To love “God,” love yourself as you would a spouse

3,700 words

1.

The Song of Songs

Nuptial imagery has been the gold standard for western mysticism from before the middle ages. Its origins can be traced to Christian antiquity when the Platonic mindset of Origen of Alexandria, who died in 254 c.e., reconceived the Biblical Book known as the “Song of Songs” as applicable to the individual Christian “soul” and its relationship to “God.”

The Song of Songs is a book of ancient Hebrew poetry celebrating the erotic love between a man and his lover incorporated into the Jewish Bible. It was originally used by the priests of the Temple to poetically characterize the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel. It was an intentional theological application in which an individual relationship was taken as poetic metaphor for what was considered a literal collective reality.

The shift back to an individual understanding of those poems seems natural enough, especially for a Christianity that had embraced Platonism as the ultimate truth. The principal Platonic category dominating the Christian worldview was that the human person was a “soul,” ― individual, immaterial and immortal ― a “spirit” that was substantially distinct from the body which it inhabited as a temporary tenant. It had the ultimate effect of extracting the human person from the world of material things and situating it in another world where only “spiritual” entities resided. It eliminated the community as the primary locus of human reality and substituted the spiritual individual. For Platonists, the family, clan or nation were not “essential” ideas and therefore not “humanity.” Humanity resided in the human individual alone. The theory worked well for the Roman Empire and its state religion whose investiture with divine favor was claimed to supersede tribal prerogatives. The one imperial power, a theocracy chosen and protected by God, ruled a whole world of isolated individuals.

The other entities that inhabited Plato’s “real world” of ideas included, first and foremost, “God,” the One, Pure Spirit, uncontaminated with even the slightest hint of matter, and his Nous, Mind, Logos, a divine emanation who took the “One’s” creative ideas that constituted his own reality and “poured” them into amorphous matter as into an “empty receptacle” (Timaeus). Those ideas were spiritual realities which humans could access because they too were immaterial spirit.

“Spirit” for Plato was naturally immortal because it was not composed of parts as matter was. Not being composed meant it could not decompose, i.e., it could not die. But because, in the case of humankind, spirit was “married” to matter, the “soul” suffered the weaknesses and limitations of the body, the principal one of which was its inevitable decomposition. But being spirit, the human individual could transcend its material side, and in anticipation of the final liberation from the body at death, relate with increasing exclusivity to the spiritual world to which it alone among earthly entities belonged; that included not only “ideas” but also the One and its Mind. The “spiritual life” was conceived of as the “soul’s” systematic disengagement from the world of matter including its own body, and engagement with “spiritual” realities and entities, the highest of which was “God.”

But “God” was pure spirit and no shadow of matter existed in “God.” His Mind, Nous, Logos, was believed to play the role of mediator and interface with the world of matter, and that would of course include the human individual wedded to matter. Christian Platonists assimilated Jesus as Jewish messiah to the Nous or Logos, and generated a narrative in which “God” united humankind with “Him”self and His immortality through the incorporation of the human individual into the saving events of Jesus’ (Nous, Logos) death and resurrection in Christian baptism.

Thus, the achievement of immortality was imagined as the by-product of new relationship in which the original ties to the body and its communitarian relations ― the family and tribe ― were replaced by a “marriage” between “God” and the individual human soul, mediated by the Logos. This created a new universal community: the Catholic Church, identical to the Roman Empire when Constantine made it Rome’s state religion.

Hence, the nuptial imagery on display in the Bible’s Song of Songs became an aspirational symbol for Christian mystics. It was used to represent this union between “God” (mediated by Christ) and the human “soul.” Following Origen’s commentary, Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa accepted it as part of the truths received from the Jewish tradition and even used it, to the degree that the poetics allowed, to draw theological conclusions. For Ambrose of Milan it revealed virginity to be more than a personal preference, it became a transcendent goal of Christian perfection. Because the Platonic theory said that both “God” and the “soul” were exactly alike insofar as they were “spirit-persons,” the nuptial imagery was increasingly taken literally. The patristic practice of commenting on the Song of Songs continued on through the Middle Ages. The commentaries and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux composed about 1136 were probably the most famous and widely read; they were cited by Martin Luther as a principal influence on his own spiritual development, and may explain his insistence on maintaining the doctrine of the real presence in glaring contrast to most of his fellow reformers. As late as 1584, Spanish Carmelite John of the Cross wrote Spiritual Canticle, an exposition applying classic Thomistic theology to an understanding of The Song of Songs.

Despite its revered tradition, it’s my contention that the Christian importance accorded to the literal interpretation of the imagery established by the Song of Songs is intimately connected to the Platonic world­view, and for that reason false and misleading. Even if the LIFE that has extruded and enlivened the material universe could in some philosophical sense be called a “person,” it is not as we are persons, and LIFE does not interact with us as we interact with one another which is what the nuptial imagery projects. Most specifically, the erotic dimension so prominent in the Song is entirely inappropriate. Relationship to LIFE does not demand sexual fidelity which has been the common application since Origen. The celibacy it enjoined reinforced Plato’s denigration of sexuality as hostile to the human “spirit” and justified Augustine’s outrageous claim that sexual desire was a corruption of the human body and that sexual intercourse performed under its influence transmitted Adam’s sin from parent to offspring.

Not only does nuptial imagery falsify relationship to “God” but it reinforces a radical individualism that detaches the human being from family and its extensions in the local community, and through the fiction of a “marriage to God” leaves the individual psychologically isolated and vulnerable to the control of impersonal forces like despotic empires, exploitive masters and bosses, and totalitarian religious hierarchies. This individualism cultivated by Platonic Christianity impels the believer to reject natural solidarity and transfer loyalty to “God” and his Church-State agent. The power of religion to galvanize new artificially created conglomerates has been recognized and exploited by empire builders since before recorded history. Traditional Christianity is not alone in lending itself to these efforts.

Moreover, the dualist Platonism implied in the literal take on the traditional imagery is a primary obstacle preventing understanding between spiritual aspirants of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. But I emphasize literal. As with all religious imagery, the nuptial analogy is metaphor, and simply acknowledging that fact will go a long way in opening closed doors and beginning the journey to the universalism that I believe is the final result of sincere and authentic religious dialog.

 

2.

Spiritual growth: growing up

The similarity of the imagery in the Song of Songs to an erotic fantasy is obvious. The appeal it could have for isolated, sexually frustrated individuals creates the suspicion that the claims of mystics like John of the Cross might be pathological projection. Along with the paternal imagery about “God” cited by Freud, it seems to be an added example of how religion can be used to maintain the childhood dependencies that result from (and contribute to) the failure to achieve adulthood. That such consequences correlate with the political effects of individualism makes the traditional imagery even more questionable.

This anomaly of traditional mysticism needs to be rectified. I would like to approach the issue by first bracketing all religious belief about the nature of “God” and the “soul,” and look at things strictly from the point of view of human experience. I want to start with what I think is the true state of affairs, i.e., that the first step in spiritual growth is growing up. Maturation is the response to what we call “the human condition,” something that is true for all people everywhere and does not depend on religious belief of any kind. By “human condition” I mean the endemic, universal, inescapable “problem” of human dissatisfaction with the parameters of life available to human organisms on the planet. It is an immaturity identified with childhood; in is grossest form it displays itself as selfishness ― a refusal to accept the responsibilities of the collective struggle for survival.

Humankind seems to be the only species on earth that is capable of not being happy with itself. We are restive and feel trapped by the limited capabilities of our organisms, the unavoidable material and social/psychological demands of survival (i.e., work and family), and the nature of the human life-cycle which is vulnerable to trauma and disease, and necessarily includes old-age and death. This general dissatisfaction with being human defines us as different from all other forms of organic life, plant and animal, who seem to embrace their evolutionary inheritances ― which have virtually the same limitations as ours ― without question, and live out their organic destinies which include the struggle for collective survival with unmitigated enthusiasm.

I contend that the overarching pursuit for human beings is the thorough understanding and appreciation of exactly what we are and the decision to accept it. This is admittedly an intellectual quest, but it is undertaken as the necessary precondition for emotional self-acceptance. It is unavoidable. For it is the uniquely human feature of being reflexively self-conscious­ that lies at the root of the very possibility of imagining ourselves to be other than what and where we are, and therefore dissatisfied. Unlike all other animals who, as far as we can see, cannot imagine themselves differently from what they experience at any given moment, we humans must consciously choose to embrace what we are, and what we are doing, and the necessary prerequisite for that choice is understanding.

Laying out this premise in this way identifies the contours of the “human problem.” There is no solution that does not entail an accurate understanding of the boundaries and the possibilities of our situation ― what doors are closed and what doors are open ― and denying neither. No transcendent experience, no interpersonal relationship, no guarantee of survival or security here or hereafter, no accumulation of resources or of pleasurable, satisfying events, no accolade or recognition by others can substitute for knowing what we are as human organisms, acknowledging our limitations and responding to the demand of our potentials. The solution to the “human dilemma” is self-embrace; and it follows that unless we understand thoroughly, accurately, and without self-deception what we really are, what we can and can’t do, the possibility of choosing to-be something else, or wanting to be somewhere else ― some imaginary concoction ― is always there and bodes a continuance of the frustration. It is to fall right back into the problem, for that is exactly the nature of it. The human problem is that we are trying to be something that we are not and cannot be, in order to please and aggrandize ourselves at the expense of reality. Adulthood is the realistic acceptance of what we are ― and that includes both positive and negative ― bowing to what we cannot be or do, and obeying what our humanity demands of us.

The mystical quest

Being an adult is a basic condition of survival. But the total “end of sorrow” (words of the Bhagavad Gita) is the goal of the mystical quest and goes much further. It is not, as some believe, some kind of “end run” into an imaginary never-never land, an escape-fantasy chosen to avoid responsibility and struggle. The mystic begins with having achieved full responsible adulthood but goes far beyond simply tolerating our condition and reluctantly coping with the frustrations of life. The aim of mysticism is joy. There is no greater human achievement than to understand the full burden of our humanity and embrace it enthusiastically without disappointment, reserve, fear, reluctance or hesitation. All religious belief, all spiritual programs can be seen as attempts to reach such a state based on some set of beliefs thought to make it possible, and even mandatory.

In our case the beliefs begin with the discoveries of science. Science reverses ancient Platonic metaphysics which identified humanity with the individual relationship to “God” and “God’s” political agent, the state. Science identifies us as belonging to a universal community. Being human is a biological fact. Self-embrace, therefore, involves first of all, acknowledging that to be fully human is to have a human body, the result of the reproductive activity of male and female human beings. This applies to everyone. No one has to worry about becoming human through proper behavior, or “joining” the human family by some choice or another, like baptism. The human organism at birth is fully integrated into the evolving human community as it currently interacts with the material conditions of biological life on earth. Human Identity is biological in origin: clear, unambiguous and unchallengeable. This affects all of humankind. There are no distinctions, racial, ethnic, national, class, that make some more human and others less.

The second step, of course, is the details; it is the full elaboration of what being in a human community with this organism, evolved to this point of development from these people with this formation and on this earth, means. Unearthing the details is the work of meditation and mindfulness because it is a comprehensive self-conscious picture that must reflect reality. We are talking about understanding. If the end of sorrow is self-embrace ― accepting ourselves with the unmitigated enthusiasm that we see in all other forms of organic life ― it begins and ends with right thinking. We have to understand fully, without illusion, regret or rejection, exactly what we are where we belong and who belongs to us. The human community is universal. The responsibilities of mutually assisted survival bear on all of humankind. Those who do not see the egalitarian and universalist implications of this need to do some more meditating.

An integral part of this second step is the honest perception of the deformative influences on our “thinking who we are” made by parents, siblings, family and the local social environment; these are all time and place dependent and their self-aggrandizing inclinations must be acknowledged and corrected. We are born into the current of human history and we bear the marks (scars?) of our location in that flow. It determines, among other things, exactly how much knowledge about our evolutionary biological origins is available to us, and how aware we are of the universality of humankind. If knowing what we are is crucial to an effective self-embrace, when and where we were born and what deformities our local community has passed on to us enters decisively into the possibilities of accurate understanding. The discoveries of modern science are particularly relevant to this question, for the narrative that paints the picture of what we are has radically changed under its tutelage. We now know we are a universal family.

This leads into the third step in the process of growth ― if indeed it can be called a “step” because it is the point of it all ― the unreserved acquiescence to what we have come to understand ourselves to be in both our limitations and our potentials, talents and responsibilities. This step acknowledges that merely understanding what we are is no guarantee of success. There is always the possibility of resisting, rejecting, ignoring, avoiding, disdaining and even destroying ourselves. The social dimension, the global extent of our community of mutual support, is always the most vulnerable to selfishness ― individual or group. There is always the possibility of a regression back into childhood or pre-scientific myth; it is a prime example of the suppression of reality. Even after painting an accurate picture of what it means to belong to the global human community, the ultimate challenge remains: to embrace it lovingly, without disappointment, doubt, ambiguity or reserve. There are many who feel this is simply not possible. We are, they say, irremediably unreconciled to what we are; we would simply rather not be human the way humanness currently exists. Besides national, ethnic and religious conditioning accomplished so early in life that the individual cannot avoid being misshapen, they adduce the fact of universal death as proof of their claim. It’s difficult to undo childhood formation, and no one can accept death. An examination of this claim and the consequences of abandoning the quest for self-embrace because of it will be discussed in a later reflection.

I am using the word “embrace” in an effort to incorporate as much affectivity as possible into this final step. This is the defining mark of the mystical quest which is not satisfied with merely accepting life; it wants to love it. I am aware that the word can be taken in less than the sense of intense self-abandon and enthusiasm that I mean it to include. I want the word “embrace” to bear the emotional weight of the word “love” plus the sense of active personal engagement that makes love more than a passive self-pleasing experience and converts it into passionate commitment. Self-embrace is really intended to mean “falling in love with your life.”

Hence, the nuptial imagery of western mysticism. As a poetic metaphor for the loving self-embrace of the mystics, it is quite appropriate. Betrothal and marriage evoke the affective dimension that is the proper component of authentic self-embrace. But notice, it is metaphorical. I am not talking about being “married to God” but rather loving myself and the humankind into which I was born and through which I survive. But I not only love myself as I am programmed to do by the conatus of my organism, for if I am to achieve anything like the enthusiastic self-accep­tance that I see in the in the myriads of organisms ― plant, animal, insect, fish ― that surround me on this planet, who all live in a state of total joy, I have to do more than just passively “accept” myself or tolerate my life. I must fall in love with myself as I have been made and, as is so poignantly expressed in the marriage vow, “abandon all other” imaginary ways of being. I have to fall madly in love with being human as I am with all the moral and social burden that comes with it. This is the goal of mysticism: not a mental escape but a total joy that puts me in sync with all the other forms of living organism evolved by matter’s energy.

This “fidelity” which requires “forsaking” anything other than what I really am, means “letting go” of any and all imaginary constructs ― selfish fantasies of escape ― that do not correspond to what is possible to and demanded by my humanity. My body bears forward in me the direction and intensity of the extroverted existential energy released at the birth of our universe. Matter’s energy comes to me in a highly evolved form. Material energy that comprises my organism is not a tabula rasa. It is already spoken for. It is an unquenchable energy focused on being-here that, in the pursuit of ever greater expansion has molted first into living and then into reflexive self-con­scious form. That is not a revealed truth but an undeniable fact drawn from 14 billion years of observed behavior and demonstrated direction. Material energy is committed to universal availability ― the work of limitless abundance. My body is composed of this existentially committed energy.

This introduces another perspective that reinforces the validity of the nuptial imagery. This existential commitment to an ever-expanding abundance on the part of matter gives me a sense of the “otherness” of the living energy that resides in the components of my organism. My self-embrace is ultimately grounded in the prior presence of this energy that is undeniably independent of me and present in everything else in the material universe. It suggests that I am not only myself; LIFE transcends me. The LIFE that I enjoy and that energizes my every thought and desire is 14 billion years old and was not my creation either in design or production. This “outside” source of my “inside” energy puts me in the presence of a mysterious wellspring that I call LIFE. It suggests a unique immanent relationship between myself and that source that I did not initially suspect was there, and it reboots my relationship to all other things constituted of this selfsame living material energy: it makes all other things made of this universal matter, in some sense, “me.” This train has been running for 14 billion years and shows no sign of changing course or slowing down. We’re already on board when we awaken to its reality. Once we understand that WE ARE THAT, everything falls into place. We are at home in the universe.

I and my source are one and the same thing. My ancient pre-scientific tradition may not have completely anticipated that my unity with my source and creator had such a concrete ground and was so total, but it seems to have at least suspected that it was more than met the eye because since ancient times it characterized the relationship as “nuptial.” The implication was that the two were one flesh.

Being “married to God” is a poetic symbol that can be used to evoke our relationship to that in which we live and move and have our being. Like all poetry it becomes grotesque and meaningless if it is taken literally. Alongside of other poetic symbols that come down to us from our pre-scientific ancestors, it can remind us who we are, and what we are doing here. These are things, for some reason, we all find easy to forget.

 

 

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The Face of “God” is Your Face

You are not only constructed of “God-stuff” ― the living material energy that created the universe and determined the direction of its evolutionary process ― but with only the potential and resources supplied by that energy you actively appropriate and pursue matter’s principal objective, being-here.

Matter’s intrinsic and exclusive relationship to being-here recapitulates the traditional definition of “God” as esse in se subsistens, self-subsistent being. Being-here is esse in process. You yourself are the closest thing to “God” that you will ever see, and the generation of any other image will only falsify the significance of your existence, and leave you very far from understanding “God.”

You are-here, not as an independent “self” with a unique and personal destiny, as your misguided individualist culture has been telling you, but as a conatus of universal matter; you are a concrescence ― a knot ― of the universe’s material energy in pursuit of being-here. The fact that you are autonomous, self-aware, purposeful, has been misinterpreted to mean independent. Those features don’t come from another world, they are rather functions of the same universal matter, and were evolved as tools in the pursuit of matter’s one goal: being-here in time. The human species and you in it are a tiny part of an immense material totality whose energy and constitutive structures account for everything you are, everything you have and everything you can do, without remainder. There is nothing else there but the universal matter of your body driven to be-here endlessly. You are necessarily and inescapably an expression of the totality’s goal, even when you attempt to distort or destroy it.

Of all the worldviews generated to explain your reality, it’s hard to find one that evokes its moral and mystical implications so directly. It says, quite simply, you are made of your source; you are made of what made you; you and “God,” in other words, are one and the same thing. It is the image that most closely corresponds to Paul’s evocation of “God” in Acts 17, as that “in which you live and move and have your being.” How is this way of picturing “God” different from the older obsolete ones: Ahura Mazda, Aten, Zeus, Thor, Yahweh?

 

First of all, there is nothing “infinite” here. “God” is not all powerful even though it may turn out that there is no limit on what can emerge from its creative evolutionary process.  This “God” is not eternal, even though its explorations in the pursuit of being-here in time may prove to be endless. You are faced with learning to love a very simple, powerless creator that recycles its own substance into a myriad of forms because of its obsessive, compulsive hunger for being-here in time. You are one of those forms. “God” can’t help it, just as you can’t help it. You know exactly what that’s like. Being-here is what you want and what you do all the time. You only reach full maturity when you become capable of reproducing another human organism pre-programmed, like you, for only one thing: being-here.

You have to accept “God” for what “God” really is, and does … and forgive “God” for what “God” is not, and cannot do. And since you are part of this “God,” you also have to accept and forgive yourself for what you are, and for what you are programmed to do, not what you have been taught to think you are and force yourself to do. Just like “God,” you are-here for the sole purpose of being-here. Nothing else.

A moment’s reflection will reveal how liberating that is.  A career or a relationship or an accumulation will not change that destiny.  Don’t let them put you on a treadmill. You already are everything you could ever hope to be.  You already have more than you could ever hope to acquire.

As a corollary to this immanent “God,” there are no miracles.  If this “God” were omnipotent, rational, personal and providential, as your benighted culture tells you, there would be miracles.  But there are none. Living matter evolves marvels, but does not perform miracles. “God” is what “God” is, not what you want “God” to be.  You have to grow up and let go of your infantile fantasies of an omnipotent, omniscient parent that made you feel loved, secure and carefree.  Life for all material organisms in this universe is hard and precarious.  Secure and carefree evaporate with childhood.  Growing up means learning that hard and precarious are the conditions for being-here. “God” is universal matter in existential struggle; that’s how new forms are created, and that’s how you live out your life from the cradle to the grave.  It’s what makes you flesh and bone with “God.”

 

Therefore, be like the “God” whose face you bear and join the struggle for our collective survival.  You are the expression of a totality.  It is the totality that survives, not you alone.  Everyone is scared.  It’s the human condition.  Join the totality and make everyone as loved, secure and carefree as you can.  Be like a father and mother, brother and sister, to others … to all others.

You are the face of “God,” so listen to yourself and act like “God.” You know how happy it makes you to have something ― someone ― to serve; it allows you to forget yourself.  Listen to what your body ― your material energy ― is telling you.  That’s what “God” is like.

You are-here because you have a body, you are matter’s energy.  That amazing feat has already been accomplished.  You do not have to do that again, and the idea that some puny project of yours ― a career, a relationship, an achievement, a possession, a purchase ― is anything like the achievement of being-here as you are with that body, a part of universal matter, is the classic delusion, the tragic flaw that enervates the human condition.  Your selfish cravings for ego-enhancement are an effort to substitute a fabricated isolated “self” in place of the real self that is-here securely as a part of the totality.  Matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed; being-here is guaranteed for every part of the totality.  You are part of the whole.  Stop trying to tell yourself you’re not.  Stop trying to create yourself, save yourself, deify yourself.  Listen to your body made of universal matter.

Listen to your body.  Forget yourself.  You know how happy that makes you.  Put others first.  You know how happy it makes them.  What more do you need to know?

Care for the earth? Care for others? These are not the revealed commands of a far off “God,” they are the spontaneous inclinations of your body of flesh, to love and protect your earth-home and the family of living organisms where you emerged.  Listen to your body, earth’s body.  Once you know who you are, where you came from, where you belong and what you will be forever, the entire spectrum of creative human behavior rises clearly into view and beckons.  These are not conclusions of syllogisms wrenched reluctantly from abstract premises by rigid logic, as our culture has falsely taught you, they are the natural movements of your human body towards those most intimately related to you.  What was missing was knowing who you are, and where you belong.  You are the offspring of universal matter.  This earth teeming with living things is your mother and your family.

Your culture was wrong.  It made a guess, but it was wrong.  It told you you were a solitary spirit, unique, isolated, self-directed, self-involved, and fundamentally and unalterably selfish.  It said you were hard-wired for “gain” in another world, your real home, as reward for making believe you were selflessly serving others in this one where you don’t belong.  Look how that contradiction glares.  Don’t let yourself be sold a bill of goods.  Once you taste what it’s like to belong, to serve others, you will never want to go back to living for yourself, not even in “heaven.” Listen to your body.  Stifle yourself!  You are made to serve others for they are you, flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone; that’s what makes your body happy and your heart awaken.  Listen to your body.  What you hear is the whispered voice of universal matter in which you live and move and have your being.

 

Third, you say you want to love “God”? Then love yourself with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and all the strength you can muster.  You are yourself, mind and body, composed of the living creator of all things.  When you see your face it is primordial reality that you are looking at, 14 billion years old and counting; and even before it extruded you, it was already focused obsessively on what it wants.  It’s not yours to decide, as if it were something dead and drifting that needed you to infuse it with life and direction.  It’s goals were already settled, its destiny already determined; you sit quietly at its feet to hear what they are, and once you hear you don’t have to be told twice what to do.  You know what to do; for YOU ARE THAT!

Matter’s living energy had evolved into countless forms before you came along, so of course you revere it as you would a transcendent parent.  But regardless of your awareness of its transcendence and primordiality . . . regardless of how clearly you perceive that it was-here before you, is greater than you in time and form, and will continue on creating new forms long after your time and planet home have disappeared, you can never forget that YOU ARE THAT!  When you look at your face, there is only one thing there: YOU, constructed of the very “stuff” that made you ― “God.” You can never, never allow yourself to imagine that “God” is something else ― something other than you ― “out there.” Nuptial imagery was a misplaced metaphor.  If you want to embrace “God,” embrace yourself.  You want to see “God,” look at yourself.  You don’t like what you see?  Transform yourself.  Be the “God” you are.

You and your creator, the two are one thing. Please don’t complain that you do not have the “categories” to grasp, explain and articulate this. It doesn’t excuse you that your myopic culture in its know-it-all arrogance never even made an effort to develop a word to describe what was staring it in the face. For, with or without a traditional category you are looking at an objective fact: you and your creator are one and the same thing.  You can never succumb to the primitive imagery you inherited from an archaic, self-idolizing, tribal fairy-tale about a big policeman in the sky, ready to punish you if you’re bad and love you if you’re good  . . .  who displays his will for humankind by creating empires: making one tribe rich and powerful with permission to enslave others.  GET OVER IT!  These are fairy tales, myths from the past before history.  Yahweh, the Warrior or the Bridegroom, is no more accurate an image of “God” than Thor the Thunderer or the mighty Aphrodite.  These were the “categories” your brilliant culture came up with, and it’s time to put them in the museums where they belong.  They do not correspond to reality.

You don’t have the words? Find new ones. You don’t have the categories? You are saddled with ancient rituals and symbols that reproduce false and misleading narratives? Dump them. Change them. Sublimate them. Ask yourself: is it really “God” you’re after as you claim, or are you really only trying to create yourself out of nothing by erecting your tribe, or something else like it, into a “god”? Have you so lost touch with yourself that you no longer believe your body is-here? Do you need to fabricate a false self to put yourself here? Is it your tribe and its narratives, or some other “achievement” that gives you reality? Please be advised: this is all idolatry.

“God” put you here.

There is only one “God.” And when you look in the mirror that’s who should be looking back at you. It’s time to acknowledge the one whose face you bear, in whom you live and move and have your being.

Undoing the Great Lie

 

I am happy to announce the publication of a book of

selected essays. The collection is entitled

 

UNDOING THE GREAT LIE

 

frontCoverUGL

 

This book attempts to provide an historical­-autobiographical framework for essays that have appeared over the last 20 years. Blogposts that may have seemed to many readers as unconnected forays into the philosophy and theology that supports a modern universalist spirituality, can be read against the background of the life-experiences that inspired and, in my judgment, necessitated them. I have assumed that those experiences were common to my contemporaries who come from the same formation and historical conditioning as I did. I may be wrong. But regardless of how others may see things, I make my assessments on an objective basis.  These essays are not just my subjective reaction.

My recent explorations into the place of Buddhist practice are not included here. The essays are all from a time when my principal focus was the clarification of what actually created the doctrinal complex we call Western Christianity; the ultimate intention, of course, was its evaluation. I had encountered many clues over the years that the message of Jesus as recorded in the gospels had been changed, bypassed and sometimes ignored by the teachings I was given in the Catholic educational system. But through­out my entire formation ― from the elementary school catechism to the dogmatic theses of seminary training ― a full twenty years of unbroken instruction accompanied at all times by the rituals and spiritual practices designed to inculcate “the mind of Christ,” I never seriously doubted the fundamental humanizing potential of the doctrinal base or Church structures. It was in the experience of pastoral practice ― my service of the people ― that I first began to see the damaging effects of the Catholic ideology I had inherited and embraced, much of which is shared by “reformed Christianity.” This book attempts to give a face and flesh to what I learned, how I changed, and what I believe must be said out loud for all to hear.

Tony Equale, July 1, 2019

 

Undoing the Great Lie, 286 pages, $14.50, free shipping (in the US, Mexico and Canada).  Order from:

Boundary Rock Publishers, 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380

boundaryrockpublishers@swva.net

You can also click here to order directly from the printer: http://www.lulu.com

The Great Lie is also listed on Amazon.

 

[FROM THE BACK COVER]

Undoing the Great Lie

Christian Doctrine” has a very specific meaning in this book. It refers to the product of 2000 years of Western Europeans’ use of the message and life of Jesus as the basis of their political and social constructions. It melds the values, traditions and aspirations of pre-Christian cultures to create a synthetic vision that is an altogether new way of imagining reality: Christianity, a new religion.

The verbal overlay used to describe that unique syncretism is not the message of Jesus. It is rather the blue-print for reproducing Roman Imperial theocracy and its evolution through the subsequent centuries of Western European history, while the inheritors of Roman power fought among themselves for the right of succession.

Christian Doctrine was forged for life in the Roman Empire. It is the faithful representation of Roman Christian theocracy and simultaneously the justification and protection of its iterations. The dehumanization that lay at the heart of Roman economic life ― slavery ― and its application on a global scale as the paradigm that shaped Western Europe’s relationship to the dark-skinned peoples it “discovered” and “conquered” at the end of the middle ages, is the underlying theme of the essays in this book.

To confront dehumanization on the streets is the work of political activism. To confront it in the realm of religious truth recapitulates that effort at a much deeper level . . . where perhaps it lays hidden, disguised as something else and so continues to perpetrate its inhumanities with impunity. Christian Doctrine is such a disguise.

These essays bear the dates of their composition. But they rarely correlate with events occurring in the years recorded. The stalled reform of Christian Doctrine, begun at the end of the middle ages and frozen in time by Trent, gives a timeless quality to these denunciations and recommendations for reform.

Tony Equale

Relationship to “God” is a work of the imagination

This post is very long.  But it is composed of 5 sections, each of about 2,000 words which is convenient for one reading.  I opted to include them all here rather than in 5 separate posts, because it is one integral piece, and eventually the sections will have to be taken together.  As usual I invite your comments.

1.

The Imagery of “God”

1.1   Images

The sound of the title, I’m sure, is shocking to many believers.  I suspect their initial reaction is that it is “atheist.”  A moment’s reflection, however, should remind them what all the major theist traditions acknowledge: that “God” is unknowable.   Like it or not, regardless of the intensity of your faith, you have to imagine “God” and what that word means.

It might be less threatening if we realize that the imagination isn’t only functioning when we try to think of “God.”  It’s what we use for thinking virtually all the time.  The primacy of the imagination in our cognitive relationship to the world is not a new idea. Wittgenstein insisted that our ideas are really “pictures” of various states of affairs, from things, to people, to narratives, to complex interrelationships.

Moreover, for those of us who are convinced that the only way that anything can be-here in our universe is as matter, it is no surprise to discover that we work primarily in sense images.  Images reproduce concrete sense-based perceptions.  We are made of matter. Our organic brains evolved as a more efficient tool for helping us navigate in a world of matter where survival is dependent on using and defending ourselves against other forms of matter.

It’s because we generally work in images that most of us have a hard time with abstractions, like mathematics above the most elementary levels, or metaphysics.  We tend to put images in the place of abstractions. Until we can find an image we can “wrap our head around,” we don’t feel that we understand.  When we do, however, we say we “see” it and we “grasp” it as if the abstraction were a visible or palpable object . . . and indeed, in a real sense it is, because what we claim to recognize is the image we have substituted for the abstraction in question. There is a great deal of projection in what we claim to know.

1.2   The naïve image: “God,” the Craftsman

Now this is nowhere more true than in our attempts to “grasp” how it is that we can be-here, alive and ourselves. We imagined that we were “created” by a divine agent ― in the West it is called “God” ― and we generated an image of what we think “God” and the act of creation was like. This resulted in similar answers across the globe. People everywhere came to more or less the same conclusions about divine agency because we all “think” in more or less the same images . . . and that’s because our experience of being born into and struggling to stay alive in this material world is the same for all of us.

We wake up to find that we are-here, alive and growing from helpless infants to strong, intelligent reproductive adults in a community of people who are just like us needing to eat and stay alive in a world of matter. The universal experience that constitutes interaction with the world for material organisms provides the only analogy for imagining how the world and everything in it, including ourselves, could come to be here.

Our images are based on observation. The most fundamental of all observations is that something comes to be-here only and always after not being-here. Organisms that were not here come to be here born of other organisms. I myself am one of them. Our own children appear as if out of nothing. Hence it was natural to assume that the whole world and all the things in it came to be-here after not being here. It would not spontaneously occur to anyone that everything has always been here.

Our assumptions were expanded by the experience of our own work projects. The shelters we construct to protect ourselves come to be-here only because we put them here. The tools and weapons we use do not spontaneously appear. We make them. We are the agents of the changes that make things appear where before they were not, and our work is done for a purpose.

These simple connections generate the universal images about how things come to be here in our world. It would be virtually impossible for pre-scientific people, precisely because we think in images, to have conceived coming to be in any other terms. The inevitable conclusions: that things came to be here after not being here at all and that some purposeful agent had to have made that happen, are found all over the globe.

So, a picture was generated of some person, like a Craftsman, who constructed the things we see around us and made a world appear where before there was none. Given the immensity and complexity of this world, this Craftsman would have to be both intelligent and powerful to an extraordinary degree. The spectacular beauty and elegant inter-dependence of things suggested the builder was no mere laborer, but an artist and architect of transcendent capabilities. And the fact that the life that we have as part of this project is so precious to us ― our very selves ― this Craftsman is like a father to us and “he” must love us. We called “him” “God.”

“God” was a work of the human imagination. We connected the dots that we saw around us and “God’s” shape emerged. The only problem was that it was all pre-scientific guesswork and much had to be corrected once science entered the picture. Science’s image of the universe was actually quite different from what our first impressions suggested. We thought we saw dots where there were none, and dots that were invisible to the naked eye but which science could see, had been left out of the spontaneous process. Once science was able to amend the picture we had of the universe, we found that there was a new set of dots.  The spontaneous assumption about a divine Craftsman was no longer a credible explanation.

1.3   The new image: evolving matter

The first and probably most seminal correction was science’s discovery of the autonomous action of matter in the development of all the forms and features that populate the universe. Science was able to identify “creation” as a process in which the material energy released at the initial explosion that launched our visible cosmos, aggregated, integrated and complexified in incremental stages through random interactions during an almost unimaginable amount of time, producing everything known to exist. “Everything” is meant literally. Material energy, working on its own and without rational purpose, not only produced the primitive hydrogen atoms whose aggregation in huge masses under the compressing force of gravity generated fusion reactions that created stars, but continued thereafter to forge new combinations of particles within these stellar furnaces to produce all the atoms found in the elegant table of the elements which are the building blocks of life on earth. All of it was done by material energy, acting randomly and without any apparent rational purpose, plan or outside producer.

The intricate interconnections of things, once believed to be proof of the guiding hand of a creative mind, were now known to be the residue of developments that conformed to what went before. By proceeding in ever so minute increments, a highly complex finished product, like the human eye for example, was simply the last refining step in the long development of the light-sensitive capacity of the most primitive unicellular organisms, and the very basis of vegetative life on which all animal life depends. Plants derive their energy from sunlight which they utilize to drive their life and growth.

If there was no purposeful, powerful and managing agent involved in the production of the universe . . . if, in other words, we had imagined a “God” who was not really there . . . what’s the point of using the word at all? We had so identified “God” with “Craftsman” imagery based on the way we made things that when the truth came out we were left high and dry. Our imagery did not fit the new picture of the universe. Unfortunately we had used “God” to integrate our communities and our personalities, so eliminating “God” had the effect of creating havoc on all sides. Many see the travesties of the modern age as the result.

To compound the problem, the word “God” was so deeply identified with a false and misleading imagery that as a matter of practical fact, the word could not be upgraded in the popular imagination to refer to anything else. That was disastrous for religion in the West whose teachings, rituals and intimate life of spiritual transformation, for millennia, have been built around the relationship to a “God”-person. Adjusting to reality as revealed by science requires an overhaul of revolutionary proportions. And given the intimate dependence of personal and societal integration upon this inter-personal and purposeful, intervening image, any thoroughly adequate adjustment to reality would have to involve both a catastrophic breakdown of earlier imagery and an epic reconstruction of new ones with their associated affect. The entire project was so huge as to be inconceivable.

Why not just abandon the entire enterprise, admit that “religion” was a failed construct of our pre-scientific imaginations, and be done with the whole thing once and for all? Any attempt to keep it afloat would necessarily involve confusion and misunderstanding at best, and more than likely deception and exploitation of the uneducated by unscrupulous charlatans.

 

2.

Being-here

2.1   Conatus: the desire to be-here

Unfortunately, humankind is burdened with objective, data-based experiences that suggest a larger picture than science is able to explain and that will not go away. It seems that learning that the “sun does not rise or set, but that we go around it” is not the model that exhausts the misperceptions of the traditional worldview. For even understanding quite clearly that all things were elaborated by evolution and that there is no “Craftsman” who willed and who made us, questions that only religion seemed willing to answer remain, and refuse to disappear.

The first of these science-proof items is the intense addiction to being-here that is experienced by every human being. There is an unmistakable and indisputable spontaneous self-embrace in which each of us is acutely aware of being who we are, and that we are alive. The experience of having an uncontrollable urge to stay alive, accompanied by a concomitant fear of death ― in other words, that my being-here is transcendently important to me ― will not evaporate even though I know that I am nothing but a temporary concrescence of material elements that is born, grows, lives, reproduces and dies. Once I accept what science has discovered, it should be of absolutely no concern to me that this constellation of coherent elements that constitute my organism will go through exactly the same cycle as all other living things and that my “self” will disappear. And yet it is and will not go away. I am unable to assume an “objective” point of view on my living and dying. I am desperately in love with being-here and being myself, and the disillusionments of science will not dispel it.

Now I don’t bring this up as a proof or even a suggestion that my “self” is different from my organism, and that it will somehow escape the fate of the matter of my body, which many religions espouse. Other religions, like Buddhism, which recognize the anomaly of a self-love that is at odds with the realities of a universe of composing and decomposing matter, have sought ways to confront the perception of a transcendent “self” as a delusion. So this question is not new or foreign to the religious quest. Whether they opted to embrace it or to repudiate it, human beings have always acknowledged the phenomenon: we are in love with LIFE and there is no way to avoid it. We have to either embrace it or suppress and transcend it, but we cannot ignore it. It is the horizon of our existence. Our destinies as individuals and as communities are absolutely determined by how we react to this endless and insuperable desire for self-preserva­tion, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the very dynamism for survival that science has identified as the driving force behind evolution.

The endless and insurmountable desire for self-preservation has been called conatus. It is a traditional term, originally Latin, coined in ancient times to refer to the protective self-embrace observed in every living organism, plant and animal, including humankind. Each living individual, regardless of species, is a “self” of some type and is hard wired to selfishly seek to preserve and expand its own individual life. Extrapolating from our own experience, there is a possessive feeling that each self has about its own life that derives from this instinct.  We love ourselves helplessly.  It is not an option.  It reveals that being-here for living things is not just a dry, inert fact.  Being-here is a cherished proprietary dynamism that corresponds to an insuperable affective obsession on display in living things.  Being-here is clearly a unique and continuous object of ultimate and insuppressible desire which, by being shared in all its detailed characteristics by living things of all species without exception regardless of their level of cognitive ability, suggests there is one source common to all: matter’s energy itself. 

If both microbes and men manifest the same observable behavior with regard to the desire to be-here, it seems incontrovertible that being-here must, in some way, be at the very core of what they both are. Both are evolved combinations of the atoms and molecules that congealed and interconnected by the primal energy released when this universe was born. They are living matter. That’s all they have in common. The fact that they both share and display a transcendent desire for their particular configuration of material elements ― however disparate in other regards ― to remain endlessly, i.e., without any indication that there is an acceptable moment when that coherence should cease, seems to precisely describe what we mean by life. Life is the emergent ability on the part of material energy to behave in such a way as to display an unconquerable need to continue to be-here.

The fact that material energy was-here in similar formations prior to the emergence of primitive living organisms, but without any observable display of affect toward being-here, reveals that a new dimension was activated in the emergence of life: being-here became aware of itself as a supreme desideratum. The desire for food, for mates, to avoid predators, are all functions of survival.  Being-here, in other words, for living things is to die for.

There was nothing in the discoveries of the physical sciences that gave the slightest hint that there even might be a conatus. Why should being-here be any “better” than not being-here? Why should matter care whether it continues or not? As far as science is concerned they are just contraries. To be or not to be, for science, are of equal value. Like hot and cold, heavy or light, positively charged or negatively charged, moving or at rest, neither is more “important” than the other. Science can observe the phenomenon of the desire to be-here, and the aversion to not being-here, but it has no basis for evaluating them. The conatus is a sheer gratuitous primary datum: it is just there; it comes with life.

The salient fact for our discussion, however, is that for us being-here is not only important, it is of supreme and unequalled importance. It’s importance is so inescapably fundamental that it cannot be suppressed and gives every indication of being hard-wired into our very bodies. I not only desire being-here, I cannot not desire it: I cannot ignore, avoid or suppress desiring it. This fact was not predictable, nor perceptible much less explainable by physical science. Yet it is the most significant, essential, decisive, and destiny-shaping fact for me: the supreme value I place on being-here which accompanies an innate desire to survive. Physical science did not anticipate the conatus, because it did not anticipate LIFE.

2.2   matter’s energy to be-here

Since being-here is of such transcendent importance to us, we are forced to take up again the question of existence that religion had naïvely attempted to answer by imagining a super-human Craftsman. How can we approach this question now that we have the discoveries of science to prevent us from imagining things that are not there? For now we know that the Craftsman-god was a naïve and erroneous product of our imagination.

The first thing is that it would seem that whatever is responsible for my being-here is probably also responsible for this overwhelming desire that shapes my life and the destiny of the various communities in which all of us live. Clearly, whatever drives the autonomous evolution of material energy has got to be the prime suspect, for we can trace all the developments that shaped and empowered our organisms to that force.

But evolution is not a “thing” or a physical force like magnetism. It’s a word-picture created by human beings that tries to describe how matter’s intrinsic energy changes its own internal configurations through time. The substance and the energy involved belong exclusively to matter. There is no outside force called “evolution” acting on matter and making it change. It is matter itself, entirely on its own, utilizing the inherent energy that constitutes its reality, attempting to remain itself, that continually adjusts its internal interrelationships to allow for its existence in ever new environments. The keynote and final arbiter of evolution is survival. Ironically, the constant change that characterizes evolution is a function of the pursuit of stasis ― sameness. The changes that matter undergoes have no other purpose or “intentionality” than that which has constituted matter from the beginning: to be-here and to stay-here, i.e., to resist any change that would entail not being-here.

Evolution, then, is simply the external expression in time of the internal dynamism of matter. And because survival is the result and the only “purpose” of evolution, we can safely impute an existential intentionality to that dynamism.

Existential intentionality. I want to clarify exactly what I mean by using this term. The words “intentionality” and “purpose,” taken literally, imply something like conscious choice. I do not mean that. But I need to use those terms because I simultaneously want to avoid any suggestion that there is no biased dynamism inherent in matter, i.e., the claim that matter is disinterestedly inert, with no active preference whatsoever. I am trying to describe an energy, which as a matter of indisputable observable fact, is directed toward and results in survival. Matter does not exist in a dead state. It has an energy that inclines it to adjust itself internally so as to continue to be-here.
There is evidence that suggests that evolutionary adjustment is not entirely random. It never adjusts in the direction of not being here. Sometimes its adjustments fail to achieve their purpose. But matter never seeks oblivion which it would do as often as not, if it were not a dynamism with a bias toward being-here, for in that case, to be-here or to not be-here would be the same.
This is a key point in the rejection of mechanistic reductionism. Reductionism claims that there is no existential proclivity in matter, that matter is totally inert, that evolutionary change is, therefore, completely random, and that survival is a matter of sheer passive chance, no more likely than death. I claim, in contrast, that the very desire for endless survival that we as human beings experience internally ― the conatus ― is the exponentially intensified conscious extension in living organisms of the primitive inclination of matter to be-here. We all have that experience because we are all and only matter. We all know exactly what that means and we know there is no need to prove it’s there.
Matter has an existential dynamism that constitutes its potential for emergent forms like life and consciousness. Life, as observed therefore, is the expression of that existential energy intensified through the engagement of matter itself (in the form of the individual organism) in its own “adjustments in the pursuit of survival.” Consciousness represents a further development in the same direction. They are all functions of survival ― the more intense and efficient application of the imperative of the conatus: to be-here.
To the objection that by claiming a bias toward being-here that I have introduced teleology ― purpose ― into matter’s dynamism, I answer that a purpose orientated dynamism would mean acting for a reason, and there is no reason to want to be-here. There is no purpose to being-here. The need to be-here does not arise for any other reason; it is desired for itselfIn achieving existence, the quest ends.  There is nothing more that is wanted.  It is primordial bedrock, self-explanatory and self-grounded.

Matter is energy, and that energy is existential. It is exclusively, helplessly driven to be-here.  This ultimate foundational fact provides the sufficient and necessary ground for understanding the entire universe of things and their development, including humankind; for there is nothing in the universe but matter’s energy and the totality is the simple, unending, unalloyed, pursuit of being-here.  There is nothing ― no animal, no person, no “God” ― that is not part of that.

The insuppressible human question that gave rise to religion, and whose answer ancient, prescientific guesswork got terribly wrong, remains unanswered.  What is responsible for our being-here and being what we are? Science was able to show that there was no purposeful rational agent who did this. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. In learning that everything was the result of evolution, we not only discovered that there was no Craftsman, we simultaneously learned that it was matter itself, acting autonomously in its defining compulsive pursuit of being-here that was the engine that drove the development in the universe, producing all the varied life forms and human consciousness that we find on earth. In identifying living matter as the creative source from which all things emerged, have we stumbled upon the holy grail, humankind’s eternal quest: the face of “God”?

2.3   Is matter “God”?

Unimaginable. We recoil at the thought. For more millennia than are recorded in any of our chronicles, we have supposed that “God,” whatever else that word might mean, had to at least be a “person.” “God” could not conceivably be less intelligent, less loving, less purposeful, less intensely self-aware than we are. After all if “God” made us, “God” must be like us. This fit perfectly with the imagery we had generated about the Craftsman whom we conjectured created the universe of things. It never occurred to us that what was responsible for everything we see around us might not look or act like us at all. Furthermore, religious traditions going back before recorded time, in assuming that a trans­cendent “personality” lie behind the existence of the universe, had encouraged making contact with that person by offering sacrifice, by communicating our personal and community needs, by obeying behavioral codes, by giving gifts in acknowledgement of our gratitude for being-here, by pleading for help ― in short, by relating to our creator the way we would relate to any human person who was in a position to do something for us. So the word “God” embodies not only the erroneous cosmological imagery and associated ideas we have been examining in this study, but it is drenched in the affective psychological intensity that is the residue of the accumulation of eons of human emotion poured out in the gratitude, fear, love and pleading that has characterized how we related to that “God-person.”  If “God” is matter and is not a person, that whole imaginary construct comes down like a house of cards.

What does that mean for our “religious” lives? Does it mean religion is dead? The burden of this essay is to emphatically answer: No. These discoveries demand that we change the imagery that we had generated about what our creative source is like and relate to it as it really is observed, measured and experienced and not as we once imagined it to be. We are tied neither to images nor to words. The image of the Craftsman and the word “God” were hypothetical constructs that worked for our pre-scientific view of the world. But just because the word and image have to be abandoned doesn’t mean we can abandon the relationship, because the relationship is existential for us. It is what put us here and sustains us. We know it is real because we are real and we are not self-originating. It’s time to change our imagery, not deny that we exist and did not create ourselves.

The relationship ― our being-here as we are ― came first and remains fundamental.  It is the only fact.  Our attempt to understand it is not fact but conjecture, and comes second. Our conjectures ― our imaginings ― are not the standard of reality. Discovering that our source is not as we had imagined, does not give us the right to disregard the implications of what we are learning. We are, and always remain, the offspring of our source, whatever it is. We are what we have been made, and our continued survival depends upon our conformity to what we are, not to what we once thought we were no matter how ancient or robed in venerable tradition. We have been evolved by matter’s energy and our lives must coincide with its fundamental dynamics or we eviscerate ourselves.  This is not a matter of choice and we all know it, for quiet as it’s kept, we do what we need to survive regardless of the counsels of our tradition.

 

3.

the psychological transcendentals

3.1   Trust

How does this play itself out? The first, and as it ironically turns out, the overarching constitutive step in surviving is trust. There is nothing new here. No matter what the imagined world-view, the mechanism of engagement is trust and it’s no different in a universe of matter. We have little choice. Everything that we are, every ability we have, even our very being-here itself has arisen without any contribution from us. We awaken to find ourselves immersed and borne along in a vast project generated and propelled forward by the energy of matter alone. Our own human organisms are only one slim line of that development, sustained through millennia of time by a network of vital connections with the rest of the universe that we are only now becoming aware of. None of the features of our bodies and minds that we cherish as our very selves, were designed, fabricated, or placed into active service by us. It was all given. We are not self-originating in any way. We had no say in when we awoke, and we cannot prevent our components from being reused by other organisms when we die. Our active participation is limited to the most minimal intervention, which unfortunately includes the possibility of self-rejec­tion. We can opt out, but even there, only by advancing early to the death-step. We never really escape the life-cycle which is our destiny no matter what we do.

Trust is the air we breathe; it is the ocean we swim in. We are not even aware of it until we turn full attention to it. We have to trust all the time. We trust in the perfect functioning of our bodies interacting with earth’s supply systems of air, water and food. We trust that our lungs will always draw in oxygen and our blood will always carry it to all parts of our bodies for the combustion in our living cells. We trust our organs to correctly process the food and water we ingest and distribute it appropriately for the full functioning of all our members and abilities. We trust that our DNA will infallibly guide the ontogenesis that brings our developing bodies from infancy to full reproductive maturity. We trust that sperm and egg will unite and by some marvel in nine months inerrantly develop into a new fully equipped human organism by combining the DNA of both parents. (And by the way, those marvels are true of every animal and plant.) We trust our parents to feed and protect us until we can survive on our own. We trust larger society to support the efforts of families to prepare their children for surviving.

I have not even mentioned the almost indescribable numbers of support systems existing on the planet on which we depend: for food, water, air, shelter, material for our clothing, our machines of service, our infrastructure of roads and bridges, medical intervention, the arts and sciences. We are, in reality, the continuous product of a multitude of factors that are all outside of ourselves.

Trust is a pervasive indispensable component of human life. One philosopher describes trust as “existential . . . primordial and atmospheric (generalized, ambient, and diffuse).”[1] Those terms accumulate to an attitude present in all human activity that is so fundamental, universal and necessary as to amount to a psychological transcendental. We cannot function without trust at every level of our presence in the world. Any notion that our being-here is an independent phenomenon which we control as individuals is sheer delusion and trust is the psychological correlate.  We are dependent upon a multitude of concurrently existing realities which, because they provide their support activity so efficiently and without interruption, we hardly ever notice. This utter dependency is not imaginary, it is real. Becoming aware of exactly what it consists of, in depth and detail, is essential to our understanding of what we are. Reminding ourselves of it should be part of a daily meditation. We are a part of an immense whole. We find ourselves borne up in a web of sustaining material elements that range in kind from other human beings to the oxygen atoms in the atmosphere. The dependency is not superficial, as Courtright says, it is existential. And it is total. It bears upon our very existence and at every moment in time. We come to discover, much to our surprise, that as far as being-here is concerned we are in every respect the product of factors other than ourselves. We had nothing whatsoever to do with getting here, and our contribution to staying here consists mainly in the intelligent gathering and use of the support materials we need, which also have been provided to us by others.

Trust is nowhere more constitutively in play than in the ultimate question that plagues us: our destiny. Apparently in this respect we are alone among all living organisms. But just as we are only now coming to realize what put us here and supplies us with what we need to stay here, we have no idea what death may mean if indeed it is anything more than the cessation of life. But it seems that the unbroken continuity of factors that conspired to put us here and cooperate with our efforts to stay here, has launched us on a trajectory of wall-to-wall trusting that, just on the face of it, would seem almost impossible to stop.   The dynamism of life has demanded and confirmed our trust at every turn in the road.  Being-here and trusting are absolute correlates.  How can we stop when death looms?

My own opinion is that we can’t.  For if we do, the psychological impact is so devastating that it can result in the abandonment of the will to live.  We are our material organisms, and our organisms are a single, undivided “thing” in process through time. We cannot compartmentalize ourselves by denying the integrity of the continuum of our lives. We can’t have full trust at one moment while simultaneously knowing that trust will become meaningless at some moment in the future. For it is the existential power of the totality on which our dependence rests that is in play in this question. Having learned that we are not just ourselves but more realistically an extrusion of the universe of matter, to suddenly learn that our destiny is to have that identity terminate, fatally undermines its possibility. If the totality abandons me at one point, it cannot be trusted at any point.

3.2   co-dependent co-arising and the delusion of the “self”

This appears to be a “catch-22;” for, as a matter of galling fact, we all die. But under analysis, the idea that being-here as material energy actually ends is not a proven “fact.” In reality it is just another “picture” generated by our naïve conjectures about being-here. It is an imagined state of affairs ― an image constructed on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions.

  • It assumes that the “I” that experiences life and death is a stand-alone, independent “thing” separate and apart from other “things,” a “self” that comes and goes.
  • It assumes that matter’s being-here as this particular organism of mine is significantly different from the same matter’s being-here in whatever other form it may take when my organism no longer controls it; it assumes that because the difference is significant to me it is significant in itself.
  • It assumes that my organism’s dependence on the universe of matter of which it is an emergent form, is discrete, i.e., that it represents a transaction across a separation-boundary between two distinct independent entities, the universe and me, rather than “me” being  an undulation, a “ripple” in the smooth fabric of the totality.  In other words, the data are equally well accounted for if both I and the universe are one continuous reality, my organism being simply a branch or leaf that the cosmic tree extrudes as it grows through time, and not a separate reality in myself.  I am the offspring of living matter.
  • The naïve assumption that the appearance and disappearance of things is explained as their coming from nothing and going back into nothing is the most unsubstantiated of all. This is all the work of the imagination, and as with all our “pictures” it must be submitted to a rigorous analysis. It may be, as science has suggested, that matter’s energy has always been-here, is neither created nor destroyed, but merely changes form, and the human organism is one of those forms.
  • Probably the most common unproven assumption in the west is that my “self” is a “soul,” a real separate substance, different from the matter of my body both in form and destiny.   Questioning the substantial reality of the “self,” however, runs into resistance in the western mindset due to the millennia of Christian promotion of the Platonic theory of immortal spirit.  People’s emotional attachment to the idea of the “soul” can be chalked up to its role in justifying belief in immortality, and a final judgment in which the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. But as far as the observations of modern science are concerned, the “self,” by the very fact that it disappears when the supporting organism dissolves, appears to be what Aristotle called a metaphysical “accident,” which means a real feature of some “substance” (thing) that depends on that substance in order to be-here, and disappears when the substance disappears; it has no independent existence. The “self” in this conception is the conscious identity of the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation characteristic of all living things. It is the integrated result of the accumulation of the existential energy of the material components of the human organism. Our so-called “spiritual” characteristics are entirely body-dependent; they derive from the human body’s neurological configuration. And we know that, because when the brain is damaged, they are distorted or disappear. “Spiritual” is a misnomer if it means our human capacities are due to the presence of a separate substance called “spirit.” “Spirituality” is a property of living matter.

3.3   the sense of the sacred

Little by little you can see that we are building up a new imagery about our being-here, and it is all centered on matter’s living existential energy in a way that is totally compatible with science. Notice there is no use of the word “God.” Matter is an energy to be-here which in order to secure its continuous survival changes its internal configurations. This change in response to mod­i­fi­cations in the environment is called evolution and is what created all things. The source of our being-here is matter’s living energy; it made us in every intimate detail and it made and shaped the planetary environment from which our organisms were drawn and to whose current features we are conformed. We live in a condition of absolute inescapable trust in everything it has done, for it is our very selves.

It is hardly necessary to describe the intense affect that is generated in us over being-here. We are supremely happy at being alive and being able to stay alive. It is a necessary by-product of the conatus; we cannot help being grateful, for we cannot not want to be-here. This is a primary datum in our analysis, for I contend that it is this innate, hard-wired, intense love of being-here that is responsible for our sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is a subjective reaction to an absolutely objective state of affairs: we are-here as dependent entities and we love it.

What I mean by “sacred” is the value we assign to something that is supremely important for us ― something that is identified with our existence itself. The reaction is as fixed a feature of our human nature as can be found. It is absolutely universal, and may be considered a second psychological transcendental ― in the same category as trust. Whatever we identify as responsible for us being-here, being ourselves and staying-here, generates a feeling in us that bathes that thing in our love, gratitude and protection. I mean this in the broadest possible sense. For we hold many things to be sacred: our bodies, our spouses, our parents, our children, the social institutions that protect us like doctors, the courts, security personnel, the people that have been good to us or who are responsible for our continued survival, even if they happen to be selfish and unsavory.  Despite their variety what these things all have in common is their existential impor­tance for us.  This is all completely consistent with a hard-wired conatus and in fact the absence of such a reaction would call into question its very existence.

This analysis applies, a fortiori, to whatever people have identified as the origin, source, manager and guarantor of their being-here ― historically that means the “god” who was once imagined to be the Craftsman who created the universe. This explains the “religion” phenomenon and its substantial similarity all over the globe. While the look and shape of this cosmic Craftsman has differed wildly in different times and cultures, and the attempt to make effective contact with “him” took various and sometimes contradictory forms, the fundamental human dynamic was the same: to express gratitude to and secure the friendship of the one who made us to be-here and had our destiny in his hands.  It is a direct a derivative of the conatus.  Religion is a natural and virtually inescapable reaction, bound as a practical corollary to the sense of the sacred which is itself a corollary of the conatus and therefore psychologically transcendental.  We cannot live without it.

Matter’s energy, according to the view embraced in this essay, is now thought to be the source and sustaining matrix of being-here that was once imagined as “God.”  But we don’t call matter’s energy “God.”  Why not?  Because matter’s energy, while it plays the same creative role as was once assigned to “God,” as actually observed and experienced in our world, is not a rational person who acts for a purpose.  In fact, matter’s energy is no-thing and does nothing. It chooses nothing, it intends nothing, it wants nothing, it knows nothing. Its energy is entirely exhausted in being-here.  It in no way resembles what we once imagined “God” to be.  Matter’s energy is simply not “God,” not metaphorically, not symbolically, and not metaphysically.  It is what it is: the energy of being-here and it has no independent form of its own  . . .  it is always and only found in the forms it has extruded: the atoms and molecules, rocks and minerals, plants, fungi, insects and animals including humankind that populate our universe.  We are all the common possessors of LIFE.

3.4   oneness with all things . . . the ground of trust and the embrace of death

Regardless of this break with our historical religious terms and imagery, matter’s energy for those who accept the findings of science, is the source and sustaining matrix in which we live and move and have our being.  We have little choice but to be grateful for our provenance from the timeless and tireless struggles of matter’s energy to find ways to continue to be-here, for it produced us.  We fully understand the dynamic that ruled material development through the eons of cosmic time because we are its offspring and we feel within ourselves the same thirst for being-here.  We are matter’s energy.  Humankind is simply its extrusion in time and complexity: LIFE in human form. Conforming to the inner dynamic of matter’s energy is no big deal for us, for it is who we are and what we are innately driven to do: survive as human beings. We cannot not want exactly what matter’s energy wants: to be-here.

Our identification with the material universe ― the totality of things that are-here ― is not a rare, mystical experience, a romantic and poetic sentiment limited to spiritual adepts and refined literati.  It is raw universal scientific fact.  That most people are unaware of it is entirely due to our cultural inheritance.  Certain ancient illusions have been erected into unchallenged assumptions which have been accepted for millennia. These “eternal truths” that are not true at all, like the independent existence of the “self” based on Plato’s ancient metaphysical theory of the human soul, have become part of the fixed horizon of our lives and social interactions.  We continue to acknowledge them in ritual and ceremony even when we are not articulating them explicitly.  Many cling to these illusions despite the clarifications of science because of their consoling effect. People need to trust life, and the story of the immortal soul seems to fill that need because it denies death. But its alleged consolation has an underside: it is individualistic to the point of solipsism and stone selfish; it militates against any sense of connection with other people and presupposes a radical separation from the universe of things. It is totally incompatible with the findings of science and runs counter to the spirit of our traditional teachers.

The identification of the human organism with the matter and energy of the universe, on the other hand, is extremely effective in providing a solid basis for trust. For once we realize the independent “self” is an illusion generated as a byproduct of the conatus, we can disregard its demands for immediate and unconditional satisfaction. There is no toleration for the refined selfishness engendered by the belief in the “soul.” Knowing ourselves to be simply a packet of matter’s energy we appropriate to ourselves the creative evolutionary power and endless ability to survive which characterizes the totality. We can say, WE ARE THAT! echoing the Hindu insight into the identity of the human person with the source of the universe’s endless life. The realization is the same because underneath the different images, both focus on the primacy of the whole, the totality, and disestablish the illusory hegemony of the “self” created by our desires for pleasure and fears of poverty, pain and death. The isolated “self,” against the backdrop of our reality as part of the whole, is exposed as false and delusional, and the acquiescence to its imperious selfish demands potentially destructive.

The only practical argument for the independent reality of the “self” against this Buddhist-materialist vision is psychological ― it is the apparent insuppressible nature of the conatus.  Desires and aversions springing from the human organism’s need to survive and reproduce will not go away. Proposing a metaphysical vision that disregards their reality, opponents say, is counter-indicated and invites frustration. But the argument is specious and self-serving. What I am saying does not dismiss the conatus as unreal but it also does not erect it into a separate “self” with metaphysical prerogatives.

This conforms to everyday experience. For the demands of the conatus are regularly and quite normally suppressed or transcended by mature adults for the sake of their life with others. The urges arising from the conatus are not absolute; they are subordinate to the individual being part of a larger totality, which in this case is the human community. Subordination to society does not destroy the individual, it enhances it. To an even greater degree, I claim that subordination to the individual’s place in the universe of things opens a world of enlightenment that grounds a foundational trust that finally does away with the fears of death. For, without denying death (the disappearance of the illusory “self”) it reveals our identity with the endless creative power and survivability of the very energy that shaped us, put us here, constitutes and sustains us immersed in itself.  It identifies us with the very core and bedrock of being-here.  The materialist vision says that as matter’s energy we have always been-here, even from before the “big bang,” and we will always be-here  . . .  as ourselves, as material energy, not as some unimaginable “spirit.”  The reality and the project evolving through time is this cosmic process, not a separate individual destiny for an imaginary “self” that is “saved” alone apart from others.  It neither denies death nor the reality of the individual organism with its individual feelings and needs.  The only thing it denies is the independent separate “spiritual” reality of the “immortal soul” and its indepen­dent solipsist destiny.

 

4.

Transformation

4.1  Personal transformation

Once the new imagery about who we are, where we came from, where we belong, and where we are going has been identified and thoroughly evaluated for authenticity and objectivity, a process of transformation from the old imagery and values can begin. This is not a simple affair, and the upgrade is not  easy. Each element of the old imagery has to be assessed and judged for its relevance to the current project. Some will be rejected, some will be accepted and continued. Of those that are accepted, many will have to be modified or nuanced in order to fit into the new picture. This is also a work of the imagination. Just as any good story-teller has to craft his words and carefully select the sequence of events and images so that the intended effect on the reader will occur, so too the spiritual aspirant. This is not easy. As in all projects errors will occur, and errors will lead to delays and distortions in the lives of the practitioners.

The principal image to be deactivated is that of the Craftsman/spirit who designed the universe for a purpose. We know it is not true. No one designed the form that things would take ― they incrementally and necessarily assumed the forms that permitted them the best chance of survival. And there is no purpose to being-here; being-here is the only reason for being-here. And the implication of not being created by an “Intelligent Designer” for purposes chosen by “him,” is that there is no moral code issued from this Craftsman/spirit obliging us to obey certain rules of conduct. “Revelation” from another world, in this regard, never occurred; moral insights about individual integrity and just dealings with others are the products of intelligent human observation and judgment; they were recognized as contrary to vulgar practice and projected to have come from the Craftsman spirit, rather than our common possession of LIFE with all other things. No one will judge, or reward and punish our behavior, now or after death, except ourselves. Regardless of how deeply ingrained this imagery might be, it does not correspond to what we know about reality, and it can only distort the lives of those who use it to determine how they will live.  Our lives are in our hands.  It is we who decide what it means to be human, based on our intelligent assessment of what makes us truly happy as a community; and it is our desire to be-here as the human beings we are that shapes our attitudes, directs our behavior and motivates the discipline needed to make that vision a reality.

The key image to be cultivated is the individual’s fundamental reality as an organism made of the same living matter found in all things in our material universe.  We are all the extrusions of living matter ― LIFE.  The most direct way of doing that is meditation and continual mindfulness.  Meditation means a period of time exclusively dedicated to the change of imagery.  The purpose and explicit effort is thought-control and the exploration of the implications of the changeover from the image of the Craftsman/spirit to living matter in process.  Mindfulness means the effective extension of the efforts of meditation at all times throughout the day, even in activities that have no explicit reference to self-imagery.  None of the practices recommended are sacrosanct.  They are chosen for what works. So there is no reward for performing them except the personal reward of achieving a new way of looking at reality and the new positive attitudes that result.  The point is personal, emotional, attitudinal, behavioral transformation, not compliance with a code of practice.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh recommends mindfulness: the conscious effort to transform every activity into a moment of awareness of one’s unity with all things by looking for the specific connection that is embedded there, often unnoticed. He speaks of eating, for example, as perhaps the best illustration of how a daily routine can be converted into a mindfulness practice. The very essence of eating is the incorporation of other things made of matter into my body. It is a quintessentially material operation in which the homogeneity of all matter and the depen­dence of my organism for its survival on a vast array of other living and non-living things existing in my environment is on unmistakable display.

The ultimate effect is the reduction in the importance accorded to the “self” and its desires which are often satisfied unconsciously; mindfulness makes desires conscious and disposed to be controlled.  A new appreciation of the what the self is and can do is the result.  Identification with the totality also shifts desire; concern for others begins to take center stage because the self now think of itself as one with others ― people as well as other living things and the resources of the earth.

4.2  Social transformation

One of the principal effects of existential imagery is in the interaction among the individuals in society. Some see these effects as derived from individual morality, but other observers, acknowledging the primacy of the religious worldview in social structure, see it the other way around. They believe religion originated as the codification of social mores. In any case, rulers have always recognized the potential for social control embedded in the existential imagery of the religious world­view and have sought to link their governance to its theocratic influence. Individuals who have internalized preferred behavior and values need no external coercion. Religion and the state have always been in intimate alliance.

The change in existential imagery brought about by transcendent materialism necessarily impacts one’s life in society because it sees the individual as a part of the whole. Of course, the vision applies fundamentally to all things, but in practice, the place where interaction for survival and self-fulfillment occurs is in human community. It is society where the human individual meets the universe of matter and ekes out survival. The shift in priority achieved by this change in imagery immediately challenges the false assumption of one’s own individual reality and importance, undermining the clamor for attention and constant satisfaction demanded by the conatus.

The new imagery establishes that individual human organisms are all fundamentally the same.  It therefore grounds and prioritizes cooperative collaboration in all human interaction, and implicitly repudiates inequality in the access to adequate food, clothing, shelter and the possession of goods, services, security and leisure.  The slavery and other forms of coerced labor, along with significant disparities in access to the means of survival associated with the traditional class system, were all justified by the existential imagery of the Craftsman/spirit.  For it was the metaphysical dualism ― the division of reality into matter and spirit ― that has been used at least since the ascendancy of Greco-Roman civilization about 500 bce, to ground a specious belief in the superiority of some people over others. The superior people were identified with “spirit,” mind and morality, intelligence and integrity, and the inferior people with “matter,” flesh and feeling, sensuality and selfishness.  The latter were considered akin to the animals, capable only of bodily labor and needing its discipline in order to dissipate wanton urges and be kept under control.  The recognition that matter is transcendent ― i.e., life and consciousness are properties of matter’s existential energy ― terminates dualism’s divisive and distorted view of reality once and for all.

 

5.

Mysticism

5.1  The mystique of the personal Craftsman

One of the principal features of the traditional existential imagery is the personhood of the Craftsman/spirit imagined to have created the universe.  The new imagery, based on the worldview sketched by science, finds no evidence of the rational, purposeful, intentional actions that are the signs of the presence of a person as we understand the word.  Matter’s energy elaborates its marvels simply by its own incremental adjustments to being-here.  While this doesn’t support what we’re accustomed to, it suggests a mystique of its own which we will explore shortly.

The pre-scientific imagery of the Craftsman necessarily assumed the presence of personhood and an individual personality in this “God” who made us to be-here. And the spontaneous act of awe and gratitude that followed upon the realization of our vulnerability would necessarily include all of the feelings that humans have toward other persons who give them gifts of great value: a warm intention to give them gifts in return, a willingness to do what pleases them, the desire to extol them and enhance their reputation in the eyes of others, and the desire to “be with” or “get close to” them out of love but also out of a selfish hope that such gifts will keep on coming.

This last inclination ― to “get close to” the source of our being-here ― has given rise to a passionate western mysticism found in all the religions that owe their foundational concepts to the Hebrew Bible, what are called “religions of the Book.” It imagined that our being-here was the expression of a personal love on the part of the creator.  Because the Craftsman was believed to be a person who designed us and created us out of love and as a mirror-image of himself it spontaneously evolved into a pursuit of an interpersonal love-relationship.  This took two forms: parent-child, and husband-wife. The poetry that was created to express that belief was concretized in two images corresponding to each kind of relationship: obedience to a demanding father, and falling in love, betrothal and marriage. This double imagery tended to divide the “ordinary” Christians from the elite spiritual aspirants in pursuit of perfection, the former relating to “God” as his child, the latter as his bride or lover.

5.2  The nuptial image

The soul as the Bride of “God” had a long antecedent history.  At first, when tribal communities were consolidated by being identified with a divine person, relationship to the tribe’s god was sealed by contract.  In the Bible it was translated as “covenant” or “testament.”  The god was expected to advance the tribe in war and insure prosperity, and in return the tribe would “love, honor and obey” the god.  The similarity to a marriage contract was apparent from the start.  Love poetry of the most intimate erotic kind was used to describe this relationship, most likely it was common love poetry appropriated from the community and applied by the priests to the sacred contract. Thus a Hebrew tribal god, Yahweh, the warrior who was believed to have freed the Hebrews from Egypt and conquered Palestine for their use, was poetically imagined as the male lover in the Book known as “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon,” and Israel was his adoring and obedient bride.

Once the Hebrew Bible was “discovered” by the Greeks, who were awed by its poetic monotheism, they had it translated into Greek; it entered the Greek orbit and its specifically Hebrew significance became vulnerable to Greek modifications. Hebrew categories were adjusted or even changed in the process. Of these, the emphasis on the priority of the individual human person, considered by the Greeks to be grounded in an immortal spiritual “soul” that could exist separate from the body, almost inevitably turned the Song of Songs from poetry about Israel’s communal contract with Yahweh into a saga of the intimate relationship between Plato’s Crafts­­man­/spirit, and the individual human “soul.”  Thus the nuptial imagery of theist mysticism was born. It was embraced by all the religions of the Book and characterizes Christian mysticism as well as Islamic.

Intimately connected with the parallel mistake of imagining “God” as a benevolent and provident “father” who micro-manages our individual lives, the significance of the nuptial distortion is very revealing of our most intimate needs and deepest desires.  It’s a no-brainer: we want to be loved and cared for.  We do not easily abandon the childhood consolation of knowing that our parents are there, love us and are watching over us. Imagining “God” as father or personal lover allows us to continue our childhood fantasy into adulthood, as Freud insightfully pointed out.  In tandem with promises of life after death for our immortal “souls,” it allowed us to avoid confronting the harsh reality of our fragile and temporary existence as material organisms.

This is not just an individual hang-up, as Freud might have meant it.  It’s a massive collective fantasy about a “God”-person that has been conjured through millennia of time collected in the narratives of the Hebrew tradition.  There is an unbroken line from the first images in the Hebrew Bible to the most sophisticated philosophical abstractions of the high middle ages. It’s a fairy tale that simultaneously serves the psychic needs of individuals and com­munity alike.  These images are a common legacy ― the family stories ― that is the very glue that has held our western civilization together for thousands of years and the Christian version of that imagery is only the last iteration of a long process that had originated even before the Bible in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It’s no wonder that it’s so hard to let go of, and when its imaginary nature is finally acknowledged, the resulting ungluing leaves residual effects in the form of persistent subconscious attitudes and a feeling of normlessness and a loss of self-esteem that fill the vacuum.

The recovery of the glue that will bind society together in the celebration of life and a common pursuit of mutual support, is totally dependent on finding a new imagery for the relationship we have to being-here.  Once we know what we are, we can decide how we are going to relate to LIFE: our source, matter’s energy, ourselves, other people on whom we rely for support and affirmation, the animals, plants, minerals, soil, air and water that supply us with fuel and building materials for our bodies.

5.3  A new imagery, a new mysticism

When the imagery about the “creator” changes from Plato’s Craftsman (who came to be identified as the Christian Logos) to matter’s living energy, the concept of “person” as we understand the word no longer applies and the nuptial imagery becomes incoherent. Relationship to “God,” for which Christian mystics from late antiquity to mediaeval times used betrothal and marriage imagery as a primary descriptor, was suddenly rendered meaningless.  There was no longer any possibility of a “marriage” relationship between “God” and the “soul,” because our creator showed no signs of being a “person.”

The anguish and personal devastation caused in the lives of Catholic monks, nuns and lay people who had shaped their spiritual lives around that imagery, was the result.  But it must be frankly recognized that we are only talking about an image, a work of the imagination.  It was not metaphysics, it was not “fact.”  It was a stretch even in the middle ages, because the applicable traditional metaphysics for union with “God” was participation in Being.

Participation in Being was an ancient Greek notion. It was what Paul had in mind when he quoted Epimenides’ phrase that “God” was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”[2] This profound unity, like that between wellspring and effluence, light source and radiation, is difficult to grasp without pictures.  And, except for some monastics, it was ignored.  It was easier, and better for business, for the hierarchy to sell “salvation” to the masses of Christians by appeasing a distant wrathful “God” that lived in another world.  With participation in Being, source and effect, while distinct, are simultaneously the same; it would have called into question the very idea of eternal punishment.

But if we employ the concrete imagery of matter’s energy provided by modern science, it is easy to picture ourselves constructed of the very same “stuff” that evolved us and evolved into us.  As the Hindus say: WE ARE THAT!  We are our own source.  There is no distance from the origin and source of life, for we are materially one and the same thing ― matter’s living energy.  But even though there is no separation, we remain at the same time always distinct, because matter’s energy ― LIFE which is neither created nor destroyed, goes on to enliven other forms after the decoherence of our organisms and the disappearance of our “selves.”

Our “selves” are peripheral to the process, they are spawned by it but have no control over it.  In fact the only thing that ever changes is the temporary form that matter assumes as it transitions from one to another in the course of time, and the only thing that ever stops being-here is the illusory “self.”  Matter’s energy recycles itself eternally but never loses its power to evolve and sustain ever new and unpredictable forms.  To identify with our components is to concede the unreality of the “self;” it is to fully realize our oneness with the universe and its creative power, for our components are the same everywhere and in all things, and contain the power of life.

So if the creator, matter’s energy, turns out to be the very thing that we are constructed of, then we are faced with the strange paradox that we are ourselves that which evolved and sustains us in existence.  I say “strange” only because we have been so accustomed to think of our “selves” as “other” than our creator for so long that finally having a picture of what we really are: the very matter that made us, feels unnatural.  How could we be “God”?

But this is not the complete novelty that it may seem. We have been anticipated in this paradox by a mediaeval mystic, condemned in his time by the Church, Johannes “Meister” Eckhart.  His insight into the full significance of participation in Being uniting him organically and genetically to “God” led him to say the following:

It was here [in unconditioned being] that I was myself, wanted myself and knew myself . . . and therefore I am my own first cause, . . . . To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever. . . . In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten. I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be! If I had not been, there would have been no god.[3]

These extraordinary statements from a Dominican friar in the fourteenth century remain incomprehensible without understanding what being meant to those theologians. “Being” was “God.”  To exist was to participate in Being.  The Church condemned Eckhart as “pantheist.” Now, in our times, we can grasp what Eckhart was trying to say.  For, from what we have learned from science, there is no distance between us and matter’s living energy.  The relationship to an imaginary distant Craftsman-god “out there” who designed and made us out of love and invited us to draw near, now has to be turned inward to our very organisms. “Drawing near” has lost its meaning for there is no distance between us; the transformation called for by this imagery is subtractive. We need to eliminate those misperceptions, negative attitudes and selfish behavior that keep us from seeing and acting on our identity with our creator.  We are our creator.  There is no original sin; we have inherited an original goodness that has become clouded over by the collective mistrust and paranoia of our insecure and grasping cultures.  Our creator, matter’s living energy ― LIFE out of an irrepressible desire for being-here, has assumed our form.  Our human material organisms ― our bodies, ourselves ― are the closest, most accessible source of information about what this material energy is  . . .  for WE ARE THAT and we have a privileged place from which to observe what it is and what it wants.

Maybe we never asked our bodies what they want.  What is the flesh we were taught never to trust crying out for?  What is human happiness?  Are we really missing something, or have we just been misled by fantasies about being bodiless “spirits” from another world that made us contemptuous and selfish about our earth made of clay and the vanishing bodies it has spawned?  Have we failed to set our sights on the self-transformations necessary for embracing ourselves and our planet home with gratitude and contentment, and a disciplined service, preferring instead to chase the wind from bitterness over the limited and fragile nature of it all?  I think our culture failed us.  Until we love what we are, we cannot afford to be selfless.

The potential for a new moral awakening and a new mysticism does not lie far under the surface of the new imagery provided by science.  We are what we are.  And embracing ourselves as we are can be as difficult and challenging as embracing another person  . . .  as they are.  Is the nuptial imagery actually an apt metaphor for self-embrace?

5.4  Self-embrace and the goal of psychoanalysis.

The similarity between the effects of the imagery change for our “religious” relationship and the goal of psychotherapy is striking.  In fact, except for the religious insistence that our source, while materially identical with ourselves, simultaneously transcends us in time and space, the effects appear to be the same in both: self-acceptance, self-embrace, accompanied by a selfless service of others, our material universe, our matrix.  This similarity has been acknowledged for a long time.[4]

What exactly the parallel psychological dynamics are is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is salient for us is that in both cases the transformations have to do with human beings’ relationship to themselves.  They are not due to the interactions with a divine Spouse-“person” who, like a lover, reacts positively to signs of love and fidelity from the “bride,” and withdraws affection when they are not forthcoming.  The “stages” that represent the “ascent” of the “self in transformation” are entirely predictable and dependent upon one’s embrace of oneself as an element in the universe of matter, which in turn is dependent upon the renunciation and self-discipline expended in the effort.  We come to respect and love ourselves because we see the sacrifices we are willing to make to realize our unity with all and rid ourselves of selfishness and pride.

The specific focus on the transcendence of matter’s energy over the limited organisms that it extrudes is the key difference that sets the religious view apart from the therapeutic, for it claims the relationship is not just simply to oneself alone. In loving myself, I am loving my source and all the other things, living and non-living, that it has evolved into.  Grasping this difference returns us to the difficulties we encountered earlier in trying to find images that accurately represented this dependent co-inherence ― a picture that illustrates the scholastics’ notion of participation in Being and the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self,” the human identity with the universe.  We found then, and repeat with emphasis here, that it is the fact that all things are the extrusion of matter’s living energy seeking ways to continue to be-here in a changing environment, and remaining as the structural material of the organisms that it has evolved, that grounds our identity with all things.

It is an image that helps us understand that when Paul used the word “God” he meant that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

 

[1] Jeffrey M. Courtright, “Is Trust Like an ‘Atmosphere’? Understanding the Phenomenon of Existential Trust.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 20:1 (Spring 2013).

[2] Acts 17. Epimenides lived in the 6th century bce.

[3] Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the Poor,” tr, Blakney, Harper, 1941, p. 231

[4] Herbert Fingarette, The Self in Transformation, Harper Torchbooks, NY, 1963, see esp. chapter 7, “Mystic Selflessness” p. 294 ff.

JOY

3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]

 

[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.

Trust

By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12

Materialism and Spirituality

Reflections on the fallacy of common assumptions

2000 words

For readers of spiritual literature it is not surprising to find statements that accept the existence of the human spirit as axiomatic. Sometimes such declarations are grounded on a more basic metaphysical worldview, but more often they are offered without further justification except for the force of practice, an unassailable ascetical premise. Belief in spirit is considered a dynamic necessity for spiritual growth, regardless of the metaphysics.

The message is implicitly anti-materialist and is justified as the fruit of experience not speculation. if you are serious about advancing spiritually, they claim, you have to acknowledge that you are NOT your body. Since control and training of bodily urges is central to all ascetical practice, it is a common assumption that the practitioner must confront the body as if it were alien ― something “other” than one’s self. I can control my body because I AM NOT my body. Thus belief in spirit enters by the back door.

The point of this essay is to affirm that the same dynamic of practice can and does function well and perhaps even better in a world that is exclusively material. This is more than an academic exercise or personal preference of mine. For, while the material energy that comprises all things is capable of producing an amazing and unexpected range of behavioral phenomena including what we have traditionally called “spiritual,” there is no evidence of the existence of a separate kind of “thing” called “spirit.” If, as science suggests, there is nothing but matter’s energy, then there must be a way to explain and sustain historical ascetical practice, otherwise thousands of years of attested human transformation would, implausibly, have to be dismissed as illusion. Whatever the metaphysics might be, the traditional practices work. If it is also true as science claims that we are not “other” than our bodies, then there must be a way to understand how both can be true.

Matter’s consistency with traditional goals

Two principal aims of traditional spirituality, the objectification of one’s own body for the purposes of its control and training, and the practitioner’s personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism, can be achieved in an exclusively material universe without having recourse to belief in a separable human “spirit,” or projecting the existence of a separate world.

First, my total identification as matter does not in any way necessitate that I identify exclusively with my particular body. As a matter of fact, identifying my body as comprised of the selfsame particles that comprise everything else in the material cosmos tends to de-emphasize the particularity that my intense spontaneous urges for self-protection and self-aggrandizement seem to imply. The feelings they elicit are ephemeral and therefore, spiritually speaking, their demands for satisfaction are bogus. If every particle of my organism is a generic entity, entirely replaceable by other particles of the same type, it is much more difficult to assign my feeling of unique­ness to anything more objective than the minor variations that differentiate my organism from other “things.” All “things,” not only human beings, are made of exactly the same clay.   The insistence on existence ― the drive to survive ― is common to us all. Nothing justifies the priority I am inclined to give myself.

The Buddhist claim that the metaphysically independent, stand-alone “self” is an illusion, is supported by this scientific description of reality as material energy. In fact, no “thing” of any kind in our universe is only “itself” according to science, since all things are comprised of the same material energy. Buddhists have been saying this at least since the Mahayana Reform at the beginning of the common era. Buddhists, however, do not adduce the common material base as the reason for it; rather, they point to the multiplicity of “causes” that conspire in the “arising” of any phenomenon. Regardless, the fact of universally shared matter implicitly includes the dynamic interactions ― the “dependent co-arising” ― characteristic of material elements. In both descriptions, the “self” is absorbed into a totality-in-process which Buddhist teachers like Thich Naht Hahn claim is the point of meditation: to come to a full cognitive-affective realization of one’s identity with all things. Knowing that I am pure material energy ― whole cloth with the rest of the universe ― accomplishes exactly that.

This brings us to the second supposed unique achievement of belief in spirit: the personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism. All major traditions ultimately agree on the goal of human transformation: universal love and compassion for all things.

Traditions like Christianity which are metaphysically dualist in nature (because they believe there are two distinct kinds of “stuff” in the universe, matter and spirit), assign the human self to the spiritual realm not just because human activity transcends the limits found in other entities and organisms, but because they attribute that transcendence to a metaphysical source: a separable “soul” that is made of spirit not matter. Spirit is further believed to be the “stuff” that comprises a multitude of invisible entities variously called angels or devils and includes the highest entity and source of all things spiritual: “God” theorized to be pure Spirit. By identifying oneself as spirit, therefore, one identifies oneself with “God” and thus is metaphysically predisposed to the kind of generosity, compassion and creativity characteristic of spirit. Besides, by realizing that one is not matter, domination of the body’s insistent urges is rationalized: there is a reason why the mind can and should dominate the body. Thus many Christians (and other dualist traditions) see belief in spirit as uniquely foundational for the pursuit of “perfection” which is to live morally, to love and to give as “God” does.

Other traditions, like Hinduism, which are more accurately described as a spiritual monism (because they believe that all things including matter are ultimately illusory manifestations of an underlying universal Spirit they call “Atman” or Self), claim that belief in spirit is simply acknowledgement of what is really real. The body is an illusion. The human “self” (atman) is the evolutionary emergence of the underlying Universal “Self.” And it is only through meditation that this identification can be brought to consciousness and firmly established in the practice of daily living with justice, love and compassion. The Great “Self” is thought to be “Mind” not matter, and therefore the human mind is similarly not matter. This grounds the dynamic of the ascetic pursuit of self-control leading to self-transformation into the “first principle.” Matter is ultimately resolvable into Spirit.

In contrast with both these traditions, Buddhists quite intentionally avoid ultimate metaphysical worldviews as distractions from and hindrances to the principal goal of ascetical practice: the realization and full acceptance of all reality including one’s “self” as impermanent.   The full acceptance of impermanence reality as it is ― is, for Buddhists, the end of sorrow and the beginning of compassion and loving kindness for all things. All suggestions that there is a way out of this impermanence for oneself are obstacles to nirvana which is identified with the “letting go” of any clinging or craving for permanence that would enthrone the “self” ― the conceit of “I am” ― which is the self-inflicted source of all suffering.

“Mendicants, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’.[1]

Some may think that by encouraging the practitioner’s identification with the totality, that Buddhists have somehow “found a way out” of the impermanence ― and that the totality represents a permanence that the parts do not. Not at all. For the impermanence evident in the flow of day to day reality is equally applicable to the totality as a totality. The totality itself is impermanent and, according to all scientific predictions, will eventually run out of energy and metamorphose into something that is utterly unrecognizable to current definitions and descriptions of reality.

Negative effects of belief in “spirit”

On the negative side, there are reasons why belief in spirit has been and may continue to be a damaging and dangerous thing. The feeling of alienation, what I have called in other places an autogenic disease, wherein the human organism identifies its own body as alien, can push efforts for the control of bodily urges into self destructive territory. Practitioners who believe they are spiritual “souls” trapped in dungeons of flesh are justified by the metaphysics alone in loathing, denying, negating, and ultimately punishing, torturing, damaging and even killing their own bodies. A case could be made for saying that even when carried out in the most rational and emotionally detached way, alienated dualist metaphysics guarantees that the efforts will be repressive and therefore ultimately ineffective. So that even from the point of view of bodily control, the belief is counter-indica­ted. Many of us reading this today have experienced in our own flesh the damaging effects of these beliefs. This is not just speculation.

Similarly, in the spiritist worldview what is true in one’s attitudes toward oneself is applied with all the more rigor when it comes to other people. Having accepted that self-loathing is part of self-control, the practitioner has little hesitation in inflicting pain on others with the justification that “it will give them a healthy distance on their bodies.” Humiliation, isolation, the denial of affection and constant denigration heaped on those for whom the ascetic has “spiritual” responsibility are deemed necessary for the lowering of self-esteem which is routinely confused with the egotistical self-projection of the mindless conatus. Thus belief in spirit tends to prevent the loving embrace of our organic nature, which in some traditions contradicts the doctrines of creation being the gift and image of a loving “God.”

We need also to be constantly reminded of the disastrous ecological implications of the belief in spirit. For by attributing all value to spirit and denigrating matter as inferior and corrupting of human aspirations, the earth itself with its multitude of other biological species, plant and animal, is disdained except as it might serve humankind. It is of absolutely no concern to the spiritist if any number of species “irrelevant” to human survival or utility were to disappear. No life form other than man is respected for itself. The result has been the ever increasing deterioration of the water, air, soil and climate that all species rely on for their sustenance. I don’t think it is far-fetched in the least to attribute our environmental crisis directly, if not exclusively, to belief in the existence of separable “spirit” and the anthropocentrism that resulted from it. It paradoxically spurred our self-serving technology (which has kept many of us alive well past our otherwise expected time-of-life) even as it conspired to disregard other species and the life-supporting resources of the planet.

We are not the gods we would like to think we are. The rest of creation does not have to bow down and serve us. We are matter ― an integral part of an impermanent material universe. Our survival is bound up with the survival of all.

Now, the point of this reflection has been to suggest that belief in a transcendent materialism dovetails with the dynamic goals of the spiritual aspirations of our many religious traditions. Does it prove that “there is nothing but matter”? No. But it shows that belief that I am my body does not necessarily inhibit my spiritual growth and that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is not a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual programs of the great religious traditions of our social history.

 

[1]Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses 22:102 (Kindle Locations 10696-10698).