The problem of deity; Defining and describing God; Reason for this page (leaving conditional religion for unconditional freedom); Former page Intro; Punishment thinking; I am a dreamer (my list of greatest things); Search for the real deal; Summary of core teaching (historical Jesus); Unconditional in the Jesus tradition; Dating the New Testament books and related sources; The great contradiction; Mandela’s example and the cost of unconditional; Unconditional is impractical?; Unconditional and the use of force (advice of Chinese sage); discussion on Mandela; Brinsmead on non-retaliation in relationships; Two essay summary; Humanity’s greatest mistake
The Problem of Deity
Over history an interesting relationship has developed between humanity and deity. People have long taken human features and projected them out to define deity, to shape their understanding of greater reality. We see this in ancient mythology- gods that fight, punish, destroy, and often in the pettiest manner and over the pettiest things. Primitive gods that were very much like the primitive people that created them.
But as we have become more humane so we have updated our conceptions of deity, making gods more humane also. We see this early on in the Pharaoh-gods beginning to exhibit kindness and mercy. We find it later in the Hebrews presenting God as compassionate. Over history we humanize our gods as we become more humane and as we come to understand better the core features of authentic humanity.
This human/god relationship has also worked in a feedback loop manner. People create their perceptions of gods and then use those gods to justify their own actions and existence. As anthropologists note (e.g. Clifford Geertz), people have long appealed to the divine to validate their own lives and societies. This can be seen in the BCE-era Israelites believing that God gave them detailed instructions on how to build their first temple, how to arrange their camps around that temple, and a vast array of other detailed instructions on things like clothing, diet, care and consumption of animals, sexuality, and more.
And there is a dark side to this appeal to deity, or ultimate authority, for validation. As the gods people created were often primitively violent, so those gods were then employed to validate similar violence among people. We see this even today where people appeal to their God to validate the killing of outsiders/unbelievers. People employ ultimate reality as an ultimate authority and then obligate themselves to replicate that ideal for good or evil.
This is why some have argued that the idea of God has been one of the most dangerous ideas ever conceived (i.e. Bob Brinsmead). Deity has far too often embodied the very worst of primitive humanity- things like tribal exclusion and opposition, domination, and destruction of others. In addition to this, far too often the engagement of deity has resulted in the abandonment of responsibility to improve the human condition here and now (i.e. time and resources wasted on appeasing and pleasing invisible reality). Because of this dark and debilitating side to deity, many have argued that we need to get rid of the concept of deity entirely. As one disgusted atheist blurted, “Let’s get rid of all this metaphysical bullshit”.
While I understand his concerns, that is not likely to ever happen. Consciousness has made us aware that we belong to something greater, that we are part of some greater ultimate reality. And our basic impulse for meaning and purpose pushes us to understand that reality more. We have always been intensely curious to understand and explain the greater forces that give rise to our existence. We want to explain our origins, our existence, and our destination in terms of a greater reality. This has to do with our most fundamental desires, questions, and curiosities. We want to understand how we should live and why, and we seek answers in relation to ultimate reality, meaning, and purpose. This is all foundational to being consciously human.
Also, because so much pathological inhumanity has already been projected onto deity, that needs to be countered properly with more humane alternatives. And, as noted above, the inhumanity already projected onto deity has caused much misery over history. Further, you cannot just cede explanatory ground to philosophies like materialism with its belief in essential meaninglessness. That definition of ultimate reality violates our most basic human impulses for meaning and purpose, and it answers none of our most basic questions and concerns.
There have been a variety of approaches to understanding ultimate realities. A dominant one over the past few centuries has been philosophical materialism. And of course for millennia we have had the mythical/religious approach. Others suggest another alternative- the still developing approach that seeks to combine the discoveries of science with a new understanding of spiritual reality. This may prove to be helpful in the quest for ultimate understanding and explanation (note, for example, the theological discipline of panentheism and books like “In Whom We Live And Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World”).
And in one sense (tipping one’s hat just a bit to the materialists) we could all benefit from a good dose of atheism. I refer to the healthy atheism that Karen Armstrong spoke about, where over history people have always rejected gods that no longer work, for new ones more suited to the times- more humane gods. And fortunately, the gods have become more humane over history as we have come to understand what authentic human existence is about.
This trend of developing humaneness in our understanding of deity is part of the greater historical process of humanizing all things. This is a core impulse of human consciousness. It includes our perceptions of ultimate realities. And this humanizing process culminates in the ultimate expression of authentic humanity- unconditional love. This feature/ideal takes us to the heights of ultimate meaning and purpose. We have now discovered that unconditional is the pinnacle of what it means to be authentically human or humane. And we correctly understand all other things in light of this core theme (e.g. Schillebeeckx, “God is more human/humane than any human being”).
I would clarify here that ultimate reality/deity has always been unconditional love but it has just taken humanity a long time to fully recognize this truth. And unfortunately, while admirably humanizing our gods (our perceptions of deity), too many religious traditions still retain the features of the primitive deities and this results in a distortion of the new human features like unconditional love. Unconditional love then becomes limited by the conditional beliefs of religion (i.e. required atonement, required rituals and lifestyle to please some conditionally oriented deity). This is what Thomas Jefferson referred to as placing “diamonds in a dunghill”.
Further, in the process of humanizing our understanding of deity we need to recognize that there is no “Word from God” handed down from the heavens to tell us what deity is all about. That is the fallacy of Biblicism- the belief in some inspired holy book or Word of God that is an authority that tells us what to think/believe and how to live (i.e. inspired scriptures given to priestly elites to control the lives of others). Nonsense. We all know the divine as much as anyone else by understanding what is best in our own humanity. God is known primarily in all humanity and in all diverse human goodness. And each one of us holds the responsibility to know and explain ultimate reality according to the best features that we find in our humanity. We are all responsible for the greater humanizing project. There is no higher religious authority or mediating priesthood with superior insider knowledge of such things.
And it is unconditional love that now takes us to the absolute height of what it means to be authentically human or humane. This is a human discovery and not a “divine revelation”. We see its gradual development over history from early compassion and kindness to the great ideal of human love and then the further development of our understanding of love as unconditional. This takes love beyond limited tribal perceptions (love family, hate enemies) to an authentic universalism. The unconditional treatment of all people is our greatest insight and ideal (i.e. unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion, and unconditional generosity).
Related to this- we need to purge ourselves of any sense of subservience to higher authorities, of any felt need to appease or serve some greater reality. Contrary to the claim of the ancients, we were not “created to serve the gods”. We are not obligated to subject ourselves to any higher authority, whether political, religious, or other. We have ultimate authority (and ultimate freedom) in our own human consciousness and our personal awareness of what it means to be human.
So there is no divinely-inspired obligation to serve or please some invisible deity, to re-establish or have a relationship with some invisible entity up in the heavens or in the future. The felt obligation to “get right with God” has always been founded on the distorting myth of some cosmic separation of humanity from deity at some time in the past. That never happened. There was no “Fall” of humanity into sin. There was never any fall from something originally better into something worse. To the contrary, the endlessly improving trajectory that is human emergence and development has always been a trajectory from something originally worse and toward something ever better.
Also, we live in the here and now and ought to be focused on loving and serving one another in real time and real life, and not focused on serving some invisible reality. And consider this: a God of authentic love would not be concerned about being praised and served but would ignore Godself to serve the other. Such is the nature of true love. Genuine love frees the other. It does not manipulate and control others with guilt, threat, or fear of punishment. It does not demand dehumanizing subservience. Love and freedom are tightly pair-bonded realities. You cannot have one without the other.
So yes, I am one with the critics on this point- worshipping some God up above in the heavens or up ahead in some future afterlife has long brought out the worst in humans: subservience, guilt, shame, fear, neglect of present life, and worse. The problem with loyalty/service to God is that it often takes precedence over our responsibility to meet the needs of real people. Seeking to know and serving something outside of humanity, or above humanity, has too often led to neglect and abuse of humanity.
We know better now. With the discovery of unconditional love it is no longer plausible to project any sort of inhumanity onto deity or ultimate reality of any kind. Unconditional eliminates all such projects. Unconditional takes us to the ultimate in human conception, ideals, and meaning. And understanding ultimate reality in terms of unconditional love liberates from all concerns about appeasing and pleasing some greater reality. It liberates humanity to embrace life fully in the here and now. It liberates from fear of death and whatever might follow (Near-Death Experience research affirms this outcome). The result is that it liberates from ultimate fears, anxieties, or concerns and orients us to humanity, and to improving the human condition here and now. It orients us to serving humanity and not something above humanity (again, this focus on serving something other than humanity has always led to neglect or abuse of real people). Unconditional love gives us the safest way to conceive of and handle the great reality and ideal of deity. Unconditional alone can properly respond to our most fundamental impulses and concerns.
Defining and Describing God
When you probe the root causes of things like historical alarmism or apocalyptic it is necessary to go back in the history of ideas/thought and that inevitably gets you back into religion and mythology and the human perception of gods/God. That requires using the term God frequently as is done on this page. So here is some explanation of the ever-changing human understanding and description of God.
The religious use of the term God has rendered it almost a dead word in that it has become so covered with accreted and distorting baggage that any use of the term by others requires all sorts of qualifiers. Over the history of religion some inhumane features have been projected onto religious gods- e.g. male gender (and sometimes female), the concept of judgment (vengeance, punishment, payback), the feature of king/ruler (with its consequent domination/submission, control), anger and related appeasement, and so on. People, in projecting such base features onto deity, have created grotesque monsters that are divine replicas of the worst monsters on earth. For instance, atheist Charles Templeton (Farewell To God) correctly noted that a God demanding to be the center of attention and demanding constant praise of his greatness, at the threat of severe punishment, is no different than an Idi Amin.
Nothing is more pagan than the idea of anger or wrath in deity, along with the accompanying threat of punishment and demand for appeasement by blood sacrifice (i.e. the human sacrifice of an innocent victim).
Many now prefer alternative descriptions of Ultimate Reality, with alternate definitions and meanings. So we hear people today referring to such things as the Universe, or universal Mind, Self, or Consciousness, Source, or Ground of Being, and so on. Others will only go as far as Energy or Natural Law as ultimate explanations.
Some thoughts in relation to this creative search for better alternatives: Roy Varghese (The Wonder of the World) notes that our perceptions of ultimate Reality usually understand there to be intelligence involved. If so, then you cannot have intelligence without personality or personhood also. Even Richard Dawkins, while not straightforwardly admitting it, appears to bend in this direction of some intelligence, even if only just a little. Taking the sum of his, along with other’s, comments on natural selection (i.e. it develops, learns, chooses, wills, etc.) you find the growing perception of something with almost some form of intelligence. Hence, Dawkins’ comment that natural selection is the “source of all enlightenment”. Sometimes almost god-like, or creative, in its capabilities and having an element of intelligence, though this will be denied by most proponents of this view.
Others prefer the concept of ultimate Good or Goodness, a sort of catchall concept for atheists and theists. Our ultimate ideal or authority. That which we base our behavior or morality upon (see, for instance, the area of thought known as Moral theology).
Joseph Campbell says that the term God is only penultimate, in that it points to something incomprehensibly beyond. Something beyond words, terms, categories, or understanding. Something truly transcendent. Even Dawkins suggested that he could live with something like this and just below is a beautiful statement by him making this point (from TIME debate with Francis Collins).
DAWKINS: My mind is not closed, as you have occasionally suggested, Francis. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up. When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable–but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed (TIME, God vs. Science, Nov.5, 2006).
As noted above, this site argues that Ultimate Reality or Ultimate Being (however you perceive that) is best understood in terms of Unconditional Love (and yes, that would include personality or personhood because love is a relational thing). This feature best defines or describes the core of reality and life, the Creating Source of all. And this Love gives profound meaning and purpose to life. It also offers the safest direction for conception of what we call the “spiritual”. It offers the most humane direction for ultimate Ideals, Realities, or Goodness.
Unconditional Love is entirely non-religious and, in fact, it undermines completely all religion as a conditional social movement or institution. Remember that religion emerged in human society as the movement/institution that would tell people the conditions necessary to appease or please threatening and punishing gods. And there was nothing of unconditional love in such conditionally oriented realities. Consequently, religion has buried unconditional reality entirely. By its very nature as an institution of conditions, religion cannot communicate unconditional reality.
This is all to say- there is still a lot of room for creative exploration and expression of ultimate realities.
Reason for this page
This page arose out of my experience growing up in a religious environment, that of Evangelical Christianity, a fundamentalist form of religion. That religion never felt right to me at the time but I did not know exactly why. I struggled against it for much of my younger life, trying to distance myself from it. But under family pressure, during my late teens, I gave in and tried to fulfill the sense of obligation to that religion. I did not yet possess the mental tools to rethink it all properly. And then for a few years in my early twenties I became somewhat of a religious zealot. And that was perhaps the best thing that I could have done- I took my religion seriously for several years and felt personally just what religion was really all about.
During those years I graduated from an Evangelical Bible college, served overseas as a missionary successfully starting Evangelical churches in another culture and language (upland Manobo groups of Mindanao). I went to the heart of Christianity and experienced fully what it meant to be fundamentally religious. So yes, I get religion.
But while I was engaged in that religious phase I felt that something was not quite right. I felt intensely uncomfortable with being religious.
Gradually, I came to understand that Christianity, like most religion across the planet, embraces and propagates the most powerful ideas ever conceived by human minds- ideas like divine anger and threat, divine domination, tribal exclusion (believing insiders, unbelieving outsiders), judgment, guilt, shame, eternal punishment, and destruction, among others. These can be traumatizing in the extreme, especially when projected onto deity, and given ultimate expression in that form.
Then in my mid-twenties I began to rethink the core themes of Christianity and began a long, slow process of disentangling myself from my religion. In subsequent years, having left my particular religion and religion in general, I have tried to understand the broader social phenomenon of religion and especially its too often dehumanizing influence on societies- its divisiveness, and promotion of often violent tribalism (oppositional dualism between good and bad, between insiders and outsiders, believers and infidels). What is religion really all about? Why does religion so often violate our basic sense of humanity?
Now defenders/adherents of religion will claim that the bad outcomes of religion are not due in some way to the core religious beliefs but are just aberrations due to a few bad apples in the group (people who do not have “true faith”, or extremist elements on the fringe). After all, they argue, look at all the good that religion has done over history. Religious people have started hospitals, schools, charity organizations, and so on. And look at all the good things that religions teach about the great ideals of forgiveness, love, and generosity. And so many people find great comfort in their religious beliefs, it helps them to face the difficulties of life and the fear of death. It gives them hope. I grant all this, and more power to people if they can find such things in their religious traditions and still remain decently human at the same time.
But most religious traditions have created what Thomas Jefferson called a “diamonds in the dunghill” situation. They contain sublime moral teaching but in a larger context that horrifically distorts and even buries the more humane themes. Christianity is notable here for maintaining the core teaching of Jesus on non-retaliation but almost burying that teaching in a larger retaliation context. The Jesus/Christianity contradiction was the very situation Jefferson was referring to with his diamonds in a dunghill comment. The Christian gospels contain noble human ideals that have been lodged in a larger context that profoundly contradicts those ideals. This page deals extensively with this great contradiction between Jesus and Christianity.
So let me disagree with the Christian defense of their core beliefs as generally benign or good. To the contrary, those beliefs embody some of the most inhumane themes of primitive thought.
Fortunately, many religious people have learned to ignore the darker themes of their religions and focus more exclusively on the more humane themes. But unfortunately, the larger context of most religious belief still often overwhelms the diamonds making it hard for many religious devotees to understand clearly the more humane parts. Once again, theology determines ethics.
Other religious people will respond that their religion provides them with hope, the hope of redemption which we all desire and need. Yes, but at what cost in terms of unnecessary guilt, shame, and fear? And what about the burdensome cost of the felt obligation to adopt and fulfill some elaborate salvation scheme. I would counter that we need to question if we ever needed redemption in the first place or if it was all a great fraud and lie from the very beginning. It is legitimate to question if there ever was any threat of anger from the gods, or any threat of punishment and damnation. We need to go back to the very roots of all this religious Salvationism and challenge the original threats to see if they ever actually existed as any sort of credible reality. And when you look carefully at the ancient logic that started the human appeasement movement that we know as religion, then you can see the horrific error that most religion has been founded on (i.e. the error that there is some great threatening and punishing reality behind life).
And what about the fact that most religion has to do with fear as the foundational motivation? John Pfeiffer in his excellent book Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion notes that the earliest religious practice was grounded in fear (i.e. shaman scaring early people with frightening myths of the invisible). And religious fear has always extended beyond the normal fears of life. It embraces the element of fear that extends beyond life and death into ultimate realms and realities. Ernst Becker in Denial of Death rightly argues that the fear of death is the primary human motivation that influences all of our thinking and acting in life. Then how much more powerful a motivation is religiously-inspired fear, fear of such things as eternal punishment and destruction. This may explain the damaging influence of religion on human behavior over history, shaping it too often into the most grotesque expressions of inhumanity. We see this even today in religious zealots claiming they must kill others (outsiders, infidels) in order to please their threatening God, to obey their vengeful God. There is a striking linkage between fear and violence, noted in psychology, and this deserves more research and exploration.
But even after confronting the above relationships between religious belief and human behavior, let me add that I hold no hostile or rancorous feelings toward religious people. I understand the human struggle with fundamental religious themes- the long-held desire to understand some greater reality, the human impulse for meaning and purpose, the desire for some better existence, the struggle with guilt, shame, and fear, and the longing for some ultimate redemption and perfection. However, I do not believe that religion over history has dealt properly or successfully with such basic human feelings and desires. In fact, religion has often only exacerbated and distorted such things in the most horrific manner. Religious belief has often been the root cause generating all this pathology in human consciousness and life.
In my own experience of leaving religion I have found it helpful to take a good look at how the core themes of religion have developed over history (see for instance, the research of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and other mythologists). This history exposes the base human origins of these themes. Since the beginning people have endlessly projected the most inhumane features onto greater realities/gods. And yes, admittedly, religious traditions have also adopted more humane elements over time but they have maintained the larger belief contexts that continue to distort and bury the more humane features they have added along the way. The context is everything.
For myself, I had to leave it all, entirely. Reforming my religion was not an option. I came to see that my religion was just too inhumane at core and I needed entirely new wineskins for the new wine of unconditional reality. The conditional context of religion cannot communicate the unconditional nature of ultimate reality. So I needed to start afresh from scratch. Rebuilding an entirely new approach to understanding and to life. My journey has subsequently been an endeavor to find authentic liberation at the deepest levels of thought, subconscious, and spirit.
One hiccup during the disentangling process- years after leaving Christianity I found myself becoming caught up in environmental alarmism (i.e. deforestation, global warming catastrophe, and other alarms). It was quite a shock to then discover that while I had divested myself of the forms of religion, I was still holding at the core, of what I believed was my new secular worldview, a very religious set of ideas- that of apocalyptic mythology. I was therefore still fundamentally religious in my outlook (apocalyptic mythology is the defining core of Christianity and also shapes much of basic environmental ideology). This is why I urge people to look carefully at the core themes of their worldviews, whether religious or secular, to detect and rethink the basic themes of their grand narratives. It is surprising how much primitive mythology still resides at the heart of many so-called secularized and materialist worldviews.
I would also add that the highest human ideals contained within religious traditions are common human ideals and not religious in origin or nature. And as I have argued repeatedly above and elsewhere, religious contexts too often distort and bury these human ideals.
Such ideals as forgiveness, inclusion, love and generosity are common to all human consciousness or the common human spirit. They are ideals that do not originate with religion but with all common humanity. And remember that religion is most essentially about conditions (how to appease and please the gods). This then contradicts entirely the human ideal of unconditional love which is the core feature of authentic humanity. Religion distorts our highest ideals with conditional limitations. Love then becomes a tribal and excluding reality, limited to insiders, something judgmental and highly conditional. A religious context thus undermines a proper understanding of authentic humanity.
So I understand much better now why my religion never felt right. It violated my basic sense of humanity as unconditional, by defining all things with dehumanizing conditions.
Former Page Introduction
This page focuses somewhat intensely on the ideal of unconditional reality- sometimes referred to as unconditional love or unconditional goodness. Unconditional meaning just what it says- absolutely no conditions. None. And no apologies here for sometimes extravagant repetition of this theme. Why? Because it is simply the greatest discovery in all history. It takes us to the heights of human enlightenment, to truly humane existence, and to the fullest liberation of human consciousness. It is to be prized as history’s singular exceptional insight because it counters the worst errors of early human mythical perception, errors that continue to haunt human minds in the present (i.e. beliefs in conditional and punishing forces/spirits behind life- angry gods, revenge of GAIA, angry planet mythology).
Unconditional breaks the bonds that enslave people at the deepest levels, at the very core of our minds, emotions, and thinking. Unconditional takes us to the heart of true liberation and frees us from all that has degraded and enslaved humanity over history such as the drives to hate, revenge, and punishment.
Unfortunately, this supremely humane ideal is regularly distorted in religious contexts, hence my repeated exposure, for example, of the Christian contradictory use of unconditional love to describe highly conditional atonement theology (i.e. a God that demands the full payment of a blood sacrifice before forgiving anyone). All religion is essentially about conditions- how to appease and please gods. Religion is about conditional thinking and existence. It cannot be otherwise because that is its essential viewpoint and reason for emerging in human society- to tell people the conditions that must be fulfilled in order to attain some salvation. Religion therefore distorts and buries the true meaning of unconditional reality.
It is only in relatively recent historical time that people have come to understand how unconditional redefines the great human ideals of forgiveness, inclusion, generosity, and love. Too often in the past these ideals have been limited and distorted by tribal and religious mentality. Love, for instance, has often been employed as an insider ideal, something that focuses on family and friends or co-religionists but excludes enemies. It has been a very conditional reality.
But activists like the secular sage from Palestine (i.e. the historical Jesus- the non-Christian, non-religious Jesus) urged us to do better. He said, do not just love those who love you. That is what most people settle for. Even thugs and gangsters do that. You can do much better. You can be something much better, something authentically human. Love your enemies too. Love all without discrimination or exclusion. Love unconditionally because God does (Matthew 5:38-48). He tied his new unconditional ethic to his new theological breakthrough- that God was unconditional love.
So unconditional takes our human ideals and lifts them to new heights of clarity and humanity. It reveals with a new intensity just what it really means to be authentically human. What love really means. It eliminates all categories of friend/enemy or insider/outsider. It urges us to treat all as intimate family. Include everyone equally, even your enemies. Just like Nelson Mandela.
And rather than viewing the unconditional treatment of others as a hard saying, or a drudgery, note the positive in that it liberates us from all that darkens and enslaves. It liberates from those old drives to hate, seek vengeance, punish offenders, and in general to exercise stinginess and tight-fistedness about showing mercy. Unconditional breaks the grip of all such inhumanity. It liberates and enlightens and humanizes like nothing else can.
As noted elsewhere, the primitive impulse to punish has long been a dominant driver behind mythology or myth making. One of the foundational ideas of early mythology was that of punishing spirits (i.e. gods causing sickness, disasters, great flood). That theme of punishment then sparked the creation of apocalyptic mythology- the idea of a grand, final punishment. That threat, in turn, sparked salvation/atonement thinking as a response to the fear of punishment (how to appease the angry gods, how to escape the threat of punishment). Atonement/salvation mythology became the central element of religion over history.
The Christian refinement to the punishment stream of thought was to suggest the punishment of an innocent substitute. This is what Stephen Mitchell called, in The Gospel According to Jesus, the most barbaric idea of all (“ghastly paganism”).
The theme of punishment runs through all such mythmaking and religious belief. And it has a traumatizing impact on human thought, emotion, behavior, and relationships.
Once again to summarize and focus- punishing gods sparked the apocalyptic myth of a grand, final punishment, which in turn sparked the human desire to escape such terrifying punishment, and this resulted in the creation of atonement/appeasement religion.
There is nothing of authentic and universal forgiveness, mercy, or unconditional love in this pathological line of punishment thinking.
Think of it- how that one major error in primitive minds (punishing gods) shaped so much of subsequent human mythology and religion. That error then became the foundation of most religious belief and practice. Fear of punishment has long stirred the felt need to appease the threat of punishment with costly and wasteful salvation schemes. The error of punishing gods then formed the foundation of atonement/salvation religion.
So much of the subsequent religious superstructure in human society (religious perception, belief, practice) has been built on that grotesque error in primitive minds. Consider the related unnecessary fear and anxiety, the horrific waste of human time and resources over the millennia invested in appeasement or salvation schemes, all because of that major error in primitive thinking. It has all been a huge fraud and such waste because there has never been any threat of divine punishment behind life.
Further, what do you think all this punishment emphasis does to people and how they treat others? Ultimate authorities or ideals powerfully influence human thought and behavior. Punishment or violence enshrined in God has long inspired and validated punishment and violence in human societies (for example, see James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword).
Certainly, there is much more to religion, such as the awe and wonder at life and mystery, or the search for meaning and purpose, but the threat of punishment has been a major theme of religion over history. It has infected the rest with distortion, darkness, and unnecessary fear. It has burdened people already suffering from tragedy with added psychic pain. Remember the woman in Japan after the tsunami (2001) who said, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”
Further note: The growing conclusion today is that punishment approaches simply do not work. For instance, they do not properly rehabilitate criminals because they only re-enforce the response of retaliation and violence. Punishment approaches do not teach more appropriate alternative responses (i.e. forgiveness, non-retaliation, non-violence). And these approaches do not work with children, either. See the Australian Psychological Society report entitled ‘Punishment and Behavior Change’ (http://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/punishment_position_paper.pdf)
I am a dreamer
I am a dreamer and Joseph Campbell gave my dreaming some focus long ago. He suggested that human story was about going out into life, facing monsters/problems, struggling to overcome/slay the monsters, and in this process of struggle discovering solutions/insights that would benefit others. So here is my take on this story framework, my dreaming. And let me speak a bit extravagantly here with the repeated use of “greatest” to make an emphasized point- that the ancient error that there is some threatening, retaliatory, punitive force/spirit behind all has caused more misery to humanity than anything else over history. You decide for yourself if my use of the hyperbolic “greatest” is excessive or not. And sorry Stephen Mitchell, but the misery caused by the religious myth of unpardonable sin is nothing compared with this monstrous error of punishing gods (though they are related ideas).
Early belief in a punitive/retaliatory deity (i.e. the gods were behind disease, natural disasters, and accidents as punishment for human failures) then sparked the creation of the apocalyptic set of myths- the belief that there would be some great retaliation/punishment from the punitive spirits (i.e. the punishing gods would destroy humanity with an apocalypse- a flood in the earliest versions and then changed to fire in Zoroaster’s apocalyptic theology). That belief in some great threatened catastrophe in turn sparked the salvation/sacrifice industry, or what we know as religion. The Christian refinement in this punishment stream of mythology was to suggest the punishment of an innocent victim, what Mitchell terms the most repulsive, most barbaric idea of all (“ghastly paganism”, The Gospel According to Jesus). Punitive deity is the ultimate monster behind all this myth-making. Threatening, retaliatory deity is the “greatest” monster that people have ever created to terrorize one another.
The core theme of punishment runs all through this traumatizing mythology. Punishing gods then produced the belief in a grand final punishment, and that sparked the drive to find salvation from punishment (i.e. the development of atonement or appeasement religion).
And when it sparked the sacrifice/salvation response in humanity, this grotesque monster of punishing deity sparked the creation of the “greatest fraud and scam” of all history. Retaliation and punishment in deity generated atonement thinking- how to appease and please the angry, threatening gods. Punishing deity then became the foundation of the entire sacrifice/salvation industry (religion). But it is all a huge scam or fraud, not to say waste of time and effort, because there is no punishing god behind life. It is all a great lie built on a primitive error. There is no ultimate threat to fear, no ultimate anger to appease. There never has been any such thing.
Overcoming this ancient error is then humanity’s “greatest struggle or battle”. This is not some physical battle against material enemies. It is an interior battle waged in human consciousness and mind but a far greater struggle than any other battle. The fight is not so much with violence in others but with our own residual drives to fear, hate, exclude, take vengeance, punish, and exhibit violence.
But into all this primitive darkness there emerged the “greatest discovery ever”, the “greatest human insight”- the wonder of unconditional reality and existence. This discovery was given its most humane statement ever in the non-retaliation theme of the historical Jesus (non-retaliation being the negative side of unconditional love- do not retaliate but, instead, love your enemies). That was the greatest breakthrough insight toward understanding authentic humanity, authentic human relating and authentic human existence. Unconditional treatment of all takes the meaning of authentic humanity to new heights. It takes the supreme human ideal of love to a higher plane altogether, that of authentic universal inclusion and generosity. There is no greater expression of love.
The consequences of this discovery are immense. Conquering the monster of punishing deity with the wonder of unconditional love liberates human consciousness as nothing ever before. Unconditional reality points toward humanity’s “greatest liberation movement ever”. Engaging unconditional is about releasing human consciousness to fully appreciate the wonder of Love behind all reality. This is about getting to the very deepest roots of so much religiously-inspired and enslaving fear, guilt, anxiety, worry, angst, depression, and despair. Unconditional frees humanity from all those dark emotions and the related drives to hate, retaliate, punish, exclude, destroy, dominate, and more. Unconditional liberates human minds, perceptions, and feelings as nothing else can. This unconditional breakthrough holds the potential for the greatest liberation and advance ever in the history of human perception, emotion, or thought.
But then there was the “greatest retreat from liberation” ever. The “greatest reverse” back to primitive apocalyptic mythology and retaliation thinking occurred with the development of Paul’s theology. Paul rejected the breakthrough insight of Jesus that God was non-retaliatory and reverted back to a primitive view of God as retaliatory. This was a reversal of a magnitude previously unknown in all human history.
And nothing has been more powerful for validating the continuing darkness of retaliation thinking and existence than Paul’s Christ myth (his Christology). This is the historical epitome of retaliatory thinking, the apex expression, concentrated in history’s most potent statement of apocalyptic retaliation ever (ultimate and eternal divine retaliation). Yes, I am talking about Paul’s Christ myth, that more than any other single myth in history has affirmed apocalyptic and retaliation, and especially in Western consciousness. This has darkened and enslaved human consciousness as nothing else ever has.
So we now face the “greatest challenge” in all history- to bravely take on this greatest monster of retaliatory deity and slay it for the liberation of human consciousness and perception.
Ahh, I’m such a dreamer. But a growing number of people get this greatest insight ever, especially many of those NDErs (Near- Death Experiencers) discovering the wonder of unconditional love in the Light they encounter. And slaying the monster of retaliating/punishing deity is really about this ultimate goal- to open the way to see the light of incomprehensible unconditional love at the core of all, as the new understanding of authentic humanity, and authentic human existence.
So yes, I am a dreamer. I have seen something of unconditional reality, something of a love that is infinitely better than the best that we can imagine. I have had a glimpse of the incomprehensibly “greatest” reality of all, even though still through a dark glass. It is humanity’s greatest insight ever, the greatest truth and reality of all- the Unconditional Love that is at the heart and core of all reality. We need to get some sense of the real nature of such unconditional love and the fact that in God it is incomprehensible, transcendent, and inexpressible. It is infinitely better than the best that anyone can imagine (this is the real meaning of transcendence in God). And equally important is to realize that anything less than such a scandalous wonder is ultimately not real, ultimately not true, and ultimately not right. It is false or wrong. It is error. Unconditional is the baseline from which to evaluate all ultimate reality and truth.
This is my dreaming of “greatest” things, and my hyperbolic expression to make a point.
Additional note: Richard Gere once responded in an interview, when asked about fighting terrorism (post 9/11)…he said something to the effect that the real battle is not only with violent people, but more-so it was an inner battle with our own personal tendency to such things as violence. The real battle was inside us, in our minds and hearts.
We glory in the great military battles of history but Gere got it right that the greatest battles were those of mind and thought and emotion. Simply because as a person thinks so they will be and act in life. To effectively end violence in life you must go to the heart of the problem- to our residual impulses to retaliate and punish others.
Using Campbell’s framework again- the greatest monsters are not our so-called enemies in humanity, but the monsters that we create in our belief systems and ideologies. So to effect the greatest liberation and progress in human society, it is critical to get to the root of problems, to the most fundamental causes behind the varied issues in life. Because so many people do not get to the root perceptions and assumptions of their worldviews, hence, the same problems keep arising repeatedly over history in new forms. This is all I am saying.
Go after and slay the real monsters facing humanity. This is most critical to improving the human condition and to lifting consciousness to a new plane of liberation. And that liberation will free human creativity like nothing ever before.
Search for the Real Deal (Non-retaliation/Unconditional)
It has long been recognized that there is a historical Jesus whose authentic message can be found among the contradictory and distorting accounts contained in the New Testament gospels. Many have recognized that not all that is contained in the gospels is authentic to the historical person and in fact much contradicts the core message of the man.
This recognition has been expressed in a centuries-long search for the authentic sayings of Jesus, for the authentic gospel. This search begins with people like H. S. Reimarus in the 1700s (he starts the modern critical study of Jesus that challenges the long-held Christian teaching on Jesus), and moves to David Strauss in the 1800s (he recognized that the historical Jesus was buried underneath layers of Christian myth), and on to Albert Schweitzer’s apocalyptic Jesus of the early 1900s, and then into the later 20th Century “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is one part of this new quest and recognizes that there are notable “dissimilarities” (differences) between the historical person and the gospel accounts. The Seminar researchers note, for instance, the difference between the exhortation of Jesus to love enemies in Matt.5 and the later condemnation of towns (Matt.11) that rejected his followers. They conclude, “He would not have told Capernaum to go to hell after instructing his disciples to love their enemies” (The Five Gospels, Funk and Hoover).
Researchers like Stephen Mitchell argue that the historical Jesus was wise and forgiving in contrast to the punitive and self-centered Christian Jesus (i.e. John’s gospel). Mitchell then tries to “extricate the authentic sayings of Jesus from the morass of false, imputed statements found in the gospels”. People like Mitchell state that Christianity has created a New Testament that almost buries the authentic teaching of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson referred to this larger NT context as a situation where Jesus’ authentic words were like “diamonds in a dunghill”. This expresses well the point of stark difference between the message of the authentic person and the later contradictory additions to his teaching.
Another aspect of the quest for the historical Jesus was the recognition that the gospel writers (i.e. Matthew and Luke) used another source called Q Sayings Gospel when they wrote their gospels. Q research- or Quelle, the German word for “source”- recognizes that there was a stunning shift from the earliest version of this Sayings gospel that was non-apocalyptic (sapiential or wisdom sayings) to later versions that were strongly apocalyptic. And we are grateful for Q researchers like James Robinson that have noted this difference between an original Jesus gospel and the later Christian gospel. But you do not need Q research to see the striking difference between the authentic message of the historical Jesus and the Christian message about him, the Christ myth.
To appreciate the profound nature of this difference it is useful to get a grip on his core teaching. This will help to evaluate what is authentic among the rest of the material that has been attributed to him. We can engage here what some have referred to as “thematic coherence”, that there is often an organizing theme that consistently shapes the thinking, teaching, and acting of a person.
A summary of the core teaching of Jesus is found in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7. A similar assembling of his core teaching is found in Luke 6. Within this larger body of core teaching there is a brief statement of his central theme (the core of the core). This is set forth in Matt.5:38-48. It is a clear and profound statement of non-retaliation as related to both ethics and theology. In fact, the ethical ideal is based on the theological truth.
Jesus’ statement on non-retaliation is arguably the clearest and most potent such statement in all history. Others had argued long before him for the principle of non-retaliation in human relating (e.g. the Akkadian Father’s advice to his son, Wikipedia). But Jesus took things to new heights of clarification by opening his statement on non-retaliation with a clear rejection of traditional retaliatory justice (eye for eye) as an ethical standard. And then he offered a new theological element in his statement, something that no one else in antiquity had ever done. He broke with all past perception of gods as retaliatory, judgmental, and punitive for a new theology of God as non-retaliating.
To summarize this core theme of Jesus as stated in Matt.5: First, he straightforwardly rejects eye for eye justice or ethics (payback, retaliation, vengeance, punishment) in favor of non-retaliation. This is a clear rejection of tit for tat response or relating. A rejection of “getting even”. While non-retaliation is the negative aspect (the passive aspect), today we state this type of response or relating positively in the term unconditional love, or unconditional treatment of all people.
After stating that we should not retaliate, Jesus then moved on to emphasize this positive element of unlimited goodness and generosity toward others. This is a call to unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion of all, and the expression of unconditional generosity toward all. And the emphasis is on unconditional or unlimited. Absolutely no conditions before loving all. None.
Jesus then illustrates with varied common life situations how we should respond with unlimited generosity. We are to freely and generously love our enemies. And in stating these situations he lifted love out of the constricted realm of tribal or group thinking. Thugs and primitives restrict their love just to those who love them, to family and friends. You, Jesus urges, can do much better and love universally, including everyone, even enemies. He was eliminating all the divisive and discriminating categories of friend/enemy, insider/outsider, or good/bad people. There should be no limiting discrimination with authentic love.
And he added that people should not let their unconditional treatment of others depend on a similar response from others (Luke 6). Do not let your good treatment of others depend on how they respond to you or treat you. Do not expect others to respond in kind with similar goodness. Just love them anyway. He called for a full liberation from all tit for tat expectation and relating. These were uniquely new insights into unconditional treatment of others. His insights took human perception of love to a new height of humane response and relating.
And then he states the reason why we are to love in such a manner. We are to love enemies unconditionally because God does. We are to forgive all unconditionally, include all unconditionally, and express unlimited generosity toward all unconditionally, because this is what God does. God forgives all, and includes all. God does not discriminate between good and bad but is generous toward all alike. He sends rain and sun on all without discrimination. God loves universally, including the bad, or enemies. So be compassionate in the same manner that God is compassionate. Be merciful just as your father is merciful. It is a tight pair-bonding of ethics with theological ideal.
(Note: The use of “he/father” is not an affirmation of gender in deity)
We find this core theme of unconditional treatment of all people throughout the teaching of Jesus, whether in parables or sayings or other statements. There is thematic coherence throughout his teaching. We see it in the parable of the vineyard workers (unconditional generosity), the prodigal son (no payback conditions), in his statements on unlimited forgiveness, and in his meal-time practice of embracing “sinners” without conditions or exclusion. For more detail, see the added summary posted below, “Unconditional In The Jesus Tradition”.
And this central theme of non-retaliation is critical to resolving the debate over whether he was an apocalyptic prophet/messiah (like his mentor John), or not.
The point is straightforward- if Jesus’ core theme was non-retaliation then he could not have been an apocalyptic messenger. And this gets us to the greatest of all contradictions between the historical Jesus and Christianity (the Christian or Pauline gospel).
Apocalyptic is most essentially a statement of retaliation. It is a grand divine retaliation against sinful humanity. It is a grand punishment, an act of divine vengeance, an exacting of revenge for sin. Paul is clear on this- note his comments, for example, in Thessalonians on God finally acting to repay (see also Romans and Hebrews for similar statements of divine retaliation). Apocalyptic is God intervening to retaliate in a grand final act of punishment of sin.
But Jesus, in his statement of his core theme, had clearly said that God does not retaliate. That core theme of his teaching then contradicts the entire structure of Christian belief or theology. Paul’s Christian system is built on the foundation of divine apocalyptic retaliation (Tabor- Apocalyptic influenced all Paul said and did, and Christianity is Paul’s religion). Paul’s Christian atonement theology is a subset of the larger apocalyptic framework (i.e. paradise, original sin, Fall, coming judgment, punishment of sin in Christ’s death, salvation, final retribution against all sin, consummation, transformation). His Christ myth is all about retaliatory apocalyptic through and through. His retaliating God emphasizes the profound contradiction between Jesus and Christianity.
So the core issue in the difference between Jesus and Christianity is that of retaliation versus non-retaliation, and not just apocalyptic versus non-apocalyptic. Once again, apocalyptic is most essentially retaliation, divine retaliation. This is the key point. And this is the most significant contradiction of all between the historical Jesus and the Christian myth of Christ. One is about non-retaliation and the other is about a supreme and final retaliation.
This difference can be emphasized in a variety of ways- as that between authentic unconditional love and conditional atonement. Or between authentic forgiveness and the demand for atonement or payment. Or, as I have argued above, the difference between non-retaliation, and vengeance or payback retaliation.
You simply cannot mix and merge these opposites, as Paul/Christianity has done, or you eviscerate the true meaning of the unconditional element in the process. With the conditional atonement of Christianity you distort and bury the unconditional insight of Jesus. As Jefferson said, the diamonds have been buried in the dunghill.
Conclusion: To summarize again this issue of thematic coherence- the historical Jesus consistently and coherently taught a message of non-retaliation or unconditional treatment of all. This unconditional treatment of others is a baseline from which to evaluate all of the other teaching attributed to Jesus. Much of that teaching in the gospels contradicts the tenor of this unconditional theme and therefore should be challenged as not authentic or consistent with his core theme.
Once again, as Jesus’ core teaching is coherently and consistently non-retaliatory, we can then conclude that he was unquestionably non-apocalyptic. Apocalypse is a grand divine punishment, a divine retaliation against sinful humanity. As Jesus was consistently non-retaliatory in his core message, then he could not have advocated for divine apocalyptic retaliation, or apocalyptic in any form. This is especially clear in his Matt. 5:38-48 statements, where he says that God does not retaliate but offers unconditional goodness to all without discrimination. God is therefore not behind apocalyptic in any way, shape or form.
Note: We do not need to refer to Jesus as some special authority to validate the ideal of unconditional treatment of others. Our own sense of the authentically humane tells us today what it means to be truly human. But we do benefit from the varied breakthrough insights of past historical figures.
Summary of the Core Teaching: Matt.5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36
Another compilation of Jesus’ core teaching below that combines the features of both the Matt.5 and Luke 6 summaries.
“You have heard that it was said, an eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Don’t resist or retaliate against an evil person.
“If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek as well. If anyone grabs your coat, let him have your shirt as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
“Give to everyone who asks you, and if someone takes away your belongings, do not demand to have them back. Do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good; he sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
“If you love those who love you, that credit is that to you? Even tax collectors love those who love them, do they not? And if you embrace only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Doesn’t everybody do that? And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even wrongdoers lend to their kind because they expect to be repaid in full.
“Instead, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend without expecting to get anything back. Do to others what you would have them do to you.
“Then your reward will be great, and you will be the children of God (or better, you will be like God) because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful even as your Father is merciful. Be compassionate in the same manner that God is compassionate.”
Note in the above summary of Jesus’ core message these key points: He starts with a clear rejection of retaliation (tit for tat relating) and advocates for non-retaliation. And then he moves on from this negative aspect to a full positive statement of universal and unlimited love toward all people, good and bad. It is not just: Do not retaliate against your enemies, but far more, love your enemies with unlimited forgiveness, inclusion, and generosity. He does not leave his new ethic at passive non-retaliation. No. It is lifted into the elevated humanity of unconditional goodness toward all people. There is no grudging generosity in his message.
And he takes pains to emphasize the scope of authentic love, that this love must be universal, including all, even the worst of people, one’s offending enemies. Love must not be limited in any way by insider favoritism, or family and group loyalties. It must be universal, and not tribal or insider love. There must be no more discriminating categories of friend/enemy, insider/outsider, or good/bad people.
And then he takes further pains to explain the spirit of authentic love. It too must be unlimited, not stingy or restricted in any manner. Love must not be dependent on like response from others (tit for tat expectation). Only shown to those willing to return the same love. No, everyone does that. That is the constricted and primitive tit for tat relating that most people have engaged throughout history. We can do much better.
In this summary of his central theme Jesus takes the human understanding of love to entirely new heights. He urges us to be just like God, to do what God does. To be god-like or supremely humane.
And for those who will view this unconditional ideal as some sort of new law or burdensome requirement to be fulfilled, let me remind them that the God who inspires this ideal is infinite Unconditional Love. There is no threat of judgment, retaliation, or punishment from that Love. Only unconditional forgiveness, acceptance, inclusion, and generosity. So relax while enjoying the human endeavor to be more humane. The very nature of the ideal- unconditional- ensures safety and security for all, no matter how imperfectly we play at exhibiting it.
Unconditional in the Jesus Tradition
(Note: This summary includes passages that are believed to be later additions by the gospel authors and are therefore likely not authentic to the historical Jesus- e.g. the John 9 statement on the blind man, or the woman taken in adultery. I have included these anyway as they exhibit the same spirit as his core theme. Also, this not about seeking validation from some religious authority. I view the historical Jesus as more of a non-religious person, a “secular sage”, according to one of the Jesus Seminar scholars. What is useful to note in his teaching is his consistent focus on the theme of unconditional treatment of all people. That was a great advance for human consciousness. It provided something for us to build on and take further)
This site refers repeatedly to the historical Jesus tradition and his core theme of unconditional treatment of all people. Further below are some passages from the New Testament gospels that highlight this unconditional theme in sayings, parables, and encounters with people.
Just to clarify, my understanding of the historical Jesus is that of a person that is quite entirely opposite to the Christian Jesus. I conclude this from such things as the research on “dissimilarities” noted by the Jesus Seminar (differences between the historical person and the Christian version). I would argue, however, that the Seminar does not clearly and thoroughly set forth the centrality of this key issue of non-retaliation or unconditional love. It is the defining core of Jesus’ message and the main dissimilarity between the historical Jesus and the Christian Jesus.
But before going to those passages in Jesus’ teaching, note that he was not the first to understand that retaliation/punishment was inhumane and that unconditional treatment of all people was the foundational feature of authentic humanity. Others long before him had also begun to see that unconditional response illuminated the meaning of love like nothing before in history.
One of the first expressions of non-retaliation or unconditional response is found in what is called the “Akkadian father’s advice to his son” (circa 2200 BCE). It states, “Do not return evil to your adversary, requite with kindness the one who does evil to you”. A similar call for non-retaliation comes from Egyptian literature circa 1500-1300 BCE.
The Hebrew prophets (800-600 BCE) then added their own insights on non-retaliation. They stated in various places that God did not want sacrifice (payment, penalty, retaliation, atonement) but rather mercy. See, for example, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:7-8, and Amos 5:21-24. Jeremiah 7:21-22 also says, “When I brought your forefathers out of Egypt I did not give commands about offerings and sacrifices”. Isaiah says, “I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats”. In all these utterances of the prophets there is no demand for payment for sin, no call for atonement, and no threat of retaliation or punishment. The prophets introduced a radical new understanding of God’s justice as forgiveness, mercy, and liberation, not punishment. They were advocating views that were radically opposed to the primitive atonement theology of the Jewish priesthood. So even in the Old Testament there was a prophet/priesthood contradiction that foreshadowed the Jesus/Christianity contradiction.
Buddhist literature in the pre-Jesus era also urged non-retaliation and overcoming evil with goodness. Confucius told his followers, “Do not engage revenge or anger”. The Hindus urged people to not render evil for evil. Socrates said, “We ought not to retaliate or render evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him”. And so on. Even Paul later stated that retaliation or payback was evil (Romans 12).
But in the Christian tradition it has been hard for people to see the wonder of unconditional treatment of others as it was presented by the Historical Jesus. His teaching on unconditional love has been buried for two millennia in the larger retaliation/punishment context of Christian theology, a context that has distorted entirely the meaning of unconditional. Christianity, even today, continues to validate a view of justice as payback punishment (note that while Paul admitted that retaliation was evil for people to engage, in a supreme contradiction he claimed that God would eventually retaliate- again, Romans 12).
Here are Jesus’ main statements and examples of non-retaliation or unconditional response. These represent what is known as “thematic coherence”:
Matt.5:38-48, Luke 6: These two passages offer key summaries that set forth the core theme of Jesus’ teaching. They emphasize a clear rejection of eye for eye or payback justice in favor of non-retaliation. They also present a firm rejection of limited tribal love (love neighbors/family, but hate enemies) for a new inclusive/universalistic ethic of “love your enemies”. Treat everyone, including enemies, as intimate family. This takes the meaning of love to an entirely new height of humaneness.
This new inclusive and unconditional ethic is tightly pair-bonded to a striking new view of God as non-retaliating, and universalistic (God includes all equally whether good or bad, God showers all with the same generosity and love). To use a summary term- God expresses unconditional love toward all. Emphasizing this ethical/theological relationship, Jesus said, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful”. Be just like God- do not retaliate because God does not retaliate. Love your enemies because God loves all enemies.
In this teaching unconditional is not appealed to as some flighty, pacifist ideal plucked out of a new age dream. It is appealed to as the very essential nature of ultimate reality, the fundamental nature of that which is the very core of all reality and life. You cannot get more central to the very meaning and purpose of all things. Unconditional love as the defining core of reality becomes the basis of a new human ethic of unconditional treatment of all people.
Note also, this new theological insight in Matt. 5 contrasts entirely with all previous historical understanding of deity as retaliatory and punitive. It is a unique historical breakthrough.
Look carefully at what the man actually said in this statement of his core theme: No more retaliatory ethic or justice (eye for eye). No more retaliation. Because if you do not retaliate then you will be just like God who does not retaliate (you will be the children of God). What a powerful and comprehensive rejection of retaliation at all levels.
Luke 6 approaches unconditional with the same insights about not just loving those who love you but going further to also love those who do not return the love. Here Jesus urges people to give generously and to not expect anything in return. Don’t expect repayment. Don’t let your unconditional treatment of others be short-circuited by their refusal to respond in kind. Love unconditionally anyway, no matter what the response of others might be. He was advocating the ending of all tit for tat thinking or conditional treatment of others.
John 8: the woman caught in adultery, according to Jewish law/scripture she should be condemned and stoned to death. But Jesus refuses to judge, condemn, or punish her. He rejects conventional payback justice responses and offers unconditional mercy.
Matthew 9: When asked why he exhibited unconditional inclusion toward so-called “bad” people, Jesus replied by quoting the Old Testament statement, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. God, he claimed, was not interested in rigid adherence to discriminating or excluding standards/practices/laws. God desired simple human compassion toward all alike. The inclusion and humane treatment of all people. This was a consistent emphasis in the Historical Jesus tradition- treating everyone according to human compassion and mercy, and not according to some legal standard or dehumanizing social standard/practice (especially not according to some punitive legal precept).
Matt.20: the vineyard workers were royally upset with the liberality of the owner who treats all the workers with the same generosity. Some had worked harder and longer and felt that it was only fair that they received more while the latecomers received less. They held a strict payback or eye for eye mindset (reward good according to conventional fairness conditions, and punish bad according to similar conventional conditions). And note that the full-day guys received the exact amount that they had agreed to work for. But they were upset that the owner also gave the same amount to the latecomers. They could not comprehend the scandalous generosity of the owner toward all, a generosity that comes from an unconditional mindset.
(Note: this is not advocating for running a business or the general economy according to this ideal. It is simply showing the freedom of people to be generous as they choose with their own goods. It is not an argument for some sort of coercive redistributionist policy.)
Luke 15: the story of the prodigal also includes another character (the older brother) that reacts with upset at the generosity of his father toward the unworthy or undeserving son, toward the bad or evil. The generous father is not interested in judgment, condemnation, or punishment. He is not interested in fair treatment according to conventional standards of reward and punishment. He wants to express generosity and a spirit of celebration, toward even the worst of people, no matter what they have done. Hence his unconditional inclusion and generosity, without any demand for some required payment or payback before forgiving and including (i.e. meeting prerequisite conditions). The father is not interested at all in demanding that conventional payback conditions be met first. And he says that he is willing to extend this generosity to both the good son and the bad son, to the careful and thrifty older son as well as to the careless waster son. There is no discrimination between good and bad in his generous response. He would treat all the very same- with unconditional love.
The older brother, like many good, moral and religious people, just does not get the merciful and generous spirit of his father. He cannot comprehend the unconditional spirit that forgives evil without demanding some payback condition be met first, the generous spirit that does not demand punishment for wrong done. Is this offensive to our sense of justice as fairness and rightness? Of course it is. But this scandalous unconditional treatment of all is getting us to what God is actually like.
Luke 11- Here Jesus states that just as we fallible and imperfect people know how to do good and give good gifts, how much more the perfectly good God will give good gifts. God is infinitely more loving and humane than we are, infinitely more than the best of people (Schillibeekx- God is much more human, more humane than any human being, again, infinitely so). We fallible humans know that non-retaliation is a more humane response, the way to peace, cooperation, and humane existence. How much more then does God know and act accordingly.
This is an especially difficult aspect of unconditional love for many good, moral people to accept. Their orientation to eye for eye justice leads them to hope that God will ultimately and finally exact justice for the many situations where “proper” payback justice was not exacted here in this world. But this is a profound misunderstanding of the unconditional goodness that is at the core of all reality. Ultimate unconditional love means that the very opposite of our hope for payback justice will be true. God is ultimate unconditional love, and infinitely more merciful and generous than we can even imagine. God is unconditional goodness to infinite and scandalous degree, infinitely more than the most scandalous generosity that we exhibit here (e.g. the vineyard owner, the father of the prodigal, or someone like Nelson Mandela). So Jesus’ argument is this: if you imperfect people know how to give good gifts, then how much more will the perfect and good father give good gifts. How much more loving, humane, merciful, and generous is God. Therefore, a proper grasp of deity as ultimate humaneness cannot expect some final and ultimate payback or punishment (final punitive justice). It cannot hope for retaliation from a God that is unconditional love to infinite degree.
We cannot then reserve any hope that some element of residual retaliation is lodged somewhere in some ultimate reality (i.e. God) for future fulfillment. Non-retaliation or unconditional love in God eliminates any such payback hope entirely.
John 9: Jesus denies the ancient and long-held belief that the gods punished people’s sin with disease, deformity, or disaster. All sickness and calamity in primitive time, and often still today, was viewed as punishment from the retaliating gods. As a Japanese woman said after the tsunami a few years back, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”
Matthew 18:21-22: When asked how many times we should forgive an offender, Jesus replies, “Seventy-seven times”. Which is to say, unlimited. Unconditionally.
Luke 10: the Samaritan exhibits no tribal exclusion or favoritism, based on tribal or insider loyalties. He is open, inclusive, generous, and caring toward even traditional enemies.
Luke 7: Jesus accepts anointing by a “sinful” woman without judgment, condemnation, demand for exclusion, or punishment. He refused to express conditional treatment of people according to conventional views of right or wrong, bad or good, insider or outsider.
Luke 19: Jesus is non-judgmental and welcoming (inclusive universalism) toward another “sinner”, Zacchaeus. Again, no conditions are demanded before acceptance and inclusion.
We also find the unconditional treatment of all people expressed in Jesus’ consistent habit of eating with the most despised and excluded people of his time- the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “sinners” or lawbreakers. He gave intense practical expression to his belief that all should be included equally without condition of any kind. It was an expression of generosity to all alike without discrimination between good or bad.
Another critical element to the expression of unconditional love is the embracing of the absolute freedom of others, the freedom to express themselves as uniquely different and original. Authentic love will not try to control or manipulate others, with guilt or any form of coercion. It will embrace the uniqueness of the other, the freedom to be different, even if annoyingly so.
Matthew 20: Jesus illustrates his orientation to unconditional human freedom by telling his followers that they should not exercise authority over others (not lord over others), but should instead serve others. He further emphasized this in his healing, telling people that their own faith had healed them, not God or himself (i.e. he refused to engender a sense of indebtedness or dehumanizing obligation in people). He then urged people to return to their homes and own lives, and not follow or subject themselves to him.
This new unconditional response and treatment of people, as expressed and taught by Jesus, is a baseline from which to evaluate all of the other teaching attributed to the man. Much of that teaching in the gospels contradicts the tenor of this unconditional theme and therefore should be challenged as not authentic or consistent with his core theme.
And as Jesus’ core teaching is coherently and consistently non-retaliatory, we can then conclude that he was non-apocalyptic. Apocalypse is a grand divine punishment, a divine retaliation against sinful humanity. As Jesus was consistently non-retaliatory in his core message, then he could not have advocated for divine apocalyptic retaliation, or apocalyptic in any form. This is especially clear in his Matt.5:38-48 statements, where he says that God does not retaliate. God is therefore not behind apocalyptic in any way, shape or form.
Whether we believe that Jesus was as consistent as we would like to conclude from the above passages, it does not ultimately matter. We understand unconditional reality much better today, and we ought to know by now that it is authentically humane response.
Once again, this consideration of the historical Jesus is not about appeal to authority but about illustration. Jesus is not authoritative on the ideal of unconditional, but illustrative. We possess our own authority- our personal human consciousness- regarding what is authentically human or humane. And that gets us to what an authentically humane God is about.
Dating the New Testament and related sources
The dating below is to provide more context for understanding the insight on unconditional and how Christianity rejected that and retreated to a primitive retaliation viewpoint.
The following are approximate dates for the original publication of the various New Testament books and related sources. Mark was the first New Testament gospel to be written. Matthew and Luke borrowed common material from Mark. They also used common material from some other source, known as Q (from Quelle, German for “source”). Q is considered to be the very first gospel of Jesus and it went through several subsequent revisions. Note carefully that the later revisions introduced a “stunning shift” away from Jesus’ original non-retaliation message.
The point of a stunning shift or contradiction still stands even if there was no Q. Jesus’ core theme of non-retaliation is clear in his Matt.5:38-48 summary. It stands in striking contrast to Christian retaliatory theology.
50s CE (Common Era)
The dating of the original Q source (the very earliest gospel of Jesus, serene and hopeful in tone, non-retaliatory, non-apocalyptic) is early 50s CE. Some researchers suggest 40-50 CE, others 30-70 CE. This original gospel of Jesus contains his core message of non-retaliation or unconditional treatment of all people, both good and bad (the statements of Matthew 5:38-48, similar to the material in Luke 6 that contain a clear rejection of eye for eye justice, and any form of payback or punishment).
Paul wrote Thessalonians also in the early 50s CE and this begins the “stunning shift” away from the original non-retaliation message of Jesus and back to a strong retaliation perspective. In Thessalonians Paul speaks repeatedly of the coming of the Lord, of people heaping up sins to the limit, of the Lord punishing men for sin, of destruction coming on people, there being no escape, of unbelievers suffering wrath, and so on. His views on apocalyptic retaliation and punishment were already well developed. And Paul strongly condemned anyone who held to any other gospel that differed from his Christ mythology. He may have been condemning those who held to the original Q source, the original gospel of Jesus himself.
Paul also wrote I Corinthians somewhere in the mid to late 50s CE (53-57). Galatians was written in the late 50s CE (56-57), 2 Corinthians somewhere between 53-57 CE, Romans between 56-58 CE.
Q2 (threatening and vengeful) was written in the 60s CE, perhaps before the Jewish War of 66 CE. This stunning shift from the original Q (non-retaliatory, non-apocalyptic in tone) to this later revision of Q, now strongly retaliatory and apocalyptic in tone, may have resulted from the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Some have suggested that the Jews viewed that temple destruction as an act of vengeance from God and therefore abandoned Jesus’ new insight on God as non-retaliatory. They then returned to their traditional view of God as retaliatory and punitive. This was a retreat to primitive eye for eye justice, a retreat to views of payback/punishment justice, and atonement theology. Also, the shift back to retaliation may have been due to Paul’s dominant influence on early Christian thought and theology.
Paul wrote Ephesians somewhere between 58-62 CE, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon between 61-63 CE. 1 Timothy was written between 64-65 CE, Titus was written in the same time frame. 2 Timothy was written between 66-67 CE (note also that there are challenges to Paul’s authorship of these books). Some say Mark was written between 60-70 CE, others say in the 70s. Further, it has been questioned whether Timothy was written in Paul’s time or later in the “proto-orthodox” age (Bob Brinsmead).
Q3 was apparently written around 75 CE, and in this revision Jesus is viewed as near deity. This shows the progressive development of the Christ myth or Paul’s Christology, his view of Jesus as approaching the status of a God-man. This is all part of the larger shift away from the actual teaching of Jesus to a message that focuses on Jesus himself, a message that deifies the man. It is part of the overall shift away from the original non-retaliation message of Jesus to the strong retaliation message of Paul’s Christ myth. Mark is also written around 70 CE.
80s CE and beyond
Matthew was written in the 80s CE, and perhaps John also. The Gospel of Thomas is also dated somewhere between 85-90 CE. Luke is believed to have been written after 90 CE and Acts was written in the early 2nd Century.
Note: Paul was a forceful person and he is primarily responsible for shaping the teaching of Christianity. His views dominated all others and he is largely responsible for the rejection of the original gospel of Jesus (non-apocalyptic, non-retaliatory) for his own gospel of Christ that is strongly apocalyptic and retaliatory. The New Testament is mostly Paul’s writing or the writing of those who supported his views. Christianity is Paul’s religion, not the religion of Jesus.
The Great Contradiction
Let me summarize further the problem with religion trying to embrace and express unconditional reality: the central problem with most religion is that it is an essentially conditional reality. As noted above, religion developed as a social institution of conditions (how to appease and please gods, how to live the right life and engage the right practices/rituals, and varied other religious conditions).
The stunning discovery about ultimate reality or authentically humane deity is that it is unconditional. People have come to understand that God demands no conditions at all but freely includes all, scandalously loves all, and pours forth unlimited generosity toward all. This is the very opposite of what religion teaches.
So you have these two opposing realities- stunningly contradictory. Religion as all about conditions. But Ultimate Reality or God is unconditional. Conditional religion cannot represent such unconditional reality. Religion therefore generally distorts ultimate reality entirely.
And religion, with a theology (view of God) that is conditional, then influences its adherents to treat others conditionally. Religious love becomes conditional love, reserved more for true believer insiders and not so much for unbelieving outsiders, who are ultimately to be rejected if they do not become true believers.
Another Great Contradiction
This page repeatedly presents the “stunning” contradiction between the historical Jesus and Christianity. This is arguably the greatest theological contradiction in all history.
Here is some background to this contradiction.
The story of human life on this planet is about human consciousness emerging in early humans and that sparks a great exodus out of animal reality and existence. This is not the exodus of modern humans out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. It is a far more profound exodus, the exodus out of animal existence and toward authentic human existence. This is the grandest liberation movement in all history. It is the most ennobling advance and progress in the entire history of life. It is progress from the inhumane toward the humane.
To simplify what is involved in this exodus I would suggest that there is one feature that defines animal and primitive human existence more comprehensively than any other. It is the feature of retaliation with its complementary elements of offense, fear, rage, revenge, and fighting against or destroying the competing enemy. Animals and primitives retaliate against and dominate one another in endless cycles of destructive payback rage.
To the contrary, the essential feature that defines authentic humanity or human existence would be non-retaliation, or to state it positively, unconditional response and treatment of others (i.e. unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion of all, unconditional generosity toward all). This feature is at the very foundation of peaceful and orderly human society. Unconditional response and relating is the basis of trade, commerce, urbanization (more dense forms of relating and existence), and overall civilization. See further comment below on this foundational principle of human progress and existence.
So these two features- retaliation and non-retaliation- define the essential difference between primitive animal-like existence and authentic human existence. And the grand narrative of humanity has been our exodus out from animal existence and toward a new human existence or civilization. The defining element of this story is that we are leaving a past of retaliation for a future of non-retaliation, or unconditional response and treatment of one another.
Unfortunately, many people still resist the full liberation from our primitive past and try to maintain or preserve features of that retaliatory past in our new human civilization. We find this in systems of justice oriented to punishment (eye for eye), in much small-scale human response based on getting even, and at the international level in the cycles of blow-for-blow retaliation between groups and nations (note, for instance, Israel/Palestine history over the past half century).
Now, more than any other phase of human history, the Jesus/Christianity contradiction illustrates this larger human story of exodus from retaliatory existence toward non-retaliatory existence. It also illustrates the endeavor of many people to resist and fight this liberation and progress. The historical Jesus, in a unique new manner, advocated for a new existence that would be defined by non-retaliation. He advocated the unconditional forgiving of all enemies, and the unconditional loving of enemies (including and treating enemies as intimate family). He taught that we should not get even or pay back wrong with more wrong. And to validate this new humane behavior he made a striking new breakthrough in theology with his argument that we should not retaliate because God did not retaliate against enemies. We should love enemies because God loved enemies. He appealed to the essential nature of Ultimate Reality for validation of this new humane ethic of non-retaliation.
But Paul, the chief architect of Christianity (see Tabor’s “Paul and Jesus”), rejected Jesus’ new breakthrough insight that God did not retaliate and instead advocated for the primitive view that God would retaliate and punish enemies (see, for example, his earliest writing in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and his main statement of theology, Romans). Paul rejected Jesus’ endeavor to liberate from a primitive past and instead preserved the feature of retaliation in his new religion, Christianity. He embedded the feature of retaliation in the highest authority, in divinity (God will repay or retaliate). He thereby reversed entirely the discovery of Jesus. Paul retreated from the liberation movement that Jesus had promoted. Paul thus created a completely opposite gospel to the gospel of Jesus. This made Christianity a stunning contradiction of what Jesus had actually taught. Remember, non-retaliation was the very core of Jesus’ gospel (Matt.5:38-48). Yet Christianity, with its retaliatory/punitive deity, claims to represent Jesus. Go figure, eh.
So the Jesus/Christianity contradiction potently illustrates the greater human story. The historical Jesus had inaugurated a new surge away from retaliation existence and toward non-retaliation. But Paul and Christianity resisted that new surge forward and retreated to primitive retaliation thinking and existence.
With the historical Jesus we have history’s most striking advance toward authentic human understanding and existence. With Paul and Christianity we have history’s most stunning retreat to primitive perception and belief (primitive because all past tribal perception of gods was oriented to retaliatory and punitive deities).
Note: Evidence for this Pauline or Christian reversal can be seen in Q (Quelle) research which is a sub-branch of historical Jesus research. Q research notes the “stunning shift” from an early non-apocalyptic gospel to a later version that is apocalyptic (e.g. Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel). The important thing to note in this research is that apocalyptic is most essentially about retaliation, divine retaliation toward imperfect humanity. Jesus Seminar and Q research does not make this element clear. They play around the real issue but lose it in apocalyptic generalities.
Many people have argued that non-retaliation is a weak response to evil. What is needed, they claim, is the iron fist response that countries like Israel use so effectively against their neighbors. But what has been the outcome of that eye for eye or payback response? More of the same old, same old ongoing violence. To the contrary, Nelson Mandela has given humanity a powerful example that non-retaliation or unconditional treatment of all, including enemies (i.e. unconditional forgiveness, unconditional inclusion, unconditional generosity) is the most potent and practical way to defeat the evil of cyclical retaliation. And the outcome of his approach? He was able to lead his country away from a potentially violent civil war and toward his vision of a peaceful, non-racial democracy. How contrary to situations like Bosnia or Rwanda where people chose retaliation with its horrific violence and disruption/destruction of life. See further comment on Mandela below.
Non-retaliation is not the same as dogmatic pacifism in the face of evil. Any common sense understanding of the human ideal of love (i.e. unconditional love) will accept that love is responsible to protect the innocent from those who will not or cannot restrain their own worst impulses to violence and harm. But while love will act to restrain evil and protect the innocent, it will at the same time try to avoid the hate and lust for vengeance that fuels ongoing punitive retaliatory responses. It will try to act with the best interests and well being of even offenders in mind. It will act to protect the innocent from violence but while doing so it will maintain the spirit of unconditional love and seek to express scandalous mercy, inclusion, and restoration toward the offenders.
Life with all its imperfection presents often challenging and frustrating situations that severely test the highest of human ideals. But again and again over history good people seeking to live authentic human lives have found ways to overcome the basest human impulses to hate and retaliate, and to inspire one another toward more humane ways of responding and relating. They have found ways to break patterns of tit for tat response and to promote new ways of relating with forgiveness, inclusion, and generous cooperation. These people have given us the widely desired outcomes of more peaceful and cooperative societies. That’s the future we all want.
Unconditional Is Impractical?
People react to the ideal of unconditional treatment of others as simply too impractical an ideal for our societies. They feel that it is too mushy for maintaining order and discipline among people. It is viewed as a weak response to evil. They believe that we need to maintain some stiff payback justice and punishment in order to keep people in line.
It may help to reassure such people that with unconditional you are not arguing for abandoning the responsibility to protect the innocent and the need to restrain violent people. What you are arguing for is a generally more humane treatment of all people. Our responses to others are too often shaped by retaliation and punishment and they don’t get us anywhere, except to more payback in return. More suffering. Note how, at smaller scales, so much human relating is governed by getting even. This endlessly messes up life, whether by fighting among family members, tit for tat practices in workplaces, and other similar response and relating. There is nothing practical or useful that comes from such conditional payback response.
I have argued in material below that unconditional treatment of others is actually the very basis of human civilization and progress. It is, for instance, at the foundation of the commerce that improves all of our lives. Unconditional response and treatment of others is therefore a robust response to the violence and evil of primitive life.
Look carefully at how unconditional treatment of others became the very foundation of our civilization. It is clearly the most practical thing in life. When early people began to restrain their urges to retaliate and destroy one another (early forgiveness and tolerance) they were then able to stop the cycles of blow for blow revenge that had previously governed tribal societies. This enabled them to start trading with one another (early commerce) and to start living together more peacefully (early urbanization). That new practice of unconditional cooperation back then was the beginning of modern civilization. Sure, it was rudimentary or embryonic but it was still authentic unconditional response and relating.
And yes, there is still selfishness, greed, and payback abuse throughout our existence but such things do not define our civilization or commerce in general. More common everywhere is the increasingly humane treatment of one another, the unconditional forgiving, the unconditional inclusion, and the unconditional generosity that lifts us all higher and higher. And so we progress in human society toward an ever better future. See Stephen Pinker’s comments below on the improvement in humanity over the millennia. People have become more empathic and forgiving and tolerant.
If we had continued to treat one another conditionally, according to primitive payback response (tit for tat), then we would still be destroying one another as some people are in varied parts of the world even today.
So the complaint again- is unconditional treatment of others too impractical for our societies? Not at all. To the contrary, it is the very foundation of our civilized life today. Far from being a mushy response to evil, it leads to a robust decrease in the retaliatory evil of primitive life. It enables the commerce that undergirds all the progress that we value in life (the “moralizing influence of gentle commerce”). Unconditional love also responds to all our profoundly human impulses, longings and needs, better than anything else can. It responds to the deeply felt need for justice as liberation, deliverance, and mercy. It responds to our deepest impulses for meaning, purpose, truth, and right. It answers all the erroneous punishment anxiety stirred by atonement mythology (the ancient and still deeply embedded felt obligation to appease angry spirits). The new perception that unconditional love defines ultimate reality, responds to atonement anxiety with unconditional security and safety for all. Punishment mythology is simply too mushy and sentimental to deal with such profound human longing and needs. Punishment thinking is not human enough, not robust enough, not practical enough to meet our most deeply felt needs and desires.
Unconditional then is the most practical of all things no matter what one looks at in human existence. It is the most enlightening, most liberating, and most humanizing of all realities in the cosmos and life. Unconditional is all about the courage to be fully human, to robustly counter the evil of retaliation, and to live as authentically human.
Additional note: Someone recently commented generally on the human desire for enduring peace. OK, ask yourself- what is at the heart of peace?, if not one courageous party (or both) in any potential conflict, choosing to forgive, to include without condition, and to open themselves to generosity toward the other? Unconditional response and treatment of others, as with so many other areas of life, is at the root of peace.
More on the potency and practicality of unconditional response and relating…
Consistently, just like the characters in Jesus’ short stories, good and moral people react to the ideal of unconditional love with offense. They claim that it is just too impractical an ideal for contemporary society and it is a weak response to evil. This was the very reaction of the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable, and similar to the reaction of the vineyard workers toward the unconditional generosity of the owner. All these good, moral people believed in tit for tat treatment of offenders.
But the entire world has just celebrated a profound illustration of unconditional love (a rejection of tit for tat response) in the life of Nelson Mandela. This one man gave us a stunning example of just how practical and powerful unconditional love is for improving life and bettering human society, in our contemporary world. Unconditional is indeed the most potent and practical response to the evil and violence of retaliation. It spared South Africa the horrors of violent civil war.
Early in his life Mandela rejected the non-violent policy of the ANC and argued that violence was a proper response for some situations. But later in life he realized how wrong and irrational his youthful zeal had been. He came to believe that treating others unconditionally would bring out the best in them and turn enemies into friends. This would produce the best outcomes for all. By forgiving and forgetting and including without conditions, Mandela repeatedly turned foes into colleagues and defused potential conflicts.
When he first left prison the South African situation was ripe for civil war. Young leaders like Chris Hani and Bantu Holomisa appealed to the more impulsive sectors of the population and catered to the widespread lust for revenge. “There were untold millions of blacks in South Africa for whom vengeance was more appealing than reconciliation, who could not and did not want to forget the past as Mandela urged them to do”, (Richard Stengel in Mandela’s Way). Stengel says that another leader, the Zulu Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was also willing to lead the country to civil war to achieve his own ends. Mandela included these men in his circle of colleagues and convinced them that there was a better way for the good of the country- to forgive, to reconcile, and to include all in a democratic non-racial society.
Mandela chose to exhibit unconditional love toward everyone and successfully led his country away from the violence of retaliation and toward a more peaceful society and future. He was rightly celebrated worldwide for this striking example of humanity.
And the South African situation stands in such contrast with other areas like Rwanda or Serbia where hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered and entire societies ruined for years by civil war. All because people gave way to the lust for retaliatory vengeance. It was said that in Serbia hatreds had been passed down over centuries from generation to generation till finally the opportunity for retaliation appeared and vengeance then erupted in the horror of violent bloodshed and mass death.
Now tell me seriously…is unconditional treatment of others still impractical or a weak response to evil? There is no more potent response to the evil of retaliation.
Unconditional and the use of force: Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation, makes this comment on the Chinese sage Laozi. Laozi believed that force and coercion were inherently self-destructive. He maintained that force should only be used when there was no alternative. Armstrong then writes the following, “Sometimes war was a regrettable necessity, but if (the sage) was forced to fight, the sage must always take up his weapons with regret. There must be no egotistic triumphalism, no cruel chauvinism, no facile patriotism. The sage must not intimidate the world with a show of arms, because this belligerence would almost certainly recoil on him. The sage must always try to bring the military expedition to an end. ‘Bring it to a conclusion, but do not boast; bring it to a conclusion, but do not brag; bring it to a conclusion, but do not be arrogant; bring it to a conclusion, but only where there is no choice; bring it to a conclusion, but do not intimidate’…therefore (not being aggressive) did not mean total abstinence from action, but an unaggressive, unassertive attitude that prevented the escalation of hatred….’The good leader in war is not warlike’… It was our attitude, not our action, that determined the outcome of what we did. People were always able to sense the feeling and motivation that lay behind our words and deeds” (p.412).
Discussion group comment on Mandela…
On what authority do we advocate for unconditional treatment of others as the authentically human approach? Do we need to appeal to the Jesus tradition or some religious authority (i.e. a holy book)?
“Bob, in the end it comes down to an enlightened human consciousness as you state below. It comes down to our own consciousness of the human or humane thing.
So setting aside Jesus- pretending that no such tradition ever existed- how would we then present the case for unconditional response and relating, or existence?
“Mandela offers a fascinating new example. He makes no appeal to any Jesus tradition but argues such things as… it (unconditional forgiveness and inclusion of enemies) helps turn enemies into friends. It brings out the best in others. It resolves potential conflicts. He appeals to his own thoughts on this and his own experience. He highlights it with his own stories. He even has more powerful stories than the ones that Jesus presented. For instance, the blacks at the rugby game were angry and venting hate toward the white team, their own South African team. It could have turned ugly. Mandela in a surprising display of generosity donned a white and green team uniform and shook the hands of the white team, identifying with them as his team, the team of all South Africans. That changed the mood in the stadium from divisive hate to acceptance and inclusion. And so with various other similar displays such as inviting his former guards home for meals and calling them his friends. These are all new parables of unconditional treatment of others, with no appeal to any Jesus. And they may even be more powerful examples as they impacted millions of people, defusing lust for vengeance, and turning it into forgiveness, inclusion of all, and movement toward a non-racial democratic society.
“And so with all these people who lose a loved one to some horrible tragic crime and then step forward to say that they forgive the offender. These are new parables of unconditional for today. New illustrations of what we know with our enlightened consciousness to be the truly humane, the authentically human way to be. And this can all be done without any Bible or Jesus. Mandela appealed to no such thing at all. And the man appeared at times to be atheist. He spoke of “the creation” bringing him to be an illustration of a very ordinary person accomplishing something unique.
“Also, in the Mandela story you get a very humanized person. Full of all the inconsistencies and imperfections of people that we know who are just like ourselves. This is no saintly Madonna-smile Jesus glowing from church pictures. Mandela often got real angry with his guards and wardens and this comes out in his letters and complaints. And he could be vain and put on a good show. But when it came to the crunch he did that unconditional thing so powerfully. So history (or “creation” as he called it) has given us a fresh “Jesus” for today, to illustrate this thing that we sense/know defines authentic humanity. That is authority enough. But even a Mandela is no more authoritative than our own personal understanding and experience of these things. Unconditional stands on its own and is validated by each human person or consciousness.
“Just another comment on this thing of authority and Mandela. Mandela’s unconditional resonated with most of humanity, with all common human consciousness everywhere. There was no legitimate complaint against the spirit of the man. We all got it. His expression of unconditional treatment of enemies was right and true. And so also in contrast, what happened in Bosnia was universally viewed as wrong. Our common human consciousness gets it. That is the basis of our authority. Jesus or no Jesus. Holy book or no holy book.
“Lately, I have been thinking of what orients me to unconditional. And, even if everyone else in the world disagreed, I would still center myself on this as the ultimate truth of ultimate reality. My personal sense of the truly human thing. My own authority.
“But fortunately, over history we have so much evidence that human consciousness has generally learned to rethink ultimate reality as ever more humane ( I use the term ultimate reality in its all-encompassing meaning here- God and humanity and all things). It is part of our ongoing humanization of all things, all perception and all existence. This comes from our fundamental human impulse, the impulse to be truly human, part of the growth over history of human compassion or love. Even someone like atheist Pinker can see the amazing growth in empathy and humanity over history (the move away from retaliation/vengeance and violence).
“All life has been on this trajectory, toward something better, something more humane. It arises from human consciousness and our basic human impulses that we see all through life. Impulses for meaning, for understanding and explanation. For something more human.
“And yes, we take what we can from whoever said such things as in the NT gospels. But ultimately we make our own judgments and conclusions today on our own authority.
“And in the NT there is still that profound contradiction between those Matt. statements and the rest of the NT., Q or no Q. And we arrived at our own conclusions on unconditional, not through any Q.
“So people can seek to disprove something like Q and that is fine (there is debate among biblical scholars about the actual existence of Q)…let the debate rage freely. Q is not any final authority that we need to appeal to. Just as Jesus is not any final divine authority to appeal to. We have our own personal authority, our own personal sense of the truly human thing.
“The human future is non-retaliation or unconditional love. This is the purpose of the cosmos, life on this planet and this purpose is evident in the humanization of civilization or the humanizing process in civilization. It is an unstoppable trajectory that can be traced from the beginning to now and into the future.
“So the ethic and theology on this are clear and right. It needs no defense but is self-validating just as people like Jesus presented it.
“And think of that Akkadian father. What possessed him to say that (i.e. comments on non-retaliation) out of the blue (as far as we know it was out of the blue)? What authority led him to think and speak thus? What scripture did he have to fall back on? Not likely much of anything. Not likely much of any unconditional tradition before him. But his humanity, his human consciousness led him to such a conclusion. It felt more human, or whatever he thought it was. So he did it. And he was right. It is self-validating as the right thing to think and the right way to act. The more human way.
“And that is how all humane features have developed over the past. Our origins were brutal and animal like. But compassion arose in that brutal past and has grown and developed endlessly to the more human world we have today. It started somewhere, against the grain of more prominent ways of existing, more brutal ways of existing (again, the research of Payne on force and Pinker on violence and the decrease of such over history). So someone started it all and it has grown and grown more and more toward unconditional as the ultimate in human existence. And naturally that leads us to rethink divinity in similar but even more transcendent terms. And such is right and true.”
Bob Brinsmead on Non-retaliation in relationships
Non-retaliation in human relationships is extremely down to earth. It starts with ordinary, everyday relating, with those closest to us. Since love is about respecting and accepting the freedom of the other, we have to conclude that the tendency to control and manipulate others is inhuman, contrary to love (evil). It is also part of the hierarchical way of relating which is essentially the way of the animal kingdom.
To love unconditionally means that there will be no retaliation in a relationship. Yet retaliation is generally at the heart of all personal friction. For instance, if one party (partner) feels neglected, ignored, and not accorded one’s rights in any given situation, the other party may seek justice, fairness, or balance through some subtle kind of retaliation. It can take many forms- like an attitude which says, “It is only fair that I should neglect your needs just as you have neglected my needs”, or, “I will make you feel offended/miserable/peeved, just as you have made me feel offended/miserable/peeved”. Or, “I will give you back the same kind of medicine/treatment”. Or perhaps worst of all, use guilt as a lever to change/control/manipulate the other person. These (and we could add a legion more) are just examples of retaliation.
Retaliation can only perpetuate strife rather than end it.
Retaliation is the act of withholding love until the offending other changes and repays the debt you perceive is owed to you. Retaliation is the opposite of forgiveness. It is the declaration of war rather than the cessation of hostilities. On the other hand, the truly human way of relating- a thing which Jesus calls the rule of God- is not to retaliate, that is, not to seek justice by treating others as they have treated us. As Mandela said regarding the hostile others, “Let us surprise them with our generosity”. Bob Brinsmead
Thinking of a new grand narrative (macro-story, meta-narrative) Wendell Krossa
Basic features of any grand narrative must include insight from the scientific discovery of the past few centuries. But science, valuable as it is, has a limited mandate and cannot (should not) suggest the spiritual elements so vital to a fully-orbed human impulse for meaning and purpose.
And for those tired of religious and irrational mythical explanation but desiring some spiritual meaning to reality and life, there can still be a healthy spiritual component that fits the overall scientific story of reality and life (Panentheism theology does some interesting work on this- see, for instance, “In Whom We Live And Move And Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World”). Some of the spiritual element may be derived from areas of experience/insight such as the Near-Death Experience movement.
I would argue that the ultimate reality behind all is Unconditional Love and this best explains the humanizing impulse evident behind all the great emergences and trends in reality. Note, for instance, the trend of the cosmos toward more habitability for biological and conscious life (more ordered, more complex, more developed). Note the development of life toward the supreme complexity of the human brain able to mediate consciousness. And note the supreme expression of human consciousness in creating human civilization with its core trend toward something more humane (e.g. decreasing violence, more empathic and peaceful people- e.g. Stephen Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature). In human civilization we have the suitable arena where we can struggle and learn to become more authentically human.
In all reality and life we find evidence of a great humanizing impulse being expressed and Unconditional Love best explains this impulse. This spiritual element takes us further in resolving the primary human impulse for meaning and purpose, further than more purely materialist explanations of reality and life.
So to summarize again, here are some the most basic features of a new grand narrative of reality and life.
Life rises toward something ever better and does not decline toward something worse.
Life is wide open with infinite potential for the creation of something better, and not closed or ending any time soon (i.e. always facing “imminent” collapse in apocalyptic and alarmist narratives).
Humanity is an essentially creative and good force in life, not a fallen and corrupting force.
No salvation or sacrifice is required to resolve life problems for there are no angry, punitive forces/spirits to appease or placate. The “salvation” of the world is seen in the gradual development of conscious humanity as an increasingly creative force in life, resolving all problems that arise and finding solutions that make life better and more humane for all. In that gradual historical development and progress we see the expression of the ultimate reality that is Unconditional Love.
The new narrative posits core goodness (unconditional love at the heart of all reality), a long-term trajectory of improvement and advance into an unlimited future, with a goal of more humane existence (the humanization of all things). This is entirely contrary to the old narrative of core threat, long-term trajectory of decline toward worsening future, with the goal of catastrophic ending.
Two Essay Summary
Two essays of particular interest on this site (see topic bar above):
“Decline or Rise?”- Contrary to endless apocalyptic speculation, civilization is not declining toward something worse but is actually rising toward something ever better (so also life in general). This is due to the fact that there are no limits to human creativity and therefore no limits in the natural world (i.e. the fallacy of limited resources). Nature is not fragile and on the verge of collapse. Rather, the fundamental truth about the natural world is tenacious resilience and infinite generosity (note the shale gas/oil revolution, methane hydrate discoveries, and looming breakthroughs in dark energy).
Also, the rise and progress of life and civilization speaks to underlying realities and how that relates to human meaning and purpose. The most profound element in all this progress is the trend toward a more humane existence (e.g. the decrease in violence over history, the increasing development of humane features such as empathy across the human population).
“Retaliation/Unconditional”- This essay deals with the two dominant themes that have shaped human thought and behavior more than others. It looks at their lines of descent through history, and outcomes in human society. Retaliation summarizes all that was wrong with the human past, including the major error of the ancients in projecting this feature onto ultimate realities (i.e. onto forces/spirits/gods). Unconditional response and relating summarizes the grand liberation into a truly human future. It defines the essential nature of authentic humanity and authentic human existence.
Comment From Discussion Group- Wendell Krossa
“A critical part of what we are trying to do here with unconditional has to do with how this insight corrects the deeply embedded errors in human narratives, things that have become deeply rooted in human subconscious and impact human thinking, feeling, and response in a negative manner. Errors that reinforce the worst of inherited drives, guilt, shame, fear, and violence. Unconditional cleanses human subconscious of all such things. It reshapes the deepest themes of our worldviews, our outlook or perspective. And then it leavens human consciousness with a new ideal, a humanizing ideal, an enlightening ideal. Unconditional is the most humanizing, most robust, most courageous thing ever discovered. The most liberating ideal (liberating from the basest features of our primitive past).”
“There is a good thought in this comment from Hank, ‘Love cannot generate fear’. Some things in human thought and life are just better than others for generating good in life. I was thinking of environmental alarmism and the damage it causes to life. The fear, angst, waste, anti-human sentiment, and anti-progress activism. And so over history- people have said things and done things that deflate hope, undermine love (e.g. the tribal love of most religion), and so much more that is less than fully human. So many ideas, actions, and movements that have not contributed the best for humanity and life. OK then- what things to say and do that will contribute good to life? Remembering that we are always in a position of imperfect knowledge, always learning and growing. But something like unconditional love is an absolute pinnacle of safety. You cannot go wrong with such an ideal. It cannot generate any evil. It keeps you safe in a place of generating only good for life and humanity”.
“Regarding my argument that unconditional love is the very foundation of civilization and commerce…Remember how it all began, with trading. The ancients learned to overcome those tribal urges to retaliate and get even with enemies/others over all sorts of slights and offenses. They recognized that if they forgave and cooperated then all would benefit. That was the beginning of trade, domestication, urbanization, and commerce in general, and hence, human civilization. It was all based fundamentally on unconditional response and relating, no matter how embryonic or primitive at the time”.
Humanity’s greatest mistake
One error in early human beliefs stands above all others- the creation of retaliating and punitive gods (see, for example, Sumerian Flood mythology, Wikipedia). That profoundly mistaken perception of deity has infected and poisoned human understanding, belief, and consciousness in general, throughout subsequent history. It has endlessly burdened people with unnecessary fear, anxiety, and despair.
Also noteworthy in regard to this angry gods mythology is the fact that inhumanity projected onto deity has long been used to validate the same inhumanity toward other people. Deity is the highest authority that people appeal to for validation of their behavior.
The error of retaliatory/punitive deity then led to the creation of apocalyptic mythology- the belief in an ultimate act of divine retaliation or punishment that would end the world. Apocalyptic subsequently shaped the belief systems of most religions in both Western and Eastern traditions (see Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas and related research). It became the fundamental framework of Christianity (see James Tabor’s “Paul and Jesus”, notably the statements that Christianity is Paul’s religion and that apocalyptic shaped everything that Paul said and did).
Myths of punishing gods also sparked the creation of Salvationism- religious schemes to appease and please the angry gods, often by the offering of sacrifice. Salvationism views people as fallen or sinful, and claims that this human imperfection angers the gods and some atonement must be made. With their dismal view of humanity as corrupted, salvation religions then promote shame and guilt over being human. They engage endless effort to control and restrain flawed people who they believe cannot be trusted with freedom. We also see this today in the anti-development activism of environmentalism, a movement that similarly views people as corrupt and in need of top down restraint.
Environmentalism embodies an apocalyptic orientation in its views that life was more pristine before humanity (original golden age), corrupt people have ruined the original paradise, and now we face a looming environmental collapse or apocalypse. Apocalyptic mythology finds endless new expression in varied scenarios of looming chaos, catastrophe, or disaster, whether environmental, economic, political, or social.