Dear Donagh,

…. I came across this article […] in which the writer claimed that religion is only bad philosophy. Or when it’s not bad philosophy, he said, it’s only moral persuasion, or stories for children.  As I read it I thought of you and decided that I'd pitch it to you on your website.  I know you like this kind of question!  So, what do you say?  Ken.

Thank you, Ken. 

I'd like to pause over the word ‘only’.  Only bad philosophy, only moral persuasion, only stories…. Someone said that the nihilism of our age is the nihilism of ‘nothing but’.  Not outright denial but reductionism: morality is nothing but sentiment, or prejudice; spirituality is nothing but sublimated desire; or in this case, religion is nothing but bad philosophy.    

Let me start this way.  The religious instinct is “to be one with”.  Not just the nice bits, but everything.  Jesus identified with sinners, not just in the sense of standing up for them, but in the stronger sense of standing with them.  He queued up for baptism (by John the Baptist), shoulder to shoulder with people who were trying to amend their lives.  When asked how to pray, he said (among other things): “Forgive us our sins.”  The Our Father was surely his own prayer (see ‘Between Ourselves’, 2002 ‘Praying’) – he was not in the habit of giving junior versions of anything.  Forgive us, he said.  St Paul even said that Jesus was “made to be sin” for us (2 Cor 5:21).  He identified himself completely with us, and asked us to identify completely with him (Jn 17:23) and with others (Jn 13:34; 15:12).  It is about identity or ‘identifying with’. 

When people don’t grasp how distinctive this spiritual oneness is they inevitably slip back a notch into a legal or into a moral way of thinking, or some other substitute.  This guarantees that everything becomes a caricature of itself.  For example: many theologians in the past, even some of the great ones, had very crude explanations of how Christ redeemed us.  (This is called the ‘atonement’.)  Through original sin (one version had it) we had become the devil’s property, and the devil had to be paid his due in return for us; the price was the suffering of Christ.  This gross thought was a descent into a sort of economics.  St Anselm (1033 – 1109), thinking he was improving on this, said that the price was not paid to the devil but to God the Father.  This may have appeared high-minded compared to the other.  But look: it created a grotesque image of God the Father.  In this theory, the injustice to God had to be atoned for, his wrath had to be appeased; but since we could not undo an infinite wrong, Jesus substituted for us by his suffering and death.  This theory is called “vicarious satisfaction.”  At best it was a drift into legal language.  See how everything becomes a mess when you try to understand it with the wrong kind of mind.  The English philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976) wrote with great clarity about what he called “the category mistake.”  Theologians would benefit greatly from a study of his books, especially The Concept of Mind and Dilemmas – not in respect of all his conclusions, but certainly in respect of his method.  His approach was that of Wittgenstein.    

Spiritual union or oneness is the mystical heart of our religion, and the mystics are the ones to tell us about it (while philosophers like Wittgenstein and Ryle can help demolish the substitutes).  If your love of God is pure, Meister Eckhart said, then “all the virtuous deeds performed by all people are yours as perfectly as if you had performed them yourself.”  Many other passages in his writings make the same point.  Julian of Norwich said that when God looks at Jesus he sees us, and when he looks at us he sees Jesus.  “All who are to be saved are Jesus, and Jesus is all who are to be saved.”  The key word is ‘IS’.  It is the word of identity.  Julian of Norwich wrote about our being “substantially one-d with God” – a word that some translators have wisely refused to weaken by ‘translating’ it.  It is ironical that the word ‘atonement’ – literally ‘at-ONE-ment’ – didn’t lead more people to explore ‘oneness’. 

Likewise when we say that Jesus IS divine, or the Eucharistic species ARE the body and blood of Christ, we get nowhere if we rely on ways of thinking that are not up to it: whether they be psychological, or philosophical, or moral. 

All these other categories (moral, legal, etc.) have their part to play.  They help to keep the thing before us until we begin to understand it in its own terms.  But they are not substitutes for spiritual understanding.  Stories especially have their place.  There is nothing inferior about stories, and every society in the world, for sure, tries to encapsulate its wisdom in stories.  Jesus spoke in parables.  I think of a parable as a boat that sails around the island of our understanding, around and around, looking for an accessible harbour.  When the time and place are right it comes ashore. 

I suspect I haven’t heard the last of this from you, Ken.  Good luck with your reading!


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