Dogma, Revelation and the Godhead Within

 

by Marion Browne

 

Recent correspondence in the Christian Parapsychologist and the Fellowship Review has highlighted tensions between dogmatic Christians and free-thinkers,1 which indicates that perhaps the time has come for a frank discussion of the main difficulties encountered on both sides of the argument.

   The stance adopted by the late Canon Michael Perry lay somewhere between open inquiry and orthodoxy. His very engaging account of the New Age movement, Gods Within, includes a chapter on Near Death Experiences that is striking, not just for the author’s comprehensive review of the evidence but also for his final analysis of it. In fact, as he acknowledges, the NDE is a not-so-new phenomenon which ‘goes back at least to the days of Plato (427-347 BC).’2 Perry notes that the after-effects of an NDE ‘include loss of fear of death, an increased feeling of inner spirituality (but a marked reluctance to identify with any kind of institutionalized religious faith), and the desire to spend the rest of one’s allotted time doing good to humanity’3, together with ‘a feeling of cosmic togetherness’ which ‘accords with the New Age idea of the godhead in each one of us.’4

   However, by the chapter’s end the author has found his own rationale for aspects of NDEs most troubling to the dogmatists, namely those concerning institutionalized religion: ‘None of the people who have reported [an NDE] have actually died. For all we know, what they experience may be the delusion which every newly-dead person encounters before the real truth dawns upon them. It could indicate that we fool ourselves too readily into believing that our reception into the next phase of our existence is going to be smooth and unthreatening’.5 Perry concludes that ‘if NDEers hold off from keeping company with the rest of Christian believers, and prefer a non-dogmatic, and non-organized and non-demanding religion, that is their loss. That is a contingent error of the experiencer, not a necessary corollary of the experience.’6

   Perry does agree that ‘the NDE is consistent with the Christian doctrine of the love of God, and of the value to him of the human soul’ and that ‘in the typical NDE, the terrors of judgement are less obvious than the consolations of acceptance.’7 He points out, furthermore, that this is the message of the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). Nevertheless the author does not explain his own reluctance to challenge the dogmatists’ view of Christianity.

   Our institutionalized religion is in truth the product of centuries of such ruthless revision, interpolations and omissions in its scriptures by men much less enlightened than the man who inspired it that in many ways it has now come to represent division and discord rather than ‘cosmic togetherness’. Biblical criticism owes much to nineteenth-century German scholarship, and orthodox Christianity’s acknowledgment of its findings is long overdue. Doubters such as the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold welcomed this criticism as a basis for the rejection of miracles. But a clear distinction should be made here between honest eye-witness accounts of remarkable events initially handed down orally, which may or may not be accurate, and dishonest meddling with written records by later religious factions to suit their own purposes. At the beginning of the last century James Moffat pointed out:

 

Substantially a writing may bear evidence that it has originated in a certain period, while nevertheless it contains sections or verses which obviously belong to a different age, earlier or later. In such a case the possibility of interpolation becomes legitimate. During the pre-canonical age, and indeed for some centuries afterwards, the New Testament texts were exposed […] to the possibility of such additions and incorporations […] Within the second century especially MSS had their vicissitudes […] Omission and alteration were favourite features in the rising methods of controversy, especially as appeal came to be made from both sides to the authority of the Christian Scriptures […] It is therefore generally open to doubt whether in the extant form of a NT writing, we possess the work as it actually left the author’s hand.8

  

This does not mean that we automatically reject testimony that appears to us to be incredible because it has been disclosed by a supernatural agency. Our concern here ought principally to be whether or not such disclosures have been replicated in our own time. A close study of this question does indeed reveal Biblical passages that accord perfectly with New Age thinking, as Perry himself has recognized. One that he does not mention is especially noteworthy. When the Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy for making himself God he replies, ‘Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?’ (John 10:34) This answer clearly implies that our natures are divine, and is entirely consistent with Jesus’ insistence that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ (Luke 17:21) Jesus also maintained that he had come ‘not to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17) The thought of founding a new, organized religion, therefore, was not uppermost in his mind.

   When God does intervene there seem to be important reasons. Plainly revelations did not cease once the canonical gospels had been established. In fact they often come at a time of religious conflict or uncertainty and tend to be addressed to people of integrity who are peculiarly sensitive to spiritual influences.

   The prophet Mohammed, a very devout man with a reputation for honesty and wisdom, received a message from the Angel Gabriel in about 610 AD while he was asleep or in a trance. This was at a time when Jewish and Christian monotheism was beginning to cause the decline of Arabian paganism but the Jews and Christians had divided themselves into schismatic sects. The revelations Mohammed was given were eventually written down as the Koran. Some of these revelations make specific reference to Jesus:

 

Then Allah will say: ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: “Worship me and my mother as gods beside Allah?” “Glory to You”, he will answer, “how could I say that to which I have no right? […]You know what is in my mind but I cannot tell what is in Yours. You alone know what is hidden. I spoke to them of nothing except what You bade me. I said: ‘Serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord.’”9

 

N.J. Dawood, who translated the Penguin edition of the Koran, says in his introduction: ‘The Koran preaches the oneness of God and emphasizes divine mercy and forgiveness.’10 Here again, as with the Bible, caution is needed. The above statement is certainly true of many passages in the Koran but others such as the following issue dark warnings:

 I swear by the declining day that perdition shall be the lot of man, except for those who have faith and do good works and exhort each other to justice and fortitude.11

 

The history of religious thought contains many similar utterances and we shall revisit the question of divine punishment in due course. First we must examine whether later revelations in the Christian era confirm, modify or refute the organized Church’s teachings on, say, the Trinity, original sin or Pauline and Augustinian ideas of justification by faith.

   Many of the Christian mystics were women and therefore ‘outsiders’ in what had become a predominantly patriarchal and hierarchical religion. The visions of the fourteenth-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, which centred on the Passion of Christ, are concerned with traditional Christian themes such as the love of God shown in the cross of Christ, sin and prayer. What is striking about them is the idea of God that emerges in His (or Her) relation to mankind. This is set forth in Chapter 58 of the Revelations of Divine Love:

 

God, the holy Trinity, who is everlasting being, decided since before time began to make man. Our lovely human nature was first prepared for his own Son, the second person, and when he was ready, with the agreement of the whole Trinity he created us all at once. When he made us he bound us to himself and made us one with him, and through this union we are kept as pure and noble as when we were first made. When we were made, God almighty was the Father of our human nature, God all-wisdom our Mother, and with them was the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit and this is all one God, one Lord. In this union he is our very true husband and we his beloved wife,

his lovely bride, with whom he is never angry. For he says, “I love you and you love me and our love shall never be split in two.”

 

In short, according to Julian, the Father created the Son and all of us are pure and noble in nature, united with God who, as both Father and Mother, loves us unconditionally. One may question, in this picture of perfection, where original sin and punishment for our transgressions fit in. But the link with Near Death Experiences is undeniable, and Julian’s contemporary, Margery Kempe, brings similar messages of comfort and hope. She had lost her reason after childbirth and been restored ‘by God’s grace’. She describes how God speaks to her ‘in her mind’:

 I am a hidden God in you, so you […] should recognize that you may not have tears or spiritual conversing except when God will send them to you, for they are the free gifts of God, distinct from your merit, and he may give them to whom he wishes […] and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both day and night.12

   This passage in turn may be compared with another in the autobiography of the sixteenth-century Saint Teresa of Avila:

The Lord […] wishes the soul to have […] some idea of what happens in Heaven. Therefore, just as souls there understand one another without speaking – which I never knew for certain till the Lord of his goodness revealed it to me, unworthy though I am, in a rapture – even so it is on earth. Here too, God and the soul understand one another simply because it is His Majesty’s will, and no other means is necessary to express the love that exists between these two friends.13

   It may be significant that all three women led lives of simplicity, courage, contemplation and obedience to the will of God. In Margery Kempe’s case and that of Saint Teresa of Avila certainly, they were prepared to face harsh criticism and ridicule as a necessary corollary to these divine communications with the soul, raptures (as Teresa termed her levitations) and fits of weeping. 

   But in a more secular age revelations have been less promptly recognized as being of divine origin, leading many to question their authenticity. Nineteenth and twentieth-century spiritualistic phenomena aroused hostility among scientists and clergy alike. Many Victorians clearly failed to spot the resemblance between the levitations of their contemporary Daniel Dunglas Home14 and those of Saint Teresa15 and the seventeenth-century Saint Joseph of Copertino. But the agitation provoked by the phenomena was common to all three cases. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Saints, ‘St. Joseph was treated with no little severity by his ecclesiastical superiors and excluded from much of the daily life of his order because of the disturbance caused by his raptures.’16 Teresa for similar reasons often wanted to resist her own raptures, but had no power to stop them.

   Direct voice mediums such as Leslie Flint demonstrate yet another manifestation of the spirit, which seems nowadays to have fallen into obscurity. In 1959 Canon Pearce-Higgins took a keen interest in Flint’s work, in particular the messages that the deceased Archbishop Cosmo Lang and Dean Inge delivered through his mediumship, and they have significance for us still today. Lang told his audience in a séance recorded on tape that many of the beliefs he had held during his lifetime were untrue: ‘One is inclined, over centuries of time possibly, to obscure truth – that is the simple truths that Jesus gave to the world. Dogma and creed which were, of course, so part of my life, I realized were non-existent and unimportant here, and a man is no more after death than he was before.’17

   Dean Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s and famous theologian of the 1930s regretted his own inflexible approach: ‘Many of the things that I had preached, many things that I gave out as truth […] these things held me back, and still do […] When a man leaves your world […] with strong, fixed, prejudicial views, his task is difficult. He has to unlearn, as I did, many things, and has to become like the child with open mind, full of the desire for real truth.’18

   Lang’s message includes the observation that Jesus’ claim to be ‘the way, the truth and the life’ has been misinterpreted over the centuries and has been the foundation of much dogma:

 

[Jesus] obviously meant that it was in following in his footsteps, […] becoming like unto him, sacrificing the physical aspect of things, realizing the spiritual power and grace that dwelt within all man […] and thinking of the things of the spirit, and overcoming the flesh in consequence – that is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ […] ‘No man cometh to the Father but by me.’ In other words ‘in me and following me and in following what I do and endeavouring to become like unto me, that is the way of salvation […] I am convinced [Jesus] did not come to found a religion as the world now terms or understands it.19

 

But how did the dogma that Lang here repudiates arise in the first place? We shall find that its nature and origin are closely linked to the character of the men who shaped it.

 

Judging by their marked absence in the lives of many saints and mystics (but by no means all), there are certain negative qualities that seem to hinder spiritual progress. These are egotism, despotism, vengefulness, dishonesty, secrecy and rigidity of thought.  Jesus told us that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:20) and many have since questioned the wisdom of some cherished traditions in the institutional Church, perhaps for this reason.            

   The creed that bears the name of Saint Athanasius certainly troubled Dick Sheppard, one of Archbishop Cosmo Lang’s own protégés. Sheppard became Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields for twelve years and made the church one of the most famous centres of social work in London. People queued to come inside and sit on the chancel steps to hear him preach. After he had accepted the vacant canonry at St. Paul’s, ‘on Christmas Day he fulfilled the worst fears of his fellow canons by kneeling down while everyone else stood to sing the complex Athanasian Creed, as a protest against its use at a popular service. “To open with a highly technical and intellectual statement that makes no reference to the Kingdom of God – our Lord’s main preoccupation and passion – and no mention of ethics, is bad Christianity and bad propaganda,” he said.’20

   It is usually the conquerors who write history and, from the later Church’s viewpoint, it was Athanasius who triumphed over Arius in the controversy over whether Christ’s sonship was similar to ours. Nevertheless, Athanasius’ critics were not silenced for all time. Their letters contain accusations against him of violence and calumny: he had broken a mystical chalice; thrown down an episcopal chair; and caused the imprisonment of a certain man named Ischyras by falsely informing the governor of Egypt that he had cast stones at the statues of the emperor. It was further alleged that Athanasius had placed another man Callinicus under military guard and inflicted tortures and judicial trials on him. Bishops complained that Athanasius had physically attacked them, and obtained the episcopal dignity in the first place ‘by means of the perjury of certain individuals’. Consequently they had separated themselves from communion with him and he had ‘treated them with violence and thrown them into prison’. There was much more in the same vein.21

   In the light of the above, Athanasius’ elevation to sainthood seems hard to justify. Furthermore, he was not even the author of the creed that bears his name. According to Henry Chadwick, the man who produced it was ‘a theologian living in Southern Gaul, or perhaps in Spain, in the second half of the fifth century.’22 The person, on the other hand, who influenced its Trinitarian doctrine was Saint Augustine of Hippo.

   Peter Brown describes Augustine as someone who ‘could uphold what he considered objective truth with a notable innocence of his own aggressiveness’, and quotes from one of his letters (Ep. 22.5):

If any threats are made, let them be made from the Scriptures, threatening future retribution, that it should not be ourselves who are feared in our personal power, but God in our words.23

   But it transpired that Augustine was not after all content to leave everything to divine retribution. Within a decade of writing the above letter he and his friends, employing harsh police measures, brought about the destruction of the Donatists, a rival Christian Church in North Africa.24

   The scriptural passages which appealed to Augustine most of all were Paul’s Epistles and it was in them that he found most comfort for his deep sense of sinfulness. He was not insensitive to spiritual influences: witness the repetitive, sing-song voice he heard while contemplating his own iniquity and God’s anger: ‘Take and read, take and read.’25 He interpreted this as a divine command to read the Scriptures and take heed of their message, at whatever page they happened to fall open. The passage in question turned out to be Romans 13:13, which exhorted him to abandon rioting, drunkenness, impurity, contention and envy and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

   Augustine certainly renounced rioting, drunkenness and impurity, but contention and envy proved harder to combat. He remained convinced of God’s anger and man’s innate sinfulness to the end of his life, clashing over these points with Julian, the future bishop of Eclanum, who was ‘the most devastating critic of Augustine in his old age.’26 Julian, of noble birth, and much younger than Augustine, would later sell his estates to relieve a famine. He wrote of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin: ‘It is improbable, it is untrue; it is unjust and impious; it makes it seem as if the Devil were the maker of man. It violates and destroys the freedom of the will […] by saying that men are so incapable of virtue, that in the very womb of their mothers they are filled with bygone sins.’27

    Julian was also ‘amazed […] that anyone should entertain the slightest doubt as to the equity of God’.  Augustine, however, claimed that God’s justice must be distinguished from human ideas of justice.28 This is certainly true but not, I would argue, in the way he interpreted it. His own ideas of justice derived from the Old Testament, where God had ‘taught his wayward Chosen People […] checking and punishing their evil tendencies by a whole series of divinely-ordained disasters.’29

   Augustine’s ideal of ecclesiastical authority was in turn inspired by the active life of Saint Paul, shown in his letters to his errant communities, ‘committed to impinge constantly on his flock and its enemies, driven by the objective “terror” of the Holy Scriptures.’30

   Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a particular influence. Of great appeal to Augustine were the ideas that ‘God destined Jesus to be a means of propitiation through his own blood’ (Romans 3:25); ‘Christ died for sinful men’ (Romans 5:6) and that in this way ‘we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son’ (Romans 5:10).

   Xavier Léon Dufour points out that, in Paul’s view, ‘though man is already “justified” by the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 5:1), no one can in fact share in this salvation unless his own life conforms to that of Christ. […] Behind Paul, the great architect of a doctrinal system we must see also a man committed to tradition, an ambassador of Jesus.’31

   Paul would therefore surely approve of the doctrine of the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, in The True Christian Religion, that faith must be conjoined with charity, and that there can be no separation between the two.32 Paul reiterates this point in Romans 2:13-16; 23-24; 29; 6:1-3; 12-19. Moreover, in chapters 12-15 he positively exhorts his fellow Christians to transform their natures and lead exemplary lives.

   Nevertheless, certain other passages in the above Epistle led to confusion, just as Paul’s preaching (or so it would seem from Romans 3:8) must have left confusion in the minds of his audience. Romans 3:21-28 argues that all sinners are justified by God’s free grace alone, through His act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus, ‘whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood; to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past […] that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. […] Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’

   Concerning this Epistle in particular the cautionary words of New Testament-commentator James Moffat may be of interest to the bewildered student: ‘No satisfactory theory has yet been offered to account for the disordered text and internal variations of Romans. The starting point of all sound criticism of the canonical “Romans” is that, wholly genuine or not, it lies before the modern reader in a different condition from that in which it left the apostle at Kenchreae.’33

   Whatever traditional doctrine represents, therefore, it can never guarantee certainty. God’s displeasure, God’s anger and God’s vengeance are not, in my view, products of authentic revelation but rather of human fear and aggression. Mystics and spiritually sensitive individuals speak of unity and God’s unconditional love: dogmatic theologians of the chosen people and the damned, of retribution and chastisement. The time is well overdue for organized religion to adopt a humbler approach to Near Death Experiences and mystical revelations, rather than attempting to relegate them, as Michael Perry does in Gods Within, to the role of a delusion before the real truth of God’s punishment dawns. 

    Coming to the light, as is so clearly stated in John 3:20, means being prepared at the same time to have one’s ethical shortcomings revealed: ‘For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.’ It means no longer being able to prevaricate, conceal or pretend. But the only judgement we face in the next life is the one we impose upon ourselves. If through cowardice we shun the light we feel the desolation that is contingent upon distancing ourselves from God. This is indeed a self-inflicted form of hell but to blame God for it is to put our own narrow concept of justice on an equal footing with that of an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise, all-merciful and all-loving deity. We should celebrate, rather than denigrate, God’s gift of revelation to those open-minded and humble enough to receive it.

 

Notes

1 September 2013 & Summer 2014 respectively.

2 Perry, M. Gods Within. SPCK 1992, p.85.

3 Ibid  p.87

4 Ibid pp.92-3

5 Ibid pp.93-4

6 Ibid p.95

7 Ibid p.94

8 Moffat, J. The Historical New Testament T.&T. Clark, Edinburgh 1901, pp. 608-9

9 The Koran trans. Dawood, N.J. Penguin Books 1978, p.400

10 Ibid p.10

11 Ibid p.27

12 The Book of Margery Kempe Penguin Books 1985, pp.65-6

13 The Life of Saint Teresa trans. Cohen, J.M. Penguin Books 1958, p.191

14 cf. Wallace, A.R. Miracles and Modern Spiritualism Nichols, London 1901, p.94

15 The Life op. cit., pp.137-8

16 Attwater, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints 2nd ed. 1985, p.201

17 Randall, N. Life after Death Corgi 1981, p.156

18 Ibid

19 Ibid p.158

20 Dick Sheppard: a biography Scott, C. Hodder & Stoughton, London 1977, p.205

21 A New Eusebius ed. Stevenson, J. SPCK 1970, p.385

22 The Early Church Penguin Books 1993, p.235

23 Augustine of Hippo: A Biography Brown, P. Faber & Faber, London 1967, p.207

24 Ibid p.207

25 Confessions, Book 8, Chapter 12

26 Brown, op.cit , p.381

27 Ibid p.387

28 Ibid p.393

29 Ibid p.237

30 Ibid p.206

31 The Gospels and the Jesus of History trans. McHugh, J., Fontana 1976, pp.56-7

32 cf. The True Christian Religion Swedenborg Society, London 1884, p. 425

33 op. cit. Moffat, 1901, p.633

      

 

 

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