Sunday, March 9, 2014

Homogenesis: "God" Comes Down to Earth in Humankind (3/9/14)

Homogenesis:  “God” Comes Down to Earth in Humankind
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 9, 2014
First Sunday of Lent

Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity
The Incarnation has no other significance, no other effect, than the indubitable certitude of the love of God to man.  Love remains, but the Incarnation upon the earth passes away:  the appearance was limited by time and place, accessible to few; but the essence, the nature which was manifested, is eternal and universal. We can no longer believe in the manifestation for its own sake, but only for the sake of the thing manifested; for to us there remains no immediate presence but that of love.

Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

“To err is human.  To forgive divine.”

“I’m only human.”

“Little ones to him belong.  They are weak but he is strong.”

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

“I am a worm.”

Where did we get the idea that we were so depraved?   This is from American revivalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, regarding human beings:

“They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them.”

Contemporary evangelist, Charles Swindoll regurgitates the classical Calvinism:

“You and I are, by birth, by nature, and by choice, inwardly depraved, which is to say that we are entirely corrupt.”

Even Jesus got into the act:

“Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.”

That text has been a bit of a thorn for Christian theology that has claimed that Jesus is God.   Here is another one attributed to the sage of Nazareth:

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

You get the theme.   Humans are bad.  God is good.   God, good.  Humans, bad. Repeat.    And repeat.  And repeat.

I am as much of a misanthrope as anyone.   I enjoy getting into the game of human bashing.  There is plenty of evidence.    Spend a day on Twitter and see how you feel about humans when you try go to sleep at night.   

To answer my own question of why do we think we are so naughty, look around.  Concluding that humans are depraved is as easy as shooting wolves from a helicopter.     

But that isn’t the whole story.   Human beings are complex.    All that we are we have inherited through biological and cultural evolution.   Every trait from violence to virtue, from generosity to greed, and from lust to love is in our genes.    Our ancestors needed all of these traits at one point or another for survival.  

In the early polytheistic stories that human beings created, the gods are not all good or virtuous.  The have the vices and virtues that humans have.  At times humans are more virtuous than the gods.  

When humans began to conceive of monotheism, that is made it up, God, that is the one we think is the real one, the one we spell with a capital G, that one became all good.    All goodness, all virtue, all beauty, all creativity, all spirit, all light, all love was projected onto that God that we created.   

The evil had to go somewhere.   If God is all good, then what is the source of the bad stuff?    To account for that we created dualistic philosophies that separated the material from the spiritual, the body from the soul, evil from good, mortality from immortality, human from God.    

Some of this evil was absorbed into a divine bad being, the devil.    For most people, God is more real than the devil.   I can say that the devil is a product of human myth-making and most would yawn and agree.   But if I say God is a product of human myth-making folks might need a moment to think about that.    

So while the divine immortal being, the devil, absorbed some of the evil that we projected in our myth-making, still, human beings absorbed the lion’s share of it.  Monotheism created its own mythologies of human depravity, such as the Fall, to explain the origins of human naughtiness.   

It is worse than that.  Half the human population received more than their share of the projected evil, that is women.    In the hierarchy of being, God is at the top then the angels then the male then the female then animals, plants, and dirt.    As feminist theology has pointed out convincingly, women were associated with the body and the material as opposed to the spiritual.    This leads to words of holy writ in I Timothy:

“And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Monotheism projected all virtue onto God.    Humans were left with “I am a worm.”    All good is in the divine, spiritual, supernatural realm.  All bad is the human, material, natural realm.   If you doubt me, go to church.    Attend virtually any congregation and get the message of our sinfulness.  Especially during Lent when we have to endure those dreadful hymns. 

Who was the guilty?  Who brought this upon Thee?  Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.  Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee; I crucified Thee.

I remember at the age of ten going up front after worship to pray with the preacher because I thought I was a backslider.   I wasn’t even a bad kid.   Most of my sins had to do with doubting.    Nonetheless, it was…

I crucified thee.

Now certainly there are things done and things left undone that have not led to human flourishing for which we ought to be honest about, and as able, to make amends.  That honest admission of shortcomings is quite a bit different from an entire philosophical system based on depravity.   The entire Christian theological edifice is built on the premise that God is good and humans are not.     The spiritual world, the divine world, the supernatural world, the immortal world, the sacred world is all good.   Call that God.   The material world, the human world, the natural world, the mortal world, the profane world is all bad.   Call that the fallen world.   Our world.

One of the legacies of monotheism is that human beings, who created it, let us never forget that we made this all up, projected all the goodness onto a divine being that we conceived and then left ourselves with the bad.   We created not only the gods but God as well, then we forgot that we did it and told ourselves that God created us.   

One of the first to realize this in modern times was Ludwig Feuerbach in the 19thcentury.  His great book is The Essence of Christianity.   He said in essence that we projected the virtues of humanity onto a divine being.    He said we need to claim those virtues for ourselves.  We need to bring God back to Earth.    He saw the incarnation that is the theology of God becoming human in Jesus not as wrong, but only partially complete.     The essence of the Incarnation didn’t end with Jesus, but that all humanity is absorbed with the love of God.    We are all God incarnate.   

For his efforts he was fired from his university position and excommunicated from the church.   In his own time he was mocked and denounced.  But now we look back on what he wrote and realize the dude was right. 

Feuerbach saw the divine throne in the heavens as empty.   No one is there.  No one is home.   All of that Godness is now immersed in humankind.   That is the movement from polytheism to monotheism to humanism.    We can take Feuerbach even further and say that not only is all of the Godness in human beings but in all of Earth itself.    This is a humanism that recognizes its intimate biological kinship with all of Earth.     To play with a metaphor from theologian, Sallie McFague, Earth is God’s body.

Lloyd Geering titled one of his books, Coming Back to Earth:  From gods,to God, to Gaia.   He is speaking of the human conception of sacredness.    It has evolved from projection onto agents to a single personal agent, God, now to the sacredness of Earth itself.   

Geering points out in the book we are reading for this sermon series, From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution, that the seeds of humanism were planted long ago.   The wisdom of Confucius that defined Chinese ethics for centuries was practical human wisdom.  Buddha, while he didn’t deny the existence of the gods, he didn’t find them relevant to his project of overcoming suffering.    Buddhism took many turns since his time.  

Jesus while he was a theist had humanistic leanings.   The Jesus Christ of legend and creed is not Jesus the sage of Nazareth.  Jesus was turned into a god and the theology that developed digressed into miracle and supernaturalism.  He himself was a wisdom sage.  The authentic teachings of Jesus were parables about how to live authentically in this world.    

But the seeds of humanism remained dormant in the West until the Renaissance and the Reformation and the beginning of scientific experimentation.   It was monotheism that provided the curiosity for science.    As Lloyd Geering reminds us, we like to pose a war between religion and science but it was the unity that monotheism brought to the understanding of the universe that sparked the desire to explore God’s creation.    God was the symbol for the unity of creation.    Because of this unity, we could uncover the mysteries of God through discovery and experiment.    Science was a way to express religious devotion.    Isaac Newton wrote more about religious matters than he wrote about science. 

Then science surpassed revelation for uncovering the mysteries of life.    We don’t go to the Bible for information about how much water vs. land there is on Earth as Columbus did, for instance.  We don’t look to the Bible to tell us about why it is we have so many languages or how to interpret the fossil record or how old Earth is.   We don’t go to the Bible to give us an account of the formation of Earth or the stars or the galaxies.    We don’t go to the Bible for an accurate account of history.    We don’t go to the Bible to tell us how it is all going to end.  We don’t go to the Bible to explain human psychology or to give us the foundation of ethics.     We deal with all of these questions with science.  In short, we can call it humanism. We don’t even realize how humanistic we have become.   

When I say “we” I recognize that there are exceptions.   There are people who believe the Bible is the Word of God and do not mean that metaphorically and who want to take us back to the Bible.  This is true for Islam and their Bible, the Qur’an, for Judaism and their Bible, the Tanakh, and for Christianity and its bibles.    I regard all of those movements with great trepidation.  The rise of fundamentalism in all of these religions is a fearful response to the modern, globalized, secular world.   

That isn’t to say that this modern, globalized, secular world is without its problems.   We have huge problems.  We are on the verge of destroying ourselves.   It can seem to be a world without virtue.   So we need desperately, all that we have projected onto God.    We need to bring the sacredness of heaven back to Earth.

I distinguish myself from those who want to throw religion on the waste heap and send God out to pasture.   There is no doubt that Richard Dawkins is right about all the superstitions associated with belief in God and he is fun to read.     While I have no need or interest in a supernatural world I have a religious affection for the natural world.   While I don’t go to the Bible for all those things I mentioned earlier, I do go to it for something.   While I don’t put much stock into the claim that Jesus rose on the third day, I do put a great deal of stock in his sermon on the mount.    While I no longer can believe in a being, God, I do need the virtue of God.   I need the sacredness that we gave away.   We need to reclaim it.  God needs to become human.   

Religion has a role in affirming the sacredness of Earth.    The ritual, music, story, and community transforms hearts so that we can participate in a humane and kind world.    We are complex.  We are not evil or good.  We are a cocktail of contradictions that was prepared from millions of years of evolution.   Thrust into self-consciousness we now make decisions when our ancestors acted by instinct.

What does religion do? For what do we go to the Bible and to our wisdom sources?   The Bible and all of our spiritual traditions don’t give us the answers so much as they invite us to explore questions that have been with us for a long time.

On this first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus in the wilderness.    This isn’t about Jesus.   Perhaps this didn’t even happen.   Whether it did or didn’t is less of an interesting question then what it means for us.     Jesus is us.    He is in the desert to find out what he is made of.  Who is he?  Who are we?   What does it mean to be a human being?   He is thrust into the wilderness to confront his evolutionary contradictions.    The three temptations are about the big three drives of life: food, security, and power.     How do we manage them without having those needs manage us?   

Of the conflicts we are facing in the world, how many of those conflicts are about those very things, food, security, and power?    What to do when faced with scarcity or even the illusion of scarcity?    Do we stop being human?    That is the temptation for Jesus.  Do we do whatever it takes to secure that our drives are met first?   Where will that lead us if everyone goes first?     We know where that leads.   It is the way of violence.

The way of Jesus is the way of the hero.  He is not a supernatural hero.  He is a human hero.   His heroism is in his humanity.   He can make an ethical choice. “Humankind does not live by bread alone,” he says at one point.  Yes, we need bread, but not bread alone.    Bread for everyone requires the willingness of one to go second so we can slow this spiral of greed.   

The other two temptations are similar.   The drive to secure protection for ourselves can lead us to attack others in the name of self-defense.   The drive for power can lead to power over others rather than shared power with others.     Jesus is the human hero who refuses to be managed by those drives.   He finds a higher, more sacred ethic.   We call that ethic love.  But it is all human.  It is all within us.   

God is within us. 
God has become us.  
The sacred mantle is ours to take.  
It is our responsibility and our joy.  
Do not fear.
Receive it.
Live in love.


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