Preface to Old Story/New Story themes
The belief/behavior relationship, or theology/ethics relationship, is as old as conscious humanity. People, driven/inspired by their primary impulse for meaning, have always tried to model their lives and societies according to some greater ideal or authority, mainly deity. Plato did this with his argument that the ideal life and society should be shaped according to the invisible Forms or perfect Ideals. The Hebrews followed this pattern in the Old Testament, shaping all aspects of their lives and society according to what they believed was the law, word, and will of their God. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted this practice among the Balinese of Indonesia who built their villages and homes according to what they believed was the divine model.
The critical role of belief in shaping human behavior and society (inspiring, validating human behavior) makes it vitally important that our guiding ideals/authorities are fully humane, in line with common humanity’s ever-advancing understanding of the authentically humane in all areas of life.
The 18 “Old story themes” below are some of the most dominant and influential ideas in history. They have shaped human consciousness across history via mythical and religious traditions. They continue to shape the worldviews of most moderns in “secular” or ideological versions.
The consequences from these subhuman ideas have been, and still are, significantly damaging, both personally and across wider societies. Evidence? On the personal level see psychotherapist Zenon Lotufo’s Cruel God, Kind God. See also the Millennial Studies historians noted in sections below- Richard Landes, Arthur Mendel, and David Redles. They have detailed how the ‘apocalyptic millennial’ complex of ideas contributed to the mass-death movements of the past century (Marxism, Nazism, environmental alarmism). Mendel (Vision and Violence) was right to conclude that “apocalyptic has been the most violent and destructive idea in history”. Also, Bob Brinsmead has often reminded us that “Men never do greater evil than when they do it in the name of God”.
The project to embrace better alternatives is about the full transformation and liberation of consciousness, and more humane outcomes in human life. The old ideas are no longer credible for defining or explaining reality and life.
(Revised) Old story themes, new story alternatives (rethinking 18 of the most fundamental ideas from across human history)
1. Old story theme: The myth of deity as a judging, punishing, and destroying reality that metes out final justice- rewarding the good, punishing the bad (i.e. threat theology). This myth continues as the cohering center of the world religions and is now also given expression in ‘secular’ versions such as vengeful Gaia, angry planet, pissed Mother Earth, retributive Universe, and payback karma- all the new retaliatory, destroying gods of environmental alarmism, history’s latest apocalyptic movement.
The myth of God as a retaliating, punishing reality has long under-girded human justice as similarly retaliatory and punitive. From early human beginnings, belief in a punitive deity has incited and affirmed the demand for punitive response to human imperfection and failure.
This primitive view of deity as punitive, of God as the Ultimate Destroyer (via apocalypse, hell), is the single most important “bad idea” to engage and correct. All other bad religious ideas are anchored to this foundational pathology in human thought.
New story alternative: The “stunning new theology” that God is an inexpressible “no conditions love”, a non-retaliatory Reality. The adjective “unconditional” points to our highest understanding of love and is therefore most critical for defining deity as transcendent “Goodness”. Takeaway? There is no ultimate judgment, no ultimate exclusion of anyone, no demand for payment or sacrifice to appease angry deity, no need for redemption or salvation, and no ultimate punishment or destruction of anyone (no such mind-perverting horror as “hell”).
Why bother with these speculative metaphysical corrections? Because we need to counter humanity’s “primal fear of after-life harm” that is the outcome of millennia of shaman/priests/pastors beating bad religious ideas into human consciousness and subconscious. Also, we need to sever the age-old relationship of validating bad behavior with bad beliefs. However you may try to affirm justice as punitive treatment of the failures of others, know that deity as unconditional reality does not validate such efforts. See “The Christian Contradiction (Historical Jesus versus Paul’s Christ myth)”, below.
None of the great world religions has ever presented the reality of an unconditional deity. All religion across history has been essentially about conditional reality- i.e. the required conditions to appease and please religious deities (conditions of right belief, proper religious rituals, religious lifestyle, demanded sacrifices/payment for wrong, etc.).
The new theology of God as unconditional Love also overturns the most psychically damaging myth that has burdened and enslaved humanity from the beginning- the myth of divine retribution/punishment exhibited through the nastier features of life. While there are natural and social consequences to living in this world and to our choices and behavior, there is no punitive Force or Spirit behind natural world events and consequent suffering (i.e. natural disasters, disease, or the cruelty of others). This myth of punitive deity behind such things, whether angry God, vengeful Gaia, angry Planet, retributive Universe, or karma, has long burdened people with unnecessary guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety. Like the distressed Japanese woman who asked after the 2011 tsunami, “Are we being punished for enjoying life too much?”
Paul used this primitive threat theology on the Corinthians, claiming that their sicknesses and deaths were punishment from God for their sins.
(Note the qualifiers below on holding people accountable for their behavior, the need to restrain bad behavior, responsible human maturing and growth, and restorative justice approaches. All necessary for healthy human development, in this world.)
2. Old story theme: The myth of a “perfect beginning” and that God is obsessed with perfection in the world and life, that God creates perfection (e.g. Eden), that God is enraged at the subsequent loss of perfection, and now wants to punish imperfection. This idea of deity obsessed with perfection originated with the misunderstanding that any good and all-powerful deity would only create a perfect world, and if things are not perfect now then blame corrupt humanity for mucking things up that were once perfect. It can’t be God’s fault.
We- humanity- have always had difficulty understanding and embracing imperfection in life and in ourselves. Imperfection, and fear of divine rage at imperfection, has long deformed human consciousness with fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, and depression. We rightly struggle to improve ourselves and others, and to improve life in general, but we ought to do so without the added psychic burden of fear of angry deity or divine threat over our remaining imperfection.
New story alternative: The world began in “chaotic imperfection” but has gradually evolved toward something more complex and organized. Life on this planet is never perfect, but with a lot of hard work it gradually improves. And over history, humanity has created something better out of the original imperfect, wilderness world.
In this new story theme, God has no problem with imperfection but includes it in the original creation. Imperfection (in a new story) serves the important purpose of providing an arena where humanity struggles with a messy wilderness situation in order to learn to create something better.
And, most critical, we learn the most important lessons of life in our struggle with our own imperfection. For example, we learn how to love in our struggle with the animal inheritance in ourselves, those base drives to tribally exclude, to dominate, to punish and destroy differing others. We learn what it means to be authentically human in our “righteous struggle against evil” (Joseph Campbell), the battle against evil that runs through the center of every human heart (Solzhenitsyn).
Perfection, aside from being boring, does not bring forth the best of the human spirit. To the contrary, struggle with imperfection in life, and in others, brings forth the best in humanity. See Julian Simon’s argument (Ultimate Resource) that our struggle with problems in the world leads to creative solutions that benefit others. See also the comment below on Joseph Campbell’s outline of human story and our struggle with a personal monster or enemy (i.e. some life problem that may be physical, mental/emotional, interpersonal, financial, social, etc.). That struggle is where we gain insights and learn lessons that can help others. Personal suffering can also inspire empathy with others that similarly suffer.
(Note: The use of the term “imperfection” is not meant to generalize and diminish the horror and trauma that people suffer from natural disaster, disease, and the cruelty of others. But ‘old story’ explanations of the imperfection of the world as a fall from original perfection due to human corruption/sin, and subsequent imperfection introduced as punishment for that original sin… such myths tend to affirm deity as cruel, punitive, and destructive- God as the great obsessive-compulsive Punisher of imperfection. That only adds psychic suffering to general human suffering- i.e. the added burden of unnecessary mental, emotional suffering. We can do better and understand original imperfection in alternative ways. And this is the impulse to theodicy, as roughly the belief there is Ultimate Good/Love behind all. Add here the view that the world is an experience or learning arena.)
3. Old story theme (related to previous): The myth that humanity began as a more perfect species but then became corrupted/sinful (the “fall of man” myth). The idea of original human perfection, and subsequent human degeneration toward something worse today, is still common in the “noble savage” mythology that dominates throughout academia- the myth that original hunter/gatherer people were more pure and noble but humanity has degenerated in civilization. See, for instance, Steven LeBlanc’s ‘Constant Battles’. Contemporary versions of “fallen humanity” mythology include Green religion’s belief that humanity is a “virus” or “cancer” on the Earth. These are pathologically anti-human views.
New story alternative: Humanity has emerged from the brutality of animal reality (original imperfection) but has gradually become more humane, less violent, and more civilized. See James Payne’s History of Force, and Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Also, the amassed evidence on humanity improving all areas of life across long-term history shows that “we are more creators than destroyers” (Julian Simon in Ultimate Resource).
A new alternative to “fallen humanity” myths will recognize that humanity, with human spirit and human consciousness, is intimately united with the greater Consciousness at the core of reality that is Love. This “union with deity” is more than relationship. It is more about essential nature. This means that the same Love that is God, is also the essential nature of our human spirit or human self. We are most essentially “beings of Love”. We are fundamentally good. We are not “fallen humanity possessing a core ‘sinful nature’” as we have long been told by mythological and religious traditions.
The real issue is not how far humanity has fallen (the mythical perspective) but the real wonder is how far we have risen (the evidence-based perspective) from our brutal animal and primitive human past. Our improvement over history is evidence of the essential goodness of humanity naturally emerging over time.
(Note: How to explain continuing bad human behavior? We have inherited a core animal brain with its base impulses to tribalism and exclusion of differing others (small band mentality), to domination of others (alpha male/female), and to retaliatory and destructive response to others viewed as “enemies”. Our human consciousness/spirit, existing alongside our inherited animal side, explains the great “battle between good and evil that takes place in every human heart”, (Alexander Solzhenitsyn). The bad side in humanity is not “inherited sin” but is better understood in terms of the inherited animal in us. See Lyall Watson’s “Dark Nature”. Fortunately, to paraphrase Jeffrey Schwartz, “We are not our brains”.)
4. Old story theme: The myth that the world began as an original paradise and that ancient “golden age” has been lost and the trajectory of life is now “declining”, or degenerating, toward something worse (“Each present moment is a degeneration from previous moments”, Mircea Eliade).
The trajectory of life as a decline toward something worse is a core feature of apocalyptic mythology.
New story alternative: Life does not decline overall but the long-term trajectory of life shows that it actually “improves/rises” toward something ever better. Humanity, as essentially good and creative, is now responsible for the ongoing improvement of life and the world. (Note Julian Simon’s conclusion that we- humanity- have been “more creators than destroyers”.)
Evidence of life improving over past millennia and recent centuries: Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource, Greg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth, Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist, Indur Goklany’s The Improving State of the World, Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist, Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom, Desrocher and Szurmak’s Population Bombed, Bailey and Tupy’s Ten Global Trends, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, James Payne’s History of Force, Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and others.
On the longer “improving” trend of the overall cosmos and the long-term emergence of life toward more complexity, organization, and suitability for carbon-based life to mediate human consciousness, see Brian Green’s ‘The Universe Story’ and Harold Morowitz’s ‘The Emergence of Everything’. Further, even Darwin affirmed that evolution trended toward something more “perfect”.
This theme of long-term improvement, of a fundamental direction toward something better, is critical for countering apocalyptic nihilism and affirming hopefulness.
5. Old story theme: The myth that natural disasters, disease, human cruelty, and death are expressions of divine punishment. This adds the unnecessary psychic burden of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame to already unbearable physical suffering. Paul tormented the Corinthians with this argument that their sicknesses and deaths were punishment from God for their sins.
New story alternative: While there are natural and social consequences all through life, there is no punitive, destroying deity behind the imperfections of life. Ultimately there is only Love at the core of reality (see alternatives below on the relationship of Love to the freedom and randomness in life).
6. Old story theme: The myth that humanity has been rejected by the Creator, that we are separated from our Source and we need to be reconciled, we need to restore the broken relationship with God, via a violent blood sacrifice.
New story alternative: No one has ever been separated from the unconditional Love at the core of reality. That Love has incarnated in all humanity in the human spirit and consciousness. That love is the essence of the human self or person, though its expression is often hindered and buried by the free choice of people to act inhumanely.
But be assured that no one has ever been separated from the indwelling love that is God, no matter their failure to live as human. God as love is always closer than our breath or atoms. God as love is inseparable from our common human spirit and consciousness.
Note: God incarnated in all humanity demands a radical rethink of theology or God theory. There has never been any such thing as a separate Sky God up in some distant heaven. God has always been intensely and immediately present in all humanity and this is evident in the best of humanity, in all human goodness. God is present in all human raging against evil and suffering. God is present in all human effort to make life better. There has never been any such thing as an absent or silent God. Just listen to and observe the goodness in people all around you.
Again, as stated similarly in number 3 above, this new alternative overturns entirely the historically persistent myths of “fallen”, “essentially sinful”, or “bad-to-the-bone” humanity.
Further, the idea of God incarnated equally in every person presents a new element for affirming equality among all people, and equal respect for all. God incarnated in humanity offers a stunning new element to defining the essential core of being human- what we really are as human persons. The Near-Death Experiences repeatedly note this feature of the astounding human unity with deity- of inseparable oneness.
7. Old story theme: The myth of a cosmic dualism, a Good spirit in opposition to a bad spirit- a demonic entity or Satan. Deity is thereby portrayed as embracing an essentially tribal reality- a good God that wars against evil opponents, a God that favors believers and hates/punishes unbelievers. This idea of a fundamental cosmic dualism is played out through varied human dualisms- such as the tribal mindset of “us versus our enemies”, true believers versus unbelievers, or other racial, national, religious, or ideological divisions (include the use of gender as an oppositional divide). Dualism thinking deforms human identity and buries the fact of our essential oneness in the human family. Dualism thinking affirms the inherited animal impulse that orients people to small-band thinking and behavior (the tribal exclusion of differing others). Embracing dualism as a divine reality and ideal will orient people to opposing, dominating, and fighting/destroying others as ‘enemies’.
New story alternative: We all come from the same Oneness and we are all free equals in the one human family. We are not essentially defined by the tribal categories and divisions that we create to set ourselves apart from one another. We are most essentially defined by our common human spirit and human consciousness. And the essential nature of our human spirit is universal or unconditional love. That love is the expression of our authentic core humanity.
Added note: Most modern story-telling (e.g. movies) continues to re-enforce the primitive themes of dualism and tribalism. Note the all-too-common movie theme of good guy versus bad guy, and ‘justice’ as the good guy beating and destroying the bad guy in some way. There is nothing in such narratives about the oneness of the human family. Instead, only further affirmation of infantile tribalism and retaliation between people. The only dualism that we ought to be concerned about is that of “the battle-line between good and evil that runs through the heart of every person”, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This is the dualism between our true human spirit or self and our inherited animal impulses.
Caution: The above comment on essential oneness is not intended to diminish the urgency to fight evil and affirm good in this world. But some have suggested that dualism, and the apparent separation related to dualism- the division between good and bad- is only a temporal feature of this material realm. This world with its varied dualisms provides an arena for us to live out our stories and engage our varied “righteous struggles against evil”. Others have said that we only experience and learn what good means in our struggle with the opposites of good- i.e. the bad in others, and in life. Bad/evil in this realm provides a contrasting context in which we experience and learn good. Joseph Campbell suggests that this dualistic realm is where “we act out our differing roles on God’s stage”. But he and others suggest that the dualism between good and bad exists only here in this world. It is temporal and not part of any greater timeless reality. See also Natalie Sudman’s The Application of Impossible Things.
Further note on oneness: The oneness of all, along with the core unconditional nature of deity, counters the myth of some people as especially chosen of God and favored by God more than others. There are no “elect people”, or special “children of God”. The people who see themselves as “true believers”, more so than others, are not closer to God than any other people. Essential oneness means that all humanity, that is every person, has God within them, equally. All people have equal access to the immediacy of God that is everywhere present as the sustaining Core or Source of all reality. Further, there are no special “holy places”- temples, churches- where limited religious groups gain more access to God than the ordinary lives and daily mundane spaces of all people. Essential oneness is a more humane theological basis for human equality.
8. Old story theme: The myth of a looming apocalypse as the final judgment, punishment, and destruction of all things. The myth of an apocalyptic ending embraces the pathological theology of God as the destroyer of all things. This ideal has incited endless destructive violence among the followers of such an ideal. Arthur Mendel called apocalyptic “the most violent and destructive idea in history” (Vision and Violence).
To embrace and advocate apocalyptic mythology is to embrace and advocate the epitome expression of nihilism- i.e. the complete and final destruction of life and the world.
Apocalyptic mythology still dominates much of modern story-telling, whether movies, TV, literature (the sub-genre of “post-apocalyptic”), and environmental alarmism or Green religion.
New story alternative: There are problems all through this imperfect world but there is no looming threat of final destruction and ending (the religious understanding of apocalypse since Zoroaster). The apocalyptic alarmist exaggerates problems in the world out to “end of days” scenarios, thereby distorting the true state of things, and that promotes fear (the survival impulse) and even destructive violence in populations. The inciting of violence is evident in the consequent felt need of people to “coercively purge” what is believed to be some great threat. See the notes in following sections on the Marxist, Nazi, and Green apocalyptic movements and their mass-death outcomes.
In the new story alternative theme there is no destroying Force or Spirit behind the harsher elements of this world. Ultimately, there is only creating and sustaining Love. And again, the imperfection of this world serves the purpose of providing a learning arena for humanity to struggle with in order to create something ever better.
Further, the destructive elements in the cosmos and world exist as part of the ongoing creative process (i.e. death as entirely natural and serving the purpose of making room for new life), just as Second Law dissipation of energy is “virtuous waste” that serves the creation of more order (Huber and Mills in Bottomless Well). But again, the element of destruction in the natural world is not evidence of some punitive deity threatening a final punishment and ending of all things. (See also the notes below on “natural consequences”.)
Further helpful here- In response to the theodicy question “Is this the best possible world?” some have made the argument that there are also beneficial outcomes from the destructive elements of nature. For example, the plate tectonic movement that generates destructive earthquakes also generates mountain-building, which creates differences in climate and that contributes to the development of diversity in emerging life (i.e. different environmental pressures on populations and the change that brings forth). Our project is to adapt to such things and we have done better over time. This is evident across history in the decreasing loss of life from natural disasters.
9. Old story theme (key element- instantaneous transformation of life versus “gradualism” in the trajectory of history and life):
The always “imminent” element in apocalyptic proclamations (i.e. the “end is nigh”) demands urgent action to “save” something, to save the world or life. The exaggerated threat of looming apocalyptic ending incites the survival/salvation urge in people. They feel the need to take immediate and sometimes violent action to purge what is presented to them as the threatening thing. Alarmed populations are then more easily manipulated to embrace policies that will abandon the democratic process and instead will support “coercive purification” schemes directed at purported threats from opponents/enemies. End-of-life or end-of-world claims incite populations to embrace policies that will coercively and instantaneously install their version of salvation and security in some safe paradise.
Alarmism that exaggerates and distorts the true state of things has too often unleashed the totalitarian impulse across history.
We saw the violence of instantaneous transformation policies in the 100 million deaths that stemmed from Marxist urgency to coercively purge the world of the threat from “destructive capitalism”. Marxism pushed for “instantaneous transformation of societies”, to immediately install its vision of communal utopia. We also saw apocalyptic urgency and totalitarianism in the 50-60 million deaths from Nazi alarmism and consequent action to violently purge Germany of the imagined threat from “destructive Jewish Bolshevism”. Nazis then coercively pushed to establish the millennial paradise of the Third Reich. And we are seeing “coercive purification” again today in the environmental alarmist push to save the world from “destructive humanity in industrial civilization” and to restore the lost paradise of a wilderness world (Mendel in Vision and Violence, and Herman in The Idea of Decline).
New story alternative: There is no “end of days” just over the horizon. Rather, life is improving gradually as creative humanity solves problems. The escapist desire for an instantly-installed utopia misses the point of the human story as the struggle with imperfection throughout the world, a struggle that is gradually succeeding. Such struggle is essential to human development, learning, and growth. Mendel in Vision and Violence is good on this issue of “gradualism” versus the violence of “instantaneous transformation” movements. Humanity is learning to patiently improve life through democratic approaches that do not coercively overwhelm the freedom of differing others.
The search for instantaneous salvation comes from the irresponsible escapist mindset of apocalyptic types who cannot endure the struggle to gradually and democratically improve an imperfect world. Such people irresponsibly seek to escape to some instantly installed utopia, even if coercively and violently established.
10. Old story theme: The demand for a salvation plan- a required sacrifice or atonement (debt payment, punishment) as necessary to appease/satisfy some great threat or threatening reality, whether a religious God or vengeful Gaia, angry planet, upset Mother Earth, punitive Universe, or payback karma.
New story alternative: In a stunning rejection of atonement mythology, Jesus rejected the payment of debt as the required demand of God. He advocated the highest form of love, or goodness, as giving to everyone without expecting any payment in return. He stated in Luke 6:30-36, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then… you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”.
Jesus’ argument is that ‘no conditions love’ (not expecting payment) would enable people to be like God who was similarly no conditions love. The argument of Matthew 5 and Luke 6 is that if we do this- give without expecting payment in return- then we will be like God who does not expect payment. God loves and gives, and does not expect anything in return. This overthrows the age-old religious belief that God demands payment or punishment for wrongs, that God demands atonement or sacrifice.
The fundamental nature of God as unconditional love means absolutely no conditions. None. To affirm clearly- there is no divine demand for ultimate payment, sacrifice, or conditions to fulfil. With ultimate safety secured, the only “salvation” that we need to engage is the ongoing and gradual struggle to make life better in this world.
The reality of God as “no conditions Love” requires that we make all the logical conclusions that arise from such a stunning new theology. Again, the critically important one is that an authentically unconditional God will not demand any conditions of payment or sacrifice. God does not demand a balancing response to goodness or love that has been shown. Jesus clearly argued this in his Matthew 5 and Luke 6 statements where he taught that an authentic universal love will not just love those who love in return (i.e. family, friends, or fellow tribe members). Unconditional love will also love those who do not love in return. Unconditional love will freely give to all and not demand any return payment.
Unconditional love does good to everyone without expecting a similar response, without expecting any payback (include sacrifice here). This is how Jesus further defined a God that “loved enemies”.
Jesus rejected the principle of debt payment as a fundamental requirement of divine love. Again, this is clearly expressed in the statement to “give/love expecting nothing in return”. Keep in mind that in these passages (Matt.5 and Luke 6) he urged people to love in a new unconditional manner because that was how God loved. He was arguing for a new standard of love that would show what God was like, that would enable people to do just what God did, to be just like God (i.e. “Love your enemy because God does”).
Debt payment, or more generally the righting of wrongs had long been the requirement before offering forgiveness. Payment or punishment had been the basis of atonement thinking from the beginning. That was based on the archaic belief that God, as holy, must punish all wrongs properly and fully, and must rectify all wrongs by demanding payment or retribution of some sort. God must right all wrong, rebalance the scales of justice in the cosmos. Wrong done had to be rebalanced by right done. God could not just forgive, accept, and love without first making all wrongs right. That was necessary to restore divine honor. The God of that old atonement/sacrifice mythology could not just freely forgive and love.
That old theology made no sense because it argued that the love of God, based on prerequisite payment/punishment/atonement, was something less than the best of human love. We are expected to just forgive in an unlimited manner (“seventy times seven”), to accept all people universally, and to love without demanding prerequisite conditions or similar response. Again that statement- “give without expecting payment in return, love without expecting love in return”. Parents, spouses, and friends have all learned that this no conditions love is the best and highest form of love for daily relationships. Surely God as Ultimate Goodness and Love would, at the least, love as well as we are expected to love- that is, unconditionally.
In his parables Jesus further corrected the old religious belief that divine love was conditional and demanded full payment or punishment. His short stories illustrated the ‘no conditions’ love that defined his new theology. In his stories he stressed the point that divine love did not require the payment of debt, or more generally the righting of wrongs, before forgiving, accepting, and loving. Note this element in his Prodigal Son story where the father does not demand a sacrifice, restitution, or repayment before forgiving and fully accepting/loving the wayward son. All such conditions were brushed aside by the father. No conditions love meant no conditions at all. This teaching is a stunning rejection of the long history of sacrifice/payment as required to appease demanding deity.
I reject, as Jesus appears to have done, the old theology that God as ultimate Goodness and Love is held to a lesser standard of love than we are held to. I reject the idea that God remembers all wrongs and can demand conditions before forgiving, while we are told that authentic love, for us, means “keeping no record of wrongs” for some future making-of-things-right. Our love is to be without condition because that is actually how God loves. And it is the unconditional nature of forgiveness and love that constitute the greatness and glory of these features, not the conditions of religious holiness or honor mythology with its prerequisite demands of offenders first making things right.
Unfortunately, Paul refused the new theology of Jesus and retreated back to traditional conditional theology- a punitive God that demanded full payment for sin before forgiving anyone. We inherited Paul’s version of Christianity with its orientation toward punitive and conditional treatment of others. Note the clear New Testament statements on this feature of requisite payment as essential to the Christian gospel. The book of Hebrews (chapter 9), for example, states that “without the shedding of blood (sacrifice) there is no forgiveness”. The book of Romans (chapters 3-5) states that there is only salvation (“saved from wrath”) after the condition of a blood payment/sacrifice has been fulfilled.
And of course, in this life people should learn to be responsible for their behavior, to make amends for wrongs done, and to pay their debts. That is all part of normal human development and growth. This is never in question, but it has no part of the new unconditional theology of Jesus. It has no place in authentic love. Our love, just like God’s love, is not to be conditional on anything done, or not done, by others.
Note: The theology of Jesus is not a prescriptive model for economic/commercial relationships in this world. Jesus was speaking to ultimate realities and the atonement mythology of his era. Further, my reference to “Historical Jesus” is not an appeal to him as some special religious authority on these issues. I refer to him simply because he continues to be revered as a notable religious icon.
And I would repeatedly emphasize the larger background context to these themes- the profound contradiction that exists between the core message of Historical Jesus in the “Q Wisdom Sayings gospel”, and Paul’s Christ myth (the oxymoronic Christian “Jesus Christ”). These two contrary gospels illustrate the profound contradiction between the themes of unconditional and conditional, non-retaliation and retaliation, non-punitive/non-destructive and punitive/destructive, among other contrasting features.
11. Old story theme: The belief that retribution or payback is true justice (i.e. eye for eye), based on the myth that God is a retributive reality that demands the reward of the good and the punishment of the bad. That retributive God demands full punishment of sin. Such hurt for hurt theology, or pain returned for pain caused, still under-girds much thinking on justice today. Though it is often framed as the practical need to present the punishment of offenders as a warning to others, to serve as a deterrence example for the general public. Psychology now recognizes that such punitive approaches do not work with criminal offenders or children. Punitive response to human imperfection and failure “does not teach alternative humane behaviors”.
New story alternative: Again, unconditional love keeps no record of wrongs, it does not obsess over imperfection, and it forgives all freely and without limit (“seventy times seven” or unlimited). But yes, there are natural and social consequences to bad behavior in this world. All of us are to be accountable and responsible for our choices and actions. This is essential to human development in this life. But all justice in response to human failure should be restorative or rehabilitative.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote about the criminal justice system, “The whole trouble is that people think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love, but no such circumstances ever exist. Human beings cannot be handled without love. It cannot be otherwise, because mutual love is the fundamental law of human life.”
Added note: Yes, there is value in remembering past bad behavior, and the outcomes of such behavior, as a warning to others. The Holocaust is a signature example of this value. But we remember the bad behavior of others in a larger context of consciously forgiving, with an orientation to restorative justice that is victim-centered (i.e. fully deals with restitution issues). Simon Wiesenthal’s “Justice, Not Vengeance” illustrates the struggle for balance regarding these concerns.
12. Old story theme: The myth of future or “after-life” judgment, exclusion, punishment, and destruction (Hell). The fear of after-life harm is the “primal human fear” (Michael Grosso). Myths of after-life harm have added a magnitude of order increase in fear to the already burdensome fear of death that many people carry.
(Insert: Why bother with speculation about such unknowable realities as after-life reality? Why not just dismiss or ignore such unknowable things? Well, because the speculation has already been done by major belief systems and religions across history and across all the cultures of the world. Pathology- bad mythology like the horrific myth of hell- already exists in human consciousness and ignoring it does nothing to solve the problems that the pathology causes- i.e. unnecessary fear, anxiety, guilt, shame. While all after-life theorizing may be considered speculative, we can at least offer more humane alternatives with healthier parameters that eliminate unnecessary worry regarding death, while also focusing human orientation toward full involvement with here and now reality.)
New story alternative: Again, remember the baseline ideal- that authentic love is unconditional and does not demand the fulfilment of conditions. Unconditional love does not threaten ultimate exclusion or punishment. It embraces all with the same scandalous mercy and unlimited generosity. It gives sun and rain to all, to both good and bad. All- both good and evil- are ultimately safe and included in the love of an unconditional God. Such love scandalizes the mind that is oriented to ultimate (or after-life) conditional payback justice, or “deserved” punishment.
Note again the stories that Jesus told of good, moral people who were offended by the unconditional generosity and love that was shown by, for example, the vineyard owner and the father of the prodigal son. The all-day vineyard workers and the older brother of the prodigal were upset because, in their view, such mercy and generosity was not fair or moral. It was not proper justice, in their eyes. Other “righteous” people were also offended and scandalized by Jesus when he invited local outcasts and scoundrels to meals with them. He did not respect the proper tribal boundaries between good and bad people, between true believers and unbelievers. He was too scandalously universal and unconditional.
All such material points to the conclusion that there will be no after-life harm. We die into a stunning no conditions Love that is our origin and final home. We are all safe in that Love (i.e. sun and rain are indiscriminately and generously given to all alike, to both good and bad people). We are never separated from that Love.
Insert: Make the important distinction here between Ultimate Reality and life in this imperfect world. We can recognize the ultimate final reality of God as absolutely no conditions Love but not deny the reality of natural and social consequences in this life. The need to take personal responsibility for behavior is critical to human development. Love here and now is responsible to restrain violence and to protect the innocent, even with force. But our embrace of the ideal of ultimate unconditional love will orient our treatment of human failure and offense away from punitive approaches and toward restorative approaches. An unconditional attitude will recognize that, despite the offense and scandal to conventional payback justice, all of us return safely to the same no conditions Love that birthed us and is our final home. We are all one family, despite our diverse failures to live as fully human in this world.
Add here that self-judgment and self-punishment are the most devastating experiences that human persons can embrace and endure. Most people do not need further threat of ultimate judgment and punishment from some greater reality.
13. Old story theme: The myth of a hero messiah that will use superior force (“coercive purification”) to overthrow enemies, to purge the world of evil, and to bring in a promised utopia. This myth provides the validation to abandon the historical process of gradual improvement, via creative human freedom and endeavor. Hero messiah mythology affirms the demand for overwhelming revolutionary violence that seeks to instantly purge some “corrupt” entity that is viewed as the threat, and then re-install some lost paradise.
We saw this resort to “violent force against an imagined enemy” recently with ISIS in Syria (the struggle to bring on the final annihilation/Armageddon battle and then spread the caliphate across the world). We have also seen the same violence in Jewish history (Old Testament) and Christian history (Crusades, Inquisitions, persecution of heretics).
The embrace of revolutionary violence in the name of God comes from the behavior/belief relationship- that people across history have based their behavior on their beliefs about deity. As Harold Ellens says, “If your God uses force, then so may you, to get your way against your ‘enemies’”.
Again, the great ideals that we embrace will shape our thinking, our feeling, and our responses/behavior. We become just like the God that we believe in. Bad myths like coercive, destroying deity have repeatedly incited people to violent, destructive action, to act as the agents of their violent, destructive God to destroy some enemy and save something that was believed to be under dire and imminent threat from that enemy. Far too often across history the belief in divine violent force has been misappropriated to validate unnecessary harshness and cruelty toward fellow human beings.
New story alternative (see also “16th bad idea” below): A God of authentic love does not intervene with overwhelming force that overrides human freedom and choice. Further, a non-intervening deity helps to explain the gradualism of improving life. It is entirely up to humanity to make the world a better place, in all ways, and to do so while respecting the freedom of others to differ from us.
This is to say that there is no hero messiah, no tribal deity that will intervene with superior force to conquer some enemy of ours and grant us our vision of a paradise with our enemies excluded as per the vision of Revelation where unbelievers are cast out to suffer eternal rejection and punishment.
Note: This point recognizes the valid need at times (police, military) to use legal force to restrain irrational violence. The legitimate use of force is to be distinguished from the harsh mythology that drives ISIS and drove historical Christian violence against fellow Christians that disagreed over theological issues, often very minor disagreements. Note, for example, the shameful incident of Calvin putting his fellow Christian theologian, Servetus, to death over the placement of an adjective in a sentence.
We are seeing the advocacy for coercive force today against fellow citizens, over similarly minor issues of disagreement, such as in the climate debate. The hysterical exaggeration of natural change in nature, out to apocalyptic-scale scenarios, has clouded the minds of many and has incited the demand for coercive force (i.e. ban, silence, and even criminalize skeptics).
14. Old story theme: The fallacy of Biblicism, the myth that religious holy books are more special and authoritative than ordinary human literature, and that people are obligated to live according to the holy book as the will, law, or word of God. This myth argues that people must submit to divine conditions, or some heavenly model, as outlined by their holy book.
New story alternative: We evaluate all human thought and writing according to basic criteria of right and wrong, good and bad, or humane and inhumane, as agreed upon in common human rights codes or constitutions. Holy books are not exempted from this process of discernment between good and bad.
Further, our highest authority is our own personal consciousness of right and wrong as tuned by common understanding of such things in widely adopted human rights codes and constitutions that are embraced by the entire human family.
15. Old story theme: The myth of God as King, Ruler, Lord, or Judge. The idea that God relates to humanity in domination/submission forms of relating.
New story alternative: There is no domination/subservience relationship of humanity to God. Jesus expressed the divine ideal when he said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant”. True greatness is to serve the other and not to dominate or control others. The greatness of God is exhibited in serving, not existing above to rule or dominate. God is not “above” humanity but has incarnated in all people as equals. God relates horizontally to humanity.
Yes, this is another stunning correction to traditional God theories.
We see the presence of this street-level God in all daily, mundane human goodness and love expressed toward others, especially toward enemies, which is the highest expression of authentic love or goodness. When we love unconditionally, we tower in stature as maturely human. We become the hero of our story and conquer our real monster and enemy, the animal inheritance that is within each of us. See the story outline in sections below.
16. Old story theme: The idea that humanity is obligated to know, serve, and have some relationship with an invisible reality (deity), to give primary loyalty to something outside of and above people (i.e. a law, will, or word of God). This has often led to neglect and abuse of real people.
New story alternative: Our primary loyalty is to love and serve real people around us. Their needs, here and now, take priority in life.
A 17th Old Story theme (related to the earlier theme, in the list above, of a hero-messiah that will intervene to save)
One of humanity’s greatest frustrations has been the apparent “the silence of God” across history. The Holocaust is the iconic example of this traumatizing silence of God.
Where was God when natural disasters took hundreds of thousands of lives? Where was God when human cruelty went unhindered in mass-death movements? Such apparent absence should put to rest the common religious myth of a miraculously intervening God. The evidence has long been final that there never was any such thing as a supernaturally intervening deity that would, for example, violate natural law to protect or rescue people.
What then should we conclude? God is good but powerless to help humanity? Or the atheists are right that there is no God? No. I would offer that the evidence simply urges us to rethink the great question of how God relates to this world. Theologies like Panentheism (not Pantheism) are wrestling with this issue.
And some versions of the Deist’s alternative are not much better than atheism. God is not the absent Creator who starts the whole thing running and then disappears off to some far away heaven to wait and watch as natural law works throughout life.
A new theory or theology is emerging that argues that God has incarnated in all humanity. God did not incarnate only in special ‘holy’ persons like the Christian Jesus. Rather, God has incarnated in all humanity in a oneness with the common human spirit or human consciousness. That human spirit has gradually emerged and developed as more humane across history. This maturing humanity is evident in the trends to decreasing violence, more democratic societies, and generally improved human well-being (the improvement of all areas of life).
And as Bob Brinsmead notes, the improvement in life has been a long, slow process of gradually developing understanding and practise. It has, for instance, taken millennia for us to understand disease and come up with medical cures. See the gradualism arguments in Arthur Mendel’s ‘Vision and Violence’.
We see this common human spirit, or God spirit, emerging and developing in all human goodness, whether expressed in commerce, art, sports, medicine, agriculture, and all areas where people contribute to making life better and just having fun while doing so.
As some have stated, we are the voice, hands, and feet of God in this world.
Conclusion? God has never been silent or absent. There has never been a Sky God up above the world in some heaven, above and outside of humanity, doing things to the world and to people from outside (the “yoyo God”, coming down to intervene in some way and then going back up). To the contrary, God has always been within all things as the creating Sustainer of all reality, and especially within the human family. This means that God is evident in all human misery and raging against suffering and evil. God is always present in all human action to prevent evil and to solve problems and to improve life. Just as God has always been in all humanity and all good and useful human endeavor. This means it has always been our responsibility to prevent wrong and to promote good/right in our world. Yes, it is all up to us. We must stop looking to the heavens for what is right here and now, in us.
Add this feature to your theology- God is at our very core, as the human impulse to love, to be something better. God is inseparably united with the love that defines us at our best. God is at the core of the real or authentic human self and is evident in the human impulse to be more humane as expressed in all human goodness.
Conclusion? God has always been closer to us than our own breath or atoms. God has never been absent or silent when people have suffered from natural disaster or human cruelty. Religious mythology has never framed this immanent feature properly. The immanence of deity speaks to the fundamental “oneness” behind all things. Even quantum mechanics points to this foundational oneness reality.
The confusion here over silent deity also has to do with the element of freedom or the inseparable relationship of love and freedom. God as love does not coercively overwhelm the independence, self-determination, and freedom of others. Better, God respects human freedom profoundly and influences with gentle, quiet impulses to do the right thing, what we feel is right (i.e. God persuades and does not coerce).
Part of the human confusion over how God relates to this world has to do with our inability to grasp that divine Love prizes freedom highly and will not overwhelm or violate it. Authentic moral goodness emerges only from authentic freedom of choice. Such love entails great risk as authentically free people may choose wrongly. The upside is that nothing in life is pre-planned or predestined. We are free to create our own unique story, to become the heroes of our own life adventure. And there is nothing more heroic than choosing no conditions love, for even the enemy, as the supreme height of human achievement. Then we tower in stature like a Nelson Mandela.
Note: The above comments relate to one of the options offered in Jewish “Protest Theology” that emerged after the Holocaust (i.e. the idea of God willing/choosing to not intervene in human freedom). Others have suggested that, as spirit, God cannot intervene in material reality, aside from gentle suasion on the human spirit and consciousness.
And of course, aside from these points, there are still the myriad unexplainable and fascinating “coincidences” scattered through personal human stories that we may either view as just random, or the work of Providence. Interesting that people tend to explain good coincidences as Providence, but not so much the bad ones.
Added discussion group post from Bob Brinsmead: “____, many thanks for sending the link to this great Wikipedia article on Process Theology. I would have to say that I agree with the main thrust of the thesis.
“To say that God could have stopped the Holocaust but refrained from stopping it is very unsatisfactory to me. I agree with the argument of the PROCESS theologians here. If God is committed to love, then God is committed to human freedom. God can use persuasion but not coercion of the human will. Love would not allow God to do something that was inhuman (interfere, coerce, etc.). If you look at history and daily experience, there is no other conclusion that seems to be either logically or ethically possible. It is also hard to see God acting contrary to the laws of nature or the laws of physics.”
18. One more Old Story Theme, New Story Alternative to add to the list below…
While human selfishness and greed are present in any approach to life, these features do not most essentially define industrial civilization and its outcomes. Collectivists have argued that the free individual model that developed over past centuries in England (i.e. the “classic Liberalism” that protected the individual rights and freedom of all citizens, equally) orients populations to destructive selfishness, greed, disconnect from nature, and violence, among other pathology. But that is not generally true. More importantly, with the fundamental protection of private property rights, the free individual model has unleashed human creativity as never before, along with environmental concerns, to achieve unimaginable new heights in the improvement of all aspects of our lives, and the world in general.
Now the Old story theme related to this: The myth of the moral and spiritual superiority of the simple lifestyle with low consumption (i.e. self-produced, using only local resources). This is related to “noble savage” mythology, the belief that primitive hunter/gatherers were more pure and environmentally conservative before humanity “fell” in developing civilization, falling even further in the last few centuries of industrial civilization with its ever-growing abundance. This myth fosters endless guilt and shame over consumption and the enjoyment of the good life. ‘Small is Beautiful’ by Schumacher was an affirmation of this mythology. Note that it is most often wealthy Western elites that advocate this “morally superior primitivism” lifestyle for poorer people in developing areas.
New story alternative: The search for a better life is the fundamental urge of love- to responsibly improve one’s life and the state of one’s family. And it is the free choice of people to enjoy what they wish to use and enjoy. The abundance that most people enjoy today, with an ever-increasing proportion of humanity moving into middle class status, is part of the larger trajectory of developing technological, industrial civilization that is also lessening environmental impacts.
For example, the trend of continuing world urbanization is concentrating more people in smaller and more efficient spaces- e.g. economies of scale- that lessen pressure on natural areas (see population expert Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource). Industrial society further decreases per capita consumption of varied resources with ongoing technological development. Thus, the general creation of wealth has also enabled more developed areas to better care for and improve their environments. This overturns the environmental alarmist argument that industrial society is “destroying the world”. See “Environmental transition” research, for example, by Indur Goklany. Also, Desrocher and Szurmak’s Population Bombed.
Added note: There is no finalized consensus on how much of the natural world humans can engage, use, and change. We are a legitimate species and not an intruding “virus or cancer” in the view of those who want a more untouched wilderness world. And from today’s progressing industrial civilization note the emerging trends like ‘peak agriculture’ and the return of agricultural lands to nature as, with safe GM crop inputs, we produce more crops on the same or less land. Note also the improving status of world forests over the past seven decades (FAO reports on increasing world forest cover), and the strengthening of conservation and restoration trends in world fisheries (Ray Hilborn research, University of Washington). Further, there is no species holocaust occurring. It appears the “responsible stewardship” approach of the early 20th Century conservationists is working (see Alston Chase’s ‘In A Dark Wood’).
As Julian Simon said, “Evidence on the big picture and long-term trends of life shows that we are more creators than destroyers”.
Added notes: There is a long history of belief in the moral/spiritual superiority of the ascetic lifestyle and engendering guilt over enjoying the good life too much (the good life viewed in terms of selfishness, greed, the “base” obsession with materialism). Note past history’s cloistered mystics, wandering holy men, and sages, begging for their daily needs. These “holiness exhibited in simple living” cults are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and elsewhere.
Varied other beliefs play into the fear of consumption such as the fallacy of “limited good” that anthropology notes in hunter/gatherer societies where people believe that if some people in the group get more, then others must be getting less, as there are limited resources to go around. But the evidence, while at first seeming counter-intuitive, comes down on the side of ever-expanding human resources across history. “Cornucopians” like Julian Simon were right.
Simon (Ultimate Resource) has outlined the steps in the process that results in the expansion or increase in resources: Within traditional production there is an apparent scarcity of some resource. This leads to increasing prices for that resource. That prompts the search for more reserves of the resource, the discovery of technology that leads to more efficient production and use of the resource, or a search for alternatives to the resource (i.e. the shift from whale oil to fossil fuels). And ultimately there is a return to the trajectory of lowering the price of the resource. We saw the process above operating with the discovery of fracking technology and the opening of vast new sources of fossil fuels in the US.
Added note to Old Story themes: Holiness mythology
One of the most common responses from religious people to the idea of God as no conditions love is that God is also holy and just and therefore must punish wrong. God’s honor is tarnished by the wrongdoing of people so he must be just (exhibit strict eye for eye) and punish all sin. God cannot just freely forgive and love. But this divine holiness myth is primitivism at its worst. How so? It is the very same reasoning that is behind practices like “honor killing”. People in varied cultures today still reason that, for example, a daughter embracing modern habits has dishonored her family and their traditional culture. So the dishonored males are required to punish the “evil” daughter in order to restore their tarnished honor. Holiness theology is embracing this very same primitive reasoning that wrongs must be punished or justice and honor are not restored properly. I would counter that unconditional forgiveness and love is the true glory of God, the highest goodness and love. Authentic good and love will just forgive without demanding payment or righting of wrongs first.
The holiness feature in theology affirms the myth of God obsessed with perfection and punishing imperfection, hence the creation of a supporting complex of myths related to original paradise/Eden (perfect creation), Fall of humanity and ruin of paradise (loss of perfection), subsequent need for an atonement (sacrifice/payment/punishment in order to restore the lost perfection).
Added note to “Old Story Themes, New Story Alternatives”
The alternative new story themes include a “spiritual” element. This simply affirms what most of humanity across history, and most people today, understand and embrace (the 85% of humanity affiliated with a world religion, with most of the remaining 15% claiming to be “unaffiliated” or “spiritual but not religious”). Humanity in general has always understood that greater or Ultimate Reality (Ultimate meaning) is about more than just energy, natural law, quantum fields, multiple-dimensions, or Self-Organizing Principle as the creating Force of philosophical materialism.
Most human beings across history have intuitively understood that greater Reality has to do with Mind, Consciousness, Self/Personhood, Spirit, or Intelligence. Note that you do not have Consciousness or Mind without personality. Further, the early quantum theorists recognized the foundational Consciousness/Mind element also in their conclusion that their new science pointed to the universe as more “a great Thought than a machine”.
The problem with mythical and religious explanations of greater or Ultimate reality
Mythical and religious traditions emerged during the childhood era of humanity when human understanding was still quite primitive. The result was the projection of subhuman/inhuman features out to define greater or Ultimate Reality/deity. Early humans projected onto the gods features like (1) tribal exclusion of some (unbelievers rejected), (2) domination/subservience relationships (humanity created to serve the gods via subservience to priesthoods/religious authority), and (3) divine justice as punishment/destruction (apocalypse, hell). But we are now a more mature species and we need to put away childish things.
Those features have long been entrenched in our great religious traditions, and their God theories. There has been little serious effort to challenge or dislodge that core pathology. Ongoing reform in religion must overturn those fundamental ideas/myths as they still influence so much else in life and society. Note, for example, the ongoing destructive influence of the nihilistic apocalyptic pathology (God as violent destroyer of all). This primitive mythology is now expressed through environmental alarmism scenarios with their consistently harmful salvation schemes.
There will always be profound mystery to theology, as there is about all reality, and that cautions us against dogmatism in our theological speculations. In addition, any theological speculation must include the framework of the latest discoveries from science, while cautiously noting the persistent tendency of materialist scientists to cross the science-philosophy boundary (Sabine Hossenfelder in ‘Lost in Math’).
The long-term and widely embraced conclusion of humanity that there is a spiritual reality is a fully coherent and rational conclusion about reality and life. I do not accept the materialist argument that humanity needs to grow out of, or move past, the spiritual as with the argument of a frustrated atheist, “Let’s get rid of all this metaphysical bullshit”. Our project should be to reframe it all as something more humane while affirming and guarding the science/philosophy and state/religion boundaries.
(Insert note: While acknowledging that the spiritual plays a crucial role in human meaning/purpose issues, a healthy orientation ought to be toward full here and now involvement- i.e. to improving life in this world. The practical, real-world outcome of ideas is the true test of the goodness or usefulness of an idea.)
The human meaning impulse as expressed in spirituality, and spiritual beliefs, has always been something inherent to conscious human awareness. Even the Neanderthals exhibited such awareness as seen in burial site evidence (i.e. items included for an after-life journey).
It has long been the argument of this site that thorough long-term problem solving should also deal with the human meaning impulse and the meta-narrative themes that express/affirm such meaning. Pathology still dominates at this basic level in public consciousness. And while scientific evidence is always crucial in the problem-solving mix, such evidence does not sway many people toward more rational views due to their deeply held spiritual beliefs. This applies to both sides as secularist/materialist types often hold dogmatic philosophical beliefs just as religious people hold their religious beliefs.
The above comments are not to discourage our atheist friends who have contributed so much good input to the project of challenging religion. But their alternative, notably the more dogmatic forms of atheism, will never resonate with most of the human population. A better alternative is the more moderate “atheism”, as some call it, that has been more about the exchange of old unworkable/discredited gods for new ones- i.e. new god theories or ultimate meaning theories- that are more attuned to modern sensibilities regarding humane reality.