Rebirthing Religion

In his most recent book, What to believe? Twelve Brief Lessons in Radical Theology, Villanova philosopher, John Caputo, lays out one of the most accessible (and witty) descriptions of radical theology. Robin Meyers writes of Caputo’s book: “Tired of living in the shallow end of the theological pool, Caputo invites us all to push out into the deep waters of radical theology without letting us sink.” In fact, not only do we not sink but we discover the living waters of God in which we are immersed. The term “Radical Theology,” like “Open and Relational Theology,” scares many people because it sounds like a warm, fuzzy theology or perhaps a throwback to the 60s and the death of God movement. Caputo, however, wants us to consider a healthy atheism in order to engage a healthy theism. This is very much in the Augustinian tradition of faith seeking understanding. Without doubt, there is no real faith. To do “radical theology” is to ask, what do you really believe? What is the “root” (radix) of your beliefs? According to Caputo, what we really believe is what is really going on in our many worlds.

One of the sources of confusion today is the dogmatism of beliefs. In the Catholic church alone one can identify at least fifty shades of God – all of which are tightly held and vociferously defended Radical theology, on the other hand, requires “radical thinking”; it requires us to take a risk, “the risk of a radical search,” of being radically ‘honest to God,’ as Bishop John Robinson wrote. Caputo states: “In radical thinking the only safe bet is not to play it safe.” I suppose this is what Saint Paul meant when he said, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Orthodoxy promises safety and stability; Radical theology promises risk and trouble. “Radical theology does not mean establishing a firm foundation but contesting something at its roots. It is not the theology of a rival church that is trying to build up its membership. It creates radical disturbance within the existing religious bodies,” Caputo writes. Jesus of Nazareth was a radical prophet. He did not establish the papacy or the Vatican or canon law nor did he know Greek philosophy. He was more of “shaker of foundations” than a founder of Vatican City. Caputo states that “radical theology is not antimonastic but a new monasticism, in which the distinction between the religious and secular is contested at its roots. It follows the insight of the medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, who wrote: “I pray God to rid me of God,” an insight that complements one of his other famous sayings, “God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.” In other words, we have imagined and created a powerful divine Being, whose name is “God,” and who lives in heaven and watches over us. We built churches and composed prayers to a God who reigns almighty, from above, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing; a God who protects the faithful and judges the fallen. The quicker we can get dispel this mythic God, however, the greater the chance of discovering the real God.

The problem is, in this crazy and chaotic world, we want a God who is like Zeus, detached from the weakness of matter but in control of life’s events. There are movements today in the Catholic Church to return to the Tridentine (Latin Mass), to restore the church to its glorious reign, as if the Middle Ages were the best of all times; to worship a God who reigns above, like a King who has sent ‘his’ Son to save us from this fallen world. This fabricated God–who has nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with our deep existential fear of nothingness–is the root of our environmental disaster, our inability to cope with artificial intelligence, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons, the persistence of racial inequality and the lack of hope in the world’s future.

So, is religion a problem? Well, it depends on how we understand religion in relation to the whole. Religion can vitalize life, or it can paralyze life. Today, religion is all over the place. Among the Christian churches, there are a variety of religious beliefs and practices that have become tailored to individual needs and desires. Religion has become curated, like creating the most delicious basket of goods: apples from the fifth century, cherries from the twelfth century and savory sweets from the medieval mystics. Curated spirituality parallels the social media world of younger generations. The constructed social profile is not much different from the sculpted spirituality of individual beliefs. In this respect, religion has become another type of virtual reality. However, it is out of sync with reality, in so far as we know reality from the insights of science. We may feel therapeutically satisfied with our curated religious selves, but we are completely out of sync with evolution and the God of evolution; hence, we are actually in the throes of paralytic religion. Radical theology is trying to save God from religion or, we might say, to illuminate revelation without religion.

Caputo speaks of “bridge-builders” and “ground-diggers.” Bridge-builders see religion as the set of beliefs, doctrines, prayers and rituals that can lead the faithful to God who is a transcendent divine and Supreme Being outside space and time but operative within the universe. Because God is “beyond” or “above,” attention is turned away from the obstacles of God, including the world, the flesh and the devil, and turned toward heaven and eternal life. Ground-diggers, on the other hand, see that God is that in which we already live and move and have our being; however, we are alienated from God and long to connect with the root source of our lives. In Caputo’s words: “The bridge-builders think we have to find some way to attain the truth. The ground-diggers think we are already in the truth, that God is truth, and that the task is to unearth its truth; hence, we are to acquire what we already possess, to remember what we already know and to become who we already are.” In the Augustinian sense, we do not have to go outside ourselves to look for God because God is not far. God is right here-within us–waiting to be found. Bridge-builders are confident that God is a Supreme Being wholly other than created being–ontologically distinct. Ground-diggers identify God as the “ground” of existence, the great “I Am” – not ontologically distinct but transcendently real. Mystics are ground-diggers. Saint Augustine was the first depth psychologist in the West who spoke of God as the Ground of being: “Yet all the time you were more inward than my inmost self.”[i] Francis of Assisi described his experience of God in a simple phrase: “My God and my All” (Deus meus et omnia).[ii] Even more telling is the saying of Catherine of Genoa: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.”[iii] The ninth-century Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj was also a ground-digger:

I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart
I said: ‘Who are you?’ He said: ‘You!’
But for You, ‘where’ cannot have a place
And there is no ‘where’ when it concerns You.
The mind has no image of your existence in time
Which would permit the mind to know where you are.
You are the one who encompasses every ‘where’
Up to the point of no-where
So where are you?[iv]

In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich all experienced the divine immanence as a universal power underlying all that is. Both Jung and Tillich were influenced by Eckhart who wrote that no one was ever lost, except by leaving one’s ground and settling abroad. Eckhart’s notion of the ground prefigured the mysticism of relational holism. In his writings, Eckhart describes a “breakthrough,” Durchbruch, by which he experienced an absolute identity of himself with the divine in the Godhead. “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me,” he wrote, “my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.”[v] His experience is one of unitive consciousness, whereby both self and God are dissolved in an abyss wholly stripped of all form and activity, yet one from which all form and activity flow. He writes: “Here God’s ground is my ground, and my ground is God’s ground.”[vi] In his famous sermon on poverty, Eckhart boldly described a God-ness of the self that was close to what Jung intuited: “For in this breakthrough it is bestowed upon me that I and God are one. I am an immovable cause that moves all things.”[vii] John Dourley notes that, in reading Eckhart, Jung identifies Eckhart’s breakthrough as a moment when ego and unconscious, the human and divine, attain an identity beyond distinction. Jung writes: “God disappears as an object and dwindles into a subject which is no longer distinguishable from the ego.”[viii] Such total regression constitutes for Jung the experience of an identity with the reality of God. He explains: “As a result of this retrograde process, the original state of identity with God is re-established.”[ix] Return from this moment of identity then becomes the moment of intensified creativity and renewal of life for the ego. The cycle of the ego’s birth from the divine, a recovered identity with the divine and a return from this moment, becomes the cycle of individuation itself.

Paul Tillich explored the notion of ground as the origin or cause of what flows from it yet is never separable from its effect or influence. One participates in the ground and does so consciously at the human level.[x] The term ground affirms that the relationship of the human to its origin could never be one of total discontinuity in either being or consciousness. Creation and fall come to coincide in the individual, with a universal awareness that one is estranged from the ground of one’s being (the fall), but driven to recover it by the lingering memory and allure of a prior identity or entanglement with it (creation).[xi] Tillich deepens the intimacy between the ground and human awareness of it when he further contends that the ground remains the substance of what stands out from it, but never in the sense that what so stands out can be unqualifiedly identified with the ground.[xii] The human in existence continues to participate in the substance of its origin but never in the sense of wholly and exhaustively appropriating it. These characteristics of ground give to it the notes of a creative power which is never wholly severed in being from what flows from it, nor is what flows from it ever divorced of the immediate awareness of that from which it flows or separated from substantial participation in it.

In the years prior to World War II, Tillich laid the theoretical foundations for what he called “belief-ful realism.” He continually asserted that the existence of God is not open to argumentation. The existence of God is not something that can be proved or disproved because God is not an object. In the first volume of his Systematic Theology, he wrote:

It would be a great victory for Christian apologetics if the words “God” and “existence” were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence. . .God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him. . .If we derive God from the world, he cannot be that which transcends the world infinitely.[xiii]

In one short sentence, Tillich states: “God does not exist,” that is, God is not a particular something, like a tree (or a supreme Father figure). He tried to state in the sharpest and clearest way possible that God is “beyond essence and existence.” That is, God is the depth of existence itself: “God does not exist…except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under conditions of existence.”[xiv] The name “God” does not signify an ontologically distinct being but the Whole of everything, the ground and depth of existence itself. God is the personal ground and depth of existence. God’s holy “otherness” is God’s holy “withinness,” a depth of the numinous open to levels of consciousness that are never exhausted by even the highest level of consciousness. God is always the more, the overflow, the future, of life’s inexhaustible creative potential. We dwell in a divine milieu, Teilhard de Chardin wrote. Because we can unconsciously dwell in this divine milieu, as we search for ultimate meaning and purpose, it is the personal experience of God that makes the living reality of the numinous alive and vital for the world.

There is much more to this story, and you can find an expanded discussion of God in my new book The Not Yet-God: Carl Jung, Teilhard de Chardin and the Relational Whole. For now, let me say that religion is completely out of whack, and this is the root cause, in my view, of our conflicted and troubled world. We are facing a dire future in terms of global warming, and we are not prepared for the consequences of our confused religious lives. Artificial intelligence is a high-speed train with no real conductor and some radical transhumanists advocate for a postbiological world. We cannot make sense of this rapidly complexifying world and an all-knowing God in control can be quite comforting. However, if God is the ground of existence itself and evolution describes the dynamism of existence toward more life, then God is not only ground but the ground itself is in evolution. As Teilhard de Chardin realized, to avoid or negate science is to cut ourselves off from reality and hence from the living God. Religion has made us apathetic to the whole.

Teilhard de Chardin clearly saw the problem of religion in relation to science over a hundred years ago. He turned religion on its head by seeing religion as the inside story of the universe, that is, as a natural and essential aspect of evolution.Religion is as important to the flow of evolution as are the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution. Matter is bifacial and religion and science are two aspects of the same whole grounded in an irresistible power of love.

In my next blog I will discuss Teilhard’s insights on God in evolution. For now, let me say that the Center for Christogenesis is committed to the rebirth of religion and the rebirth of God, because we believe love may be the most vital energy of our age.

NOTES:

[i] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Book 3, para. 11.

[ii] See Elizabeth Goudge, My God and My All: The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi (New York: Plough Publishing House, 1959).

[iii] Dennis Hart, Visions: The Remembering (New York: Writer’s Showcase, 2001), 163.

[iv] William Stoddart, Sufism: The Mystical Doctrines and Methods of Islam (Minnesota: Paragon House, 1976, 83.

[v] Meister Eckhart, Qui Audit Me, Sermon on Sirach 24:30 in The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. and ed., Maurice O’C. Walshe (Crossroad: 2009), 298.

[vi] Meister Eckhart, “In This Was Manifested the Love of God” (Sermon XIII), Meister Eckhart, ed. F. Pfeiffer, trans. C. de B. Evans, Volume I (London: John M. Watkins, 1857), 49.

[vii] Meister Eckhart, “Blessed Are the Poor,” Meister Eckhart, Mystic and Philosopher, trans. Reiner Schurmann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 219.

[viii] Carl Jung, “The Relativity of the God-Concept in Meister Eckhart,” Collected Works 6, para. 430; Cited in Dourley, “Jung’s Equation of the Ground of Being with the Ground of the Psyche,” 520.

[ix] Ibid., para. 431.

[v] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 156, 237, 238.

[xi] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume II (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957), 33–36; 39–44.

[xii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume I, 238.

[xiii] Ibid., 205.

[xiv] Ibid.

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13 Comments

  1. Dirkje legerstee on April 11, 2024 at 9:43 am

    Beautifully written compelling passionate and engaging at the heart of what matters!

  2. Kay Jackson on October 24, 2023 at 6:10 am

    Update: In rereading this on 10/25/23, I wish to add that the Christian demand for a “Supreme Father” remains the Herculean obstacle to overcome. It is an easily understood response in a world filled with so much uncertainty.
    However, for me the universe is alive with aspects of divine Life Force. The Christ. A beautiful fusion of Mother-Father energy creating a world most sacred. A world all gift. This indigenous belief needs rekindling and teaching. As for “building bridges” and “digging ground” I would submit that both are needed in moderation.
    Ritual is so important to the transmission of meaning. I believe it is the loss of some of the earlier ” pagan”( which means people of the country) that has contributed to this loss of earth sacredness.
    Our times need new rituals to heal the earth

  3. Mary Pat Jones on September 11, 2023 at 5:17 pm

    I will be reading your new book soon. The depth of your subjective work is mind blowing.

    As a young child, my mother always dressed me in clothes that could get really, really dirty. One morning I snuck out with a spoon and fork and plunked down in the yard by a fresh puddle left by the rainfall the night before. I made a delightful muddy hole, went for leaves and twigs and made a very fine project for the day. As I was mixing it I had the beautiful experience of being one with the mud hole, the trees in the yard and the sky. I remember the energetic wonderful feeling, but at the time had no idea of why. I never shared the experience as I knew even then it sounded irrational.

    My belief is the old saying: “What’s most personal, is most general”. Many have brief episodes like this and just see it as a golden moment unaware of its Truth. The most common mystical experiences are in the midst of nature. Thank “God” we’ve always had “greats” who have the intelligence in their field to awaken us to the depths of our true unity with all of the earth, and our own Our religion is lacking in understanding the reality that not only are we one with our ancestors, but also with the earths revolution and we need to seriously awaken to the directives of todays prophets.

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