Can we still call “God” to what inspired Jesus?

Extended text of my intervention at the International Online Consultation For a bioecocentric humanism: What can we, the followers of Jesus, contribute? (June 5, 2022).

What can we, the followers of Jesus, contribute to bioecocentric humanism? Not a surplus of values, nor an exclusive foundation, but the inspiration of Jesus, the inspiration that moved him and that emanates from his human figure, from his attitudes and life choices, from his relationships and priorities, from his free words and liberating action

1. Like every inspiration, like the air we breathe in and out, the inspiration of Jesus is both universal and particular at the same time. It is universal, because it transcends every physical, psychic and cultural form; but it is also inevitably particular, partial, and is expressed in a form, in a life, in a concrete human history, whose memory has been transmitted in a free, creative, plural way, not subordinated to the “historiographic truth”, in a rich symbolic, complex and coherent language: messianism, universal liberation, healing, fraternity-sorority, divine filiation, open communion, bread and wine, beatitudes, justice and universal peace, grace, forgiveness, new heaven and new earth, incarnation, resurrection, christification, etc….

None of these and other symbolic motifs separately is exclusive to the Jesus tradition (almost all come from the Jewish tradition), but all together they form a linguistic, narrative, characteristic, and plural corpus. These are words, figures, stories… that can rekindle a Presence, instill an inspiration, enlighten the conscience and promote action. They can evoke and awaken the inspiration of Jesus, what inspired him and what he inspires us.

2. So, what inspired Jesus? Jesus was inspired by “THAT” which animates the cosmos, life, and therefore by the commitment to a bioecocentric humanism, too, a humanism centered on the life of all living beings and on the communion of all beings. Jesus called THAT – the Spirit that, according to the myth of Genesis, vibrated or fluttered over the primordial waters, that is, the deep breath of life and of all that is – “God” (Elohim) with various adjectives such as Lord, Creator, King, Abba… And my question is: can we still use the same adjetives as Jesus used to refer to THAT today? Further more: can we still call THAT, the depth of reality, “God”?

But let it be clear from the outset: if the answer to the above question were affirmative, this would in no way mean that the cosmos, life and ethical-political-ecological commitment lack deep breath if we deny “God” (an absurd assertion that, nevertheless, continues to be very frequent in the discourse of many believers, theologians and ecclesiastical leaders); rather, it would mean the opposite: that the deep breath or the most real of all that exists could also be called “God” (“He who abides in love abides in God”: 1 Jn 4:16). But is it still legitimate to continue to call it that?

3. The word God is the most equivocal in all dictionaries. It is a sign of contradiction not only for those who acknowledge it as most real, but also for those who deny it as entirely unreal. Those who say they “believe” in “God” believe in very different, even contradictory things; likewise, those who reject “God” reject very different things; and it often happens that what many so-called believers accept has little to do with what many so-called atheists deny, and vice versa.

In this confusing situation, is it still worthwhile to continue speaking of “God”? It is debatable, I admit, but personally -it is a personal choice-, I think so in spite of all the misunderstandings. And I think so for three fundamental reasons: firstly, because the word God, with all its ambiguities, appears in all our dictionaries, and in our language since millennia before the dictionaries; secondly, because, for better and for worse, this word is an inseparable part of my history, which I do not want to deny and which I do not want to canonize, either; and, thirdly, because I think that any word or phrase with which we would like to replace the term God would not be less ambiguous than this one.

4. In this time of transition towards a post-theistic or trans-theistic paradigm, today I still do not discard its use in spite of being quite certain that one day -surely sooner rather than later- the traditional image of God and perhaps the very word God will disappear to refer to a personal Supreme Entity extrinsic to the world. Depending on how I feel or where or with whom I am, I do not renounce to say “God” to refer to the universal Mystery, not to any omni-explanatory Supreme Entity. I do not absolutize any word, least of all the word God, because the absolute Mystery entails the radical deabsolutization of every word, of every doctrine, of every image.

Nor do I claim that everyone should attribute to the word God the same meaning, for the meaning is constantly changing, and God is beyond all the meanings of dictionaries and creeds. Let each person say it, then, with the terms and figures each one prefers, in the way that is most consistent with his vision, her language, his grammar of the world. We will all breathe the same Breath, we will all understand each other in the Incomprehensible beyond the word, even when we speak different languages and draw different meanings, to the extent that the spirit or the soul of life inspires us.

Today, Sunday, June 5, 2022, the Catholic liturgy celebrates Pentecost (“fiftieth” in Greek), heir to the Jewish feast of Shavuot, the spring feast of the “first fruits” or first sheaves of the harvest, 50 days after Passover. It was the feast which celebrated God’s giving to Moses of the tablets of the Law of liberty. Pentecost means that life is reborn as grain becomes stalk, ear and grain, sheaf and bread. Life entails transformation, freedom and communion, while the fixation of a form means paralysis and leads to death, to the disintegration of the living organism. Pentecost is, moreover, the opposite of Babel: at Babel, the imposition of a single language, the imperial language, leads to universal confusion; at Pentecost, everyone speaks his own language, but all meet in the Undefinable, in the tongue of fire that inhabits and transcends every language made of words.

5. Every word is historical. Also, and especially God, the word par antonomasia which comes from the Latin Deus, which comes from the Greek Theos, which comes from the Sanskrit Deva, which comes from the root deiv, which means “radiance”… and where does radiance come from? The radiance is the origin of all images, but it is not subject to any image, to any “dogma” (which means opinion and appearance). Like all the terms that refer to God, also all his images have their origin in an epoch, a culture, a way of life.

6.Let us say, then, the Ineffable with freedom of thought, imagination and word. And let us not rush to censure and condemn anyone as a “heretic” because he uses different words and images to say what we do not know and cannot apprehend. There is no orthodoxy that has not first been a “heresy”, which means “choice”. There is no language without heresy, without a choice (always conditioned) of a way of thinking and speaking.

Jesus was a heretic, he made free and risky choices, before his heretical movement became a religion, with its inevitable division of faithful and infidels (we call “faithful” those “ours”, those who choose to speak or act as we do, and “infidels” the “others”, the outsiders). Paul was a heretic before he himself condemned those who did not think like him. Thomas Aquinas was suspected of heresy, as were Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila or Ignatius of Loyola. Luther was condemned and recondemned as an accursed heretic.Yet, at the Catholic Institute of Paris, in the 1980s, I learned from Daniel Olivier, a Catholic priest and the world’s leading authority on the history, work and thought of the great reformer, that he was the greatest theologian of all times.

8. What did the ecclesiastical authorities achieve by condemning Marguerite Porete, Giordano Bruno or Servetus to the stake? What were the achievements of the Jewish authorities of Amsterdam who expelled Spinoza and of the Catholic authorities who accused him of being a pantheist and included his works in the Index of forbidden books, and of the popes who silenced Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Häring and Hans Küng because they spoke of God, the world and life in a new way? What did the Protestant churches achieve when, obfuscated by the theological prestige of K. Barth, they relegated Bonhöffer, Tillich, Robinson or Spong, who took seriously the “death of God” of traditional theism?

They have succeeded in making the immense -and growing- majority of women and men of our time identify God with an omnipotent, arbitrary and alienating Supreme Entity. And consequently, the people of our time have banished -expelled from their land made of paradises and hells- not only the word God, which would not be important, but also everything they associate with “God”, such as, for example, the very rich spiritual, symbolic, literary, ritual, ethical and vital legacy of theistic religious traditions. And this banishment could be a loss to live and embody “poetically” or creatively, inspiringly and liberatingly, the Depth of the real.

8. I also recognize myself as an atheist of the “God” denied by the atheists of yesterday or today, but I think that the word God does not designate or suggest only what religion dogmatically affirms and dogmatic atheism denies.

When I say “God”, I distinguish, as is usual in linguistics, the “meaning” of the term -which may be different for each person – and its “referent” -which transcends all concepts and their meanings-. When I say “God”, I refer to the first or ultimate Reality; not to a certain reality together with other realities, not to an Entity or a Form, not to Something or Someone, to an object distinct from other objects, but to That/One –beyond gender and number- that causes everything real to be, to become, to be made or to be created; to the Background of everything real which is in everything, which is nothing of nothing, but the Nothing that is All in everything.

When I say “God,” I am not referring to “an Absolute Person” distinct from other persons, so that “God” and I would be two, but to Interiority without exteriority, to Alterity without division, to the Thou that is every I for itself, to the I that we find in every you -in a person, in a dog, in a leaf, in a drop of water-, to That/It that is neither “personal” nor “impersonal”, but more than personal, “suprapersonal” or “transpersonal” (as taught by Tillich, Schillebeeckx, Küng…. ).

When I say “God”, I refer to the universal Relationship that founds and sustains all beings, that makes all things united and that each thing is also All. I refer to the Mystery of Relationship that I can invoke as the original Thou, to the deepest Thou, to the suprapersonal Thou that I admire, venerate and invoke in every Thou: in the human face and in every animal, in the tree, the fountain, the mountain and the endless firmament.

When I say “God”, I refer to the ineffable Mystery, to the fontal Reality, to the creative possibility that emanates from every particle and every atom, from the galaxies in formation and the universe in expansion. When I say “God”, I refer to the unlimited and perennial creativity, to the eternal and inexhaustible original energy, to the eternal and ubiquitous electromagnetic field from whose spark the Big Bang (perhaps countless Big-Bangs) was produced and light sprang forth and created this universe or the countless universes that continue to be created.

When I say “God”, I refer to the Spirit or Breath or Soul of life that “animates” the world, to the creative Goodness or Love stronger than ego and death, to the eternal cosmic Consciousness in which everything is and which all beings incarnate, or rather which we can be incarnating, giving it shape and body, or making it be more fully in an evolution without beginning or temporal term.

9. To live humanely, deeply, is to let our life in general (feeling and knowledge, word and praxis inseparably), and the bioecocentric humanism that we propose in particular, be animated, encouraged, inspired. The experience of God, with this or any other name or without any name, consists in the deep vital breath that inspires or moves our desire and our option towards creative goodness, that impels us to profound silence, to admiring contemplation, to respect all that is, to personal and political compassion for all the wounded.

This is the profound experience that moved Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Gospel accounts, canonical or apocryphal, in which the first communities of the Christian movement shaped their memory of Jesus in a free, creative and plural way. In a world in which everything becomes an epiphany or revelatory symbol of the All, I look at Jesus as a figure and symbol of the incarnation of Fire, of Eros, of Agape that can lead the world to greater freedom and communion.

I do not need, however, to affirm Jesus as the only one, nor as the perfect one, nor even as the most perfect incarnation of the divine creative fire. But he is for me the closest and most familiar figure who inspires me and encourages me to incarnate the universal Breath that inspired him, that encouraged him to want to live in solidary freedom and to find his beatitude there.

Nor do I need to continue imagining God as Jesus imagined him, because his image of God – like his entire culture – was historical, relative, unfinished, open, like ours. Rather, I want to let myself be led by the same Spirit that impelled him to live as he lived: accompanying the marginalized, sharing his table, lifting up the fallen, healing the wounded, being a brother to all, beginning with the least.

10. And I feel subject neither to the particular history of Jesus, nor to the letter of his teachings, for he was an innovator of what he received and a liberator of chains. And he said: “Stand up and walk”.

Therefore, the “followers of Jesus” do not have to express the inspiration that emanates from Jesus with the same language in all places and times. They do not have to feel tied to the beliefs and dogmas referring to Jesus, because there are no immovable beliefs or dogmas, but open, plural languages, always on the move and in dialogue. The first Christian communities are the best example of creative and plural freedom in the way they understood and transmitted the memory of Jesus. They never confessed the “divinity” of Jesus as a singular divine essence or nature, a divinity distinct from humanity, but as the human depth and, therefore, universal vocation of all human beings. And they said it in very different and even contradictory ways, never turning their confession of divinity into immovable dogma. In short, all the dogmas and Christological doctrines throughout the centuries (divinity, pre-existence, virginal conception, sacrificial death, resurrection, ascension, “real” as opposed to “symbolic” Eucharistic presence…) are summed up in what the Acts of the Apostles put in the mouth of Peter, a fisherman from Galilee: “He spent his life doing good and healing the oppressed” (Acts 10:38). All the rest are additions.

Aizarna, June 5, 2022

Translated by Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler