Prolegomena to a commentary on the Psalms
For the most recent blog posts, click on this link: NEW POSTS
- There is a new post for June 15: “Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II),” re-posted from February.
- Beginning with psalm 100, commentaries will be posted to a new “page”: A Commentary on the Psalms (section two). Psalms 100 to 103 have been added to that page. To read the psalm commentaries from Psalm 1 to Psalm 99, click on this link: A COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS.
This is the beginning of an open-ended work in progress. The first installment is long, but divided into sections of less than 2,000 words each. It will be followed by commentaries on the psalms individually and posted to the “Page” of that name found in the sidebar on the right. The general intention is to examine the concrete working out of the relationship to the Sacred implicit in the premises of a worldview grounded in a living matter.
In this case it will take the form of a commentary on the psalms, not because there is something superior about these ancient prayer-poems of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but simply because they were the ones in which most of us were formed. We are bound to them by age-old practice and their poetic content is not only grafted into our subconscious but has found its way into the culture as truisms no one disputes. They have formed the fundamental attitudes toward the Sacred for us and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.
The psalms, however, evoke an obsolete view of the world. They assume a humanoid definition of “God” and the erroneous relationship that definition implies. They also bear the scars of an earlier updating made by men like Augustine of Hippo whose Roman Imperial Christian Platonism functions like a voice-over, distracting us from what the psalmist was actually saying and preventing our own attempts at appropriation. That’s the reason for this exercise. If our vision of reality has expanded beyond those confines, our relationship to the Sacred must change accordingly. Hence the psalms, which, as traditionally understood could actually hold us captive to a mindset we no longer want to live with, become the strategic heights that must be conquered in a struggle for liberation.
Ironically, what’s at stake is the continuity of our tradition. For, recognizing the serious disconnect between the psalms and our view of the world, we tend to abandon them altogether, consigning the entire genre to the museum of obsolete artefacts. As I hope to show, this would be great loss, for the psalms also throb with pre-Christian, pre-Platonic longings that concur remarkably with our materialist view of reality.
We will also find that the materialism of the psalms synchronizes with a religious universalism that so far has eluded us. Eliminating the spiritist presuppositions of the Platonic paradigm interwoven so authoritatively by Christians over the centuries opens the psalms to use by non-western traditions. I think especially of the forms of Buddhism that are currently flourishing in the West. Adjusted for the discoveries of science, the psalms unexpectedly function to confirm the relevance of paths that are not our own.
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For me, personally, this is not an academic exercise — the dry exchange of one set of words and categories for another. It is my attempt to wrestle with Jacob’s angel, all night long if need be, until he surrenders. I want to first pray the same psalms that sustained my commitments when I was young, but as I now understand them and believe they must be prayed if they are to open the sacred dimensions of our material universe and planetary family.
Traditions hold a certain sacredness for us not for being old but because we share a deep humanity with the people that forged them. These ancient prayers have borne the weight of millennia of people seeking LIFE. We cherish the psalms despite the atavism that we are obligated to challenge.
Finding words that accurately communicate the way one prays, however, is not a straightforward project. Prayer is often wordless, and trying to verbalize what is a silent stance, commitment, surrender, or regret, can easily mislead. But my responsibilities in this regard go only so far. You, the reader, will be misled only if you fail to check what I offer against your own experience. This is not a lesson. I am not a teacher. I am simply sharing my experience. The authority you have to follow is yourself.
This re-emphasizes the point that that these reflections are not now, nor have ever been, my private project. It is a collective endeavor. We are bound to one another at levels that go far deeper than the paper memberships invented by officialist orthodoxy. As our understanding of the world has grown, our expanded experience of the Sacred adds to our collective growth and evolution. It continues the process, already well underway, of making the whole world a human family grappled together by the steel hoops of justice and love. I hope you will make your experience part of this enterprise.
I am quite conscious of the fact that using the word “materialism” anywhere in a presentation on religion, and especially in the title, is likely to turn away the very people I am trying to reach with my message. But I am willing to run that risk because I am confident that my point of view will ultimately prevail. Materialism is the truth, and the truth is more than important; it is the very quintessence of the sacred. My position is very simple: everything is made of matter; there is nothing that is not made of matter; matter is all there is. “God,” the wellspring responsible for the existence of all things and the innate source of our sense of the sacred is a material force that enlivens matter as matter. This “God” is equally near to all, and is that in which we — material organisms — live and move and have our being.
Matter is sacred. Any religion claiming to be true has to embrace the reality of our material universe. The fact that there are phenomena that transcend the obsolete reductionist definition of matter imposed on it by Platonic-Cartesian dualist prejudice does not affect the thesis in the least: all those phenomena without losing anything of their transcendent character, are the products of matter, nothing else. Matter is simply capable of more than we were led to believe.
The reason for the traditional recoil against matter is also very simple. Historically, here in the West, religious people have come to equate the sacred with what is called “spirit.” Of course that word means different things to different people. But what they all have in common is the belief that there is another world, another level of reality where our lives and destinies as human beings really belong. By prioritizing this other place, ironically as physically distinct from this material world, belief in spirit questions the full reality of our universe. Fundamentally, it is an escape. It imagines an alternative universe that is not controlled by the mechanical causes and effects that rule the material world where we eke out our daily survival often with great difficulty.
Material forces and their outcomes are determined — that means they are locked in place. With matter there is no room for variation. If the myriad of links that connect your ignition key to the running of your car’s engine are properly in place, when you turn the key your car has to start. There is nothing magical or supernatural about it. No “God” can prevent the car from starting and correlatively, if they are not in place, no amount of prayer and fasting will ever induce it to start.
Many people have recourse to religion precisely because they do not like that. They feel they need to have another avenue to travel on, one that is not determined by material reality which is the cause of so much suffering. Life is hard, but I am not speaking of social problems — the miseries that we heap on one another — I am simply speaking of the fact that material reality is impervious to our desires. It eludes our control. We have to bend ourselves to its demands; matter does not accommodate us. We are not particularly happy with this world the way it is.
For many, religious belief in spirit offers a way out. It is focused on miracles — past, present and future. Miracles are physical events that bypass the laws of nature. And this bypass is possible because spirit is believed to be a force that is independent of and more powerful than matter.
They imagine spirit as “something” that is not bound by the laws of nature, and in fact, they think it can dominate and control matter, compelling it to conform to what spirit imposes on it. Spirit in this sense represents material power and that includes the ability to neutralize matter’s destructive potential. The irony here should not be overlooked: spirit is imagined to work physically on matter; it is thought of as a material force and therefore, by implication, something of a material “substance.” It’s a further indication of its origins in fantasy.
The ultimate source of this force is an invisible person called “God” who is conceived as pure spirit who, inexplicably, created matter and has infinite power over it. The entire significance of “God” for many people is that “he” is not constrained by matter as we are and can make matter do whatever “he” wants. So they feel that if only they can establish a connection with this all powerful material force, they can compel it, or cajole it, or manipulate it or in some other way harness it to do what they really want: submit matter to our will and whim — perform miracles.
The ability to perform miracles — to coerce matter — they call “power.” And this “God” is therefore all-powerful. “Power” means the ability to negate matter’s effects — implicitly by the application of a violent force. The fact that there is no evidence that this actually ever happens in response to any human communication does not seem to deflect spirit’s true believers from their convictions.
The greatest miracle of all, of course, would be to neutralize matter’s tendency to shift shape. Fragmented as it is, units of matter come together and then drift apart assuming one temporary form after another, always changing. This impermanence impacts us adversely because in our case our bodies are one of these temporary forms, and when their components dissolve and re-combine in another form we die. Hence our enthusiasm for the story we tell ourselves that under the veneer of the body we are actually spirits — immortal “souls” — that after the body disintegrates live on forever. Also “God” the pure spirit of infinite power is believed capable of reversing the disintegration of our bodies and bringing them back to life again after we die to live on as bodies in another world where supposedly only spirits reside.
So we cling to our belief in spirit. Notice that all the reasons have to do with dissatisfaction with our material world and ourselves as material organisms living immersed in and dependent upon matter for our own survival. We believe in spirit because we want to control and in some cases avoid or obliterate matter’s natural behavior. We are material organisms, despite our claim that we are something else, and our fixation on spirit is explained as a fantasy that provides an imaginary cure for the negative consequences of matter, principally its impermanence that means death for us. We are not interested in spirit in itself, it is actually quite foreign to our experience; it is conjured as a material weapon in our struggle to survive in a material world. Our interest all along has been in harnessing matter, and the elimination of death.
Notice that in the history of religion in the West, so-called “spiritual” realities were described as if they were material, i.e., as if spirit were a substance. Spirit was conceived as if it were simply a different kind of matter, a “thing” or “force” that was equally as determined in its functioning and results as matter, differing only in the plane or dimension of reality from which its operations originated. So, for example, “grace,” a spiritual force, was conceived by Christian theologians as if it were some kind of infusion like a magic potion or an energy which made miraculous things happen: it changed people’s minds, or more grossly, it was thought to actually rearrange the sequence of events, natural or man-made, like thunderstorms or baseball games, to effectuate certain outcomes “willed by God” usually because some people had asked for it and had been able to meet the requirements for securing “God’s” favor.
All this stands in stark contrast with reality. And the religion that I propose embraces the material reality of our universe and ourselves as part of it, enthusiastically and without reservation. There is no other world … there are no miracles … and a “God” of power who coerces matter does not exist. That is not a belief or a theory, it is a fact.
The world, exactly as it is, is sacred. The material world is not an illusion that will disappear with death or an imagined Armageddon. It is not a curtain behind which real reality lies hidden. What you see out there is what is really there.
The spirituality I advance is derivative of this understanding and moves between two foci: (1) the individual material organism … and (2) the material environment in which this individual emerges including matter’s energy, the ground and matrix of all things. The sacred is engaged in this context and no other. There is no other world and no other existence, and therefore the sacred bears no reference to anything else.
This differs radically from the former spiritist-dualist conception of the sacred which imagined the human individual to be an immortal soul destined to live eternally without the body. In that discredited worldview the relationship also moved between two foci: (1) the individual soul whose eternal destiny was determined by its ethical behavior while in the body … and (2) an imagined world of spirits where it was believed the soul would spend eternity in relationship with its unknown destined community. In this view, one’s earthly community was irrelevant to one’s eternal destiny. No matter how deeply loved, unless these others as individuals lived in such a way as to earn membership in the community of reward after death, there was no way to expect that relationship to them here would continue later. Each “soul” was on its own. A saintly mother, effectively, had to learn to disown a sinful son or daughter because her primary relationship was to “God” and whatever future community would end up sharing eternity with her. This view of things fostered an individualism born of distrust of others. It tended to undermine local family and clan connections and encourage dependency on the overall moral authority.
God is the energy of matter
It has been traditional in the West, with some notable exceptions, to claim that “God,” which Paul identified as that “in which we live and move and have our being,” could not possibly be material based on the prejudicial denigration of matter’s characteristics. Aquinas’ argument that “God” is simple (a feature derived from the assumption that “God” is spirit) and could not enter into composition with anything other than himself without losing his simplicity, like all arguments for the existence of spirit, assumes what it claims to prove. The underlying problem is the universal assumption of the existence of spirit as a substance existing in a parallel world and yet fully operative in the world of matter, a phenomenon that is not explained.
This evokes another objection: how can a “God” that is pure spirit and diametrically opposed to matter, even have created matter? Specifically how can a mind that is supposedly not matter even have imagined such a thing — its complete antithesis? Where would it go for the paradigm? Even Gregory of Nyssa recognized the anomaly here and acknowledged that he had no answer for it.
Some theologians, like Meister Eckhart, argued that spirit is uncomposed and that “God,” as infinite pure spirit, in order to create a finite imitation of infinity conceived of the present moment in the flow of time as the finite counterpart of the “eternal now,” and created matter as a foundational solid that would sustain time’s sequential fragmentation. Eckhart was a Thomist pan-entheist and his theories, expressed in spiritist dualist terms, dovetail in practice with the spirituality inherent in transcendent materialism. I have no problem with Eckhart’s mysticism, what I disagree with are the physical /metaphysical assumptions that he uses to explain them. That his spiritist participation in God’s act of ESSE parallels our materialist co-possession of God’s material energy underscores the similarity of the experience. The experience is the same, how you explain it is what is different.
All arguments assume the existence and characteristics of a substance called spirit — something for which modern science can find no evidence whatsoever. To the contrary, when science proceeds on the premise that there is nothing but matter driven by its own internal energies, it is able to explain all the forms and features of our universe including the near infinite number of living things on earth.
Even human consciousness, traditionally adduced as proof of the independent existence of spirit, is now seen to be a product of the material configuration of the human organism. The activities of mind are clearly known to be completely dependent upon the human body for their existence and character. If the relevant components of the human body are damaged or destroyed, the corresponding mental operations cease or are altered beyond recognition. Diseases like Alzheimer’s that are known to physically damage the brain entail the extreme loss of cognitive function. The dementia that often accompanies old age in which the human individual no longer recognizes close friends and family, and possibly even his or her own identity, is clearly body-dependent. Mind, in other words, is a product of matter, not the other way around as we traditionally believed.
But matter has its own internal energy, and when that is included in the analysis, it becomes clear that the dynamism of matter has been responsible for the evolutionary elaboration of new forms of material organisms and even new levels of function. Complex molecules at a particular moment in geologic history began to display the characteristics of life — identity, self-preservation, nutrition, reproduction — where no such phenomena had previously existed. Later the emergence of human consciousness followed the same pattern, appearing where no self-reflective perception had existed before. The ability to constantly transcend itself — go beyond its current forms and unveil capacities no one would have ever guessed were there — is the creative power of the energy innate in matter. Matter’s energy is transcendent. It goes beyond the platforms from which it launches new forms. It creates as if out of nothing. Hence I speak of transcendent materialism — matter with a creative dynamism. Evolutionary emergence actually happened. New things appeared as if “out of nothing.” These are facts, not beliefs or theories.
So we are slowly becoming aware that the universe is entirely different from what we supposed it was. And that means, of course, that the “God” responsible for it all, while maintaining the same essential relationship of loving-source, ground, model and creator as ever in our tradition, turns out to be entirely different from what we were led to believe.
“God,” whatever else that may mean, is the living energy of matter. And, since the energy of matter is first of all an energy to-be-here, “God” in our material universe also retains the traditional definition as esse in se subsistens — the act of existing itself. The fact that “God” is the existential energy that characterizes every particle and sub-particle of matter, is particularly consistent with and highly explanatory of how all things share, by participation, in the very existence that is proper to “God” alone. Once it is understood that what we share with “God” is not some concept — like the abstract “act of existence,” or “life” considered as a separate vital force injected into matter — but our very material substances, participation in being opens up for everyone a broad rich landscape that was heretofore the private meditation garden of a few philosophers and theologically trained religious.
A “God” who is the existential energy of matter redefines the concept of “power.” Power for this “God” is the ability, and we might even say, the proclivity to produce LIFE and more LIFE. Power is potentia — potential — not potestas, or imperium, the imposition of control. The goal, then, of human relationship to the Sacred will be to align one’s own potential with “God’s,” to become “powerful” in the transmission and enhancement of LIFE. And the “spirituality” of those pursuing that relationship — the bodily transformations that accomplish that alignment — will be directed to the conscious embrace of our potential as “God’s” potential … achieved incrementally in each succeeding present moment until the two become identical and the human organism is the perfect expression of matter’s sacred energy.
What was abstract becomes concrete and our unity with “God” is revealed as more intimate and organic than ever imagined. “God” is not a distant Spirit who voluntarily chooses to “draw near” to some human soul mysteriously elected for mystical experience. “God” is by nature near to all of us, as Paul insisted, because in “him” our bodies live and move and have their very being. “He” is the living matter of which we are constructed. Suddenly the esoteric texts of Johannes Eckhart and John of the Cross cease being the opaque expressions of ascetical virtuosi speaking from ethereal regions beyond this world. It now becomes clear that they were speaking of ordinary reality as we now know it, a reality the science of their times did not recognize but that they discerned through the faithful reading of their own inner experience. They experienced what they did because that’s the nature of this one real world. They were able to break through the obfuscations created by ancient Platonic dualist expressions by allowing the intimate touch of reality to inform their understanding and not the other way around. They were uniquely sensitive men who trusted what they felt rather than what they were told. They palpably experienced how intimately they and “God” were one. Unfortunately they had no other way to communicate it except through the convoluted dualist categories of mediaeval theology, which we have to decipher in the new terms provided by the science of our times.
The science of our times has quietly, over the course of 500 years, led us to see that organic LIFE is the core of reality, and we know LIFE because our bodies are alive with the same organic LIFE. The Platonic detour that took us in circles is no longer in force. We are not constrained by those categories. We see clearly what we are. And we know that what we are is what “God,” our living substrate, has to be: the material energy to be-here — esse.
What Eckhart had to go to the mountaintop to find, we can see every day on our way to work and back: we are alive with “God’s” LIFE because we are material organisms — bodies; we are made of “God’s” material energy. All it takes to be in touch with it, is noticing.
Being-here is time related. Existence erupts in a seamless sequence of instantaneously vanishing “nows” that come out of nowhere and slip almost immediately into a past that is no longer here. If it’s important to notice anything, we must notice what is-here now. The past is not here anymore. The future is not here yet. Hence if we want to relate to the existential energy — the esse — we call “God,” we have to do it in the present moment. For a conscious organism, being present to the present moment means noticing.
Noticing is everything, but we spend most of our time distracted. We very often don’t attend to what passes through our minds. That means the feelings that our thoughts and images give rise to are generally beyond our oversight and control. It’s as if someone or something else is injecting them and causing the actions they inevitably suggest. Our minds are racing through the images of a changing stream of consciousness whose headwaters are so far back in memory that were they to be identified it would be difficult to trace the connections between the two. Distraction at a minimum robs us of efficiency and focus. But that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also mean so much suffering for ourselves and others. Because when we’re distracted the conatus takes over — our organic auto-pilot whose job is self-preservation — and begins scanning the horizon for any and all possible threats to the “self” which, in order for the conatus to do its job, must see itself as poor, vulnerable, defenseless and afraid. It spies enemies actual and potential everywhere. The default mode it runs in is paranoia. It would seem a conatus that perceived itself any other way could hardly qualify for the role. But, more rarely, some people do believe themselves to be superior and invulnerable. And when that happens, unfortunately, things are often even worse. It drives the ruthless pursuit of ego-enhancement at the expense of everything and everyone else.
The role of the family and neighborhood in the childhood formation of an individual’s ideas, attitudes and values provides much of the content that feeds the conatus’ voracious appetite. Invariably enemies are identified, criteria for judgment about others’ intentions are established, defensive or retaliatory rejoinders are suggested and often the very reactions of the offended victim, if perceived as inadequate, are subjected to humiliating condemnation by the survival community. The example of parents and older siblings in their response to life-situations are absorbed and internalized. What one is to cherish and how one is to respond to virtually every eventuality in life is pre-programmed by the local culture and becomes as intimately and unconsciously part of the individual’s mindset as language and preference in food, music and mates. How one is to proceed in the accumulation of wealth and the choice of one’s work in life are also part of cultural formation, sometimes exercising a lifelong influence that can be both blinding and enslaving. Religion and the feelings of guilt or approval it generates for certain behavior are also in this category. By the time the individual moral consciousness is awake enough to even question behavior and motivation and imagine alternatives, habits of thought, attitude and action have already been ingrained and exercise a determinative control over the “self” protected by the conatus. One discovers a fully fleshed out “self” has been formed in the absence of any authentic input by conscious intention.
So our organic instincts, in the absence of an active self-awareness, can take our minds hostage churning out images derived from various authorities that militate against the trust that sustains harmony among us. Unless challenged these feelings will convict others (and even ourselves) of having betrayed and humiliated the “self” that the conatus feels obligated to protect. Self-aggrandizement, defensiveness and retaliation are its stock-in-trade, often aided and abetted by the culture.
Some people are able to check these negative feelings quite naturally. Perhaps having been fortunate enough to have secure and positive parents and family, they catch themselves thinking thoughts that are selfish, unreal, mean or paranoid, and refuse to give them purchase. Some grow up with such a sense of their own attractiveness, talent and rational competence that they cannot imagine anyone having a negative thought about them. Definitely lucky people. Others grow into self-confidence as they mature, establishing successful relationships with family, friends and work and faithfully carrying responsibilities for others. Dark brooding feelings also occur to them, but they are able to dismiss them and over time, like the first group, cease to find them even minimally credible.
Still others are not so lucky. The ordinary circumstances of their lives have not provided a resistance to the negativity that poisons peace of mind and undermines healthy and satisfying relationships. Those who, for whatever reason, have to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of negativity, must find artificial devices to help them avoid sliding into reactions and addictions that offer a temporary respite for the pain that their uncontrolled feelings generate. Of course I am speaking in extremes. The reality for most people is somewhere in between.
But there’s enough negativity generated by the culture or by the distracted defensiveness of a runaway conatus that almost everyone would benefit from some mechanism, or exercise, or practice that will help them identify and control the flow of imagery through their minds and the intense feelings they spawn. The blind-sided conatus that comes embedded in our material organisms can be harnessed to energize a different self, aware of its secure identity as matter’s sacred energy, liberated from cultural preferences and prejudices that undermine healthy relationships and determined to become compassionate and generous toward all things. But it requires noticing.
Buddhist spiritual practitioners have addressed this distractedness and have identified it as one of the principal sources of the unsatisfactoriness that seems to dominate human life even when the more painful forms of anguish and suffering — which unfortunately also abound — are not present. Their response to the problem is what they call “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the fruit of meditative practices that promote attention to the present moment: noticing. Since so much random daydreaming has to do with what happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future, focus on the present moment is bound to find itself in short order face to face with a runaway mind dwelling obsessively anywhere but the present. Becoming aware of the default negativity of the conatus is the beginning of wisdom. Incrementally re-establishing conscious awareness and control of the conatus-driven mind is the path to personal transformation.
Even when negative thoughts are so intense that the conscious mind cannot stop them, the practitioners of mindfulness claim that the very act of observing them consciously and identifying them as both uncontrolled and unintended, immediately creates a distance that saps them of intensity. Over time, without the nourishment of ownership actual or assumed, mindfulness can weaken them to the point of elimination.
The conatus is a biological instinct that mines the existential energy of all the matter of the body and places it at the service of the living composite — the self. The conatus is not itself conscious but functions for an organism whose identity includes the imagining mind. In the absence of conscious self-awareness and control, the conatus generates the appearance of a self by producing feelings connected with mental imagery generated by fear and self-protection. It’s the job of the conatus to aggrandize the organism and to identify threats to its growth and success. When that instinct is allowed to function on its own without conscious control, consciousness at some point will awake to find its conatus-driven mind awash with a series of thoughts, feelings and reactions already in place which have projected a posture toward the outside world. The now-attentive consciousness evaluates what it sees going on, and finds itself pre-defined. It sees itself as others see it, based on the evidence of attitude and behavior. The difficulty it encounters changing things due to the strength of the habits formed further confirms the assessment. The uncontrolled ruminations of a distracted conatus have constructed a false self comprised almost entirely of self-defensive negativity and self-aggrandizing illusion possibly reinforced by cultural beliefs some of which may bear the weight of sacred tradition. Getting control of this situation is not easy, especially because it is not immediately apparent that getting control is even possible.
But the “self” formed by unconscious habits is not the last word. The very ability to observe one’s own behavior as if from the outside, and then assert that one’s intentions are different from what the established “self” is feeling and doing, indicates that there is a source of identity that transcends the sub-conscious mind habituated to negative thinking. That source of present-moment identity can be called the “true self,” or the transcendent self for it transcends its own habituation. The choices it makes represent the posture of the fully aware conscious organism, no longer distracted, but mindful of itself and its surroundings and increasingly attentive to the present moment as the fruit of its meditative practice.
This is the point when we come face to face with the mystery of our existence as human beings. For the ability to stand back and look at oneself feeling and acting seems to draw on a source of conscious identity that transcends the organism’s unconscious mental operations. If such a source of identity did not exist the work of the unconscious conatus would be entirely opaque: the mind would not be able to see past it; the only thing perceptible would be what the runaway conatus was presenting for consumption. Where does this other identity come from?
Some claim that there is an Absolute Self that exists underneath or alongside the relative self of our routine mindlessness. Each human individual, they say, is potentially energized by either self and chooses which of those selves they will activate to let dominate their attitudes and behavior — in effect that there are two selves that we have recourse to as we choose. I can understand how observation of distracted human behavior and the awareness of human potential might lead someone to say that. But I believe on metaphysical grounds that the human organism is only one thing and it is driven by only one conatus. And it is one and the same mind that either notices or doesn’t notice.
The ability of the mind to double back on itself and look at itself doing what it does as a mind is a feature of our reality that we have traditionally ascribed to “spirit.” But I say there is no separate spirit. What we are looking at is the ability of matter as configured in the neurological components of the human organism to focus or not focus on the content of its consciousness, to be mindful or to be forgetful, to attend to the present moment or let itself drift distractedly into imagery from the past or projected into the future or provided whole cloth by the local culture. The energy is the same whether distracted or attentive. The conatus is the same whether it is mindlessly pursuing self-aggrandizement, accusing others of hostility and betrayal, dwelling on prejudicial tribe-generated judgments or intentionally being activated by a mindful consciousness to generate conscientious alternatives to rancor and conflict.
The conatus is perfectly capable of being “tethered” and made to see that self-preservation is located in heeding the dictates of conscience and intentionally focusing its energies on the development of a self that becomes thoroughly compassionate and generous. There is nothing mutually exclusive here. I’m talking about engaging the enormous self-directed energies of the conatus sese conservandi — the body’s drive to survive — in the transformation of the self. We are each only one thing, ourselves, and the material energy that drives us is ours to direct and apply. The issue is to regain control of it, slowly and incrementally over a long time if necessary, and point it where we will. It’s not a question of eliminating it; it can’t be done anyway and the attempt would leave us dehumanized. That was the mistake of the Platonic delusion. It thought the self-directed urges of the body were depraved and needed to be obliterated. That was wrong. The solution is to teach the body’s conatus what “self-preservation” really means.
Synteresis (sometimes spelled synderesis) was a word the Greeks used to refer to the immediate and spontaneous natural grasp of right and wrong. They thought of it as an innate habit, the moral counterpart of the principle of contradiction. It’s not at first a conscientious judgment about moral action; it is prior to conscience. It is the inborn knowledge of the first moral principles. You don’t have to develop this habit. It comes with the human organism. The human individual cannot not know that there is right and wrong. The sense of justice is built into the organism because it comes with intelligence.
Synteresis was considered a sub-routine of the mental grasp of identity, hence injustice is its first wake-up call. Injustice offends the principle of contradiction — the principle of identity — that each is only oneself, has a right to be oneself, is owned only by oneself, and therefore owns what one needs to survive and remain oneself. The Greeks attributed it to the Platonic belief that the “soul” was spiritual and made in the image of a spiritual “God” who was defined as subsistent Goodness: one of the three principal derivatives of Being (unity, truth and goodness). “Goodness” as the moral corollary of unity and truth — the right desire to remain oneself — correlates to “justice.” It is first apprehended in the jarring unease felt at its violation, hence injustice is its most basic perceptible form.
Inevitably, due to its Platonic origins, synteresis was classified under the general category of “the domination of the flesh by the spirit,” since sensuality was believed to be an exclusively bodily feature inclined toward evil, and synteresis its spiritual antithesis rooted in the intellect (mind or spirit). In our material universe, however, we know that the phenomenon of the immediate sense of right and wrong, which virtually no one disputes as a phenomenon, is not to be attributed to a “soul,” an ethereal substance whose reality belongs to another world, but rather to the human organism made of matter always consciously in touch with material identity — the innate realization that each thing is only and always itself. Synteresis, like intelligence itself of which it is an expression, is a function of matter and is for the human observer a primary datum in the search for the nature and character of the material substrate — matter’s energy — from which all things are constructed. Synteresis, in other words, our embedded inclination to recoil at injustice, is a derivative of matter’s existential energy every bit as much as the conatus. It’s a primary source for our knowledge of what matter’s energy is.
It seems that there must be some intrinsic connection between conatus and synteresis. They are both the direct, non-mediated expressions of the same thing: the foundational substrate of our universe of matter. In practical, psychological terms it means that the revulsion at injustice and the drive for self-preservation must essentially be the same thing.
This seems paradoxical, because the inclination to moral rectitude characteristic of synteresis has generally been interpreted as a selfless dynamic, while the characterization of the conatus has generally been that it is mindlessly focused on selfish goals. But this is where our analysis of the role of mindfulness in the confirmation of the conatus’ malleability — its radical openness to be directed to what exactly constitutes “self-preservation” — dovetails with what we know of physical / metaphysical reality. It is a clear example of the unity of identity of the human organism. We are only one thing. We are not two selves, a relative self and Absolute Self vying for attention and control, nor are we a soul and a body, each contending for domination of the individual in a zero-sum war that will mean the extermination of the loser. We are always and only one same identical conscious material organism capable at all times of consciously and intentionally directing or not directing the spontaneous energies that come from our material infrastructure. The only thing that would render us incapable of such action would be a serious impairment of the material organism stemming from physical or hormonal damage or when something mind-altering like drugs or alcohol interferes with the body’s normal operation. Moral capability depends on the integrity of the physical organism.
This is also an important datum in our understanding of our source, matter’s energy. Physically and metaphysically speaking, we are what our source is. That means we are not different from “God,” the LIFE of matter. We are one and the same living “stuff.” The synteresis — the fundamental moral inclination that we are born with — every bit as much as the conatus itself, is the primary expression of the energy of LIFE. And the intuitive sense that the conatus’ drive for self-preservation is to be identified with the synteresis’ abhorrence at injustice now is seen to have a physical / metaphysical foundation. Matter is “God”-stuff … and the “stuff” that we are talking about is us, for we are made of it. We are all and only matter. We and “God” are comprised of the same genetic material. That’s how we were “created:” we are “God’s” own existential material energy evolved.
All of the dualities that have kept us fragmented and self-imploding are now seen to be illusions. We no longer imagine that “God” is different from us or that we have to somehow travel some great distance to find “him,” or overcome some great obstacle to make contact. We do not have to buy our way into “God’s” favor in order to escape from the consequences of a body we drag around like prisoners in chains. We are not eternally at war with ourselves trying to have an imaginary soul deal a death blow to a body whose very vitality is a sign of moral depravity. And when we fail in our efforts to control the conatus we can start again because the “God” we have insulted and betrayed is not other than ourselves.
There is no need to climb some moral mountain or spend a lifetime in exploring the tunnels and caverns of our subconscious. Our task proceeds mundanely on a daily basis — on our way to work and back, as it were — to remember who and what we are. The practice of mindfulness is to return to the present moment as “God” stuff and insure that “the words of our mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, are acceptable in the sight of ‘God,’ our synteresis-illuminated conscience.”
We do not hesitate to identify ourselves with “God” because the “God “ of the “pantheism” that traditionally frightened us was defined by the discredited idea of a “God” with an anthropomorphic definition of “power.” We know we are not omnipotent, but we also know now that “God” is not omnipotent in that old discarded sense either. We have a different idea of what “power” means. “God’s” “power” is not manifest as control of matter but as its very LIFE. “Power” was our category, a display of coercive force, it did not define “God’s” power which is exhausted in the potential for generating LIFE.
“God’s” power is the potential to propagate LIFE, absolutely nothing else. The ability to destroy, stifle and control is what we humans mean by power. It is, in “God’s” terms, impossible. “God” cannot do that, for “God” is always and only creative LIFE. There are no miracles because “God” cannot suspend the laws of nature. “God” is nature. To suspend its laws would mean nullifying himself. The principle of identity rules. “God” cannot be anything but “God.” There is only one miracle: the invincible potential for LIFE that emerges at each present moment — each “now” — of matter’s existence in whatever forms it has, up to the moment, evolved..
And so we identify ourselves with “God” and unapologetically pursue allowing “God’s” LIFE to take over and completely supplant the false power-hungry “self” that our unbridled and undirected mindless conatus has been allowed to conjure into existence, like a blind sculptor. The result of its unconscious efforts, no matter how grotesque, in the case of human beings is not set in stone. Habits grooved into living flesh are open to change. They can be transformed through the power of mindfulness: welding synteresis to the conatus.
Prayer. The pre-existing energy of the matter of our organisms — present since the moment of the “big bang” — congeals into the conatus-synteresis that is the foundation of our individual identity. It compels us to find “God” at the intimate center-point, the shared ground at the “intersection of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, … .” which “like a two edged sword, living and active, discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is the “place” where the existential energy of our source becomes our very own, bound over in service to our identity. The conatus-synteresis is the organism’s drive to survive as human — its thirst for life and its revulsion at injustice.
If we intend to relate to this “God,” therefore, this is the “place” we will find him, with a face and features indistinguishable from our own. And that, for us, erstwhile spiritists learning to pray all over again in a material universe, is the consummate challenge. For our tradition has not taught us to think of “God” as our matrix and therefore of ourselves and “God” as a compenetrated entity. To the contrary it has imagined “God” to be distant and inaccessible, “out there,” “other” than we are, separate and distinct, an individual person, Pure Spirit, who acts ad extram outside himself on matter and who requires a moral response to his revealed commands as the condition for contact. The fact that a theologian as officially acceptable as Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century that “God” does not work ad extram but rather accomplishes everything — from creation to redemption — internally, as a participation in the trinitarian processions themselves, has not put a dent in the anthropomorphic imagery universally held by the Christian tradition. Thomas’ immanentist theology, even if understood, was never applied. The ancient humanoid imagery stemming from the Hebrew Scriptures remains perennially unchallenged by the pastoral exhortations and catechetical education of the Christian clergy.
It’s only when we do away with the erroneous duality of matter and spirit that we can finally demolish the separation-illusion we have erected between us and our creator which was based on the alienating effect of our human bodies. “God” was thought to be pure spirit and that’s what drove the irretrievable wedge between us. Only now, knowing that we are the very “stuff” that our creator is made of can we fully embrace and be morally enlivened by the divine immanence that theologians spoke of but the ecclesiastical authorities never found conducive to their program of social control. The hierarchy needed “God” to be distant; how else could they justify their ministrations, guaranteed to bring a metaphysically distant “God” near, always with the hope that he will perform miracles for paying clients.
But “God” is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The LIFE that we share with “God” is only one LIFE, “God’s” LIFE — matter’s energy. That is the miracle — the energy of LIFE — the only miracle. There are no others.
If we are to re-imagine “God” as “God” really is, then, we have look at what “God” is actually doing: activating our existence in the present moment, enlivening the matter of our bodies, specifically that energy within us that reaches out for more existence and is outraged at injustice. If we are to touch “God,” our attention has to focus on the present moment when we know that our material existence is newly arising in time as pure fresh water from a mountain spring as yet uncompromised by the pollutants that enter downstream. It is the “still point of the turning world,” and our true self newly armed with the conatus–synteresis emerges with it at every instant. This is a constantly renewed potential that is born of the non-contradiction — the truth — to which we are welded in steel by our diaphanous minds. That intelligence as yet uncontaminated is not selfish in the least, is fully liberated — we might even say “all-powerful” — and in no way beholden to the “knee-jerk” false self that it sits quietly observing. That doesn’t mean that it is immediately capable of seeing details clearly, much less taking charge of the organism, which unfortunately may be held captive by the illusions of a mindless conatus now hardened by years of habit into a caricature of itself. The true self displays its authenticity, first, in its inability to not see things for what they really are. This is the terrible “judge of the living and the dead” that we dread: our implacable conscience. It knows what we do and why we do it. It fears no shame. But it has no power to coerce; it invites us to surrender to its unlimited potential rooted in the infinite ground of esse — matter’s existential energy itself emerging afresh in every moment.
It reminds us wordlessly what frauds we have been and are still capable of being, but whose unsullied re-emergence with conscious intelligent existence at each moment invites us to identify with this true self, the true residence of the organismic energy of the conatus-synteresis, forget the fraudulence of the past false distracted selfish self, and embark now as if it were the beginning of time in the limitless embrace of its Source arising to the surface. This is the “creator” and “savior” on whose existence we ride “as if on eagles wings.” The Source and outflowing current of this living spring are indistinguishable. It is ourselves. This is the “God” to whom we pray.
The psalms were a compilation of imprecations made available by Hebrew priests to their various paying clients, as well as the collected songs of praise and pleading that were used for official state functions after the return of the Jews from exile. They are many and varied, but they have one thing in common: they are directed to “God.” They are dialogic. As you would expect from the era in which they were redacted, around 600 bce, they assume “God” to be a separate individual humanoid “person” out there, all powerful in a coercive sense, who did once and even now still can perform miracles like those associated with the Exodus, and make good things happen for “his” people.
Hebrew legend has it that they were slaves in Egypt and that the god Yahweh identified himself with their plight and helped free them from bondage. It is not surprising, then, that this earliest recorded religious adventure in our tradition took the form of a business contract. The captive Hebrew People bound themselves to do what “God” wanted and in return he bound himself to do what they wanted. Of course that involved miracles that put matter at the service of their needs: locusts devoured crops of their Egyptian captors, the Nile turned to blood, and even the Red Sea parted to aid their escape from slavery.
The psalms assume the contractual relationship between Yahweh and the Jewish people that is known as “the Covenant.” The contract provides the context in which the psalms generate their characteristic content. It accounts for some of the boldness — sometimes quite demanding — that otherwise would seem impertinent coming from a poor suppliant directed to the all-powerful master of the universe.
We used to imagine that “God” was literally as the psalms depicted “him.” But we have since learned that “God” is not like the person in the psalms or the other writings of these ancient near eastern people struggling to salvage a modicum of sovereignty in a region contested by the great rival empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. To begin with, the series of miraculous occurrences said to have accompanied the exodus from Egypt never happened, or were natural events given a hieratic interpretation by people emboldened in their efforts at liberation because they believed that Yahweh’s power was being applied on their behalf. Recalling the exodus and the contract that emerged from it forms the core of the argument of the psalms just as it formed the centerpiece of Jewish self-identity. The Jews were a people because they had a powerful “God” to whom they were related and who once suspended the laws of nature to secure their freedom and could do so again.
That means that the miraculous, as far as the psalms are concerned, has an important foundational dimension: it created the identity of the Jewish community. In our times we can only take that as metaphor. The community we relate to is the whole human race surviving by the fertility of the earth’s environment. This triad of the power of “God,” communal identity and freedom is the leitmotif of the psalms and remains their central dynamic even after the literal physical / metaphysical context has been brought up to date. It’s the source of the psalms’ transhistorical significance both for the individuals and the global community that emerges from using them.
Christians from the earliest days were aware of this feature of Jewish identity, and they boldly arrogated it to themselves. They identified themselves as the new chosen people. Jesus was the new Moses … his death and resurrection were the new Exodus, the definitive liberation, the passage through the Red Sea of death to the promised land of risen life. And Jesus was the “David” predicted by the psalms, the king who would rule from one end of the earth to the other, the “first-born son” of God himself whose reign would have no end. None of this was in the mind of the psalmists who created these songs. “David” was the reigning king at the time. The hyperbolic projections of his longevity, political reach and domination of others were very straightforward: Yahweh’s people should expect no less. After all, it was the wonder-worker of the Exodus who guaranteed it.
All this reference to Jesus, it hardly needs to be said, was imposed later by believing Christians who were determined to find symbolic clues and hints of “God’s” universal purpose — designed for the entire human race — in the events recounted in the Jewish Scriptures which formed the basis of their daily prayer. The earliest Christians, after all, were all Jews. Where else would such expectations come from?
What is most salient to our perspective is that the early Christians believed they were upgrading Judaism from a local, sectarian, tribal belief, to the final universal design intended by God. The early Christians were Jewish universalists. But almost within their lifetime, Christianity itself, in order to protect its boundaries became a sect every bit as closed and exclusive as the Jews that they thought they were transcending. In this respect, Christians claimed the “contract” — the Covenant — was transferred to them. There was a “new contract,” a New Covenant, and it was with Christians. It is not at all surprising that, by using those categories and terminology, Christianity became as tribal and exclusive as anything they thought they were escaping.
How do we, in our time, despite the sectarian dynamics in operation both for the Jews and later for the Christians, deal with this? I contend “The contract” provides an especially apt analog for the relationship between the human organism, the human community in which the organism effectuates its survival, and the living material energy of which it is made, and which is the source of all its powers. While the Jewish Covenant imagines a God-person with a residence beyond this world, and the Christian appropriation of that Covenant crassly identified the Roman Empire as the new “tribe” to which all must belong, the claim that “God” is activating his considerable coercive power for the Jews (or the Roman Catholics) can only be a metaphor. Literally speaking there is no such “God” or power and there never was, neither for the Jews nor for the Catholics.
But what is relevant is the dynamic of the relationship. Yahweh, in the psalms is bound to the Jews. There is no question about his commitments, even were his preference to change. He is bound by contract. Yahweh belongs to the Jews, and the Jews belong to Yahweh, like it or not. They are “two in one flesh,” like a married couple however dysfunctional the relationship, and indeed the prophets use the marriage metaphor more than once to describe the bond between Yahweh and the Jews and to draw conclusions about the behavior that it implies.
In our terms, “God” is the living dynamism resident in matter. “God,” as Eckhart would say, is the ground in which I exist. “God” belongs to us and we to “God” in the most intimate manner possible for we are one and the same stuff. My “self,” however, that coalesces under the driving insistence of the conatus to survive in each present moment in time, is quite capable of erroneously imagining itself to be a solid stand-alone independent entity — groundless — existing in its own right. “God,” even understood as the energy of matter, is not spontaneously perceived as part of this picture. Therefore a significant correction is needed if the human organism is to imagine itself accurately.
An independently existing entity is what Aristotle called a “substance,” a term that Spinoza claimed could only be attributed to “God,” and since everything else existed in “God,” everything else was, for Spinoza, necessarily a “modality” of the one divine “substance.” Spinoza’s philosophy was an idealist version of pan-entheism, taken directly from the mediaeval focus on the central place of ESSE — “being” in the conceptualization of reality. For pan-entheists of any persuasion, you cannot conceptualize the subordinate entity without including its Source-matrix, “in which it lives and moves and has its being.” In the obsolete spiritist-dualist Platonic metaphysics that earlier constituted the “perennial philosophy” of the west, the Substantial Source that “modalized” the human individual was the concept of ESSE, always an abstraction even when imagined as a concrete force as in Aristotle’s “act.” But our science has more accurately revealed to us the concrete characteristics of our universe: ESSE is matter’s energy and everything that exists is constructed of it. It is easy to imagine because it is concrete.
In our terms “divine power” means the unlimited and irrepressible potential for LIFE and justice that is on display in the conatus-synteresis embedded in human organisms. LIFE’s power — i.e., “God’s” power — expresses itself in the identification of our own identity, the driven conatus, with the embrace of justice, synteresis, the moral corollary of the principle of non-contradiction. That identification is the source of unlimited human potential — it is the divine guarantee of personal and social identity and liberation and it necessarily involves the displacement of the imaginary independent “self” with another “self” fully aware of its roots in the ground of “God’s” LIFE. In that moment — always a present moment, of course — the organism is freed from captivity to the false self, the erroneous self that thinks it has its own existence, as if it were its own source. But the human organism is not self-originating. It is in the achievement of that liberating realization that both the true self and true human community are born.
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All the factual elements that form the content of the psalms have changed for us. We are not Jews. We do not believe that “God” is an all-powerful entity who had a tribal contract with Jews and then later with Christians. We are convinced that there are no miracles and never were. We have come to understand that “God” is not a humanoid person “out there” with whom we can communicate but rather a living dynamism “in here,” in our flesh — the innate force of LIFE enlivening the material substrate of this evolving universe and our very bodies. “God” is LIFE, absolutely universal and “belongs” to everyone. What we experience as our own living identity, the conatus, the drive to survive characteristic of every living organism, is an existential energy that belongs primarily to the material substrate of our organisms and only secondarily gathered into an ephemeral human “self” by the conatus from the coalescence of trillions upon trillions of living cells that comprise our bodies, a “self” that we use as a tool to thread our way through our life with others on this earth. It is an organismic identity, and when the organism disintegrates, that identity, that “self” formed by the conatus, disappears.
Our relationship to this “God” is exhaustively mediated through our relationship to ourselves, our family and local community, and a global society increasingly interdependent for the survival of each and all. This “God” can only be contacted in one place: where the rubber meets the road — at the present moment where LIFE reveals its presence in the aggregations and configurations of evolved matter. LIFE exists nowhere else. “God” is only the living dynamism of matter — the force of LIFE — emerging into existence in each present moment.
As self-conscious organisms who are ourselves the primary examples of such configurations we have special access to that revelation. We perceive it from within. We have an inside view on our own existence, which is always simultaneously a social phenomenon, emerging in the ever present moment. It is not just a matter of knowledge, we experience it palpably, wordlessly, directly and intimately. It is there that we touch the wellspring of our power — where “God’s” LIFE becomes our potential for life and justice. And it is to that shared power — that divine potential that is us — that the psalms direct us to cry out for help against our enemies.
Our enemies are our own mindlessness that allows selfishness to cripple our potential: to become addicted to gross gratifications, to propagate injustice by our greed, to foment the prejudices and exclusions of our atavistic tribalism, to spread the errors of false self-worshipping religion, to let ourselves be intimidated by the blinded selfishness of others. We have recourse to only one source of power — the invincible divine potential that surges into existence at every new moment as ourselves (and as other humans). We pray to that “God” for there is nothing else to appeal to. There is no other “God,” and for human beings there is no other power that is relevant to our reality. Authentic power is the human potential of a synteresis’ charged conatus. Coercive power is now recognized as inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. For it is impotent to achieve the real goal of the conatus, the preservation and enhancement of the true self guided by synteresis.
In order to accomplish the purpose of prayer — which is the conscious attempt to align ourselves with the meaning of our existence in a universe of material LIFE — the “will” of “God” is made manifest as our moral conscience informing an energized conatus through the spontaneous promptings of our innate synteresis. Just as the “God” we call upon to rouse himself in our defense is our synteresis-directed conatus, the “God” we obey is our conscience.
Work and survival. The conatus drives identity because the organism is driven to survive. This is not suppressible and we are lucky that it’s not. It’s what makes us human. We have to struggle — work — to stay alive, and we identify ourselves by how and how well we do it. It’s both our joy and our fulfillment as well as our constant preoccupation. It’s what we do under the sun. It is the essence of the human condition as it is of every material organism in the universe. It is the source of all community and conflict among us.
Surviving in our material universe has never been easy, and despite the security that the technological conquest of human survival should, in theory, provide for all, in practice for the majority of people across the globe, life is as hard as it has ever been. This is, obviously, a problem of our own making. The psalms, which in their original sense directed themselves to a “God” who is committed by contract to be our surrogate identity, are unrelenting in their insistence that he fulfill his promise. The incongruity here — demanding that “God” help us with a task that we now realize is clearly our own responsibility and well within our capacities as a global community — identifies the paradigm of adjustment as we approach making the psalms relevant for our time. It is the principal recurring inconsistency we encounter, and if left to thoughtless inattention, it is the issue most likely to derail our efforts. It is here that we have to apply our newfound awareness of the confluent identity of the divine potential with ours: that our potential and “God’s” are one and the same thing. What makes us human is that we carry divine power around with us like the hammer of Thor.
We have defined “God” as the force of LIFE driving the survival orientated activities of every living thing on earth. Calling upon “God” to help us with “our daily bread” can mean nothing other than galvanizing the productive and cooperative energies in the human community, personal, local and worldwide, to create and distribute the necessary resources so that we all may live. This may sound paradigmatic for our project, and it is. We could spell out the academic details in terms of economic and political systems, but really, aside from that academic exercise, what more is there to say?
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If we are just talking about understanding, there is nothing more to say. Nothing. But that’s the difference between understanding (even poetic understanding) and prayer. It’s only after you have finished understanding the facts, that the struggle of prayer begins; for prayer is directed to the activation of divine potential. In this light it becomes clear why the presumptions and expectations awakened by the ancient Jewish Covenant — the contract, the fulcrum of the psalms’ leverage with Yahweh — provide an extremely apt metaphor for the modern confrontation with the human condition. Perhaps no other metaphor would work as well.
Prayer is engagement in the present moment — the real situation; it is the prelude to action. In the case we’re examining it’s the mindful confrontation with the dismal failure of the human community to devise a system of production and distribution that takes care of all the human beings in the world. Starvation, famine, generalized regional scarcity and national underdevelopment, political upheavals and genocidal wars generating massive displacement, homelessness, un- and under-employment, racial and ethnic inequality, lack of educational and medical services … the list is long. To understand the scope of the reality is one thing, to conscientiously become engaged in reversing the failure is quite another. But in analyzing how exactly prayer — the psalms — fit into this picture, a number of things have to be clarified.
The first is to constantly remind ourselves that there are no miracles, and the cries of the psalmist for signs and wonders must be uncompromisingly nudged away from any such expectation. That means, furthermore, that the shameless engagement of the Church in the pursuit of miracles, even miracles of social justice, must be adamantly resisted if not openly denounced. The real “power” that is being called upon is our own potential for conscientious and effective response, my own first and that of other human beings. However, and here is the hub around which the whole effort turns: it still remains a divine potential albeit expressed only by human beings.
So this is the second fixed point: the psalmist is still in the position of suppliant. The one praying is needy. There is no temptation to an angry arrogance at “those who do not respond,” or haughty condemnation of those who begin but then fall by the wayside, including oneself. The wellspring that resides embedded in our organism suffusing LIFE’s moral power from present moment to present moment is still “God” and we are still in the condition of beggars — begging now for the moral strength that through mindlessness we allowed to go slack; nothing has changed there. Prayer reminds us that just as in calling on “God” we are really calling on ourselves, so also in calling on our own potential we are still really calling on “God,” the resident and transcendently creative source of that potential, material LIFE. Our very humanity is a marriage contract.
Prayer then immediately elevates my compassion for the people who are suffering … and for us whose consciences are prodding us to respond (in spite of failures) … into a commitment to effective engagement in a way that no amount of intellectualizing or exhortation can match. There is nothing inherent in just understanding that guarantees engagement. Prayer takes understanding to a different level — the level of effective action. You cannot ask Yahweh to “wake up” and apply “divine power” to remedy the situation without knowing what you are really asking for. You are asking yourself to “wake up.” By praying, now that we know that divine power only works seamlessly with secondary human causes, you are calling upon yourself to arise and take action … confident that your surrender to the divine potential which is indistinguishable from your own, will bear you up as if on eagles wings … will hide you protected from the negativity that prowls like a roaring lion seeking to destroy you and your efforts … and the efforts of your collaborators.
Death and the totality of matter’s energy. Many of the psalms appear to have been prayers provided to the sick or prayed in their name to call on divine power to heal them and keep them from dying. We are all familiar with the phenomenon: we reach for outside help when we feel helpless. It is absolutely universal. It was no more indulged in 600 bce than it is today.
So here’s our dilemma: How do we embrace our material universe with the natural cycle of birth and death that defines all life as we know it and still use the psalms … or indeed, still claim to pray when we know that the “God” we pray to is the very dynamism that has evolved things the way they are? The violently coercive “God” “out there” beyond us that the psalms appeal to for help does not exist.
Despite the triumphant claims of many of these psalms that Yahweh has in the past and once again can and will save the pleader from death, all have died. The only immortality that LIFE has been able to devise so far is focused on the preservation of species accomplished by the reproductive action of the individuals … who all die. Indeed, factually speaking, even if those who prayed these psalms were themselves cured at the time, it was only temporary. Anyone using them even in the old way would have to be fully aware that they were only asking for a postponement, for death was inevitable. In a literal sense, even for traditional believers, none of those prayers were really answered.
But there is no making light of this situation. Many who have come to grips with death appear to have come out on the other end hardened and stoic. Death is inevitable, they say, whining for immortality is an indication that you have not left the fantasy castles of childhood. All things change. Our family members die. Friends come and go. Youth and health are evanescent. Enjoy the days as they pass. You will live on in the memory of others.
Frankly in my own experience, I have entered into such stoic mindsets only when I was feeling robust and invulnerable. Strong, healthy relatively prosperous, in the warmth of my family, I was simply not in the mood for dwelling on what was not here yet and would occur only in the distant future. Desperate feelings were to be ridiculed. I think I imagined myself facing death in the same psychological state as I was in at the moment. But that’s not always what happens.
My sense now about that kind of attitude is that it was a stoic intellectualizing — a thinking about death that left the body out of the calculation. It was not an existential encounter, a somatic realization that generates an anguish or immobilization that is beyond rational explanation or voluntary control. The same person who today can “cast a cold eye on death” and pass it high on his horse, tomorrow, for whatever reason and however quiet it’s kept, finds himself unhorsed, broken, perplexed, terrified and whimpering — his once stony heart “melted like wax within his breast.”
As that last phrase indicates, the psalms are aware of the body and are not afraid or ashamed of its frailties. “God,” says the psalmist, “knows that we are dust. The wind comes and we wither and are blown away like chaff. We are gone and there is no sign that we were even there.” This is a sentiment that is clearly pre-Christian. It puts the psalms squarely in the human camp. The Christian Platonist is the one who can cast a cold eye on death because he sees this life as a veil that one is to pass by with indifference. The only reality is the after-life in the spirit world. By insisting that we live forever as our selves, Christianity has robbed us of the anguish and pathos of true loss. It has made us distant, hard, unfeeling, haughty, judgmental, unable to tremble except out of fear of hell and our own individual damnation. The wailing of the psalms at death and suffering was always an embarassment to Christians who prayed them; they secretly held those feelings in contempt. True Christians knew this world was an illusion.
The Jewish psalmists, in contrast, stand totally disarmed before death; they had no afterlife to deflect its blow. They yielded to what they felt, and we who use the psalms recognize that we are in fully human hands. They knew: death is abhorrent, nauseating. It ends our connections with the ones we love. Ordinarily when it is far enough away we can live without thinking about it. But when it approaches, when it comes close and we feel its cold breath on our necks, a terror arises that is like nothing else. Even the most battle hardened military frame of mind has some chink in its armor where the stiletto will enter. The sheer amount of PTSD generated by our endless wars should be proof enough for that. Many carry around the wound, open and suppurating, without ever having cried out in anguish and despair, until they find themselves lashing out at family, friends or strangers with a violence they did not know they were capable of. These matters cannot be dismissed. The psalmists knew.
The psalms face death with all the anguish and despair that the conatus can generate when its commitment to its assigned task of protecting the “self” has been shredded beyond repair by an invincible impotence that no amount of will power or intellectualizing can counter. Given the psalmists’ belief in the coercive power of Yahweh, the “God” of armies, “out there” in the heavens, he begs and pleads that “God” exercise his power to save him from death.
In our idiom, we know that “God” is LIFE, and that the power that “God” and I wield together is not a coercive control of matter but rather the potential for more LIFE. However, in my case the potential, as far as I can see, is limited to the lifetime of my organism and what it can accomplish with hard work and mindfulness. There are no immortal souls that live without bodies. Whatever “souls” there are, are the dynamism of living bodies and when there is no life in the body, there is no soul. My sense of who “God” is may have changed, but the fact of my death and the uncontrolled feeling of terror as my body sees it draw near has not.
“God” is LIFE, the source and matrix of matter’s existential energy. That means that the “God” that resides at the foundational center of my “self” providing the dynamism of my life, also resides at the center of the existence and life of everything else in the universe. “God,” therefore, is at the very heart of the totality of being. But I am part of that totality as an emergent product of LIFE and also as intimately identified with the matrix-producer of LIFE. My cries for life and endless life are made in the context of being carried along in the river of LIFE in both an active and passive sense. What more effective thing can I ask for than to be kept an integral part of this flowing enterprise evolving into new forms constantly capable of doing more astonishing things. To continue existing as matter’s energy can hardly be considered an “arm twisting” request since this is exactly what has been going on for 14 billion years and is responsible for the emergence of this organism whose conatus has knotted into a “self” I call “me.” Perhaps “superfluous” would be a better word for this prayer because there seems little worry that the sub-atomic components of the material-energy of my body, which the first law of thermodynamics says are neither created nor destroyed, won’t also be here for the next fourteen billion years, and really … why not … forever.
The only thing that probably won’t be here, it seems, is the “self” which appears to be a virtual reality concocted by the conatus to carry out its commands to protect and enhance the organism. However, it is precisely this “self” that I call “me” whose disappearance generates a dread and terror that I cannot control. Accurately identifying this “self” as virtual — i.e., a product of the imagination, a “symbol” of the material organism — I can begin to separate it in my mind from the actual material energy of my organism, and simultaneously accept the fact that it will not share the destiny of the material totality of the universe to which my body belongs.
In other words, by learning, incrementally if necessary, to identify my organism with the universal totality of matter’s energy, I come to realize that the fear of death is not a real existential fear. There is nothing substantial going out of existence at my death. The only thing that disappears is my “self.” My virtual reality and the valences that it has established with other “modalities” of the One Great Substance will vanish, leaving always the core components of my organism intact. My body, in other words, which the conatus was committed to protect, is always safe.
Let me acknowledge at this point that this is a mental exercise that bypasses the feelings which have become habituated to think of the solitary self as real in the substantial sense. That is where the terror resides. The unconscious “self” thinks of itself as isolated from the totality of being. Of course it’s going to feel terrified.
The unconscious self is the conatus’ avatar for the organism generated without conscious control. But the conscious self that becomes active in meditative mindfulness is an entirely new creation born of the constant injection of synteresis into the frenzied ruminations of the conatus. Through mindfulness, the conatus becomes habituated to seeing its quest for secure life satisfied by the identification of the organism with the totality of matter’s energy and its evolving project instead of the pyrrhic victories of the isolated ego.
Slowly and incrementally, the conatus sees its existence, now and into the future, made safe by its inclusion in Spinoza’s One Great Substance, and endless Evolving Project of which it is an integral part. This corresponds to the “true” or transcendent self that we saw in section 5. Fundamentally, under the aegis of a meditative mindfulness a new self emerges through the conditioning imposed by the conscious mind. And this new self knows itself to be a material organism whose components have existed for 14 billion years and are part of a Cosmic Adventure of Creative Evolution … and whose end we cannot see.
Relationship to “God.” The dilemma for us here in the West is that our tradition has imagined “God” as a humanoid person. We are all formed in this tradition and our relationship to the Sacred seems cast in concrete. It is not easy to tinker with. Those who will not abide it often end up feeling they have to drop the Sacred altogether, so welded is it to our psyche.
Our prayer life, beginning in ancient times with the psalms, reflects this fact. It is quintessentially dialogic. It extends to an imaginary Providential “God” the childhood relationship we had to our parents. It is a wonderful scenario, really, that we should always have a loving parent watching over us, to whom we can turn when we are helpless, and whom we can trust, when things are going bad, that all has been foreseen and is being permitted out of benevolence for us. So even bad things become good because they are all willed by a vigilant “God.”
The only problem is, none of it is true.
We have to face the facts of our experience. There are no miracles. Providence, except in the most bare-bones Aristotelian sense of God providing the Natural Order, is a fantasy. There is no separate entity called “God.” Thomas Aquinas thought of “God” as the Pure Act of being that energized all existing things. Less philosophically, the author of John’s first letter used the world LIFE for the source of all things.
This choice agrees with experience: there is a palpable LIFE of which we are not the originators, which constitutes our own identity and is the basis of our activity in the world, which also enlivens every living thing and we suspect is latently present in all material energy at whatever level of evolutionary emergence. This LIFE has generated in all things an irrepressible desire and corresponding fury to survive. It drives evolution. From this undeniable perception there arises in human beings, individually and collectively, a sense of the Sacred. This phenomenon has appeared in every age and in every place, and shows no signs of disappearing.
Starting with these bedrock data we have to develop an explanation that concurs with the facts, not only the physical but all the facts … including our irrepressible thirst for LIFE, our spontaneous rejection of injustice and our innate sense of the Sacred. If we examine religious traditions across the globe we discover that, while all acknowledge the desire for endless life, a sense of the sacred and the primacy of conscience, some are better at harmonizing with the bare physical facts than others. Those like Buddhism / Hinduism that imagine LIFE as stemming from a non-humanoid force, an energy that pervades and suffuses all things, are better at explaining why things are what they are and why occurrences happen as they actually do. On the other hand, those that project a rational humanoid personality as the Source and matrix of this vast universe, like the “religions of the Book,” have great difficulty explaining reality as it is experienced, observed and measured, without imputing a callous indifference or even sadistic malevolence to this supposedly divine “person.”
However, attributing some inchoate non-specific benevolence to this Source, in the sense of an overabundance of LIFE expanding only in one direction: toward more LIFE, seems to me quite appropriate in explaining the facts. It also concurs with our experience of other material life forms. But is that enough to justify the imagery of a loving Father or Mother, or calling it “Love,” etc.? In the absence of any way of specifying what is “behind” this force (if indeed there is anything behind it), I think appropriate metaphors concatenated into poetry can form the basis of a legitimate attempt to relate to that force. But this relationship is unique. What do I mean?
We are quite capable of having relationships with non-human entities, generally animals fairly near to us in evolutionary development who share many of our cognitive abilities though we have traditionally denied that they are persons. We recognize them as conscious entities, and they do the same with regard to us. I am not suggesting that relationship to our Source is to be equated to relationship to animals, I am simply pointing out that we are not confined to relating to human beings, and we have no moral expectations from the animals even while we truly know they have individual “personalities.” We recognize their gregariousness with us, and we love them, and they us.
Now, the relationship to our Source, I contend, is real and literal, but it is not necessarily personal in a human sense. By thinking LIFE is literally a rational person like us, you cannot avoid attributing a willfulness to the physical events, like the Haitian earthquake, or the Nazi Holocaust, that contradict any claims for a benevolent divine providence. I believe this is one clear source of the religious disconnect that is characteristic of our times.
I think it is a legitimate practice to imagine LIFE poetically, as a person, so long as we don’t attribute a literal significance to it. It helps sustain attitudes of gratitude, awe and desire for union — more LIFE. It’s similar to the way people use the word demons to refer to their anti-social urges and paranoid feelings. In ancient times people actually believed evil spirits were the cause of such things. We can see why. Demon is a metaphor that aptly describes the subconscious and unintended nature of our negativity: it feels like it’s coming from some outside malevolent source. But of course, we know better.
Calling LIFE a person is analogous. But when trying to determine what is literally real, the facts take precedence over the metaphor. If we use the metaphor we have to be clear: we really do not know what LIFE is. Even Aquinas insisted: we know only that “God” is, we don’t know what “he” is. LIFE is not a person as we understand the word. It does not act like a person: it is not an independent entity as far as we can see; it is only visible as the life of living things; it does not project an identity: it is the source of the identity of everything that exists; it is not perceptibly conscious except in its emergent forms; it does not respond to communication except through the human persons it enlivens; it does not interfere with nature on our behalf nor does it help us when we call on it … except through the personal human agents which it constitutes. But, in itself, it is not either identifiable or definable. If it is a person, there is no way for us to know it for its behavior doesn’t correspond to any of our criteria for personhood. Our prayers are dialogic, but if we’re honest we have to acknowledge they are all one way, for “God” never answers, except in the non-specific general benevolence of abundant LIFE.
If “God” were a person like us, we would have to hold him accountable for having the power and refusing to help people in need, just as we would hold any other person accountable under similar circumstances. And if he were ever put on trial for permitting the Holocaust, just to mention the most egregious of his failures to act on our behalf, the barrier to believing in his “benevolence” would be declared insuperable, and he would be condemned.
Is this blasphemy? It’s blasphemy only for those who are like the pagans of old who accused Christians of blasphemy because they called Zeus a demon’s phantasm. They cling to imagery instead of clinging to LIFE … in which we live and move and have our being.
I don’t know what LIFE is in itself; I only know what I see it doing. And really, what it is in itself is none of my business. Ultimately it has no effect on the undeniable facts of my relationship to it: that I am not self-originating and that I am metaphysically dependent on my Source and matrix, LIFE, which I can see, proximately, is an energy that is directed exclusively toward more LIFE. I know it is at least that. Is it more than that? If it is, it cannot be anything that would contradict that. And whatever that “other thing” might be (if indeed there is some “other” thing), I really don’t need to know it.
But that still doesn’t resolve the issue. Material LIFE, the source of my own identity, my sense of the Sacred and the object of my undying gratitude, is still elusive. How do I relate to it?
I believe that using poetic metaphor is not only legitimate but, it seems to me, inevitable. Human consciousness as it has evolved on this planet is a survival tool that was shaped and sharpened in the struggle to identify food, foes and mates so that the human community — the vehicle of survival — could continue. Our forebears had to differentiate between the species and the individuals within those species that would help them survive and those that would not. Given the conditions under which intelligence was formed, it is extremely difficult to consider a relationship to our existential Source — or indeed, to our own negative feelings — without imagining these things in a way that reflects the evolved categories of human thought. We are familiar with it in literature as a device called “personification.”
But our relationship to matter’s living energy, the very building blocks that constitute my “self,” is not just an opaque and impenetrable mystery, leaving us with no alternative but our poetic personifications. There is a way to understand this relationship precisely as a relationship. And I contend, it is this unique relationship that provides the basis for our new way of praying the psalms. Let me explain.
We do not easily recognize the reality of compenetrated structures, i.e., structures that are the locus of two levels of reality simultaneously, as in the case we are dealing with here: material energy and its evolved forms — the components and the composite. So we tend to talk about either the components or the composite (because they are things), but not the co-existent unity. The problem is, that when we do that, we omit the very valence — the interactive connection — that gives both the components and the composite their specificity. For the composite is what it is because of the specific components that comprise it, and vice versa: the nature of the components cannot be ascertained and appreciated without including what specific thing they are capable of becoming.
We might be inclined to say that the composite is a co-valent reality, for its very composition is the integration of a multitude of components. But the co-existence dimension — the relationship between them — is muted if not entirely unnoticed because our brains are organized to see things, not relationships.
In the case we are dealing with here, LIFE is not a thing, an entity, even though we find it hard to think of it as anything else. The word LIFE, like the word “God,” is the placeholder for a relationship. And what I am saying is that it is the relationship that is the reality that makes me as a composite to be real. It is the composite that reveals the presence and character of the components. I am nothing without the matrix in which I live and move and have my being. And the matrix remains unknown until what it does becomes visible. Those are raw physical / metaphysical facts. These two elements, my components (matter’s energy) and the composite (me), are one and the same “thing” … together, and only together do they become a “thing.” I am physically / metaphysically myself only because of the active and “willing” presence of my Source and Sustainer — material LIFE — the living dynamism of material energy that now exists in my form. And the components — matter’s energy — appear to be meaningless mechanical particles until they display their potential in the emergent forms produced by their evolving self-elaboration, in this case “me.” That’s when I discover that matter’s energy is LIFE, as John meant it.
I am, simultaneously, both myself and my source.
What the psalms do is to make my feelings and my voluntary moral, political activity align with my physical / metaphysical reality by focusing on the relationship that makes me be-here and therefore determines the dynamism — the drive for more LIFE — that defines me. The psalms are an instrument of personal integration for they insist that I turn my attention to the generous living presence and creative moral pressures coming from the material components — LIFE — that make me what I am.
The “false self” created by the untethered runaway conatus is focused exclusively on itself as if it were an independent stand-alone entity — as if it had no components, no source, no dependency — as if LIFE were its own creation. The conatus is physically / metaphysically blind. The self, it thinks, is only itself, alone in the world, able to define itself as it chooses. It is not aware of its own co-existent inner structure, living a material LIFE that is not its own, that preceded the existence of its organism, and was passed on to it in its entirety by a chain of others going back before the emergence of humankind.
The organism, now, identified as the “self,” owns and autonomously deploys LIFE as if it were exclusively its own … as if the organism were self-originating. This misperception is the source of the falseness, and the existential insecurity experienced by the blind conatus. Knowing quite well how vulnerable and powerless it is, it thinks it is totally alone, and that terrifies it. It feels alienated from its own life and it is that fear of isolation and sense of emptiness that propels the paranoia and the craving to accumulate — things, power, fame, relationships — that lie at the root of the miseries we heap on one another. Convinced we are empty inside, we reach outside ourselves to fill the vacuum.
Security can only come from the re-education of the conatus, so that it knows clearly that its organism is composed of pre-existing elements that belong to a living totality that has always been here and cannot ever be destroyed. The conatus needs to be taught that this is what self-preservation really means: identifying itself with material LIFE, the energy of that totality resident in every organism and that will live on after our “self” disappears. The conatus needs to learn it is not alone.
That is the work of the psalms. Like the practice of mindfulness, they are a program of re-education for the conatus. They bring the co-existent presence of the components of the living organism into sharp focus not only by evoking an imagery that reminds us of the dependency that we routinely ignore, but also by aiming desire in the right direction — the direction of the moral implications of that co-existence — more LIFE. To be the offspring of LIFE means I am innately structured to generate LIFE. The lifelong reproductive urges of my material organism are a sign and undeniable proof of that. By morality we mean behavior that is orientated toward more LIFE. The psalms are the poetic instruments of desire for more LIFE … they implore, beg, cajole, ask, and demand; they are action oriented … they desperately want something to happen to preserve and enhance LIFE — they are the whip and tether of the “re-educated” conatus. Even at their most contemplative they are restless, yearning, calling for a deeper and more intimate union with their Source and Sustainer, with matter’s energy, LIFE, that John said was the wellspring of all things.
HYMN TO MATTER
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
This hymn comes from an essay called “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” the third part of a collection of essays published posthumously as Hymn of the Universe in 1961. It was written in 1919 after Teilhard’s service as a stretcher bearer in the French army during WWI.
‘Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat. ‘Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untamable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.
‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.
‘Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.
‘Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.
‘Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.
‘Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.
‘I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured — a mass of brute forces and base appetites — but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.
‘You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation wherein the predestined substance germinates and grows.
‘I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the spirit.
‘I acclaim you as the melodious fountain of water whence spring the souls of men and as the limpid crystal whereof is fashioned the new Jerusalem.
‘I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.
‘Sometimes, thinking they are responding to your irresistible appeal, men will hurl themselves for love of you into the exterior abyss of selfish pleasure-seeking: they are deceived by a reflection or by an echo.
‘This I now understand.
‘If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all subsistencies and all unions.
‘If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow.
‘Your realm comprises those serene heights where saints think to avoid you — but where your flesh is so transparent and so agile as to be no longer distinguishable from spirit.
‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’
Jersey, October 8, 1919