Joe O’Leary – Book Review: Tony Equale’s ‘Arius and Nicaea: Science and Religion in a Material Universe’
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.’
“… the most to be pitied”
first published Dec 28,2018 by tonyequale (http://www.tonyequale,wordpress.com)
“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 behaviour ― 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 behaviour. 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 realise 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-com¬pli¬ance.
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 behaviour 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.
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 behaviour. 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 characterised 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 behaviour ― 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 hope. Also, 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 neutralising dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and
(2) the same noetic effect ― the realisation 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 symbolises.
(3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behaviour 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 personal failings. His assertion that the 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 characterised 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 realise 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.
Thanks, Joe. As usual, triumphant reductionism never grapples with the consequences of simply patronising Jesus’s ‘theism’. Without the latter, historically, there could have been no Jesus movement and no theistic tradition to critique. If Jesus’s faith was absurd then so are all of us in wasting time in even reading the canonical literature.
To see someone taking a saw to the tree-branch upon which he sits is fascinating ‘in the moment’ – and it suits perfectly the zeitgeist of this time. Having seen this trick so many times now I applaud limply and pass on – to pray to the one who knew the hollowness of applause and trusted to the Father who stands outside of history. It is far more necessary to love than to be clever, so Paul’s insistence upon that will be recited long after the era of reductionism has run its course.
It is ridiculous in the end to applaud Jesus’s ethical influence while deprecating his faith – as it was obviously the latter that enabled the former. No third millennial book can do justice to the Nazarene who never wrote one, or the faith that assured him he did not need to.
#1 ” …“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…”
Not so. The existential pressure of those times meant that death, especially at the hands of the invader, was seen also as judgement (Luke 13: 1-4). It followed that, for Paul, Jesus’s Resurrection (which he believed that he also could personally verify) had removed that fear and restored the relationship with the Father as liberator.
Furthermore, ‘selfish desire’ needs to be reconsidered in the light of Girard’s insight that human desire is inevitably mimetic – i.e. unconsciously a borrowing of the desire of someone else. It followed that for sincere and converted Christians desire would be mimetic with the desire of Jesus – i.e. would be transmuted into a desire above all for the closest relationship with Abba. That was obviously what Jesus meant by ‘coming to the Father’.
‘The Lord is my shepherd: there is nothing I shall WANT.’ It is clear that this was true for Jesus, and is therefore true also for those who follow him.
Where in Paul is there any hint of Resurrection being followed by the return of any ‘selfish desire’ that has been ‘deferred’?
The opposition proposed here between Jesus and Paul is patently exaggerated and rhetorical – and therefore unconvincing.