The culture of abuse and the transcendent heart of Jesus

Eventually I am going to write more about atonement and in particular, substitutionary atonement, in the light of the alleged abuse perpetrated by John Smyth, but first I need to write about other things such as culture, archetypes, projection, and externalisation, because they help me understand why the doctrine of atonement can be so damaging. The wisdom gained from reading about and reflecting on these apparently unrelated ideas have influenced and changed my understanding of the way Christianity works (and doesn’t work) and why.


I have written often about the Church of England as having a systemic culture of abuse. I need to think for a moment about the meaning of culture in this context. Culture has been defined by anthropologists as a collection of learned survival strategies passed on to our young through teaching and modelling. Note that – survival strategies. I am not writing about culture as all those nice middle-class things that we appreciate in the arts – but culture as that unexamined state of “normality” into which we are born and in which we grow.

In his book The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, Joseph Chilton Pearce says that culture can become a kind of psychic entity that can possess and/or inflate a person or even an entire country or institution and achieve violent ends through such possession and inflation. As an example, he reflects on Carl Jung’s idea of a demonic archetype. Jung wrote that the Germanic European thought, galvanised and brought to action through the Nazis, was used to mould a demoralised people into a cohesive unit.

Chilton is critical of religious institutions from his perspective of the spiritual dimension of creation, emotionally and physically embodied in human beings, a universal sacred energy, that is seen at its peak in the life and teaching of Jesus. He also draws on Eastern teaching and practice to expand his awareness of the spiritual depths and heights in creation.

Of the damaging effect of culture on religious institutions such as the Church of England, he writes:

“Religious institutions, cloaked as survival strategies for our minds and souls, are the pseudo-sacred handmaidens of culture brought about through our projections of the transcendent aspects of our nature. Thus this trinity of myth, religion and culture is both the cause and source of our projections."

All of us are born into a culture – the culture of our parents and of our mother in particular. We are born into an extended family culture, a social culture, and as we grow, we are influenced by other cultures – schools and organisations, and church or mosque or synagogue or for some, a culture hostile to religion and the spirit.

Because we are shaped by the culture we are born into, a culture that human societies have created, that makes it difficult, says Chilton, to see our culture for what it is and in what ways we may need to release ourselves from it and transcended it. This means that we must rise above our notions and techniques of survival itself (survival being something we are all programmed for, unconsciously) if we are to survive as spiritual beings. Thus the wisdom of Jesus’ paradox that only as we lose life do we find it.

Projection and idealisation

Rather than developing the capacities and spiritual depth and wisdom that Jesus teaches and invites his followers to explore, humankind has instead denigrated our natural spiritual wisdom and projected both the capacities and the model of Jesus’ teaching onto an idealised image that is impossible for us to follow. We build religions around our spiritual giants or use them to support a religion in order not to become more deeply spiritual and fully ourselves and but to avoid the radical shift of mind and disruption these rare people bring about. Ironically, we interpret these shifts as threats to our survival and thus instinctively reject them.

So we have bishops and archbishops who side with those leaders and organisations teaching that LGBTI people are an abomination and therefore need to be rejected or suppressed. Once minds and hearts are open to the truth of Jesus, and all enlightened teachers, this shocking abuse is seen for what it is, and the false teaching rejected. How can a Christian body ever teach and practice abuse against any group of people or any individual? But they do, because they are conditioned by Christian culture which has become abusive and at times toxic. The Christian church is like this because the followers of Jesus corrupted his pattern of wisdom right from the start. It was inevitable. They lived in their own culture with its patterns of prejudice and abuse. It’s hugely challenging to surmount the cultural norms into which we are born.

The whole institution is infected by this corruption of Jesus’ teaching and always has been. From time to time individuals of great courage and spiritual wisdom are born, and are usually marginalised by the church, and if that isn’t effective, persecuted, and if that doesn’t work, martyred.

The heart

I could write more about this but I want to end this blog by switching to write about the other extreme, the transcendent spiritual dimension of reality, particularly since we are living at a time of a global, near-terminal tendency to violence and abuse and the loss of truth.

Two spiritual giants of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the Dominican monk Meister Eckhart and the Spanish Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi, spoke of “creator and created giving rise to each other.” In our time, a new wave of biologists are proposing that “mind and nature are one.” Meister Eckhart and Ibn Arabi claim that we are an integral part of this dynamic, an indissoluble physical and emotional connection between the mind and the heart. Jesus taught this same transcendent truth and was crucified as a result. Such insights into this creative dynamic within every human being have generally resulted, says Pearce, in them being led to the stake or block. The insights have seldom fallen into the public domain. The church suppressed the deepest wisdom of Jesus because it turned into an organisation of control of thought and behaviour. This is exactly what LGBTI people are experiencing now.

Creator and created, the divine and the human, should be living in a co-inspiring dynamic. We need to be living into spiritual teaching and practice that, as did Jesus, helps us integrate the intelligence of our heart with the intellect of our head. This is only going to happen when the church has the wisdom and courage to let go of the mythical and ‘religious’ projections surrounding Jesus. As Pearce says, Jesus as model of a new evolutionary intelligence met and continually meets a grim fate at the hands of the cultural effect of that keeps us locked in our primitive survival modes of mind.

The survival mode will predominate next Wednesday in the contribution archbishops and bishops and clergy and lay people from conservative fundamentalist traditions will make. But it won’t just be those people who will allow the church to get away with continuing prejudice. We are all affected by attachment to the institution and enculturation in its abusive norms one way or another. Women are still being abused in the church and have yet to be granted full equality and dignity. People with disabilities and black minority ethnic people are treated in the same way. It’s just that LGBTI people are the lightening rod at the moment. I think that’s because Christianity has always been obsessed and neurotic about sex and the human body – so much for incarnation.

To be a member of General Synod, let alone stand and speak in the Synod chamber, and do so from an open heart centre, is incredibly difficult. My heart is with all those Synod members with the courage to resist the bishops, refuse to take note of the report, and withdraw from the group session. That will take real presence.