A:* For the last couple of days, ever since you introduced the idea that Pauline Christianity has always been in some ways a Materialist religion, my head has been spinning, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what you mean. I can feel that it’s right in the part of my self that’s intuitive, but the rest of my head hasn’t caught up to my intuition yet. So can we take it from the top?
J:* No problem.
A: How ’bout we start with some definitions? And by the way, I’d just like to comment once again on the fact that you’re a true philosophy geek, you know that? Your face lights up like a Christmas tree every time you get to talk about a juicy philosophical dilemma. I can sure see how you ended up being a radical theologian in your time.
J: I was a much more successful philosopher than I was a carpenter. Honest to God, although I had to work as a tradesman to pay for my room and board, I’m pretty sure some of my handiwork could have ended up on “Galilean DIY Disaster.”
A: Measure once, cut twice?
J: I’m not a natural when it comes to tools. I think like a designer, not like an engineer. I would flunk out of civil engineering, I’m sure of it. But redesigning the layout of a home so it supports a person’s soul needs — that I can do.
A: My father, the retired engineer and all-round handyman, would think you’re a wuss. But you’re so much like most of the other male physicians I know — great with healing, great with academic study, not so good with the toolkit. (For the record, my ex is a physician, and we socialized with other people who were in medicine. So I know — or rather, knew — a lot of the male physicians around here.) Anyway, back to the philosophizing.
J: Okay. Well, the philosophy of Materialism is based on the theory that matter — by that I mean baryonic matter — is the only thing that exists. It’s a WYSIWYG understanding of reality — what you see is what you get. What you see is atoms and molecules and measurable substances and Newtonian laws. Therefore, according to this theory, all things in Nature — including mind, thought, consciousness, even love — can be explained solely by looking at the small little parts that make up the whole. It’s the idea that macroscopic reality — the daily reality that human beings live and work and breathe in — is just a bigger version of the microscopic reality of atoms and molecules and gravitational forces, etc. Of course, as researchers in various scientific disciplines now know, there are huge gaps between the “macro” theories and the “micro” theories. At the subatomic or quantum level, the universe is a weird, weird place. At the other end of the scale — the cosmological or grand universal scale — the universe is also a weird, weird place. Only at the immediate level of reality, if I can call it that — the level where human beings happen to live a fairly safe and predictable Newtonian kind of life — only here is a Materialist philosophy even remotely justified.
A: How does Materialism understand God?
J: A person who embraces Materialist belief in the natural laws of “cause and effect” may or may not believe in the existence of God. Many, if not most, Materialists are atheists. Atheists, of course, believe that existence can be explained entirely on the basis of scientific research. No God is required. However, it’s entirely possible to be a religious Materialist, a Materialist who believes in God. Deism is a good example of this.
A: Deism is a belief system that says there’s a God, one God who created the universe, but that this God later stepped away from his Creation and doesn’t participate in an active way in our lives or our suffering. God is the Great Clockmaker who made a perfect timepiece and now lets it run without interference. However, there’s still an acceptance of the idea that God will reward virtue and punish vice in the afterlife. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were all Deists . . . Tell me again why Deism isn’t the same as Pauline Christianity and Platonism?
J: It is Pauline/Platonic Christianity. Deism is what you get when you strip away later church doctrines about ritual and sacraments and prayer to saints (intercession) and belief in Marianism and belief in holy relics and belief in holy Crusade and belief in papal infallibility. Deism is Pauline thought in its purest form — a belief in the inviolability and perfection of Divine Law. Divine Law that governs “cause and effect” in the material world.
A: But Paul goes on and on in Romans about the inherent peril of “the law,” how knowledge of the law led him into sin.
J: Paul isn’t attacking all Law. He’s attacking the laws he no longer agrees with. Paul spends all his time in his letters talking about the “new and improved” Law — the Law that he himself is teaching. The New Covenant. It’s easy to forget that Covenant is Law — nomos in the Greek. Nomos was a complex idea that included both human authority and divine authority. When Paul talks about the “new covenant,” he’s talking about a new version of Divine Law. A new version of the Law of Cause and Effect. “If you do this (believe in Christ), then according to the inviolable Law of Creation, you must receive this (salvation plus a reserved parking spot in Heaven).” It’s a reductionist philosophy. Just as Materialism is a reductionist philosophy. Everything is reduced to a simple “cause and effect” formula.
A: Just as Wisdom teachings in the Ancient Near East were a “cause and effect” formula: if you obey the instructions on the “virtue lists” and disavow the behaviours on the “vice lists,” God is required to reward you because the Law says so.
J: Paul, clever manipulator that he was, observed that there was a “niche market” of people who’d become disillusioned with the certainty of Wisdom teachings. Obviously there was something missing from the formula if slaves were still slaves and women were still being punished for being women. The Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire were filled to bursting with resentful slaves and restless, intelligent women. Who better to target if you’re planning to launch a new religious movement? Slaves with money and women with money. You don’t need to slog through the trenches and carry out years and years of missionary work — you just need to get yourself some patrons with deep pockets. Paul doesn’t even deny his reliance on patrons.
A: One staggering fact that jumps out in the Gospel of Mark is the fact that you have no patron. Nor do you seem to want one. This would have shocked readers in 1st century CE Roman-held regions.
J: Part of my objective was to refuse to “play by the rules.”
A: In the end, so many of these religious debates and religious conflicts boil down to “the rules” — the law, the covenant, the nomos. But all these rules . . . they’re external. They come from outside the inner self. They pretend to be objective. They pretend to be based on observable realities from nature. Yet enforcement of them relies on brute force, on rote memory, and on loyalty to patrons or other important religious/political leaders . . . at least I think that’s right. Is that right?
J: Yes. The one thing Paul doesn’t want is for people to know how to tap into their own inner wisdom, their own inner guidance. He doesn’t want them to know how to hear God’s quiet voice in the still, clear night. He doesn’t want his “community of fellowship” to find actual freedom. He only wants them to believe they have freedom (exousia) through the proper use of conscience (suneidesis). He wants them to be willing slaves. Slaves who won’t rock the boat of authority.
A: This is really sick, you know that?
J: Of course it is. There’s a reason these teachings have spontaneously led to generation after generation of abuses — abuses against the poor, the environment, against other Christians, not to mention countless non-Christians. Also abuses against God. These abuses are the “weeds” that have grown from the “seeds” that Paul intentionally planted.
A: Is this why Paul never mentions healing miracles in the letters he himself wrote?
J: Yes. Paul can’t afford to have his community of hagiasmos and koinonia (holiness and fellowship) distracted by the idea that God is deeply committed to ongoing healing, communication, and relationship with all people through the Kingdom within. The Kingdom within, of course, is the core self — the soul. The good soul. That’s how God connects with all God’s children — through the good soul that everybody is. God can and does communicate by other means, too, but the one connection that can never be taken away is the soul connection. You can cut out somebody’s eyes so they can’t see any more signs (and, unfortunately, this has been done). You can cut out somebody’s ears so they can’t hear any more external messages. You can cut out somebody’s tongue so they can no longer speak the prayers they long to sing aloud. All these abuses have been perpetrated “in the name of God” at one time or another. But nobody can cut out the connection to the soul. You’d have to carve out the entire brain and central nervous system of a person in order to fully quench the soul connection, the body-soul nexus. Obviously this would lead to death.
A: Hey! It’s another thing to add to the Jesus’ Seminar’s pot for the question of “Why Jesus Pissed People Off So Much That He Got Himself Crucified.”
J: Paul works very hard to ensure that his followers believe in a Kingdom that’s on the outside — “out there” in the Materialist world of cause and effect. “Out there” where they have no control over any of it themselves. Even more brilliant, Paul insists the Kingdom of God isn’t here yet. It belongs to some maybe-not-so-distant Day of Judgment. So not only is the Kingdom a materialistic reality outside the self, but it hasn’t even “arrived” yet. [1 Corinthians 15]. This prompts regular people to be thinking about the future instead of the present. This encourages them to shift their focus, their attention, and even their relationships to the future. To the future “effects” of today’s “causes.” People are so busy worrying about the future that they can’t hear God’s voice today.
A: Therefore they can’t hear the guidance they long for.
J: The guidance they want and need.
A: I like your version of the Kingdom teachings much better.
* If you’re new to this site, A=Author and J=Jesus