the stone

The feeling of gratitude underpins optimism and the love of LIFE.

But it’s hard to feel grateful when your life-situation gets really, really bad, as it does for many people, especially toward the end.

Was Jesus feeling grateful when he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me”?

I don’t think so.

Feeling can be a trap. Much of what we call “spirituality” is generating feelings induced by assuming imagined postures ― part of our endless pursuit of self-construction.

Of course, gratitude is the point of it all, so really feeling grateful should be embraced with joy. But feelings come and go; and pursuing them is chasing the wind.

I may find myself at the last moment without a sense of gratitude. Who’s to say it won’t happen? The feeling of abandonment may be insuperable as it was for Jesus. What then?

Then, with Jesus I say, “Enough!

All attempts to establish the “self” I have built with my thoughts and feelings collapse, and I become, finally, what I really am in this vast universe of things:

zero.

I plummet like a stone.

The plummeting is what I do.

The rest is not my business.

 

Tony Equale

Guest Post: A Question of Catholic Honesty

by Daniel C. Maguire

Dr. Maguire retired in 2018 at age 89 as professor of moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was the past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. He was the visiting professor of moral theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, during the 1983-84 school year when this article was first published. This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 14-21, 1983-84 p. 803-807. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

The astonishing fact that this article is still eye-opening to most Catholics almost forty years after it was written, may serve as a grotesque symbol of the moribund state of Catholic intellectual life.

“In the ‘already but not yet’ of Christian existence, members of the church choose different paths to move toward the realization of the kingdom in history. Distinct moral options coexist as legitimate expressions of Christian choice.” This “prochoice” statement recently made by the Catholic bishops of the United States has nothing to do with abortion. Rather, it addresses the possibility of ending life on earth through nuclear war. On that cataclysmic issue, the bishops’ pastoral letter on peace warns against giving “a simple answer to complex questions.” It calls for “dialogue.” Hand-wringingly sensitive to divergent views, the bishops give all sides a hearing, even the winnable nuclear war hypothesis — a position they themselves find abhorrent. At times they merely raise questions when, given their own views, they might well have roundly condemned.

Change the topic to abortion, and nothing is the same. On this issue, the bishops move from the theological mainstream to the radical religious right. Here they have only a single word to offer us: No! No abortion ever — yesterday, today or tomorrow. No conceivable tragic complexity could ever make abortion moral. Here the eschaton is reached: there is no “already but not yet”; there is only “already.” “Distinct moral options” do not exist; only unqualified opposition to all abortions moves toward “the realization of the kingdom in history.” There is no need for dialogue with those who hold other views or with women who have faced abortion decisions. Indeed, as Marquette University theologian Dennis Doherty wrote some years ago, there seems to be no need even for prayer, since no further illumination, divine or otherwise, is anticipated.

Here we have no first, second, third and fourth drafts, no quibbles over “curbing” or “halting.” Here we have only “a simple answer to complex questions.” The fact that most Catholics, Protestants and Jews disagree with this unnuanced absolutism is irrelevant. The moral position of those who hold that not every abortion is murder is treated as worthless. Moreover, the bishops would outlaw all disagreement with their view if they could, whether by way of the Buckley-Hatfield amendment, the Helms-Hyde bill, or the Hatch amendment.

As a Catholic theologian, I find this situation abhorrent and unworthy of the richness of the Roman Catholic traditions that have nourished me. I indict not only the bishops, but also the “petulant silence” (Beverly Harrison’s phrase) or indifference of many Catholic theologians who recognize the morality of certain abortions but will not address the subject publicly. I indict also the male-dominated liberal Catholic press which does too little to dissipate the myth of a Catholic monolith on abortion. It is a theological fact of life that there is no one normative Catholic position on abortion. The truth is insufficiently known in the American polity because it is insufficiently acknowledged by American Catholic voices.

This misconception leads not only to injustice but to civil threat since non-Catholic as well as Catholic citizens are affected by it. The erroneous belief that the Catholic quarter of the American citizenry unanimously opposes all abortions influences legislative and judicial decisions, including specific choices such as denying abortion funding for poor women. The general public is also affected in those communities where Catholic hospitals are the only health care facilities. The reproductive rights of people living in such communities are curtailed if (as is common) their hospital is administratively locked into the ultraconservative view on abortion, and even on such reproductive issues as tubal ligation and contraception. Physicians practicing at such hospitals are compromised. Academic freedom is frequently inhibited at Catholic universities and colleges — public agencies that often are federal contractors — with consequent injustice to the students and to the taxpayers. (In the face of all of this, non-Catholic citizens have been surprisingly and — I dare aver — uncourageously polite.)

Ten years ago, Catholic theologian Charles Curran stated in the Jurist (32:183 [1973]) that “there is a sizable and growing number of Catholic theologians who do disagree with some aspects of the officially proposed Catholic teaching that direct abortion from the time of conception is always wrong.” That “sizable number” has been growing since then despite the inhibiting atmosphere. It is safe to say that only a minority of Catholic theologians would argue that all abortions are immoral, though many will not touch the subject for fear of losing their academic positions. (As one woman professor at a large eastern Catholic university said, “I could announce that I had become a communist without causing a stir, but if I defended Roe v. Wade [the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States], I would not get tenure.”)

To many, the expression “Catholic pluralism” sounds like a contradiction in terms. The Catholic system, however, does have a method for ensuring a liberal pluralism in moral matters: a system called “probabilism.” While it is virtually unknown to most Catholics, probabilism became standard equipment in Catholic moral theology during the 17th century. It applies to situations where a rigorous consensus breaks down and people begin to ask when they may in good conscience act on the liberal dissenting view — precisely the situation with regard to abortion today.

Probabilism was based on the insight that a doubtful moral obligation may not be imposed as though it were certain. “Where there is doubt, there is freedom” (Ubi dubium, ibi libertas) was its cardinal principle. It gave Catholics the right to dissent from hierarchical church teaching on a moral matter, if they could achieve “solid probability,” a technical term. Solid probability could come about in two ways: intrinsically, in a do-it-yourself fashion, when a person prayerfully discovered in his or her conscience “cogent,” nonfrivolous reasons for dissenting from the hierarchically supported view; or extrinsically, when “five or six theologians of stature held the liberal dissenting view, even though all other Catholic theologians, including the pope, disagreed. Church discipline required priest confessors who knew that a probable opinion existed to so advise persons in confession even if they themselves disagreed with it.

In a very traditional book, Moral and Pastoral Theology, written 50 years ago for the training of seminarians, Henry Davis, S.J., touched on the wisdom of probabilism by admitting that since “we cannot always get metaphysical certainty” in moral matters, we must settle for consenting “freely and reasonably, to sufficiently cogent reasons.”

Three things are noteworthy about probabilism: (1) a probable, opinion which allows dissent from the hierarchically maintained rigorous view is entirely based on insight — one’s own or that of at least five or six experts. It is not based on permission, and it cannot be forbidden. (2) No moral debate — -and that includes the abortion debate — is beyond the scope of a probabilistic solution. To quote Father Davis again: “It is the merit of Probabilism that there are no exceptions whatever to its application; once given a really probable reason for the lawfulness of an action in a particular case, though contrary reasons may be stronger, there are no occasions on which I may not act in accordance with the good probable reason that I have found.” (3) Probabilism is theologically deep, going back to John and Paul’s scriptural teaching that Spirit-filled persons are “taught of God,” and to Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine that the primary law for the believer is the grace of the Holy Spirit poured into the heart, while all written law — including even Scripture, as well as the teachings of the popes and councils — is secondary. Probabilism allows one to dissent from the secondary through appeal to the primary teaching of the Spirit of God. It is dangerous, of course, but it is also biblical and thoroughly Catholic.

There are far more than five or six Catholic theologians today who approve abortions under a range of circumstances, and there are many spiritual and good people who find “cogent,” nonfrivolous reasons to disagree with the hierarchy’s absolutism on this issue. This makes their disagreement a “solidly probable” and thoroughly respectable Catholic viewpoint. Abortion is always tragic, but the tragedy of abortion is not always immoral.

The Bible does not forbid abortion. Rather, the prohibition came from theological and biological views that were seriously deficient in a number of ways and that have been largely abandoned. There are at least nine reasons why the old taboo has lost its footing in today’s Catholic moral theology. In a 1970 article “A Protestant Ethical Approach,” in The Morality of Abortion (with which few Catholic theologians would quarrel), Protestant theologian James Gustafson pointed out five of the foundational defects in the traditional Catholic arguments against all abortions: (1) These arguments relied on “an external judge” who would paternalistically “claim the right to judge the past actions of others as morally right or wrong,” with insufficient concern for the experience of and impact on mothers, physicians, families and society. (2) The old arguments were heavily “juridical,” and, as such, marked by “a low tolerance for moral ambiguity.” (3) The traditional arguments were excessively “physical” in focus, with insufficient attention to “other aspects of human life.” (I would add that the tradition did not have the advantage of modern efforts to define personhood more relationally. The definition of person is obviously central to the abortion question.) (4) The arguments were “rationalistic,” with necessary nuances “squeezed out” by “timeless abstractions” which took the traditional Catholic reasoning “far from life.” (5) The arguments were naturalistic and did not put “the great themes of the Christian faith at a more central place in the discussion.” It would be possible to parallel Gustafson’s fair and careful criticisms with exhortations from the Second Vatican Council, which urged correctives in precisely these areas.

Other criticisms can be added to Gustafson’s list: (6) The theology that produced the traditional ban on all abortions was not ecumenically sensitive. The witness of Protestant Christians was, to say the least, underesteemed. Vatican II condemned such an approach and insisted that Protestants are “joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them also He gives His gifts and graces, and is thereby operative among them with His sanctifying power.” The bishops and others who condemn all abortion tout court should show some honest readiness to listen in the halls of conscience to Protestant views on abortion before they try to outlaw them in the halls of Congress.

(7) Furthermore, the old theology of abortion proceeded from a primitive knowledge of biology. The ovum was not discovered until the 19th century. Because modern embryology was unknown to the tradition, the traditional arguments were spawned in ignorance of such things as twinning and recombination in primitive fetal tissue and of the development of the cortex.

On the other hand, the teachings about abortion contained some remarkable scientific premonitions, including the insight that the early fetus could not have personal status. Said St. Augustine: “The law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide. For there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation when it is not formed in flesh and so is not endowed with sense.” As Joseph Donceel, S.J., notes, up until the end of the 18th century “the law of the Roman Catholic Church forbade one to baptize an aborted fetus that showed no human shape or outline.” If it were a personal human being, it would deserve baptism. On the question of a rational soul entering the fetus, Donceel notes that Thomas Aquinas “spoke of six weeks for the male embryo and three months for the female embryo.” In Aquinas’s hylomorphic theory, the matter had to be ready to receive the appropriate form. According to such principles, as Rosemary Ruether points out, “Thomas Aquinas might well have had to place the point of human ensoulment in the last trimester if he had been acquainted with modern embryology.”

If the bishops and other negative absolutists would speak of tradition, let them speak of it in its full ambiguity and subtlety, instead of acting as though the tradition were a simplistic, Platonic negative floating through time untouched by contradiction, nuance or complexity.

(8) Vatican II urged priests and church officers to have “continuous dialogue with the laity.” The arguments prohibiting all abortion did not grow out of such dialogue, nor are the bishops in dialogue today. If they were, they would find that few are dancing to the episcopal piping. A November 1982 Yankelovich poll of Catholic women shows that fewer than one-fifth would call abortion morally wrong if a woman has been raped, if her health is at risk, or if she is carrying a genetically damaged fetus. Only 27 per cent judge abortion as wrong when a physically handicapped woman becomes pregnant. A majority of Catholic women would allow a teen-ager, a welfare mother who can’t work, or a married woman who already has a large family to have an abortion.

Since the tradition has been shaped by the inseminators of the species (all Catholic theologians, priests and bishops have been men), is the implication that there is no value in the witness of the bearers? Why has all authority on this issue been assumed by men who have not been assigned by biology to bear children or by history to rear them? Are the Catholic women who disagree with the bishops all weak-minded or evil? Is it possible that not a single Catholic bishop can see any ambiguity in any abortion decision? The bishops are not unsubtle or unintelligent, and their pastoral letter on peace shows a surefooted approach to complexity. Their apparent 100 per cent unanimity against all abortion is neither admirable nor even plausible. It seems, rather, imposed.

(9) This leads to the question of sin and sexism. Beverly Harrison (professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York) charges that “much discussion of abortion betrays the heavy hand of the hatred of women.” Are the negative absolutists sinlessly immune to that criticism? Since the so-called “prolife” movement is not dominated by vegetarian pacifists who find even nonpersonal life sacred, is the “prolife” fetal fixation innocent? Does it not make the fertilized egg the legal and moral peer of a woman? Indeed, in the moral calculus of those who oppose all abortion, does not the potential person outweigh the actual person of the woman? Why is the intense concern over the 1.5 million abortions not matched by an equal concern over the male-related causes of these 1.5 million unwanted pregnancies? Has the abortion ban been miraculously immune to the sexism rife in Christian history?

Feminist scholars have documented the long record of men’s efforts to control the sexuality and reproductivity of women. Laws showcase our biases. Is there no sexist bias in the new Catholic Code of Canon Law? Is that code for life or against women’s control of their reproductivity? After all, canon law excommunicates a person for aborting a fertilized egg, but not for killing a baby after birth. One senses here an agenda other than the simple concern for life. What obsessions are operating? A person could push the nuclear button and blow the ozone lid off the earth or assassinate the president (but not the pope) without being excommunicated. But aborting a five-week-old precerebrate, prepersonal fetus would excommunicate him or her. May we uncritically allow such an embarrassing position to posture as “prolife”? Does it not assume that women cannot be trusted to make honorable decisions, and that only male-made laws and male-controlled funding can make women responsible and moral about their reproductivity?

The moral dilemma of choosing whether to have an abortion faces only some women between their teens and their 40s. The self-styled “prolife” movement is made up mainly of men and postfertile women. Is there nothing suspicious about passionately locating one’s orthodoxy in an area where one will never be personally challenged or inconvenienced?

A moral opinion merits respectable debate if it is supported by serious reasons which commend themselves to many people and if it has been endorsed by a number of reputable religious or other humanitarian bodies. Note the two requirements: good reasons and reliable authorities. The principle of respectable debate is based on some confidence in the capacity of free minds to come to the truth, and on a distrust of authoritarian shortcuts to consensus and uniformity. This principle is integral to American political thought and to the Catholic doctrine of probabilism. On the other hand, prohibition represents a despairing effort to compel those whom one cannot convince; it can only raise new and unnecessary doubts about Catholic compatibility with democratic political life.

But what of legislators who personally believe that all abortion is wrong? Those legislators must recognize that it is not their function to impose their own private moral beliefs on a pluralistic society. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both found prostitution morally repugnant, but felt that it should be legalized for the greater good of the society. St. Thomas wryly but wisely suggested that a good legislator should imitate God, who could eliminate certain evils but does not do so for the sake of the greater good. The greater good supported by the principle of respectable debate is the good of a free society where conscience is not unduly constrained on complex matters where good persons disagree. Thus a Catholic legislator who judges all abortions to be immoral may in good conscience support the decisions of Roe v. Wade, since that ruling is permissive rather than coercive. It forces no one to have an abortion, while it respects the moral freedom of those who judge some abortions to be moral.

Good government insists that essential freedoms be denied to no one. Essential freedoms concern basic goods such as the right to marry, the right to a trial by jury, the right to vote, the right to some education and the right to bear or not to bear children. The right not to bear children includes abortion as a means of last resort. Concerning such goods, government should not act to limit freedom along income lines, and should ensure that poverty takes no essential freedoms from any citizen. Furthermore, the denial of abortion funding to poor women is not a neutral stance, but a natalist one. The government takes sides on the abortion debate by continuing to pay for births while denying poor women funds for the abortion alternative that is available to the rich. Funding cutbacks are also forcing many to have later abortions, since they have to spend some months scraping up the funds denied them by the government. The denial of funding is an elitist denial of moral freedom to the poor and a stimulus for later or unsafe abortions.

Abortion has become the Catholic orthodoxy’s stakeout. In January 1983, California Bishop Joseph Madera threatened excommunication for “lawmakers who support the effective ejection from the womb of an unviable fetus.” (His warning also extended to “owners and managers of drugstores” where abortion-related materials are sold.) In a bypass of due process, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour was pressured out of her identity as a Sister of Mercy because her work for the poor of Michigan involved some funding for abortions. Despite his distinguished record in working for justice and peace, Robert Drinan, S.J., was ordered out of politics by the most politically involved pope of recent memory. I am not alone in seeing a link between this and the, antecedent right-wing furor over Father Drinan’s position on abortion funding. The 4,000 Sisters of Mercy (who operate the second-largest hospital system in the U.S., after the Veterans Administration) were ordered, under threat of ecclesiastical penalties, to abandon their plan to permit tubal ligations in their hospitals. A Washington, D.C., group called Catholics for Free Choice had its paid advertisements turned down by Commonweal, the National Catholic Reporter and America. This group is not promoting abortions, but simply honestly acknowledging Catholic pluralism on the issue. (Interestingly, the only “secular” magazine to refuse their advertisement was the National Review.) In June 1983, Lynn Hilliard, a part-time nurse in a Winnipeg, Manitoba, clinic where abortions are performed, had her planned marriage in a Catholic parish peremptorily canceled by Archbishop Adam Exner two weeks before the event, even though the archbishop admitted he did not know whether Ms. Hilliard was formally responsible for any abortions. In the face of all this injustice, Catholic theologians remain remarkably silent; they exhibit no signs of anger. Seven hundred years ago, Thomas Aquinas lamented that we had no name for the virtue of anger in our religious lexicon. He quoted the words of St. John Chrysostom, words that are still pertinent today: “Whoever is without anger, when there is cause for anger, sins.”

 

The Twilight of the Theologians

Aug 24, 2020

We often hear people complain about the Catholic hierarchy. And even more often we hear from progressives that the failure of Catholics in general to support the policies they espouse is due to the reactionary nature of the bishops put in place by 40 years of reactionary popes. Both John Paul II (1978-2005) and his successor Benedict (2005-2013) were hell-bent on preserving Tridentine Catholicism against what they saw as its unravelling by Vatican II.

These complaints are not just the expression of life-style preference. They have serious political consequences in real time, for in part due to the conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy, 54% of Catholic voters voted for Donald Trump in 2016. And it hardly needs to be said that the issue pushed by the hierarchy as the undebatable reason for such a choice was access to abortion. The Catholic hierarchy condemns abortion as intrinsically evil in the most uncompromising terms. (But it should be noted in passing that the bishops also condemn artificial birth control as “intrinsically evil.” We will return to this later.)

The overblown importance of the abortion issue in the American political scene represents a strange and unexpected entry of religion into politics in a way that the authors of the “separation of Church and State” did not anticipate. Religion has entered not as an institution but as the voice of “God.” And, true to predictions, religion has distorted the political process by introducing an issue that was not amenable to debate and compromise ― the two foundational pillars of democratic government. We can only govern ourselves if we have control over what we decide to enact into law. If what is being discussed is, in fact, beyond our control because it is not debatable or open to compromise, then it is not within the purview of solution by us ― the people. It is a decision already made by some outside agent who takes precedence over the will of the people. Such a situation represents the end of democratic self-governance.

While all kinds of constitutional maneuvers can limit the legislative reach of such non-debatable issues, the fact remains that a demand considered absolute and undebatable because commanded by “God” himself, exercises a controlling influence over the minds and decisions of individuals. The constitution may control what laws can be passed, but it cannot control what individual people think and who they vote for. If an issue as morally absolute and uncompromising as abortion is seen to be part of a package of policy choices none of which makes anywhere near the absolute demand of the abortion choice, morally minded individuals have no alternative. Even if they have strong opinions about the other policies being offered, the fact of the presence in the package of the one absolute and undebatable demand settles the choice in practice.

Many blame the bishops, but there are other actors in this drama. The ones I want to focus on in this essay are the theologians.

Theologians

Theologians are an ancient and highly respected sector of Catholic society whose influence in matters of Christian faith and morals goes back to the New Testament itself. Not only the letters of the apostles but the very gospels themselves whose narratives differ one from another in ways that clearly reveal an interpretative emphasis, must be acknowledged as “theology.” Early Greek theologians like Origen of Alexandria, who died in 253, shaped Christian thinking for centuries after his death. Roman theologian Augustine of Hippo (+430) elaborated theological interpretations that determined the significance of the sacraments, baptism, grace, clerical authority and human sexuality for a thousand years. Today the broad outlines of the Catholic religion from the time of the Reformation until now was the work of mediaeval theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Theologians have always played the role of foil for the bishops, often risking and suffering condemnation and silencing for their outspoken challenge to the authorities. Of course it was to be expected. Who was better acquainted with the sources and traditions than the theologians, better in most case than the bishops. They were a constant check on the distortions of doctrine that authority was wont to use to enhance its power.

What is unique about our time, especially here in the United States, is that the theologians have fallen silent. Almost universally, they work as professors in Catholic institutions of higher learning and not only their jobs but also their very careers are totally dependent on the benepacitum of the bishops who control those institutions. The role of counterweight to the bishops’ misuse of “Christian truth,” when in rare cases it was exercised in the United States, was met with a rejection from the hierarchy that terminated careers. Here in the United States moral theologian Charles Curran was fired from his teaching position at Catholic University in Washington DC, and prohibited from teaching in any other Catholic institution because of his fearless support of the Christian use of contraception, denying the claim that such use was “intrinsically evil.” When Jesuit Roger Haight dared suggest that the primary way Jesus was divine was as a human symbol of “God,” he was silenced repeatedly and forbidden to teach or write on “Christology” his area of expertise and competence.

It doesn’t take many examples of this kind before the entire corps of theologians “gets it.” Open your mouth about issues the bishops do not want discussed and you will no longer be a Catholic Theologian. Many whose livelihood and careers have been built on years of study and exclusive dedication to theological matters are not capable of surviving being fired and blacklisted. Hence their silence. It’s as if night has descended on the profession itself. They can no longer function as a check to episcopal control and doctrinal distortion. When the great William of Ockham challenged Pope John XXII in the 14th century and was excommunicated, he was able to find refuge with the Emperor who protected him and supported him in his work. Those days are gone. There are no patrons to protect dissident theologians and their pursuit of the truth is fatally compromised.

So Catholics who might be inclined to question the hierarchy’s absolute prohibition against all abortion and the consequent demand to vote only for those who concur, find no moral relief or support among the theologians. Those trained and disciplined teachers who might have helped laymen form a broader conscience that lifted the burden of false obligation and gave them the freedom to choose, maintain a stony silence, not because they agree with the bishops, but because they are terrified of losing their jobs and livelihoods. I am not even mentioning those special few “independents” among the theologians who sell sermonettes directly to paying customers. These “spiritual gurus” are quite aware of the economic potential of the “Catholic brand” they peddle and the traditional doctrines that are signposts of “Catholicity.” They recognize the prestige they enjoy as a trickle-down effect of being Catholic in good-standing and they have no intention of jeopardizing their status by exploring new options just because of the truth. Their silence hides a venality that is, in my opinion, altogether reprehensible.

Abortion isn’t the only issue; contraception falls into the same category. Take the recent (July 2020) Supreme Court ruling on “religious freedom” in which the religious protagonist in partnership with the Trump administration were the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” These Catholic nuns argued that it violated their religious freedom to have to support contraception for their employees in any form, even though in the ACA the direct burden of providing the contraceptive care was shifted to a third party (the insurance company). The Sisters were obviously basing their objection on the Catholic “doctrine” that contraception is “intrinsically evil” as declared by Paul VI in 1968. They claimed to be following their religion.

This case is a heinous example of Catholic theologians’ cowardice and irresponsibility. A Pew Research Center Report of Sept 28, 2016 found that 89% of Catholics said that contraception “was either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all.” For the Little Sisters to claim that the prohibition is “Catholic Doctrine” when clearly almost all Catholics do not, is egregious enough in itself. It suggests a collusion of the American Catholic hierarchy with the Trump administration in providing a “unimpeachable” religious partner for Trump’s well known efforts to dismantle the ACA. Was there no American Catholic theologian who could denounce this travesty, hypocrisy and political complicity on theological grounds, namely that the Catholic people did not accept it? The sensus fidelium is an authentic source of “truth” in Catholic tradition and has a bearing on the formation of a moral conscience. Did any theologian bring it forward? No. Not even one.

But contraception is small potatoes next to abortion. Catholics have been able to see through the absurd mediaeval arguments calling contraception, “intrinsically evil,” after all it is obviously the surest and safest way to avoid unwanted pregnancies which are the primary reasons for abortions. But the arguments surrounding abortion are another thing. They cannot be dismissed so easily. in the absence of any guidance from the theologians helping Catholics to form their conscience, laypeople are defenseless against those arguments, however specious they may in fact be.

What I am going to offer here is an approach to the abortion issue that lays out a theoretical groundwork for a practical compromise. I believe it is exactly the kind of argument that a Cath­o­lic theologian could bring forward because it is not averse to confronting the unspoken and up-to-now unchallengeable assumptions ― the supposedly undebatable premises ― behind the current Catholic position. Such a challenge coming from anywhere else than from a theologian would be considered inappropriate and impertinent.

  1. Acknowledging “metaphysical ignorance.”

The very first step involves acknowledging that the assumption of “personhood” from the instant of fertilization is untenable. It was a metaphysical projection that utilized a mediaeval mental mechanism in order to bypass an insuperable doubt and allow for practical choice. Understanding the thinking involved here is at the heart of the matter. Let’s unpack this.

Mediaeval Christians believed that human beings were constructed of two mutually opposed substances, spirit and matter, which concretely speaking were soul and body. Each was the complete contrary of the other but “God” made them exist together “unnaturally” in the human individual. However the “person” was to be found primarily in the soul which was believed to be able to exist separate from the body and which was the seat of the characteristically spiritual human abilities of thinking and willing. Without a “soul” there was no “person.” Moreover it was believed that the act of copulation, being purely physical, could not possibly be responsible for the creation of the soul which was “spirit.” Only “God” could make a spirit and so it was thought that the soul was created directly and personally by “God” without assistance from the parents and “God,” personally, “infused” the soul into the human body thus creating a human being. All agreed on these assumptions, and they are still to be found today in the Vatican catechism of 1992.

Where disagreement arose was determining the “moment” when “God” infused the soul into the developing body. This was important because before that moment there was no human being there and terminating life would not be murder. Many believed that the soul was infused only when the “form” of the embryo became recognizable as a human being (at about six months of pregnancy). Others believed it was at the moment of conception. But there were no theoretical grounds to resolve the issue.

At that point everyone recognized that they had reached an impasse. In order to resolve the logjam, not theoretically but practically, they created a mental mechanism that allowed them to get around it. They decided that ad cautelam (“just in case”), the issue should be arbitrarily decided for the moment of conception. It meant that, even though all acknowledged there was no solid proof, given the slightest possibility that the fertilized egg has a human soul, abortion should be avoided so as to not take the life of another human being. (The fact that with a high percentage of miscarriages “nature” took such life in great numbers did not enter into their calculations).

In one sense, nothing has changed from those days. We still do not have the vaguest idea when the “soul” is infused by “God,” and there is still no way of resolving that ignorance. But in another sense, everything has changed because (1) the very idea of the “soul” being an immortal substance separate from the body is seriously challenged in Catholic thought. Such a Platonic (pagan) suggestion would render meaningless the “resurrection of the body” heralded in all the creeds which in turn reflect the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead bodily, in his own flesh, (2) the idea that human copulation is not fully responsible for the initiation and installation of everything required for the fertilized ovum to become a full human being, has come to be completely discarded. “God,” in Thomistic terms, does not interfere in or displace the operations of secondary causality. Thus the mediaeval “caution” is shorn of its theoretical underpinnings and stands naked as a mere “mental trick” used to get around an ignorance that is totally beyond resolution. There was never any “metaphysical” clarity about the presence of a human “person” from the moment of conception even in the middle ages, and so the very decision to use “metaphysics,” (the inner constituents of the human individual, body and soul) to determine what is a “person” and what is not, is hopelessly without a shred of foundation. That procedure cannot yield clear knowledge. The approach should be abandoned altogether. It is pure projection. Metaphysically speaking we are totally ignorant of what constitutes a human being. This “metaphysical ignorance” should be acknowledged; and it is the place of the theologians who understand and can explain it to insist on it.

Given all this, it is hardly “open and shut” to say that all abortion is murder. Metaphysically speaking we are not even sure what a “person” is at this level of life. But please note: as far as our tradition is concerned we are talking about a theoretical (theological) reversal of huge proportions. An emotional communitarian appeal to “compromise” for the sake of “living in harmony in a diverse society” will not cut it. A demand for a re-thinking of basics at this level requires the credentialed credibility that only a trained and recognized professional can provide. Hence the need for the theologian. This argument does not carry its own proof. It needs to be presented by experts that people trust to know what they’re talking about and who bring the weight of their expertise and experience to the question. Of course it can be anticipated that it will be countered by the bishops. Clearly, at first it will not win the day. But simply introducing another and unquestionably valid way of looking at the issue, is liberating for the conscience of the ordinary Catholic. The clarification of doctrine necessary to make the faith credible is the primary job of the theologian. Their work in a classroom is secondary.

  1. Embracing a social definition of “person.”

Shifting the definition of “person” from the metaphysical plane (which is a conjecture dependent on the philosophical system you choose), to the social plane where in fact “persons” have rights and obligations, is quite appropriate in this case because abortion is about the right to life, and the obligation of society to protect it. Once we accept the premise that the “persons” that society has an obligation to protect must be human beings with bodies, the solutions begin to suggest themselves.

In order to commit murder, you have to kill a body. According to our (questionable) tradition, a “soul” being immortal cannot be killed. Therefore society has to be physically capable of defending the body of every organism that claims to be a “person” with a right to protection. I contend that the embryo that cannot live outside the womb cannot be called a “person” with a right to protection because it does not have the physical independence ― a body capable of existing on its own ― that could be protected. In other words, pre-viable embryos cannot be physically protected by society because they are not in any identifiable way independent of the mother’s organism; they remain subject to the forces ― biological, emotional, moral ― arising in the mother that bear on its continued life. No intervention from outside the mother can substitute for her refusal to allow the embryo to grow within her. The fetus is utterly defenseless because it is simply part of her body. Without the acquiescence of the mother, there is no way society can protect the developing human organism that is not capable of living on its own outside the womb. The pre-viable fetus is so totally one with the metabolic processes of the mother, that if it were taken out of the womb at that level of development, it could not live under any circumstances, no matter how technologically advanced the interventions might be. Therefore, I say there is no obligation for society to provide protection because protection is beyond its capabilities. You cannot oblige the impossible.

So once we accept the reality that a “person” and the society it lives in have mutual rights and obligations, we realize that the developing fetus cannot be considered a “person” because the mutuality that is constitutive of the social bond does not exist. The only one that can protect the life of the non-viable fetus is the mother. The coercion envisioned in “anti-abortion” legislation cannot in any way physically stop the mother from aborting that fetus while it is only part of her body. It is only when the fetus can live without the mother ― albeit with high tech life-support devices ― that society has the obligation to step in and provide what the mother refuses to provide to this newly independent “person.”

Therefore what are called “protections for the unborn” currently contemplated by the anti-abortionists, are in fact only punishments after the fact imposed on the mother who aborts a living embryo. It could only be called “protection” if you believe that punishment of mother “A” will necessarily translate into a deterrent for mother “B.” If there is no guarantee of deterrence (and how could there be?) punishment then comes down to society satisfying a sadistic need to make people suffer who have flouted its commands.

  1. The denial of medical assistance and the prohibition of contraception

One of the principal “fall-outs” of the criminalization of abortion is the denial of medical assistance to the woman who has decided to abort her pregnancy. As we have seen, no legislation can stop someone from aborting the embryo she carries. The only thing other than punishing the non-compliant mother that such a law accomplishes is to prevent doctors and health care professionals from providing the kind of help a woman needs to make sure she doesn’t end up killing or permanently maiming herself in the process. This speaks for itself. I would hope there is no theologian, even one that might favor criminalization, that thinks the denial of such services should be part of the corrective. Yet word from the theological community, even on such a no-brainer humanitarian aspect of the matter, is not forthcoming. Naturally not. They are Catholics, and Catholics put their self-idolizing church, which they think is “God,” above humanity even when it is not a matter of losing their jobs. Would bishops fire a theologian for seeking to humanize anti-abortion legislation? The inhumanity here is religiously inspired. Not unlike the days of the Inquisition, Catholics will kill you or let you die if you don’t agree with their “truth.”

The same holds true, and even more so, with the question of contraception. The history of this specifically Catholic tragedy is too well known to repeat here. But the fact that fifty years after the unilaterally decided Papal condemnation of contraception as “intrinsically evil,” the Catholic people have universally rejected that condemnation and prohibition, is direct and legitimate material for the theologian. In Catholic tradition the sensus fidelium the “sense of the faithful,”(“sobornost” in the Greek Church) was one of the determinants of universal doctrine and Church law. It echoes the ancient patristic litmus test for orthodox doctrine as: quid creditur semper, ubique et ab omnibus, “what is believed always, everywhere, by everybody.” The sensus fidelium is exactly the “proper object” of the theologian and a most significant factor in the formation of moral conscience.

The complete abandonment by theologians of this millennial mechanism of doctrinal sanity corresponds to the loss of participative community at all levels of Catholic life. The exclusion of women, the marginalization of laypeople, the supine obedience of clerical functionaries, the autocratic unaccountability of the bishops, the unwillingness to sever the Tridentine umbilical cord to the “trade mark” brand recognition of the middle ages ― together with the disappearance of the role of the theologians, all amount to the end of Catholicism as a living religion. It has become a lifeless business enterprise selling its mediaeval brands. The Church is an international real estate corporation of immense wealth, whose financial managers are the bishops. It is limited to the exercise of the kind of power that comes from wealth alone, incapable of inspiring followers to embrace the compassion and common sense legal freedom of the man it claims as its founder.

The utter absurdity of the prohibition of contraception by a Church which claims to want to reduce abortions by any means necessary, suggests that maybe the hierarchy enjoys occupying the moral high ground, condemning people for abortions that could have been prevented by encouraging the use of contraceptives. Were contraceptives ever to eliminate abortions, who would the Church have to condemn? What excuse would it have to raise its voice in righteous thunder and put on display its claim to be “God’s” voice on earth? In order to sustain its trade mark of moral infallibility and religious supremacy, there must be “sin” and there must be “error.” And if it’s not there, my suspicion is, the Church will find a way to put it there.

 

PSALM 2

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book of commentary on the psalms prayed from the perspective of transcendent materialism.

1,700 words

Background. A royal psalm for the accession of a new king. It is focused on affirming the legitimacy of the king by establishing his choice by Yahweh. Canaanite tributaries are warned not to use the occasion to revolt. After the exile when Israel had no subordinates it would have been taken to refer to a future fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise of ascendancy to David’s successors. Yahweh, after all, is the universal God of creation and disposes of all “the nations” as he sees fit. The universal dominion of Yahweh’s king is rooted in the promises to David, hence it was assimilated into the Messianic expectations. Israel’s kings are Yahweh’s anointed, his adop­ted sons following a Mesopotamian model, therefore to oppose the king is to oppose Yahweh and face his destructive wrath.

Roland Murphy [Jerome Biblical Commentary, OT, p. 526a] says “in one of the variant readings to Acts 13:33, Psalm 2 is called the first psalm.” This suggests that for some pre-Christian Hebrew manuscripts, placing the royal psalm of Yahweh’s promises to David at the beginning of the book established the theme of the entire collection. It helps us understand why Jewish Christians, for whom belief that Jesus was the messiah was believed confirmed by a chain of messianic prophesies that traditionally served for Jewish reflection and anticipation, would have emphatically applied this psalm both to Christ and to the (royal) persons designated to rule in his name subsequent to the creation of the Roman-Christian theocracy in the fourth century.

Augustine saw Christ as the king, and the “bonds” and “cords” of control as the Christian religion imposed on all the lands and peoples of the Roman Empire: “the Name and rule of Christ is to pervade posterity and possess all nations.” [St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms, “Psalm 2,” Kindle Location 280. Kindle Edition.]

Famously set to triumphant music by Handel in 1742 as part of the Messiah oratorio, this psalm in the King James version has entered western culture as an affirmation of the Christian belief in the universal dominion of Christ and by implication the supremacy of the Christian religion and its adherents. Christian nations like England, where Handel was living when he composed the music, were even then eagerly conquering, colonizing and plundering people all over the globe in the name of Christian mission.

Reflection. The fixed features of this ancient poem have all changed for us. We know that it is not Yahweh but LIFE ― living matter ― that has created and enlivens this universe. If Christians insist on thinking of Christ as the psalmist’s king, we know it can no longer be taken as a prophetic literalism the way they have traditionally understood it. The synoptic gospels use verse 7 of this psalm, “you are my son, this day I have begotten you,” to describe the vision that launched Jesus’ career as rabbi. But the psalmist did not intend that, and neither do we. Jesus is not the “only-begotten son” of LIFE itself requiring that all people take him as model and teacher or submit to the Church that claims to represent him. Jesus is “son,” yes, but just like the rest of us. We are all the offspring of LIFE. Jesus unreservedly embraced LIFE as his “father” and when we do the same we join with him as agents of LIFE along with any other human being who makes that choice. We are free to accept Jesus as model and teacher, but the LIFE he reveals is the same LIFE that enlivens all of us, regardless of religious tradition. Jesus is LIFE the way we all are: he displays LIFE’s contours in his moral choices, affective attitudes and social commitments. Like all of us Jesus was enlivened by matter’s living intelligent human energy thirsty for justice … the difference, perhaps, was the depth of his fidelity to LIFE’s selfless profligate generosity; but it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Jesus can be a model for us because he is made of exactly the same clay as we are.

We reject the theocratic implications of Augustine’s reading. We are completely opposed to the belief that a preeminent empire or religious institution has been chosen by LIFE as its exclusive agent and given hegemony over the human race. We do not believe LIFE chooses rulers or religions to act in its name, any more than it intervenes with the processes of plate tectonics to prevent earthquakes. LIFE acts by enlivening the people who confer legitimacy on the systems of governance and religious practices that they themselves have chosen to express and protect LIFE, just as LIFE sustains the natural order in every respect without interference or interruption. There are no miracles … not even moral, psychological ones.

It cannot be emphasized enough: the tribalism that is intrinsically embedded in the ancient Hebrew view of the world … a tribalism upgraded by Augustinian Catholicism into Roman theocratic imperialism … is the most stubborn of the pathological legacies inherited by us from our tradition. It seems almost impossible to extirpate, especially after it has been applied to such devastating effect in an exploitive global colonialism whose dynamics continue to produce enormous wealth for its historical perpetrators and a corresponding destitution in its victims. The West is invested in the belief in its own superiority and the Christian religion was an essential factor in the creation of that fantasy. It is our demon par excellence, and if the psalms are to become an instrument of LIFE, that demon must be exorcized.

The very fact that Jesus and his message could have been taken hostage for so long and at such levels of moral inversion by the Roman theocracy and its successors, should be standing proof that Christianity ― and more emphatically its primitive Roman Catholic iteration ― could not possibly be the special choice of LIFE. Moreover, if at some future moment, leveraged by the economic and political power of the imperialist West, Christianity should ever come to be the world’s dominant religion, it will be further proof that there is no divine providence as commonly understood.

Augustine’s naïve, puerile version of divine providence had to conclude that “the way things are” has been foreseen and willed by “God.” It represents an unquestioning acceptance of the political status quo. It is the most pernicious (and transparent) of deceits, and stands cheek by jowl with anthropomorphic theism at the foundational underpinnings of injustice in western society. The institutionalized acceptance of injustice, evidenced in the perennial existence of the master-slave relationship in Christian society inherited from Rome, is a persistent outrage against human synteresis ― our spontaneous conscientious revulsion at injustice. It constitutes a raw open wound that threatens to go septic at any moment and destroy the entire organism. To tolerate injustice is to contradict human intelligence — to disconnect yourself from LIFE. You cannot do that without precipitating your own death.

The social “bonds” and “cords” that we acknowledge and impose upon ourselves are the norms of justice that create a family harmony and creative equality among all the peoples of the earth. But universalism does not mean a robotic homogeneity. The norms of justice and love apply to sustaining cultures and traditions as well as the eradication of economic and political inequality. The human surrender to the dictates of conscience creates a family of peoples who are empowered to come to a collaborative consensus on the issues of economic production and distribution that work for the survival of all. Our “Israel” is the global community; and the “rebel nations” are those people and groups, blinded by their erroneous self-definition as superior to others, who currently refuse to submit to the demands of LIFE, deny our global family identity and would consign us to the eternal nightmare of internecine warfare. Their interest in others is limited to discerning the weaknesses that will allow the pillaging of their possessions and the exploiting of their labor. This is not merely repugnant to our sensibilities, no one committed to LIFE will tolerate it.

1 Why this tumult among nations,
among peoples this useless murmuring?

2 They arise, the kings of the earth,
princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.

3 “Come, let us break their fetters, come, let us cast off their yoke.”

Why do people pursue the interests of their tribe alone? Why do they set themselves against LIFE and the human family? Why are they ever planning ways to dominate, exploit and enslave others? They refuse to obey the demands of LIFE.

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord is laughing them to scorn.

5 Then he will speak in his anger, his rage will strike them with terror.

6 “It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”

7 (I will announce the decree of the Lord:) The Lord said to me:
“You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.

But LIFE will not be thwarted. By rejecting LIFE they isolate themselves. Mutual hatred ultimately spells death. But as for you, child, LIFE wants to make you its champion. And it will transform you so the world can see you are LIFE’s own offspring.

8 Ask and I will shall bequeath you the nations,
put the ends of the earth in your possession.

9 You will break them with a rod of iron,
shatter them like a potter’s vessel.”

You will bring people together; the tribal blindness will disappear, the age-old walls of separation will crumble into dust at your touch. Yes, you, LIFE’s child, will do this.

10 Now, O kings, understand, take warning, rulers of the earth;

11 serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him your homage

12 lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze. Blessed are they who put their trust in God.

Be warned, therefore, you who take your stand against LIFE and the human family. That includes my own selfish urges. This is not a trifling matter … . Life and death are in the balance. Obey LIFE! Embrace LIFE and LIFE will flourish in you and through you.

 

Imagery is important

1,800 words

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

 

This famous passage in Matthew is part of the chapter that includes the Sermon on the Mount; it was meant to present Jesus’ fundamental message in compendium form. It is a summary collection, organized to help catechumens learn what it meant to be Christian in preparation for their upcoming baptism.

In broad terms, the passage illustrates, within the Jewish tradition of expression, a basic characteristic of all religion everywhere: the intimate mirroring that makes the believer an image of the divine principle, whatever it is thought to be. What’s most interesting for me in this particular case is that Jewish Jesus happens to select for an image an especially disturbing “fact” about his Father, Yahweh, which he then calls on his listeners to imitate. Matthew punctuates the importance of this invitation of Jesus by adding a note of ultimacy: this is not just a nice way to be; this is what it means to be perfect.

The image of Yahweh being the cause of the sun shining on everyone whether they are good or bad, and the rain falling on all people indiscriminately regardless of their morality, religion or life-style, however commonplace it might sound at first, is really quite shocking; for it stands in stark contrast with the Yahweh depicted throughout the Old Testament whose principal characteristic was fierce and discriminating judgment. The image totally upends the traditional picture of “God.” Did Jesus mean to do that? Or was the image, precisely because it was so commonplace, just an illustration, not a theological challenge to a millennial Jewish belief?

Yahweh, traditionally, was anything but indiscriminate. Early on in Jewish history, he was believed to distinguish sharply between the people with whom he had a contract ― the Hebrews ― and all others on the face of the earth. He was a tribal god. The Hebrews alone, because they were “believers,” were the object of Yahweh’s love and protection. He promised to reward them as a people with prosperity and longevity and to punish with dire calamities those “unbelievers” who opposed them. The first victims were the Egyptians who suffered devastating plagues leading up to the death of their oldest children for having enslaved the Hebrews; and then, after leaving Egypt, Yahweh’s wrath was visited upon the “nations” who served other gods in the Palestinian lands the Hebrews desired for their own. Yahweh’s discriminating judgment not only insured those tribes would be dispossessed of their land, but their refusal to submit to the Hebrews’ god entailed nothing less than their extermination. Genocide was justified as the will of a lethally discriminating Yahweh.

Later on, the remnants of the original 12 tribes that came out of Egypt, became the victims of the geopolitical ambitions of the powerful Mesopotamian empires within whose sphere of interest Israel lay. For refusal to submit to the Babylonians, the last of the Hebrew population was hauled off in slavery to Babylon and the nation ceased to exist in 587 bce. This catastrophic event provided evidence for Hebrews that the original contract with Yahweh had been shredded. Either the Hebrews had so totally betrayed the contract that Yahweh felt it necessary to pull out of it unilaterally, or maybe there was more involved than the contract had supposed. It occasioned a profound re-thinking of the very foundations of Hebrew belief and it resulted in the beginnings of a change in the imagery with which Yahweh was described.

Yahweh became a “God” of justice, more interested in honesty in relationships, equity in trade, truth in the courts, protection for the poor and defenseless, fairness from rulers, humility and love from those who professed to follow him. But in all these moral matters Yahweh remained as fiercely discriminating as ever, hating injustice “with a perfect hatred” and thundering against it through his prophets who minced no words, and vowing to bring the perpetrators of unfairness and exploitation to ruin. That included other nations. Yahweh stopped being just a tribal god and became a universal “God” of moral rightness, but he never displayed any tendency toward treating the bad and the good the same. He was not indiscriminate. No Jew before Jesus had ever used such a radical image to describe Yahweh and call for its imitation.

Jesus’ vision and ours

Jesus’ own view of the matter may have been less radical than what I am suggesting. Commentary in the Jerusalem Bible insists that “the sovereignty of God over the Chosen People and through them over the world is at the heart of Christ’s preaching as it was of the theocratic ideal of the O.T.” If this applies to Jesus’ use of the imagery of sun and rain, then clearly by evoking it Jesus did not intend to offer a new way of looking at “God” but rather very simply that the weather itself ought to remind us how we should act toward all people. It was a teaching tool, not a theological challenge.

But facts are facts, and the imagery of the indiscriminateness of the weather is itself evocative of the material source of our being-here for those like us who have been formed by the discoveries of modern science, whether Jesus was aware of it or not. We know that the imagery of a micro-managing rational “God”-person who controls what happens on earth down to the last detail is simply not true, even though Jesus may have believed it. We know that meteorological occurrences are due to the autonomous interactions of material elements affected entirely by natural forces like gravity, planetary spin, seasonal regional warming by the sun, etc., without any need for or evidence of any rational intervention. As a matter of fact, for those who have been following this blog, the suggestion that what we have been calling “God” ― meaning the source of our sense of the awe of being-here and our spontaneous gratitude for what has put us here as ourselves ― is made functionally comprehensible by using the imagery of living material energy itself as our source and sustainer. And the suggestion I am making is that what Jesus said, whether he intended it that way or not, dovetails perfectly with our modern understanding of how the world was created and mankind was formed. It was all the work of living material energy autonomously evolving new formations of itself in response to changing environments through eons of astral and geologic time. There was no hands-on divine Craftsman, no seven days of creation, no events as depicted in the Book of Genesis to explain how things got here and got to be what they are.

Clearly, whatever the physics / metaphysics behind the weather, it was, as a phenomenon, its absolute randomness and indiscriminateness that was tapped by Jesus as an apt image to explain how to be like our Father ― how to be perfect. So whether or not Jesus knew the full story scientifically is irrelevant. And whether Jesus intended to use the weather to characterize the absolute and unqualified universality of “God’s” relationship to all things, the connection that Jesus focused on is both true and an apt image applicable to “God” “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Looking at it this way, regardless of the commentators’ probable opinions, there is nothing that absolutely prevents Jesus from having had exactly the point I am making in mind, and even if he didn’t there is nothing to prevent us from making it: perfection involves a love so intensely universal and uncompromisingly indiscriminate that it appears as the most profound detachment in a point for point imitation of the autonomous way material energy operates in our material universe; and we are justified in calling it perfection because, as Jesus suggested, that’s what “God” is like.

Imagery is important. It is not merely a mnemonic device, a visual aid that reminds us of some abstract thought or moral command. It expresses and embodies its significance for us in an undiluted concrete form. To love those whom we are not inclined to love, Jesus is effectively saying, or for whom we have a positive and incurable aversion, is not some “new commandment” that he was promulgating to transcend the law of Moses and impose another set of obligations. No. It is the way “God” is and therefore is really the way we humans are and have always been.

One of the reasons we are so unhappy is that no one ever pointed this out to us before. This is our nature, genetically innate, inherited directly from our Father, our Source, and if we don’t do what concurs with nature, we will be frustrated without ever knowing why. Understood this way the word teleios in Greek, “ended,” that has been translated “perfect,” really means finished, complete, suggesting something that “fulfilled its purpose” or achieved the end for which it was made (the word teleology is derived from the same Greek root, telos, “end”). It is the very nature of humankind, reproducing and recapitulating the structural elements of which we are made, to love without discrimination, even those who hate us and whom our paranoid conatus warns us to hate in return or be destroyed.

The circularity so characteristic of all religion comes into play at this point. As the source generated the image, the image in turn reveals the source. Now the image of the indiscriminate lover ― what one modern mystic called “the oldest trade in the world,” being available to the next comer ― proves its foundational authenticity by making us insanely happy and transforming our communities. It reveals what we are made of, what no one has ever seen. The circularity suggests that the concrete experience of converting our organic instincts for individual self-preservation and enhancement into energies for the self-preservation and enhancement of all others reveals the fundamental character of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like the sun and the rain, it is equally available and gratefully absorbed by all. The only knowledge of “God,” the Source of our bodies, that we will ever have is in the somatic experience of our own dynamism redirected outward in compassion and care for others.

Different or Distinct?

in search of a new imagery for “God”

3,500 words

1.

“No one has ever seen ‘God’.” John’s gospel and the first letter of John both considered that statement to be a fulcrum around which their argument turned. Because “God” was not available for observation, Jesus played an indispensable role in putting “God” on display in terms that ordinary human beings ― even little children ― could understand. Jesus was the image of “God,” so much like him that the gospel called him “God’s” only begotten son.

“Image” is what religion is all about. Religion provides imaginary depictions of what we know has to be there (because we are not self-originating or self-sustaining), but about which we know nothing at all: the ultimate source and sustenance of the universe. Unfortunately, religion is all we’ve got; and it has been forced, everywhere in the world, to imagine the unknown and unimaginable wellspring of life. When John said that Jesus was “God’s” only begotten son, what he had in mind was Jesus’ extraordinary humanity, so human that it communicated unerringly to human beings, and so extraordinary that what it depicted was nothing less than the creative dynamism of reality itself. He said “God,” the source, the principle of all things (archē) was love. We can see it in Jesus, and we can see it in ourselves. if “God” is “being,” then to be is to love.

Unfortunately, John’s attempt to explain how Jesus’ was an authentic image of “God” that updated anything the Jews had inherited from their tradition, was misunderstood three hundred years later, and interpreted to mean that Jesus was actually “God.” Even in the case of a perfect image in a mirror, the image and the object it is reflecting may look exactly the same, but one is real, and the other is only an image. If you think they are the same, it is a mistake.

The crude intrusion of the Roman emperor in the decisions at the Council of Nicaea where that mistake was set in institutional stone, adds to its discreditation as a valid religious development. The doctrine’s value for theocracy is too obvious. Constantine was determined that only the very highest of all the many gods worshipped in the Roman Empire would do as the Imperial protector. Jesus and his cross, emblazoned 12 years earlier on the shields of his victorious troops, would henceforth be that highest of all gods. Rome had spoken, and it was Rome, after all, whose divinity no one doubted. Rome made Jesus “God,” investing him with exactly the kind of divinity Rome needed to continue being Rome.

In becoming Rome’s “God,” Jesus stopped being the Jewish human being ― the mensch ― that he once was. But that meant, unfortunately, that he was no longer the human image of the sacred dynamism that activated reality. He was assumed into the “divinity” which other, older imagery had already described and which the ancient world had long ago internalized: Pantocrator, The All Ruler, the Judge of the living and the dead, the heavenly analog of the Emperor of Rome. Rome’s divinity was beyond dispute, and it was Rome’s divinity that clothed the Cosmic Christ in the robes of the gods. Jesus’ counter-intuitive human message of compassion and humble trust in a Father of love suddenly became easy to understand: it was a trick ― a public relations ploy to lure and lull the masses; and his death was, under the disguise of victimhood, a forensic mechanism for placing the whole human race in his debt. Once he became “God,” everybody knew what the real picture was; it was the same old story of power and control; and the movie-theater currently projecting it was owned by Rome. The very imagery that Jesus’ extraordinary humanity was claimed to replace, was with demonic irony applied to Jesus himself, harnessing both “God” and Jesus to the imperial machine. The gods of wealth and power were reinstalled with a vengeance.

2.

Clearly, imagery is not an insignificant aspect of religion, a mere catechetical tool to be used and discarded once the comprehension of the concepts has been achieved. The images concocted by the various religious traditions to mediate relationship with the source of life come to mesh so completely with their object that the two become indistinguishable. In this sense, it was inevitable that Jesus would be mis-taken for “God” just as Rama or Krishna would come to stand in the place of Brahman or the Atman in the Hindu tradition. The process seems universal. Even in Buddhism where the founder himself was quite explicit that any thought of “God” or “the gods” or even metaphysical theory was entirely irrelevant to his program of personal liberation and community transformation, was divinized by his followers centuries after his death. I don’t think the universal occurrence of this phenomenon is necessarily damaging or deforming for practitioners who, like John, were aware of the distinctions involved; they were, after all, describing the undeniable transcendent effect it had on their lives. It changed their image of “God” 1800.  They had come to know what “God” was really like; he was like the man Jesus. And once we, too, embraced the call to love, “God” was like us.

The “problem” in the case of Jesus is that because the imaging process was not understood, or was manipulated for theocratic purposes, the meshing that occurred got consigned to another earlier and undeveloped image. The symbolic nature of the connection disappears, and the “God” that Jesus is said to be, is no longer imaged by the man Jesus; he is imaged by something else entirely, something primitive, atavistic ― entirely different from his own compassionate, forgiving humanity. In this case the archaic image was that of a severe imperial judge and executioner. Imagery matters. If you worship the wrong image, no matter how “holy” it appears, instead of putting yourself at the service of LIFE, you end up sacrificing your children to demons.

3.

The legitimate meshing of symbol and reality that I’m talking about derives from the very essence of our reality ― from the nature of LIFE in our material universe. I use the word “LIFE” in an intentionally ambiguous way because I am convinced that our material reality itself is a scientifically ambiguous phenomenon. “Ambiguous” means “true of both,” and abstractly contemplates two “things” that the speaker might be referring to. We usually use the word pejoratively to describe statements that are not clear, but it can also have a positive sense. And it is because all of cosmic reality is quite undeniably always at least two things at once that I contend it is not only legitimate, but essential that we look for ways to include it in our statements about it. We must be appropriately ambiguous if we are to be true to reality. Let me explain what I mean.

Everything in the universe is “what it is” and, at the same time, it is “what it is made of”. And what all things are made of is some form of material energy which, in its most fundamental form, is the same everywhere. This homogeneous “stuff,” reduced artificially in particle colliders to its most structurally primitive and foundational elements, is what is studied by physics. A tree, a squirrel, a silver-back gorilla are all entities, “things,” each with their own peculiar capacities and limitations embedded in their organisms; but however different they are, they are all made exclusively and exhaustively of exactly the same “stuff”: those same particles studied by physics.

Physicists agree that all is ultimately energy:

. . . “all particles are made of the same substance: energy” (Heisenberg, 1958). On this view, concrete stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is distinct from energy and that has energy. Rather concrete physical stuff is energy.

So too, concrete physical stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is in some way distinct from process, in which processes go on or occur; it is process. So too, concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain natural, categorical, concretely instantiated intrinsic qualities while being in some manner irreducibly ontologically distinct from them; its existence is nothing ontologically over and above the instantiation of those qualities. It is, however, hard for us to hold this point steadily in mind given the deep object-property / subject-predicate structure of our thought and language.

and

we may allow that non-biological entities like leptons and quarks jointly constitute larger things that have properties that are essentially more and other than the properties of leptons and quarks. We may do this even if we continue to conceive of leptons and quarks in a crude ‘smallist’ way as genuine individuals of some sort. We do better, though, to conceive of them in a quantum-field-theoretic way, as features or aspects of the various ‘fields’ that jointly constitute the universe in a way that is profoundly mysterious to us, or (perhaps better still) as features or aspects of the single complex field that constitutes ― is ― the universe[1]

Given that common understanding of the “stuff” of the universe, unless you are prepared to deny the unitary reality of the composites of that “stuff,” ― what we call “things” ― you are faced with a mystery: what exactly is it that accounts for the unity and integrity of individual entities at these subsequent (macro) levels? Are things “many,” in other words, as they appear to be, or is there only one “thing” out there, since everything is constructed of the same “stuff”?

Rather than getting into the various solutions offered to this classic question, I think it is sufficient at this stage to point out the ambigüity at the very heart of matter. Reality, or as we have traditionally called it, “being” seems to reside in two “places” simultaneously: in the components and in the composite, making each somehow an echo and reflection of the other. Reality is ambiguous, and human terminology reflects that fact by “meshing” component and composite, reality and reflection, origin and emanate, wellspring and effluent, roots and branches. All symbols are grounded in the soil of meta-physical ambigüity.

In the case of Jesus’ humanity, the idea that a human being could be the image of God had preceded him by many centuries in Hebrew thought. The first chapters of Genesis, integrated into the Hebrew scriptures about 600 bce., speak of “God” consciously and intentionally making man “in his own image and likeness.” I do not cite Genesis as some sort of revelatory source of “truth” in this matter; I do it only to show that John was writing within a tradition of expression in which human nature was understood to be a reflection, an echo, an image of its creative source. I would only add that it does not surprise me that conceptual chain should be found in Genesis because it is a fundamental feature of reality. All things are expressions ― images ― of their source, insofar as all things are made of nothing else. Things are, simultaneously, themselves and their source; so one would expect they would look like one another.

Now, as we very consciously try to integrate the discoveries of science into our understanding of the universe which evolved us, we cannot ignore the implications of our human organisms being nothing but an evolved form of the material energy that constitutes all things. There is nothing else there than the highly complex elaborations, anatomical, neurological, hormonal, emotional, instinctive, that represent matter’s evolutionary adjustments to the needs of survival for the hominid line in which we developed. If we want to know what we are, our first datum is the components of our organism. Matter’s evolutionary processes, aggregating, integrating, complexifying the particles studied by physics made us what we are. It made us human beings. And the “person” whom we identify as our own “self” is nothing but the individual organism reflexively conscious of itself and instinctively driven to preserve and defend its life, just like every other living organism on the face of the earth. Just as “concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain qualities while being in some manner ontologically distinct from them” so too the human individual is not something other than its organism’s instincts, urges, capacities and limitations. It is that very identity of our “selves” with our organisms that makes us a mirror-like representation of the “stuff” that comprises them. Herein is imagery born. We are nothing but what makes us to be-here, and so seeing us ― seeing what we are like and what we do ― reveals in a unique and compelling way what that which makes us to be-here is.

This is the physical / metaphysical basis for the imaging that is the very essence of religion. Reality is not simple. It is complex and structured. One thing is not only the thing it appears to be; it is a multitude of things that have gone into its formation and it is also the multitude of things that it later goes on to be part of forming. Parents and children reflect each other. But they also reflect by anticipation grandchildren and extended progeny. Everything speaks of everything else. Everything reveals everything else. Everything, at the end of the day, is everything else. The many are one, and the one only exists as many.

While we have always understood the dynamics of symbol and imagery, it was not until modern science revealed the material depth of our being-here as humans that we became aware of the reflectivity ― the mirror-ness ― of our relationship with everything else. Imaging is not a voluntary, intentional activity. It is unavoidable because it springs from the very composite structure of material reality. We evolved from, but continue to be constituted by, the “particles” studied by physics. We are what we are, but what we are is constructed of those particles and so we are also what they are . . . and they in turn are what we are.

4.

It is from understanding reality from this point of view that I am encouraged to offer a suggestion about a new set of images that correspond to our new knowledge. We are as aware as any previous generation that “no one has ever seen God.” And certainly more than any other generation we are acutely conscious of the depths of moral commitment and of the undeniably authentic mystical experience had among the practitioners of other traditions across the globe. Hence we are less inclined than anyone before us to embrace a Christian supremacist view of the world. We know from experience that Jesus is not the only, and therefore cannot in any way be considered the definitive manifestation of the sacred source of our material world that we have traditionally called “God.” We also know from our science that whatever this “God” might be who has never been seen by anyone, it does not act like a rational, personal agent in any way recognizable as such to human beings. From this we suspect that the imagery of our own western traditions rooted in the Hebrew scriptures is pure projection, and reflects an earlier, obsolete, pre-scientific picture of the universe, life and human consciousness. I believe all these factors come together in validating the need for a new set of images that may more credibly provide the concrete anchor for our sense of the sacred depths of our lives.

Fundamentally, and to my mind, quite appropriately, the imagery I propose is generated by the picture that science has provided us of the actual state of things-in-process in our evolving universe of matter. Since we now know that “God” cannot refer to a humanoid, rational agent, “personal” and personally interactive as we understand the words, rather than attempt to conjecture about this unknown source, we are on safer ground just sticking with what we really know: we ourselves have an insuppressible sense of the sacredness of this universe of things and, even without knowing what our source is, we feel a profound gratitude and admiration toward it for what it has produced. Our gratitude is grounded in ourselves as undeniable gift; it is not grounded in knowing the giver. It occurs in the absence of knowledge. The only thing known is our non-origination.

In a second step, we experience our own being-here directly and as a “self” at every emerging moment of time. I cannot define “self” in any terms other than to evoke the experience. It cannot be “understood” in other terms and it cannot be “explained” because I have no idea where “I” came from. My parents who were instrumental in my coming to be here had no idea what kind of “self” I was going to be and certainly had no hand in its determination. I did not originate it myself, even though later I did participate in re-shaping it according to my chosen and changing values. I know nothing about the “self” except that it appeared along with my organism, and it disappears when my organism disintegrates. Without presuming to “know,” I can validly say that it seems completely commensurate with this complex, DNA shaped and driven packet of material energy formed by the interaction of multiple composites, that is my biological organism. My “self” is my body reflectively conscious of itself.

In a third step, I am well informed by science about the evolutionary processes driven by the instinct to survive, integrating, complexifying and re-arranging the wave-fields/particles constituent of matter and the creative effect they have had on the production of living species. As a human being I am personally identified with this organism which I know was produced by evolution and is enjoyed by every other human being on the planet. In my search for a source, I cannot ignore the obvious and fully explanatory role of biological evolution in the elaboration of my “self.” Clearly it is the energy of these material particles that have driven the evolutionary process. In an undeniably factual way then, I have to say that phenomenally speaking ― as far as human observation and verification is concerned ― my source is this energy embedded in the wave-fields/particles of the fundamental elements of matter, for “I” am nothing else.

The nature of this constructive hierarchy of wave-field/particles and their undeniable innate energy to continue to be-here are sufficient and necessary to explain my being-here in every aspect of my existence and at every moment of time without exception. There is no observable fact or feature of my organism ― physical, mental or emotional ― that remains unexplained requiring the search for any other source. If the cause and explanation for my being-here is also called “God,” then, logically speaking I have no reason to look any further. I am perfectly justified in identifying this material energy as “God.”

Even if someone were to object and insist that there must some “source” beyond the wave-fields / particles of material energy that constitute everything in our universe that is responsible for the existence, nature and character of these particles, it would have to be said that whatever else that hypothetical “source” might be, it would have to itself be a material energy of a type and character necessary and sufficient to explain what it produced in every aspect and at every moment in time. Conceptually speaking, therefore, material energy and its putative “source” can be considered one and the same thing. In fact, however many “sources of sources” there might be going back beyond our universe’s material energy, there will never be something other than material energy as we know it to account for it or it would never exist.

So for the purposes of the imagery that I am suggesting, the material energy we can observe and measure represents anything that its hypothetical “source” could ever be as source, and therefore can be validly embraced as our source.

This “God,” then, that we have identified as material energy “transcends” being any one “thing” by being pervasively and suffusively the structural and dynamic components of all. It is “that in which we live and move and have our being.” That means phenomenologically (scientifically, observably and measurably) we as individual “things” are not distinguishable from our constituent components, the wave-fields/particles that comprise our organisms. If material energy is “God” then we are distinguishable from “God” only metaphysically, which means conceptually ― only in human minds ― as “source” and “product.”  We are a completely unified structured reality whose surface appearance is individual and finite but whose roots are universal and reach into the infinite ground, the reservoir where homogeneous material energy is neither created nor destroyed and totally unformed and uncomposed.

So I propose: between us and “God” there is no difference, but from the point of view of originating energy, we are conceptually distinct. “God” is the originating, indestructible, self-possessed endless energy of the constituent components, and we are the composite product arising constructed and de-constructible, subject to the entropy that characterizes the descent back into an equilibrium from which we had been wrenched by the energy of LIFE. The “distinction” is in the metaphysical structure: Are the roots different from the tree with its leaves and branches?  No but they are distinct for human thought, in role and function. Is the “underground source” different from the pool of spring water emerging on the surface? No but they are categorically distinct as “source” of movement and the resulting motion. Is the light with which we see things on earth different from the sun’s light?  No it is not different. It is one and the same light, there is only one light, and it illumines us all. It’s how we see one another. It’s how we know we are all here and in this together. Only thus are we “distinct” from “God” and from one another.

[1] Galen Strawson, What does “physical” mean? [a version of the chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Pan­psychism (2020), forthcoming in Mind and Being uploaded separately by the author to Academia.edu] pp.5&7

The Begging Bowl

The “Prayer of St Francis” has become for many people, not only Christians, a quintessential expression of universal spirituality. It is a terse and unadorned statement of the intention to dedicate one’s energies to the service and well-being of others and not to oneself. It has two parts that correspond to each of those desires. The first part of the prayer identifies what the well-being of others means: peace ― achieved by overcoming hatred, injury, error, doubt, despair and darkness wherever they are found.

The second part of the prayer tacitly acknowledges that the stated intention of the first part cannot be accomplished without a radical selflessness ― a 1800 turn on the ordinary pursuit:

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.

Wonderful as the sentiments of the second part of the prayer are, anyone who has attempted to live them out realizes the impasse that they represent. For none of us can live without the love of others, their consolation and their understanding. These needs are not optional; it is not selfish to have them. They come from the nature of the human organism which can only survive in human society. Without the emotional and physical support of other people we shrivel and die.

How do I reconcile an absolute requirement of my human organism with the intention of the prayer? The prayer states clearly that my responsibility lies in loving others, not in getting others to love me. My job and duty is to understand and console others, not to find and insure ways to get others to understand and console me. How can both those things occur?

It means I forego any attempt to pursue, possess or control what comes to me from others.

Like the mendicants ― some Buddhists even today ― who go out every day with their begging bowls and eat only the food that people decide to give them, as a practitioner of the prayer of St Francis I accept my condition as an emotional beggar. I voluntarily embrace it as the endemic condition of all widows and orphans ― the Hebrew scriptures’ symbols for the poor and vulnerable. That means I renounce all ownership or direct pursuit of this most precious commodity. Like those who beg for their food, I choose to live everyday on the love, understanding and consolation that people ― any people, not the ones I have chosen, and yes, even the ones I do not like ― decide to give me, freely. And I will eat that “food,” and if that’s all that comes, I will live on it.

I trust that it will be provided, for I trust people.

I abandon any attempt to pursue, possess or control it. I acknowledge that my insuppressible need for love is dependent on the free and uncoerced generosity of others, and it’s not my place to decide who it comes from or in what form they give it, what it looks like in my bowl or how it tastes.

And I will do it as “practice” ― i.e., as a constant reminder of my real work in life: to be an instrument of peace.

“POINTLESS”?

2,100 words

This post was originally published on this blog in August 2009. It was one of a series of essays that were the extensions of an “open letter” to a neo-atheist friend of mine, whom I call “Larry.” Larry is a real person who is a talented writer. He quoted Weinberg to me during an exchange that we had at that time. I am re-publishing my response now because I like it. I have no other reason.

Steven Weinberg is a famous physicist, and a Nobel laureate. He made a statement back in the late ’70’s that, because of its apparent extreme nihilism, has been quoted endlessly. Those who cite it, however, usually do so disapprovingly. Most often they are using it for stark contrast. Bio-chemist and biologist Ursula Goodenough, in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, quotes Weinberg as saying:

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Of course there are others, (yes, Larry, my neo-atheist friend, you are among them) who quote Wein­berg as the ultimate exoneration for their own intellectual flaccidity ― their refusal to make any effort to try to understand the universe that spawned them and whose existence, energy and genetic markings they bear in their very flesh. They use Weinberg’s statement to justify having an “attitude” … and not a position. But please note, Weinberg’s statement is not the result of his investigations as a physicist. Calling the universe “pointless” is gratuitous on his part, and beyond the valid interests of his discipline. He won the Nobel prize for something entirely unrelated to his “pointless” remark … and certainly not for his non-existent contribution to philosophy.

[It bears mentioning that Weinberg is a very outspoken enemy of religion. He is the son of immigrant Jewish parents and has explicitly declared that a major source of his antipathy toward religion is his rejection of the “God” who apparently was powerless to stop the holocaust. From my point of view, his is also an “attitude” … and quite understandable.   It reinforces my contention about the absurdity and predictable effect of the current western imagery of the supernatural theist “God” of Providence. See An Unknown God, chapter III.]

“Pointless”? … quite a word. What exactly does it mean? Let’s check it out. We say, “he made his point.” In these cases to have a “point,” seems to mean saying something specific, or plausible.   But then we also use the word in a slightly different sense when we say, “What’s the point” or “there’s no point to it.” In this sense, “point” seems to mean “reason,” as in “there’s no reason to do it,” meaning “it has no purpose.” This seems closer to what Weinberg perhaps meant, although we can’t be sure because he limits himself to pithy aphorisms. He has not expostulated on the matter. … And neither have you, Larry.

So if I’m right, then, Weinberg seems to be saying the universe has no point … no reason to be here … no purpose.

Let’s run with this football. Let’s say I agree, (which, as a matter of fact, I do, as will become clear as we go along). I would agree the universe has no reason to be here. What does that mean? Well, by “no reason,” I mean it has no purpose for being here beyond itself. It is here just to be here. There is no why in the sense of going somewhere or becoming or producing something else … something outside of, or other than this universe and the way it is. The only thing that is-here is this universe, and apparently the only thing that will ever be here is this universe, and as far as we can tell some of its features may change, and it may even die someday, but it is not on its way to becoming something else. There is no other world.

Let’s clarify. To ask “why” or “what’s the point,” brings to mind some kind of rational entity that does things for “reasons” that would have to be responsible for the presence of purpose in the universe … and therefore the lack of rational purpose indicates the absence of such an entity. There is no one that “wants” the universe to do something of whom we can ask, “What’s the point.” “Pointless” means there is no recognizable purpose, goal or end beyond what we see laid out before us, and by implication no one there to do it. So, yes, in that sense, I agree with Weinberg, it’s all “pointless” because there is no rational entity giving it purpose, and it seems to have no purpose other than just to be there.

who wants what?

There is no outside source of “purpose” for the universe as we have conceded, but is there some manifestation of “intentionality” inside the universe that we can identify and perhaps question?

We live in a world teeming with life, human, animal, plant, insect, microbe, mold, virus. There is virtually no cubic inch on the surface of the planet where some form of life does not exist. And all of these life forms “want” something so desperately that we are able to define them as “alive” precisely because what they want is on such shameless, undisguised display. They all want to be here … desperately. Yes, this “want” is also pointless in the very strict sense that none of these life forms, including ourselves, want anything more or other than what they actually already have here and now. We all want to be here … we all want to be exactly what we are … to have exactly what we have … we want nothing fundamental to change. We want to survive. The only changes we might admit we want would be to eliminate the obstacles to our continued survival as we are, what we need to have to remain what we are. None of us, whether bacterium or human being, wants anything other than to continue to be what we are !

Even humans, who are capable of imagining another world where they claim they will go when they die, are unable to conceive of that world except in terms of the life and existence they have here and now. What they want in this supposed other world is to return to be what they were here … their individual selves … and maybe recover what they lost, like relationships with their parents, partners, children, friends … or themselves when they were young. They would rather that being there (the promised “other” world) is really an extension of being here. They accept the “other world” as a reluctant alternative … they accept it because given the fact of death, that hope is all they have left. But it’s not really what they want.

Now, we appear to be the only life form that can even imagine the possibility of another world. Everything we can see on this teeming earth, the animals, plants, insects, etc., have no inkling that there might be anything else, much less are they capable of wanting any such thing. They only want what they are. And WE UNDERSTAND THEM PERFECTLY because we want the same thing. We know exactly what that feels like.

Well, all these life forms, including us, are constructed out of untold numbers of living cells that are themselves the conglomerates of aggregations of complex molecules, and those molecules congealed out of the collections of atoms built up from the simplest one proton hydrogen. The particle physics that, in our era, has revealed the substructure of the atom, opens us to a nano world, too small to see or test, where the foundational stuff of atoms is thought to be vibrating loops of energy responsible for everything that exists in the universe, whether inert or living, infinitely large or infinitesimally small ― everything. The manifestations of life with its fierce desire to be-here that we are familiar with on earth have obviously drawn their energy from the energy substrate of the universe of which they are made. As life complexifies and intensifies through the levels of evolutionary development, one thing seems to remain constant … the raw, implacable, insuppressible desire to be-here. Unless someone would unscientifically attempt to insert an arbitrary wall of division between living things and the substrate out of which they are constructed, we have to say that life reveals it is the universe itself that wants to be here.

So what’s the point? Well it seems that the so-called pointlessness is really not a problem for most of us … I’m including all the species of living things I’m aware of … None of us finds it a problem that we are not becoming something else, or going anywhere else besides here. All we really want is to be here the way we are … and so, that the universe is “pointless,” meaning it’s not becoming something else (and I’m able to stay being myself), is just fine with us. But, of course, we are not happy when we are not able to just stay ourselves … by that I mean when we can’t survive, or when we become sick, or grow old and disabled or die.

Life ends at death. To end and to be an end are two different things. If what we meant by “end” was “purpose,” i.e., that the very purpose of life is to die, it contradicts our categories. For if life had a purpose of any kind, it could not be called pointless. If the purpose of life was to die it wouldn’t be pointless, but it would be absurd. I don’t think most people, except crazy religious fanatics, would ever claim the very point of life was to die. Otherwise no one would ever eat, go to the doctor, defend themselves from attack, feed and protect children. It’s an obvious inversion. Even those that say they believe such pathological inanities submit to their imagined program as to a distasteful inevitability and with the secret hope that something like what we know and love here awaits them later. If it were up to them, it’s not what they would have chosen. So we see that being “pointless,” just being-here, is not so bad. It is, after all, what we really want. It’s not that life is “pointless” that bothers us, it’s that this wonderful “pointless” thing ends. It might be pointless, but it is far from absurd.

a different kind of pointless?

So, we’ve eliminated most senses of “pointless.” What’s left? Does the fact that life “ends” make it pointless and absurd? Is this what Weinbrerg and you mean, Larry? Let’s make this more concrete. Let’s imagine: I go on vacation to the beach with the partner I love … I rent a wonderful beach house, the weather is spectacular, there are movies, shows and restaurants in the nearby town, I lie in the sun, swim, sleep, read. I’m there for two weeks. Then it ends. Wow! was that ever great!. But it ended … did that make it pointless? What was the point of a vacation? Does everything have to have a point? No. The vacation was great because it was great … no further point. End of story. Why can’t life be taken that way? It has no other point, but it doesn’t need one.

Do all temporary things become pointless and absurd just because they are temporary? Is that what you find so pointed about Weinberg’s “pointless” remark? Have you sworn off vacations, Larry, because you know they have to end? Do you refuse to bring children into the world because it’s all absurd and pointless? Why then, do you go on vacation, go to the doctor when you’re sick, bring children into this world, build and protect a family, all of whom are going to die, and some in great anguish … Larry, why do you take a partner knowing that one of you MUST die first leaving the other impaled and lost. Don’t bother trying to dodge the questions, Larry, let me answer for you: BECAUSE IT IS NOT POINTLESS. What’s the point?  The point is being-here and being-here together … even for a while … is good … it’s very, very good. It’s so good that it’s almost too good to be true.

THAT’S THE POINT!

Tony

PS Or maybe you and Weinberg both come out of a tradition of religious fanaticism where you thought you were literally promised a “God” who intervened in history, protected the widows and orphans, brought low the oppressors, healed the sick and raised the dead, and provided a paradise of unimaginable delights where the lion laid down with the lamb … and then you found out it was all poetic metaphor for what would happen to this world if we lived with humility, gratitude, justice, love and service. Is that it, Larry? Did you, of all people, miss the poetry, the literary turn, the trope, the symbol, the allusion, the metaphor? You don’t have to answer! … T.

Relationship to the darkness

2,700 words

In some way, then, that is not clear, we suspect that if there is an ultimate “explanation” for our being-here as matter, it lies in that darkness into which we peer but cannot see — what we feel and touch as our very bodies, what we understand so intimately and see so clearly and certainly but about which we can say nothing.  We have little choice but to accept this situation because, however galling it might be, we ourselves awaken into a condition of absolute immersion in that darkness.  We understand it with absolute clarity; we know of its creative power with absolute certainty; and we rely on it for our very ex­istence itself, for it is the components of our organism.  Matter’s energy, the embrace of existence, is a matter of sheer unexplained empirical fact.  It is as incomprehensible as it is absolutely familiar, undeniable and self-evident. It is the very fire and light of our lives, but utter darkness to our minds. It is us … and yes indeed, we understand it intimately.

What do I mean? If an immersion-relationship to being-here is the defining feature of our organisms, our selves, we fail to embrace the reliability of existence with its endemic thirst and emptiness at the risk of denying our very selves and the conditions under which we and our ancestors have been here and have evolved to become what we are. We cannot do that. We cannot sit in judgment on the circle of existence, matter’s energy, as if we stood outside of it; for not only our faculty of analysis and judgment but our very existence itself is an evolved function of matter’s energy. The internal incomprehensibility of being-here is now seen to have invaded our persons. The sense of emptiness, the hunger to live, which we encountered in the dynamism of existence, material energy’s self-em­brace, we now see resides at the core of our very selves and lights the fire of our conscious presence; for we are-here without escape (not even death can annihilate the material energy that we are) and our very consciousness is a tool of our inherited determination to survive. We accept it. To fail to do so implies personal self-negation.

But notice: upon realizing that our analysis of existence could not explain itself, we did not physically annihilate nor disappear. Of course not. The contradictions we encountered in our rational ruminations had no impact whatsoever on being-here. Existence clearly is not dependent on our conceptualizations; the significance of being-here and the selectivity of rational consciousness do not move in the same plane. There is a reason why we cannot make deductions about reality from our ideas alone … it’s because our intimate understanding of reality is not a function of ideas. Our consciousness is grounded in somatic experience, our bodies, our organic immersion in matter’s energy. It also supports our conclusion that the neo-Thomists’ “transcendent thrust of consciousness” tells us nothing. Conceptualization with the logic of its required “explanations,” in other words, does not correspond to the reality we have come to realize is process — energy, a dynamism we’ve described as a congenital self-embrace. And what we’re interested in is what reality is, not how we conceptualize it.

The original organic function of abstractive intelligence was not “to know” but to survive. That we “do not know” is not a problem.  Not-knowing is the expression of the very nature of what we are. We were not meant to know; we were meant to survive. “Knowing” what reality is, is not an innate mission or mandate that comes from “God,” as Rahner, Lonergan et al., would have it. Knowing is a task we have set for ourselves. It’s a valid project, but it’s entirely ours; we cannot infer anything transcendent from our voluntary pursuit of it. Nor do we have a right to expect it will tell us what we demand: “knowledge” in terms of our warehoused ideas. Our inability to know is only a problem (or a solution, as for the Thomists) if we have assumed our conscious “selves” to be (as in fact we have in the West) like “gods,” immortal spirits, striding above and beyond this world, forming divine immaterial ideas, the ultimate arbiters of all things material. We claim the right to sit in judgment on reality, submitting it to the bar of our dubiously reliable “ideas,” as if our “raptor’s claw” survival tool, abstractive conceptualization and its rationalist logic, were the very Mind of God.

In my opinion, this is the key. We divinized human reasoning — need I add, under the baneful influences of the Platonic-Cartesian illusions about the non-materiality of the human mind. From then on anything that does not yield to our concepts is judged irrational and impossible, all evidence to the contrary notwith­standing.

The evidence, however, does in fact withstand these presumptions. For, however absurd it may seem, we are-here … and we understand it intimately! Our being-here-now is something we cannot grasp with our rational intelligence, verbal-conceptual formulations and abstractive tools … but that doesn’t mean either that it is nothing or that we do not understand it. This reduces the range of possibilities offered by our conventional words even as it expands exponentially the potential for an accurate and intimate understanding of existence mediated by other cognitive mechanisms like metaphor, and the possibility of relationship. For our attempt to understand our conscious immersion in being-here trans­lates to our attempt to understand the ineffable wordless darkness — that material energy with its existential self-embrace which we are.

“Darkness,” of course, is another metaphor for this phenomenon, like the sense of emptiness. It is the living dynamism, the hunger of which we are constructed but unable to speak. It is what we are. In order to speak of this immersion we are forced to utilize our arsenal of non-con­ceptual apprehensions, our metaphorical allusions and poetic markers — myths, legends, parable-stories and witness personalities, rituals, symbols, interpretations and, most important of all, contemplative silence, to evoke, in a manner as close to presence itself as we can get, the embrace of being-here that we are. All we need do is experience ourselves being-here … the rest follows.

Hence, at the end of the day, we realize we do not “know” ourselves, … but we understand ourselves. We embrace ourselves in the transparent contemplation of a hungry and surviving energy that is “darkness” for our minds … but only for our minds. It is an understanding of existence derived from the realizations and interpretations of what lies hidden in the crystalline clarity of un-knowing and the penetrating silence of interior experience. We understand this desire and joy to be-here. It is who we are … it is what everything is. It’s why we understand one another … and all things.

Christian “revelation” and darkness

Chris­tian “revelation,” as traditionally understood and defended at least since the end of the middle ages, would turn this “darkness,” this un-know­ing, into “light,” that is, into conventional knowledge. “Revelation,” meaning beliefs, “factual truth” as we have inherited it, fundamentally claims to present clear ideas. It pretends to take the emptiness and the darkness out of being-here and to articulate it in the form of defined concepts guaranteed by “divine authority” brokered exclusively by an infallible Church and/or the “Book.” Catholic dogma is officially labeled de fide definita (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion). Dogma recapitulates the partializing dis­tortions of abstraction that we have been trying to get in perspective through­out these reflections.

Conventional knowledge — concepts — is the unequivocal goal of Ca­tholic dogmatic definitions. For, by claiming to “transcend” the dead-end of rational enquiry, “revela­tion” attempts to deny the ultimate significance of the unknowability, the Mysterium Tremendum that philosophy un­covered. The Void, the darkness, the emptiness, we must understand, is not a concept. It is the antithesis of all concepts. It is a Mega-Metaphor; the ultimate figure that describes our experience of being-here, our contemplative appreciation of the ineffable dynamism that drives becoming and gives meaning to our world and our very persons as part of that world. It is the force responsible for evolution. It is sacred for us for it is our very own lust for life. We experience it internally, we understand it intimately and with an unshakable certitude for it is ourselves, but we do not know what it is.

It’s relevant to remember that before the Middle Ages, in the more ancient Christian view, revelation was not considered defined dogma. Revelation for the ancients exclusively meant the Scriptures. John Scotus Eriúgena, for example, believed the result of rational enquiry, Philosophy, was not transcended by the Scriptures but rather was restated there in symbolic terms.[1] The Scriptures, he said, were allegories and symbols, “figures” (= metaphors) that represented the self-same truth discovered by Philosophy. We will recognize this as the view of all the Fathers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa in a living tradition that went back to Philo of Alexandria. In fact, for this tradition, as far as “knowledge of God” was concerned, Philosophy was the more direct and literal of the two. Scrip­ture was believed to provide stories and symbols designed to make the ethereal truths of Philosophy intelligible to the people who were not philosophers. The real “truth” contained in the symbols of scripture was Philosophical. Scripture did not trump Philosophy. The two were parallel modes of expression. There was only one “truth.”

In this perspective, the bottomless Unknowable Ground into which the roots of reality sank and disappeared was a discovery of Philosophy that always remained insuperable. Ancient Christian mysticism as represen­ted by the apophatic tradition of Pseudo-Diony­sius and Gregory of Nyssa, was constructed on exactly that foundation. Outside of the person and work of Jesus (who was quickly assimilated to Greek Philosophy’s Logos), there was no “new” infor­ma­tion about “God” to be found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were symbols and stories which blended and flavored the “truth” of the Unfathomable Mystery — giving a “human” face to the Utter Darkness at the base of reality for the edification of the ordinary people. “God” was categorically unknowable and the role of revelation was only to provide metaphors for the darkness, not knowledge.

Since the days of the ascendancy of the claims of the infallibility of Ca­tholic dogma, revelation has come to be presented not as figures and me­taphors of the unknowable, but rather as “facts” that were allegedly known but just happened to be beyond unaided discovery and rational comprehension. This had a long historical development.[2] As the Church became associated with, and then progressively exercised in its own right the imperial prerogatives of the theocratic Roman State, its declarations about the “truth” became more arbitrary, authoritarian and “definitive.” Beginning with Nicea (with the personal intervention of the Emperor Constantine himself), the Church acted as if it had inside information that defined “God,” the Logos, the Trinity, Grace, the after-life, and was the only one that knew exactly how that information was to be used in practice. Fundamentally what it did was to reify legitimate religious metaphors, and turn them into gratuitously infallible dogmatic concepts, entities, qualities, reasons and explanations — facts taken literally. The upshot of this was to change the significance of mystery from “unknowable” to “unintelligible,” and the method of expression from metaphor to defined dogmatic verbalized concept. As I grew up, every Catholic schoolchild was taught and believed that the “facts” of religion were fully known. The only “mystery” was what they meant!

But as far as “knowledge” was concerned, it meant that the Catholic Church “knew” everything that could possibly be known about “God.” It solidified the Church’s exclusive and universal role in “salvation.” It was the basis for an ideological absolutism that dominated western culture for a thousand years and still has influence to this day.

preserve the question … celebrate the darkness

The only way for religion to safeguard the integrity of the Unknown that our analysis of presence-in-process revealed to us, is to accept the “truths of revelation” not as conceptualized “facts” but as powerful evocative metaphors, creative instruments designed to preserve the question, not give an answer, … to celebrate un-know­ability, the “absent explanation,” which is our life … and to bundle the unknown remainder into relationship with what, at root, is our very selves. For traditional Christianity this is not the 180o turn it appears to be. Our mystical traditions, going back past the Middle Ages, beyond the Cappadocian Fathers, beyond even Philo of Alexandria to the origins of Mosaic Yahwism, have always spoken of “God” as the Unknowable One. Moses’ code demanded that graven images be forbidden lest we dared to imagine we “knew” the One-Who-Has-No-Name, Yahweh, which Philo tells us was a word that means “Nameless,” “Imageless.”[3] The surrender of the claim to possess conceptual “knowledge” of God means the end of “dog­ma.” That will mean the surrender of human control, and an end to the arrogance of the sectarian religious enterprise.  It accepts our ignorance. It confirms us in our utter humility, dethrones the overrated rational human “intellect” as the ultimate arbiter of reality, challenges the haughtiness spawned by our technological prowess and the false human superiority it implies, rejects the anti-material, anti-body, cerebral and gender-distorting assumptions of the Platonic-Carte­sian Paradigm, and lays a solid foundation for faith not as arcane “knowledge,” a canonical gnosis, but as unconditional trusting surrender to a darkness we embrace as the very core dynamism of our living selves.

I have intentionally used the same images and metaphors as the mystics because I think we are talking about the same experience.  Darkness, unknowing, emptiness, are traditional words that de­scribe the fact that the only thing we will ever know, conceptually, is our universe of matter’s energy — including us — driven to survive in the present moment by evolving endlessly.

To my mind, this is the basis for the ultimate reconciliation of philosophical enquiry and theological projection.  It not only confirms the limited conclusions of rational observation and analysis at all levels, scientific and philosophical, but it also guarantees respect for the metaphors of all religious traditions which are attempting to celebrate and relate to the powerful creative darkness instead of denying it. It also finally includes in the circle of the fully human all those people branded “atheist,” who choose to stand in utter silence before the mystery of it all, because they refuse to apply any metaphors whatsoever to the emptiness, the embrace of existence, that they, like the rest of us, encounter at the core of them­selves. We are all made of the same thirsty clay, the same hungry quest for life. For those of us who know that the very heart of the matter is that we do not know what that is, “atheists” are our coreligionists.

But it should not make us disconsolate to say we do not know. We don’t need to know; for we understand existence, and understanding opens to the possibility of relationship. Once we stop in­sisting that there must be an explanation that can be expressed in the con­ventional terms of our rational knowledge concepts, explanations, reasons, words, logic, analyses, instruments of human control — the immense mystery of being-here discloses itself. For while we may not know what it is, we experience its dynamic power and understand it from within. We possess it completely in conscious form. For we are it. We can have no more intimate understanding of it than that. We can realize our identity with it; we can hold it and be-hold it in silent contemplation; and we can express, com­mu­ni­cate and celebrate its groaning creative maternal benevolence which gave birth to this astonishing universe, with evocative metaphors, spellbinding narratives and ecstatic rituals. And ultimately we love it as our very selves …  

But we do not know what it is.

Tony Equale

2009

 

[1] The end of the Periphysion

[2] This is similar to Adolph Harnack’s assessment of the significance of Nicea as the first time that belief was accepted as irrational.

[3] Philo of Alexandria, On the Change of Names, II (7) to (14) passim, tr.Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p.341-342.

 

Buddha and the Absolute

1,300 words

Efforts to correlate western theism with Buddhism always run into the same difficulty: theists try to introduce the concept of a non-material changeless Absolute into a Buddhist world of empty ephemeral “things” that exist in a roiling process of constant composition and decomposition. “Absolute” is a concept that is necessarily non-material and changeless. It is because it is so totally different that it immediately evokes a “world” or a dimension of reality that is other than ours. If you conceive “God” as an “absolute” as Christian theology has always done, his relationship to the world requires a complicated explanation that is not always convincing even when it’s coherent.

Besides, to claim access to another world that is not empty, shows a fatal misunderstanding of why the Buddha refused to talk about such things. For once you introduce the “Absolute”, you have introduced permanence and non-materiality. That means the material human “self” seeks to connect with the Absolute and must think of itself as becoming (if not already) permanent and non-material. Transformative practice becomes a pursuit (or protection) of permanence and a rejection of the body. One seeks absorption into the Absolute here and/or hereafter by changing oneself and being filled with the Absolute’s non-material, non-temporal reality.

Anatman, “no-self,” would then become only a “skillful means,” a technique, a mental manipulation, a kind of self-deprecation you use to help you “act” right and fill yourself with a permanence that you do not have; it no longer characterizes reality-as-it-is. That may serve as a synthesis of Hinduism and Abrahamic theism, but however abstract and non-anthropomor­phic, it is still radically dual. If the Absolute is an entity, it is transcendently Other. It is non-material and changeless in a universe of matter, change and process. It sets up a necessary relational dynamic of imitation and infusion, whereby “salvation” consists in matching human behavior to a standard “out there” set by the Absolute Other, and those who do not conform become sinners or failures who require “forgiveness” from the Other and a metamorphosis accomplished by an infusion that changes the organism from what it is into what the Other is: from matter to non-matter; from process to permanence. Anatman disappears because the emptiness from which it is derived becomes a source of repugnance and recoil.

To do that is to abandon what I believe is Buddha’s radical religious insight and challenge: we cannot “achieve” Nirvana. Nirvana emerges from embracing our emptiness. And nirvana emerges because it is already there. We are constituted of it, like an oak tree emerges from an acorn. Our “salvation” is to embrace ourselves; “I” and my body are “two” in one flesh, one thing. The “I,” in fact, stops insisting on being acknowledged, because now it knows it was never anything separate from the body to begin with. What was there was only the human organism ― the body ― material energy-in-process. What we thought was a separate non-material permanent “self” was the organism’s own material reflex for self-preservation.

Only in a system of total immanence, where the practitioner is already fully and completely what s/he transforms into, i.e., where what becomes is what seminally is fully there, can the material universe be what it is: material energy-in-process ― what we see unfolding itself before our astonished eyes: hydrogen atoms becoming stars, suns imploding and spewing out earths, sea and soil generating living organisms, acorns developing into oaks, species evolving species endlessly. Everything is in process; and nothing comes from nothing.

This is not some esoteric insight, the solution of an exquisitely complex equation. It is simply the result of taking the evolving universe out there to be exactly and only what it appears to be, with no remainder whatsoever. What is there is exactly and only what you see. There is no other world, plane or dimension of existence. You are looking at it all, every bit of it: cause and effect, source and outflow, seed and organism, origin and emanation, Creator and Creatures. A universe in process. It’s all right there.

There is nothing more. WE ARE THAT! We belong here. We are in the only home we will ever have, and we already are all we could ever hope to be, an emanate constructed of our very source: material energy-in-process.

metaphysics and practice

I am attempting to make a point about the nature of reality for those who are trying to philosophically synthesize theism with Buddhism. I am not comparing practices, or trying to counsel a new way to practice Buddhism. This is strictly a metaphysical exercise.

Is there a cosmic “Absolute” or is there not? That is the question. Can traditional theists be Buddhists? Buddhist practice, I am saying, cannot conflate with an Absolute without abandoning its unique focus on the pre-existence of that reality which makes nirvana possible: emptiness understood as radical metaphysical contingency.

(Many people erroneously think of “emptiness” in psychological terms, as a “realization,” a subjective appropriation of the objective metaphysical fact which translates into a kind of self-deprecation. I do not mean that. I am using the word as Nagárjuna originally meant it: metaphysically. Nothing has its own “stand alone” being. “Emptiness,” sunyata, is a phenomenological description of the nature of reality.)

Nirvana pre-exists as dharmakaya because the organic matter of our bodies, when undistorted and unencumbered, exists naturally in a state of serene self-embrace: inner peace and abiding joy. For me it corresponds to the definition of material energy as existential ― i.e., matter is the very energy to exist, hence it is pure “act,” esse, necessarily one with itself, utterly undivided.

This, I am claiming, has nothing to do with reward or metamorphosis or imitation, implying an absent “reality” outside the living human organism that needs to be inserted or infused or in some other way added to the human organism to give it meaning and a reason for self-accep­tance. The organism needs nothing outside itself . . .   and therefore that fact creates a presumption that there is nothing outside the matter’s energy-in-process that constitutes the human individual, i.e., there is no non-material “soul” with an eternal destiny. The empirical “self” is the material reflex for self-preservation, a derivative of matter’s existential nature as self-embrace. Following Spinoza I call it conatus. It is a reflex of this organism. When this organism dissolves, its reflexive “self” disappears.

Embracing (realizing) that reality constitutes “enlightenment.”

This is a metaphysical discussion. I’m trying to say that the psychology of enlightenment in the Buddhist system requires a particular way of understanding reality metaphys­i­cally; and I believe that taking reality as material energy-in-process fulfills that requirement. It explains why Buddhism is not compatible with a non-material, non-changing “Absolute.”

Buddhism has no explicit metaphysics. Nagárjuna’s analysis of “emptiness” in the 2nd century c.e. was an attempt to elucidate the meaninglessness of metaphysics. His book, The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, is not itself a metaphysics. It simply takes possibility after possibility and, in repetitive fashion, shows that nothing you can bring up has its own being.

Buddhism is exclusively a practical program. Buddhism works; even though it does not evoke an Absolute. That fact alone says that a non-material, non-tem­poral Absolute, even if it existed, is irrelevant to human aspirations; but it also suggests that there is no such entity.

Theists generally insist on conceptualizing “God” as an entity that is Absolute. But those who have chosen to practice Buddhism authentically, will have to stop doing that. In fact they will have to stop imagining “God” altogether and simply acknowledge that the contingency of the universe ― the emptiness of all things, including ourselves ― is the only metaphysical “fact” that we can say we “know.”

The rest is beyond our knowledge, but not beyond our loving embrace.