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 belong. And 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 existence’s 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 become — a 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 energy … which 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 faith. Faith 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 spawned. With 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.