“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
This may be taken as the paradigm for religious reform. Religion, like everything else in our human world, needs to serve the needs of humankind, not the other way around … at least according to Jesus. This requirement is more significant than it may appear; it should be considered the guiding principle for a massive deconstruction, perhaps bigger than we thought. For I am suggesting that what is to be demythologized is not just this or that legend, this or that dogma, this or that Church, but the very notion of the supernatural itself. Religion needs to be humanized; and in order to do that it must be “naturalized.”
There is only one reality. It is Nature. There is nothing besides or above Nature. There is nothing supernatural. Even if we should discover someday that there are multiple universes, each with its own peculiar elements, physical laws and fundamental processes, there is still only one reality and all things are ultimately reducible to some common foundational unity. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter what you call it. Call it matter, or call it spirit, or call it energy or call it being — it is only one thing. It is Nature.
There is nothing supernatural. There is no other world. The features of our universe are all in seamless continuity with the features of reality everywhere. The unity is absolute. It is all there is. And it contains within itself the explanation for every facet and feature it displays. Whatever “God” there is, is to be found within Nature. “God” is Nature’s source and therefore, of all things, the most natural.
There are not two “realities;” there is only one. Metaphysical dualism — the legacy that dogs us in the West — is impossible. The differing phenomena of our one reality cannot be grounded in two separate sources, residing in two separate worlds, separately derived from two distinct principles, with two distinct ways of being-in-time and resulting in two distinct destinies. Phenomena that heretofore have been labeled “spirit” and “matter,” or “mind” and “body,” or “natural” and “supernatural,” and considered two separate kinds of reality, are in fact simply properties of the same one reality, misperceived and mislabeled. It may take many forms, but there only one reality.
Metaphysical dualism is false and incoherent, and the implications drawn from it are equally false and incoherent. In our tradition, the dualism of spirit and matter came to be equated in the popular mind with the Christian categories of natural and supernatural, even though orthodox theology would insist that it was incorrect. Both matter and spirit, the theologians insist, are equally “natural,” and both are equally open to an upgrade they call “supernatural.” But since what is “supernatural” is defined by them as belonging, strictly speaking, only to “God,” and since “God” is only spirit, it is difficult to see how the two categories would not eventually conflate and encourage the equation of matter with Nature and spirit with the Supernatural. And that is exactly what happened. In popular parlance today, the “supernatural” is synonymous with “immaterial” or “spirit” or “otherworldly.”
“Matter” also inevitably became identified with “evil” in this system … and therefore so was Nature. The inevitability consists in this: The dualist “God” is only spirit. If that is true, then the question is: whence “matter?” Matter either derives from something within “God’s” makeup, or it doesn’t. If “God” is pure spirit with no admixture of matter, there is nothing whatsoever in “God” to explain the existence and character of matter, and matter is something that is entirely alien to “God.” But that is impossible, otherwise “God” could not have created it, “God” could not even think it and it would not exist. Furthermore, whatever is alien to “God” is necessarily “evil.” The incoherence here is total. Either “God” is somehow material, as Spinoza said, and “matter” is an emanation of “God’s” nature and therefore a “sacrament,” a “mask” of “God” (as Eriúgena suggested), or matter is irreconcilably evil and exists only to be neutralized, dismantled and eliminated. But in the latter case, there still remains the question of matter’s provenance: did “God” create this “evil” or not? If he did, then “God” is the source of evil. But if “God” did not create it, then there must be another “God” out there somewhere, the source of evil and matter … and in that case “God” is not “God.”
Religion, the protagonist of the supernatural
Because of the unchallenged dominance of dualism in western culture, religion has become identified with “belief in the supernatural.” That belief explains the habitual metamorphosis of historical people and events into religious myth, legend and dogma. It was supernatural “dogmas” like Original Sin and the existence of “God’s” exclusive “Covenant” (contract) with one tribe or one religion that gave rise to racism and a merciless religious intolerance. Whatever else needs changing because of religion’s doctrinal anomalies, it is first of all “belief in the supernatural” that must be neutralized, dismantled and eliminated.
The supernatural imagines another world — a realm of existence to which human nature does not naturally belong or from which it has fallen … and long ago forgotten. It is in the deepest sense of the word, “other” than the human world; it is alien — exactly as alien as matter is to “God” and for the same reasons. And even while the other world is claimed to be the destiny of humankind, humans have no natural knowledge of its existence nor any clue to what it’s like, no natural information about how to get there and they are dependent upon a supernatural communication from that other world — revelation — in order to live out their destiny. Simply put, the “other world,” which is supposedly the very reason why we are here, is “beyond nature,” and humankind has no access to it.
From this I can only draw one conclusion: belief in the “supernatural” is the quintessence of human alienation. It is the self-imposed imagined separation of humankind from itself — its source, its organic substrate, its sustaining environment and its ultimate destiny.
Religion in the West claims to be the sole bridge to that other world. It not only declares that it knows what the other world is like but it also knows and controls what is needed to get there. As the expression and institutionalization of the “supernatural,” therefore, religion is the repository of the principal justifications for human alienation. In is active form, religion is alienation’s protagonist and protector. The roots of all alienation in the West are to be found in “supernatural” religion.
Some may be disturbed by such an analysis. They see the very sense of the sacred bound up with the belief in the existence of another world. Aren’t things sacred because of the sacredness of “God”? And, isn’t “God” an individual, “other” than us? Wouldn’t this immense person that “God” is, then, constitute a whole “other” world of its own? Indeed, the core of the problem resides with the idea of a “God” who is “other” than us; it takes “God” out of Nature. “God,” I insist — with Eriugena, Aquinas, Eckhart, Nicolas of Cusa, and Spinoza — is not other than us.
“God” is not other
The thought that “God” is “other” is erroneous and it is being driven by an erroneous image. The naïve image I challenge is that of a fashioner. The “God” who creates the world the way a builder creates a house or an artist creates a painting produces something outside of and other than himself. To imagine “creation” proceeding in this way is what locks us into our notion of “God” as “other.” Fashioners are people who work with already existing materials that are other than themselves, and the results they produce are also outside of and other than themselves. But for creation there were no materials for a fashioner to work with and the results could not stand on their own without continual sustenance. It is exactly the existence and character of the very materials and products that make up the universe, where the image fails. Science has discovered that these materials and their products elaborated themselves and have sustained themselves over eons of time through a process of development that in its organic phase we call evolution. They are responsible for every form and feature of the current universe. You would have to imagine a carpenter who not only produced boards and nails out of his head, but also imbued them with a magic energy like the brooms of the sorcerer’s apprentice so that they built the house on their own … and the house would have to sustain itself, as if in thin air. “Fashioner” is not a very apt metaphor for these discoveries.
But if we were to start from a different image — a different analogy — we come up with a different way of thinking about “creation.” If we were to imagine “God” to be like the sun beaming light throughout the solar system, all the objects on earth and everywhere are visible only because they are bathed in the sun’s light. Let “visibility” be the analog for existence. All light is really the sun’s light being used, borrowed, reflected by things other than the sun. Just as visibility is “borrowed” from the sun, existence is borrowed from “God;” it is not ours. And just the way the sun’s active “shining” is being used by objects on earth to become visible, it is “God” actively “existing” that is being used by us to exist. This helps us see that existence is not just a passive gift. It is “God’s” own “existing” in which we participate. Let’s go further. Once they are visible, things exercise a creative power of their own, for it is the presence of the sun’s reflected light that stimulated the evolution of eyes in living organisms … and it’s that same reflected light that continues to provide to all sighted organisms a secure way to navigate the earth, find food, shelter and avoid their enemies.
This imagery is helpful because it works with evolution, which the image of the fashioner does not. For if “God” is the source of the energy of existence, then all things existing are using that energy … they are using “God,” and they create with it by evolving new forms. Evolution is simply what results from the activation of that existential energy by the particles that possess it in order to continue to survive. Thus the “materials” themselves, on their own, build and beautify the universe. They apply and propagate the creative energy of existence even though they are not the source of it. They themselves are in no way separate from what they are using, for what they are using gives them their very existence. That helps us understand not only how this cosmos arose as it did on its own, but why things come and go, they do not last, for they do not “own” their own existence. Like reflected light, our existence is a participation in esse — Existence Itself.
This imagery places the energy that is the “source of our existence” squarely at the core of Nature, the way the sun and its mass is the source and anchor of all light and movement in the solar system. What we have become accustomed to call “God,” in this conception, far from being “supernatural” is actually Nature itself, shared and sharing its very being. This Nature, then, insofar as it is creative, and spendthrift of itself, explanatory of itself and its elaborations, has been called by our mystics, natura naturans “nature making nature” … and this same Nature, insofar as it is recipient, poor, needy, empty, full of longing and struggling to survive, is called natura naturata “nature made nature.” What is most intriguing is that in this view, all things, including ourselves, are a little of each. Everything that exists gives of itself and creates, and everything that exists is a deep well of need, emptiness and longing.
But in all cases it is “Nature.” There is nothing beyond it. Nothing is “supernatural” especially not “God,” its very source and sustainer. Any religion that claims to be “expert in humanity,” must first recognize the exclusive existence and unmistakable character of the Nature in which human nature “lives and moves and has its being.”
(… to be continued …)