Text of my intervention at the (telematic) I International Congress “Beyond Religions”, organised by GABRIELLI EDITORI in collaboration with ADISTA (April 2, 2022).
I propose 10 points for reflection that I consider fundamental in these times of transition towards a non-theistic, post-theistic or transtheistic philosophy, theology and spirituality. This last term, “transtheistic”, is the one I prefer: with one image or another or none (?) of God, with or without a name, but always “beyond” all images and names, towards the Mystery, the Silence.
I divide my reflections into two parts: the first around God and the second around Jesus.
I. GOD BEYOND “GOD
1.1. Do you believe in God?
It is said that Arnold J. Toynbee, the famous historian of civilisations, was talking to his son in 1963, who suddenly asked him: “Do you believe in God?”. Toynbee replied: “I believe in God if Hindu or Chinese beliefs are included in the belief in God. But it seems to me that Christians, Jews and Muslims, for the most part, would not admit this and would say that it is not a genuine belief in God”.
If I were asked, as his son asked Toynbee, “Do you believe in God?”, I might also answer as he did. Or I would simply say, “It depends on what we mean by God”. I do not believe what is meant by “theistic God”, but I believe that I believe in God as the unspeakable fontal Mystery of Reality. This brings me to my second point.
1.2. What is meant by a “theistic image of God”?
The term theism is also misleading. For the sake of simplicity, I refer to the definition offered by the great theologian Bishop John Shelby Spong: “the belief in an external, personal, supernatural, potentially acting Being in the real” (Why Christianity must change or die, HarperSanFrancisco, New York 1998, p. 46). A Supreme Entity, prior and external to the world, “personal”, who created the world out of nothing and intervenes in it whenever he wishes.
The following year, in 1999, he formulated “twelve theses” on what should change in Christian theology, and the first of these theses reads: “Theism as a way of defining God is dead. God can no longer be credibly thought of as a supernatural being because of his power, who dwells in heaven and is ready to intervene in human history periodically and impose his will. Most of the current language about God is therefore meaningless, which leads us to search for a new way of speaking about God”( https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/charting-the-new-reformation-part-iii-the-twelve-theses/ . A full presentation on the 12 theses is found in the following book: Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, John Shelby Spong, HarperOne, 2018).
1.3. Why is this “theistic God” no longer credible?
This idea of God as a Supreme Entity and creator outside the world and the theistic religious system arose some 7000 years ago back in Sumeria, and it took hold or flourished – it is important to say – because it undoubtedly offered some evolutionary advantage to society. It is the basic law of evolution in general and of life in particular: of all the emergent forms, those that are advantageous thrive. The theistic image of God has served to explain the existence of the world and to maintain order, to promote goodness and to prevent mutual harm.
But this image of God no longer fits into the cultural framework of our time: neither as a first cause explaining the world, nor as the ultimate basis of ethics. A God as a first cause extrinsic to the world would be a logical entity postulated by the human need for explanation. God would be a creation of the human mind and its need for a logical foundation. And to the one who says that nothing exists without some cause, one could logically reply: “And who created this first cause?”. If he insisted that “God” is the uncreated cause, the questioner might reply that it would be just as logical as postulating an uncreated cause prior to and distinct from the created to assert that some kind of electromagnetism – which is like saying “light” – is the uncreated (“eternal”) cause, outside the categories of the universe we see.
Now, the denial of a God as first cause and necessary explanation does not condemn us to materialistic scientism. It all depends on what is meant by science and matter. Science is the first to recognise that “matter” is not only an enigma, but a great mystery, that it is not something inert and static, but mysterious energy that transcends all our categories of space and time, and that we can in no way understand matter as something opposed to what we call “spirit”. Matter is inexhaustible matrix, possibility, relation and self-creativity without origin or end, from which all forms, both what we call “material” and what we call “spiritual”, emerge.
In the same way, the denial of a “God as the foundation” of ethics does not condemn us to a world without ethics, but refers us to an ethics without a foundation external to the very reality we form, with no other foundation than the recognition of the absolute mystery of the whole of reality as relation, as “Interser”, a recognition that arouses reverence and love of the other as itself and of itself as “other”. Moreover, the past and the present show that people who believe in the “necessary God” are no more just, generous and happy than those who say they do not believe.
For all these reasons, the traditional God-Entity of religions is no longer part of the “available credibility” (P. Ricoeur) of our time. His idea is no longer credible for a social majority in general, and in particular for those who contemplate, research and think about the Real. The denial of a “God” as a necessary explanatory entity in no way makes anyone less sensitive to wonder, veneration and commitment to the good or to the deepest Mystery of reality, which is another way of saying God.
1.4. Is the deepest Mystery of Reality personal?
I am not saying that God, as the deepest Mystery of Reality, is not personal, still less that He is impersonal. Again, it all depends on what we mean by “person”. The concept suggests an individual subject endowed with its own consciousness versus another subject, another individual, endowed with its own consciousness, distinct from the first. There have been (since Hegel?) many philosophical attempts to redefine “person” in the key of relation and communion rather than in the key of individuality, but, in fact, “person” still means a subject, an individual self-conscious centre distinct from another individual self-conscious centre. Well, if we understand God as the deepest Real or as the deepest Mystery of the Real, we can hardly think of him as a “person” in the sense of a subject as opposed to another subject, someone next to someone, distinct from him.
However, God as the Ground of Reality or as the pure and full Being of the universe or the multiverse, God as the infinite Life-Breath of all that is Real or as Absolute Relation, is not impersonal “something”, but more, infinitely “more than personal”. It could be said to be “transpersonal” in the fullest sense. It is not an I versus a You, nor a You versus an I. It is pure creative relationship of everything to everything. It is pure creative relationship of all with all, without fusion or distinction. It is the I of all you and the Thou of all I beyond both unity and duality. All forms of love, recognition, respect, tenderness, relationship, compassion, solidarity and care are epiphany and embodiment of God or the Ground of all that is Real.
1.5. Is the Infinite immanent or transcendent?
Post-theistic or transtheistic theology is often reproached for enclosing God in pure immanence and ignoring or denying his transcendence. This is another misunderstanding. In reality, God, understood as the Background or vital Breath of all that is Real, transcends absolutely the immanence-transcendence antithesis, just as he transcends the antithesis between monism and dualism. God is not a part of the Whole (dualism), nor is He the sum of all parts (monism). God is not the name of a spiritual Entity opposed to a material world (dualism), nor is He the name of a divine material-spiritual Whole (“pantheistic” monism). The universe is made up of forms, but God is not a form, but the non-objectifiable, trans-objective Background of all forms. For the rest, the Ground is not a form, but it is neither outside nor inside the forms, but is beyond the inside-outside categories. Like Being in entities, like beauty in all that is beautiful, like goodness in all that is good, like meaning in words, like taste in bread, wine or oranges, like the Whole in each part and in the sum of all parts.
Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) taught that God is not “relatively other”, but “absolutely other” than everything, and that He is therefore “Not Other” or “other of nothing”. He is absolutely immanent and absolutely transcendent, absolute transcendence in absolute immanence (R. Panikkar).
1.6. Basically, doesn’t mysticism of all times and traditions point beyond theism?
I believe it does. Do not think that overcoming the theistic image of God is only something of our time. The deepest experience of the Real has moved wise men and women, mystics, prophets and prophetesses of all traditions to overcome the theistic image of God, indeed every mental and institutional image of the Absolute. Thus Confucius and Laozi in China; Buddha, Mahavira and the authors of the Upanishads in India; Parmenides, Pythagoras and Heraclitus in Greece… All of them sensed and pointed to the unrepresentable Absolute beyond the represented “God”.
In the same way, the great witnesses of the Infinite in the Judeo-Christian tradition experienced God beyond “God”, beyond their image of God: the foreigners Abraham, Sarah and Hagar recognised him in the foreigner; the persecuted Jacob recognised him at the ford, the passage or transit, of Jabbok; the exiled Moses recognised him on the pagan mountain of Horeb; and Jesus recognised him outside the Temple and the letter, in the wounded on the roads. And so we should speak of Hildegard of Bingen and Margaret Porette, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Bonhöffer, Simone Weil and Etty Hillesum… They are countless.
They all transcended the theistic image of God, even if they often continued to use the theistic language of their own culture. Today we are more impelled than ever to search for a trans-theistic language, precisely in order to be faithful to their deepest experience and to our own experience. After “God”, there remains the Real, the dynamic fontal Mystery that beats as its Background. And I think Toynbee would accept this philosophical and theological language, both Eastern and Western, this metaphorical, mystical and “transtheistic” way of saying God. I believe that Einstein and many of today’s scientists would also accept it.
1.7. Can we still call the unnamable Mystery God?
The “God” Supreme Entity denied by the atheists I also deny it, but I affirm that the term God or its equivalents in the various languages (Theos, Gott, Bog…) does not express only the so-called “theistic” image of God as a Personal Entity distinct from the entities of the world. And, in this time of trans-theistic transition in which we find ourselves, and depending on where I am and to whom I am addressing myself, or even in my deepest inner dialogue, I do not renounce to use the word “God” to refer to the unnamable Mystery, beyond all its meanings. That is why I speak of “God beyond ‘God'”. It seems contradictory, and it is debatable, but today it is my choice, knowing that the name we give to the Unnamable is the least important thing.
II. JESUS BEYOND THE “SON OF GOD”.
In the second of his famous Twelve Theses, John Shelby Spong states, “Since God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, it makes no sense to try to understand Jesus as the incarnation of a theistic God. Therefore, ancient Christology is bankrupt”. I propose 3 reflections on this issue:
2.1. Beyond dogma and history
All Christological dogmas are formulated within the framework of a theistic worldview and language. They claim that Jesus is the only full incarnation of the Supreme Entity God: in an infinite (not in the proper “philosophical” sense, but rather in the physical sense) universe or multiverse, God would have been fully incarnated only 2000 years ago, in a Jewish male of one of the known human species, Homo Sapiens, on a planet of one of the countless stars of the countless galaxies of the cosmos, whose 13.8 billion year history is perhaps only one of many stories in an infinite multiverse. Moreover, dogmas assert that Jesus was born of a virgin mother, that he performed miracles (“breaking” the laws of nature, even though we know far from all of them), that he died on the cross to atone for our sins, and that he was resurrected and appeared miraculously, physically. That Christology collapses. Jesus asks me for another language to speak of his Mystery, which is the Mystery of all that is, including ourselves.
But when I say “Jesus”, I do not mean the “strictly historical Jesus”, of whom we know very little with full certainty. I mean the “Jesus of the Gospel stories”. These accounts are themselves plural, if not contradictory, and were elaborated in the early Christian communities and collected mainly in the Gospels (both canonical and “apocryphal”). Today, of course, we must read all these accounts in a free and inspirational way, in coherence with the various forms of knowledge.
I see Jesus as a symbol or icon of the human being in communion with all the living. As an icon of the human being inspiredly committed to full communion, full liberation, full healing and full shared bliss. As an icon of anticipatory hope.
I look to Jesus as an icon of deep trust in the Fullness of the Real, in the First Source, in the beating Heart of all that is, in the Breath that breathes and sustains Life. Jesus called him God and, according to the Jewish culture of his time, imagined him in a way that today we would call theistic, but he transcended and taught to transcend all learned images and doctrine. I look at Jesus as a real, close, concrete, questioning, compassionate symbol of the Absolute, as a symbol-person whom we can listen to, speak to, love, and trust.
And let it be clear: I do not look at Jesus in this way because he is the unique or perfect figure or superior to others, but because his figure is a unique part of my roots, of our cultural and spiritual, personal and collective roots.
2.2. Was Jesus a perfect man?
Jesus, a human person like us? is the title of the latest book by the Jesuit scholar Roger Lenaers. The Belgian theologian invites us to free Jesus from the mythological garb of the Gospels and the language of later dogmatics. He insists that Jesus was not a hybrid being composed of a double nature (human and divine) whose “hypostasis” or subject or personal centre would be the “divine person”, the Logos, the “second Person of the Holy Trinity”. In that sense, says Lenaers, Jesus “was a human person like us” (p. 158), and had, therefore, “the same needs, desires and reactions as us” (p. 158).
However, Lenaers also states, Jesus is not on the “low evolutionary level that we are on” (p. 52). “Man like us, he must have had the same sexual needs as we do, but he obviously handled them differently from the average human being and was not dependent on them, but inwardly free, with the same freedom he showed himself to have in the face of money, appearances and the criticism of his adversaries” (p. 158).
Jesus would thus have been a perfect Homo Sapiens. But is this not a contradiction in terms? We are by definition the marvellous and fragile fruit of a random, essentially unfinished and open evolution. Can anyone even conceive of a human person of our species endowed with perfect intelligence, perfect will, perfect emotionality, perfect spirituality…? For that matter, why should we not imagine that on a distant planet there already exists or that on our own planet, millions of years from now or in only 100 years or less, there will exist a species – human, transhuman or posthuman – more “human” – caring and blessed – and therefore “divine” than all of us, including Jesus?
Can we reasonably imagine a Jesus who would never have suffered quarrels, resentments and resentments, who would never have experienced envy, greed and pride, who would never have faltered and succumbed in his trust, solidarity and hope? If so, he would not be human. And I cannot imagine him except as a human person, made like all of us of clay animated by Spirit or Breath, of clay full of light and shadows. Only thus, and not because he was perfect or even the most perfect, could he continue to inspire me.
2.3. Can Jesus still inspire us?
I am absolutely convinced that he can. But I will speak for myself. I leave aside of course what I find uninspiring or counter-inspiring, and open myself to what gives me encouragement. If I am inspired by Laozi (who did not even exist) and the Popol Vuh or the silence of the sunset, why shouldn’t I be inspired by Jesus?
I am inspired, for example, by his deep trust in the Depth of Reality. I am inspired by the fact that Jesus frees God from the religious-sacrificial and priestly system of the temple and the “human traditions”, and refers us to the ultimate Mystery that “raises the lowly from the dust and casts down the mighty from their thrones”, that seeks the lost and rejoices to find it, that “justifies” the tax collector against the Pharisee, that rains on the good and the bad, that announces through the mouth of the “last prophet” the Jubilee of grace and liberation…
I am inspired by his personality as an itinerant charismatic prophet, and by the fact that, in his itinerant life, he was accompanied by men and women on equal terms, to the scandal of good people. I am inspired by his sensitivity, his spirit, his fraternal-soral praxis: “You are all brothers/sisters”. I am inspired by his insistence that “I want mercy and not sacrifices”, his compassion, his openness in his meals, the healing power he aroused in the sick (“your faith has healed you”), and the fact that he did not care about sin (the “guilt”), but about suffering. I am inspired by the profound “revolution of values” that he carried out, attributing to the poor and the last the values that were usually attributed to the aristocracy (magnanimity, peace, generosity, divine filiation, wisdom…), and revaluing the values of the poor (hospitality, family economy of reciprocity…). And I am inspired by his inner and public freedom in the face of political-religious power, which led him to risk his life until he lost it (and thus won it) completely.
But, ultimately, it is not a matter of assenting to beliefs, be they ancient or modern. It is about having roots to nourish us and soil on which to walk in confidence. It is not about believing or disbelieving, but about surrendering the heart, trusting Reality, becoming a compassionate Samaritan to every suffering creature, and being what we eternally ARE. That is really believing in God, regardless of beliefs. And it is the way to create God or to recreate the world.
Aizarna (Basque Country), 1 April, 2022