We might think of a strategy as a plan of action designed to move a situation from point A to point B.  When used in the context of social reform, “strategy” is most often planned exclusively by “what is possible at point B”.

I’m talking, of course, about the Church.  Let me say right off, moving an institution of glacial inertia like the Roman Church to any significant degree is near-impossible.  Those that attempt “reform” are naturally confronted with what “reality on the ground” will allow.  In this context, “point B,” the change projected, becomes restricted — limited by the willingness (or ability) of the institution to respond.  You have to take the institution into account as the primary factor.  Certainly, the common opinion says, any other way of looking at things is a formula for disaster.  To project as a goal what the institution is incapable of accepting means the attempt will necessarily fail, and, we are warned, the failure may negatively impact the possibility of future attempts.

That is the “accepted wisdom” of what “working within” an organization requires.  It makes the “reform” of any large institution always a conservative endeavor.  Usually no one questions the process.  If there is any discussion, it is limited to content: i.e., what is it exactly that the situation will allow.  The control is entirely in the hands of the  institution.

This formula is applicable to all institutions, even small ones like the family, and it is based on the “reality” of structured authority, whether it be autocratic or collegial and regardless of the preference of the constituency base.

How did Jesus do it

             But I would like to propose another way of looking at strategy.  I would ask: How did our Teacher approach this problem?  What was his “action plan” as recorded in the stories and sayings of the early communities?  It is relevant to our times because Jesus’ strategy was conceived in the context of an oppressive political superstructure (Roman conquest and domination) with the local hieratic (religious) authority incorporated into its system.  I would characterize his “way” by calling it “direct.”  It confronts the authorities with the need for reform by doing the reform directly, rather than indirectly going through the authorities.

Jesus respected authority.  He always requested their acknowledgement and acquiescence for the needed change, but he never asked them for permission.  Please notice: in presenting his message he spoke to the people; he did not address himself to the priests and scribes with suggestions for reform.  This approach involved two major differences from the conventional, both of which he made quite explicit.  He had (1) a different concept of authority; and (2) he had a different concept of obedience.

So, what is the “direct” way?

Jesus invited recognition and collaboration and he presented that invitation in a concrete finished form — a living symbol of “point B” — in the style of the prophets.

The Hebrew prophets, we remember, were noted for using concrete symbols to make their point.  Often it was their very lives and actions that bore the message.  In one case, the prophet Hosea (Osee) was directed by his vision to marry a prostitute in order to put on dramatic display the fact that the Nation had betrayed its intimate relationship with Yahweh.  In the case of Jesus, our Teacher, the community of his followers has always maintained, from the very beginning, that it was his crucifixion by the Roman authorities for subversion that carried the prophet’s declaration.  That was the “statement” that bore his message.  What could he possibly have meant?  This is essential to understanding his “strategy for change.”  He did the change and accepted the consequences.  Somehow being taken as a subversive by the imperial authorities was the change he was trying to achieve.  Jesus said very clearly, according to the memory of the early communities, that accepting death in those circumstances was an act of obedience to God.  Both “authority” and “obedience” are involved here.  How should we understand this?

            There were earlier incidents that foreshadowed this defining “statement.”  On one occasion, walking through planted fields on the sabbath, Jesus and his friends grabbed handfuls of grain off the ripening sheaths and ate them.  It was apparently well known that the religious authorities considered such an act a violation of the command against work on the sabbath.  There was a discussion with his institutional critics after the action, in which he explicitly subordinated the scriptural commandment to the needs of people. “The sabbath exists for people, not people for the sabbath.”  But please notice something very important: the discussion followed the action.  The action went first.  He did the change.  His insightful followers remembered that dramatic moment and wrote it down.  And we today are exposed to the “spirit” of his strategy by reliving the narration.  We are inspirited not only by his “reform” of the law, but also by his way of doing it.

On another occasion he publicly, and wordlessly, refused to comply with authority’s demand, based on unambiguous commands clearly stated in the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that an adulteress must be stoned for her crime.  He did not obey.  And in his subsequent conversation with those representing the officialist interpretation, his refusal opened their eyes to the way the “Law” needed to be understood … effectively abrogating it.  Jesus produced change by doing first and then talking.

Jesus had a new concept of obedience.  He opened his listeners to their own hearts and minds … to their own compassion, sense of justice, generosity … often against and despite the words of the law and the demands of its official proponents.  It’s almost like he was concretizing the words of the prophets, that the day would come when the law would be written in their hearts of flesh, not on tablets of stone.  His parables repeat the same message:  … “by their fruits you will know them” … “let those with ears, hear what I am saying,” it was their own ears not some words of divine permission that would guide them how to obey … the permission, the law and the response all came from within the human being.  The heretical Samaritan was following no external law … he was obeying his own compassion and generosity.  The sinner was justified by remorse not by the ascetic and ritual practices that supposedly “rectified” the balance sheet … the quisling tax-collector became Jesus intimate friend because his heart responded to invitation … a hated Roman military, concerned for his servant, became an example of justice, humility and trust … a penniless widow who responded to something other than her own need was far more important to the community than the rich and powerful donor.  These people were all obeying their humanity.  That’s the message Jesus’ life was about: obeying your humanity, not institutional authority or even some “law” guaranteed to be “God’s” authentic word written on a tablet of stone.

Our Teacher’s “strategy” also implied a different concept of authority.  He was most explicit and emphatic about this.  If there is anything in our tradition that even came close to a direct  commandment of Jesus, it has to do with authority.  “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you.  Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, whoever would be first must be slave of all … let the greatest among you be as the young­est …”  On another occasion to make the same point he took a little child and set it in their midst “you must become like this child,” he said.  Not exactly designed to limit “point B” to what the “institution” would like to allow.

In this regard how can we explain the fact that Jesus issued a direct order, “call no man ‘father,'” according to Matthew, and that the Roman Church has “disobeyed” it for 1600 years?  Could it possibly have to do with the culture of the Roman world that was quintessentially paternalistic, constructed on patron-client relationships, where even the generals of the Roman Legions were called “father” by their troops, Augustus and future Caesars called themselves “father,” and the Popes have been known since time immemorial as “Papa”?  But why would Jesus’ direct order not be respected by this organization unless, in fact, it was answering more to Roman imperatives than his?

Jesus’ “obedience” unto death

           But let’s cut to the chase: the earliest communities understood that Jesus’ crucifixion was the core of his message and strategy — that it recapitulated everything he said and tried to communicate.  They claimed that Jesus personally saw it as an act of “obedience.”  By dying, they said, he was “obeying God.”  Given how he seemed to avoid the pronouncements of authority and rather opened people to their own inner vision, how can we understand this?  Was there suddenly something unique for him that made things entirely different from what he had been telling people all the time he was teaching?  After counselling others to listen to their own hearts, was there some external voice that he alone was constrained to “obey”?

I don’t think so.  I believe the earliest communities used the word “obedience” because they had no word that would describe this ultimate example of Jesus’ strategy … this prophetic way of embodying in his own person the message he was trying to convey.  “Obedience” meant “response.”  I believe he faced the same challenge we do.  He had to transcend his own fear-filled and self-serving ego and “obey” his deepest self, the “divine self” that throbbed in his human blood and bones, as it does in ours.  He was a frightened human being who refused to be dehumanized.  The Romans knew it; he would never obey them, and if left alive would spread his contagion everywhere.  He had to die.  It wasn’t God’s will, it was theirs.

            There was no “Father-Person” demanding that he die.  The only “God” there is, is immanent in our evolving humanity, as it was in his.  The perennial perplexity of the Christian world which has tried, unsuccessfully through the centuries, to understand these claims to “obedience” in Roman literal and legal terms, has rightly turned to rejection and ridicule in our times, because we know that no “father” would ever demand such an outrage as the death of his son.  Our humanity tells us so in no uncertain terms.  We know exactly what we are talking about, because we have finally begun to stop being the slaves to the groveling mindset promoted by the Roman Empire.  1600 years of theological rubbish claiming that an emperor “God” was enraged at us for insulting “him” with original sin are swept away in an instant when we realize that what Jesus was obeying was his deepest self.  It’s exactly what he had been talking about all through his ministry.  Obey your humanity, not the authorities.  Would he have asked anything less, or anything other, of himself than he asked of those he taught?

Understanding things in these terms reveals the incredible ideological reversal achieved by the Roman architects of western christianity.  It was nothing less than a brilliant coup that totally inverted Jesus’ mission and message, morphing it from a threat to established power into the primary hieratic prop of Roman authority.  It took a man and a message that was seen as so subversive of Roman control in the 1st century as to require his extermination, and by the 4th turned him into the foundation stone of imperial world domination.  And the ultimate most brilliant and diabolical of all reversals was the one that changed Jesus’ “Loving Father” into an enraged tyrant, a mega-monster, all too familiar to the Romans, so dominated by his own bruised and boundless ego that he remorselessly sends unbaptized babies to hell.  It seems utterly incomprehensible that anyone could not have seen through what was happening here.  And yet, we know we ourselves were all there, and not that many years ago.  God forgive us.  What could we have been thinking?

This situation has to change.  How to do that?  It’s the same issue — how to get from point A to point B.  The “accepted wisdom” tells us to use the “indirect method”: ask the authorities to allow us to change things.  It is the “Roman way” and I contend it will never get us anywhere.  We will never get beyond the kind of institution that the “indirect strategy” is designed to produce — simply new versions of itself, new forms and shapes of imperial authority, new and approved ways of begging for permission, new symptoms of personal alienation and imperial exploitation … and new methods of crucifixion.  We have had the way blocked for us.  They have muddied the waters.  We can no longer look clearly at Jesus’ actions, or hear the soft cadences of his words.

We think we are following him but in fact we are afraid to do it “his way” — the direct way — looking inward, reading the law written in our humanity and obeying the immanent “God” who dwells there, indistinguishable from our awesome and fragile flesh.

Tony Equale

1/29/ 2011


faith (II)

existence is a totality

Every living thing is hell-bent on staying alive and taking care of its young; and in order to do so spends the major portion of its waking life killing and eating other life forms.  We humans are no different despite our often declared distaste for it.  We cleverly conceal our participation in the general slaughter with our complex division of labor.  But make no mistake.  If everyday we weren’t scarfing down the nutrients ripped off the dead bodies of our sister species, both plants and animals, we’d be gone.  That’s what we do, because that’s the way being-here and staying-here works — there is no other way. 

This selfishly focused intentionality is common to all life on earth.  Everything treats everything else as potential food.  This has been the source of great scandal for humankind since time immemorial.  Religious people of our own tradition, for example, have been so offended by the universal predation that very early on they concluded there must have been a “mistake,” a catastrophic “fall” from the original intent of creation.  … A friend once said to me, “how can there be a ‘God’ if he created a world where one animal has to kill and eat another in order to live”?  Convinced that a rational, humanoid “God” (as our tradition imagined) could not possibly countenance such a state of affairs, the Christian tradition, for one, has had the temerity to condemn reality in its current form as corrupt, the result of an “original sin,” and claimed to know the way things really should have been. And so this interpre­ta­tion was retro-fitted to explain the ancient Hebrew scriptures which said that once things were set right again, “the lion will lay down with the lamb.”

But this Christian fantasy fails to recognize that the passage in question was intended by the Hebrew author as poetic hyperbole — a metaphor for justice and peace in human society.  A moment’s reflection will remind us that the lion is not supposed to lay down with the lamb. It’s right for the lion to eat the lamb.  We eat lamb, too. That’s the way it works.  Our task is to try to understand reality, and our sense of existence, and the “sacred” from that understanding. Otherwise we distort it, creating fictionalized scenarios to jibe with our projections.

Living things kill and eat one another in order to live. That’s the way existence has evolved on our pla­net.

But is it really such a disaster? I discern in this phenomenon the free exchange of constituent elements within a totality. Matter’s energy tends to treat itself as one global living thing, and the permissions on which life is built include the mutual availability of everything to everything else within the whole.  It seems to be a corollary characteristic of the communitarian nature of material energy’s self-embrace.  Everything made of matter’s energy reaches out to connect and survive.

It confirms that as far as existence is concerned, the human phenomenon is not the unique thing mainstream Western theistic philosophers imagined. There is no special concession given to any individual or species.  We are gallingly aware of this.  Western culture’s stubborn insistence on the separateness of humankind from the rest of “material” creation has always been contradicted by human vulnerability. We face the same natural catastrophes, predation, disease, deterioration and death that are endured by all other species in this vale of tears.  In the West, that fact was interpreted as the corruption of “matter” caused by “original sin.” Un­fortunately it encouraged a dualist escapism that only aggra­vated our anguish. For it meant we suffered the added torment of believing we were unnatural … immortal “spirits” trapped in cages of mortal mat­ter … and, because of “Original Sin,” had no-one to blame but ourselves!

The ultimate indignity against which we rebelled, of course, was death.  But upon further reflection death will be seen, similarly, to conform closely to existence as a totality that we are uncovering here. The keynote is universal availability.  Since every thing is made of matter’s energy, their constituent ele­ments are al­ways potentially available for use and re-use by others.  The experiments are not ours … they are functions of the Whole.  When we die our material energy is re-cycled for use by a multitude of other species right up the food chain.  We might be less offen­ded by death if we could identify our own existence with matter’s energy as a whole.  Existence, not unlike “being” for the scholastics, is one thing, and we are part of it.  We belong!  That is our reality, our torment, as well as our guarantee of endless community.

So, despite our habitual indignation at being subject to the same travesties as everything else in our uni­verse, existence appears blithely impervious to the exchanges going on within the walls of its house. This subjection of the individual members to the agenda of the whole, I see as the inevitable expression of the communitarian nature of existence rooted in the unicity of the substrate.  There is only one thing out there: matter’s energy — the whole universe and everything in it is its outgrowth.

existence’ absolute availability

The availability of existence is a corollary of the unicity of the substrate which makes one thing of the Totality.  It is entirely consistent with this focus on the Whole to accept death as our participation in the “project.”  It is simply another manifestation of the profound availability of everything to everything else, the sharing that constitutes the self-embrace which, from my point of view as a recipient, becomes the bottomless generosity that is the intentionality of existence.  Death is our logical destiny, the ultimate confirmation that we are matter’s energy, a part of the main, for it is the individual’s participation in the universal availability of the substrate of which we (and all things) are constituted.  By actively embracing death as an indispensable phase of our membership in this totality, we ratify with our own chosen intention­ality, the attitude of existence.  By making our own substance a donation, we consciously “join the pro­gram,” as it were.  We intentionally become … and thus come to understand … what existence does — its bearing, its intentionality, its availability as a totality

Death is the natural, logical destiny of an entropy-dominated material energy that outflanks death in the aggregate, through reproduction, but not in the individual.  Individual death is completely consistent with what we are.  The trouble is that we have been telling ourselves for so long that immortality is our birthright as “spirits,” that we cannot see death as a function of the organic integrity of the totality.  Effectively, it means we insist that we do not belongAnd in that we tragically bar our way to our “salvation” — embracing with joy the material matrix, the “family,” in which we “live and move and have our being.”

There is nothing to indicate that matter’s energy wants anything for us or from us whatsoever.  The availability and the permissions that go with existence are absolute.  Everything we pursue in life has been chosen by humankind itself.  The complex moral and ritual codes that people of our tradition have followed for millennia as “religion,” claiming that they were the “will and word of God,” we realize now were metaphorical assignments designed to encourage compliance with our community’s chosen values — narratives that were elaborated and set in place by us.  These are our choices.  Existence commands nothing.  It has only one “goal,” to exist in us as it does in all things.  It is as naturally and fully present in one form as in another, and that is precisely why our experience is that all things manifest the same univocal “presence” — existence — analyzed in Chapter I.  If we were to try to characterize existence in personal terms (metaphorically speaking, of course), we would have to say that existences intentionality toward all the things that are made of it, which of course includes us, is simply one of total availability.

But even that statement can be misleading.  It tends to treat existence as if it were a separate entity to which we can relate like a living individual.  In fact, as we experience it, it is no such thing.  For while it is indubitably alive, it is never encountered separate from the things it has become, which includes us. It is a totality.  Even at the most primitive level, existence is always something that it has becomea quark, a gluon, a neutrino bound into the microcosm of the hadrons of the atom.  Existence is only seen in some combined form; it is a com­muni­tarian phenomenon. 

One unavoidable fact that keeps tripping up any attempt to conceive of existence as a separate, conceptualized, objectifiable entity to which I can relate as other (like the traditional, anthropomorphic “God-entity,”) is that I exist.  I am a “concrescence” (this is Whitehead’s term for a “thing”) of matter’s energy.  My most immediate and revealing understanding of the character and intention­ality of existence is had with and within my own self.  It is enough to show the relationship to be sui generis.  Ultimately, it means I cannot objectify existence.  So I cannot relate to it the way I relate to entities that are other than me.  I am not-other than existence, and existence is not other than me (Nicholas of Cusa used the term “non aliud” to characterize “God”).  I am inescapably an intimate part of what matter’s energy is and does.  No matter how I try to set it “out there” over against myself and look at it “in itself,” and relate to it as to another, the “I” that’s doing the looking is also al­ways matter’s energy.  I am always within the circle of the existence I’m trying to look at and relate to. 

I am matter’s energy. I understand it intimately — connaturally, somatically, non-conceptually — even though I do not know what it is. … So, where can I go from here?  I embrace being-here and being myself within the matrix that spawned and explains me.  Anything else would border on the pathological.  I trust the nature and character of matter’s energywhich is, after all, me. 

 And that is what I mean by faith.


 So what’s the big deal, you say?  Who doesn’t do this?  There’s nothing arcane or esoteric here.  Is this what is meant by faith … something this common? 

 Yes, yes! … exactly this common.  I want to focus attention on the sheer simplicity of the phenomenon.  This faith does not require effort; it comes quite naturally, in fact it long precedes analysis … and it seems to tell us nothing.  It is not supernatural in any way.  It is not focused on any new or unknown “facts” that relate to another world.  It doesn’t give us any of the trad­i­tional “information” that we have been accustomed to expect from religion’s “beliefs”:

 … it doesn’t tell us how we should live;

… it doesn’t guarantee that the human species will survive, much less, in Faulkner’s terms, “prevail;”

 … it doesn’t tell us of a continued experience-as-self after death;

… and it suggests that our traditional western religions are metaphoric attempts to objectify ex­i­s­tence, my­s­tify socially prescribed behavior and defuse (or exploit) our fear of death with an imagined contractual connection with an other-worldly rewarding / punishing “God.”

Existence is so amorphous as to be available to become anything and everything … suggesting, paradoxically, that in itself it is nothing.   (We are reminded that Pseudo-Dionysius spoke of God as “non-being.”)  Use of that word brings us back to the “darkness” we encountered in chapter 13.  Faith does not dispel the darkness because it gives us no new knowledge.    

This “darkness,” which the Buddhists call sunyata, emptiness, is the metaphorical corollary of the very same austere foundational teleology we have called a self-embrace — existence.  It is a passive, undemanding availability that is so absolutely without limits as to what it can become as to appear to us to be no-thing whatsoever.  And yet we know that it is pure energy, an infinite avalanche of transcendent potential, the source of all the emergent forms we see in our roiling universe and teeming planet.  It is the energy of my drive to survive, the force of life and the passion for existence.  This I internally understand. This “darkness” is the raw energy out of which everything congeals including myself.  It tells me some­thing very important.  It says that I am part of a self-donation so unimaginably immense that it has allowed its own existential energy to be harnessed to become what we are.  It is precisely its utter emptiness of all “self-ness” that reveals its character and its unique bearing.  (The Greek word kenosis which means “self-emptying” evokes this characteristic.)   Existence simultaneously is no-thing … wants nothing … and makes everything be.  And it is that maternal character, allowing us to be born of and feed off its own substance, that impels us to find transcendent metaphors like “Mother” or “Father” to express the obsessive self-embrace that we find at the core of ourselves, a reprise of the primordial intentionality of existence, making us to be and to be us.  We are the way we are, because we are made of material energy … everything made of it reactivates its dynamism: an irrepressible drive to survive … and a self-embracing communitarianism.  We touch it intimately when we are in intimate touch with ourselves.  We ourselves, apparently, are that very “face of ‘God’” our tradition has been so avidly searching for through the millennia … and, I believe, the only one we will ever see.  The mystics of all traditions confirm that.

 trust: identity with existence

 I begin to understand myself and my relationship to reality in the same way I come to understand any other living phenomenon — through the interpretation of its intentionality.  In this case it is my own.  Once I begin to surrender to my complete identity with matter’s energy, to embrace existence as a common substrate and myself for what I am — a part of its very substance — I begin to develop a new cognitive relationship to myself; for I am both subject and object of this understanding.

 The key is that in coming to understand myself I am simultane­ously understanding matter’s energy for we are one and the same thing.  In understanding myself I am in touch with existence itself, for mine is the same self-embrace and availability (both passive and ac­tive) that characterizes everything in the universe.  I understand kenosis: I recognize it when I see it; I am capable of it … and I am drawn to it.

 Other species of living things express their drive to survive each according to their capacities and, it seems, automatically.  For them, there is apparently no possibility of not identifying with the community of existence.  So for them there is no need for faith.  But as we well know, we humans are quite capable of ima­gining an abysmal and bitter disconnect between our own selves and existence because of what we perceive as the incomprehensible anomaly of death. Death has been interpreted in our culture as the disap­pear­ance of existence, and from that, our non-identity with existence that we do not belong here

 Therefore we need faithFaith is the personal appropriation of the constitutive identity of my “self” with matter’s energy.  I acknowledge that I am an organic part of a living total­ity whose extent in depth and breadth, time and transcendence is beyond my ken.  I am whatever it is; and I will be part of whatever it becomes.  Faith is an affirmation (surrender) that overrides existential doubt and cognitive darkness.  It does not need to know existence as “other,” for it understands it as itself — organically, connaturally, intimately.  And I understand my “self” as a sub-altern narrative — a temporary vortex within the raging torrent of matter’s energy

 Faith reaffirms my identity with matter’s energy and the universal community it has spawnedWith faith I ratify my intimate relationship to existence; I embrace matter’s energy for what it is.  I belong here, for what it is, is what I am. I love it, because I love myself. I call its kenotic availablility “love,” because my only experience of benevolence has been exclusively from human persons who love.  But clearly, the word “love” as we humans understand it, can hardly be applied to a benevolence of this magnitude, intimacy and universality … and so too the word “person.”  Frankly I have no idea what I am dealing with.  All I know is that this whole universe in which I am immersed and sustained is its outgrowth and beneficiary. 

Faith is an attitude that embraces the project of universal availability and endless existential creativity embarked on by the totality.  In its surrender, faith reproduces the living self-em­brace of existence

 The very act of faith then, paradoxically, becomes a datum in the confirmation of the interpretation of the intentionality of existence.  Faith is material existence in the act of intentional self-embrace — in my case an act of quiet acceptance of myself, and of my availability to the universal family that has spawned me.  I belong here, for better or worse.  Whatever it is, I am.  Wherever it’s going, I go with it.  Whatever it asks, I give.  This universe is my home.


faith (I)

Faith is relationship.

There is nothing startlingly new or esoteric in that statement; it has been mentioned many times. Faith is distinguished from beliefs.  Beliefs — religious doctrine — are considered “facts” with a determined cognitive content and claim to be objective know­ledge. Faith, as used here, is not.  It’s a relationship: a con­nec­tion between living things … a posture, that projects recognition, trust and reliance.

In this chapter I want to elaborate a description of faith that is not derived from established religions of any kind, Christian or not.  I will propose a view that is consistent with the conclusions elaborated in The Mystery of Matter.  This conception of faith will apply across the board to every human being, of whatever tradition, culture or intellectual persua­sion … and that includes “atheists” whose embrace of existence without recourse to anything “supernatural” demolishes the traditional accusations that their stance somehow implies a disdain for the reality which we all struggle to understand, love and respect.

Such attempts at semantic adjustment, however, are still far from adequate.  For, even taken in its most subjective sense, the very word “faith” has been fatally robbed of openness by a long association with Chris­tianity’s endless disputations about super­natural other-worldly realities.  It is almost impossible to use the word “faith” now without evoking connotations that distract from the simple natural phenomenon I want to elucidate.

Nothing “supernatural” will be proposed here.  So, like the words “God” and “sacred,” a radical disclaimer has to be made for the term “faith.”  I will try to be clear in context and, since the word “faith” is under erasure (the term “erasure” and this usage comes from Jaque Derrida), from this point forward, you will find it written but crossed out, like this: faith.  That does not mean it is eliminated … it is simply a reminder that it is no longer being used with its traditional religious significance.


Let’s begin with relationship, just what does it mean in the context of our discussion?

The word “relationship” can be used in an objective sense referring to the way two or more things are connected by a physical, biological or legal bond.  But here I use it in a subjective sense implying a conscious mutuality between individuals based on recognition.

We usually use adjectives like “personal” to characterize this pheno­me­non, which would seem to imply that relationship occurs only at the hu­man level.  But clearly, we have relationships, and sometimes very intense ones, with what are not currently defined as “persons” — our house pets and farm animals, for example.  We relate to them, and they to us and to one another. Yet they are not “persons.”  What is it that we recognize and relate to? … an attitude assumed by conscious living individuals toward one another based on mutual recognition. We often couch it in terms of “knowledge:” we say we know them, and they know us.

We dealt with the cognitive side of this phenomenon in chapters 8 and 10 on interpretation and recognition. We saw that recognizing an individual as a center of intention­ality is not knowledge in the convention­al sense of the word. It is an un­der­standing derived from interpretation. It utilizes our time-bound cognitive equipment to assess the drift or direction-of-movement of what is really a process (the continually unfolding intentions of another living individual), without the “snap-shot” effect we call abstraction.  I have recourse to my understanding of myself to generate an interpretation of the moving changing intentionality that I have encountered in the other.

Relationship, then, is a mutual attitude focused on the run­ning interpretation of active intentionality or bearing; it is an understanding that prescinds from the knowledge of what the center of intentionality is.  For the interpretation of intentionality to occur, there is no need to have a “what,” a “thing,” a pre­dicate. “What” I have encountered is fundamentally irrelevant from a relational point of view.  It doesn’t substan­tially matter if the “other” is a dog or a cat, or a deer or an extra-ter­res­trial.  What matters for relationship is their conscious bearing … specifically toward me … which inspires my bearing toward them.  I interpret that bearing and take a stand toward it ­— that is relationship.

Our relating to other human individuals exemplifies the same features.  We all know many people, but we relate in different ways to each individual we inter­act with depending, we say, on “who” they are, not “what” they are, meaning whe­ther they are friendly, not just that they are humans.  Just being human, as far as relationship is concerned, is not the most relevant factor.

relating to myself

What about myself?  Can I relate to myself?  This question should not appear strange because we saw in chapter 6 that self-aware­ness is neither innate, nor instantaneous. I come to “know” myself only gradually through the interpretation of my own intentionality like any other center of process.  Over time I’m really getting to know my body and the impact on it of ongoing experience, which is the basis of my personality.  It’s not something I do once and for all.  My “self” is an open-ended narrative.  My sense of “who I am” continues to develop throughout my life, receptive to amen­ded interpretations about my past and my predilections.  And at any point my intentionality can be re-directed based on my decisions to suppress, override or encourage and intensify my reactions as I choose.  In so doing, I am “relating” to myself.

The general point is that in all these cases relating is not based on the conceptual or scientific knowledge of a fixed object as we’ve defined the term in these reflections, but rather on interpreting a process.  And correlative­ly, knowing something or someone well or even intimately — as with another human being or even myself — does not eliminate the need to conti­nue to assess the ongoing events that are the expressions of a possibly changing intentionality.

A relationship is fundamentally non-conceptual.  It is not based on “knowledge” but rather on understanding, which we have proposed is somatically based.  Understanding, because it is grounded in bodily experience and in the conatus, always involves organic self-aware­ness.  It most appropriately eschews the word-labels of conventional language and operates, therefore, “wordlessly,” which can mean, silently, in contemplative realization or, linguistically, in metaphor … which, from the point of view of conventional language, is also “wordless.”

 intentionality in the “darkness” of existence

 As we approach the encounter with the “darkness” at the core of reality — experienced by us as the conatus — identified in chapter 13 which terminated our analysis, we realize that with matter’s energy we are in the presence of something far beyond anything our cognitive apparatus was designed to deal with.  We do not know what it is.  But this is astonishing … for we are made of it.  It is usWhy don’t we know what we ourselves are?  As we will see, this defining paradox creates the significance of faith for human life.

Experiencing existence is not entirely unlike meeting an­other life form for the first time.  Material energy, after all, is a living dynamism.  Existence is a reflexive self-em­brace. I encounter this vital energy throughout the biota of living things; it is the source and wellspring of their life as well as my own.  Everything alive is bursting with the drive to survive derived from matter’s energy.  It explains everything: what and that and how we are.  It explains me … and everything I am and want.

Material energy is observably pre­sent and functioning in every life form there is, most of which exercise a relational behavior at their own level, minimally to food sources or enemies or potential mates, and at the human level to intense interpersonal connections.  There is a relational potential in matter’s energy.  Many interpret this fact to mean that material energy itself can be related to.  But note: it cannot be related to as other, because, whatever else it may be, it is always myself.

Besides, we cannot use the term material energy as if it were some recognizable delimited entity … a “thing” much less a conscious living individual, like a “person.”  In our experience, it is not.  It is all things.  It is never found “by itself;” it is always only things “other than itself” (so to speak) and the specific relational intentionalities found in these things are tied to the particular level of integrative complexity (emergence) they’ve achieved.  There is an absolute identity between material energy and its many manifestations at all levels … one of which is me.  Material energy shows no evidence of the kinds of recognition and intentionality that we are familiar with in our relationships with other separate living entities.

Matter’s energy is us; for we all, whether humans, bonobos or bacteria, are members of the same family, evolved over eons of time out of the same primitive ele­ments.  None of us, at any level or at any time, or in the exercise of any function, is anything other than this material energy. 

Nevertheless, even though there is no clear evidence of any separate individual living entity called “matter’s energy” apart from the things I see, I know through observation that matter’s energy is a liv­ing dynamism, pro­viding at the most elemental level a non-conscious intentionality — a self-em­brace.  It was by the non-conscious intentionality of existence … not thoughts, or “plans” … but a reflexive, paroxys­mal self-embrace, borne forward through natural selection, that all things came to be … and to be as they are … including me.


I’m sure you have noticed another paradox.  All of us life forms are free to use material energy for the construction of our own selves and our continued survival as we choose, each in its own way. Our evolution has been entirely self-directed.  In my case, existence has a permissive bearing toward my “person.” I have existence, in other words, as if it were entirely mine.  I was not even aware that I am an emergent form of matter’s energy until science brought it to light for me.  Even now I find it hard to believe that I am constructed of something that might in some way be other than me, and so when science confronts me with the fact that I am constructed of the same materials as a plant or an animal, I do not easily absorb it.  Following in the tracks of my tradition, I tend to set myself apart from material energy, claim that I am other (“spirit”), and objectify it (matter) as if it were other-than-me.  But, of course, it is me … and it is not only me, it is everything!  People who are sincerely trying to understand it cannot avoid relating to it … because it is their very self with which they are in necessary, intimate, organic contact. The relationship exists long before I become aware of it or begin thinking about it.

But there is even more paradox.  While the material energy is “me,” the “making it available to me” is not.  In other words, it was not “mine” to dispose of for my own self-origination.  I did not make existence available to myself, nor did I plan and generate my body with its organs and brain, cells and vital chemicals.  I am aware of the fact that I have no ultimate control or ownership over this material energy which-is-me. The availability, however non-directive and non-perso­nal, implied in my intimate possession of material energy, is due to a dynamism, an initiative, or a permission, if you will allow me the use of the metaphor, that comes from somewhere else.  It is not mine … and this gives me a sense that there is an intentionality here, a bearing … maybe not one that is directed by personal choice, or to me personally, but certainly one that I am related to in a way that is vital to me, … because this intentionality has resulted in me, and without it there would be no “me.”  It might be passively permissive, but matter’s energy is not only vital to my life, it is the source of my very vitality and self identity. The conatus that is my personal self with its desire to live, is responsible for my identity.  “I” am a narrative that is driven exclusively by matter’s energy.

I cannot downplay the absolutely transcendent importance that this avail­ability has for me. Since I love existing and I love existing as myself, I most naturally love that in and by which “I live and move and have my being.”  How I relate to it is necessarily affected by the simple fact that the relationship here is not optional.  It is not discretionary … it is constitutive.  This relationship makes me to be-here and to be me. I can only disregard it by disregarding myself!

 existence is not mine? … the religious experience

 In this sketch we recognize the familiar elements of the “religious experience.”  The realization that while existence (matter’s energy) is me, it is not mine, is most often had in the awareness of impending death … for it is then that I realize that what I define as “me” can disappear … that I did not “possess” my existence as I thought. This is always something of a disturbing discovery.  But consider the disconnect:  that the recognition of some­thing as com­mon­place as death, should be so shocking in my own case as to be aptly described as a “revelation” that has the radical potential to disrupt my life, is an indication of how blindly identified I am with existence.  Until I “realize” that existence is not mine, I take it as if I am it, or own it … my knowledge of the inevitable death of every living thing notwithstan­ding.  This is a stunning anomaly!  It is the ultimate realization … and a clear example of the difference between knowledge and understanding.  My spontaneous sense of total identity with existence had completely overridden my rationality.  And when the somatic realization of death occurs, it can short-circuit my thinking process altogether.

There is an existential self-embrace at the core of myself and I see that it is what drives every life form on the planet.  And I have no trouble understanding this universal identification with existence and the desire to continue to exist.  As a matter of fact it’s one thing for which I don’t demand any explanation whatsoever. I understand it implicitly, connaturally, in and of itself.  But, in spite of this I still have no idea what it is.  There is no “knowledge;” nevertheless, everyone understands exactly what I mean, because everyone’s self is constituted of this very same empirical dynamic.

 I experience matter’s energy as my self and only in a later step try to objectify it.  But such objectification is a fiction.  For by doing so I omit the fact that the “I” that seeks to know is not only the very thing (the “what”) I want to know, but it already understands because it is in direct somatic contact with itselfIt is not just a cerebral knowing.

These dimensions of existence are universal. The vital features of matter’s energy that we have been exploring in this studythe self-embrace of existence, the drive to survive, universal availability, communi­tarianism and the primacy of the totality — are invariable across the universe.

Women Priests

Welcome friends

February 21, 2011


response to the Jamie Manson article in the NCR 2/15/2011

by Tony Equale

For many Catholics who are seeking church reform, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is a settled subject.  How could there possibly be any disagreement?  Women are working in every career choice open to men, including the police, and the army.  Why not the priesthood?  There is no reason.

I am not challenging women’s rights.  I accept the principle of egalitarianism for all humankind, and of course that would apply to any role in any organization.  But I would not want the defense of that principle to obscure what is at stake with Church reform.  For me the question is not whether women should be priests in the Roman church, but whether in a christian com­mu­nity there should be any priests at all.

I claim that the institution of the “sacramental” priesthood as we know it in our times, is a greco-roman elitist innovation that did not exist until well into the 2nd century, a hundred years after the founding of the church.  It was designed precisely to eliminate christian egalitarianism, create a hieratic caste, mystify the ordinary people and concentrate power in the hands of the upper class.  It represented the unwarranted transformation of a legitimate ministerial role — the presbyter — into an ontological caste that did not previously exist in the christian scheme of things, and certainly not in the mind of Jesus.  It was an essential step in bending christianity to the cultural requirements of the class-based society run by the Roman Empire.  It makes the people themselves complicit in their own impotence by making it seem impossible for a christian group to have the eucharist unless it be performed exclusively by the magical hands of a representative of the (upper class) bishop.

The earliest accounts of the life of christian communities portray a fellowship where fixed caste status for the clergy grounded in ritual alchemy, was not in evidence.  Likewise, infrastructure (buildings) if they existed, were a secondary feature of the community.  It’s not insignificant that the two phenomena seem to have arisen together, suggesting that “buildings,” i.e., property and wealth became a factor requiring the creation of new “sacramental structures” that would insure that control stayed in the proper hands.  These developments were exactly what made christianity an attractive choice as the “new” Religion of the empire.  An egalitarian group of slaves and tent-makers operating out of homes and storefronts just would not do for “divine Rome.”

By the 4th century, with the elevation of christianity to the status of State Religion of the Roman Empire, the connection between church property and the Roman upper class was such a conspicuous part of ecclesiastical reality that we see Constantine himself sending his legions in 316 to restore North African church buildings to their “rightful” bishops.  What made this restoration so shocking, besides the use of imperial force, was that the “rightful” bishops were in most cases the same men who had “handed over” (traditores) the (sacred) books to the Roman authorities during the persecution of Diocletian, causing the “people” (afterwards called “Donatists”) to refuse to receive them back as their bishops.  But Constantine had made a huge transfer of basilicas, temples and other buildings to christianity from the Roman polythesitic religions, and he would not abide having “his” imperial church buildings taken over by a mob of disobedient nobodies.  Every facet of the empire was run by obedience to the Roman authorities. The Empire’s new Church would be no different.  Precedent had to be set.

“Ordination” functioned in this context to insure a mystified control of the Church and its sacramental life by the upper classes.  This is the “priesthood” that the RCWP is banging on the door to enter … rather than to eliminate in order to return the eucharist to the fellowship of equals.  How can we support an elitist anachronism in the name of gender equality?  It’s time, I think, to stop talking about the church and the “ecclesistical careers” that have been denied women, and begin talking about the kind of living community that Jesus encouraged his followers to form.

Just look at the ludicrous scenarios described in the Manson article.  Imagine, mature adult christians, so mesmerized by the Roman sect’s absurd claims about apostolic fidelity being bound to mechanical legal ritual that they are ordained in the middle of rivers in order to avoid the reach of episcopal jurisdictions!  This is not rebellion.  It is a crass submission to the legalistic mystifications that have been developed to soli­di­fy power in the hands of those in control.  It is to be complicit in the elevation of caste superiority into a christian category in utter contradiction of the egalitarianism preached by Jesus.

In the late sixties Ivan Illich was something of a guru to a group of Catholic people in the New York area interested in serving the poor and in serious church reform.  Many of us learned spanish and the principles of pastoral acculturation at his feet in Puerto Rico and in Mexico.  On one occasion we shared with him our enthusiasm for a married deaconate and perhaps the ordination of married men as a first step in the larger reform of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women.  To our surprise he told us he did not agree. “Until clerical culture changes,” he said, “the only thing you will accomplish will be to draw this new group of unspoiled laypeople into a dysfunctional clerical culture, effectively adding to the unchristian stratifications within the church.  You will just perpetuate something that should not exist.”

I hear in those words the very same counsel as offered by Mary Hunt and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, mentioned by Manson, that “Catholic women should think beyond ordination and seek a church that functions more like … ‘a discipleship of equals’.”  The depth of reform that this would entail is truly beyond imagination … but only because of the hierarchy’s insistence on clinging to power and to the ideological (dogmatic) props that protect it.  Otherwise, it’s not unimaginable at all.  It’s time to stop begging them for what they will never give … and at any rate do not own.  It is not theirs to give!  To seek ordination under these circumstances is to buy into the very system that debases us.

You want to celebrate the eucharist?  By all means, do it!  But don’t tie it to being ordained a “priest.”  And that goes for us all!

Tony Equale