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An affirmation of unconditional
An underlying assumption in my arguments for unconditional is that unconditional is “self-validating” as good, right, and therefore true. And if basic theodicy is right to assume that ultimate reality/deity is fundamentally good in some way (i.e. God is love) then there is no higher understanding or definition of good, right, truth, or love than unconditional. We all know this at an intuitive and daily-experience level- i.e. that unconditional is the best of being human, the best way to relate to failing others. We know this from our personal experience in relationships with spouses, children, family, friends, neighbors, others, etc. Unconditional is also how we would like to be treated in terms of our own imperfections and failures.
(Theodicy- The affirmation of deity as fundamentally good.)
The assumption of “self-validating” means that unconditional does not need outside validation from some other authority- whether from a religious tradition, holy book, philosophical argument, ethics “experts”, or other sources of authority. Its ultimate validation comes from the intuitive common sense of ordinary folks like ourselves.
Historical examples of the potential effectiveness of unconditional in human ethics: Note Nelson Mandela and his approach of forgiving, loving opponents and his arguments that the unconditional treatment of enemies “brings out the best in others” (not all, but most) and “turns enemies into friends” (not all, but most). And a balancing note re Mandela: Offenders were held responsible/accountable for their crimes by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela did not embrace unconditional as some form of dogmatic pacifism in the face of evil (i.e. “turn the other cheek” and just ignore or dismiss offenses).
The evidence that an unconditional approach toward enemies also works at a societal level- Remember the strikingly different outcomes in the early 1990s between Mandela’s unconditional-like approach to enemies in South Africa (avoiding civil war and mass-death as noted by Richard Stengel in “Mandela’s Way”), compared to the retaliatory approaches toward “enemies” in Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992-95) around the same time.
Unconditional works in very practical ways to break retaliatory cycles and thereby defuse potentially harmful situations. It is potently successful at personal and societal levels. It is simply the highest and best that we have discovered for taking humanity to the heights of humane thought, feeling, motivation/intention, and response/behavior. But it takes the unique courage of a Mandela (“towering in stature as maturely human”) to initiate an unconditional response in situations where the primal and instinctual felt urge when offended in some manner is to strike back in like manner (eye for eye, tit for tat, hurt for hurt, humiliation for humiliation, getting even, getting “justice”, etc.).
Also, note the central non-retaliatory, unconditional message of Historical Jesus as in the “Q Wisdom Sayings” tradition. That message was entirely opposite to the Christian Christ of Paul that embraced a retaliatory theology and highly conditional salvation gospel (demand for sacrifice before forgiveness, acceptance, or love was possible). Unfortunately, Paul’s Christ myth almost buried entirely the message of Historical Jesus and we inherited Paul’s religion that has dominantly shaped our societies with the pathologies of retaliatory, punitive justice and retaliatory/conditional ethics. Fortunately, the “diamonds/pearls” of the Jesus message are still embedded in the New Testament accounts and they have worked to moderate the harsher elements of Christianity across history.
Historical Jesus was the first person in history to project unconditional out to define deity (humanity’s ultimate ideal and authority), thereby overturning previous millennia of human speculation on deity that had always projected the features of retaliation and religious conditions onto gods. Others, long before Jesus, had applied unconditional to ethics, to human response toward enemies (i.e. the Akkadian Father in his advice to his son, circa 2000 BCE). But Jesus was the first to also apply unconditional to God as the defining feature of Ultimate Reality or deity as humanity’s highest ideal and authority, what has, across history, functioned as the supremely guiding beacon for human ethics. (Bob Brinsmead’s point that “We become just like the God that we believe in”. Include the varied “secular/ideological” versions of deity so common today.)
We would be wise to recover this feature of unconditional as fundamental to the most humane portrayal of humanity’s ultimate ideal and authority. Again, its self-validating as ultimate good, right, and truth.
Here’s hoping a new generation will embrace this vision of human exodus and liberation to fire their imaginations, make it their Hero’s quest (conquering their monster), and take this grandest liberation movement of all to new heights of improvement and advance in our societies.
From Retaliation To Unconditional Love: The Narrative of Human Exodus from Animal Existence, Wendell Krossa
The greatest liberation movement in history. The essential nature of the hero’s quest or journey.
(Revised March, 2023)
(Note: This essay is the outcome of several decades of interaction with a valued friend, a great human spirit, and arguably the finest theological mind to have ever graced this planet, Bob Brinsmead. Notably, this interacts with material of his such as “The Scandal of Joshua Ben Adam”.)
The foundational story of humanity is the story of liberation or exodus from our animal past. This is more than just the narrative of our physical/geographical exodus out of Africa (modern humans leaving Africa in varied migrations from roughly 200-50,000 years ago). Our defining story is our exodus out of enslavement to our past animal existence and toward the liberation of becoming more human or humane beings. This is an intensely inner journey or quest of the human spirit, what Solzhenitsyn described when he stated that the real battle of good against evil is not an outer battle against physical “enemies’ but rather an inner battle that “runs down the center of every human heart”. The human struggle to make an exodus from animal existence is an intensely personal adventure (psychological, social, spiritual/philosophical) that each of us engages as a battle against our inherited animal drives. This quest has set us on a uniquely different trajectory from animal behavior and life.
Our exodus toward a more human mode of living is the engine that drives humanity’s overall trajectory of progress toward a better future- a progress that is fueled by the primal impulse to find something better. This story reveals the meaning and purpose of human existence in our endeavor to humanize all life. It is a story that responds to those profound human questions of Why we exist? Or What purpose are we here to engage or fulfill? It explains the millennia-long quest of people to understand what it means to be human and to live as human.
Our story begins in an animal past shaped by the drives of domination (alpha male/female), small band or tribal exclusion, and the retaliatory destruction of competing others. This triad of prominent animal drives illustrates the worst of animal reality and existence. It is the dark past that provides the greater background context against which the wonder of our becoming more fully human appears all the brighter as humanity emerged and developed gradually over multiple-millennia.
Joseph Campbell (“Myths To Live By”) has similarly noted the exodus of humanity leaving the animal past for human existence in stating that human story is about learning to conquer the “animal passions” in order to live as human (see also “The Power of Myth”, pages xiii, 104, 144, 191, 201, 218-19, 223, 235). The struggle to overcome our animal past and its base features is engaged on the individual level as well as by humanity as a whole. Campbell also framed human story as going out on a great adventure or quest, confronting and conquering monsters, learning lessons and gaining insights, and then returning with insights to benefit others.
In our personal stories, the element of struggle to overcome arises from the fact that humanity’s animal past continues into our present human existence in the form of a residual animal brain with its animal-like impulses that continue to influence our thinking, emotions, motivations, responses, and behavior. We see this in the fact that people continue to act like animals when they tribally exclude one another, dominate others, or retaliate against others. And these base animal features have even been embedded in our belief systems where we employ ideas/themes to validate and maintain them to the detriment of our efforts to be more human.
Retaliation, in particular, is the one notable feature that brings the worst of animal existence into human life. Musonius Rufus (Roman philosopher, circa 30-100 AD) expressed the animal nature of retaliation well, “For to scheme to bite back the biter and to return evil for evil is the act not of a human being but of a wild beast” (http://unsafeharbour.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/ancient-quotations-returning-evil-with-good/). Retaliation is humanity behaving at its animal worst. Establishing retaliation as a feature of our animal past helps expose its bestial nature, its essential inhumanity.
Think of dogs snarling and snapping angrily at one another on a street, then often immediately exploding in rage as they try to physically tear one another apart.
One of the more damaging mistakes that early people made was to project this destructive feature of animal existence- retaliation- onto their early gods. As they formulated their earliest ideas of deity, they created beliefs of a greater reality that was vengeful, threatening, and destructively punitive. What psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo calls “Cruel God theology”. Deity was something that would retaliate violently against human failure or sin. In projecting such animal-like features onto deity, they created super monsters for people to fear. Something that would harm you in this life and in the after-life. Over time, the feature of retaliation in divinity was refined with emerging legal categories as essential to righteous justice, proper punishment of evil, or just retribution. Using that divine validation, retaliation would be further developed into systems of human justice as deserved payback, or what we know as eye for eye justice. So retaliation makes a line down through history to become the legal reality today of justice as punishment.
Other refinements were created over history to reinforce the idea of divine retaliation as fundamental goodness, righteousness, and truth- such as the development of the idea of holiness in gods. This would become the prominent feature of the Jewish and Christian God. It would be argued that because God was holy he was therefore obligated to punish all “sin” (sin as often defined by offenses against religious precepts or laws). Holiness became part of a complex of ideas that supported the demand for retaliatory punishment, including ideas of a holy God rightly offended by human imperfection or “sinfulness”. As religious believers would subsequently argue, because God is holy he cannot just ignore sin. He cannot just forgive sin without first punishing it thoroughly (i.e. demanding full payment, sacrifice/atonement, restitution). But despite the sacralising of retaliation in divinity with such concepts as holiness, at core it was all still essentially very much about animal-like retaliation, revenge, or payback.
The religious concept of holiness has to do with ideas of purity, exclusion, and separation from things considered unclean or defiled. Holiness is a priestly invention that affirms the role of priests as mediators between impure people and their gods. Holiness is a concept that intensifies the sense of human imperfection, making natural human imperfection appear all the worse, as something that religious traditions call “sinfulness”. Framing human imperfection as sinfulness then promotes the view of human imperfection as something that must be punished, something that deserves divine retaliation. Such thinking has long fostered excessive guilt, shame, anxiety, and fear over being imperfectly human.
We would do better to view human imperfection in terms of the fact that we started out in animal reality but have gradually become a species that has improved remarkably over time (see for instance, Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, or James Payne’s “The History of Force”). This gradual process of growth, development, and advancement over history is not something that deserves condemnation and punishment. As Bob Brinsmead reminds us, the real story of humanity is not how far we have fallen, but how amazingly we have progressed since our early beginning in animal existence.
(Insert: This comment is not to excuse or downplay the personal failure to live as human and the consequences of bad behavior. As free beings we are responsible for our behavior that has both natural and social consequences. I would break the issue down like this- Offenders are responsible to stop harming others, to basically “grow the fuck up” and join the human family as contributing members, taking full responsibility for all behavior and the consequences of bad behavior that include making full restitution to victims.
And victims are responsible to “love your enemies”, meaning- not “love” as feeling gushy, warm, or fuzzy toward offenders and their horrific offenses but holding the “agape-like” intention to treat offenders humanely and not respond with eye for eye punitive retaliation. By holding such intention, we maintain our own humanity in the face of evil, despite how we feel about offenders. Outrage/anger at evil is a healthy, fully human response.
Add here that incarceration is necessary where offenders will not or cannot control their worst impulses- i.e. violence, abuse of minors, etc. But even while incarcerating them, we are responsible to treat offenders humanely as in the Norwegian/Danish restorative justice prison programs. Further, force is often necessary to restrain offenders that cannot be reasoned with- whether terrorists, or violent criminal offenders. Love never abandons common sense in an imperfect world and love is always responsible to protect the innocent, first and foremost.)
Another validation for the belief that the gods were retaliatory was the early perception that because the gods were behind the forces of nature and the varied elements of life, and as those forces/elements were often destructive (i.e. natural disasters, disease, predation), early logic then concluded that the gods must be angry and were punishing people for their sins via the destructive forces and events of the natural world. Early people interpreted natural world phenomena as expressions of divine intent and activity.
That pathological perception led the ancients to conclude that any sickness or misfortune in a person’s life was understood to be due to the gods punishing sin or broken taboos. Such thinking is found all through early mythology in accounts of gods afflicting people with sickness (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh, or the myth of Dilmun where Enki is punished for eating the 8 original plants). That idea has cursed people with immense additional guilt and fear, further burdening people who are already suffering excessively from physical ailments. Look, for example, at the Old Testament account of Job’s ‘comforters’ berating him with this theme- i.e. that his misfortune and illness was punishment from God because he had sinned. Paul burdened the Corinthians with the same argument- i.e. that their illnesses and deaths were punishment from God for their sins (1 Corinthians- chapters 10, 11).
The theme of retaliation is found in the earliest human writing (circa 2500-2000 BCE), notably in the accounts of storm gods (e.g. Enlil) threatening to annihilate early people with a great flood (see the “Sumerian Flood” myth- Wikipedia). It is evident in other early myths of a chaos monster threatening the order of creation (“Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come”- Norman Cohn). Divine retaliation is also seen in Egyptian myths of “The Return to Chaos”, or “The Destruction of Mankind”. These myths were eventually developed into the meta-myth of a final apocalypse, that a retributive God would punish the defiled world, purging sinful humanity from life in a grand world-ending destruction (see the Zoroastrian account of apocalypse that shaped the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The feature of retaliation would then reach an epitome expression in the perverse and vicious myth of eternal Hell, the final and ultimate divine retaliation against imperfect humanity.
In all such mythology retaliation was being sacralised, made something sacred or divine (“hidden under the canopy of the sacred”). Retaliation was made a defining feature of deity. In doing that, early people were creating monsters, far above the ordinary monsters of life, to frighten one another. Such fear would become a potent weapon for subjecting people to priestly authority and control.
(Insert note: John Pfeiffer in “Explosion: An inquiry into the origins of art and religion” speculates that early shaman took people deep into the darkness of caves to view “anamorphic art”- i.e. cave paintings that appear to move in flickering candlelight. That was apparently intended to disorient and frighten people to then believe the shaman’s claim to know the secrets of the invisible realm of spirits- i.e. what taboos people had broken and what sacrifices were then required to appease the angered spirits. It was very much about using terror regarding the invisible realm and consequently validating shamanic/priestly control, thereby affirming the role of shaman/priests as the mediators of salvation from the threats of retaliatory spirits/gods.)
Using the central theme of retaliation or payback to define gods has subsequently validated endless violence between people, clans, and nations (the appeal to gods as ultimate validating ideals and authorities). Retaliating deities incite and validate retaliation among their followers. We all become just like the gods that we believe in. The reason for this is that people have long appealed to the divine to validate and approve their own lives. Kind of like children seeking “parental” approval.
Further, people try to replicate in their own lives and societies what they believe to be the divine model or reality. This is known as the “behavior based on belief” relationship or the “ethic based on theology” relationship. Hence, the creation of threatening, punishing gods has long validated people retaliating and punishing one another. Early peoples might be excused for validating their primitive impulses to retaliate because that is where their minds were at that time- still more animal than human. But we have no excuse now as we know better the difference between primitive animal-like existence and truly human existence.
Therefore, if you want to get to an important root validation for violence among people, then start with these core beliefs that have long affirmed human retaliation or payback (see James Carrol’s book “Constantine’s Sword” for some historical illustration of how the influence of religious views has inspired mistreatment of others). Also, see the Zenon Lotufo and Harold Ellens comments, at the bottom of this article, on how images of the divine work to influence human mentality and life.
Notable examples of people using the divine to validate human behavior and life- Plato’s appeal to the invisible Forms/Ideas/Ideals that should shape the ideal human society. Or the Hebrew’s appeal to the law/word/will of God to shape all aspects of their Old Testament society down to details about where to locate the 12 tribes, the details of building the Temple, and more.
When you embed retaliation in the sacred or divine, it then becomes untouchable, a sacred ideal not open to challenge or questioning. The things that we protect in God, we are notably afraid to subsequently challenge because of our natural respect for and fear of deity. Such things can then become immensely damaging to us because we believe that they originate with God and are therefore ultimately true and immutable. They are realities that must be believed and loyally adhered to. The human appeal to the divine has always been a powerful concept and a potent means to manipulate and control others.
By exposing the primitive origins (in animal reality) of a feature such as retaliation we may help to break its grip on human consciousness.
Insert note: The validation of retaliation has resulted in incalculable slaughter, suffering, and misery across human history. It has led to endless brutality, killing, and outright wars. Contemporary story-telling (i.e. the Hollywood movie industry) adds its affirmation by continuing to unquestioningly promote retaliation as true and righteous justice. You see this in the typical story lines of movies: First, we are introduced to a family of good people living their life (stasis in the story line) and our emotions are naturally oriented to favoring those people. Then some bad guy intrudes to commit an offense against the good people, to create chaos and misery (disruption in the story). The head of the good family- a man or woman- then goes to a secret closet with a stock of weaponry. They then arm themself and go forth to exact justice as destroying the bad guy as violently as possible (think Liam Neeson movies here). The more gore, the better. And audiences go home feeling satisfied that justice has been accomplished (final resolution in the story). The bad guys got their just deserts. Full and violent retaliation makes everything right once again. The universe has been rebalanced again. Such exhibitions of bloody retaliation are often within a simplistically framed story line. But there can be no other form of “true justice”. (Again, this is not to deny the greater reality of good and evil and the responsibility to combat criminal offense/offenders.)
The Salvation/Sacrifice Industry (the Appeasement Industry)
What has been perhaps the most damaging outcome of projecting the animal feature of retaliation onto God? It evokes in people the natural response of necessary appeasement or placation (placating the Alpha threat- see Hector Garcia’s “Alpha God”). The human fear of death plays a central role here. This is the felt need to appease the angry, threatening gods/God in order to avoid punishment, whether sickness, other misfortune, or outright death. Retaliatory gods have long aroused the primal human fear of death and the related survival impulse. The appeasement response then leads to one of history’s most oppressive outcomes- the enslavement to wasteful priestly systems of sacrifice and the related elements of salvation schemes.
Myths of a God angry at human imperfection and failure have also produced the corollary idea of separation from God, a separation that supposedly happened at the time of the “Fall” when humans lived in an original paradise called Dilmun or Eden. Since that Fall, and the human ruin of paradise, God has apparently abandoned humanity, breaking off a former close relationship, according to religions like Christianity. If you think abandonment by parents is traumatizing then add this myth of abandonment by the Creator and Source of all, and note the impact this can have on human psyches (see psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo’s “Cruel God, Kind God”). These primitive perceptions further intensify the fear of divinity and death, and stir the felt need to atone.
And so the natural psychology of appeasement is stirred and this leads to obligatory endeavors to engage a salvation scheme, to offer some sacrifice to placate the angered deity.
It is not clear when all this Salvationism started but we can speculate that it was long ago in prehistory. Some innovative person, most likely an early shaman, came up with the idea of blood sacrifice to placate threatening gods. This may have been based on the perception that because life was in the blood then a life could be offered in place of another life (substitutionary atonement). Researchers studying the origin of sacrifice suggest that sacrifices were made for varied reasons- to secure favor from the gods, to feed the gods- but a prominent reason was to appease the gods, to atone for sin (see for instance, http://www.istor.org/stable/3155070 notably p. 605, or http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/ritual-sacrifice-in-ancient-israel/, also see Sacrifice at Wikipedia). I am focusing on this element of appeasement of angry gods because it arises at the very beginning and it has had such a damaging impact on human psyches and societies.
No matter what the ancient reasons were for sacrifice, “It is all inhumane and sadistic and stupid” (Bob Brinsmead, personal email, Feb.2013). “As for suggesting that God loved the smell of a burning animal as the OT says…then this god has not yet been humanized” (Ibid). But here we have it today: Salvationism which argues that some payment must be made- we must pay the debt, atone for the offense, and make amends. A cruel, violent blood sacrifice must be offered. And again, the belief in human sinfulness is integral to this perspective. Human imperfection (the animal inheritance in us) was developed into the mythical belief in human fallenness or sinfulness as a means to explain why the gods were angry and wanted to retaliate against humanity. As noted earlier, this was further developed into the theological logic that human sinfulness was an offense against a holy sin-hating God and hence atonement must be made.
And the earliest “sins” were beyond silly which revealed the petty nature of the gods that early people had created. The earliest epics of punishing people’s sin told of gods that were upset because people had multiplied too much and become too noisy. One god- Enlil- could not sleep because of the noise that people made so he planned to annihilate them all via a great flood (http://history-world.org/sumerian_and_akkadian_myths.htm ). The gods hated human self-expression, freedom, and curiosity for knowledge, as in the biblical Adam’s case.
Hence, because of human sinfulness, atonement had to be made. So the burdensome and destructive salvation industry has continued all through human history, feeding off of human fear and misery. And it maintains a priesthood that lives well off this human misery, employing salvation myths to manipulate and control people. Priests claim that the great cosmic separation of humanity from the divine must be healed, the broken relationship must be restored and only they know how to mediate the demanded atonement and restoration. But there is not a shred of evidence anywhere in history that any such abandonment ever occurred except in the minds of power-seeking shamans and priests. It is all a massive system of human enslavement of the worst kind- mental, emotional, and spiritual slavery to inhumane mythology.
The salvation industry continues to reinforce in human consciousness the fallacious idea of something threatening and punitive that must be appeased. It is an industry that has resulted in an incalculable waste of human time, resources, and creative potential. You see this as people under fear and felt obligation, everywhere trudge off to temples and churches with their offerings, engaging often esoteric religious ritual, believing that if they don’t fulfill those obligations then they will suffer some misfortune. They are wasting time and resources that could be better spent developing themselves in other more beneficial ways. This waste was evident in a documentary I watched on the Quechua Indians of South America spending their meager resources on offerings that were made to saints. Entire days are spent in such activity.
I also saw it firsthand among the Manobo tribal groups of Mindanao. People offering scarce chickens and pigs to placate angry spirits instead of seeking proper medical help. And when those resources were exhausted, then often there was nothing left for a trip to a lowland hospital to save life.
All such salvation/sacrifice activity is engaged to solve a non-existent problem, a mythical problem that does not exist and has never existed- i.e. the need to appease some angry deity that threatens to punish you for your imperfections.
These primitive ideas of a threatening and retaliatory super monster persist and continue to cause damage even today. They persist because they resonate with deeply imprinted beliefs and emotions such as the feeling that we somehow deserve punishment because we have screwed up. Today, just as in the earliest mythology, it is claimed that “vengeful Gaia” (or “angry planet/Mother Earth, punitive Universe, payback karma”) is angry because people have again multiplied too much and have become too creative, expressive, and successful in technological society. See, for instance,
http://www.green-agenda.com/gaia.html and note the reference to Lovelock’s book “The Revenge of GAIA”.
See also http://reason.com/archives/2010/04/21/sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-ang
And http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2008/06/17/202790/lessons-from-an-angry-planet/?mobile=nc, noting this comment, “the tornados and floods battering the country (US) with almost unimaginable severity are the early tantrums of an angry planet”).
Nancy Pelosi added to this irrational nonsense when she claimed several years back (2020) that wildfires in the Western US were evidence that “Mother Earth is angry” and punishing people.
People trying to better their lives are now commonly condemned for indulging the sin of “greed” and thereby destroying nature by using natural resources. We then see the appeasement response in those who claim that salvation comes by obstructing, halting, and even reversing human economic development and growth (i.e. people must make the sacrifice of returning to the “morally superior” primitive or simple lifestyle) in order to placate the angry Gaia or angry planet. Just as in the ancient past, the obstruction of human progress is done out of the felt need to appease some angered and punitive reality. Many people advocating these views, and self-identifying as modern secularists/materialists, are actually holding to the core themes of primitive mythology at its worst.
Let me summarize this fear/appeasement/salvation process again as it has significantly undermined human freedom. It is a pattern that has been repeated endlessly throughout history. Someone first alarms people with a threatening scenario. They claim that the gods are angry and punishing humanity through natural world events, such as in the contemporary global warming alarmism narrative (natural world threats exaggerated to apocalyptic scale). They hysterically claim that the threat of catastrophe is “imminent”, setting end-of-days dates just years or decades in the future. This incites the most basic thing in human psychology- the fear of disaster and death.
The panic-mongers then propose a salvation scheme in the form of some sacrifice (e.g. in our day, abandon the good life in modern civilization, especially abandon the “evil” of too much energy use). The called-for sacrifice will placate the angry and threatening monster that has been presented to people. Add to the mix the call to tribalism- to engage a righteous battle against “evil enemies” that disagree with your apocalyptic narrative. Further add the demand to purge some threatening thing in order to “save the world”. The purging of a purported threat usually involves the inevitable violence of “coercive purification” as in Marxist and Nazi crusades.
Frightened people, with their survival impulse incited, will support the most irrational and most damaging salvation schemes and willingly give up their freedom in order to find relief from whatever has scared them. Stirring fear in such a manner is a direct assault on human freedom.
(H. L. Mencken, “In Defense of Women”: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary”.)
Non-Retaliation, or the Unconditional Impulse, Emerges
In the earliest human writing (Sumerian, 2500-2000 BCE) we see the emergence of another line of insight that was entirely opposite to the theme of retaliation or payback. In those early minds, still shaped by very animal-like thinking, with their monstrous threatening and punishing gods, the wonder of human consciousness, or the conscious human self, was inspiring a significant new advance. With their maturing consciousness, and its human impulses, those early people were struggling against their past and discovering in new ways what it meant to be human and to live as human. They were becoming more aware of themselves as human persons and were experiencing new humane emotions that inspired them to seek liberation from debasing animal drives and perceptions. That was the first stirrings of a stunning new surge in the grand adventure of humanity learning to conquer the animal in order to live as human.
People were awakening to the inhumanity of retaliation response, or payback, and becoming sensitive to how retaliation reduced the remarkable status of being human to pettiness with its engagement of endless cycles of violence and death. They were becoming aware of new human ideals and human ways of responding and relating to one another. They realized that they did not have to remain enslaved to endless cycles of retaliation and destruction of one another. They were feeling and experiencing the humanizing emotions of compassion, mercy, tolerance, and kindness. And that developing sense of humane response led to new practices such as forgiveness which was a supremely human response that broke the destructive cycles of revenge and violence. The unconditional treatment of imperfect others was a radically new insight and discovery that began to challenge the previously dominant culture of animal-like retaliation.
That was a unique new phase in the liberation of humanity from an enslaving animal past with its dehumanizing drives. There is no worse enslavement than slavery to the impulse to retaliate and punish or destroy others. Those instinctual responses have darkened human minds with hate and revenge throughout history. They have ruined relationships, communities, and significantly disrupted human progress. Look, for example, at the destruction to national infrastructure from war. That has set entire nations back for decades.
Discovering freedom from our animal drives is the great exodus out from animal existence toward a truly human existence. It is the grandest liberation movement that humanity has ever conceived and engaged, a liberation that takes place in the depths of human consciousness, emotion, motivation, and response. It is the real exodus to a promised land. The potential offered by unconditional relating to others, is the potential for liberation to an entirely new and higher plane of human existence. This new human mode of relating argues that no matter how badly others treat us, we can turn life toward something higher and better by treating them more humanely in our responses to their imperfections and offenses.
Non-retaliation is one element of what is more generally known as unconditional love. Unconditional encompasses the practice of unlimited forgiveness without first demanding that requirements be met or amends be made. It includes the expression of scandalously generous mercy toward those who are undeserving. And it refers to the universal inclusion of all persons as family, whether classified as good or bad people. Unconditional clarifies in a striking new way the real meaning of human ideals and practices. It elevates as never before the true meaning of the supreme human ideal of love.
Insert note: Unconditional exposes the petty nature of much tribally defined love- i.e. love that is limited to family, friends, or one’s ingroup, whether ethnic, religious, political/ideological, national, or other social groupings. Note this statement from Historical Jesus on the nature of unconditional as non-tribal love:
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Everyone finds it easy to love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Everyone can do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Most will lend to others, expecting to be repaid in full. But do something more heroic, more humane. (Live on a higher plane of human experience). Do not retaliate against your offenders/enemies with ‘eye for eye’ justice. Instead, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then you will be just like God, because God does not retaliate against God’s enemies. God does not mete out eye for eye justice. Instead, God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be unconditionally loving, just as your God is unconditionally loving”. (My paraphrase of Luke 6:32-36 or Matthew 5:38-48.)
The historically emerging human response of unconditional treatment of others also gets to the very core of human meaning and purpose. It answers all those great questions such as “Why something?”, “Why does this universe exist?”, and “What is the point/purpose of conscious human existence?”. It is simply the greatest insight in all history as to what it really means to be human. In the discovery and developing awareness of unconditional treatment of others, people were getting to the very essence of being truly human.
The developing response of non-retaliation also proved critical to such things as the development and growth of commerce. Early people chose to stop taking offense, retaliating, and destroying one another. Instead, they learned to cooperate in trade and that lifted societies toward a better overall state (e.g. Paul Seabright, “In the Company of Strangers”, Lawrence Keeley, “War Before Civilization: The myth of the Peaceful savage”,). That is known as “the moralizing influence of gentle commerce”. Other forms of good in human society flowed from that. Non-retaliation became central to human success and progress.
The response of non-retaliation and unconditional treatment of others is central to the improving trajectory and future of humanity. It is at the core of what it means to be truly human, and at the core of the ongoing endeavor to humanize all of life. It liberates people to entirely new heights of being human. It offers a fundamental solution to the major problem plaguing human existence- i.e. the endless cycles of violence and war that have been fueled by the retaliatory impulse. Non-retaliatory response, or the unconditional treatment of others, gets to the very root of the worst of human afflictions.
The Origins of Non-retaliation
We find one of the earliest statements of this maturing consciousness regarding what it means to be human in an early bit of Akkadian literature- the “Advice of an Akkadian Father to his son” (circa 2000 BCE). The Father says, “Do not return evil to your adversary; requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, maintain justice for your enemy, be friendly to your enemy” (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/2200akkad-father.asp). It is helpful to note here that what we find in the earliest writing we may also assume represents what was believed in the pre-literature/pre-history era.
A similar insight emerged around 1500-1300 BCE in the Egyptian Instructions of Anii. That material states, “Conquer malice in yourself…Do not speak rudely to a brawler…When you are attacked, hold yourself back…when your relations are friendly… the aggressor will desist…” (http://www.perankhgroup.com/ani_wisdom.htm).
The Notable Hebrew Breakthroughs
This same non-retaliation insight then emerges in other traditions across the world. For example, the Hebrew prophets (800-600 BCE) began to advocate an entirely new view of justice not as punishment (retaliation, revenge) but as liberation of the oppressed and mercy toward all. Bob Brinsmead says that in Latin/Western thinking, justice became associated with penalty, price, punishment, atonement, or payback. But his study of the Old Testament word for justice- sadak- found that it meant, to the contrary, fidelity to a relationship and had a restorative meaning related to liberation and mercy (personal email, Feb.9/13).
The Hebrew prophets had also began to offer an entirely new view of a God who was not interested in sacrifice or reparations atonement. They claimed that God did not want sacrifice but instead desired mercy (e.g. Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:7-8, Amos 5:21-24). There are other statements noted by Brinsmead: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart…” (Psalm 51: 11-17). “When I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:21, 22). “I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11). Brinsmead concludes, “So Paul’s message about the propitiation of God’s wrath by the blood sacrifice of Jesus as a payment for human sin is not the fulfillment of the message of the Old Testament prophets, but completely contrary to it” (personal email, Feb.18/2013).
In these striking claims the Old Testament prophets were confronting and challenging the greatest monster ever created in history- the threatening, retaliatory God, the punishing God. They were stating that traditional perceptions of deity were all wrong. Now if the story of humanity is about conquering monsters, as Campbell suggests, then the mythology of a retaliating, punishing deity is the biggest monster of all for people to conquer and overcome.
The Egyptians were also making similar discoveries as they humanized their views of deity, attributing kindness and mercy to their pharaoh gods: “At the high period of the Pyramid age a new comparatively humane, benevolent, fatherly quality began to be apparent in the character and behavior of the pharaohs…even the gods had become kind” (Joseph Campbell, “Oriental Mythology”, p.95).
This is how the process of humanizing gods works: People discover new more humane features about themselves and then begin to incorporate those features into their concepts of deity, they project human qualities onto their deities. They perceive ultimate reality in terms of how they perceive authentic humanity. An proper understanding of divinity begins with humanity (Campbell, Myths to Live By, p.93, 243-249). Good theology begins with understanding the best in humanity.
Brinsmead also notes that the Hebrew prophets said absolutely nothing about the Jewish Day of Atonement. The justice that they advocated for was freedom from all oppression, to break every yoke, and to let the oppressed go free. It was the Israelite priesthood that promoted the sacrificial system and Salvationism with its bondage to mediators that oppressed people with the dark theology of looming punishment and the demand to atone. The prophets, to the contrary, were offering an entirely new view of deity as unconditionally forgiving and loving.
It is difficult to state how radical a break this was with the historically dominant views of gods as threatening, punitive monsters seeking retribution against imperfect and fallible people. That had been the overwhelmingly prominent perspective throughout previous history. Retaliatory, punishing gods had terrorized people from the beginning. A reviewer in The American Journal of Theology, vol.13, No.4, Oct. 1909, p.605, “The Origin of Sacrifice”, states regarding a book titled ‘Semitic Magic, Its Origins and Development’ by R. Campbell Thompson, “The author appears to maintain that religious institutions have been molded by belief in evil spirits rather than by faith in good divinities. He directly asserts it of the rite which he calls atoning sacrifice”. He continues, noting the central religious belief that sickness was caused by sin; it was the result of people breaking taboos which offended the gods who then punished those people, hence, the need for atoning sacrifice to appease the threatening deities.
But contrary to those long dominant retaliatory punishment beliefs and responses, people were beginning to discover this new human ideal of non-retaliation or unconditional response toward others. As noted earlier, this new humane response included the following elements: Universal inclusion of all people as intimate family (no more tribal exclusion of outsiders or “enemies”), unlimited forgiveness of all offenses or wrongs, and unconditional generosity toward all. Non-retaliation, or unconditional response, means absolutely no conditions in our relationships with others; no pre-requisites are to be demanded, and no payment/punishment exacted for failures or mistakes. As dictionaries define the word unconditional- i.e. “Not subject to any conditions, absolutely no conditions. None”.
Other traditions offered similar insights on the emerging non-retaliatory response. In Buddhist literature we find the following statements: “Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world: through non-hatred alone they cease…Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth…Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth…Nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred…” (Dhammapada 3-5, 223-234, 197, Majjhima Nikaya 129, written about 250 BCE, though dating to the time of the Buddha around 500 BCE, see for instance such sources as http://www.unification.net/ws/theme144.htm).
Confucius taught his followers to propose justice and not revenge or anger (Analects 14.36, ca. 450-250 BCE). The Taoists advocated being kind to the unkind (Tao Te Ching 49, 300 BCE). In Jainism it was said, “Man should subvert anger by forgiveness, subdue pride by modesty, overcome hypocrisy with simplicity” (Samanasuttam 136). Hindus taught that a superior person “does not render evil for evil…but will ever exercise compassion even towards those who enjoy injuring others or those of cruel deeds” (Ramaya, Yuddha Kanda 115, around 500-400 BCE). Socrates (470-400 BCE) urged, “We ought not to retaliate or render evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him”. And so on.
Interestingly, Hinduism began when the people of North India, around the time of the Buddha (roughly 500 BCE), grew disillusioned with the sacrificial system that they viewed as wasteful and cruel (Karen Armstrong, “Buddha”, p.23). They no longer believed that salvation was through animal blood sacrifice and began to seek answers in a new tradition that focused on human potential (p.25). As people continued to understand more humane ways of responding and relating, they then rejected sacrifice, payback, and appeasement thinking and practices.
The Hindus also rejected the priestly elites, according to Armstrong. They believed that they could discover God for themselves without a system of sacrifice or a mediating priesthood (p.26).
The new humane understanding and feelings were emerging widely across the cultures of the world.
The Stunning Breakthrough in the Historical Jesus Tradition
That pre-CE era movement of liberation from animal retaliation or payback broke through to a new level of coherence and clarity in the teaching of the Historical Jesus who is someone entirely different from the Christian “Jesus Christ”. I refer readers to the research of the Jesus Seminar for some basic principles on how to detect what the historical person actually taught as contrasted with the many statements in the New Testament gospels that are attributed to Jesus but which present contradictory teaching to his core message in the “Q Wisdom Sayings” gospel. For instance, in Matthew 5 Jesus is presented as teaching that we are to “love our enemies”, a supreme statement of love. Then a few chapters later (Matthew 11) we find Matthew claiming that Jesus damned people to hell (a supreme statement of hatred) for not accepting his miracles, for not agreeing with his message (i.e. “cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”). This is an irreconcilable contradiction in basic teaching and must be rejected as not authentic teaching from the historical person who had clearly advocated for love of enemies. Unfortunately, blind devotion to the sacred prohibits people from seeing such contradictions in their holy books.
Using Jesus Seminar principles of interpretation, and more notably “Q Wisdom Sayings” gospel teaching, nothing in Jesus’ teaching comprises a more consistent core set of themes than this theme of unconditional treatment of others. This is the new “kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke about; the new mode of truly human existence.
The historical Jesus presented the wonder of unconditional thinking and existence in a “thematically coherent” set of sayings and stories. For instance, in Matthew 5:38 he set a context first by summing up the old retaliatory/punitive view of justice as “eye for eye” response or justice. This sums up past views of retaliatory or retributive response as taught in the Old Testament and all through primitive mythology- i.e. reward for good, punishment for wrong. Tit for tat. Getting even, righting wrongs, in terms of a strict standard of fair payback.
He then countered that old view entirely by arguing that we should not retaliate against offenders, we should not respond in kind or in like manner, returning evil for evil. If we are mistreated or offended, we should respond instead with over-the-top forgiveness, mercy, kindness, and generosity. We should not engage in the old payback response of only loving friends but hating enemies. We should love enemies also.
Once again, my paraphrase of the central message of Jesus:
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Everyone finds it easy to love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Everyone can do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Most will lend to others, expecting to be repaid in full. But do something more heroic, more humane. (Live on a higher plane of human experience). Do not retaliate against your offenders/enemies with ‘eye for eye’ justice. Instead, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then you will be just like God, because God does not retaliate against God’s enemies. God does not mete out eye for eye justice. Instead, God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be unconditionally loving, just as your God is unconditionally loving”. (My paraphrase of Luke 6:32-36 or Matthew 5:38-48.)
There is nothing authentically human in just loving those who love us. That is limited tribal love. Even animals do that. Genuine human response goes much further and loves enemies also. It is non-discriminatory, authentically inclusive, and unconditional in its treatment of all people. Unconditional is the truly authentic nature of love.
If we do this- not retaliating, not engaging in payback response- then Jesus says that we will be just like God who does not retaliate against bad people, but, instead, is forgiving, inclusive, and generous to all alike. Take a minute and let the radical, mind-revolutionizing nature of this statement permeate your consciousness. God, according to Jesus, exhibits unconditional love toward all by giving good things (sun and rain) to both good and evil people. God does not engage in the old payback response of eye for eye treatment of people (rewarding only the good but punishing the evil). God does not exclude the bad. God has no favorites, and there are no insiders/outsiders with God. There is no threat and no punishment with a God that is Unconditional Love. Going even further than the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus was presenting a stunning, entirely new view of deity that countered the previous historical understanding of gods as threatening, punitive entities. That was a major historical shift or transformation of human perspective.
That statement of Jesus- if you do this then you will be like God- also plays on the primal impulse in all people to replicate in their lives and societies what they believe to be the divine model; to fulfill in their lives what they believe to be the divine purpose for their lives. The “behavior based on similar belief” relationship, or ethic based on similar theological ideal.
There are other statements by the historical Jesus that further affirm there is only unconditional goodness behind life and no threatening or punitive reality. Note, for instance, his statements that God clothes the grass and feeds the worthless birds that no one pays any attention to. Limitless generosity shown to all life alike, no matter how insignificant.
Researchers state that some of the other accounts in the gospels did not originate with the historical Jesus. But regardless of who contributed those accounts, they express the same spirit as the core teaching of Jesus on a non-retaliatory God and non-retaliatory response toward others. For instance, there is the story of the man born blind in John 9. The writer contradicted conventional perspectives on justice by stating that the sickness was not a punishment for sin. As noted earlier, primitive thought had understood that any sickness or deformity was a punishment from the gods for sin. That belief had caused endless misery to unfortunate people afflicted by disease and deformity. It added an unnecessary psychic burden of guilt and shame to already unbearable physical suffering.
It is one of the cruelest perceptions to have ever cursed human consciousness- that a punishing deity retaliates against human imperfection and failure by sending sickness and misfortune. Note the contemporary persistence of this belief in comment of a Japanese woman following the tsunami of 2011. She asked, “Is God punishing us because we are enjoying life too much?”.
Again, this belief promotes a burdening sense of sinfulness and obligation to appease or atone, to slavishly submit to salvation/sacrifice schemes and mediating priesthoods. It is oppressive enslavement and wasteful to boot. But Jesus taught very clearly that there was no punitive deity that demanded appeasement. He tackled the ancient perception of a threatening, punishing reality behind life and denied that any such monster existed. He taught the very opposite, and that was considered blasphemy by his contemporaries.
We find the same core theme of unconditional treatment of others in Jesus’ short stories or parables. He spoke, for instance, of a Prodigal or Wasteful Son (Luke 15) who was welcomed home, forgiven, and treated generously by his father who refused the son’s offer of repentance or atonement. The father just wanted to celebrate without any requirement to make amends or demanding payback first for the wrong done by the son.
It is important to note that these stories also include other characters who represent conventional atonement or punitive justice attitudes. The other characters express the resistant stance of many good people toward this radical new teaching on unconditional response toward offenders. Note in this regard that the older brother in the Prodigal parable is indignant that the father is too generous and unconditional toward the wasteful son. The older brother believes in conventional justice where good is rewarded and wrong is punished. He represents many good, moral religious people who demand that traditional justice be upheld and fulfilled. Such people argue that there must be some form of retribution, some form of related response according to the deed done, whether good or bad (i.e. reward for good, punishment for wrong).
But the generous, unconditionally forgiving father would have none of that conventional justice approach. He believed in justice as liberation, and scandalous generosity toward all, whether good or bad. He illustrated the new human response of unconditional treatment of all persons no matter what they had done. Whereas the older brother exhibited the harsh and petty nature of payback thinking and response. His sense of righteous morality and payback justice was offended, but his morality was really nothing more than the pettiness and cruelty of primitive retaliatory thinking. It was more animal-like than truly human. Such stories show how deeply ingrained that thinking is in many people. Unconditional generosity and mercy offends good moral people demanding conventional forms of justice.
The story of the vineyard owner and workers makes a similar point (Matthew 20). At the end of the day, all the workers were given the same payment regardless of the hours worked. The workers who started at the beginning of the day were not cheated. They received the wages that they had agreed to work for. But the late starters who arrived at the end of the day, for whatever reason, also had families to feed. And the owner gave them the same as the early starters who then reacted that such generosity was offensive and they protested to the owner. The owner was not acting according to conventional views of just or “fair” treatment of people. He was too generous and unconditional, according to the early starters. And his generosity pissed them off. They lived according to the conventional sense of fairness as strict reward or punishment according to actions/work done. They were good, moral people with a strong sense of justice as proper payback. They did not understand the new ethic of unconditional treatment of undeserving people.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) also speaks to unconditional treatment of others. The Samaritan assists a wounded enemy, exhibiting no sense of tribal exclusion or socially required treatment (i.e. do not help an enemy). He responded with primary concern for the wounded man’s welfare as a fellow member of the human family.
In this new body of teaching by the historical Jesus we see millennia of primitive thought and behavior being completely overturned. Jesus was arguing for an entirely new type of authentic human response. And he stated very clearly that, contrary to all past historical teaching on deity, that was what God was actually like. Let me state his teaching as plainly as possible in street-level theological terms. God is not threatening or punitive. God does not retaliate against human failure or wrongdoing. God does not punish anyone. God does not engage payback response toward anyone. And God does not exclude anyone. The scandalous generosity of a God that is love is exhibited toward all alike, both good and bad. Most previous human perspective on the nature of Ultimate Reality/deity was wrong, according to the historical Jesus.
That was such an entirely new understanding of Deity or God that it is hard for us to get the full impact that his teaching had on the people of his day. The greatest monster in history- i.e. the threatening, punishing God of all previous mythology and religion- was being confronted directly, rejected as a false reality, and replaced by a stunningly new understanding of deity. The old monster was being decapitated, conquered, and slain. The great payback God of religion, the greatest bogeyman ever created, with his complex of added features to terrify- i.e. holiness, wrath, judgment, hell, violent blood sacrifice to appease- that was all being discounted entirely as false mythology and thrown out as unworthy of truly human understanding and existence.
God was being revealed as a stunningly transcendent reality of unconditional love. At the very core of reality, the creating and sustaining Consciousness was being presented as an inexpressibly wondrous unconditional goodness, generosity, and mercy. The implications of this were mind-blowing. It meant the end and abolishment of all sacrifice and all salvation thinking and practice. A further consequence of this included the end of all priest-craft, priesthoods, and religion. The liberating new theology of Jesus lifted a great burden off of humanity with the associated guilt, shame, despair, and fear that has always accompanied ideas of human sinfulness and myths of gods vengefully punishing that sin.
The nature of this mind-revolution was breathtaking. It was an overturning of the very core of human narratives, a reshaping of humanity’s highest ideal and authority- the image of deity.
Follow the obvious conclusions for yourself. Since the beginning, most religion and Salvationism had been built on myths of punishing, retaliating deities. That reality of monster gods, according to Jesus, did not exist and had never existed. Hence, all the subsequent salvation theology and practice was a response to a problem that had never existed in the first place- i.e. meeting atonement conditions to placate angry gods in order to be forgiven.
God had never been angry with people for their animal origins, their subsequent imperfection, and their gradual historical development toward something more human. And God had never abandoned humanity at some mythical fall that ruined an original paradise. There had never been any separation that needed to be healed or restored. God had never threatened to punish anyone. It was all just bad mythology to scare people, and shaman/priests had from the very beginning used that mythology to manipulate and dominate populations with fear (again, see John Pfeiffer’s “Explosion: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Art and Religion” on the origin of religion as an institution to terrorize and thereby control people).
In response, we should radically revise our perceptions of deity or ultimate reality. The ultimate reality behind all was revealed by Jesus to be unconditional love. That had always been the true nature and character of God. And now, simply stated, because there is no threatening, punitive God, then there is no need for salvation or any form of sacrifice. This means the end and abolition of religion as we have known it over past millennia.
Christianity Retreats and Reverts To Retaliatory Theology and Related Conditions
Paul, with a stunning lack of insight into the nature of authentic humanity, rejected the non-retaliatory God of Jesus, and his related unconditional message, and then retreated back to the retaliatory theology that had dominated all past religious deities. Paul gave us the Christianity of his retaliatory, highly conditional Christ myth.
In the development of Paul’s Gentile Christianity, the historical battle between retaliation and non-retaliation reached a new climax of profound contrast and opposition. In direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching, Paul developed Christianity as a religion of supreme retaliation and ultimate conditions. Christianity then became history’s ultimate expression of the themes of retaliatory threat, demanded atonement, and punishment. It was all a stunning retreat from the greatest liberation movement in history that was advocated by Jesus.
Paul mimics Jesus’ “behavior/belief” pattern in order to contradict him.
Note again Jesus’ central statement that God was a non-retaliatory, unconditional reality. He said, “There must be no more eye for eye justice. Instead, love your enemies because God does. How so? God gives sun and rain to both good and bad people alike. Without discrimination or exclusion.” Jesus used the ancient “behavior based on similar belief” relationship to make his point. Do this because God is like this.
Paul then (my view) intentionally and directly confronted that central theme of Jesus to contradict it outright. In Romans 12:17-20 he used the same “behavior based on belief” relationship to reject the main breakthrough insight of Jesus (God was non-retaliatory) and to re-establish the exact opposite theology of a supremely retaliatory God. Paul said, “Do not retaliate against your offenders but hold your lust for vengeance in abeyance because… God will retaliate for you.” He then quoted an Old Testament passage to make his point- “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the Lord”.
And what appeared, at first glance, to be Paul’s related non-retaliatory ethic, was actually retaliatory in intent. Paul urged non-retaliation in order to “heap coals of fire on one’s enemies”, that is, assure their judgment and punishment by God, to ensure that God would enact ultimate retaliation against them.
Further contrary to Jesus, Paul re-established highly conditional salvation as central to his gospel. That contradicted the central unconditional theme of Jesus- i.e. that God did not demand sacrifice as necessary for atonement, forgiveness, and acceptance.
In this regard Christianity has been like all religion that makes divine forgiveness and love conditional. But no religion had taken conditional salvation to the heights that Paul’s Christianity did by creating a theology of the greatest condition ever conceived- i.e. that of the demand for an infinitely costly payment in the death of a cosmic Savior for all humanity. Previous religions had insisted on varied animal sacrifices to appease offended gods, including human and even child sacrifices. But Christianity took this thinking to new heights by arguing that because the sin of humanity was an infinite offense against an infinitely holy God so the payment must be equally infinite. According to Brinsmead, church theologians then created the theology of not just human sacrifice but of the sacrifice of a “God-man” (a member of the Godhead or Trinity). Only an infinitely valuable sacrifice could meet the infinite demand for making amends to an infinitely offended and retaliatory Deity. That took conditional salvation religion and retaliatory thinking to previously unimaginable heights.
Paul’s Christianity came down decidedly against the new liberation that Jesus was trying to promote, the liberation into non-retaliatory, unconditional thinking and living in the new kingdom of God as an existence of truly human belief and relating. Christianity retreated, instead, into the age-old enslavement to retaliatory, conditional thinking and existence. The historical struggle between retaliation and non-retaliation came to a unique climax in the Jesus/Paul contradiction. In the historical Jesus we found a new summit had been reached in the understanding and expression of what truly human existence could be- i.e. non-retaliatory, unconditional response and relating. His message clearly advocated for no conditions, no requirements to be met in order to receive full forgiveness, unconditional inclusion, and unlimited generosity.
In pronounced contrast, with Paul’s Christianity we got a system of supreme retaliation, supreme conditions, a return to the old God of anger and punishment and demands for sacrifice/payment. Unfortunately for Western societies, Christian retaliatory theology has reinforced the related felt need for retaliatory, punitive justice in society as well. Note in this regard the Christian support for the death penalty in the US, and record-breaking rates of imprisonment for offenders, even non-violent ones.
How did this happen? How did Christianity get it all so wrong? Because the man whose thinking and theology became Christianity- the apostle Paul- did not pay attention to what Jesus actually said or taught. Paul ignored entirely the non-retaliatory, unconditional teaching of Jesus and chose to create, instead, a new theology about Jesus (ignoring the message of the man to focus on a message about the man). Paul, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, chose a gospel that was shaped through and through by a primitive retaliation and conditional salvation perspective. Paul got Jesus backwards, upside down, and absolutely opposite from what he had actually taught.
Paul, and other followers of Jesus, were like the older brother in the Prodigal parable. With their conventional (at their time) sense of righteousness, morality, and justice as retaliatory punishment, they could not just ignore wrong with the response of full and free forgiveness that Jesus had advocated. No. All wrong must first be punished, and fully atoned for, before forgiveness and salvation could be offered. Amends had to be made first. Debt had to be paid as a prerequisite condition. Traditional holiness demanded that all such conditions be met first.
They just could not comprehend, nor accept, the scandalously unconditional love that Jesus had advocated.
Paul argued that humanity had wilfully fallen from original perfection and that all people had become sinful and therefore all deserved punishment and damnation. Consequently, a great sacrifice/payment had to be made to atone for what was believed to be wilful human sinfulness against a supremely retaliatory God. The sacrifice of a God-man was necessary to placate an offended God that intended to enact hell-scale retribution on all humanity.
Note some further statements of the retaliation theme in Paul’s letters, starting with his central book on Christian belief or doctrine, Romans: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men (Rom.1:18)… You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will give to each person according to what he has done…. to those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress” (2:5-8).
Paul then presents the solution to avoid the damnation threatened by an angry God, “The redemption that came by Jesus Christ. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (3:25). The condition for escaping the wrath of God is “faith in the blood sacrifice of Jesus”. The condition for escaping wrath is repeated elsewhere throughout Romans. “If you confess with your mouth…and believe in your heart…you will be saved” (10:9).
Other statements affirm Paul’s retaliatory theology, “God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you…He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel…They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
The book of Hebrews continues this theme of retaliation and the condition of atonement by blood sacrifice. “Every violation and disobedience received its just punishment…” (2:2). For those who do not believe, “I declared on oath in my anger, they shall never enter my rest..” (3:11). “It is mine to avenge. I will repay” (10:30). The condition to avoid this anger, “He sacrificed for their sins…when he offered himself…” (7:27). And 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”.
The theme of blood sacrifice to appease a threatening God continues throughout the New Testament and reaches a terrorizing culmination in the book of Revelation. After noting again the condition of violent, bloody sacrifice to appease angry deity (“He has freed us from our sins by his blood”, 1:5) the writer of Revelation then threatens those who refuse to believe the blood sacrifice religion of Paul. He threatens them with an endless roasting on the big barbie down under. The author of Revelation means burning in the “lake of fire”, forever (20:11-15). Ultimate and eternal payback, punishment, retaliation. In Revelation the peaceful, forgive-without-limit, cheek-turning, love-your-enemies Jesus is reframed as the angry, sword-sticking-out-of-mouth, unforgiving, fiery eyes, hate-your-enemies Christ. A true Christian monster.
Where Jesus had taught that no payment was necessary before forgiveness would be offered, Paul and other New Testament writers claimed that all debt must be paid in full before God would forgive. Paul denied completely what Jesus had taught. He went against Jesus’ message entirely. He denied and buried the most humanizing insight in all history, the discovery of the greatest human ideal ever conceived- i.e. nonretaliatory, unconditional deity. Paul then successfully aborted the grandest human liberation movement of all- a liberation movement that Jesus had sought to take to new heights of humane understanding, relating, and existence. And yet, confoundingly, Christianity claims to be the religion of Jesus. Well, where then is Jesus’ central message of an unconditional God that urges the unconditional treatment of others? Christianity opted instead for the contrary message of Paul that preaches supreme conditions.
It has been noted by others that Paul was a domineering man who tolerated no opposition and jealously fought to have his theology established as the only true Christian theology (see, for example, Charles Freeman’s “The Closing of the Western Mind”, p.109-114). James Tabor (“Paul and Jesus”) has summed up well Paul’s domination in stating that Paul wrote most of the New Testament and the other books that were included all support his viewpoint (e.g. the gospels and Acts). Christianity is therefore Paul’s Christianity. Paul’s view of Jesus is the one that the world has received. And there is nothing of true unconditional in Paul or his Christianity. We received Paul’s “Christ”-ianity not the “Jesus”-ianity of the original historical person.
Fortunately, the diamond of Jesus’ non-retaliatory, unconditional teaching is still visible here and there in the New Testament even though it has been almost buried by the dunghill of Paul’s retaliatory, conditional theology of the New Testament (Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy’s point). This leads some of us to conclude that the greatest threat to Christianity is not found among its many outside opponents, whether from atheism or other religions. The greatest threat to Christianity is the historical Jesus and taking his unconditional message seriously.
Get a grip on the real nature and full scale of what Paul did. With his retaliatory, highly conditional Christ myth, he rejected and buried the single most profound insight in all history- i.e. that God was a “non-retaliatory, no conditions love” reality. And Paul thereby short-circuited, derailed, and abandoned the greatest liberation movement in all history- the liberation of human minds and spirits from the long history of consciousness-darkening and life-deforming threat theology.
Deity Meeting A Lower Standard Than Humanity
Some Christians today use the term unconditional love to describe their God and what they believe they are obligated to exhibit in their lives. But the “unconditional” that they refer to is often an oxymoronic and irreconcilable mixing of entirely opposite things. Consequently, they come up with some fantastical ‘cognitive dissonance’ explanations when presenting what they call “God’s unconditional love through the sacrifice of Jesus”, seemingly unaware of the contradictory nature of what they are stating (see for example, http://www.biblicaltheology.com/rom/rom_12_13.html noting the comment, “because love without hypocrisy loves as God loves: unconditionally… By so doing we leave the judgment and vengeance entirely up to the Lord”; also http://www.commontruth.com/UnconditionalLove.html. Others just give up entirely on defending unconditional as part of Christian theology- http://withchrist.org/unconditional.htm or http://preservedwords.com/uncond-pv.htm ).
Others in the Christian tradition continue to engage and wrestle with this theme of unconditional. They sense something of the spirit of this ideal in what Jesus taught but they present it as noted above- “We must forgive unconditionally just as Jesus taught, so we must then let God repay as payback is a divine responsibility”. In this manner they try to maintain both the theme of unconditional, which cannot be denied in Jesus’ teaching, and yet also affirm the retaliatory, conditional theology that is the larger context of their belief system (i.e. that God will exact revenge). That is a profoundly contradictory merging of irreconcilable opposites, but it is the best that they can come up with given the starkly opposing realities that they are trying to hold in tension.
That contradictory Christian mish-mash is the result of holding a felt obligation to the immutable sacred that they have inherited (a holy God who must punish sin) and then trying to read the unconditional Jesus through this retaliatory, conditional lens. The outcome is that it only distorts the humane ideal that Jesus was advocating. The larger conditional context that they are maintaining woefully distorts the actual meaning of unconditional.
When pressed on this issue of genuine unconditional response, Christian true believers will argue that God cannot just forgive sin. God is holy, they claim, and must first punish all sin before he can forgive. Holiness takes precedence over unconditional love. Therefore, a holy and just God rightly demands that any debt must first be paid in full before he can forgive or accept anyone. A sacrifice must first be made, punishment fully meted out, before mercy can be shown (in direct contradiction to the Jewish prophet’s claims that God wanted no sacrifice but only mercy). Consequently, unconditional (absolutely no conditions) is distorted beyond recognition.
In response, we need to challenge that old theology by asking a simple question- Why can’t God just exercise authentic forgiveness as Jesus taught. Why can’t God just be unconditionally merciful and generous without first demanding payment? We imperfect people are urged to act like this- to love and forgive with no pre-conditions being met first. We are told to just forgive others for their offenses, irregardless of what they do or don’t do. Why can’t God love others unconditionally, just as we are told to love unconditionally?
Once again, remember how Jesus stated this unconditional theme in his core message, where he affirmed that God was actually like this- i.e. not expecting payment or that pre-conditions be met, not expecting love in return, but loving all unconditionally:
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Everyone finds it easy to love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Everyone can do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Most will lend to others, expecting to be repaid in full. But do something more heroic, more humane. (Live on a higher plane of human experience). Do not retaliate against your offenders/enemies with ‘eye for eye’ justice. Instead, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then you will be just like God, because God does not retaliate against God’s enemies. God does not mete out eye for eye justice. Instead, God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be unconditionally loving, just as your God is unconditionally loving”. (Luke 6:32-36, or Matthew 5:38-48.)
I ask again- Why is the God of Christianity held to a lower standard of behavior than we are? Is not God supposed to be something better, something more humane than we are? Why then are we held to a higher standard of human response and relating than the Christian God is? As Brinsmead says, a God who demands full payment before he forgives is a God who knows nothing of genuine forgiveness. Where the debt is paid in full, then no authentic forgiveness is required.
What about the teaching in such places as 1 Corinthians 13? It states that authentic love “keeps no record of wrongs”. That sounds like the unconditional theme of Jesus. And isn’t God authentic love? Why then hold the contradiction of claiming that God must keep record of all wrongs and punish all sin? The entire salvation and sacrifice industry is built on remembering all the faults of imperfect people and demanding full atonement for them. Again, if ordinary people are held to a new humane standard of unconditional love then it is valid to ask why a supposedly supremely humane God is not held to the same standard? Edward Schillebeeckx has correctly stated, “God is more human (more humane) than any human being” (“The Praxis of the Reign of God”, Mary Hilkert, p.56). Why then these silly myths of a God maintaining a lower standard of distinctly subhuman behavior by demanding conditions be met before he will forgive, accept, or love? God is either Unconditional Love (absolutely no conditions), or not. If God is not authentically unconditional love, then you cannot define that conditional reality, as Christians do, with the term unconditional.
Watch The Context
Retaliatory, conditional thinking has missed entirely the real meaning of ideals such as forgiveness. As noted above, when you try to embed human ideals in a retaliatory, conditional context (e.g. unconditional love in a Christian conditional salvation context) you distort the real meaning of these human ideals. They are no longer authentically unconditional. This is the problem with all historical religion which is essentially conditional at core. Note in this regard that many religious believers have tried to humanize their gods over history, recognizing that the barbaric gods of the past are too primitive for more humane modern minds. In response, they have learned to emphasize the more humane features in their gods such as love and mercy. But, at the same time, they also feel the obligation to maintain the old features that have to do with retaliation and punishment. For instance, as noted above, many religious people will claim that holiness demands punishment. Holiness in deity takes precedence over mercy or love. Forgiveness and love are then dependent on first making some payment or sacrifice. Well, forgiveness is then rendered meaningless. When human ideals are couched in a retaliatory, conditional context (an inhuman context) they are then rendered something entirely different from the unconditional that should define them.
Ignoring the core message of Jesus, Christianity has continued to sacralise archaic retaliatory, conditional thinking. And the Christian God has become an even more intense version of the retaliatory, conditional perspective, with his dominant qualities such as infinite holiness demanding infinite payment. The Christian God has become an even greater retaliating monster than other historical deities. And Hell in Christian theology has become the ultimate statement or expression of the hateful, inhuman response of retaliation toward human imperfection. Again, all to frighten people into the vast salvation/sacrifice industry that saps human time and resources, and hinders human progress.
The sum of the matter is that Christianity got Jesus all wrong and it got God all wrong. God is indeed unconditional love just as Jesus taught. And unconditional love to incomprehensible and inexpressible levels beyond all human imagination (better than the best that we can imagine). With a God that is authentic love, no conditions love, there is no threat, no condemnation or judgment, no punishment, no conditions to meet for acceptance, absolutely nothing to fear. Let me state as plainly as possible the central point that the historical Jesus was trying to make. Every human being is fully and equally included. All are fully forgiven, and all receive the full generosity of God. All are safe no matter what they believe or don’t believe. There is no threatening monster behind life to fear or dread. There is only Unconditional Love at the very core of all reality and life. There are no conditions to meet to be included in the love and generosity of this Ultimate Reality. No one has ever been separated in any manner from this Unconditional Love.
And while you are busy conquering the old monster-the old punishing God- set your sight also on bringing down the second greatest monster of all- death. Over human history, death has been made an even worse terror to people because it has been defined and explained in terms of threatening religious belief and myth. Shaman and priests have long told people that death was a punishment from God for sin, and more punishment would follow after death. Cheer up, they said, the worst is yet to come. Such mythology intensifies natural human fear of death, it intensifies the sting of death. Death then becomes a terrifying monster for humanity to face and resolve.
I know a lady who was reduced to despair and crying when a relative of hers died, a relative who refused to meet the Christian condition of “accepting Jesus” in order to “be saved”. The despairing lady subsequently believed that her relative had gone to hell. That cruel nonsense adds further psychic misery to already unacceptable human suffering. Whereas the recognition that there is unconditional love at the heart of reality dispels the enslaving fear of death or life after death. Unconditional does indeed take the sting out of death. Death can then be seen as the toothless monster that it really is. We should not hesitate to laugh in the face of such a grotesquely exaggerated monster.
Unconditional at the center of human narratives offers liberation like nothing else in all history, and especially liberating is the realization that there is no threatening, punishing reality behind life. This gets to the deepest roots of primal human fears, anxieties, concerns, despair, and depression. In this regard, unconditional is utterly limitless in its liberating potential for human minds and spirits. It goes to the root of darkness in human consciousness, darkness long promoted by religious traditions and their myths of looming divine retaliation.
Acknowledging unconditional love at the very core of all reality breaks the grip of religious fear by overturning perceptions of threat theology and the need to placate that with sacrifice. Real liberation is not just social but more essentially the deeper liberation of mind, thought, perception, feeling, and spirit. We can be physically free but still enslaved to the worst ideas- residuals from a primitive past. Unconditional thinking therefore takes freedom to the very heart of what really enslaves humanity and this positively impacts human creative potential in profound ways. It liberates mind and emotions and spirit from a long history of guilt and shame over being imperfectly human, and the threat theology associated with that.
And unconditional points us toward the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe and life. As some have suggested, the main point of human existence is to learn something about love. Well, the new definition of love as unconditional, takes that formerly high human ideal to new heights of clarity and humanity.
The insight into unconditional love as the supreme human ideal and the true nature of ultimate reality offers profound potential to reshape human behavioral response and society. It liberates as nothing else can ever do from the debasing and dehumanizing features of animal existence with its conditional exclusion (small band, tribal loyalty), domination, and retaliation, and the destructive consequences of these behaviors in human society.
Living An Unconditional Life
Naturally, questions arise as to how to express the ideal of unconditional love in daily life. I once brought up this idea of unconditional treatment of others in a discussion group and someone countered, “Oh, so you’re saying that we should let psychopaths go free?” Well, no. Absolutely not. No such thing is ever being suggested. Any common sense understanding of love will recognize the fundamental and priority responsibility of love to protect innocent people from harm. This means that people who cannot or will not control their worst impulses to harm others need to be restrained (locked up and in some cases- i.e. psychopathy- the key thrown away). It may even mean pro-active force to prevent such things as terrorism. We remember the common sense that was expressed by the pacifist preacher who said, “If someone attacks me and my family, I will beat him over the head with a 2by4 and when he is lying on the ground unconscious then I will sit down and discuss my pacifist principles with him”.
But, more seriously, any such protective restraint should be done with the intent to treat offenders humanely, with their welfare in mind (http:www.unification.net/ws/theme144.htm). This is a call for conventional views of justice to be continually re-evaluated and reformulated in terms of necessary restraint but also in terms of the ongoing responsibility to engage restorative justice approaches as desirable humane ideals and practises. And we ought to be careful that when presenting such common sense qualifiers- i.e. the forcible restraint of violent people- that we do not diminish the full impact of the ideal of unconditional treatment of all others. As some argue, any qualifiers are overturning unconditional with conditions. I would respond that holding unconditional as an ideal, as a guide to attitudes and intentions, does promote authentically unconditional treatment of others by orienting us to the humane impulses of inclusivity (viewing all as family), respect toward others as equals, and to authentically unconditional love toward others.
Further on living the unconditional life, how do we judge and assign culpability in any failing person? For example, decades ago a teenage boy in the US was condemned to death for a brutal rape and murder of a woman. But during his trial it came to light that he had been brutalized from before birth. His father, suspicious that his mother may have cheated, had beat her pregnant stomach. After the boy was born, he was thrown against walls for crying, and beaten repeatedly. He knew only hate and violence all through his young life. And if the condition of psychopathy is involved in such cases, researchers suggest there may even be a genetic factor. These people may be born with defective brains. They still need ongoing restraint and imprisonment in order to protect others, but surely they should also be shown mercy for things that have happened to them that were beyond their control. So the argument is not about setting people free that cannot control their own base impulses but for treating them humanely and showing mercy to even the worst offenders (e.g. abolishing the death penalty).
Further, some studies have shown that exacting revenge through our retaliatory justice systems brings no ultimate or final closure to victims (e.g. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/06/revenge.aspx ). We also remember that forgiveness does not necessarily mean that victims are responsible to personally like offenders in order to properly forgive them (i.e. feeling mushy, fuzzy, or warm toward offenders). Others argue that forgiveness is more about personal liberation from negative emotions- hatred, bitterness- regardless of any contact or relationship with offenders. And by way of caution here- normal human sensitivity will respect the overwhelming trauma caused to victims by the unrestrained and intentionally cruel violence of some offenders. Sensitivity will understand that each person approaches these human ideals in different ways, from differing experiences, and at their own chosen pace. Any severely traumatized human being deserves the utmost respect in regard to how they may wrestle with these ideals, or choose not to engage them. So while we can argue that unconditional treatment of all others is a profoundly liberating approach, different people will embrace such things as they feel able. The trauma of some people, however, does not mean that unconditional treatment of others should be dismissed as unrealistic, impractical, or unworkable. Such dismissal would miss the liberating potential of this ideal for most people.
Others argue that if there is no threat of punishment in society then there is nothing to restrain people from wrong behavior. Anarchy and chaos will break out as people devolve to animal-like existence, according to “slippery sliding slope” theory. But the discipline of psychology has shown that most people respond better to positive affirmation than to threat and fear. The Australian Psychological Society presented a paper entitled “Punishment and Behavior Change” (http://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/punishment_position_paper.pdf) which argued “that recent trends towards increased reliance on punishment as a primary response to crime” did not work as expected. For example, punitive parenting approaches have been linked to higher levels of aggression in children, the paper claimed. And those punitive approaches did not rehabilitate and deter criminal offenders. They don’t teach “alternative acceptable behaviors”. The paper recommended approaches that do such things as explain other people’s perspectives and feelings, promoting empathy and other more positive alternatives.
Also, we are responsible to teach children the natural consequences to all sorts of behaviors. Illustration: One man suggested there was value in the driver’s point system for curtailing his daughter’s more aggressive approach to getting to destinations. She was “inspired” by her mounting points to slow down and follow traffic speed limits.
Others have noted, in regard to the debt forgiveness statements of Jesus, the obligation of love to care for others. We affirm this in the responsibility to improve our own situations in order to properly care for our families. And if someone runs a business operation then they are not just responsible to care for their own family but also to ensure that their business continues to operate so that employees may also care for their families. In such situations debts owed to the business must be paid and we have a legal system to ensure that debts are paid. We do not abandon common sense in the pursuit of human ideals like unconditional.
And unconditional is not an argument against restitution. That is a common sense and entirely humane responsibility of any offender. It is up to the victim whether to freely choose to engage unconditional response toward offenders, or not.
Contemporary psychology (and theology) further offers another insight that is helpful to consider in regard to our struggle to overcome our animal past and to live as human. Psychology states that we are not our inherited animal brain (e.g. Jeffrey Schwartz, “You Are Not Your Brain”). Though we still struggle against the residual influence of the animal brain inside all of us, we are in reality a conscious self that is essentially love (see for instance, Albert Nolan’s “Jesus Today”). Some suggest that this true human self as love is the presence of the God of love that is incarnated equally in all humanity as the common “human spirit”.
Note again that the ideal of unconditional treatment of others faces stiff resistance from varied sectors of the human family. It is an ideal that is particularly offensive to good moral people, and notably to religious folk who believe that human justice should be an expression of similar divine justice (some examples- http://withchrist.org/unconditional.htm , and http://www.acts17-11.com/cows_unlove.html ). We saw this earlier in the stories of Jesus where some people were included as a contrast to other characters that were expressing unconditional generosity, such as the older brother who was offended at the generous father who refused to punish or demand repayment first from the wasteful son. The father did not act according to conventional payback justice (i.e. reward the good, punish the wrong).
We could respond to such views of justice by recognizing that all of us intuitively feel that we should be treated unconditionally and our failures forgiven freely, but then, in turn, we are often less generous with the failures of others that we view as worse than ourselves (further over toward the “bad” end on the continuums of good and evil that we hold). So we set conditions for others that are harsher than what we want applied to ourselves. That harsh thinking and behavior leaves us all insecure in the end. Who is really forgiven, included, and safe if some are to be excluded from full unconditional treatment? Once we make it conditional and uncertain for some, then it becomes conditional and uncertain for all of us.
I would add that to apply the ideal of unconditional only in response to major traumatizing events (e.g. serious crimes) is to miss an important application. Lifting a population or society toward a better future is more about all members practicing unconditional in the little details of daily mundane human interaction. This is where we experience unconditional as a “hard saying” but as the purest form of liberation and enlightenment and the best way to lift all life toward something better.
Human ideals develop over history and sometimes spread gradually through populations. They are first felt and imagined by the courageous few who will begin to experiment with them in real life situations. They are often exhibited against conventional social practices that may dominate societies in a contrary manner. Consequently, there is often resistance to the new ideal. But if the new ideal is something authentically human, then it will grow and spread via a learning process. Hence, the advice of the early Akkadian father to his son was surely not something notably believed or practiced in his time but it has become more widely accepted in our age.
Also, with new ideals you will often get extremist applications as part of the social learning process. For instance, some have taken the ideal of compassion to what is considered pacifist extremes (i.e. “turn the other cheek” in all situations of violence, or as dogmatic non-resistance toward all evil). To balance such tendencies to extremism, remember that also integral to any form of love is the element of healthy anger at evil and the refusal to yield to such, and the consequent responsibility to prevent further evil in order to protect the innocent.
We might say that while Ultimate Reality or deity is absolutely no conditions love, and that serves as a noble ideal to inspire and guide life in this world, the messy reality of imperfect life requires all sorts of compromises.
There is also an important theological component to social change for many people. They come to understand that ultimate reality is unconditional love and this provides a sense of security and safety. It has a liberating impact on their consciousness and enables them to embrace life more fully as that realization frees from anxiety, fear, depression, and despair. That can then lead to a wider liberation of public consciousness in significant ways and the outcomes of that liberation may reverberate positively throughout societies.
Love Beyond Comprehension
When considering the relatively new insight/discovery of unconditional love at the core of all reality, we ought to remember the true nature of things transcendent, things having to do with divinity. Such reality is beyond all imagining in terms of its real perfection and beauty. It is infinitely beyond our understanding or ability to express. As Campbell notes, categories, words, names, or statements only distort and diminish the truly incomprehensible. Even the term “God”, says Campbell, is penultimate and points to the transcendent God infinitely beyond.
The point here: What Ultimate Reality actually is, is so much better than we can ever conceive or express. The reality of a God that is unconditional love is something infinitely better than the best that can be imagined. When “Near-Death Experiencers” return, after encountering the unconditional love of the great Light in surrounding realms, they cannot find words to express what they experienced. So, as Ken Ring says, they stammer hyperbole about that love. It is something better felt than understood or explained.
In light of this, anything less than or contrary to unconditional love could be evaluated as not fully human or humane. Unconditional becomes a new touchstone or centering ideal for truth and meaning in human narratives. It becomes the new baseline for perception of reality, for defining the meaning of reality and human life, for guiding human purpose, for inspiring authentically humane feeling, motivation, response, behavior, for overall authentic human existence. Comparatively, anything less may be considered not authentically human, or subhuman. This historically new ideal answers the profound human desire to know and experience what it means to be truly and fully human. Unconditional is the critical guidepost as to what to look for in order to find that better future or existence that all humanity intuitively longs for.
At the core of the universe is the pulsating Energy, Life, Power, Mind, Consciousness, or what humanity has long called “God”, that is defined most essentially by Unconditional Love. Defining God as unconditional Love is the single greatest discovery ever made, the greatest insight ever conceived. It gets to the ultimate meaning of the universe and life, to the purpose of all. And it gets to the essential nature of what creates and sustains all things, and why all has been brought into existence- i.e. for the purpose of learning, living, and experiencing something of real love, of love that is unconditional. Unconditional takes the ideal of love to new heights of humane experience and expression. Unconditional defines the grand liberation that we continue to reach for.
There is an ongoing revolution unfolding in the historical development of human perception and outlook. Humanity continues to explore and discover what it means to be truly human and what is the real nature of humane reality. We still have further work to do in order to fully root out the perverse understanding that there is some horrific monster behind life that is going to retaliate and punish humanity. That, among other pathologies, is a residual perception that still darkens and hinders modern consciousness from the full liberation into a more humane future.
The grand narrative of humanity is about this liberation into that more human future. Counter movements like Christianity have tried to derail and abort this liberation but it goes on, driven by dreamers like the Akkadian father, the Hebrew prophets, the historical Jesus, and many others who have also felt and experienced something of the wonder of being truly human. We are just beginning to play around the edges of something so profoundly wondrous and liberating that we are hardly able to understand or begin to express it. It pulls us forward to make life something ever better.
Exploring the wonder of unconditional love is about liberating consciousness from all that limits humanity, liberating us from all those inherited ideas that devalue the wonder of being human and depress human creative potential. Unconditional takes us to a genuine purging, cleansing, and transformation of human consciousness and life. Embracing unconditional is to overturn and toss out the old narratives to embrace, instead, an entirely new narrative centered on this profoundly human love- unconditional- that defines ultimately what it means to be truly human.
Some argue that any speculation about unknowable realities is a waste of time (Like the frustrated atheist who blurted, “Lets get rid of all this metaphysical bullshit”). But because a lot of distorting speculation has already occurred over history (the basest features have long been projected out to define ultimate reality) and because such speculation has long shaped human thought and behavior, often in deforming ways that have caused much harm (i.e. bad ideas have always incited people’s worst impulses), then it is important to correct that distorting speculation and offer better alternatives. We are responsible to point one another toward better directions for human perception, emotion, and response. Hence, my foregoing theological speculation on the new ways of perceiving ultimate reality or deity as unconditional love.
When we state that at the core of all reality there is Unconditional Love, we are not referring to some distant-from-humanity reality, out there somewhere, or up above somewhere in the “heavens” (i.e. the primitive mythology of “sky gods”). The Unconditional Love that creates all and sustains all in existence every moment is at the very core of our own consciousness, closer than our own breath or our own atoms. In fact, it is probably not even correct to perceive of human consciousness, or the human spirit, as something separate from the greater creating Consciousness. What matters most in the cosmos and world is right here inside us, at the center of our personhood. We, each one of us, are at the very center of what is most vital in the cosmos. There is no circumference, only Center, and each of us is that Center (to borrow and paraphrase some comments from Joseph Campbell).
This is also to counter the commonly made argument of how small and insignificant humans are in the universe, when making a physical comparison. We need to question this argument that sometimes appears to devalue humanity, as the dimensions of this spatial realm may not mean much in terms of the value and role of consciousness. Conscious human experience appears to be the most real thing of all in the cosmos. It may be the only ‘real’ thing in the cosmos. It may be that which gives reality to all else (see for instance, “Quantum Enigma” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner). And consider that we are vitally part of the greater Consciousness behind all reality (our oneness with God).
Unconditional deity displaces old consciousness-deforming myths:
OK then, if humanity can no longer blame punishing gods behind the natural world, how then do we explain human misfortune and suffering? With an unconditional God we can no longer explain human suffering (as people have done all through past history) in terms of gods retaliating against sin, or God disciplining failing people, or God teaching people lessons. And anyway, what monster would harm or kill people just to teach others lessons, as was the argument of Job’s comforters?
We have better alternatives today to help in understanding the mystery of suffering. For instance, we now recognize there is an element of freedom in nature and in human existence (freedom of choice and action).
Freedom is a reality that is essential to any authentic perception of love. Any contemporary understanding of deity must accept the fact that non-intervention (non-coercion) is fundamental to authentic love. Love does not over-rule human freedom, self-determination, and choice. This opens the possibility for poor choice and hence, abuse and suffering caused to others. But such freedom is also vital to the existence and expression of genuine moral good which, according to theologians/philosophers, is valued highly by a God of love.
For more detail on these issues that have perplexed people for millennia see, for instance, “The Triumph of God Over Evil” by William Hasker. He offers a thorough coverage of the issues related to human suffering and the attempts to understand and explain this mystery as much as that is possible (i.e. theodicy).
Appendice D: More background to Retaliation and Unconditional
Let me rehearse here in summary some of the more prominent themes from early mythology that have continued to shape human belief systems across history, most notably shaping narratives with an orientation to punishment. I am focusing on the origins of the two themes that have been developed in this essay.
First, to clarify, the human fear of death is the fundamental impetus to mythmaking (Campbell- “The recognition of mortality and the requirement to transcend it is the first great impulse to mythology” Myths to Live By, p.22). Early people with their developing human consciousness became aware of life, of existence, of beauty, love, suffering and all that comes with conscious human experience of life. But it was their awareness of death that impacted them the most. They realized that their experience of life and love would end in the rot of death. That realization of finiteness and mortality became a terror to people.
Coupled with their death awareness and death fear they also felt the fundamental impulse of consciousness for meaning and purpose (Victor Frankl). The primal/primary impulse for meaning drove the human desire to understand reality, life, the world, and to explain it all, especially life and death. That led to early attempts at mythmaking, at creating systems of meaning or explanation.
While fear of death initially may have incited early people to create mythical explanations, there were associated perceptions that emerged to shape the explanations that they came up with. Prominent among such ideas was the perception that there were spiritual forces or spirits/gods behind all the elements and forces of nature. We see that in the early myths of water and wind gods (storm gods), gods of lightning and thunder, sun gods, moon gods, and other related gods.
And our ancestors, using the best early logic that was available to them, concluded that the spirits/gods were angry because the forces of nature were often destructive and harmful to people.
Further, as they were still emerging from an animal past, early people understood life in terms of animal drives and impulses such as small band or tribal mentality, domination of others (alpha male/female), and retaliation (destruction of competitors/enemies). It is important to note that retaliation began with the animal world. We moderns continue to embody our animal past in our physical body/brain and in our very genes (i.e. the 98% similarity with chimpanzees). Consequently, we share the same dark and brutal impulses that animals manifest without guilt or shame.
The dark animal impulses are mediated to us via a core animal brain. This is the dark side in humanity, what religious people call “original sin or human sinfulness”. Viewing human imperfection and failure as sinfulness is to view humanity too harshly as possessing something that rightly provokes the gods to retaliate. Human imperfection is then viewed as something that deserves metaphysical punishment and damnation.
Early myths also added the element of willfulness to human failure. The ancients claimed that early people intentionally chose evil (a more serious fault- first degree or intentional choice) and they thereby ruined the imagined original paradise and sent life declining toward something worse (the Fall of man or “original sin” myth). Later people would project onto their gods the feature of holiness which further sharpened the sense of human imperfection and affirmed the felt need to punish humanity. Theological retaliation logic then argued that holy, pure gods were obligated to punish sin. It was an issue of justice being maintained in the cosmos and world.
But to term our animal background and inherited animal drives as “sin” is to unnecessarily demonize humanity and to intensify the instinctual righteous urge to punish wrong (“instinctual” in that it has long been informed and shaped by retaliatory myths). Our animal background is our natural inheritance and it remains with us in the form of this inherited animal core brain (formerly the “tri-partite brain” in evolutionary biology terms- i.e. the reptilian core, the limbic system, and then the later human cortex that mediates the more advanced human impulses).
Humanity should not be condemned and feel guilt/shame for having emerged out of an animal past and for struggling to gradually progress toward a more human future. Surely patience, tolerance, and mercy are more appropriate responses to our age-old endeavor to become more human.
Unfortunately, because our animal background and its residual animal drives were still strongly experienced by early humans, the brutal features of animal existence were then projected by early people onto their gods. Those gods were shaped and defined as predatory, punitive, tribal, dominating, and retaliatory deities. They were deities that punished and destroyed people. For example, note the Sumerian Flood myth (Wikipedia) where an early council of gods decided to annihilate humanity with a flood as punishment for their sin.
Further in relation to these threat theology myths, people developed the belief that any human sickness was evidence of punishment from the gods. It was understood that the gods sent sickness as punishment because people had broken the taboos of the gods and consequently deserved retribution. Retaliatory justice demanded such responses.
The ultimate expression of the gods retaliating against human imperfection was the idea of a final apocalypse, a grand annihilation of all humanity and all life; the destructive ending of the world. That would be the ultimate expression of retaliatory gods punishing humanity.
But later mythmakers would take retaliation and punishment even further in the perverse myth of hell. That mythology claimed that after the apocalyptic ending of the world, imperfect humanity would then be destroyed and punished forever in a fiery and tormenting hell. That is the dark and perverse drive to retaliate and punish taken to its most traumatizing extreme.
The culmination of developing these themes throughout early mythmaking is the meta-perception that there is something threatening and punitive behind life, some great retaliating monster; a super predator. That has been the most damaging perception ever created by human minds. It has reverberated all down through history in human consciousness causing incalculable terror, anxiety, misery, and despair.
As noted in this essay, the perception of something threatening and punitive, or retaliatory, then sparked the appeasement response in early people. This is the fear of death and the survival impulse being aroused to extremes. Early people, afraid of the angered spirits/gods, naturally sought a way to escape punishment and death. They wanted to find some way to appease the angry gods and find salvation from their threats.
Therefore, the early shaman/priests devised salvation myths and schemes. Notable here was the offering of sacrifices or blood to appease angry spirits. The salvation/sacrifice movement was developed into a massive all-encompassing endeavor across human history. It was revised and refined in many diverse ways in the varied religions that people have created but it has always expressed essentially the same desire to appease some angered and retaliatory entity behind life.
Christianity further developed the above myths into their most intense and ultimate expressions- i.e. the Christ as the ultimate cosmic sacrifice, to be applied universally (i.e. he died for the sins of all humanity). The Christian complex of myths has arguably shaped Western consciousness and society more than any other complex of ideas. The Christian narrative and civilization of the West has subsequently influenced much of the rest of the world (James Tabor in Paul and Jesus).
So we have this line of descent that originates with the base features of animal existence and that is incorporated into early animal-like myths and gods, and then descends further down to the more refined expressions of those same themes in religions like Christianity. But in contrast to this line of animal descent, we also see in history the emergence of human consciousness in early humanity. That is something new and uniquely human or humane. As John Eccles says, human consciousness, and the human self, is something entirely outside of the evolutionary process- “A supernatural, spiritual creation… no other explanation is plausible”. And human consciousness with its new and unique human impulses takes humanity in an entirely new direction from animal behavior and existence. This is the human exodus into freedom (freedom from animal drives and existence). It is the beginning of the humanization of all life in the wonder of ever-improving civilization.
Evolutionary biology or psychology (much appreciated for the good points offered) often does not get the human element right with its endeavor to understand human experience and life too much in terms of our animal past and inheritance. These disciplines have distorted and degraded the uniquely human element by trying to explain it solely in terms of animal drives and existence. There are more helpful explanations coming from the disciplines of theology and psychology that properly honor the wonder of being uniquely human (see, for example, the books of neuroscientist John Eccles- “The Wonder of Being Human”, “The Human Mystery”, and others).
With the emergence and maturing of human consciousness there is still an ongoing struggle between the human and the animal. Religious traditions try to explain this as a struggle with original sin. But see, for example, Lyall Watson’s “Dark Nature” for alternative approaches to understanding human imperfection. And despite the ongoing influence of that animal inheritance, our human consciousness has sparked an overall trajectory in history that improves irreversibly toward something better over time. Note, again, Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and James Payne’s “History of Force” for evidence of this long-term improvement, rise, and advance of humanity in human civilization. We become something ever more humane over time and we also humanize the rest of life.
To sum up, the long historical record of the development, refinement, and validation of retaliation (payback, punishment, revenge- all validated in human belief systems and practises) has to do with the residual influence of our animal past and the residual inheritance of animal drives in humanity, an influence that resulted in the early projection of animal features, like retaliation, onto ideas of God.
And to the contrary, the long historical record of the development of the unconditional treatment of others (i.e. non-retaliation, compassion, mercy, and other human traits) has to do with human consciousness emerging and maturing in humanity over the long-term. As some argue, this is divinity incarnated in humanity and inspiring humanity through the wonder of consciousness to become something better over time. To become what we are- truly and fully human.
To further clarify again, let me add that researchers like Karen Armstrong (“Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”) and Jeffrey Schwartz (“You Are Not Your Brain”), among others, are also wrestling with this issue of dualism, or dual natures, in humanity. They argue that as human persons or human selves we are not our animal inheritance. We are more essentially human and defined by the core human feature of love. This is our essential nature as human persons, as supernatural, spiritual creations. Our consciousness, that is oriented to love, defines us most essentially, not our animal past or inheritance.
Thus, a new dualism is emerging. Note also the “Near-Death Experience” research in this regard. Monism or materialism never dealt properly with the fundamental human impulse for meaning or purpose. It never understood fully the wonder of human consciousness or the wonder of being human as a distinct and unique new reality in life.
Further comment on “From Retaliation to Unconditional”…
Once again, as noted above, while appreciating the contributions of evolutionary biology and psychology, I have a quibble with such disciplines in that they try to explain the human too much in terms of our animal past and animal inheritance. Example- those disciplines reduce human love to just another version of the animal survival impulse- i.e. “species altruism”. Yes, an element of that may be in the mix, but human consciousness and love is something far more unique and wondrous than these comparable features found in our animal relatives. We are far more than just the 98% genetic relationship with chimps. That other 2% points to a vast gulf of uniqueness and difference between humans and animals.
Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate John Eccles, for example, details the difference between human and ape/chimp consciousness in his books, hence, the titles of some of his books- “The Wonder of Being Human” or “The Human Mystery”. We are something stunningly unique in the animal world. Our consciousness is something entirely distinctive and wondrous. We are much more than just our animal brain, to paraphrase Jeffrey Schwartz’s “You Are Not Your Brain”.
I affirm Eccles’ conclusion that we are led to believe that the human self is “a supernatural, spiritual creation”. Something far more wondrous than just another species of animal. Hence, our life trajectory in human civilization has been toward something uniquely different from animal existence. What we are, counters entirely the dominant anti-humanism of today’s nihilist apocalyptic narratives. Note how Julian Simon, in his own individual way, highlighted the wonder of being human in our ongoing improvement of life on this planet (“Ultimate Resource”).
Important comments from psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo (quoting psychologist Harold Ellens) on how images/beliefs, notably images of ultimate reality and ideals, like deity, how such images influence human consciousness, emotion, motivation, and response/behavior in daily life.
Quotes from Lotufo’s book “Cruel God, Kind God”
The Introduction states that, among others, “(Lotufo) explores the interface of psychology, religion, and spirituality at the operational level of daily human experience… (this is of the) highest urgency today when religious motivation seems to be playing an increasing role, constructively and destructively, in the arena of social ethics, national politics, and world affairs…”
I would insert here that the destructive outcomes of “religious motivation” are notable also in terms of the “profoundly religious” climate alarmism crusade and its destructive “salvation” scheme of Net Zero decarbonization (“save the world”) as evident in the spreading harm, from Net Zero and renewables zealotry, in societies like Germany, Britain, and California. Climate alarmism exhibits the same old themes and destructive outcomes of all past apocalyptic crusades.
Lotufo then notes “the pathological nature of mainstream orthodox theology and popular religious ideation”.
He says, “One type of religiosity is entirely built around the assumption or basic belief, and correspondent fear, that God is cruel or even sadistic… The associated metaphors to this image are ‘monarch’ and ‘judge’. Its distinctive doctrine is ‘penal satisfaction’. I call it ‘Cruel God Christianity’… Its consequences are fear, guilt, shame, and impoverished personalities. All these things are fully coherent with and dependent on a cruel and vengeful God image…
“(This image results) in the inhibition of the full development of personality… The doctrine of penal satisfaction implies an image of God as wrathful and vengeful, resulting in exposing God’s followers to guilt, shame, and resentment… These ideas permeate Western culture and inevitably influence those who live in this culture…
“Beliefs do exert much more influence over our lives than simple ideas… ideas can also, in the psychological sphere, generate ‘dynamis’, or mobilize energy… (they) may result, for instance, in fanaticism and violence, or… may also produce anxiety and inhibitions that hinder the full manifestation of the capacities of a person…
“The image of God can be seen as a basic belief or scheme, and as such it is never questioned…
“Basic cultural beliefs are so important, especially in a dominant widespread culture, because they have the same properties as individual basic beliefs, that is, they are not perceived as questionable. The reader may object that God, considered a basic belief in our culture, is rejected or questioned by a large number of people today. Yet the fact is that the idea of God that those people reject is almost never questioned. In other words, their critique assumes there is no alternative way of conceiving God except the one that they perceive through the lens of their culture. So, taking into account the kind of image of God that prevails in Western culture- a ‘monster God’… such rejection is understandable…
“There is in Western culture a psychological archetype, a metaphor that has to do with the image of a violent and wrathful God. Crystallized in Anselm’s juridical atonement theory, this image represents God sufficiently disturbed by the sinfulness of humanity that God had only two options: destroy us or substitute a sacrifice to pay for our sins. He did the latter. He killed Christ.
“Ellens goes on by stating that the crucifixion, a hugely violent act of infanticide or child sacrifice, has been disguised by Christian conservative theologians as a ‘remarkable act of grace’. Such a metaphor of an angry God, who cannot forgive unless appeased by a bloody sacrifice, has been ‘right at the center of the Master Story of the Western world for the last 2,000 years. And the unavoidable consequence for the human mind is a strong tendency to use violence.
“’With that kind of metaphor at our center, and associated with the essential behavior of God, how could we possibly hold, in the deep structure of our unconscious motivations, any other notion of ultimate solutions to ultimate questions or crises than violence- human solutions that are equivalent to God’s kind of violence’…
“Hence, in our culture we have a powerful element that impels us to violence, a Cruel God Image… that also contributes to guilt, shame, and the impoverishment of personality…”.
As Harold Ellens says, “If your God uses force, then so may you, to get your way against your ‘enemies’”.