THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (5)

THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (5)

Religion has been used as the foundation and engine of larger society since the days of its birth.   Doctrinal configurations and the motivations embedded in them have tended to deploy themselves around that function.  Religion declares what is right and wrong … and it enjoins obedience to “God given” authority.  It justifies and fosters society’s interests. 

 According to our rabbi, however, the reason for religion is very different from this.  It is the relationship to a loving Father whom we acknowledge by imitating.  Not everyone would agree, and even those that do, often forget it.  Most think of religion in terms of how important it is for the human project: … how essential to public morality, civility and honesty … how necessary for peace among nations and cultures … how motivating for ecological responsibility, social equity and justice … how healthy and centering for the human personality … for fostering understanding and patience between spouses and among members of families and villages … for sustaining us through the tragedies of death and disaster.

 Religion is evaluated in terms of what it can do for us.  And it is considerable.  But its foundational aspect ― the relationship to our source and therefore ourselves ― is often relegated to personal, private and even idiosycratic interest: a matter of “taste.”  And yet, it is the ground of all the rest ― the sine qua non ― without which the “rest” evaporates or runs the risk of distorting and becoming self-destructive.

 Contrary to the claims of the Roman Church, Jesus did not see his task as founding a religion.  He had a religion.  Judaism was already the bedrock and energizer of the society he lived in.  He had no intention of changing that.  The task he set for himself was “relational reform.”  He saw, with a unique clarity, that the organic relationship to God ― for him symbolized by the word “Father” ― was the single “key to the kingdom.”  He had, in fact, nothing else to say.  And that one little thing was so subversive, so threatening to everything that Judaism represented to “larger society” of his time that they killed him for it. 

This is the secret for understanding what “it’s all about.”  You don’t kill someone for no reason.  And the Romans couldn’t be bothered with esoteric Jewish religious disputes.  You kill those who attack your way of life.  The Romans killed those who challenged their power and control.  Understanding how what Jesus was saying threatened “larger society,” provides us with answers to the questions of what life is, and how Jesus proposed we should live it.  It also helps us evaluate those “religions” that have been launched in his name.

 The “relational” focus of Jesus worked thoroughly within the parameters of Judaism.  Doctrinally, he did not propose anything new.  Yahweh was as always … the only true God, powerful and all-knowing … but what Jesus centered on was that God is a loving Father and we are his children.  Fatherhood describes a relationship of blood.  A father would not give his child a stone if she asked for bread or a serpent for fish … this “Father” arrayed the lillies of the field in the spendor of kings … he knew every sparrow that fell from the sky and every hair on your head.  This “Father” was intimately engaged with his children. 

But there was nothing new here.  It had all been said before … .  God loved them like a husband loves his wife, as a Mother loves her children.  It was cookbook Judaism, sharply focused by Jesus on the implications of the relationship.  There were no empty dogmatic niceties.  No Trinitarian processions, no  transubstantiation, no homoousios, no ex opere operato sacramentsAnd no new commandments.  Forgive others, the way your Father forgives you.  Love God, love one another.  In fact the old commandments  … do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, respect family partnerships, respect your parents and elders …  are not really “commandments” … they are common sense. 

His outrageous exaggerations, “cut off your hand … pluck out your eye,” were homiletic hyperbole and everyone knew it.  His “commandment” to “love one another” was a well established ancient norm of Judaism, part of the Shema Ishrael written down and bound in little boxes to heads, hands and on the doorways of houses … Jews had known for a thousand years that the “greatest commandment” was to love God with all your heart and others as yourself.  The rest of the moral law was subordinate to that one … .  He was a Jew, held to basic Jewish morality.  Nothing new here.  What was there in any of this that would account for his political assassination? 

Here’s what got him into trouble:  his “modifications” indirectly attacked the way the doctrine, practice and authority of Judaism were being used to sustain a parasitic religious caste complicit with the Roman occupation.  He challenged the code of control which, sanctioned by religion, made it clear who gives orders and who obeys, who gets wealthy and who stays poor, who eats and who starves, who kills and who dies.  He liberated people from “laws” that made gods of those who used “God” to leverage their own power and plunder.  That’s what got him killed.  His message was subversive of the “way of life” in Roman occupied Palestine of his time. 

I said he did it indirectly.  How did that work?  By simply insisting that the “law” that their Father wanted them to obey was their humanity.  They did not need a hieratic authority to tell them what was right and wrong and whom they should obey.  If the authorities insisted on obedience to God, then that law was easy to read; it was the one that their Father had written in their hearts of flesh. 

 This was Jesus’ “heresy:”  his message implied there is nothing requiring brainy lawyers or hooded monks to go to another world, or an inaccessible mountaintop, and bring back a “spiritual” law to torture and convict us “materialists” on our grimy planet.  Your human flesh, such as it is, is a living message, the image of your Father.  If you want to know the law of Moses, follow the instincts of your humanity.  It is the official interpretation of all laws because it is the image and likeness of God.

By calling God “our Father” Jesus evoked the organic nature of our relationship to God.  It is not a relationship created by our obedience.  It is a blood relationship that precedes all interaction … a parent-child bond that implies we can act like God because we are his progeny, we are genetically like him in our very bodies.  So we can forgive as he forgives, and go the extra mile as he does … and conversely, it also means we can understand “him” perfectly, because God is like us: “he” treats his children as we treat ours … with love, care and generosity.  If you want to know what God is like, look at yourselves.  “If you know how to give good things to your children … don’t you think your Father does”?

 Human flesh is the image and likeness of God.  God is organically related to human flesh … Therefore human flesh can forgive as God forgives … and “God” can die as human flesh dies.  The first communities of “the Way” that formed after Jesus’ assassination saw the connection … and so they projected that in Jesus’ death, “God” died … confirming the blood relationship.  “God,” they said, “was human.”

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21 comments on “THE CASE FOR “MATERIALISM” (5)

  1. Gerry says:

    Tony,

    I agree with the dialectic you have drawn between Jesus and the Roman Church. However, over all, I tend to agree with Bart Ehrman that Jesus was an only an apocalyptic preacher, of whom there were others at the time, notably John the Baptist, rather than the divine incarnation that you appear to accept. Thanks for the blog. It is a most thought exposition.

    • tonyequale says:

      Gerry,

      Wordpress keeps bumping me. Apparently I am hitting some key that automatically terminates my response. Sorry for the snafu.

      I agree with you … and Ehrman. You will notice that I attributed the projection about Jesus and divinity to the posthumous communities of “the way.” I never claimed Jesus to be God … moreover, I contend that Jesus himself not only did not claim to be God, he explcitly rejected the suggestion.

      My point in getting so “close to the edge” in this post was twofold: (1) to suggest that the genetic connection between God and human flesh means that God is “matter,” which is the point of the whole series of 5 postings; and (2) that the early communities had a strong sense of the organic homogeneity between God and humanity, but their greek categories would not allow them to imagine God as “matter,” so they got as close to it as could and called “matter” (the flesh of the man Jesus) God. Make sense? It maybe hard to follow and anything but obvious … but I believe it is a plausible deflection which explains the otherwise unheard of abandonment of strict monotheism on the part of Jews. It is an explanation that is germane to my fundamental vision … that all is matter … and we all understand it intimately … and that it is fundamentally compatible with the message and mission of Jesus.

  2. Terry says:

    Tony,

    I believe I understand what you are getting at with this series on Materialism, which I find immensely liberating. I’ve said before that there seems to be an immense need for a bridge between science and traditional Christian theology which does not require a contortionist to accept the contradictory assumptions of both at the same time.

    I have reached the point in my life where I receive no sustenance whatsoever from institutionalized religion but I have been struggling to find some kind of coherent ontology that makes a whole of both the marvellous world glimpsed by science and the values of truth, integrity, and love that had for so long seemed to be the jurisdiction solely of religion.

    Your thinking has been immensely fruitful for me, and although I haven’t worried too much of late about Jesus’ message, I have found the ideas in this series particularly freeing. One can let go of so much detritus without letting go of the universal essence.

    Pope Benedict, on the other hand…

    Thank you.
    Terry

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry … thanks for the comment. This perspective is liberating for me as well. It opens to a world of rich metaphor, old and new … not unlike the way the first christians took the imagery they found in the prophets, psalms, history and wisdom books of Judaism and turned them into “figures” i.e., symbols, prophecies and metaphors which they claimed were “fulfilled” in the vision they culled from the message and mission of Jesus.

      It is like the way we take the mistakes of our younger years and turn them into the painful but necessary “transitions” to a higher, more mature personality. The past fades from “fact” to symbol allowing us to be-here fully in the present moment.

  3. Thanks Tony,

    Interesting to follow more of your thinking. I find myself wondering though what stops you from making what seems to me an obvious next step, and that is to do away with the concept of God completely?

    Isn’t that the residual problem? While we still entertain the concept of God we have the problem of what to do with all the superlatives and universals which drag themselves behind it, what to do with ideas like that of the ‘only true God, powerful and all-knowing’.

    While the concept of God persists, the risk will persist of ‘parasitic religious castes’, of codes of control sanctioned by religion to define ‘who gives orders and who obeys, who gets wealthy and who stays poor, who eats and who starves, who kills and who dies’.

    That’s not to say that if we abolish the concept of God as something real then magically we will have a utopia on our hands. But the concept of God is no help to us, even a God who is a loving father with whom we have a relationship of blood.

    If God is telling us to obey the law of our humanity, then who says what that law is? If one person reads the law as saying X and another reads the law as saying not-X then who is right, and who says who is right? If God is real and that God has written the law in our hearts of flesh then there is a true answer. God either wrote X or not-X. So those with discernment (there’s a word to chill the blood), those who if we are not careful will gang together as yet another parasitic religious caste, will get to say what the law of our humanity is, and tell us how to read it.

    Maybe if the idea of doing away with God is unthinkable then saying that human flesh is the image and likeness of God is liberating. But isn’t it yet more liberating and much much safer just to say that human flesh is human flesh, that we have free will and therefore can choose to love each other or not, can choose whether to treat each other as we would wish to be treated?

    Thanks again,
    Chris.
    thinking makes it so

    • theotheri says:

      Chris,

      I am eager to see how Tony responds to your comment, since on even-numbered days I cannot see the usefulness of a concept of god however one defines it, while on odd days I am open the possibility that it points to something legitimate – although it is certainly nothing like any “god” I have ever been introduced to.

      But even on the even days when any idea of god, however defined, is superfluous, I’m not inclined to think giving up the idea of god in society will get rid of any of the ills you describe or the destructive, arrogant behaviors which are justified in the name of religion. As I look at history, atheist regimes are not one wit better at respecting our humanity, at tolerating differences, or maintaining integrity than are religious ones.

      I think the problem is not with “god” but with our own limitations. My own guess is that our gods are at least 99% projections of ourselves. So that if we get rid of the concept of god altogether, the problems merely reappear in the form of some other theory or philosophy. I wish getting rid of “god” were a solution. But I doubt it is. If only because sometimes “god” is a peg onto which some people hang the most noble and great of aspirations. The idea of god, for some people in some situations is not limiting or destructive, but the opposite.

      Which is to say that I find the whole question of the reality or otherwise of “god” utterly fascinating, even if it no longer is one that provides me with any inspiration.

      Terry (The Other I)

  4. tonyequale says:

    Chris,
    Your point was similar enough to the one made by “gerry” in an earlier comment to this same posting that I feel a need to begin my reply by re-printing my response to “gerry” here … but it is only a start:

    Gerry … I agree with you … and Ehrman. You will notice that I attributed the projection about Jesus and divinity to the posthumous communities of “the way.” I never claimed Jesus to be God … moreover, I contend that Jesus himself not only did not claim to be God, he explcitly rejected the suggestion.
    My point in getting so “close to the edge” in this post was twofold: (1) to suggest that the genetic connection between God and human flesh means that our “God” is “matter,” which is the point of the whole series of 5 postings; and (2) that the early communities had a strong sense of the organic homogeneity between God and humanity, but their greek categories would not allow them to imagine God as “matter,” so they got as close to it as could and called “matter” (the flesh of the man Jesus) “God.” Make sense? It may be hard to follow and anything but obvious … but I believe it is a plausible deflection which explains the otherwise unheard of abandonment of strict monotheism on the part of dedicated Jews. It is an explanation that is germane to my fundamental vision … that all is matter … and we all understand it intimately … and that it is fundamentally compatible with the message and mission of Jesus.

    I am fully aware of the immanent (and imminent) dangers of both “God” and “religion.” While both those “items” are human phenomena that must be dealt with because, in my opinion and experience, they will not go away, the question goes beyond expediency and social realism … at least for those, like myself, who are obsessed with “reality,” no matter what it entails, rather than “being realistic.”

    As far as the “anthropomorphism” of imagining “God” as a personal “law-giver” is concerned, I have a number of earlier postings in the “neo-atheism” series that broach that issue (just scroll down on the main post to titles like “Via Negationis,” “Avoiding the “G” word,” “Curse God and Die!” The salient point here is the image of “God” evoked by the word “God.” If the word “God” were no longer in use, I would wager that to speak only of “that in which we live and move and have our being,” completely divorced from all NT allusions or Platonic fantasies, would not in itself elicit the same intolerable moral and political onera that we bear as permanent neck-irons in the lands of the Christian West. I contend it is only the word “God” and its multi-millennial associations with “the Book” that has robbed us of the ability to weep in awe at the dynamic material reality that has produced this stunning universe.

    Now, that having been accomplished (theoretically, of course), the ultimate question remains … for those stalwart ones willing to remain obsessed with “reality” and not “realism.” What is THAT THING in which “we live and move and have our being”? is there, scientifically, undeniably, such a thing … and … ignoring every earlier ignorant projection … how do I relate to it?

    Tony

    • Thanks Tony and Terry for your responses.

      Terry – I guess (as you’ve probably guessed too) I’m a bit more optimistic that getting rid of the concept of God could be a good thing in itself. I’m far from naïve enough to think it’s a sufficient condition for progress, but I could be persuaded that it’s perhaps a necessary condition for at least some kind of progress.

      And I’m not including metaphorical uses of ‘God’ language like eg Don Cupitt’s. I can’t remember finding much to argue with in his books – I could have misunderstood them of course!

      The argument about eg Stalinist or Nazi atheist regimes has its place, but I don’t see it as a clincher. The problem with God-given authority is that it can operate (and corrupt) at any level – as the Catholic Church proudly demonstrates. If an atheist regime like maybe Stalinist Russia or France under the Reign of Terror enforced the diktat that ‘there is no God’ by political power then it would invite comparison with a theocracy like modern Iran or much of 16th Century Spain. But I don’t see why we can’t also describe secular states like say Sweden or the Netherlands as ‘atheist regimes’. As political structures they have no real place for God. An ‘atheist’ after all is just someone who has no God, not someone who goes around forcing others to lose their God.

      I guess all I’m saying is that I think it would be a good thing to get rid of the concept of God, but a very bad thing if this was done by force. This is neither contradictory nor particularly original.

      Your paragraph about the problem being not with ‘god’ but with our own limitations sums up the dilemma very succinctly. Our gods may well be largely projections of ourselves. But that is why the concept of God is so dangerous. We are finite and imperfect. If we project features of ourselves onto something which drips with universals and superlatives (as God does by definition), we risk losing our sense of proportion and see finite and imperfect things as grandiose and infinite. Hence my question to Tony: isn’t it yet more liberating and much much safer just to say that human flesh is human flesh? As Bishop Butler said, Everything is what it is, and not another thing.

      But then, as you say, we get the opposite – God as a peg for the noblest aspirations. If this is a projection it’s not of what we are, but of what we are not. I cannot find fault with something as pure as this. I get uneasy though when a negatively-construed ethical universal like this starts being given positive characteristics.

      So, finally to respond to Tony’s response – I think this is related to the kind of unease I get with the idea of equating God with matter or with human flesh. One of the things I dislike most about the concept of God as it seems to be deployed in much of the Christian tradition (and maybe other Abrahamic traditions as well) is that it joins two things together which I think are much better kept apart.

      One is the idea of moral perfection, of moral absolutes, of highest moral aspiration.

      The other is the idea of the ultimate reality, the ultimate ground of our being, of what the universe is and how it got there. It could be that thing in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ – if the biblical language hasn’t already prejudged the matter by bolting this onto the idea of moral perfection.

      Thanks again for the inspiration!

      Chris.
      thinking makes it so

      • tonyequale says:

        Chris,

        Thanks for your comment.
        I think what you say is very important. I share your concern, perhaps more than you realize. …
        I share it so deeply that I have tried to address it in prior posts well in advance of this “materialism” series, as I mentioned. What I take away from the last paragraph of your comment of Wed (6/16) is that your feel that no amount of verbal and conceptual “house cleaning” can ever rid us of the baneful effects of our anthropomorphic Abrahamic theist tradition. There is only one solution, in your opinion … radical hierectomy.

        The overpowering imagery of the “G” word is so determinative, that it even invades your very call for dropping it. For it is difficult to even enunciate that proposition without being aware that what you are asking to be dropped is already claimed, by many be-sides myself, to not exist. The attempt to effectuate a thoroughly radical philosophical / theological purification, in other words, is not only difficult, … in your opinion it is not possible.

        You realize, of course, that this impacts human life in areas that go well beyond the “G” question. For if we cannot break the links that bind words to the images that we no longer agree with, then no rational reform is ever possible. You seem to be saying that even dropping the “word” altogether … and specifying exactly the parameters of the “new” word or phrase, cannot, try as it may, escape from the dungeon of our neolithic forbears. Al Pacino’s “godfather,” thug, pimp, thief and drug pusher, glorified into sanc-tity by Cuppola’s hollywood imagination, exonerates a lifetime of human garbage by claiming, “everytime I try to get out … they pull me back in.” Is this what we are finally up against …? Human impotence and utter abjection before the addictions of the past? Are we absolutely determined?

        You insist that, “human flesh is only human flesh” meaning “everything is what it is and not something else.” But a formula like that … designed to get us away from the “G” notion altogether … also flies in the face of the stunning inclusions and transcendent trajectories that science is uncovering about our material existence itself, totally apart from any connection to the “G” hypothesis. I am not trying to resurrect “God.” I am try-ing to preserve a sense of the of the transcendent material matrix in which we are im-mersed which cannot be described by saying “everything is only what it is,” … for every-thing is also what everything else is, and the capacities of things are not only “what they are” but what they can become which is totally unknown. There was a transcendence residing in the quarks and gluons that coalesced into protons during the first nano-seconds of the big-bang that allowed them — 13.7 billion years later — to evolve into human flesh. My brain is only flesh. There is no “spirit” there. The matter that is my brain is constructed of only quarks and gluons … the very same quarks and gluons that formed protons within the first second after the big-bang. These are facts. We may not like them … I may have preferred a universe in which I was not constructed of the resi-dent potential of what it appears I was not … and which also belongs to everything else. “I” could not be more different than a quark. And yet that is all I am. Even you have to call this matrix something.
        I’m tempted to call it “mother.” But in deference to your sensitivities I will just call it “sacred.” I, personally, refuse to call it “God,” and though I respect and understand those that do, I insist that the religious metaphors conform themselves to the science, and not the other way around.

        One last point: you seem to be particularly averse to the association of the “G” thing to moral absolutes and “perfection.” You are a sharp fellow. Certainly you can agree that there is no necessary connection between the two. This suggests to me that you have personally had experiences in which the two have been so “bolted” together that for you to achieve any modicum of freedom from the one (the crushing demands of ab-solutes) you must reject the other (the “G” thing). Your experience may not be that par-ticular to yourself. It may actually be representative of many people who have been similarly affected by our tradition, perhaps even myself. I applaud your acumen and your dedication to becoming fully human, and I agree that there needs to be a more generalized effort to rid ourselves of these connections … . But surely you must see that there is a difference between the rational project of science and philosophy, seek-ing to identify and describe reality as it really is, and the possibly idiosyncratic project that defines personal spirituality or emotional development. As with any scientific enter-prise, we’d all like to think we can keep the “subjective” realm from skewing the “objec-tive.” After all, if we can’t do that, we can’t escape our past and move forward.

        I will grant you that there is nothing more vexing than to have to live with an associa-tion in our minds that will not allow us complete freedom of movement. The consum-mate annoyance of our tradition insisting on disrupting the clarity of a new understand-ing of reality trying to come to life in our minds and hearts, is maddening. Separating the baby from the bathwater can be a messy and not always surgically precise task. Most often it is not understood and even when understood, not appreciated. And no one is obligated to it. But those who decide to do it have to live with the struggle it en-tails.
        Tony … 6/17/2010

      • Terry says:

        Chris –

        Yes, systems where one is truly free to choose what one believes are hugely liberating and greatly to be desired. What my concern is that just getting rid of “god” won’t do it. Unless we fill the gap with some positive alternative, we will end up with a secular version of the same authoritarian bigotry that cannot live with uncertainty or questioning.

        It’s really that potential alternative that I find myself energized about.

        I certainly would not recommend teaching ones children that there is a god, simply because I thought it was a good foundation and that they could choose to reject it later. It is a practice being used by more than one friend, and I’m somewhat appalled, to tell the truth.

        And maybe you are right. I find the concept of god rather suffocating. But perhaps as you suggest it is worse than that. Maybe much worse. It elevates our own predilections to divine supremacy, and sanctifies our bigotry and narrow-mindedness. It may bring out the best in us sometimes; I think it also brings out the worst.

        We do need to find an alternative. I too rather like “that in which we move and live and have our being.” On that, it seems we are all three agreed. It might just be sufficiently grounded and open-ended enough and not so suggestive of the traditional concept of god that we could live with it.

        Thank you again, for so much thought, and so many things to think about.
        Terry

      • Thanks again Terry,

        I think the response I’ve just made to Tony (June 19, 2010) answers some of what you say here (June 18, 2010 @ 1:47 pm).

        I understand the worry about alternative non-theistic but equally authoritarian bigotries.

        But at the risk of over-simplification I think it’s possible that the atheistic (or non-theistic) ideologies the world has experienced also suffered from the same identification of ethical absolutism with absolutism of a non-ethical kind.

        So for example Marxism included both a theory of how human society developed and an ethic of what sort of human society should be promoted. To be a good Marxist was both to agree with the Marxist analysis and also to act so as to bring about the proletarian revolution.

        Nazism similarly had a body of doctrine based on so-called facts about the Aryan and other races (etc), plus a vision of a future state of affairs which it was the duty of Nazis to bring about.

        Keeping contemplation of what is separate from contemplation of what ought to be does not lead in particularly glamorous directions. Almost by definition it does not lead to a holistic project or vision. But that for me is one of its strengths, in that it doesn’t lead to anything which looks like an alternative to religion. The ethical ‘quest’ in particular has a dry, austere, Kantian feel to it which doesn’t promise anything at the end like a reward outside or beyond itself.

        But the metaphysical ‘quest’ is equally free from the need to find an ultimate meaning in reality which will finally reward us with the reassurance that deep down there is something that will connect with our striving to be good.

        The two quests are not diametrically opposed, or necessarily at odds. They may require similar things of us. One thing in particular is the striving against falsehood and baggage. Both could therefore be seen in terms of a quest for ‘truth’.

        But again this similarity or parallelism provides part of the temptation to see them both as the same thing. It may even be a Faustian temptation.

        A great deal of what Tony says about Jesus’s project fits this picture. If I knew more religious history I might suggest that Jesus was far more concerned about the ‘ethical quest’ side of the dichotomy than the ‘metaphysical quest’ side. It was then the later Platonising influences (starting with Paul?) which could not resist bolting on a metaphysical structure – after all how could it be a real religion without it? (Plato was of course the arch-unifier of ethics and metaphysics: his Form of the Good was the source of both goodness and truth…)

        Enough already. This is getting stratospheric!

        Thanks again for giving me so much to think about.

        Chris.

  5. tonyequale says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for your comment.
    I think what you say is very important. I share your concern, perhaps more than you realize. …
    I share it so deeply that I have tried to address it in prior posts well in advance of this “materialism” series, as I mentioned. What I take away from the last paragraph of your comment of Wed (6/16) is that your feel that no amount of verbal and conceptual “house cleaning” can ever rid us of the baneful effects of our anthropomorphic Abrahamic theist tradition. There is only one solution, in your opinion … radical hierectomy.

    The overpowering imagery of the “G” word is so determinative, that it even invades your very call for dropping it. For it is difficult to even enunciate that proposition without being aware that what you are asking to be dropped is already claimed, by many be-sides myself, to not exist. The attempt to effectuate a thoroughly radical philosophical / theological purification, in other words, is not only difficult, … in your opinion it is not possible.

    You realize, of course, that this impacts human life in areas that go well beyond the “G” question. For if we cannot break the links that bind words to the images that we no longer agree with, then no rational reform is ever possible. You seem to be saying that even dropping the “word” altogether … and specifying exactly the parameters of the “new” word or phrase, cannot, try as it may, escape from the dungeon of our neolithic forbears. Al Pacino’s “godfather,” thug, pimp, thief and drug pusher, glorified into sanc-tity by Cuppola’s hollywood imagination, exonerates a lifetime of human garbage by claiming, “everytime I try to get out … they pull me back in.” Is this what we are finally up against …? Human impotence and utter abjection before the addictions of the past? Are we absolutely determined?

    You insist that, “human flesh is only human flesh” meaning “everything is what it is and not something else.” But a formula like that … designed to get us away from the “G” notion altogether … also flies in the face of the stunning inclusions and transcendent trajectories that science is uncovering about our material existence itself, totally apart from any connection to the “G” hypothesis. I am not trying to resurrect “God.” I am try-ing to preserve a sense of the of the transcendent material matrix in which we are im-mersed which cannot be described by saying “everything is only what it is,” … for every-thing is also what everything else is, and the capacities of things are not only “what they are” but what they can become which is totally unknown. There was a transcendence residing in the quarks and gluons that coalesced into protons during the first nano-seconds of the big-bang that allowed them — 13.7 billion years later — to evolve into human flesh. My brain is only flesh. There is no “spirit” there. The matter that is my brain is constructed of only quarks and gluons … the very same quarks and gluons that formed protons within the first second after the big-bang. These are facts. We may not like them … I may have preferred a universe in which I was not constructed of the resi-dent potential of what it appears I was not … and which also belongs to everything else. “I” could not be more different than a quark. And yet that is all I am. Even you have to call this matrix something.
    I’m tempted to call it “mother.” But in deference to your sensitivities I will just call it “sacred.” I, personally, refuse to call it “God,” and though I respect and understand those that do, I insist that the religious metaphors conform themselves to the science, and not the other way around.

    One last point: you seem to be particularly averse to the association of the “G” thing to moral absolutes and “perfection.” You are a sharp fellow. Certainly you can agree that there is no necessary connection between the two. This suggests to me that you have personally had experiences in which the two have been so “bolted” together that for you to achieve any modicum of freedom from the one (the crushing demands of ab-solutes) you must reject the other (the “G” thing). Your experience may not be that par-ticular to yourself. It may actually be representative of many people who have been similarly affected by our tradition, perhaps even myself. I applaud your acumen and your dedication to becoming fully human, and I agree that there needs to be a more generalized effort to rid ourselves of these connections … . But surely you must see that there is a difference between the rational project of science and philosophy, seek-ing to identify and describe reality as it really is, and the possibly idiosyncratic project that defines personal spirituality or emotional development. As with any scientific enter-prise, we’d all like to think we can keep the “subjective” realm from skewing the “objec-tive.” After all, if we can’t do that, we can’t escape our past and move forward.

    I will grant you that there is nothing more vexing than to have to live with an associa-tion in our minds that will not allow us complete freedom of movement. The consum-mate annoyance of our tradition insisting on disrupting the clarity of a new understand-ing of reality trying to come to life in our minds and hearts, is maddening. Separating the baby from the bathwater can be a messy and not always surgically precise task. Most often it is not understood and even when understood, not appreciated. And no one is obligated to it. But those who decide to do it have to live with the struggle it en-tails.

    Tony … 6/17/2010

    • Thanks again Tony!

      I’ve just read (in fact I think re-read) the three posts you mention (Via Negationis, Avoiding the “G” word & Curse God and Die!) and yes I agree there’s a lot there I would concur with.

      I think though that I was trying (and probably not succeeding!) to say something rather simpler than what you might have read in what I wrote. When I asked isn’t it yet more liberating and much much safer just to say that human flesh is human flesh? and quoted Bishop Butler’s Everything is what it is, and not another thing, my point wasn’t that ‘human flesh is only human flesh’ – ie that we should shy away from anything that isn’t completely down to earth. Human flesh could be the most astonishing and mysterious phenomenon. An atom of hydrogen could defy ultimate comprehension, despite the intricacy and profundity of what we do think we know about the universe.

      What worried me was simply the idea of seeing reality (however amazing and wondrous) in divine or sacred terms. And the reason for that worry is because of the familiar (or customary or traditional) identification of ‘God’ (or the divine or the sacred) with the idea of moral perfection. My concern with the concept of God is the temptation it offers to identify metaphysics with ethics: God = ultimate reality; God = ultimate goodness; ergo ultimate reality = ultimate goodness.

      Looking at your other posts I see you are very critical of successive versions of God as lawgiver – which I would certainly go along with. But it’s not just the particular ethical ‘message’ or demands of these various deities which is the problem. It’s the fact that they have both an ethical and a metaphysical dimension, and the two are bolted together.

      You say that Jesus insisted that the law that God the father wanted people to obey was their humanity, a law that God the father ‘had written in their hearts of flesh’. I agree this is an altogether gentler, more humanistic ethics than typically prevailed and prevails in contexts of authoritarian religion. But the implication is that this (the law written in hearts of flesh) is the ‘correct’ ethics – the right law to follow.

      And then you talk of ‘the dynamic material reality that has produced this stunning universe’ and ‘THAT THING in which we live and move and have our being’.

      I shall avoid the G-word and refer instead to ‘X’. I read you as saying that this ‘X’ has an ethical dimension, in being identified with an ethical imperative (even if a purely humanistic ethical imperative and not from anything or anyone external). But this ‘X’ has a metaphysical dimension as well, as being ‘that in which we live and move and have our being’?

      If I have understood you correctly, then I think this is where I would part company. It is not just the tribal/imperialistic/external/authoritarian nature of historic deities that is the problem. It is also their ‘ultimateness’, which, particularly in the case of a monotheistic deity, leads to the concept of one entity or principle uniting all possible ‘ultimatenesses’. (If there is only one God, that God must be the ultimate ground of reality as well as the ultimate source of goodness.)

      But if instead one begins without a concept of God at all, then it is quite possible to move in the direction of mystery &/or awe &/or sacredness in one’s contemplation or apprehension of reality. This is even if that mystery/awe/sacredness is indistinguishable from a kind of nothingness. Or if a kind of nothingness is an indelible feature of one’s apprehension. I shall call this the ‘metaphysical quest’.

      It is also possible to move in the direction of an ethical ultimate – eg towards greater & greater transcendence or universality or abnegation of self. I shall call this the ‘ethical quest’.

      But, if one does not start with a concept of God, I do not see what reason one would have for identifying the goal of the metaphysical quest with the goal of the ethical quest. There are, on the other hand, very sound philosophical (and maybe even ethical) reasons for not identifying them.

      One is the problem of evil (why does God allow innocent sentient beings to suffer?). Another is the naturalistic fallacy (why should any statement or consideration of what is entail any statement or consideration about what ought to be?)

      When I asked (13 June 2010) what stopped you from doing away with the concept of God completely, I think this is what was at the back of my mind. Your responses have greatly helped to tease out what I should have said much more clearly & explicitly first time round!

      Hope this makes some kind of sense?

      Thanks again,
      Chris.

  6. Tony –
    First of all, I want to say thank you to both you and Chris. I for one am finding your exchanges riveting. As you both know, I am more often in the unresolved middle than either of you, and so benefit immensely from hearing what you have to say in response to each other. I do hope it is an exchange that does not halt prematurely.
    One thing I find so helpful is that none of us have to plow through the traditional concept of God issue. We are all agreed. The question, though, is what, if anything should take the place of such a degraded concept?
    I can’t speak for Chris’ background, Tony, but there is no pretending that I was not brought up with a Christian God as the centrepiece of absolutely everything. I have asked myself many times about the extent to which these ideas remain embedded in the very structure of my thoughts, left in tact after I have dismantled all the visible dogma. However, I do not think that is the issue here.
    What I, at least, am asking, is why you add something more to this universe in which we find ourselves. If I understand panentheism correctly (and I’ve read a lot in an attempt to get a clear understanding of the concept), when you use the word “sacred” you are using it as a noun, as something, as Chris might say, substantive. It’s not the first word that springs to my own mind when I look at the universe being revealed by modern science – awesome, terrifying, mesmerizing, fantastic, terrible, beautiful, stunning, mind-bogling, mysterious would all come first. But in a pinch I might use the word sacred as an adjective to describe my sense of the universe that is being unfolded before us. But as actually some thing more? I cannot see why. I do not even have an intuition of it.
    I myself am less of a reductionist than I think Chris is. I understand perfectly what you mean when you suggest that what I am cannot be described simply as a handful of primeval quarks and gluons even if that is the sum total of which I am composed. Something new emerges with each new level of organization, and that something new is substantive. I am not the same thing as the vegetables & fruit & meat I consume each day. Even a car is not the same thing as the pile of unassembled metal pieces of which it is made. But that something new is not something more in a transcendent sense. That something new is still the result of the laws of this universe.
    I am fascinated by process of increasing organization which seems to outstrip the processes of disorganization and disintegration – entropy, if you will, in the universe. There is, it seems to me, an intrinsic impetus in matter, and your emphasis on the fact that matter and energy are separable only theoretically (rather like Aristotle’s existence and essence) strikes me as immensely exciting with huge implications for resolving what we psychologists call “the mind-body” question, and which I suspect is often the source of the problem many religious have with a world presented by science they see as totally mechanistic.
    As you know, I have asked you this question in more than one form. I have been tempted on occasion to ask why you seem to need to believe in something more, a question not unlike your suggestion, I think, that Chris is reacting to a culture within which, in some ways, we have all been socialized. But I think that either question is unfair. It reduces the question to psychological limitations – a modern version of the Freudian argument that the fact that you do not recognize your penis envy proves that you are repressing it. So I am not trying to suggest that your position comes out of an unmet unrecognized need from your past. I think you have current, legitimate, present-day reasons for reaching the conclusions such as panentheism that you do.
    But truly, Tony, I do not know what they are. This may, of course, reflect a limitation in myself. Just as all the explanations in the world cannot describe to a color-blind person the difference between green and red, I may simply be unable to understand. But if you could put into words at all why you think there is something “more,” something “sacred,” if you will, in the universe, which is substantive and not just descriptive, I would listen with great seriousness.
    But wherever we are coming from and wherever we are going, I do want to say thank you again for the multiplicity of stimulating and as I said before, liberating thoughts that you have shared.
    Terry

  7. tonyequale says:

    Terry, the Other “I”

    I never know which “I” is about to respond. Let me say to the “I” that has emerged on this occasion:

    (1) In the 3rd paragraph, should the “not” about your upbringing NOT be there?

    (2) In the 4th paragraph: … “sacred” in my comment IS most definitely an adjective. If I meant it as a “thing” I would have written “The Sacred.” As an adjective, how-ever, it does presuppose a substantive, but that substantive is not a “thing,” either, it is a creative potential. (The word substantive is a grammatical term. Not a physical / metaphysical term … you tend to conflate them in your comment.) And indeed, the word “sacred” for me signifies that list of adjectives … and one more … “maternal” because matter’s energy is my personal material existence, my flesh. And it is that last one more than the others that accounts for it being “sacred” to me. Potential is real, but it is not a “thing.” It is power. But it is a power that re-sides in the one and only “thing” that is there. There is no“thing” hidden or arcane. Enery‘thing” is there for all to see.

    (3) Still on paragraph 4: there is nothing “more.” You seem to suggest that I am pro-posing that there is another “entity” out there … and that all I have done is give “it” a different name. No! I have never said that, nor implied it. And to claim that I have, is to not understand me or panentheism. There is no other entity … panen-theism speaks to utter suffusion. … There are not “two things” linked or bound to-gether … only one thing with a power to exist and become, and create and en-dure, long after “I” am dead an gone. I am not other than it. It is not other than me and all the things that are it … this universe.

    (4) What there is that transcends “me” and this universe, is an energy that I (we) re-spectively receive and activate. It is an energy for my existence that I did not pro-duce … and it’s an energy that goes on to produce things under my initiative that I am incapable of producing … like a child. What there is that is “more” is not a thing but a “power” that is totally resident in me even as it transcends every ca-pacity that I know I have. It is not other than me even while is is “more” than me (“more” is an adverb here, and does not refer to any“thing” other than the things that are made of it).

    (5) The point is that I am constructed of what is “more” than what I am, and I know it, even without being able to describe and define the difference … even though I am nothing but it. The “more” resides in material energy as an ever-present power / potential under the suface of and beyond the capacity of my conscious powers which I identify as “I.”

    (6) In your 5th paragraph you say: “I understand perfectly what you mean when you suggest that what I am cannot be described simply as a handful of primeval quarks and gluons even if that is the sum total of which I am composed. “
    You obviously have not understood me perfectly. I never said that. What I said here and on many occasions in our correspondence, was quite the opposite. I said am nothing but quarks … but the way quarks are able to function in me is evi-dence of a resident potential they always had but which was not in evidence when examined at the level of isolated particles “out of context.” Quarks were never “in-ert, passive, matter” as Descartes claimed. It’s not that some “new thing” comes into being when the quark functions in my brain, it is rather that some “old thing” dormant and waiting for the proper conditions for activation emerged from hiding. There are no “new things” ever because there is only “one thing” out there: and it is really not a “thing.” It is a living dynamism, from beginning to end. “New” and “created” are valid metaphors that describe something we see manifested for the first time … it is new for us, but not for material energy.
    (7) Your last paragraphs are a little unusual for you. They seem to be a personal de-fense of Chris whom I think of as quite capable of defending himself if he felt I was being unfair or ad hominem. The point of my suggestion derived from the fact that Chris himself adduced the oppression of moral absolutes “bolted” to the “G” hy-pothesis as a reason for dumping the issue entirely. It was not my initiative to suggest he had a “hidden agenda.” In fact his agenda was quite explicit. I was speaking directly to his clearly expressed argument. My rejoinder was that the valid and even necessary separation of the philosophical project from the incur-sions of the absolutist “G” tradition, with which I agreed and even identified, is a different discipline from the theoretical search to describe reality for what it really is. If I seemed to trivialize his struggle, I am truly sorry. I had no intention of doing that at all. I meant to rebut his argument.
    (8) As far as your allusion to my own “unmet unrecognized needs” is concerned, I have a penis and I am envious of no one. In other words, I have publicly ac-knowledged (in Chapter 2 of AUG) that the hieratic vision in which I was formed “turned my face to the sun … it’s not something you forget.” I have never forgot-ten, though I have often been at a loss to understand it and find words to express it. My latest attempts, driven by an awareness that my time here is short, may soon find themselves equally on the trash heap of rejects … perhaps due to the ut-ter unforgiveable arrogance on my part of daring to speak about what my ancient teachers warned me could only be called a Dark Night … a Cloud of Unknowing … sunyata-emptiness … unknowable and indescribable.
    (9) I am working on the pilot of my book right now. It’s nice to see it printed and in hand. I should have copies to sell in a month. All the answers and then some that you could ever expect to get to any questions it would ever have occurred to you to ask are there. Which “I” is still interested? Perhaps the “third” one?
    Tony

    • Terry says:

      Tony-

      What an incredible comment! Perhaps I should write as the “other” I more often. Seriously, I found your response more clarifying of your position than anything you have said before. It might, of course, be that my capacity for understanding is inching its way forward. But I am most grateful for the effort and time you took. I will now, of course, benefit from a re-reading of some of your earlier work, but as your second book is just about to be available, I will dive into that first.

      It is rather embarrassing that I appear to be attempting to defend Chris. Each of you have more philosophy in your little finger than the sum total of my knowledge (not a particularly great compliment, I agree, but a state which I do recognize) and it would be pretentious hubris of me to think either of you need defending from me. I am well aware that I am a child playing in the grown-up’s sand box when it comes to philosophy, and I am hugely grateful for the care and respect with which my neophyte questions and observations are met.

      To clarify, I’m quite clear that our religious upbringing socializes us not only in terms of content, but in terms of the very structure of our thinking. In that sense, non-believing ex-Catholics are often recognizably different in their disbelief than non-believers from different backgrounds. My husband was one of the seminal thinkers in the sociology of religion at the University of Edinburgh, and he laughed when I told him when we first met that I wasn’t a Catholic anymore. It takes a lot more, he said, than giving up the dogma to stop being a Catholic. And oh was he right. One of the things about living with him for more than 3 decades is that even now he surprises me with his take on various events and questions. Not only is he a male and English: he isn’t and never was socialized as a Catholic. It makes a permanent difference.

      What I’m saying is that one can certainly ask legitimately about the baggage I might be carrying around from my early socialization, and I agree with you that the “god” any of us may reject is not unrelated to the god to which we were originally introduced. It is one of the reasons why I do not describe myself as an “atheist.” For many people it is as distorted in what they think it means as is the word “god.”

      It’s just that a reference to the past was not the kind of answer I was looking for in this context. I’m a psychologist, for heavens sakes, Tony. But paradoxically that may make me a little more thin-skinned when one suggests looking to the past when I’m trying to take a different perspective. Among us psychologists I find it trotted out a little too often the way a fundamentalist believer trots out scripture. Yes, we all have our baggage, and yes it is worth examining. But it is not everything. That was what I was trying to illustrate by saying that your own background was also irrelevant in this context to the question. To the extent I over-reacted, I do apologize. (It’s due, no doubt, to my background…) Yes, we live in a cloud of unknowing. But we are also born with that thrust to know, to reach out, to understand. Sharing your own exploration as you have has been of great value to me. I am aware that my time here, too, is short, and I am eager to walk it with my eyes as wide open as they can be.

      I am leaving for a family visit to the States on Sunday. I will miss participating in this dialogue.

      Again, Tony – thank you. Truly. Thank you.

      Terry – whichever I that may be at the moment

  8. tonyequale says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for your well thought-out reply, Once again, I sense we are on the same track.
    I will begin my comment by quoting a few passages from my about-to-be-published book, The Mystery of Matter (I’m sure I’m not jeopardizing my copyright nor affecting sales with this sneak preview.)

    (1) (From pp. 35-36) “Unlike “being” which claims to discover necessity, existence in and of itself gives us no new information at all. But that’s entirely appropriate, for in fact it’s all we know. The note of necessity does not come from our observations of existence which is universally contingent, finite, temporary and changing; it comes from the human conceptualizing process. Karl Rahner admits that the absolute infinity of being does not derive from our experience of finite being, it is rather, he believes, a transcendent a priori that is projected by hu-man knowing, the centerpiece of his theory of abstraction. He claims that the ability to form concepts, i.e., to universalize, presupposes a comparison with a universal horizon, which he identifies with the a priori “pre-apprehension” of “infinity.” Conceptualization itself, in Rahner’s view, not only validly reveals “being” to be absolute, it simultaneously reveals “human nature” to be transcendent, that is, immaterial, spirit. I consider all this invalid. To imagine something that I do not experience, and then call that imaginary projection a proof of its existence is a vi-cious circle.

    If existence is simply here-now, an uncontested presence, as we are claiming, it leaves open the possi¬bility of the evolutionary elaboration of “finite entities” without the dilemma created by having to explain their pro¬ven¬ance from an infinite, absolute, fully complete “One” in “Pure Act.” We can say that “things” evolve from a potentiality within being (as science in fact observes) that does not contradict being’s character because we have not pre-defined “being” as “Pure Act,” a fixed and completed feature which was only justified by the character of univer-sals or the mental gymnastics necessary to overcome the inertial primordi¬ality of an imagined “non-being.” With¬out “non-being,” “being” can be finite, which is, again, exactly the way we find it. If being only “is” rather than “must be” then we can say “being” without saying “Pure Act.” “Being” in this case, however immensely extended in both time and space, would not be infinite. That would mean the source and ground of existence (what we traditionally called “God”) might not be as traditionally defined — static and eternal, finished and complete. If “be-ing” is not perfect, it might be open to develop¬ment, and in fact may be actively developing, in process, even as we speak, as indeed it is. We have traditionally said that such a possibility would make “being” finite, and re-jected it for that reason. “Being” taken as presence, existence, however, as I am suggesting, may very well be fi-nite with an infinite potential for what currently does not exist. This would correlate perfectly with the actual uni-verse-in-process as we find it. It may imply a “source of existence” that is not distinct from the finite reality we know — and which includes us.”

    (2) (from p. 135ff.) The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is ex-plained by a CONATUS, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, unconditionally “good.” But the CONATUS — the hu-man drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo¬geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred. … Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean¬ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like, I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor¬phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists meta-phorization. And meta¬phor is the only valid use that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al¬ter¬native imagery.
    Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost any-thing that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

    From these statements you can see that we are moving in the same direction. Your ultimate concern, expressed in your last comment (6/18) is still this “bolting” of the meta-physical to the ethical. You said: “But the implication is that this (the law written in hearts of flesh) is the ‘correct’ ethics – the right law to follow.” As I read what you wrote, you are dominated by the imagery of “law” to which you assimilate any and all ethical imperatives, even as non-legal a statement as mine. Allow me a moment to “flesh” this out (as it were). An imperative is something that urges a response. Imperatives can come from any number of sources. Often they come from authority. But just as often they come from our bodies and our rational minds. It’s as much an imperative to be logical … to be healthy … to avoid emotional isolation … to earn your living … to defend your reputation … to protect your child from harm, as anything coming from authority. To assimilate these natural urges and instincts to the category of “law” is to reverse the natural order. To call these things “laws” is to distort and demean them. They are not laws … and therefore “ethics” in its most profound sense is, as Spinoza analyzed so bril-liantly in 1675, to understand and manage the CONATUS … the urge to self-preserva¬tion which is the energy driving all human behavior. For a “su-doku” type experience, delve into Books III, IV and V of his “Ethics.” It’s the angle of entry here, and the premis of judgment and self-management that I find so liberating, not all the conclusions many of which are influenced by his times.

    Once “ethics” is unbolted from the dominant category of “law” — a distortion that we inherited from the millennial domination of Europe by the “Roman” Church, carrier of the Imperial contagion — you can allow “ethical imperatives” to arise from your body and your mind, as indeed they do, and you deal with them as you decide you should. The “shoulds” are all yours precisely because the conatus is all yours. What the meta-physics does is to bolt the “ultimate” to you, your conatus, your flesh,… not to some outside “other.” You are not other than IT … IT is not other than you. There is no “law” written on your heart … your heart urges … you decide whether it’s urging what you want or don’t want. Jesus used the category of “law” because he was challenging a le-galist culture and legalist authorities who were exploiting humanity under that category. “Law” is a metaphor. There is no “law.”

    Tony

    • Phew – thanks again Tony.

      I understand the difference between an endogenous kind of moral imperative which comes from myself and an externally applied law which for whatever reason I am – or feel – bound by. Yes religion has in many of its manifestations unjustifiably conflated the two. The success of the cover-up of sexual exploitation of children by members of the Catholic hierarchy is a perfect example.

      On this I think we agree. Where we may perhaps differ is that I see the need for a separation between the ethical per se and what I have called the ‘metaphysical’ – meaning by this any investigation into ultimate reality and being (ie into what is). This can include science, but is not necessarily limited to science.

      I am not up to speed with the concept of conatus but it seems to be something explicitly defined to join ‘is’ with ‘ought’. At risk of oversimplification, it seems to state or imply that it is in the nature of being (what ‘is’) to strive, and what it strives for is the ‘ought’. The ‘is’ and the ‘imperative’ are therefore one and the same – according to the concept of conatus.

      I agree the kinds of imperatives you mention are ones which need no external authority: to be healthy, to avoid emotional isolation, to earn a living, to defend one’s reputation, to protect one’s child from harm. Yes we may have these ‘natural urges and instincts’ because of what we are and how we are. But that is not the end of the matter. Morality is about choice, about deciding between options. Should I be healthy at the expense of the health of others? What if defending my reputation harms my children – or other people’s children? What if earning a living results in emotional isolation? What if earning a living harms someone else’s ability to earn a living? Etc etc.

      I do not see how any ‘irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it unconditionally “good”’, any ‘human drive for self-preservation’, any ‘life force’ or ‘homogeneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced’ can tell us what choice to make or what kind of person to be. So from an ethical perspective there must be ‘something else’. I don’t mean another entity, but another perspective, another domain, another level.

      I am certainly not saying that that ‘something else’ must be an external authority. But on the other hand I have a problem with linking an organic drive to survive or love of existence with our sense of the sacred. If ‘sacred’ means anything it implies that there is nothing higher. But I think there is something higher – or perhaps it would be better to say there can be something higher, and therefore we can choose to put something higher. What we can put higher is the imperative to be good – to make the right choices – and if we do choose to put that higher, then in making that choice we have decided that we should (have) put it higher.

      We can of course ask where this ethical imperative comes from, if not from an external authority. My own inclination is that any attempt to derive it from anything external is probably doomed to failure – for reasons dating back to Kant at least. So an endogenous source seems more promising. And if so, perhaps the ethical imperative is itself a product of, or contained within, the organic drive to survive/love of existence.

      But the key word here is ‘perhaps’. The ethical imperative may come from social existence, and social existence may or may not be necessarily contained within the organic drive to survive/love of existence. From an ethical perspective though it does not matter where it comes from. The organic drive to survive/love of existence may also be the ground of whatever is unethical and selfish in us.

      If one day someone proved that the Golden Rule could be derived from fundamental physics, would it make the Golden Rule any more or less sound? If one day someone proved by logic or mathematics that the Golden Rule could never be derived from anything outside itself, would that make the Golden Rule any more or less sound?

      If anything is sacred, I would say our ethical aspirations are – or perhaps it would be better to say it is whatever it is which makes us aspire to goodness. Our ethical aspirations may or may not be linked to our drive to survive or our love of our existence. Sometimes, in some respects, survival instinct and ethical aspiration are aligned; at other times, in other respects, they are opposed. But if we just unite ethics and biology by fiat or by definition, we are back to Social Darwinism.

      At risk of repetition, what I think I’m saying is this. If anything is sacred, then what is sacred is whatever it is which makes us aspire to goodness. But what makes it sacred is not anything which relates it to ultimate reality or being, because ultimate reality or being may not necessarily be – or be linked to – goodness. (Ultimate reality or being may not necessarily be, or be linked to, evil either. Ultimate reality or being may not even necessarily be, or be linked to, any harmony or balance between good and evil.)

      I do not deny the poetry or sublimity of being or reality, or the awe with which we might contemplate it. But to call it sacred is to anthropomorphise it, because this unjustifiably identifies it with something else (the ethical) which we have no reason to think derives from anything external to us – or from anything greater than us of which we are a part. This doesn’t mean we are sacred either. Maybe nothing is sacred. But if anything is sacred it is whatever it is which makes us aspire to goodness – which is not necessarily ultimate reality or being.

      Hope this makes some kind of sense? Apologies for all the repetition.

      Thanks again,
      Chris.

  9. tonyequale says:

    Chris, hi!

    Thanks, as usual, for your thoughful reply.

    These are indeed stratospheric issues, but you seem to navigate well at these altitudes. I’m reminded of an anecdote told about a famous guru who complained that the conversation “reeked of Zen.” The air is thin up here … we all need time to catch our breath now and then.

    The only drive (not obligation) that springs from the conatus, is to survive. How we manage it … or decide to disregard it … is up to us. This is the burden of Spinoza’s ethics … What comes from the metaphysics I offer is that everything has a connatural urge to be and remain itself. Nothing more. This is the only bedrock there is. There is no “ought” of any kind. How and WHY you decide to manage that drive does not depend on metaphysics, but on other “disciplines” that adduce subsequent values based on our preferences …

    To distinguish what is innate (natus and conatus) from “ethics” is central to Spinoza’s vision. He was a stone rationalist and saw the rational mangement of the raw unspecified conatus as the key to peace among humankind and the basis for the anti-monarchical republican movement to which he ascribed. He was trying to sever “the Sacred” from the “divine right of kings.” This was 1677, of course, a full century before any of those ideas achieved political viability in any form anywhere in Europe.

    To say I consider the conatus “sacred” is simply to say I like “being-here” and being myself. In fact I LOVE IT with an obsessive “sinful” love. And I love that which allows all this … me sustained in this universe … possible. As Molly Bloom famously said, “Yes! yes! yes! … YES!”

    Tony

    • OK Tony – thanks again.

      I think I misunderstood your use of ‘sacred’. It’s not a word I often use myself but if I did use it I think either it would have an ethical connotation or it would imply there was nothing else that had a higher ethical significance.

      I also probably misunderstood your rationale for bringing Jesus into your story. I see his contribution to humanity, his ‘living message’ as you put it, primarily in ethical terms.

      Thanks for the conversation,
      Chris.

      • tonyequale says:

        Chris,

        Thanks. And sorry for the delay.
        A major part of “philosophizing” is the clarification of words. Especially, in my opinion, words that are “taken for granted.” In the realm of metaphysics this is central because the “words” have been hijacked by religion. Liberating the word “sacred,” for example, from its religious or Moral-imperative signification is a key goal of mine. There are a myriad of other words that we can hardly use anymore because they have been so contaminated by religion and moral law that they only serve to create confusion … any discussion requires preliminary book-length clarifications, disclaimers and re-definitions …
        So … new wine in old wineskins … words have to be deconstrcuted and rebuilt before they convey what we want. It is like cleaning house … it never ends.

        Tony

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