Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Resisting dogmatic tyrannies...a rebellious path

 (Men) need myths, and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself. Man repressed the irrational passions of destructiveness, hate, envy, revenge; he worships power, money, the sovereign state, the nation; while he pays lip service to the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the human race, those of Buddha, the prophets, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed—he has transformed these teachings into a jungle of superstition and idol-worship… ( Erich Fromm…from brain pickings, quoted in blog yesterday, entitled Tyrants, gods and US…) 

It is not a stretch to bring historic, and foundational thinkers in western culture into a “frame” that renders such thinkers and their writing as tyrannical. One of the best examples, writ large in the history and theology of the Christian church, is Augustine. That any single writer could, would and does continue to have such a stranglehold on the mind-set, the teachings and the traditions of the Christian church and the culture it has spawned, is nothing short of tyrannical, despotic and categorically, inhuman, not to mention inhumane. Is Augustine’s belief evil? That is the question!

In our first-year class in theology at Huron College, we were assigned this topic for an essay in Christian Ethics: “Augustine and the problem of Evil”. Like busy Canadian beavers eager to comply with what we considered the purpose and the design of the assignment, we all burrowed into books that were translations of the original Latin of this ‘giant’ in church history. Narrowly focused and task-committed, I proceeded using a premise that Augustine was “good” for the faith, and thereby his teachings must fit into the conventional teachings of the church. Attempting to relate the ancient teachings to the contemporary world, I argued, somewhat unsuccessfully, obviously superficially and without an adequate array of quotes from the original text, I proferred the notion that Augustine could have written the ’12-step’ program, depicting one ‘fallen’ from grace yet still redeemable through grace.

Sent back by the Dean, then also the Ethics instructor, to re-write with the requisite supporting quotations needed for a graduate-degree paper, I complied and was given a passing grade. However, in the ensuing thirty-two years, the influence of Augustine on the Christian church and the millions of people whose lives have been seriously, and preponderantly negatively influenced by his herculean impact, has haunted my life, my prayers, my reflections and reading and finds me re-reading Augustine’s thoughts, this time with a view to attempt to join those in a chorus of dissent.

That evil is parasitic on the good, the corruption or rejection of the good, that there is something called the just war, based on just authority and cause, the right intention and only as a last resort, all of this from Augustine, fails to meet the bar that all war is evil. Call that an absolute, and therefore totally unacceptable premise for any faith position, if you like. Philosophers, it seems, defer from absolutes, writing often in contortions to bring opposites into alignment…(e.g. Jesus is both holy/divine, and also human in Nicene Creed). The notion that Adam and Eve were not punished for having sexual relations, but for the hubristic act of disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit, and thereby ‘sentenced’ all of humanity to a punishment that dictates ‘we have lost our natural ability of self-determination (the control of our natural sexual urges) which ability can be restored only by divine grace through the sacrifice of Christ, again from Augustine, may have had relevance and cogency when it was originally penned, by a man with a hyperactive sexual appetite prior to his conversion to Christianity, not only begs scepticism but also rejection. Fitting tightly into Augustine’s notion that since The Fall, humankind is nothing but a “lump of sin” that God might justly have damned as a whole but from which he has chosen to save some individuals and to transform them into vessels of mercy. From Augustine we we find another highly contentious, yet deeply revered as sacred, uncontestable, yet inherent to the Christian doctrine and congruent with the mind of God is this notion: that original sin is closely associated with sexual concupiscence. Augustine uses the word “akratic” to describe the human condition characterized by weakness of will that leads to actions against one’s better judgement.

Rather than politely and demurely positing that notion of the possible agreement with the 12-step program, (which on reflection may or may not be appropriate) I might rather have written: Augustine is a theological, spiritual, ethical and destructive agent of the human life and spirit, in the name of God. Of course, such a premise would have resulted in my eviction from any seminary program operated by the Christian church. Nevertheless, it represents the core of my personal beliefs and convictions, as I approach the end of my time on the planet.

Just because Augustine struggled with what he came to consider an inordinate testosterone drive, and then, after his conversion, condemned his previous existence, seems to indicate that his divorce from Manicheanism (the treatise of his early life) was only partial. His attempt to posit evil as a corruption of the good, like so many of the dogmatic positions of the church, in its pursuit of unity, expansion, purity, and the elimination of what was considered ‘evil’ (too contentious to be embraced) has justified so many brutal, lethal, unjustified and unconscionable acts in the name of God as to be exhaustive in number and beyond comprehension in degree.

As the agent, self appointed, purposed with the goal of theorizing, speculating, and then authoritatively deciding about what constitutes evil, among and between humans, individually and collectively, (enabled by many other pieces of prophetic writing such as the Decalogue, and original legal scholars among the Greeks, the Jews, the Romans, and the Arabs), the church has honoured Augustine’s contribution at the expense of others.

In this space, the words of Lionel Tiger, from his book, The Manufacture of Evil, have been quoted frequently. His purpose of linking morality to biology, the prime source of much of twentieth and twenty-first-century scientific investigation, bypasses Augustine’s focus on hubris, disobedience, rather than the sexual relationship between Adam and Eve. Much of contemporary western culture has, similarly, adopted the view that “sex” outside church-directed and sanctioned parameters is evil, and punishable in some manner that enforces the tenet. However, given that even within the church itself, the proposition that ‘sex-outside-marriage-between-a-man-and-a-woman” is evil, is unsustainable, insupportable, ungovernable, and even illegitimate, this formerly concrete wall of morality is crumbling, long past its due date.

What constitutes “nature” and whether or not that composition is within what can and ought to be considered as holy, godly, ethic and moral, is a cornerstone of arguments within the church, as hence also in the secular culture. Managing the human capacity for rebellion, for hubris, for disobedience, both within the church and the culture generally, has occupied thinkers, scholars, and legal and political operatives since the beginning. However, based on the Augustinian precepts of human humility, obedience, and what he considered our tendency to stray from our “goodness” western (and so-called Christian) culture has found itself twisting in the wind to implement sanctions, punishments, wars and political campaigns all based on the notion that the ‘wild’ of nature demands taming, controlling and submission.

Except, that is, when it comes to war!

How is it that the disobedience, after sexual relations in the Garden, is considered sinful, and that sexual concupiscence is conjoined with this original sin, yet war (and all of the attendant requisites like bombs, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, cyber-invasions etc.) can ever be justified? The starting point “a lump of sin” as a foundation on which to conceive, birth and develop a human being, is fraught with sabotage. The akartic weakness as even a tentative diagnosis for actions that are not in one’s best interests, offers the prelude of rationalization that, without the intervention of God, renders one emasculated. The enmeshment of individuals into a tent whose dogmatic walls, while merely the canvas of human speculation, have taken on the rigidity of ecclesial perfection, protocols, hierarchical enforcement and political genuflection, robs those individuals of the active, searching, intuitive and even speculative energy of their whole beings. The result can only be a repetitive arthritic even coagulated congealing of not only the pathway to a relationship with God, but a life that incarnates the full flowering of the spirit of that life.

There is an inescapable and, to the human mind, cognition and intellect, an indecipherable mystery to the energy that redounds throughout the universe. Some of that is depicted as climate/weather, some of it is depicted as biological/anatomical/physiological, some of it is depicted as social/educational/supportive/protective and some of it is depicted as imaginative/creative/poetic/dramatic/theatrical. And then there is the monumental conundrum of the human proclivity and seemingly desperate search for power…in whatever form seems most appropriate for each of us.

As beings seeking to honour our identity, our spirit, our intellect and our place in the universe, it seems only ‘natural’ to bring questions, speculations, searchings, inquiries, and doubts to the table, not only as individuals and families, but as institutions. Our doubts, after all, are far more instructive, and life-giving than our certitudes. In fact, our certainties, whether they are religious, cultural, political or ethical serve to constrict our potential. The predominance of pain, especially the pain inflicted by others, that has been revealed to emerge from previously inflicted and suffered pain, also imposed by others, seems to point to our coming to conscious awareness, not only that the original pain needs our attention (not out of pity but out of courage and hope), in order not only to accept and receive its new insights, but also to let go of its constricting shackles, so that we do not continue to feed that negative flow of social, political and moral sludge. Deferring to silence, avoidance, denial and the inevitable numbness that accompanies the ‘strong-upper-lip’ stoicism of many of our Christian teachings (highly alpha-man-based, and misogynistic) is a personal path that leads to emotional and spiritual cryogenics.

The institutional responsibility for acceding to the teachings of any man, including Augustine, and to perpetuating teachings that fail to acknowledge the divinity within each human is not only clear to many, while seemingly denied by most ecclesial hierarchies.

Do I submit to a theology that elevates war as justified, regardless of whether it is considered just, based on proper authority, with a right cause and intention and only as a last resort? NO!

Do I subscribe to a theology that relegates all of human to a “lump of sin” following The Fall?NO!

DO I subscribe to a theology that separates humans from the animal and excommunicates, ostracises, banishes and even murders to preserve and protect some purity of dogma? No!

Do I subscribe to a spirituality, endorsed by any church, that has become a special flavour of morality, and that ceased being fun, in the widest definition and meaning of that word? NO!

Do I subscribe to the ecclesial genuflection to the rich and the powerful, both as requisite funding sources and as social role models for our children? NO!

Do I vehemently push back against all ecclesial, dogmatic, theological and ethical principles that elevate one person over another in any culture, regardless of the role played in that culture? YES! 

Do I vehemently reject any diplomatic posturing that argues for a “just war” and the spending of public monies to enhance the capability of engaging in such war? YES!

Do I belong to any religious, ecclesial community? NO! and likely will not ever.

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