The Church that Stole God


I wish to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to my neighbourhood with a little heartfelt criticism.

In my youth I studied to be a Catholic priest in the Dominican Order. The motto of the Order is "Truth", and I looked for it. I read long and hard in the works of Thomas Aquinas, still the doyen of Catholic theologians.

Thomas launches his magisterial inquiry, Summa Theologica, with a series of proofs for the existence of God. All such proofs follow a similar line. The world exists, but it cannot explain its own existence. We must therefore postulate something else to account for it. This something we call God.

After a few years I realised that these proofs depend completely on the assumption that the world is not God.

So I came to the idea of identifying God with the world. I wrote a little essay entitled ‘How Universal is the Universe’, and circulated it. Not long afterwards my vows were dispensed and I was walking secular streets in a new suit.

The Catholic story is simple enough. God created the world and all who live in it. Life was easy in the Garden of Eden – on one condition. The people – represented by Adam and Eve – charged with obedience to God, were forbidden from eating the fruit of a certain tree in the middle of their garden. Encouraged by a very famous Serpent, Adam and Eve ate. This so angered God that He introduced death, pain and work into human life. Catholics call this the Fall.

The ancient Hebrews kept God happy by killing and burning sacrificial animals. To get Himself over the Fall, the Catholic God needed a greater sacrifice. So He sent his Son, Jesus, to become human and be killed painfully. This event is known as the Redemption. The Church holds that the Redemption will ultimately erase the damage caused by the Fall.

There is no historical evidence for the Fall.

They pushed me out of the seminary and I walked out into those secular streets 40 years ago. Identification of God and the world still seems to me a very fruitful application of Occam’s razor. The power of humanity lies in imagination and the Catholic story is a commanding work of the imagination. In practical matters, however, imagination must be curbed by the observable world. This is the role of science.

For every art, there is a complementary science. As physics underlies engineering, so theology is the foundation of religion. I think of the observable universe as God’s body and accept that all information is encoded physically. We communicate with God through our bodies, sometimes quite lusciously, sometimes painfully. This no more limits our dialogue with the Universal God than the ink and paper of Bibles restricts our communication with the Catholic God.

By appropriating God and freezing theology into an infallible block, the Church has killed them. I am making a plea for an alternative view which values the world itself as Divine. The world is not an arbitrary creation defected by the Original Sin and due for demolition. We might call this approach to theology natural theology – think natural science.

The institution that is the Roman Catholic Church exists today as a cross between a nation state and a multinational corporation. It has branches almost everywhere. Its constitution, the Code of Canon Law, gives absolute power to the Pope: "No appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff." (Canon 333§3). The key to Papal power is the claim that the Church is the sole legitimate channel of communication with God.

Many have disputed the Papal claim to absolute power and knowledge. The Papacy has responded to every such threat with assertions of its absolute authority. Pope Pius IX, King of Rome from 1846 to 1878, took a dramatic precautionary step, declaring himself and his successors infallible. As far as the Pope is concerned, the Catholic story is true, Canon Law is right, and that is that.

For natural theology, the window through which we see God is the whole universe of experience, not just one ancient and powerful institution. If the Pope is really infallible, then he has infallibly declared himself to be infallible and all is well. We had better fall into line.

And if not? Perhaps it is time to open the windows of the Church and look out into the world.

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