘if the tiny current of desert monasticism and apophatic mysticism are laid aside, turning Jesus into “God” and gutting his humanity was more alienating to the vast numbers of ordinary Christians and more distorting of Jesus’ message than anything Arius was proposing’ (77). This is wishful thinking. Athanasius had vast popular support, as a national leader and a national hero in Egypt, welcomed back joyfully after each of his imperial banishments. Equale actually admits, having praised Arius for ‘finally resolving the ancient ambigüity inherited from Plato and Philo’ (77), that ‘the problem was that the community, the “common people,” had moved on’ and ‘had begun to worship Jesus as God’ (77-8). This Equale sees as a recent development and a fall into Sabellianism, ‘a more subtle version’ of the ‘monarchianism’ denounced by Tertullian a century previously, and which Jaroslav Pelikan identifies as ‘a systematization of popular Christian belief’ (quoted, 78). That belief goes back to the beginnings, when Christians gathered weekly ‘to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god’ as Pliny reported to Trajan in 112 AD, and when the Fourth Gospel culminated with Thomas’s confession ‘My Lord and my God’ (Jn 20:28). Equale himself notes that ‘the belief that Jesus, John’s Logos, was really God, not metaphorically but literally, had to have been a real possibility at least from the end of the first century when John’s Gospel appeared’ (80). Equale would suggest that this possibility only became fully actualized when ‘Jesus, by providing Constantine with victories, proved himself to be the “God of armies” one of Yahweh’s titles’ and ‘was given a new title: Pantocrator, the “All Ruler—a term before the fourth century reserved for “God” alone’ (81). Now ‘the inveterate habit of the people worshipping Jesus as “God” was publicly acknowledged and canonized’ (81-2). Note that any danger of docetist or Sabellian or Monophysite tendencies in the adoration of Christ was wisely corrected by the church leaders Equale lambastes, culminating in the Council of Chalcedon’s championing of Christ’s integral human nature.
Equale’s demolition of Nicaea goes beyond the Christological issue. Athanasius’s insistence that ‘Arius’ theology was a pale and bloodless version of the real meaning of the Christ event’ (82) and that only a truly divine Christ could overturn our fallen condition of corruption and ignorance of God and thus ‘divinize’ us presupposes a fundamentally false vision of reality, according to Equale. ‘If there is no dualism dividing matter from spirit, and no “original sin”—if our alienation from “God” is moral and relational and not ontological, then this entire worldview with its many variants falls like a house of cards’ (84). If we accept that ‘there is only one “kind” of thing in the universe, and everything is made of it’ (87) as science teaches (here is where Equale’s subtitle is explained), then ‘we never needed an “ontological” mediator either because of the spirit-matter gap or the “effects of original sin”’ (93). ‘Ontology’ is always used pejoratively by Equale, who acknowledges no ‘being’ but what the physical sciences can detect. This ontophobia is perhaps his fundamental blind spot. To be sure he does speak of LIFE, which might be interpreted to include Being.
‘Nicaea was a maelstrom of meaningless disagreements artificially resolved by a politically-driven and equally meaningless “solution,” all in terms of a cosmological world-view now known to be completely erroneous’ (93). Given that Nicaea was such a flop, we must recognize that religion has no business attempting to determine objective facts—leave that to science. Instead, ‘religion’s business is (1) identifying the kind and quality of the relationships—chosen by us—that give human meaning to the facts and (2) understanding the evolving symbols which humankind has cobbled together through time to define and direct these relationships (94-5). The very term “God,” which Equale always puts in italics, it now appears, is but one of these “symbols” serving to ‘sketch out a constellation of relationships and relational attitudes with which we have decided we want to be identified’ (95). Religion is simply a human choice to live unselfishly. Divine grace or revelation does not come into it at all, except as a poetic idea: ‘Those choices are ours not “God’s;” we project them onto “God” but they are ours’ (95). This is a radically Pelagian stance, which writes off the experience of Christians over the centuries who have lived their faith as founded on an event of grace and revelation, constantly renewed.
For Equale religion is a human cultural task and Christianity bungled this task: ‘Christianity for all its historic importance, was only a minor subset of the overall Platonic two world, spirit-matter, life-after-death fairy tale that has characterized our civilization since at least 350 bce’ (103-4). Indeed, all the religions of Late Antiquity were irredeemably ‘other-worldly and escapist’ (A. H. M. Jones, quoted 104). (Jones ‘quotes someone without giving the reference’ who saw the body as ‘a bond of corruption, living death, a conscious corpse, a portable tomb’; a simple Google search identifies the source as the Corpus Hermeticum.) But Christianity in fact has a robust this-worldly, incarnational character that pitted it against the other-worldly pessimism of Gnosis and Manicheanism and also brought Neoplatonist aspirations down to earth. Equale makes no effort to do justice to that.
Unlike Constantine, who ‘wanted a religion that gave him “facts” and “certain knowledge,”—not some symbolic invitation to embrace the darkness,’ we today have ‘relational goals—an awe filled connection with the unknowable invisible source of cosmic LIFE, triumph over the fear of death, solidarity among suffering human beings, “redemption” from a sense of alienation from ourselves and the cosmos that spawned us, the retention of Jesus as role model and teacher of human wisdom’ and ‘through our cultural tools like religion we become who we think we are’ (108). Since Jesus himself, in Equale’s view, was a naive theist, it is hard to see why, in an ideal church that would embrace this post-Christian stance, he should carry any more authority than our modern demystified prophets, Friedrich Nietzsche, say, or Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Emile Cioran, or Samuel Beckett. Modern thinkers or artists who do ‘retain’ Jesus—such as Paul Claudel, Olivier Messiaen, Georges Bernanos, T. S. Eliot, Teilhard de Chardin, and of course all theologians—are crippled by theistic dualism. Only fully convinced monist materialists, who fearlessly face the darkness, as Jesus did not, can serve as reliable role models.
If one objects to all this that the favoured ontology of the Church is not Platonic dualism but an integrated philosophy of Being, esse, in which God is the fullness of being, and all other beings, both spiritual and material, exist in dependent participation on Him, Equale’s reply is withering: ‘Thomistic esse is an abstraction for the real physical sharing that is actually going on right before our eyes. The existential energy we all share is in fact material energy—matter! It is absolutely universal, there is nothing else…. And, by definition, the well-spring of this material energy is what we mean by “God”’ (111). Equale seems to break with the exclusive and sufficient authority of natural science when he speaks of this ‘well-spring’ and ‘unknowable invisible source of cosmic LIFE.’ And it is not only here that one must postulate a reality that is not ‘right before our eyes’ and not accessible to the categories of science. In everyday life we deal with absolute realities, such as truth, the good, the sacredness of the person, conscience, the faculty of knowledge itself, which are experienced as even more real than the material world. Is Equale ready to shave all these off his list of valid realities?
His peroration, entitled ‘Our Material Universe,’ embraces ‘monistic materialism,’ but manages to make matter cover a multitude of what we normally call spiritual realities: ‘matter somehow contains within itself the potential for everything it does and can become, existence, life, intelligence—everything…. This is not an option. It is the world-view that we live in’ (113). Strange, then, that such powerful modern thinkers as Hegel and Schelling, Husserl and Heidegger seemed unaware of this obligatory constriction of vision. Even the Neoplatonic option that spirit is the ultimately real, of which matter is but an expression, still holds great attraction, even for so sophisticated a thinker as Henri Bergson, whose favourite philosopher was Plotinus. Meanwhile Buddhism and Vedanta are ‘options’ for many in the West today, which Equale is obliged to see as merely sets of metaphors at the service of good relationships. He might claim to uphold Buddhist non-duality, with its slogan, ‘Matter itself is emptiness,’ but once one begins to use such language the door is wide open to a reappropriation of mainstream Christian vision in its opposition to materialistic reductionism. Equale protests that ‘the phenomena we have always associated with “spirit”—like thought, free will, imagination, love, art, mysticism, values—are not the least bit reduced in quality or significance in a material universe…. The only difference is that we no longer claim they are the product of a separate invisible “thing” called “spirit”’ (113). Well, thoroughgoing materialists go much farther than that, reducing thought to the neurological, denying free will, treating imagination, love, beauty, the mystical, and ‘values’ as evolutionary lures, at best. ‘Matter’s energy is capable of producing all the effects that we have heretofore called “spiritual.” They are the activities of highly evolved material organisms’ (114). Science itself is one such activity, but the notion of truth, which is essential to it, cannot be seen as merely the invention of an intelligent organism (though a nihilist might see science and its truth effects as just an arbitrary game).
The irreducibility of such spiritual realities as truth, the good, and being as such, which the human mind, despite its lowly evolutionary origins can grasp and dwell in, was an argument against the finality of death in Plato’s Phaedo. Equale dismisses any such cogitations: ‘our other-worldly “facts” are really a delusional pathology designed to deny death’ (116). The good news is that we can still live ‘morally, justly, and with a sense of the sacred i.e. with a deep love and gratitude for ourselves and the earth from whose clay we have emerged’ (116). Why should this sense of the sacred take such an upbeat form? If we are spawned by accidents of evolution, with no God and no providence, what is to prevent us taking the pessimistic option? ‘Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say…. The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away’ (Sophocles, trans. Yeats). ‘The purpose of existence is to exist. It is a mindless energy, a passion’ (119). What’s to prevent us adding, with Sartre, that it is a ‘useless passion’? Equale thinks it is virtuous to espouse ‘the irrepressible desire to survive’ (120), but some religions regard attachment to existence as a vice. ‘Many try to opt out. But to accomplish it they have a bitter struggle on their hands, for the matter of their bodies resists dissolution’ (121). Is it not rather consciousness that resists?: ‘For who would lose, / Though full of pain, this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through eternity, / To perish rather, swallowed up and lost / In the wide womb of uncreated night?’ (Milton). Oh, but that is just matter’s energy talking. ‘If LIFE is what we are made of, then we are already in full possession of it’ (122). ‘The physical/metaphysical basis for the deepest mysticism is already there, solidly in place…. There is no problem with the way things are’ (123). The radical impermanence which guarantees that life is suffering (dukkha) is not a problem. Indeed it is already nirvana! ‘“We have invented happiness!” say the last humans, and they blink’ (Nietzsche). ‘The traditional “theist” conception of “God” and related imagery must be finally and unequivocally repudiated’ (126). Yet Equale’s recognition of an ineradicable ‘sense of the sacred’ would open the door wide open again to a conception of the divine (while much of his polemic against anthropomorphic images of God has a strawman quality). ‘The abortive attempt at Nicaea to take a man whose life and death were the very expression of human vulnerability and turn him into “God”’ was a ‘pathetic attempt to transcendentalize our cherished humanness and make it solid, impregnable’ (130).
The supreme ethical value in Equale’s world is love: ‘We love ourselves, our families, our children. We have to find a way to acknowledge that we are happy we’re alive…. If you claim that you are so detached from yourself and others that you really don’t care whether you or anyone else is dead or alive, you are, my friend, by everyone’s estimation, in very, very bad shape. Such an attitude is clearly pathological. Please seek psychological help before you hurt somebody’ (130). So there is after all a non-negotiable absolute, and for all Equale’s liberalism about religious and non-religious ‘options,’ he is quite ready to target you as a dangerous and insane heretic if you take the socially disapproved option here. But he himself has gone a long way down the path that leads to the terminus of despair and nihilism, and the authority of love, if no other, might prompt him to retrace his steps. Indeed, he even holds out a perch to religion after all: ‘The fundamental premise of the religious option, that the universe is the result of a generous benevolence, has enough evidence to support it on this planet abounding with life and symmetry that the choice cannot be called irrational’ (130). Do we now have permission after all to name this source, which so many cultures have called divine, as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? OK, as long as such stories are not ‘taken literally, or claimed to be logically undeniable’ for then they become ‘obstacles to human maturity and damaging to the social fabric’ (131). Perhaps theology, the science of Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas, is a less literalist discipline than Equale supposes, and is capable of taking in its stride the notion of culturally and historically conditioned conventional truth while not closing the window on the ultimate, gracious, divine reality that nonetheless makes it presence insistently felt.
Believing (incorrectly) that the Logos of John 1:1-18 is the immanent cosmic Logos of Stoicism, Equale holds that ‘the very purpose of the Christ-event is to return to us the capacity to see God again in the universe, in Nature, in ourselves, not to divert our attention to Jesus, or some imagined world that cannot reveal “God” to us because we cannot see it’ (132). He elaborates at length on the need to reverse ‘the reification—the ontologization—of relational realities converting them into “things” and “states”’ by instead using ‘metaphorization’ in ‘our appropriation of the sacred’ (143). Dogmas are just metaphors for the ‘moral and relational reform’ Jesus called for. ‘For us Jesus’s death was a moral and relational triumph of the human spirit, an inspiration to the rest of us, “effective” in the prophetic sense, not the cosmological “fix” of a divine Mega-Mechanic’ (144). In that case, would not the figure of Socrates be a better role model, since he did not wrap his death up in talk of being ‘a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45)? The Emperor Julian is another figure presented as a model in this regard by Enlightenment critics of Christianity such as Edward Gibbon. The dismissal of the Atonement as crazy Mega-Mechanics is just one more example of Equale’s relentless casual iconoclasm.
‘Everything we need to make this world a paradise of justice, love and contemplative bliss is right here. The only need we have is to stop dreaming and wake up! This is the “religious” challenge—not to fantasize some imagined life in another world that we have never seen, but to open our eyes to the LIFE that fills this one to overflowing’ (148). These are the book’s last words. But another take on the matter of life and death is possible. ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5:7). ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ (Jn 20:29). Indeed, to see the reality of the here and now, in which the Kingdom of God is in play, we need eyes of faith. To leave futurity in the hands of the gods may be a formula for sceptical or Epicurean disengagement: ‘quod supra nos, nihil ad nos.’ Marcel Proust, master of long sentences, reserved his shortest for this: ‘Personne n’y croit.’ But it may also be a formula for trust in the Creator and in the one who not only taught us an ethics of love but also more than anyone else instilled the hope of eternal life. ‘Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius./ Nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius.’