“… the most to be pitied”?

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, of all people we are the most to be pitied.”        

1 Corinthians 15:19

The following is a reprint of a lenthy post from the winter of 2018-19. It is relevant to Easter. It is in three parts, each is about 2,500 words

By Tony Equale

It is never good practice to quote anything out of context. That is especially true of the scrip­tures which are so often used for resolving questions they were never meant to address. In this case, however, the phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians succinctly sums up the argument in the paragraph that preceded it. Paul is in Ephesus and has gotten reports of immorality in the Christian community in Corinth. He is encouraging them to transcend the causes of immoral behavior ― the desire for personal gratification ― by keeping in mind that they will come back to life after death. The awareness of their own imperishable future happiness should dominate their lives.

Besides, it’s guaranteed. “How can you doubt that you will rise from the dead. For if you don’t rise, it would mean that Christ never rose.“ Paul is taking the resurrection for granted, and he is using it as an undebatible fact in order to drive home a point. Faith in one’s own resurrection is assured and enters intrinsically into the mindset of the practicing Christian. The result is detachment from the urges that impel immoral behavior. If there was ever any doubt about what he had in mind, the final statement on the issue made at the end of the chapter should dispel it: “For If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

The implied mechanism triggered by our own resurrection is postponement. Selfish desire is not extirpated, or as the Buddhists would say “snuffed out,” but rather deflected and deferred, and we will be gratified in our new life after the resurrection when we will live again as ourselves, in these bodies and on this earth. Paul’s message, in this sense, is more “human” than the Buddha’s because he doesn’t demand a lifetime of asceticism necessary for quelling desire. But he also doesn’t leave any room for alternative paths.

Paul appears to be saying that the happiness guaranteed to Christians by Christ’s victory over death, is a necessary psychological precondition for living a moral life. This necessity was part of a larger worldview that insisted on the indispensability of Christianity for “salvation.” It explains why there is supposedly no alternative to Christianity. There is “no other name” by which we can be saved, because there is nothing short of eternal life that will persuade us to postpone selfishly pursuing the objects of our desire.

There are scriptural reasons for saying that this was Paul’s view. Paul had been a believing, committed Jew, a Pharisee of strict observance. The orthodox Jewish belief system did not encompass any promise of life-after-death but it did enjoin compliance with the moral law, the Torah, as encoded in the Jewish scriptures. This is relevant because in a letter to the Romans dated around the same time as the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul states quite explicitly that it was impossible to comply with the Torah. This impossibility was so indisputable for Paul that he felt justified in concluding that the commandments were issued for the specific purpose of convincing people they were incapable of even being minimally human (i.e., moral) without the help of God in the form of a miraculous force that Christians later called “grace.”

Now this is extraordinary. If that accurately reflects Paul’s thinking, it would mean that he was accusing all the Jews in the world of living in open hypocrisy, because the law they claimed to follow was not given to be obeyed, but to be disobeyed . . . they had to break it, and if they were good Jews they were breaking it . . . it was God’s will that they should realize their moral impotence. By disobeying the commandments they would be fulfilling the will of God . . . a gross contradiction and an insuperable moral dilemma. Also the litteralist interpretation would imply that Yahweh was not truthful about his “will” that the commandments be obeyed, despite having repeated his demands emphatically and imposed severe punishments, including exile, for non-com­pli­ance.

It is hard for me to believe that Paul was ready to say all that about the same “God” that he was now preaching as the trustworthy loving “Father” who had thrown open the doors of Judaism to the gentiles. If “God” lied about the commandments, who is to say he is not lying about this promise of resurrection?

For these reasons there are many who understand Paul’s explanation in Romans in a very different way. They say it was offered in the spirit of the Genesis parable about the disobedience of Adam. Paul was putting all the pieces of the Christ event together in story form. Similar to a mediaeval morality play, ideas are assigned to personalities whose actions in the drama illustrate the connections among ideas. So in this case, we can all relate to the difficulty of living a moral life. It’s as if we were born with DNA inherited from our disobedient ancestors. That’s why we are prone to be selfish and untrusting of LIFE. “God” knows that, and it’s as if he expected us to fail and didn’t hold it against us. But in order to break the power of Adam’s DNA, God sent Christ who died in an act of perfect obedience. When we are born again in baptism we replace Adam’s DNA with Christ’s. It’s as if we had gained a new ancestor. We inherit Christ’s power to obey; we become fearless. We are able and eager to obey the law that eluded us earlier. We can’t lose. It’s as if “God” injected us with a new human nature.

Please notice the as if’s peppered throughout that paragraph. I contend that’s what Paul meant by his narrative about “Adam’s Sin” and the “obedience of Christ.” It was a parable ― a morality play ― and the characters were Adam and Christ. When Augustine came along almost 400 years later, his Greco-Roman scientific mindset misread the Jewish story-book style that Paul was using to explain things. Augustine took Paul’s statements literally. Besides, his own concept of “God” as an autocratic Roman Lawgiver who was quite capable of trickery and deception in his manipulation of his subjects was altogether consistent with Paul’s narrative.

Paul’s real beliefs stand in stark contrast to Augustine’s ontological interpretation and it is that section of the first letter to the Corinthians that confirms it. Paul saw our own return from the grave as psychologically motivational; there was no hint of an infusion of divine power giving morally impotent creatures an ability that they did not already possess. Human moral behavior was dependent on trust in LIFE, and for Paul the fact that Christ came back from the grave and proved that all human flesh will similarly return to life provided the grounds for a trust that could change our lives from immoral to moral. It allowed us to postpone our desire for gratification.

But notice, trust is the key operator here. It is not the resurrection as a Cosmos-changing event, nor the “grace of God” as a magic potion that miraculously transforms sinners into saints. It is trust. It is knowing that we will transcend death that gives us trust in life. And it’s trust in life that takes away the fear of death and the need for instant and selfish gratification. The resurrection stands as a symbol that death does not define life. Life, and the urges it has implanted in us for more life, can be trusted. Looked at in this way, the Christ event is a human phenomenon and its transformative power is similarly human and non-miraculous. Knowing that we will transcend death motivates us psychologically because it doesn’t demand the negation of our desire for life. It simply gives us a reason to postpone the gratifications that represent life for us. That’s how “salvation” functions. Christ’s sacrifice gave us back the incentive to live a moral life because he himself rose. It gives us back our autonomy. There never was any intention on Paul’s part to define humankind as morally impotent. Paul, like any theologian, was trying to have the facts of faith make sense.


But just because Christian motivation based on the resurrection makes sense doesn’t mean that no other way can, which is what Paul’s opening statement seems to imply. The Buddha, for one, does not seem to think an afterlife provides any significant motivation for human behavior. He finds sufficient motivation in the simple desire to be happy living justly and compassionately in human community while we are alive. Like the Jews of the OT, he saw living the moral law ― the Dharma, which guaranteed social harmony ― as the greatest happiness that one can experience as a human being on this earth. He enjoined living morally as the essence of present joy and happiness, not as a condition for some future reward in another life. The Dharma, like the Torah, created a human family characterized by loving-kindness. Buddha was very explicitly calling for moral compliance with this life only in view. And paradoxically for Paul, Buddha thought that knowing you were going to die and disappear was actually beneficial because it exposed short term, gross selfish gratifications ― immoral behavior ― as meaningless and unsatisfying pursuits that did not last, did not produce a just and compassionate community and could not transcend the impermanence that embitters human life.

In this imaginary dialog between Buddha and Paul, it seems we have two dichotomously different beliefs about selfish desire which imply two different views of the human capacity to construct a just society. The Buddha says you can get rid of them by controlling your thinking; Paul says you can’t get rid of them. You can only postpone them . . . which requires that they be satisfied after death. Hence the resurrection is necessary because of the insatiability of human desire. That means to accept Christ without believing in the resurrection, is to miss the heart of the matter. The point was to give us back our power to live like intelligent, autonomous human beings in a community of loving kindness. But that can only happen if we believe we are going to live forever with all desires satisfied.

So it seems there are good reasons for saying that Paul believed that incorporation into the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for all. He was convinced there was no other way we can live a moral life and create a community of loving kindness. Given this scenario about human nature, there is no alternative to being Christian.

No Other Name?

But there is a problem with Paul’s insistence on postponement. If Christian resurrection is absolutely necessary, that leaves the rest of the world absolutely without hopeAlso, even for Christians, if happiness is possible only after death, there is no incentive to construct communities of loving-kindness during life.  Such communities will only occur as an accidental by-product of the trust inspired by resurrection.  They are not what we really want, anyway.  What we want are the postponed gratifications promised after death.

But also, look what happens if suddenly it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a faith-based projection ― that there was no literal physical resurrection — that it was symbolic.   In that case, according to Paul, we are all lost.  There is no possibility for any human being to live a moral life, for without the resurrection there is no motivation sufficient for postponement.  Look also at what it had to have meant for the centuries of Jews who lived and died before Christ.  They had no resurrection to believe in. They had to have failed to achieve the minimum humanity enjoined by the Torah and demanded by Yahweh.  Many claim that this is precisely what Paul was saying in Romans. Humankind could not conquer selfish desire any other way.  The resurrection was necessary because of Original Sin.

Another point that emerges from this analysis is that even though the necessity that Paul projected was not ontological, as Augustine thought, but psychological, nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that Augustine got the essential dynamic right. He caught the drift of Paul’s thinking, if not its literal meaning. For Paul was indeed talking about the necessity of sin, and therefore the necessity of the resurrection. Sin was necessary because of the distrust of life embedded in Adam’s disobedience which all of humankind inherited, and the resurrection was necessary in order to restore that trust.

These observations form the basis of a counter argument to Paul’s. My contention is (1) that belief in one’s own resurrection, while it may be effective in neutralizing dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and (2) the same noetic effect ― the realization that LIFE can be trusted ― can be achieved through an appreciation of one’s possession of the common and universal material that is responsible for the existential presence of our cosmos and everything in it. Detachment as the ground of morality depends on trust in LIFE, which is what resurrection symbolizes. (3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behavior being practiced all over the world, in every culture and religion, many like Buddhism that eschew any talk of resurrection. Paul’s claim that the Torah could not be obeyed was a projection that derived perhaps, from his own personal failings. His assertion that the purpose of the Torah was to reveal moral impotence is a pure self-serving concoction with no basis in reality or scripture. (4) The negative historical effects of the culture-wide belief in the unique and unparalleled necessity of Christianity just to live a moral human life provide evidence of the destructive nature of this belief. In the hands of the Roman Empire which made Christianity its State religion, it provided the justification for the conquest and religious subjugation of other cultures, who had to be, by definition, inhuman, satanic and who would only benefit from enslavement to Christian masters. This “religious imperialism” was in full force a thousand years later during the enslavement of Africa and the Americas carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were Catholics, and continued on for another five hundred years by “Reformed” Protestant Christians in the form of an expanding Western military and economic domination of the third world justified as “mission.”

Finally, when Paul says that “if we have believed in Christ only with this life in view …” he is implicitly saying that Jesus’ message and the example of his life without his resurrection from the dead is worthless. Jesus preaching is of no value, and those of us who have heard his words and embrace him as a wise moral/spiritual teacher “are the most to be pitied.” It is here that Paul’s clear theological priorities emerge into full view. Paul’s idea of Jesus is dominated by what Paul sees as Jesus’ place in salvation history. Jesus is not just a human individual, to Paul, he is “the Christ” ― a concept of salvific significance in the overall Jewish relationship to Yahweh. Jesus’ message and manner of life was of virtually no interest to Paul; and he does not acknowledge the fact that Jesus himself never mentions the salvific impact of his own coming resurrection as creating the emotional detachment necessary for living a moral life.

We have to frankly admit that Jesus’ message of justice, forgiveness, compassion and loving kindness was launched entirely on the standard traditional motivations that characterized Judaism at that time. It’s also true that in all his preaching as recorded in the gospels, Jesus never once mentions Original Sin as being the very reason for his presence on earth and the purpose of his mission, which is what Paul claimed . . .  nor that Original Sin made us incapable of being moral, nor that the commandments were issued only to reveal our inability to obey them. If the very things that Paul is claiming are the core of the Christ event, were not even mentioned by Jesus, it would appear that Christians have an anomaly of mammoth proportions to resolve. That the two primary sources of the Christian vision of things ― Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus ― should display such a profound inconsistency with one another, suggests an elaboration of such originality on the part of Paul as to amount to a new and separate religion entirely. Jesus’ motivation for obeying the Torah was the simple imitation of our loving, generous, forgiving father. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paul’s obsession with (his) addiction to gross gratifications and the motivational impact that coming back to life after death would have on the addict.

So I would say, along with the people to whom Jesus message was originally directed, “what we have heard, what our eyes have seen and we have looked on and our hands have touched” has opened our eyes to what we really are ― what we now realize we have known all along ― that we are the offspring of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It is precisely with this life in view that we have come to embrace the message of Jesus also called the Christ.

Dec 28, 2018


“. . . the most to be pitied.”? (II)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”       

1 Corinthians 15:19

That statement of Paul’s was uncharacteristic of a Jew. In Paul’s time, Jews did not believe in an after-life.  Besides, the remark had an arrogant and demanding tone that was more typical of Greek attitudes dominated by the belief that human beings were immaterial spirits unnaturally imprisoned in their bodies of matter.  The Greeks were focused on an “other world” of divine spirit where our “souls” supposedly originated and to which they returned at death after escaping from their dungeons of flesh. They were quite passionate about it. If a world­view did not relate to the existence of the immortal human spirit, it was not worth considering. We are not animals.

The mystery religions that flourished in the ancient Mediterranean world reflected this Greek obsession with spirit and the afterlife. And it was to the mystery religions that Paul turned for an interpretation of the Christ event. Paul taught that the Christian was ritually immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ the way the mystēs was immersed in the death and resurrection of Demeter and Orpheus, Isis and Mithra. For Paul, the resurrection was more than a sign of divine approval for Jesus’ authenticity as a messenger, it became the message itself, the mysterion (Latin: sacramentum), the ritual-vehicle that would transport us to the other world. In a thoroughly Hellenized culture where religious practice was constituted by the pursuit of life after death, one can understand the appeal of Paul’s proclamation. Christianity, because of this emphasis of Paul, stopped being a heterodox Jewish sect and became a Greco-Roman religious cult.

The paradox that lies under the surface of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew and expressed none of the focus on life after death that was central to Paul’s message. Jesus’ preaching as reported in the gospels, was most definitely “for this life only.” This is more than a mere matter of emphasis. Jesus did not offer life after death as the motivation for the humble, generous, just and loving behavior he encouraged. In the tradition of Job and the Jewish prophets he conspicuously avoided any motivation based on reward or punishment either in this life or after death. The motivation, like the behavior he called for, was love. He told his fellow Jews to imitate their loving Father who was just, compassionate, generous and forgiving. “Be like your heavenly Father who makes the sun shine equally on the just and the unjust.” . . .   His model prayer, the “Our Father” said “forgive us as we forgive others.”

Paul and Jesus

I believe what we are dealing with are two very different religious visions: (1) Jesus’ renewal of Judaism grounded in an emphatic re-characterization of Yahweh as “loving Father” and the rejection of earlier imagery that painted him as warrior king and punitive lawgiver, and (2) Paul’s focus on the Hellenistic pursuit of life-after-death, proven by the real resurrection of Jesus to be more than wishful thinking, confirming Greek hopes.

The arrogance of Paul’s statement is a first clue that his message was different from Jesus’. Paul sits in judgment on reality itself and finds it wanting. If living morally is the only way to be authentically human, and we are not able to live moral lives without radically altering the natural course of human life which ends in death, then, indeed, it is not possible to be human, because there is no way to avoid death. I believe it was Paul’s merger of the two sources of his formation that accounts for this bizarre metaphysical judgmentalism. The Greeks had decided that their theory about the immortal immaterial soul was scientific truth, and those that did not accept it had to believe that we were only animals. The Jews, for their part, were convinced that they were God’s chosen tribe destined to political supremacy over all the other tribes in the world. If Jesus was the messiah, for Paul it meant that God was bringing the whole world into submission to Jewish salvation history. Put these two delusions together as Paul did in his own head and you’ve got an ideology with an attitude. It laid the foundations for Christianity’s subsequent tendency to demand the submission of all other traditions to its own.

But consider how presumptuous this is. Paul claims to know exactly what God’s intentions are for humankind and therefore how “God” structured the world and directed human history. In Paul’s attitude there is nothing of Job’s blinding insight that, while he could not explain Yahweh’s behavior, he realized he knew so little that his only valid reaction had to be an awed silence.

Job’s was the proper reaction. If God is as utterly unknowable and his designs as unfathomable as theists have always claimed, then the door must be left open for possibilities that we cannot imagine. Who are we to decide that death, which, is the destiny of absolutely every single living thing on earth, is “unnatural” in the case of humankind . . . a claim our Platonist Christianity has sustained for two millennia despite the indisputable evidence that every single last human being that has ever lived has died and no “immortal soul” has ever been encountered.

Besides, by arrogantly deciding that if resurrection is not part of the picture “we are the most to be pitied,” Paul is implying that alternatives are not authentic and cannot be considered reliable guides to life. He ignores the fact that Jesus himself encouraged people to live moral lives without ever invoking resurrection following the entire Jewish tradition for a thousand years before him. Were Jesus’ listeners being misled? Were all those people to be pitied?

Don’t misunderstand. I am not trying to disprove the resurrection. That’s not my point. I would personally be overjoyed if we were all to come back to life as ourselves to be united once again with the people we love. I am not hoping there is no resurrection, I’m simply saying, against Paul, that even if there is no resurrection, nothing changes. Our sense of the sacred and our trust in LIFE remain the same. No one is to be pitied. Faith in the resurrection might make it easier for some to live a moral life, but that doesn’t invalidate other views. All are obliged by their humanity to be moral, even those who find resurrection incredible.

Resurrection is either real or it’s not. If Christian beliefs are true, my denying them won’t make them disappear, any more than believing them will create them.   Whatever the case may be, we have absolutely no control over what happens to us after death. All we know is that we die and we cannot bring ourselves back to life. That means that if we are to come back to life someone or something else that we cannot see or control has to do it. It is not in our hands. Everyone is equally powerless. Christians have no more control than anyone else. They, too, have to trust that “God” will bring them back to life after death.


This finally brings us to the core of the issue: trust. Belief in the resurrection does not change reality, it changes my attitude toward reality. It offers no more guarantees than human life itself in whose processes we have to trust implicitly.

For consider: Our dependency on the forces of LIFE is so universal, so deep and so insuperable that no matter how willfully selfish and anti-social we decide we are going to be, we still have to trust in the biological processes that must continue to function efficiently if we are to carry out our nefarious plans. We have to trust that the multiple organic operations of our bodies, alimentation, respiration, elimination, circulation, the proper release of neurotransmitters guaranteeing perception, insight, thought, memory, many of which we do not fully understand, will work without error or interruption. And then there are the events that create our very identities and roles in society: conception, gestation that brought us from conception to birth fully equipped for life as independent biological organisms, the ontogeny that impeccably brought us to adulthood along with the generative sexuality that allows us to reproduce. None of us has personal authorship or control over any of these things. Everything about us and our life with others has been handed to us, developed over immeasurable eons of deep time by an evolutionary process that has adapted our organisms perfectly to our environment. We have implicit trust in all this. We have no choice. Trust in LIFE is the sea we swim in. It is the inescapable attitude, conscious or not, that characterizes the relationship that we have to being-here. Our organisms are programmed ― they are hard-wired ― to trust in LIFE.

Trust in death

Given that trust is the very condition that defines us, it should come as no great surprise that even as our lives wind down and we approach death, we are spontaneously inclined to continue to trust. The fear of death is a learned response; it should not be confused with the flight from danger which is a biological instinct, a reaction to a living perception that evaporates as soon as the threat has passed. Death is different. The organism has no notion of death because no one living has ever experienced it. Death is a mental construct, pure product of the imagination. Trust, I contend is instinctive. It is the simple seamless continuation of the way we live our lives from moment to moment. Given that life is a very long unbroken series of trusting moments no one is spontaneously inclined to suddenly decide that some next moment cannot be trusted. Something has to intervene to break that chain.

It is very difficult to be afraid of the moment of death without conceptual intervention and a considerable amount of projection. We imagine what death must be because we see what it has done to all the people that have passed through it. Using this gathered data, our minds create an abstract concept which, in fact, is at odds with our spontaneous trusting expectations. Our instinctive inclination is to embrace with joy each now moment as part of the process of living.

Now resurrection, life-after-death, is itself a projection of the imagination that is obviously generated to neutralize the death-concept. No one living has ever experienced resurrection, even those that claim to believe in it. But it is even more remote than death, for while we have evidence that people have died, no one living has ever seen anyone who has come back from the dead. All “data” in this regard come from the records of ancient people who themselves are dead, and never came back to life. That the belief in resurrection can overcome such a huge credibility gap tells you how powerful the urge is to trust LIFE.

Now my point in all this is to identify “human bedrock,” by which I mean the ground beneath which there is no ground. It is the sine qua non for living a human life. Resurrection is not bedrock, as Paul’s arrogant statement seems to claim, a psychological human need so deep that without it, it is impossible to live humanly. For resurrection as a psychological operator functions as magnet for a trust in LIFE. It restores the trust that our organisms are programmed for.

I contend that trust in LIFE is human psychological bedrock. And that means that without trust in LIFE we cannot lead human lives, we cannot be sane, we cannot be moral, we cannot love ourselves or others, we cannot build a human world. And the trust we have in LIFE, while it gives us absolutely no information whatsoever about what happens to us as conscious identifiable selves after death, has the potential to override the absence of evidence about life after death.

But in order for it to do that, trust in LIFE has to neutralize the exaggerated import­ance of the self which, to my mind, is at the root of Paul’s arrogance. Resurrection as we have imagined it correlates to the human individual self. Our trust in life has been detoured into an expectation that the individual “self” will live forever. The bitterness and disillusionment characteristic of modern times in the lands of the West, in my opinion, is directly due to having been sold a bill of goods about our selves that was sheer fantasy. Having taken Paul seriously, when it became clear to many that there was no resurrection, their love of life itself was destroyed by the conviction that “we are the most to be pitied.”

The “Self”

I believe that the transcendent importance that we have accorded ourselves as identifiable self-conscious individuals, (requiring resurrection if we are to trust LIFE) is a cultural phenomenon, not metaphysical. It is characteristic of Western Christianity and the cultures that it has shaped. It is the result of the artificial expansion and intensification of a psychological focus on oneself that was always open to being situated anywhere along a fairly wide spectrum of importance. In other words, it is our culture that has made the “individual” the super-important thing that we project it to be. Our culture under the tutelage of our dualistic religion has cultivated the appreciation of the individual person well out of proportion to what it might have received from other cultures. We are not unaware of this. For many it is a source of great pride and admiration. It has given rise to what we call western values which includes the dubious legacy of belief in our superiority and the right to impose our way of life on the rest of the world.

That importance is culturally inflated but not created out of nothing. Self-awareness and self-prioritization is a universal biological experience. All animal organisms display it. But, falsely defining the human person as a “divine” eternal “spirit” destined to live forever without the body precisely because the “self” is not the material biological organism it appears to be, is the cultural bellows that forced air artificially into the “self” expanding it in size and visibility. The individualism of the West is an exaggerated, overblown, cultural artifact grounded in the unfounded belief in the separable human spirit as a metaphysical “thing” of divine provenance, different from every other thing in the material universe. The cultural context of belief in the human “soul” as immaterial immortal spirit skews the perception of what the human individual is, well beyond the conclusions that would be drawn by experience if left alone. The evidence that we are material biological organisms is undeniable; but there is no evidence that there is an immaterial thing called a “soul” that continues to exist after the death of the body, none whatsoever.

Once the exaggerated importance accorded to the human person has been reduced to the proportions that the evidence will support, we are left with a biological organism that is able to perform extraordinary functions that go beyond what organic matter in other biological configurations is capable of, but at no point do they propel it out of the orbit of the organic and biological. Even the human mind, which we identify as the “self,” is a material phenomenon whose human functions can deteriorate beyond recognition well before they cease entirely at death.

Trust in LIFE, then, is trust in the material processes, micro and macro, physical, chemical, biological, from which human beings have been elaborated and in which they remain immersed and borne along. Trust is a direct corollary of the recognition that we ourselves are an emergent form of the matter-in-process that constitutes this entire cosmos of things. We trust the process because we are the emanations of the process. We are evolving LIFE in its most forward manifestation. It has produced us and elaborated in the most exquisite detail all the organic tools we would need to interact successfully with the environment. Both that and what we are we owe to the process. Death is an integral part of it.

The key is to not be distracted by the fears and apprehensions generated by the mind, for we have no idea what death brings. And like Job, our ignorance calls us to silence. Whatever death brings is what LIFE has devised as a necessary component of our being-here. We have to trust it. We know no more about it than our coming-to-be-here itself. If we have trusted LIFE implicitly up until now what could possibly cause us to stop trusting it into the future, except unrealistic expectations based on who we have been told to think we are. Our unnatural demand that we live forever as our “selves” is born of the delusion that we are not part of nature and that what applies to the rest of biological life constructed of organic matter does not apply to us. It’s time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy, which indeed makes us, of all of living things in this vast and awesome universe, the most to be pitied.

Jan 19, 2019


“. . . the most to be pitied”? (III)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”

1 Corinthians 15:19

There are many indications in the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and most basic collections of the Buddha’s sayings, that he took for granted that human behavior would be judged after death.  But as a motivator, these traditional Hindu beliefs about re-incarnation kept the focus fixed on this world because the punishment for failing to live a moral life was to return to earth until you do.  The Buddha translated that to mean you would remain enslaved to the same insane insistence on chasing pleasure and amassing the resources needed for creating a secure permanent self ― goals that are simply impossible in a universe where everything composes and decomposes ― that caused your re-birth. It turns living into an endless cycle of insuperable frustration. No worse punishment could be conceived.

Buddha said delusional craving was the cause of all the human-generated suffering that individuals inflict on themselves and on others, with whom they compete in a zero-sum game of amassing the wind. It was to that ensuing suffering, dukkha, that Buddha addressed himself exclusively. Dukkha was that anguish, unique to human beings, that came from yearning uncontrollably for what is not available: permanent happiness. It was his only motivation: ending dukkha.

Buddha did not see the problem as the absence of the object of our insane quest as Paul did, but rather the quest itself. It’s not that what we yearn for is not at hand . . . impelling us to look for it or pray for it or create it which only intensifies the craving  . . . but the craving itself, which is insatiable. Once the thirst is seen as the true problem and we begin to direct our efforts at eliminating it, we make a consequent discovery that would not have occurred to us otherwise: we never really needed the thing we thought we could not live without. The cessation of craving which brings the end to human suffering, is the doorway to a realization ― a well-kept secret ― we already have everything we need to live in a state of continuous joy. That realization and its deliberate habituation through meditation into a steady state-of-mind, he called nirvana ― the other shore.

Notice: with enlightenment nothing physical or metaphysical changes. You are living in the same world, with the same experiences you’ve always had. The only difference is that you experience these things without selfish desire. Once craving for what does not satisfy ceases, clinging to life in order to continue amassing what does not satisfy also ceases. Hence you “go beyond life and death.” You can embrace death with equanimity, which is sometimes expressed as “going beyond being and non-being.” But enlightenment is accompanied by a new joy in living; it is not a yearning for death, a misconception we will deal with later.

Now the Buddha did not expect that this emotional transformation from living in a state of constant craving and dissatisfaction to a joyful embrace of reality as it really is (in its “suchness”) would take place easily or instantaneously. He offered a program for the long-term re-educa­tion of the conatus through the practice of meditation, mindful attention to the present moment, faithful dedication to morally (socially) right living, and the controlled withdrawal from the automatic pursuit of what we like, and avoidance of what we don’t like.

He did not define good behavior as obedience to a “God”-person, but rather as the intelligent concurrence with the common sense norms that guaranteed health, individual peace of mind and harmony in the human community. He called those norms the Dharma and they were ends in themselves. The word Dharma had the sense not of a code of laws issued by a ruling divinity but rather the “Law of Nature” or “the way things are.” Following the Dharma was like having a healthy life-style; it made you strong, stable and clear-headed. His entire focus was “with this life in view.” He related neither to a “God” who dwelt in another world nor to any suggestion that human beings would want to live there rather than here. It simply was not part of his perspective. His only goal was to end dukkha.

Just as the Buddha’s program was not a compliance with external norms, it was also not an intellectual exercise, a drawing of practical conclusions from theoretical assumptions and premises. The Buddha claimed he was simply putting into words the experiences he himself had gone through. It was the carefully articulated and meticulously detailed directions for changing the emotions. He assured his listeners that it worked. It necessarily achieved the transformation of the emotions, but it did not do so directly.

The agent of change was to end the craving that provided the emotional interface that shaped and colored reality as we perceived it. By eliminating the craving for objects of desire, suddenly those objects began to be perceived differently. What they were, changed, because the “fog” of desire through which they were perceived had disappeared. Specifically, the frustration and “unsatifactoriness” of all of life ― the suffering, the sorrow ― that accompany ceaseless cravings is transformed into the experience of continuous joy.

That is not the conclusion of a syllogism. No one who has not experienced it can prove that it is true. And that transformation from sorrow to joy cannot be experienced unless someone practices the program ― does the hard, slow and incremental work of “starving the tiger,” eliminating craving by denying its urgings which in turn require changing the mindset and the behavior that nourish it. All the proofs come from experience, and the results are counter-intuitive. It feels like we are denying ourselves what we really want, but in reality we are beginning to embrace things as they really are, without the strobe-light fantasies of our selfish desires laying a blinding dazzle, or repulsiveness, on reality that is really not there.

Buddhism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition

The transformation of the emotions and the cessation of desire are not religious objectives for those who have been brought up in the Judaeo-Christian traditions of Western Europe. We are focused more narrowly on change of behavior. This, of course, is due to the emphasis on obeying the commandments, codified in the Hebrew scriptures, which enjoin right behavior alone. Personal health, individual peace of mind and a harmonious, prosperous community were the results of compliance with the Creator’s will but were thought to be gifts personally bestowed by God as a reward for obedience.

When compared with the Judaeo-Christian vision, notice how the Buddhist process inverts, or at least subordinates the place of behavior in the scheme of things. “Right behavior” for the Buddha is the instrument, the tool, the “practice” that will eventually end craving. Right behavior while it is an end in itself is not the end of the process as it is for the followers of “the Book.” It is rather the path to the ending of suffering which only comes when craving ends.

Contrariwise, since the very object of the Judaeo-Christian believer is right behavior as the expression of submission to “God” in creaturely obedience, once that right behavior is achieved, the very goal of religious pursuit has been attained. The process ends. The conditions for moral living have been satisfied, there is no theoretical reason why anyone should go further. The only thing remaining is sustaining it.

But that is exactly where the problem is. If the craving has not ceased but is only postponed, which is what Paul’s argument in Corinthians implies, its constant suppression in forcing right behavior tends to create a heightened emotional tension. Two psycho-spiritual effects can result from this unremitting tension: (1) the practitioner falls, i.e., fails to sustain the right behavior and yields to the craving. This corresponds to Paul’s complaint in Romans that the good he willed he could not do , and the evil he did not want to do he did. Or (2) the practitioner does not fall but by not having eliminated the craving becomes “miserable.” Devotees generate a subconscious anger because of unsatisfied desire that turns life bitter. Self-direc­ted anger in modern parlance is called depression. Ancient Christian desert Fathers had accurately identified this one-two punch almost two millennia ago. They called it despondency.[1]

This state of unsatisfied desire experienced continuously over a long period of time creating depression and anger can intensify and broaden until it becomes all-consuming for the individual. The “sorrow” loses its specificity and grows to include all of experienced reality. Life itself, for the eternally frustrated, becomes a torment that one yearns to have end. The bitterness expressed in the mediaeval poem Carmina Burana immortalized by Carl Orff in his striking musical piece, reflects exactly this almost unbearable domination of the poet by his/her frustrated desires. This can create a craving for extinction.

Buddha was not unaware of this potential development. He was quite emphatic that his call for the elimination of selfish desire ― sometimes called “extinguishment” ― should not be confused with a craving for extinction, a form of nihilism. Buddha did not condemn all desire. Desire is good if we desire what is good and in the measure in which its satisfaction is good and possible. Following the Dharma guarantees that desire will be wholesome and balanced. He called it “the middle way” and it corresponded to the Greek ideal of the mean between two extremes. Buddhists generally are careful to modify the desire that is to be eliminated as “selfish,” which they describe as “bound up with passion and greed.” Texts in the Tripitaka of the Pali Canon use the word trishna meaning “thirst.” It is most often translated as “craving” and they identify three kinds: “there are these three cravings. Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings.” [2]

The first is self-explanatory. The second refers to the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” which claims that all things, including one’s own body and resulting psychological identity, are in fact the products of the “dependent co-arising” of a multitude of causes all of which enter constitutively into the actual reality that we call the self. There is really “no self” apart from the existence and healthy functioning of its causes. When they disappear, the “self” disappears. It is we, then, from selfish desire who generate the fiction that we are not our multitude of causes ― that we are separate and independent of them and that we will not disappear when our causes cease to function. This craving and the passionate pursuit of permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment that it engenders is a major cause of the suffering we heap on ourselves and others.

The third, the desire for extinction, is also a craving. It is the eventual result of the despondency and despair that accompanies the eternal frustration of selfish desire. It’s what results from the failure to satisfy the first two cravings ― a failure that is inevitable ― and the failure to let them go. One commentator on the Dhammapada describes the craving for extinction as: “. . . the oppressive desire for self-oblivion or self-destruction prompted by the revulsion with life that comes as the fruits of selfishness turn rotten and bitter.”[3]

This thirst for extinction is the polar opposite of the desire for nirvana, the release from the cycle of birth and death. Nirvana is the release from trishna (“thirst,”) itself, from the torment and conditioning of selfish desire; its characteristic features are joy, a love of life and the highest of all purposes, the desire and capacity to give.[4]

It is difficult to ignore the implication of the Buddhist program: that the Pauline insistence on the resurrection (which molted historically in the West into the traditional emphasis on reward and punishment after death) represents exactly the obsessive craving for permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment of the human person that the Buddha identified as one of the major causes of human suffering. In fact it might be fair to say that Buddhism represents precisely the effort to identify that obsession as delusional and let it go. And the irony is, that when the cessation of desire is achieved and the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and permanent existence disappears, the desire for extinction that accompanies frustrated desire also disappears. Depression evaporates even as a possibility and the resulting spontaneous love of life produces an abiding joy and release of energy that has caused people to claim they had been “reborn.” All cravings can be let go, and the craving for extinction is revealed in that moment as something we had been clinging to because we did not want to let go of the selfish desires for permanent existence and happiness that generated it.

Paul’s pity expressed in the epigram from 1 Corinthians is an indication that he never contemplated the possibility that desire could be “extinguished” and that those who achieved it would no longer need to have such desires satisfied in the afterlife. For Paul, it appears, selfish desire was insuperable. Either you delay gratification until the afterlife, or you act out your desires here.

Whatever the actual case for resurrection turns out to be, two and a half millennia of Buddhist practice contradicts the argument that without it we are condemned to lives of gross immorality. Jesus himself never displayed any lack of confidence in his listeners’ ability to do what was right, and live with joy and generosity, once they understood that they were in the loving embrace of a forgiving “father.” I feel supported in my trust in LIFE when I hear of people following Jesus’ “way” with this life only in view. Their attitude shows an unconditional appreciation for LIFE and trust in its processes.

Jan 26, 2019


[1] Bunge, Gabriel, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 2012 (1983)

[2] Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses, 38:10 (Kindle Locations 14736-14737)

[3] Stephen Ruppenthal, introductory remarks to chapter 24 of the Dhammapada, tr. Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 232.

[4] Ibid.



A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

This is a reprint of a two-part article posted in July and August of 2017.

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.


The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction to the latest re-issue of the book, blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely. While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue. The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930. Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.


I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed. Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed. You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks disingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017



“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

by Tony Equale

This is a second commentary on Brian Moore’s 1972 novel, Catholics, made into a movie with Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard in the seventies entitled The Conflict.

A reminder of the story-line: an Irish monastic community has been offering mass in Latin with back to the people and hearing individual confessions in violation of the explicit prohibition by the official Church. This is the background to the entire novel — the rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. It’s what provided the initial tension, brought the Vatican envoy to the monastery, and turned out to be the horizon against which all the characters had to define themselves, especially the abbot who, unknown to all, had lost his faith. The novel ends with the monks’ capitulation to obedience and the abbot’s act of spiritual self-immolation: he kneels to pray with his monks.

My previous post, “Catholics,” published on July 28th, dealt with the abbot’s ordeal which I believe was the main point of the novel; in this reflection I want to address the theological anatomy of the background issue that gave rise to the conflict: the real presence.

The problem was elaborated thematically by Moore in the form of a dispute argued between the secretly unbelieving abbot, Tomás O’Malley, and the dozen or so monks who had gathered in the chapel on the night of the Vatican envoy’s arrival. The monks were determined to continue their current practice of making the sacraments available to people in the traditional ante-conciliar Tridentine form. Their passion came directly from their theology: they believed that the bread and wine literally — physically — became the body and blood of Christ. It was, they said, a miracle.

They believed it principally because it was what the Council of Trent taught and what they had accepted on faith since their childhood from the Church they considered “infallible.” It could not have been clearer:

If anyone denies that the sacrament of the holy eucharist really and substantially contains the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore the whole Christ, but says, rather that [Christ] is there as in sign, or figuratively, or potentially: anathema sit. (Ann. 1551, Cc. Trident.. Sess. XIII; Denzinger-Schönmetzer, #883, #1651, p.389)

The decree, issued in 1551, in an unusual departure from scriptural language, in the next paragraph actually used the word transubstantiation, a philosophical term, unmistakably Aristotelian in character, employed by Thomas Aquinas to explain scientifically the nature of the transformation. “Transubstantiation” meant, in the terms understood by Aristotelian mediaeval science, “literally, physically.” The material “thing” that was there looked like bread and wine, but was really the body and blood of Christ. When the monks, in their contentious dialog with the abbot, say that anything else is heresy, they were standing on solid ground. The Council of Trent was very clear: si quis negaverit … anathema sit. Roughly translated: if you say otherwise … may you burn in hell!

Vatican II made no change to the Tridentine formula, and even alluded to the significant disparity between Catholics and other Christians over the eucharist, citing specifically the crucial difference made by the sacrament of orders. I think that is very revealing. But the Council also said in various places that the eucharistic bread was to be taken as a symbol of the loving nature of the Christian community. If both the Council of Trent and Vatican II were not in conflict about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, why was there such a problem in Moore’s story for the monks and the many people who shared their point of view?

The problem, I claim, even beyond the deep habituation to the worship of the host for over 500 years prior to Vatican II, is one of common sense logic. It affected many people at the time of the conciliar changes, and I believe it explains why Moore put it in the mouth of the monks. Let me state it very simply: if the eucharistic bread and wine is really and literally “Christ himself,” then that overwhelming fact will necessarily eclipse any other religious significance you may try to give it. It’s common sense. To insist on another meaning is implicitly to detract from the “real presence.” The liturgical reforms intentionally ignored the overwhelming nature of the doctrine of the real presence.

Both symbolisms were inherited by mediaeval Christians from the ancient Church, but the insistence on the real presence took over to the detriment of the “family meal.” I claim that is a natural consequence of the absence of parity between those two aspects of the doctrine. It stands to reason: if it’s really “God,” what else is there to think about? It explains Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark quoted by Ellsberg in the introduction: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Vatican II encouraged a return to origins. According to early Christian documents the eucharist was originally a meal of fellowship. Its historical evolution from being a symbol of Christian community, to being literally, physically, the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of the risen Christ, is the key to this whole flap and is worth taking time to understand. Not surprisingly, the “problem” is rooted in the erstwhile Platonism that dominated Christian thinking for more than half its historical life.

There are few historical gaps in our knowledge of what was going on during the entire two thousand years of Christian experience. One of those gaps, however, occurred very early. We do not know how the current hierarchical structure of bishops, priests and laity actually evolved out of the more egalitarian formations recorded in the New Testament. All we know is that by the time Constantine chose Christianity as the Roman State Religion, it was all in place. The sacrament of orders conferred special powers on ordained priests that the merely baptized lay people did not possess.

Together with those changes the Church also began to announce its message in terms that revealed its approval of the categories of Platonic philosophy. That process culminated in the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices and direct control of the Roman Emperor where the divinity of Christ was definitively described as homoousios — “consubstantial” — a Greek philosophical word, not found anywhere in scripture, to explain how Christ was “God.”

In the century after the Council numerous Christian theologians, east and west, began the process of interpreting the tenets of the faith, and following the lead of Nicaea, continued to do so in Platonic terms. What does that mean?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two seminal ideas characteristic of Platonism that set it apart from other worldviews and that affected the Christian understanding of its beliefs. The first is that ideas are not just mental states but are substantive realities in their own right that reside in another world, a World of Ideas, which was identified as the Mind of God. So “justice” is not just an idea of ours, an “opinion,” it is a real reality with objective defining features that derive from its objective “scientific” literal reality as an archetype. Our idea of justice is a reflection (as in a mirror) of the “Justice” that dwells in God’s Mind.

The second notion that characterizes Platonism is that ideas are immaterial; they are able to compenetrate matter so that ideas (forms) suffuse and inform “matter” which is formless. That compenetration allows for a phenomenon they called participation.

Participation means that the reality of the material things that we see is derived from the reality of the ideas that inform them. “Matter” is devoid of reality. Only “ideas” have reality, and impart their reality to matter. The concrete thing, therefore, participates in reality through the real ideas that define it. The words of consecration over the bread and wine brought to mind the idea of the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the idea, which enjoyed archetypal reality, conferred that reality on the bread and wine — the symbols that evoked it. So it was said that Christ was really present in the bread and wine.

Since matter in the Platonic system is not real, what is happening is that the bread and wine are being allowed to participate in the reality of the idea — as an idea — of Christ’s body and blood. There is no thought of conferring on matter a reality that it is incapable of bearing. In this case the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine, make the idea of Christ present to the minds of the communicants through the symbolic words of the priest, and it’s the idea that is real for Platonists. Christ is really present because the bread and wine together with the words evoke the idea. Thus the symbol, by participating in the reality, is part of that reality. But at no point did the Platonists imagine that the bread and wine themselves actually became the body and blood of Christ. They had too little respect for matter for that.

Enter Aristotle

The rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings in the 12th century produced an enthusiasm among theologians of all faiths, first the Arabs who discovered the manuscripts in the lands they had conquered, and then the Jews and Christians. The rush to incorporate Aristotle into their world­view became something of a competition, with each belief system vying to prove that the prestigious Greek scientist supported and confirmed their worldview.

Aristotle was a dualist like Plato, in that he believed that things were made up of matter and form (ideas), but he differed from Plato on the most basic point. He did not subscribe to the notion that ideas had their own substantive reality. His teaching was that material “things,” what he called “substances,” were comprised of matter and form which were principles of being. Matter and form did not exist on their own apart from one another. Only substances (material things) had existence. An idea was only a passing human mental state. By itself it was not real — it did not exist apart from the mind that was thinking it and while it was thinking it. It was what Aristotle called “an accident,” a phenomenon that existed as part of and dependent on a substance. What something looked like, its color, for example, or its size, were accidents. Bread was a substance, a human being was a substance. But an idea was an accident.

Under Aristotle’s influence reality was seen as a quality only of concrete existing things not ideas; therefore symbols could no longer get a derived reality from the idea. They had to have their own reality as “things.” So the symbol itself, the bread and wine, which was the only concrete thing there, had to become the risen Christ, there was no other way to conceive of the real presence in that system. Theologians imagined that the very “thing” (substance) that was bread, became the very “thing” (substance) that was Christi’s body. They called it transubstantiation, and claimed it could only be explained as a miracle. So the bread and wine went from being a symbol to being Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Both systems referred to it as the real presence. But they meant two totally different things.

Return to symbol?

The difficulty for believers now is that to return to a symbolic interpretation of the eucharist does not reinstate the level of reality that it once had under Platonism. We are no longer Platonists and we cannot return there. We are still in Aristotle’s camp with regard to the basics. Concepts and their words are not independently existing entities for us. We see the concrete thing as the only existing reality. We do not see the idea as real nor that its symbol participates in the divine reality. Many observers have identified the abandonment of Platonism in the 14th century as the beginning of the “disenchantment” of western culture — its turn toward an arid scientism. If we are going to insist on the real presence in terms of that worldview we have no choice but to claim the “thing” in front of us, the bread and wine, is Christ.

This is patently absurd. Take a step back and you realize that the exclusively “Aristotelian” perspective on reality represented by this absurd interpretation has consigned all reality to “things,” and leaves out the reality of the entire world of human social interaction and personal development. This is a truncated view. None of what is specifically human is about “things” or “substantial forms.”

Human reality

Religion is about human reality. Human reality is interpersonal relationships and the individual transformations that turn those relationships either into “hell” or something we can call “divine.” Religion would have us become like “God.” Religion is not about entities or places or “things” — gods, angels, devils, magic rituals, cowled robes, statues, candles, incense, churches, reward in heaven, punishment in hell. It’s about moral and spiritual transformation, the unfolding of individual personalities that sustain just and loving relationships that would turn this earth into a paradise.

The reality of the religious message is inner transformation, and for us from a Christian background, Jesus is the teacher, model and energizer of that transformation. Rituals that claim to provide his real presence, therefore, are real to the extent that they evoke and activate that transformation. The reality of the eucharist is to be found in its transformative power, not in its physical or metaphysical constitution.

In this view, everything remains what it is. There is no supernatural alchemy, there are no magic material transformations. The only thing that changes is the human being who, through the imagery evoked by the eucharistic symbols and using Jesus’ message and life as a blueprint and invitation, transforms himself by consciously re-evaluating the social conditioning that, in order to give him a place in an unjust society, inculcated an egoic defensiveness, a greedy self-projec­tion and a fear and rejection of others as competitors for scarce resources. As the communicant progresses over time in these transformations a new “self” begins to emerge — ironically, the self that preceded the distortions of the social conditioning to selfishness. This is really a return to the unvarnished coherence of the material organism that came to us with birth. It’s not surprising that some have called it a re-birth, and that what emerges is selfless, generous, compassionate and committed to LIFE.

As the conditioning to selfishness and domination of others is incrementally neutralized by the evocative power of the eucharistic ritual and other transformative practices, the “still small voice” of our fleshly organism can be heard clearer and clearer. We come to discover that we were perfect bodies all along, a perfect mirror of the material LIFE that enlivens the universe, now increasingly cleansed of the deformities … the insanities of our delusional, paranoid, egomaniacal culture. We no longer look on our companions in life with anything but compassion for the suffering and anxiety that we continue to heap on one another under the delusion of the need to acquire existence in competition with others. We assume the burden of assuring that no one suffers injustice or rejection. We come to recognize our material organism for the “divine” thing it really is and has been all along. We no longer make the mistake about where “God” is to be found, or what he looks like. We discover that the face of God we have been searching for is our own.

Tony Equale

Aug 12, 2017

CURSE GOD AND DIE …! (Job 2:9)

The following piece is re-posted from October 2009, and is one of the earliest essays published on this blog.

The title of this reflection is intended less dramatically than it might appear. I’m still trying to understand this thing I have called “neo-atheism.” I realize that I have experienced something of it myself, and I want to explore this important and revealing phenomenon. As with Job’s wife, “theism” can take all sorts of forms; and not all are positive.

In an earlier post on this question, I tried to deal with the “pointless” remark of the physicist Steven Weinberg. But Weinberg has written more on the subject than that famous aphorism. The more of him that I read the more I saw my own personal experience reflected in his attitude. For me Weinberg is a key to an understanding of this issue. I want to pursue that connection in this letter. What follows will apply mainly to me. Others can decide whether it applies to them.

I used the term neo-atheist. I sensed from the start that “atheist” was not exactly the right word and “neo-” was an initial attempt to nuance it. As I said there, I have a lot of respect for atheists … and with reference to the absurd supernatural theist “God” of our tradition, I consider myself one. If my own experience is anything of a reliable guide, the phenomenon reveals a paradoxical alternative. Let me explain.

the atheist

The atheist is not an angry person. In my opinion, the true atheist has determined there is no personal source of the suffering and death that besieges human existence. That awareness doesn’t assuage the primary suffering whatever it might be, but at least it eliminates the secondary anguish, endemic to the religions of the Book, created by the maddening thought that “evil” has been intentionally planned or consciously permitted by a rational “God-person.” This same putative “God” was, furthermore, alleged to have the gall to claim that the suffering we undergo is good for us, or worse, that it is good for him (“his glory”) … and though he could, he will do absolutely nothing about it. Such a thought made me mad as hell. Apparently, it also perplexed someone else about 600 BCE … hence the Book of Job.

Weinberg himself gives evidence of an intense passion in this regard. For he doesn’t say his “atheism” results from the simple fact that “God” does not exist (something he always seems to avoid saying), but that the “God” of his people did nothing to stop the holocaust! Starting from there, the randomness he sees as a physicist persuades him there is no “God” who designed the universe. So I’m suggesting his “atheism,” in the first instance, is a reaction to a betrayal, and that establishes an affect, an “attitude” that doesn’t go away. I feel confirmed in that interpretation when I see that he makes use of his “atheism,” not as a simple fact, but rather as an insult. As if saying “you do not exist!” were the ultimate slap-in-the-face to a “God” who claims His very name is “I am Who am.”

… Am I projecting this onto Weinberg? Let’s listen to the man himself:

Religious people have grappled for millennia with the theodicy, the problem posed by the existence of suffering in a world that is supposed to be ruled by a good God. They have found ingenious solutions in terms of various supposed divine plans. I will not try to argue with these solutions, much less to add one of my own. Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers

Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory

There is more than a modicum of sarcasm in this quote from Weinberg. It doesn’t sound like a simple declaration of “no, honey, there is no Santa Claus.” What I hear is open derision of “God” for his impotence or his unconcern … or both.

The next passage is from an article of Weinberg’s based on a talk he gave in 1999 at a science Conference in D.C. A link to the article follows. Here I’ll just include this paragraph:

I don’t need to argue here that the evil in the world proves that the universe is not designed, but only that there are no signs of benevolence that might have shown the hand of a designer. But in fact the perception that God cannot be benevolent is very old. Plays by Aeschylus and Euripides make a quite explicit statement that the gods are selfish and cruel, though they expect better behavior from humans. God in the Old Testament tells us to bash the heads of infidels and demands of us that we be willing to sacrifice our children’s lives at His orders, and the God of traditional Christianity and Islam damns us for eternity if we do not worship him in the right manner. Is this a nice way to behave? I know, I know, we are not supposed to judge God according to human standards, but you see the problem here: If we are not yet convinced of His existence, and are looking for signs of His benevolence, then what other standards can we use?

Steven Weinberg, “A Designer Universe?” A Designer Universe (1).doc

“Not yet convinced”? That phrase is the only reference to atheism in the entire paragraph and it doesn’t quite come across as a resounding declaration that there is simply no “God.” The whole piece is full of smoldering anger embedded in accusatory and disdainful innuendo.

It seems to me that once you decide there is no “God,” there’s no sense being angry, … there’s no one there to get angry at! Well, a lot of persecution has been perpetrated in the name of that “God,” and a lot of false expectation generated, so it’s understandable that there might be some residual anger. But how can Weinberg direct his anger at a “God” that does not exist? The inconsistency here becomes clearer for us if we imagined such anger directed at “Thor” or “Jupiter” ― “gods” that we all agree really don’t exist ― we’d call it nuts! The difference in our reaction corresponds to a difference in the “amount” of non-existence allowed to be there. What does that tell us about Weinberg … and about us?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying Weinberg’s claim to be an atheist, I’m just trying to understand the form it has taken for him … and for those of us who shared his feelings. But I believe it is not peculiar to us as individuals. It is a generalized phenomenon, I believe endemic in our culture. It confirms my allegations about the dysfunctional “theological” inheritance of the “religions of the Book.” An absurd and un-real “God,” in this complicated danse macabre, is alive and well in some strange way and continues to perpetrate deception and injustice.

the Jews

What ends are served by such a subliminal mechanism? Well, for one thing, it means Weinberg does not have to attack Judaism and the perennial Jewish resistance to abandoning their traditions. Jews cling to “Yahweh” with a tenacity that defines them; their fidelity is the ground of their ethnic identity. So Weinberg is in a bind. He cannot berate his people for being naïve and uncritical. Were they to follow his recommendations, they would immediate­ly stop being Jewish … or they would have to accept that being Jewish was only a biological inheritance ― having “Jewish blood” ― a capitulation to the worst of their racist detractors. As the sharp features of old ethnic Jewry fade into the melting pot of modern nations, such an identity becomes meaningless.

However, as a matter of historical fact, the original “blame” for the “God illusion” falls squarely on the Hebrew Scriptures. It was the Jews that provided the narrative and the anthropomorphic Biblical imagery that underlay Christianity and Islam along with their traditional intolerance. The “heads to be bashed” that he alludes to were the Canaanites whom the Hebrews were supposed to exterminate.

Jews, for Weinberg, are by definition victims. They cannot be considered perpetrators. Duped, maybe, but not the promoters of the illusionary “God” ― the “God” that ordered a holocaust of “heathen” in ancient Israel, justifies the genocide of Palestinians today and permitted the Nazi holocaust 70 years ago … events that are all related ― derived from the original commands in Deuteronomy (2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18). That’s the “God” that Weinberg claims must be exorcized by science.

The “God” of the Hebrew Scriptures atrophied about 200 BCE, and was taken up whole cloth by Christianity and later, Islam. Weinberg attacks that ancient naïve and simplistic imagery, long ago transcended by men of such scientific eminence as Albert Einstein. This following is from paragraph #2 of “A Designer Universe”:

You may tell me that you are thinking of something much more abstract, some cosmic spirit of order and harmony, as Einstein did. You are certainly free to think that way, but then I don’t know why you use words like ‘designer’ or ‘God,’ except perhaps as a form of protective coloration.

That’s the first and last we hear of any alternative “God.” A statement like this tells me that Weinberg is aware there are other ideas out there that exclude the notion of “design” (and “providence”); but he chooses to ignore them and confine himself to one that is intellectually shallow. ( By the way, please note: by not engaging Einstein on this issue, Weinberg is conspicuously passing up an opportunity to say, if he ever wanted to, that the very “sense of the Sacred,” no matter what form it takes, is the carrier of this atavistic “disease.” There is no reference to a “slippery slope” that leads inevitably to the horrors of Auschwitz. )

For my part, I propose that the ancient traditional notions of “God” are anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, naïve and simplistic, absurd and impossible. Those notions must change. Weinberg paradoxically maintains the very imagery that rationality (science) exposes as impossible, and by that, I submit, insures that the absurd “God” will never go away. For by insisting that “God” simply disappear instead of maturing, he foolishly chooses to disregard an ineradicable sense of the Sacred that resides in the human heart, which is the source of the myths of “God” and not the other way around. My guess is that by doing this he maintains both his Jewishness rooted in the ancient “God of the Book” and the exquisite intensity of his anger, justified as a defense of scientific truth.


I can only guess about Weinberg’s subconscious motivations, but I can speak with authority about my own. Chapter III of An Unknown God begins with a sketch of what produced a similar anger in me. I believed that the traditional “God” of naïve providence, being all powerful and all knowing, had to be unimaginably cruel. We may remember that Augustine, overwhelmed by the scope and intensity of human suffering, concluded that “God” must be enraged and implac­ably hostile to humankind to allow such things to happen. It was the basis of his theory of Original Sin. But even if you don’t believe that “God” is capable of either rage or hostility, you still have to ask yourself: how could “God” ever permit the senseless horrors that people are forced to endure?

If you answer, as I do, that there is no way any provident “God” could possibly permit much less intend these things, you are left with only two alternatives: either there is no “God,” period … or you are forced to rethink your concept of “God” so radically ― specifically to say that “God” is neither provident nor a designer (in any conventional sense of those words) ― that the very word “God” itself, as it has come down to us, can no longer be used. I absolutely agree with Weinberg that in this case to use the words “designer” or “God” is meaningless. So, at the end of the day there is only one outcome for all of us: there is no such “God” … the traditional “God” does not exist. In that sense, I too am an atheist.

But why the anger? Once again, I project from my own experience. Anger is not necessarily an undesireable passion. Rage at injustice is widely recognized as providing a welcome clarity of focus in a world otherwise riddled with complexity, uncertainty, doubt and confusion. From hollywood blockbusters to the justifications of military intervention, we have all been manipulated to a sense of sacred purpose conjured up by acts that “cry out to heaven for vengeance.” Anyone who has enjoyed the uninhibited energy that comes with righteous anger, as I have, is aware of its addictive potential. This kind of anger produces a “permission-to-punish” and an emotional distance from the target-object that allows for a forcefulness that can appear to be courage or clarity of thought. In any case it permits some­one immobilized by doubt to act, and to act with power. It gives you a kind of prophetic fury.

My anger at first was directed at “God” for not protecting the victims of human oppression … and for not “moving” Christians in the right direction. But I avoided criticizing Catholicism and Christianity for many years … and ironically that went so far as to prevent me from re-thinking my basic beliefs about “God.” But why was I so protective of my “Church?”

“Catholicism” is distinguished from other “religions” by what is considered its traditional vision and pratice. For these purposes Catholics are not permitted to develop a new imagery about “God” because the recognizable features that serve for “Catholic” identification would be lost. The Catholic “doctrine of God” from this perspective has little to do with what makes sense, given what we know about science, history, politics and people, but is embraced rather for its role in providing shibboleths ― ritual pass­words that authenticate membership in an ancient “club.” Beliefs stop being the vehicles of a realistic relationship with “God” and the world and become instead a mark of identity, an instrument of social cohesion, a ghetto glue that keeps the community together (and provides an essential individual and ethnic identity). In my case loyalty to “my people” was something of a sacred trust … and in order to keep me from attacking the foundations of social cohesion and my own self-identity, it pre-emptively kept me from thinking. It was all quite unconscious. I did not permit myself even to imagine alternatives to a dysfunctional theology, much less move in any practical direction that would make me unrecognizable as Catholic.

I was feeding off the continued existence of an intellectually dysfunctional “God” in order to sustain my identity and my “attitude.” I’m saying that I simultaneously asserted both membership and dissent by clinging to an absurd “God” who would not go away. But this “God” could not be permitted to go away; his presence and traditional character were required or the connections disappeared. It’s a “Texas two-step” from which the dissenter draws both identity and independence. All this militates against the re-thinking of “God,” which, to my mind, should be a normal, rational exercise incorporating the new information provided by physics, evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, political history, etc. But the continuation of the cherished identity and equally cherished anger stemming from a sense of betrayal demanded the continued presence of the tradition­al absurd “God.” This is a very strange “atheism,” … but, in my experience, a common phenomenon for the “religions of the Book.” Our ideas of “God,” after all, come from the same ancient source. The Book of Job never answered the question it set out to resolve. I know now that it couldn’t … the absurd “God” it took for granted is internally contradictory. It is impotent to do anything but perpetuate the contradictions.

The “God” of the Book: an ancient religious theory with no more claim to accuracy than the equally ancient hypotheses of science and cosmology from which it was derived. But how differently we treat these ideas! Science was allowed to mature and displace its forebears, but the corresponding “theology” was not.

Hence like me, people of the Book don’t begin by confronting the patent absurdities of traditional theodicy. They treat the ancient, pre-scientific “God” of the Book as if it were “God” himself. And so they continue to identify with their traditions and their people and shortly find themselves locked in a room with no exit. We have something in common with the wife of Job, who, unlike us, had no doubt whatsoever of the existence of that “God.” She was convinced that he, like every other powerful “person” she ever knew, was capable of cruel and vindictive behavior. Once this “God-person” had you in His sights, you were finished. There was no appeal, no redress, no one to turn to. She was sick and tired of Job’s pathetic excuses for “God’s” behavior and his expectations for relief. Once things got this bad, the verdict was in: he hates you; he’s going to torture you endlessly. She did not mince words: stop whining, “curse God, and die!” It was an angry reaction. She was a human being, and could not bear seeing Job grovel before such a “God.” She may have hated “God” … but she was definitely not an “atheist.”

I am persuaded that like Mrs.Job, misotheists cannot conceive of the source and ground of the Universe in any other terms than the traditional designer-creator and autocratic ruler: authoritarian, punitive, micro-managing, whimsical, utterly self-involved, uncaring ― an individual “person” who, despite all claims to the contrary, abandons the poor, blesses the rich and powerful, is easily insulted, and “needs” to have his dignity acknowledged and his com­mands obeyed. Being human, and far superior to this “God” ― a gross imitation of a self-indulgent Near-Eastern Sheik or ego-obsessed Roman Emperor ― they are angry women and men. Like Mrs.Job, they rightly reject such a “God” and those who give him refuge.

Tony Equale, October 2009


The Epistle of Privy Counsel

The following material is excerpted from a short “book” written in England by the same author as THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING. Scholars estimate the date to be around 1384. The writer is unknown, but he is believed to have been a Carthusian monk living in the “midlands” of England, a region that corresponds to the ancient kingdom of Mercia and in modern times to the most industrialized and working-class area of Britain. A large part of the first chapter is included here supplemented with passages taken from later chapters which I considered salient to the principal point outlined in Chapter I: the intimate, immanent, and all enveloping relationship with the source of one’s existence. The spiritual master of the Epistle insists his disciple focus on only one thing: existence ― his own BEING-HERE. That is the source and ground of contemplative prayer.

It was this extreme simplicity and exclusive focus that moved me to reproduce it for this blog. The thinking that underlay these counsels reflects the writings of Meister Eckhart (+1329) for whom “Being,” newly appropriated from Aristotle as “energy,” was the creative force and explanatory ground of everything . . . and everyone. For educated people in the fourteenth century, Jews, Moslems and Christians alike, it was “modern science” as the ground of a new mysticism.

If “being” and “existence” as used here are allowed the breadth of abstraction that they deserve, the imagery that traditionally accompanies those words ― that of substantial ideas ― can be validly replaced by material energy. The epistle can then be read without reservation except for the reference to personal humanoid interactions with “Being.” (For a more thorough examination of that issue, see other posts on this blog.) In all other respects, relating to one’s own existence mediates relationship to its unknown source. That ‘unknowing’ is the point our counsellor is trying to make. The cause is present in the effect. We ourselves are the effect and therefore we ourselves are the only concrete knowledge about our source that we will ever have. The all-important caveat, and the one that endears this nameless author to me, is that we have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what “God” is apart from our experience of our own BEING-HERE. If indeed we not only do not know, but, as the teacher insists, WE DO NOT NEED TO KNOW, it changes our religious quest in profound and unexpected ways. It strips it of all extraneous imagery except the existential relationship with its longing.

The simplicity of the doctrine is matched by the direct and unadorned colloquial language in which the letter is written. It was composed in the Middle English familiar to us from the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, and so it is not easy to read in its original form; what is presented here uses the translation by Clifton Wolters.


When you go apart to be alone for prayer, do not worry about the next step, but just stop thinking your ‘good’ thoughts as well as your ‘bad’ ones. Do not pray with words unless you feel you have to, and even then, if you do, do not bother about them being many or few. Nor are you to pay any attention to their meaning, whatever it is that you are praying, whether it is a collect, psalm, hymn, antiphon or whatever. . . . See that nothing occupies your thoughts except a naked intent to reach out to God: no special thought about what he is, or how he works, but only that he is as he is. Let him be himself, please, and nothing else. You are not to go probing into him with your smart and subtle ideas. That must be your foundation.

This naked intent, based as it is on fact, must be the simple recognition and blind acceptance of your own existence, and no more than this, either intellectually or emotionally. It’s as if you were saying to God: ‘What I am Lord, I offer you. I am not thinking of you in any particular way except that you are as you are, no more and no less.’

That humble and intellectual darkness must be reflected in all your thinking. I would say more: you are not to think about yourself any more than you do about God, so that you are at one with him in spirit – not however at the cost of mental disintegration. For he is your being and what you are you are in him, not merely because of this fact, but because in you he is both the cause and the reason for your existence. Therefore, at this stage, you are to think of God in the same way that you think of yourself, and of yourself as you do of God, namely, that he is as he is and that you are as you are. In this way your thinking will not be dissipated or confused but unified in him who is all, never forgetting, of course, this difference: that he is your being and not you his.

This emphasis on “God’s” distinctness from his created effects reflects the author’s wariness of the mediaeval inquisition which was focused on ‘pantheism.’ The theological promotion of ‘participation in being,’ espoused by Thomas Aquinas and in evidence here, by showing God and humankind through sharing ‘being’ to be genetically one by nature, undermined the indispensability of the Church whose ministrations were claimed to be necessary for overcoming humankind’s alienation from “God.”

For though it is true that all things have their being in him who is their cause and their explanation, and that he is in them for that very reason, it is only he in himself who is his own cause and being. Just as nothing can exist without him, so too he cannot exist without himself. He is his own existence and everything else’s. He alone is distinct from all else in that he is the being of himself and everything. Too, he is one in all things and all are one in him for all have their being in him who is the being of all. In this way your thinking and your love will be indissolubly united to him, and all those odd queries about the abstruse characteristics of your unseen self, or God’s, will be put away. Your thinking will be utterly simple, your affection unspoiled, and you yourself in all your basic poverty by his touch will be secretly nourished by himself, just as he is. Unseen and incomplete it may be, but your longing and your desire will be sustained.
Look up cheerfully and tell your Lord, ‘What I am Lord I offer you, for it is yourself.’ And keep in mind, simply, plainly and unashamedly, that you are as you are, and that there is no need to inquire more closely.

. . . Many mistakenly call this simple teaching ‘intellectual subtlety,’ whereas if only they were to look at it properly, they would find it to be a straightforward, easy lesson for uneducated people. For the only ones I can think of who could not grasp this would be those who were incapable of recognizing that they existed. . . . To know that one exists is possible for anyone, however ignorant or uneducated they may be; it does not call for any great knowledge or aptitude.


Don’t give a thought, however ingenious, to any of your own qualities, or God’s, . . . . All that matters now is that this unseeing awareness of your basic self should be carried up with glad, vigorous love and united with the precious being of God, just as he is in himself, no more and no less. . . . So keep a firm grip on this spiritual, fundamental principle, which is your own existence.


. . . your first fruit is the simple fact of your existence. If you analyze the complex gifts and splendid characteristics which make up being human, you will always find that the fundamental and final thing is the sheer fact that you exist. You can see that first and foremost before there is any contemplating, the basic, plain fact is your awareness that you exist. . . . This blind, general sort of contemplation helps your need, your well-being and your progress toward perfection in purity of spirit more than any special consideration you may make.


. . . you will concentrate on the fundamental thing about yourself and offer God that naked, unseeing awareness of your own existence. . . .

For you must be absolutely clear that in this matter you are not considering the attributes of God’s being any more than your own. For in terms of the eternity which is God there is no description, experience, or consideration as good as or better than that which is seen and known in the blind, loving consideration of this word ‘is.’ . . . whatever it is you are wanting to say about God, you will find it summed up and contained in this little word ‘is.’ . . . Therefore be as blind in your loving contemplation of God’s being as you are in the naked contemplation of your own. . . . Put speculation firmly aside and worship God with all that you have got. All-that-you-are-as-you-are, worshipping all-that-he-is-as-he-is. For only he, and he completely, is his own blessed being ― and yours too. . . . for what you are you have through him and, indeed, it is himself. Though you had a beginning when your substance was created (for there was a time when you did not exist) yet in him your being has existed from eternity, without beginning and without ending just as he too is in himself.

The last sentence in that paragraph is a clear evocation of “pre-existence” and is pure Eckhart. It repeats phrases almost word for word from his sermons and is an echo of the neo-Platonic elements that were braided into the Aristotelianism of all the Dominican theologians of Cologne and Paris: Albert, Thomas and Eckhart. ‘BEING’ is one and eternal. The existence that one enjoys now has always been here, and is “God.”


. . . in this exercise, every speculation of the natural mind is to be utterly rejected and forgotten. Then there will be no fear of fantasy or falsehood to foul the naked feeling of your blind being.
For it is in this unseeing seeing of your bare existence which is now united to God that you will do all you have to do: eating or drinking, sleeping or waking, walking or sitting, speaking or silent, resting or rising, standing or kneeling, running or riding, toiling or relaxing.

The fertile discovery of the unifying and explanatory power of Aristotle’s ENERGEIA, ‘being’-as-act, may fairly be said to have energized the extraordinary advances in learning and knowledge in the thirteenth century. Thomas Aquinas died in 1275 just as Johannes Eckhart was entering the Dominican order as a novice. Eckhart would eventually occupy the chair of theology at Paris as Thomas’ successor before the turn of the fourteenth century.

The neo-Platonic elements that the Dominicans had simultaneously incorporated into the newly developing Aristotelian worldview insured that while ‘being’ was taken in a quasi-physical sense as ENERGEIA, it was still given full honors as a substantial idea, that means an idea that was an independently existing entity with creative power. In the case of BEING the entity imagined was “God” himself. The triple conflation of “God” as the Hebrew’s Yahweh, Plato’s ONE, and Aristotle’s ENERGEIA explains the many roles assigned to “him.”

Of the three great Dominican theologians of the thirteenth century, Eckhart’s concept of being was the most simple and radical. He eschewed any analogous predication that would have effectively divided being according to cause or effect. For him BEING, in accord with the most venerable ancient traditions, was ONE. Thomas’ ‘analogy’ would have made it multiple to an infinite degree, each ‘being’ corresponding to the kind of ‘thing’ that existed by it; Eckhart, however, not unlike his contemporary Duns Scotus implied that being was univocal; he said that all things, insofar as they exist are doing exactly the same thing. Therefore they are not only made BY “God” they are made OF God, existence itself, for they exist.

In a material universe, we can quickly see that matter’s living energy can, like ‘being,’ simultaneously be itself (perhaps existentially self-subsistent), and at the same time be the components of the many things formed out of evolving matter. The language of the Epistle in this case, albeit in the idiom of mediaeval theology, provides a remarkable and dynamic confirmation of our newly developing materialist worldview. I think someone with similar contemplative aspirations would not be led astray ― without ‘mental disintegration’ ― following these counsels.

Anatta and conatus,

bookends of a process world

The Buddha said that all things are empty, meaning they are the result of an adventitious concurrence of factors with no independent reason for their existence and character. This is completely consistent with the discoveries of the physical sciences: all things compose and decompose, they congeal and dissolve because they are all constructed of the same homogeneous interchangeable elements of material energy. Any one thing can become something else simply by a rearrangement of parts. There is no source of identity except what emerges subsequent to the reconfiguration that goes into their formation. And there is no consequent source of permanence either; even DNA evolves over time and species eventually disappear. All things are in an entropic process of seeking equilibrium: components necessarily decompose back into their elemental structures.

That seems to agree with Heraclitus who said panta rei, “everything runs” i.e., flows, changes, is in flux, comes and goes. There is no permanent, fixed intelligible pattern that exists before things emerge from the coming together of their parts; all comprehensibility ― what things are recognized to be ― comes after their construction, but is temporary and does not last. Things exist in the form that they have only after all the factors that go into their coming to be have done their work, and then they eventually lose their form when those factors cease to operate. This includes species and their duration. There is no way to have said ahead of time, for example, that dinosaurs would dominate life on earth for 140 million years and then go extinct, or that later squirrels, or horses, or viruses, or human beings would emerge and thrive or for how long. All events and the “things” that result from them are gratuitous, serendipitous, emergent, unnecessary ― the product of currently active forces operating on a currently existing environmental potential.

Our is a process world.

anatta & conatus

The “emptiness” that accompanies process is a common and universal phenomenon but in the case of humankind it is treated as special. And that is because, in total disregard for the teachings of the Buddha and the findings of science, each of us is persuaded that we are a solid, permanent “self,” with a destiny and significance that is not bound by the limitations of composite matter and will not ever dissolve and disappear. Aware of this universal human projection, and in order to emphasize that emptiness applies equally to human individuals, the Buddha explicitly stated: there is no “self” independent of the forces and factors that brought the organism into existence and sustain it there. When those conditions disappear, the “self” which is the identity of the organism, disappears with them. One of Buddha’s suggestions for understanding what we really are was to go to charnel grounds and watch bodies decomposing.

The teaching came to be known as “no-self.” In Pali, the dialect spoken by Buddha, the word for “no-self” is anatta. To say there is no self, is simply a restatement in Buddhist terms of what science knows about the material make-up of the human organism. The human individual comes to be as an extension of the living cells of its parents, it survives for a time by ingesting replacement elements from the environment, and over time it ceases to interact successfully with its surroundings, loses coherence, dissolves and disappears.

Anatta runs into difficulties almost immediately, however. For, despite the universal emptiness confirmed by science, there is an intrinsic energy in living organisms not subject to voluntary preference or control that runs counter to the entropic descent toward equilibrium that rules all material change and interaction. That energy is LIFE. I capitalize the word to underline its special properties. It seems to run opposite to the general patterns of material energy and to chart a course of its own.

LIFE’s bearing is anti-entropic. It is orientated toward growth, expansion, continuity and permanence. This is most clearly observed in an urge emanating from each and every individual living organism of whatever kind, to grow, expand, survive, reproduce, and continue living as itself with no end in sight. Each of us has experienced this self-preserving, self-expanding, self-protective urge, and its universality has been acknowledged in the West since ancient times. Following Spinoza, for whom it played a key role in his view of the world, I call it simply, conatus, short for the Latin conatus sese conservandi, the “instinct for self-preservation.” It is a biological urge. The conatus functions to insure survival for individual organisms and their social network in a process world.

The salient thing about the conatus that it is an innate, hard wired feature of every living organism, and therefore compared to other urges which are selected by evolution, it appears to be part of LIFE itself; it not only precedes selection in time and priority, but it may actually be identified as the force that activates selection. If all features of things are posterior to the causative factors that go into their existence and character, the conatus is one feature that seems to exist prior to all other emergence. It seems to arise into existence along with LIFE itself, as a kind of intrinsic corollary. It is so identified with LIFE in our experience that we find it hard to even imagine how anything could be alive without it. Indeed, biologists use it in the laboratory as an indicator of the presence of LIFE.


After this preliminary analysis we are left with the impression that there is an intrinsic contradiction that exists at the heart of our world. In a process universe ― where all things are empty and in flux ― anatta as the human instance of a universal emptiness is seen to stand directly opposed by the conatus whose function in the human individual (common to all living organisms) is to triumph over change, achieve permanence and live forever.

LIFE‘s dynamic pattern does not directly coincide with a process world, rather it synergizes inversely with it by exploiting entropic energy for anti-entropic projects. The conatus is an unmistakable manifestation of that anti-entropic bearing. The presence and dynamism of the conatus seems to offer evidence that the spontaneous sense of being a permanent, separate self is not a selfish infantile fantasy generated out of pipedreams and the naïve denial of death, but a spon­tane­ous expectation driven by nature itself. It suggests that the Buddhist asceticism designed to eliminate the “sense of self” is doomed to failure.

It raises the question: If emptiness and its derivative no-self are the true characterizations of the universe, why aren’t living organisms cognitively pre-disposed to understand its inevitability and affectively prepared to embrace it as their destiny? As things actually stand, all the living individuals of whatever species, quite to the contrary, seem delusionally set to pursue an endless continuation of their “selves” in defiance of any putative anatta. What is important in this analysis is that the conatus functions even among non-human species who have no apparent reflexive awareness that they are a “self,” and therefore no “willful” investment in making it permanent. It seems to me there is no greater proof that this function is totally organic and natural. It is as a priori as anything we find in a process world.

Such an intense internal contradiction seems strange at first sight, because our experience of the natural universe is that, however conflictive its forces and features, they always mutually adapt to one another through time and interaction until some form of collaboration is established. Clearly the problem is most acutely felt in humankind where the reinforcement of cultures all over the globe has encouraged the personal embrace of the “self” as an item of transcendent importance making the event of death incomprehensible to us. But culture is hardly to blame, and is rather the effect than the cause of the misapplications of the conatus. It is to these unrealistic expectations that the Buddha has directed his program. He blames the exaggerated sense of self and the decision to satisfy its cravings for all our woes, personal and social. Obviously he has opted for the ultimacy of anatta and the deceptiveness of the conatus, and by extension the cultural narratives that are derived from them.


The majority of religions which dwell at the heart of all cultures, on the other hand, have chosen to follow the lead of the conatus and to project ― without further evidence ― an ultimate triumph for the individual “self” in an imagined second round of existence after death. In these religious worldviews it is emptiness with its anatta that is considered unreal, and its apparently real manifestations must somehow be explained.

Almost all religions do this by positing the existence of another world where powerful forces, like us in rationality and values, live, manage the day to day workings of the universe as a visible, material display of their own invisible realities, and await the return of human “souls” after the death of their bodies. There are metaphysical assumptions that generally accompany these religions. The existence of invisible entities called “spirits” not made of matter is one of them. Often these forces are imagined as personal entities called “gods.” They are considered the only real realities, and the world of material change and motion to be illusion, unreal, products of our imagination, projections of what is not really there, or if real, derived from and subsidiary to the divine realities in the other world to which they are destined to return. The world we see, in these views, is a world of shadows cast by the solid realities in another world altogether, a world we cannot see.

This is, admittedly, a simplistic caricature of the actual state of affairs; for the “theologies” of the many religions differ significantly from one another in narrative complexity and abstraction. The word “gods” covers a multitude of conceptual variations some of which are absolute spiritual monisms. What they all have in common, however, is the identification of the primary “real” reality in another world, and the origin and ultimate destiny of humankind in that other world.

Buddhism, on the other hand, implicitly rejects the theist assumption, even though it claims to simply bracket any opinion beyond what is observable about the nature of the universe. Buddha, without explicitly denying anything, says theism is irrelevant to personal liberation. Even if there is a “god,” knowing it is not essential to your enlightenment. The atheist has as much access to all the resources needed as a believer. This would render theism non-essential, if not inimical to the Buddhist project.[1]

So it seems that anatta and conatus have each spawned worldviews that are not compatible with each other. The first is totally consistent with the nature of physical existence in a material universe, to whose implacable laws of entropy all life forms including the human must submit. The second, which we’ve identified with the organic ground of global theism, embraces the nature of living organisms, all of which enjoy ― and suffer from ― a sense of “self” that they are driven to protect and enhance. Each view can point to observable, undeniable physical and biological phenomena as the ground that supports and nourishes its worldview.

Science and philosophy

From the perspective of science, however, they are not on a par. The view built on the dynamism of the conatus seems to be illusory. Understandable as it might be that humankind, emerging into self-consciousness from a long evolutionary pre-hominid history, would naïvely extrapolate the intense bearing of the conatus into a worldview that denied death, it is still patently false. We’ve had plenty of time to become disillusioned of those spontaneous feelings. We are undeniably subservient to entropy. We do not live forever. We all die. Those that claim it was nature’s conatus that created the belief in an afterlife are denying the social projections functioning there. The biological conatus itself is quite limited in scope and duration and that is obvious to all. The rest is imaginary human elaboration. If “religion” is frustrated, it has only itself to blame. Nature never said we would live forever, it just never stops trying to live; the rest is our projection.

To its credit, Buddhism embraces the conatus and all its component sub-functions but is clear about its limitations. The very point of Buddha’s rejection of extreme forms of asceticism, what he called his “middle way,” is not to suppress any of them ― the desire to eat, to sleep, to defend oneself, to find shelter and safety, to reproduce, to protect family and clan ― but to avoid overextending them and using their energies to construct an imagined permanence for our organisms. The frustration comes, he said, from taking what is-here as empty, and trying to fill it ― from taking what has co-arisen as an effect of other causes and claiming that it is its own cause.

Buddha avoided making metaphysical statements. But I believe it is a metaphysical implication of his insistence on the universality of emptiness that emptiness is not just an accompaniment but a constitutive dimension of existence; it is the sine qua non condition for things being-here at all. “Things” can only be co-dependently co-arisen. They cannot be-here any other way. To assume otherwise is sheer conjecture because there is no evidence that any non-empty “thing” ― a “thing” that caused itself ― exists now or has ever existed.[2]

This is the link that connects anatta and conatus. The conatus is designed to sustain the empty human organism precisely as empty, i.e., temporary, confined to a limited life-cycle. Conatus derives from and serves the purposes of anatta. It urges the human individual to survive, reproduce and care for its children, and then let go. It is during the early, family phase of the individual’s life-cycle that the conatus’ urges ― to reproduce, to accumulate enough to build a secure nest which includes self, clan and nation ― are meaningful; their continued pursuit afterward without social purpose become selfish. Amassing them, or using them solely as symbols of personal or clan superiority, is unnatural and doomed to total frustration. Buddhism does not impose norms; it merely acknowledges with brutal honesty the true limits of human life and counsels using them as a guide to appropriate behavior. The Dharma is shaped by the human life-cycle.

Buddhists saw that the distortions of larger society are due to the latitude given to the conatus’ instincts in their raw form ignoring the limitations of the natural life-cycle. Meaningful pursuits in youth suddenly become meaningless and frustrated as the life-cycle proceeds; but society seems oblivious to the change and is often eager to exploit the continued craving that leads to their senseless perpetuation. Society encourages the pursuit of wealth, status, pleasure, comforts, security, as sources of economic impetus and they are also often used as incentives and rewards. Control in this area may indeed be impossible, but the fact remains society reinforces the delusions of samsara and encourages chasing the wind. It explains why the earliest Buddhists withdrew from society and formed intentional communities.

I contend that this understanding of the normative role of the life-cycle is entirely natural, spontaneous and characteristic of all cultural traditions in their most ancient and primitive forms. I believe it is at the root of Buddha’s Dharma. Its truth is confirmed by its repetition in every other form of plant and animal life known to humankind. Everything that lives is born, matures, reproduces, grows old and dies.

The suppression of this “law of nature” and its replacement with the complicated moralities of “religions” which establish hierarchical status, distinction among people and rewards for compliance, characterized larger and more complex societies. Religion represented the takeover of sacred expression by the state for the purposes of internal control and external expansion. Official priesthoods imposed new moral codes that established the rules of competitive power;[3] all “successful” empires are grounded on religions that justify hierarchy, the accumulation of goods, superior/inferior (caste) status, relationships of control and submission, and an immortal permanence for the “self” (here and/or hereafter) as a reward for compliance with the imperial code.

Putting the conatus at the service of anatta means restoring the priority of the “natural life-cycle” and giving it the heuristic role of realistically assessing human expectations, determining appropriate behavior and embracing our destiny as-it-really-is. It is the authentic human response to being-here empty, i.e., temporary, in an empty process universe. We must learn to be grateful to the living material energy that put us here as it put us here and for what we really are, not what we would have preferred to be. For what we really are is what has made it possible for us to be-here at all.


[1] At this juncture it should be made clear that the “theism” mentioned here is naïve and anthropomorphic. It imagines a personal entity separate and opposed to the other “things” in the universe. Rejecting such a theism entails a very specific “atheism” whose defining characteristics come from what is being rejected. However, the source of all the evolutionary emergence in the universe, including humankind, is also the source of the human sense of the sacred. It is not a “god” in the theist sense, but it is still “source.” It is observable as matter’s living physical energy; I call it LIFE and it is totally immanent in all living things including humankind made of material energy. The creative activity of this energy is evolution, forming and re-forming temporary “things.” It is immanent in and totally identified with the things that emerge from it. It’s elaborations are fully posterior. What emerges from it remains empty (in process and temporary) because they are constructed of a component and energy source which is itself always in process.

[2] There is a corollary to this: what is non-empty is not a “thing.”

[3] “The shamanic lore … could be sublimated into priestly myths and doctrines reoriented to serve the emerging state.”

Mcevilley, Thomas C.. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (Kindle Locations 8102-8103). Allworth. Kindle Edition.

“. . . and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

1,300 words

The question Jesus asks, as framed by Luke, has a non-sectarian, universalist focus. He is not asking about whether Israel will still believe in Yahweh, or whether his new followers, who later called themselves Christians, will still believe he is the Messiah, but whether people (any people, all people), who are, like a defenseless widow, seeking “justice,” ― the vindication of their humanity in an inhuman system of murderous oppression ― will still believe they can find it. It is a one-line commentary following on the parable of the unjust judge which Jesus uses to “prove” that if persistent pleading can obtain justice even from the worst of men, how much more from a loving Father.

This, according to Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (NT p.151), is an attachment to the warning in LK 17:22-37, immediately above, that the coming horrors (surely, a later allusion to looming persecutions) would fall indiscriminately on everyone. In the maelstrom of a generalized “crucifixion,” who will remain standing? . . . who will continue to trust? The verses cover a wide spectrum of events where the only imaginable human reaction would seem to be despair. It is in an ordeal of that intensity that Luke’s Jesus promises justice to those who have faith.

Whether the evolving material universe can be trusted with the human thirst for fulfillment (“justice”) embedded in our organisms, is a modern version of that question. “Faith” here is bedrock: it is trust in LIFE. Jesus’ question applies to every human being living in every human community across the face of the earth. It is not a riddle seeking solution: “who will be saved and who will not?” It’s not a call to take refuge in some imaginary ethnic or institutional protection, much less an excuse for despair. Faith corresponds to our ultimate human challenge: can we, destined as we are to die, beset as we are with pain and loss, trust LIFE? That Luke’s Jesus was aware of the true anguished depths of the human condition suggests that, given the established injustice of the Roman Empire, the path that led to resurrection could only pass through a crucifixion for everyone. Faith in Jesus is enjoined upon all not because he’s “God,” or Messiah, but because he “proved” that a human being ― he himself ― could trust LIFE through anything. Jesus’ trust in his loving Father was itself the very kingdom he heralded.

But the challenge is universal, and the solution, the faith it calls for, is neither sectarian nor propositional. It is trust in LIFE whatever the metaphor, whatever the narrative, whatever the rituals, whatever the imagery we use to relate to it. Jesus is offered as teacher and guide for surmounting the ultimate barrier to trust: crucifixion ― which may be “defined” as the demonic inversion of human community, the intentional dehumanization of one human being by another. It is our ultimate enemy. Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval mystic, for reasons that were very specific to his time, place and personality, would call it “perfect joy.”

The universal message of Jesus’ death is not that an infuriated Monster-god has finally been placated, but that we can trust LIFE as we would a loving Father no matter what happens ― even crucifixion by our fellow human beings. This is “salvation.” It is what gives Jesus a universal relevance.

Any suggestion that salvation is to be found after death in another world, conditioned by institutional membership and dependent on propositional and behavioral conformity in this world, is wide of the mark. It misses entirely the clear vision and profound universal compassion of Jesus for the human condition. The universalism of the early Christians was the echo of attitudes they picked up from Jesus despite his exclusive focus on preaching to the Jewish community.

By the second century, however, early Christian universalism in the hands of the Greco-Roman upper classes would shortly yield to the demands of authoritarian control and deteriorate into a rigid sectarianism fully in place by the time of the election of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The control of the conditions of membership and of “saving” ritual, eventually evolved a propositional panoply ― a compendium of orthodox doctrine ― that served as a protective barrier for upper-class control. These controls ultimately resulted in the ethnic identities, class divisions and political preferences of the Roman Catholic Church, predictably mirroring Greco-Roman social structures and competitive dynamics. “Salvation” became a sectarian expression of Mediterranean culture claiming a universalist mandate for itself. It was the mystification of Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire and its inheritors claimed “permission from heaven” to despoil the world.

Jesus’ question ultimately came to be answered in the negative as propositional, behavioral and ritual conformity took the place of the “faith” that Luke was interested in. Universalism was subverted and Christianity degraded into a punitive, moralistic, misogynistic, imperialistic, slavery-based two-tier sect whose overriding function was not justice ― human wholeness, compassion, mutual assistance ― but imperial political success: internal crowd control and external conquest. Christianity came to represent a cult from hell that shaped our western world and even now continues to sculpt the contours of the global community conquered and controlled by Christians. If the tribes of the global community are still at one another’s’ throats, it’s because compassion has never prevailed among us.

“Theology” is a misnomer. It is not the “study of God.” It is an attempt to make rational sense of faith. Theology is a secondary event. The primary phenomenon, faith, is a spontaneous response of trust by human beings in a material universe-in-process from which our human organisms emerged and to which we remain umbilically connected. Faith has been a feature of human life for as long as our records indicate ― long before any of the institutions or programs we now call “religion” existed. It has been integral to the formation and cohesion of human community at all levels; its principal correlate has been human behavior, especially interpersonal support and assistance, hence society, justice, and also the proclivity to theocracy.

To start the process of reflection anywhere else is to fail to acknowledge the universalist nature of the theological enterprise: theology is reflection on a universal, global phenomenon that is as characteristic of humankind as society itself and essential to the human project. I believe this has to be the overriding perspective, the high ground, from which the theologian is always looking at his subject matter. This caveat is especially applicable to the Christian theologian because Christianity has been so notorious in disregarding all other traditions and acting as if “faith” began in the Mediterranean basin in the first century of the common era. That is the “heresy” of Roman Christianity ― the one single “error” that sets it furthest from the message and mind of Jesus.

Roman Catholic reform must be understood in this universalist context. Universalism was the unmistakable implication of Jesus’ profound compassion and it was the immediate “next step” taken by the communities of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of his death. While it is always valuable to focus on the glaring propositional anomalies of Christianity as the target of reform, such a narrow perspective may fail to see the overall arrogant assumptions of sectarian superiority that can fly under the radar of efforts at reform. Doctrinal error has many facets. But the primary schism is between universalism and sectarianism. You cannot save humanity from tribal and interpersonal self-destruction by denying the very bonds that make us a family.

The primary obligation enjoined by Jesus is compassion. It is the moral corollary of faith. Faith’s compassion is “salvation,” the kingdom. What are the necessary conditions that must be in place if compassion is to prevail? That is the theologian’s question.

Emptiness and the ‘Buddha-Mind’

The belief of Tibetan Buddhists that we have a “Buddha-Mind,” despite the claim of some that it is a constitutive feature of the human organism, should be seen in classic Buddhist terms as just another empty mental exercise. That’s not to say that it is not effective in reducing stress and allowing practitioners to transcend states of mind that they have determined are dysfunctional. Effectiveness for achieving attitudes that we want to have, like love and compassion, and eliminating attitudes that we do not want to have, like fear and paranoia, however, does not in itself establish metaphysical reality. It’s the claim that we are born with a “Buddha-Mind” with an innate attitudinal content that I dispute.

If emotions are constructed and do not have an independent existence, then I claim the “emotions” associated with belief in the “Buddha-Mind,” ― love and compassion ― are similarly constructed; they are not the pristine state of human consciousness. The “belief” derives from social consensus like any other object of desire or aversion. It receives its priority in our lives, not from nature, but from the choices of communities of human beings with whom the practitioner lives and identifies. It emphasizes the importance of the sangha for Buddhist practice. The “Buddha-Mind” achieves a quasi-perman­ent status in the mindset of the individual through the habituation of meditative practice in a community of like-minded people. No primordial metaphysical structure is required for such a mindset to be established. It is an empty, composite phenomenon like every other in the universe; and like everything else, it comes and it goes.

There is nothing about Buddhist practice (meditation, etc.) that requires the world to be anything other than what science and our disciplined phenomenological perceptions discern it to be, i.e., empty of its own being both individually and as a collectivity. Buddha himself insisted there was no fixed feature in the universe. All things, as Heraclitus saw, are in endless flux. Nothing is permanent; everything changes, composing and decomposing in its parts and elements. The only permanent, changeless feature of our universe of matter, and only in a manner of speaking, is its impermanence.

The inherent contradiction

There are factors, however, that militate against the perception of this universal emptiness. Like every other life form on earth, the human organism is protected by a natural instinct for self-preservation and advancement that has evolved as an essential feature of its biological structure. It is necessary for survival. Following Spinoza I call that instinct conatus sese conservandi, an ancient philosophical term for what is an undeniable and universal biological phenomenon verified through millennia of human observation. That instinct strives toward permanence for the organism, and stands at odds with the universal impermanence ruled by physical entropy obeying the demands of equilibrium. Despite the undeniable impermanence of every living organism made of matter, the conatus is programmed to resist anything that would threaten its organism’s continued survival, even to the point of the denial of death.

Hence at the core of living reality there exists an inescapable conflict between the decomposing forces of entropy seeking equilibrium and the anti-entropic energies generated by living organisms. The attempt to survive unchangeably in an environment that changes constantly gives rise to incremental adaptive modifications we call evolution. Hence, the oppositional tension created by LIFE in an impermanent environment is endemic in our world and has shaped its features and its destiny. This essential clash of contending dynamics is an invariable feature that has made our world what it actually is and not something else. The contradiction evident here is inherent to the nature of living matter; it will never go away. LIFE exploits matter’s necessary fall into equilibrium for the energy to expand its domains.

Some Buddhists would have us believe the conatus’ energies originally served an innate “Buddha-Mind” that became corrupted by life-in-society into pursuing individual permanence, and must be “rescued” and brought back to serve “others” as originally intended. But for any Buddhists to posit an innate, pre-constructed “Buddha-Mind” in the human organism introduces an invariable feature into the natural landscape that, besides conflicting with the discoveries of science and ignoring the thrust of the conatus, totally contradicts the assertions of the Buddha himself that all things are empty.

Transcendent materialism agrees with the Buddha. What is special about the human mind is its ability to look at what is occurring around it and understand it precisely as empty, and therefore to see clearly that all those “desirable” things are unable to support the unrealistic demands of the conatus. Looking can break the illusion that permanence can be built out of impermanent surroundings. Once the conatus sees that all efforts in the direction of permanence are of no avail, its focus inward on the self ― the source of the conflict ― can be redirected outward toward the totality in compassion for others. But this compassion, the 1800 re­direction that occurs, I submit, is not a “return” to some pristine pre-existing state of mind but is a new discovery that “enlightens” the conatus and propels the organism forward in creatively new ways.

The ability to see

The capacity for reflexive self-consciousness is an invariable that comes with the human mind. But it is not an independent “thing” with a pre-determined content of any kind. It cannot be called “pure” or “serene” or “fulfilled, peaceful, compassionate and loving.” It is simply the ability to see which must be activated by the human subject and turned like a searchlight onto an existing object. That the human mind is radically capable of using its light to see what’s really there (both inside and outside the mind) and thus transcend the shackles of the self-involved conatus, does not mean that it is independent of the human organism in any way. “Seeing” is a function of the organism that can provide data relevant to survival that the conatus does not expect. The serenity and compassion that may result from such an activation are not pre-programmed attitudes, they are conclusions drawn from the evidence; they are the consequents not the antecedents of mental activity. The emotions and attitudes that emerge from such an event are embraced and projected outward by the entire organism; they are not the prior product of some kind of independent “Pristine Mind.”

I want to emphasize the significance of all this. Claiming the human mind is the independent residence of attitudes like love and compassion that we admire and desire, puts the source of these qualities somehow “outside” the organism which is in all other respects identified with a blind and selfish conatus. It runs the risk of dividing the individual into two parts: the “good” subject energized by the pre-existing compassionate content of the “Pristine Mind,” and the “bad” subject dominated and enslaved by the selfish conatus that evolved as a protective function of the living organism. The outcome of such an imaginary division resembles the dualist theory of the Western “soul” which pitted body against spirit in ways that produced irreparable damage to the individual and society that we are still dealing with.

Moreover, establishing some kind of organism-independent function such as the “Buddha-Mind” suggests participation in a cosmos-wide entity or force of some type which accounts for all human minds having simultaneous access to this same “pristine source of love and compassion,” to which even the affectionate capacities of the animals can be assimilated. The similarity to the Hindu Atman/Brahman and the Western Esse/Nous are obvious. If this should be the case, any claim for universal emptiness is eliminated at the doorstep and we find ourselves in some form of Hegelian theist idealism in which real reality is an “Absolute Spirit” serenely independent of its illusory manifestations in the world of material things. It’s a Platonic fantasy that reduces visible things to the semi-real shadows of an invisible reality and runs directly counter to the world as science views it. We tried Platonism; it doesn’t work. If our sense of the sacred is to exist in the real world of empty things and random change, we have to find some other way to ground it.

Science first: physics and metaphysics

Working on these blogs over the last eleven years I have come to the conclusion that the “metaphysics” of our universe (the conceptual reflection of its existential structure) corresponds in every respect to the parameters of science. No existential structures, outside of those observable by science, can be discerned by metaphysics. There is nothing in existence but different forms of material energy whose spontaneous, random, and autonomous interactions are driven by a “need” to be-here (an existential energy) which accounts for the anti-entropic direction of organic evolution. This evolutionary (self-transcending) materialism is totally consistent with the Buddha’s claim that all things are empty. Emptiness translates to the chance nature of all evolving complexification resulting in the composition and decomposition of “things.” Metaphysics’ role is not the discovery of existential structures beyond the realm of changeable matter; there are none. Rather metaphysics should be reconceived as the organizer and interpreter of the human significance of the structures that the physical sciences observe and measure.

In a material universe, there are no structures that are not accessible to the physical sciences and so metaphysics no longer has a discovery role as it did under Platonic dualism. There are no spiritual “things” like “souls” or “substantial ideas” for metaphysics to find. The concepts and their elaboration that are the output of metaphysics should be the description and elucidation of the modes and valences of existential structures ― a secondary feature of material reality ― how “things” relate and interact to one another and to humankind. The “reality” of those relationships is derived from and dependent on the primary existential structures. Those relational modes ― like consciousness ― are not primary reality but are its intentionality and behavioral emanations; and metaphysics is the discipline that studies them: identifying, describing, analyzing and determining their importance for humankind.

Metaphysics in this new form still plays a critical role in an evolutionary materialist view of the world. For the physical sciences cannot determine the organization and inter-relationship of all the various sciences, nor how scientific discoveries and their detailed descriptions relate to the uniquely gifted human species whose extraordinary abilities are beyond physical observation and measurement. That is the function of metaphysics, not as a primary source of raw data about existing things unknown to the physical sciences, but as an analytic interpreter of the meaning and significance of the relationship of existing things to humankind.

Taking refuge

“Taking refuge” is a Buddhist exercise that encourages practitioners at moments of doubt or difficulty to feel they can “flee” to something that will give them the psychological strength to continue the struggle. “Refuge” was originally identified as (1) the Dharma (the moral dimension of reality), (2) the Buddha (whose methods successfully achieve illumination), and (3) the Sangha (society of practitioners) which inspires perseverance through community reinforcement. In some forms of Tibetan Buddhism the notion of “Pristine Mind” or “Buddha-Nature” has come to take the place of the three classic refuges. Since, in their worldview, the “Pristine Mind” is solid, primordial, and ultimately the unconquerable eternal residence of compassion and love, by reminding practitioners of its foundational presence in their life, they feel empowered to overcome difficulties and persevere in their practice.

I have no quarrel with evoking persons or events who remind us that a challenging moral and spiritual program like Buddhism is do-able and that we are not alone in our efforts. My objection is to the imaginary worldview that some have created in order to support the practice. It’s one thing to claim that human consciousness is an undetermined capacity that is capable of yielding a clear-eyed vision of the objective emptiness of all things and thereby generate compassion for them; it simply refers to the human faculty for seeing, a view of reality that conforms to the observed facts. But it’s another to suggest that that capacity is really a “Pristine Mind” that is already pre-deter­mined ― the locus and embodiment of compassion and love ― no matter how consoling and encouraging it might be. Such a claim is sheer projection, mis-taking an effect for a cause.

There is nothing morally predetermined about the human organism, or the community of people that share it. Compassion and love may very well turn out to be key practical elements in the achieve­ment of personal inner peace and community harmony, but we are not pre-deter­mined to embrace them, nor does our humanity disintegrate if we don’t. Just as some people choose to live quite intentionally without inner peace and social harmony because they have another agenda they consider more important (like the ascendancy of their race or class or gender, or their own success), they can with clear-eyes and sane minds intentionally sacrifice love and compassion without forfeiting their humanity or disrupting the functioning of their bodies. They remain human beings. There is nothing that demands that people follow the Dharma and pursue the enlightenment the Buddha offers. These are not hard wired attitudes, they are moral choices and the only “refuge” we have that encourages us to continue to choose them is trust in our vision of the universal destiny of the human species as it has emerged on the living cosmic tree of this material universe.

All the great religions are implicitly if not explicitly universalist because their common insistence on compassion and love can result in nothing less than a focus on the totality as of the highest priority. The emptiness of which the Buddha speaks, which correlates quite accurately with the discoveries of the physical sciences, is the metaphysical side of that universalism: The final locus of well-being resides only with the totality. But, this connection is not embedded in human nature, rather it is the result of insight ― seeing ― and the free choices that follow from it. In the religious worldview there is no stopping point, no lower plateau where well-being can be achieved partially, i.e., where some “thing” is not empty. Religion believes that there is no possibility that the human race could come to fruition by way of the emergence of a master-tribe, or master-class, or master-gender that by subordinating all other people to its superior abilities, humankind could fulfill its destiny. Such an outcome is alien to the religious view, and throughout religious history religious practitioners have notoriously tried to claim their universalist vision is “God’s will” or “the way of heaven,” the Dharma, the Torah, the Tao, the Natural Law ― an expression in human behavior and attitudes that mirror the very metaphysical structure of the universe. Ironically, in fact, it does, but inversely, because the universe is empty of any fixed, permanent and eternal metaphysical structure.

I contend, in agreement with science and the Buddha, that the religious view is not directly coerced by nature; it is a matter of insight, vision and choice which require consequential perseverance and discipline. Those who embrace it cannot say they are determined to that choice by a metaphysical structure as they would be by a pre-determined “Buddha-Mind.” They have rather looked and decided that the best response to emptiness for all concerned is deep gratitude and universal love. It is a choice that results in a compassion that the human organism is capable of but is neither pre-activated nor obligatory. Habituation resembles hard-wiring but it should not be mistaken for it.

That all things are empty means precisely that there is no fixed mark in the universe. “Enlightenment” is not an inescapable logical deduction. It’s the result of fragile insight, moral choice and ultimate trust in the living matter that has evolved us in this universe.

There is nothing we can take refuge in except our human power to look, which gives us the ability to recognize emptiness and choose the way we want to live. In the final analysis, we are on our own. We have to trust ourselves, the material energy that makes us what we are and the community that shares our hopes. We take refuge in what evolution has made us: human beings.

PSALMS 103 & 104


Background. A hymn of praise and thanksgiving whose expressions reflect the parameters of pre-philosophical, pre-scientific religious and scientific belief about the creation and functioning of the universe.

Reflection. Roland Murphy in the Jerome Biblical Commentary claims this psalm reflects a “deep religious sensitivity,” and a “simple and beautiful reaction to God’s goodness.” I disagree. The beliefs trotted out in this psalm are, if taken literally, empty formalities that create a fog that effectively denies reality. That Yahweh “satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s,” may characterize some lives some of the time, but certainly not most, and for many it’s the complete opposite. That Yahweh “works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” is likewise a platitude that is not borne out in reality. The promise that Yahweh “is merciful … slow to anger … will not always accuse … does not hold grudges,” based on the assumption that all suffering is a punishment sent by Yahweh because of sin, is not only “theologically” untenable, but factually it is false: people’s suffering can be relentless and incomprehensible. The reality is that suffering comes whether we sin or not, and evildoers’ luck is no worse than anyone else’s. In fact the honest experience of even those who hold the ancient worldview is that Yahweh is actually quick to anger … always accuses … and is quite capable of refusing to forgive.

That last mentioned “implacability” is precisely the assumption about Yahweh’s character that forms the basis of Augustine’s theory of sin and redemption and Luther’s doctrine of justification which was built on it. Augustine believed that God is eternally angry with humankind for the unforgiveable insult of original sin, and that this “God” would blithely send infants to eternal torment for simply bearing the humanity of the man who insulted him. They said it explained why Jesus had to die on the cross.

We have to acknowledge that these absurdities characterize the implausible tradition we have inherited. If we are to change that tradition we have to emend the archaic assumptions and premises that have been used to justify attitudes that we now realize are ultimately dehumanizing. The poet of this piece must know he is whitewashing the facts. There are no miraculous cures or divine punishments or providential arrangements in life. If there is to be justice, it is we who must insure it. If there is punishment, it is humankind who does the punishing. If we are to avoid disasters like wars, plagues, ecological collapse, we are the ones who have to foresee and prevent them. LIFE works in and through us. LIFE is not to be found except as the energy embedded in living matter. LIFE is not a separate entity. LIFE is not a person as we understand that word. LIFE is the living existential energy that we experience as the matter of this universe and of our own organisms. We trust LIFE because we are made of LIFE and we trust ourselves. We know what we are made of. It is the source of our sense of the sacred.

The psalmist knew none of these things. He saw heaven and earth as the work of a Divine Craftsman, and assumed the builder and owner controlled everything that happened. Faced with the wall-to-wall suffering in human life, he imputed a fatherly mercy to his imagined Craftsman in order to encourage the dispirited among us and inspire our trust in LIFE. Given his lights it was the best he could do and we cherish him for it.

But at the same time we feel deep compassion for him. He had it harder than we do: he thought “God” was responsible for our suffering. How he must have struggled against feeling betrayed and abandoned when he looked honestly at reality. This poem represents the triumph of his anguished struggle: he proclaimed in the loudest and clearest terms he knew that LIFE could be trusted. It wasn’t our science; but his surrender in trust was no less total than ours.

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Praise LIFE … this LIFE that energizes us all. You know what you are. Celebrate yourself for what you are and commit yourself to what you can become.

2 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits —

LIFE was given to me … I did not create it. Everything I am, everything I have, comes from LIFE … is LIFE. I know what I am.

3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,

I must learn to stop trying to create a self other than the one that reflects the LIFE of my human organism. I must learn to rest in the LIFE that enfolds me and allow my body and mind the time and serenity to heal itself. Drawing from LIFE’s energy, I have come back from personal disaster … more than once. LIFE is not interested in my self-indulgent remorse, self-loathing and despair, much less my destruction no matter what I’ve done. I embrace LIFE’s path of justice, abundant generosity and silent gratitude. I surrender to what I am: the mirror and agent of the living energy that spawned me over eons of geologic time. I am the face of LIFE; there is no other.

4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

My energy is LIFE’s energy. It is constantly renewed. Through my human energy LIFE will work vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. There is no other.

6 The LORD works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.

LIFE’s ways are the Dharmapath, the Torah, the Tao, the way of heaven. All people have them written in their hearts of flesh and copied them from there to tablets of stone. Everyone agrees: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, respect sexual partnerships and the families they spawn, do not cripple yourself with intoxicants, create just societies. Be compassionate, generous just and forgiving. This is the way. There is no other.

7 He made known his ways to Moses
and his deeds to Israel’s sons.

LIFE accuses no one, judges no one, punishes no one. We must learn to deal with ourselves the way LIFE deals with us. LIFE is always available, always sharing its uncontrollable drive to create more LIFE. It is a potential we possess as our own for we are an evolved form of LIFE. We know who we are. There is no time for wallowing in remorse, self-hatred, self-pity. They are not compatible with LIFE. They are the refusal to let go of the false social self that is never allowed to fail. They are a waste of time. Sometimes we fail. Just as you forgive others, forgive yourself and move on!

8 The Lord is compassion and love,
slow to anger and rich in mercy.

9 His wrath will come to an end;
he will not be angry for ever.

10 He does not treat us according to our sins
nor repay us according to our faults.

11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.

Compassion is our proper attitude, forgiveness is a metaphor for it. No one has it easy. Everything is impermanent, even the stones some day will perish. Material energy is not a god. It is limited by the resources available to it. In our case it is entropy.

Living matter taps its own thirst for equilibrium ― entropy ― to produce living organisms that evolve. Entropy is the only source of energy in the universe. Like breathing out and breathing in, entropy provides the gradient for LIFE’s appearance, and LIFE needs entropy’s constant availability to continue its own evolution into ever new forms. Death is essential to this cycle. The only immortality achieved by LIFE so far has been in the form of organismic reproduction which does not challenge entropy’s ultimate dominion, even while slipping the original organisms’ reproductive cells under the radar of death. Hence, we are like the grass that withers and is blown away by the wind … but returns in the spring to blanket the earth. These things happen because we are matter.

13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.

14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;

16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

Organismic reproduction, the source of evolution’s innovations, is LIFE’s solution. Living matter evolves and carries LIFE into ever new adventures at ever new depths of co-exis­tence. Compassion is one of these adventures, and it embraces whatever evolving LIFE is creating to confront the future: new generations of LIFE capable of displaying LIFE’s potential ― its abundant generosity ― in ever new ways.

17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,

18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.

This the work of living matter ― LIFE ― our LIFE, in which we live and move and have our being. This is what we celebrate. We are LIFE’s state-of-the-art form of material energy. LIFE’s rules are ours; it is our privilege to obey them wherever they lead.

19 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.

20 Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.

21 Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.

22 Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul.


Background. A hymn of praise to Yahweh as the Creator and sustainer of the natural world. Its similarity in theme, imagery and in some cases expression to the Hymn to the Sun ascribed to Akhenaten, the 14th century bce Pharaoh of Egypt, has been acknowledged, though scholars agree that the influence was indirect. It seems rather that a way of conceiving the relationship of a single divine power who had all the features of the many nature gods, spread across the region and came to be expressed variously when the need for a ritual declaration emerged in the locality. This psalm was Israel’s. It is an inchoate monotheism.

One of the major differences between them is that the pronounced identification of Pharaoh with Aten in the Egyptian hymn is not thematically present in psalm 104. The political ramifications of the Hebrew poem are restricted to an evocation of the Torah, taken in its broadest sense, as a human analog that synchronizes with the detailed harmony of the earth teeming with life. In this sense the Hebrew Torah, like the Tao of China and Buddha’s Dharma, are the mirror of reality itself.

Reflection. Our science has identified the principle of LIFE embedded in material energy as the origin and matrix of the incredible multiplicity of forms and features that have evolved in our material universe. That same principle of LIFE, existing in our organisms and experienced directly as our individual conatus with its insatiable thirst to be-here, is also clearly the phenomenological (functional) source of our sense of the sacred. Since LIFE performs for us the same creative and poetic function as YAHWEH did for the Hebrews in this poem, we have no trouble simply joining our voices to the chorus that has been singing this same song for over three thousand four hundred years.

This LIFE that we thank and praise is using our organic material as a garment for its own emergence into the light of day. We can palpably touch LIFE in every present moment simply by turning our attention to our own inner depths. We are-here now because of LIFE’s energy in our own living matter. We are the expression of LIFE’s own thirst to be-here. We are LIFE at the cutting edge of its trajectory through time. What an immense stroke of luck to be caught up in this river of LIFE and allowed to display its experiments in the ever deeper and more intimate embrace of being-here.

As a friend recently said, there is nothing to do … there is nowhere to go. Just lay back and enjoy the journey. We are borne along by a force that is beyond our control and comprehension. Our gratitude comes because we love what we are, we embrace what is happening to us, and we trust where it is all going.

1 Bless the Lord, my soul! Lord God, how great you are,
clothed in majesty and glory,

2 wrapped in light as in a robe!
You stretch out the heavens like a tent

3 Above the rains you build your dwelling. You make the clouds your chariot, you walk on the wings of the wind,

4 you make the winds your messengers
and flashing fire your servants.

5 You founded the earth on its base,
to stand firm from age to age.

6 You wrapped it with the ocean like a cloak:
the waters stood higher than the mountains.

7 At your threat they took to flight;
at the voice of your thunder they fled.

8 They rose over the mountains and flowed down
to the place which you had appointed.

9 You set limits they might not pass
lest they return to cover the earth

Entropy, like falling water, is an overwhelming chaotic power that LIFE has harnessed and domesticated. Now in one form after another LIFE is served and nourished, sustained and allowed to thrive with this same once-chaotic energy. LIFE’s embrace of chaos as its source of energy has established the fundamental dynamic that characterizes material energy in our universe: LIFE from death and chaos … LIFE toward more LIFE in every imaginable way.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,

11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.

12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.

13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,

15 and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make our face shine, and bread to strengthen our bodies.

16 The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.

18 The goats find a home on the mountains
and rabbits hide in the rocks

19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.

LIFE is not limited to the daytime under the sun, but also at night living organisms of all kinds enjoy the same blessings. LIFE’s munificence is universal.

20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.

21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.

22 When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.

23 People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.

24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

The great waters, the symbol of chaos, domesticated now and no longer unruly, serve as the place for sea creatures to swim and play, for humankind to travel and ship its produce.

25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

26 There go the ships, and Leviathan you created to play there.

27 These all look to you to give them their food in due season;

28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth.

Entropy ever remains the wellspring of matter’s energy. Matter’s necessary descent toward equilibrium continues to provide an inexhaustible source of energy that LIFE uses to renew the world with life. The grass withers and is blown away by the wind, but when springtime comes, it returns to cover the earth.

31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works —

32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the LORD.

Where does humankind fit in to this picture? We sit quietly ― we meditate ― and we ponder this tremendous scene, this whole experiment in green. Who are we if not a small part of the immense tree of LIFE, living on its energies, following its obsessive path into more LIFE? May my meditation be always fixed on the truth. May I always follow the path of LIFE, my LIFE. My LIFE I love you.

35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!


Play is the life-blood of relationship.

Relationship is being-with an other, which is only a slight variation on being-here oneself.
Being-here is the primary (physical/metaphysical) manifestation of energeia in this world of things. Energeia is the generative source of the emptiness of all that are energized with it.
Energeia is what things that are-here have but do not own.

Hence, emptiness.

Relationship is a correlate of the universal emptiness that characterizes all of visible reality.
One being-with another is the mutual possession of emptiness.

That there even are “others” at all is explicable only as a by-product of evolution.
Evolution is driven by emptiness (which is driven by energeia); evolution entails the irremediable alienation of progeny from origin, creating an anomalous (unplanned, unnecessary, undetermined, unanticipated) duality that belies the sufficiency of the substrate sameness ― the being-here ― that both share.
That fundamental sameness generates a self-embrace that includes the emergent other. It opens each one’s conatus to include in its sphere of concern all things evolved from the original substrate.

Hence, relationship.

To be with any other is a modality of being-here yourself.
You embrace the other as yourself, because physically/metaphysically the other is yourself

When you are-with an other in this most seminal, metaphysical, sense, you are bound in an embrace that does not require interaction because it is grounded in the pre-existent substrate monism: the raw, invariable unity of the energeia of being-here. The relationship ― the bond ― is fully realized from the moment of emanation.
Nothing more needs to be done. No further action is necessary.

The paradox of all things being simultaneously “one” and “many” is resolved, not metaphysically but practically, through a fictional interaction that can only occur because of the irreducible reality of both.

That fictional interaction is play.

Play is what you do when you are not doing anything but just being-here-with another.
Meditation, friendship, prayer ― they are all play. They do nothing for they are all merely being-with.

Play is what you do when there is nothing to do  . . .  and you are actually doing nothing.

Emptiness is givenness; and since having been given is the very ground of possibility of anything being-here at all, all things are immediately and inextricably related in and through the common exercise of an energeia that belongs to no one but is possessed completely and equally by all. Nothing more is required to activate this relationship. It comes activated. Any interaction between and among things is totally redundant, unnecessary, spontaneous and creative:

it is play.

All inter-activity is superfluous, for nothing that is-here owns, or ever loses its being-here.
There is nothing to do, ever.
To be-here is to play.

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:


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 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.