The Energy to Exist

At the center of the “religion” question for me is the challenge of reductionist science and the “new atheists” that derive their vision and energy from it.  I am referring to Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins among others, who are material reductionists.[1]  They reduce everything to matter as it appears in its most primitive forms, which are studied by physics and chemis­try.  These men share a strident antipa­thy toward religion, which predictably has earned them the sobriquet, atheist.  But just as to be anti-religion is not necessarily to be atheist … so too, to be materialist is not necessarily to deny the exis­tence of a transcendent material dynamism in the universe, the source of our human selves and our sense of the sacred.  I am a materialist, but this is where the reductionists and I part companyThey deny any such dynamism.  I am speaking of material energy as the very mystery of existence itself that displays a depth and significance that deserves to be explored on its own terms. For I claim matter’s energy is, very simply, the energy to exist.  The implications of that statement are transcendent. They explain our experience, our world, and everything in it.

What the anti-religion people rightly denounce is the fantasy that there is another world different from this one, built of a different kind of existence, that explains and controls what goes on here and of which religion has in­fal­­lible knowledge.  I agree with their denunciation, totally. There is no other world.  I can easily under­stand why they fulminate against the reli­gions whose rival claims to the “truth” about that non-existent world have been used to justify some of the worst intra-species violence that humankind has unleashed upon itself.  But that is not all.  The “atheists” rightly excoriate religions for explaining disasters, from earthquakes to genocidal holocausts, as events consciously “permitted” by a supposedly loving personal “God” — who resides in that other world — who could prevent these horrors if “he” wanted, but inexplicably chooses not to.  The fact that belie­vers are not fazed by such patent absur­dity, reveals the extremes to which people will go to pre­serve their illusions.  Religion­ists who claim to eschew “naïve” providence, for their part, insist that “God” abso­lutely respects the natural order.  But these same people are loath to explain the so-called miracles that are adduced as proof of their own religion’s unique status with “God,” and the encouragement they give their mem­bers to ask this “God” for a wide range of favors that by-pass the natural order.  They can deny it all they want, but miracles are, in fact, the very stock-in-trade of the western religious enterprise. Religion built on this kind of “God” is called “theism.”

The “God” characterized by theist theology is a “God” of intervention and miracles, a hover­ing micro-managing providence, a “person” who saves us from the very same death that his own alleged intentional design of the universe is said to have created.  The real “God,” I sub­mit, does none of these things, as we may have noticed, and therefore is not the kind of “God” characterized by theism.  In the real world, theism is simply not credible.  I am not a theist.

I take my stand with science.  It is the one and only arbiter of the “facts.”

There are no physical “facts” known to religion that cannot be observed and verified by science, but that doesn’t eliminate reli­gion.  There is nothing supernatural, but that doesn’t eliminate the sacred.  There is no other world, but that doesn’t eradicate the unfathomable depths of this one.  There are no miracles of any kind and never were, but that doesn’t deny matter’s self-transcending creativity.  There is no “revela­tion,” but that doesn’t mean we do not intimately understand who we are and how we are related to existence. And the anthropomorphic humanoid “God” that all the religions of the book claim literally “inter­vernes in human history,” simply does not exist, … but that doesn’t mean there is no “God.”

The “God” that actually does exist, is the self-donating, self-extruding source and matrix of the material energy responsible for the existence and character of this universe, exactly as it functions and exactly as we see it with our telescopes and mircroscopes and endoscopes and exactly as we describe it with our mathematical measurements.

It bears emphasizing that, even in the perennial categories developed by our own tradition, the “divine” characteristics of matter’s existential energy existence — are staring us in the face.  Material energy is neither created nor destroyed, thus approximating the esse in se subsistens[2] which is the classic scholastic “definition” of “God;” it is the universal matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being” which was exactly Paul’s characteriza­tion of “God” that he gave at the Areopagus in Athens;[3] it is responsible for the existence of every form and function in the universe which was the whole point of the Genesis account of creation; it has displayed a self-transcending creativity whereby new things — including living and intelligent things — emerge from a seemingly limitless potential, the sharing of its very “self,” which evokes a kenosis (self-emptying) acknowledged as the unmistakable hall­mark of divinity.[4]  And, most important of all, the “things” that emerge from and remain im­mersed in this matrix universally display a conatus a blind drive for endless existence — that reveals the interior dynamism that they receive from their existential source.  All things bear a striking resemblance to what they are made of.  They are its image and likeness.

All things have but one interest and one goal, derived from one energy with one self-expla­na­tory purpose — esse, “to be,” to exist. 

religion

Traditional theistic religion, by insisting, as it does, on a metaphysically separate “spirit,” cannot accom­pany us into the world that The Mystery of Matter reveals; and those who think they can simply “tweak” our perennial religious terminology to make it fit, risk sliding us back into an illusory dualism by the back door, and our last state would be worse than the first.  Let me be clear: matter’s existential energy is not “spirit,” it is matter.  A superficial attempt at a semantic syncretism — taking “energy” as “spirit” — would belie the scientific reality and it would have us continue to maintain two contrary worlds with their correspon­ding concepts to which we would have recourse as the needs demanded.  It is a dysfunc­tional practice we have employed in the West for 500 years at least … and we are schizoid because of it Our new unitary vision is better off, perhaps, not being contaminated with any association with traditional theism, and especially the “G” word.

The “G” word, of course, is “God.”  I use it reluctantly, fully aware that even the quotation marks cannot eradicate the permanent scar of humanoid theism it carries.  Our vision offers a new ground for understand­ing this amazing universe and our unsuppressible sense of the sacred … and it opens the door to religion in a new key: one that plumbs the depths of this world and ourselves as its progeny, rather than trying to blast us at escape velocity out into another.

The mystery that I speak of does not refer to an enigma to be solved, but rather, in the sense of the Greek word mysterion, “the place where the numinous resides, and reveals itself.”[5] With this perspective the material universe becomes the sacred ground from which religion emerges and in which it remains rooted and draws its life.  Such a religion will not look to another world for explanations, nor will it direct us there for “salvation” or our ultimate des­tiny.  If it “saves” us at all it will be by healing the schizoid notions that up to now have split us asunder — body from soul, person from person, individual from community, human­kind from the earth.


[1] Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin, 2007; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Haughten Mifflin, Boston, 2006

[2] Esse in se subsistens, “Self-subsistent being.” cf Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologíae, Prima pars, q.3 ff, passim.

[3] The Acts of the Apostles, ch 17

[4] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1998

[5] The Mystery of Matter, IED press, 2010, preface. Mysterion is traditionally translated into Latin as sacramentum.

The Future of an Allusion

Religion is the poetry of our people. It is focused on the most basic and yet most elusive of all virtual realities — who we think we are.  “God,” of course, has always been thought of as our source and designer.  So when we spoke of “God” we were really alluding to where we thought we came from and what we believed we were designed for.  It was a fairly straightforward project.  We were trying to figure out how to live; once our minds came awake, our bodies fell silent on the issue, and we were facing a void.

No one has ever seen “God.” In the past, all religions claimed to have some privileged source that provided accurate information — guaranteed — about “God” and what he wanted.  And on that basis they told us who we were and how we should live.  Many religions still do.

In our day, we are no closer to seeing “God” than our forebears.  But there is one great difference; we now no longer believe that it is “God” who determines how we should live. Whatever “God” there is, we have now decided, is not in the business of issuing commandments. Funda­men­tally this changes religion from a search for what “God wants,” to a search for what we really are, and what we want for ourselves and our world.

Since there has always been a close correlation between “God” and “how we should live,” this search-shift corresponds to our realization that “God” is not something other than us.  So it’s not surprising in these new circumstances that we are looking for a new definition of “God.”  We are not only who we think we are, but we also know that “God” is (and always has been) only what we think “he” is. “God” is the symbol — the allusion — we generate that “explains” who we think we are and how we think we should live.

But make no mistake.  Even though “God” is a symbol created by us, we did not design, fashion and extrude our own organisms into existence.  We are not self-originating.  Whatever it is that did that, is our “God.” Our poetic allusions may molt and modulate through time, but it’s only because our growing knowledge of ourselves — greatly enhanced by science — is constantly sug­gesting new symbols for “God.”  But our quest is always for “what,” not “whether,” for none of us is self-originating.  Right now I am suggesting that the symbol for our “God” is matter’s existential energy.

Those who have looked to this book to provide a blueprint for institutional religious reform by “tweaking” traditional dogmas, surely have realized by this time that they came to the wrong place.  What I am proposing is nothing less than the acceptance of full responsibility for religion. Religion is a human project.  It is not “God’s,” nor the Church’s.  It belongs to us.  We need religion to sustain and deepen our sense of the sacredness — the mysterion — that is this universe of matter.  Religion is the poetry we create to help us do that.  It’s a tool of the human spirit.  It is in everyone’s interest to further that project, and it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure it does not become dysfunctional and destructive.  That may mean that we no longer leave it to those who have arrogated control of it and perhaps have used it to conserve the ring of dehumanizing power forged in the furnaces of ancient empires.  Religion belongs to us all.  Without an objectively grounded sense of the sacred, life is fatally impoverished — we cannot embrace the void, we never plumb the depths or the real meaning of the matter we are made of we never become fully human.  Who we think we are remains small, desperate and grasping.

The sense of the sacred emerges irrepressibly from the conatus — the drive to survive.  It is the soil in which our humanity grows and flourishes.  We understand the sacredness of existence because our very bodies cry out with joy for it.  We take our material existence for granted … we don’t think twice about it until what seems to be its disap­pear­ance looms before us.  Then we are shocked … not just perplexed or dismayed, but truly shocked.  How could I pos­sibly die … disappear … me? … no longer exist?  It is literally unimagin­able. These diaphan­ous minds we are so proud of, are biologi­cally incap­able of imagining physical non-exper­ience which we equate with non-existence.  We are pro­grammed for living in our material universe.  We don’t know how to be dead.  Fortun­ately, when death comes it is something that happens to us, it is not something we are called on to do … for if it were up to us it would never occur.  We certainly know how to kill ourselves, and we may even learn how to “let go,” but we don’t know how to die.  That means we have yet to fully embrace the void which brought us into existence.

Just what, exactly, is this “void” and how does it make us human?

Catholic Theologians

Catholic Theologians  

(an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Religion in a Material Universe)

I recognize that it is unfair to single out any individual for being influenced by [career] pressures when they affect every Catholic theologian on the planet.  Catholics are long accustomed to reading their theologians “between the lines” because they are all too aware that a statement or an omission may not reflect what the authors think but only what they need to do to preserve the apprearance of orthodoxy.

A most revealing omission in this regard, is that these theologians, while they insist that they are trying to update Catholic thinking on dogmatic issues, typically exclude from their aggiornamento the very “dogmas” of apostolic succession and magisterial infallibility that justify the intellectual suffocation that inhibits them. This is more a propos for this epilogue than it might first appear.  One is inclined to ask: is it possible that the institutional factors that render theologians impotent are the same factors that establish the character and appeal of the Roman Catholic Church?  Are theologians complicit in their own enfeeblement for reasons of self-interest at a deeper level?  Has the Roman Catholic penchant for offering absolute dogmatic assurances that avoid facing the void, so penetrated their thinking that they no longer recognize it as contrary to the spirit of Jesus?  Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor was right, after all.  Dostoyevsky’s Cardinal Torquemada put Jesus himself on the rack out of “love for humankind” whom he claimed could not bear Jesus’ call to freedom — the call to embrace the void.

His radical openness to “God” led Jesus to a very desolate place — the cross.  It was the void.  I believe there is no way to follow him and not end up face to face, as he did, with the forces — some natural, some intentional — that dehumanize people.  It left him lost and impaled.  Jesus had no choice; he had to trust “God.”  Institutional Christianity,  on the other hand, well protected by its wealth and power, does have a choice and rarely lets itself get trapped in such narrow places.  Dismissing the challenge to face the truth of its own pretensions may be simply another way for Catholicism to avoid the radical insecurity and subsequent loss of constituency that would come from not having credal absolutes — the comforts of infallibly having “the answers.”  The void for Catholics would be the admission that we just don’t know, and that in the absence of knowledge we have to trust.  It is difficult to imagine following Jesus without treading that path; and it is difficult to imagine the Roman Church ever making the choice to do so.  Catholic theologians, unfortunately, are all too prone to the smugness that characterizes their Church with its conceits of absolute infallible “knowledge.”

Ultimately, these are personal questions that bear upon theologians’ internal motivations and depth of spirituality.  We may never know what really drives their professional careers.  No one is judging.  But we need them to examine their conscience.  We are dependent upon them.  Because of the daunting complexity of the souces of Christian doctrine, we rely on them to research, analyze, think and reflect in ways that we cannot.  Theology is a communitarian enterprise, and theologians have the task of articulating our collective struggle.  Their subject matter is the whole community’s evolving understan­ding of our place in this Sacred Matrix, and that includes our misgivings and disillusionments.  It is not a simple matter; facile solutions will no longer fly.  Refusing to challenge “doctrine” at the depths that reality and truth require, makes a mockery of the calling.

We say that “God” is love …

We say “God is Love” .  .  .

 I believe that the man Jesus, a devout Jew, had an extraordinarily clear perception of “God” as loving-Father. His absolute trust in “God” sustained a serenity of mind that, even as he died before their eyes, convinced his followers that in his case, death was overcome.  Death had “no dominion over him,” which in the vocabulary of his time meant he would rise again.  But whether he rose, or will rise, is the same thing.  And whether he will rise as we imagine it or in another manner is also irrelevant; for to rise this way or that is the same thing. Perhaps, as Teilhard de Chardin imagines, follow­ing what was suggested by Paul, it is the whole cosmos that will reach an Omega Point and we with it.  But It really doesn’t matter.  In all these cases our “stuff” perdures, existence goes on, our relationship to “God,” our source and sustainer, continues.

Are we denying the literal reality of the resurrection?  Are we being fooled here by some semantic sleight-of-hand?  Is the impermanence, the obliteration we so dread eliminated?  Let’s follow this question out to the end.

What Jesus accomplished by living its consequences in his own flesh, was to “prove” that “God” can be trusted even through death.  But it was not a rationalist “proof.”  It was a “street level” proof that we all understand.  “You think I’m kidding”? we ask when the argument gets hot, and we answer “watch, I’ll prove it to you.”  We mean we are willing live with what we claim — to walk the walk.  All Jesus did was to die, nothing more.  That was his “proof.”

The belief that he rose as the “first fruits” of an imminent apocalype and bodily resurrection collapsed within a few generations of the birth of Christianity for there was no evidence that anyone else ever rose, even those of his eye witness followers who had persuaded others to commit themselves to that vision. This entailed a major shift in Christian hopes from the resurrection of real flesh and blood people to an inferred afterlife for shadowy immortal souls threatened with (a similarly inferred) eternal punishment.  It amounted to a stunning sea-change in the Christian dream.  The resurrection lost its concrete meaning for people and was used thereafter only as an abstract legal-conceptual support for the divinization of Jesus and the Empire legitimated by it.  At the end of that process all that remained human of Jesus and available to suffering flesh and blood humans was his death.  It was his personal testimony to the “truth.”  We “got” his message.  His death was his poetry … and his “proof.”

“resurrection”

What about the rest of us?  Will we rise, as the Church claims, at the “end of time”?  Some like Teilhard suggest that the totality of this turbulent universe of matter, including us, will evolve itself into something so god-like and eternal that it eludes our capacity to imagine. Perhaps this is the resurrec­tion “God” has “planned” for us.  But frankly, it’s all conjecture, guesswork.  No amount of theological ratiocination can convince us that we know anything at all about what death means or what may await us or our universe in the future.  We have only one choice; to trust or not to trust the source of our existence.  But, … do we really have a choice?   Our natural inclination — springing from our existence itself — is to trust.  But, can we really choose not to trust, when the apparatus we must use to despair is this magnificent and improbable humanity?

But what if the reality is entirely different from all expectations?   Is it possible … (can we accept this? )… that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets its ultimate destiny … which may not be a Teilhardian Parousia, a Second Coming to our taste and preference, but perhaps another cycle — another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe.  What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure?   What if “She” never rests?  What if “She” never stops reusing us to give Her gifts to others?  What if “God,” and we as part of “God,” are pure kenosis, bottomless eternal self-emptying?  Are we still willing to “be like ‘God’”?  Do we want to go to that heaven?  Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love?  Are we willing to share what we are endlessly with others, as “God” does, and find ecstatic joy in it, as “God” does?  Could we forgive our “God” a generosity we cannot bear?  Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?[1]

 


[1]“The beginnings of Islamic Mysticism is ascribed to Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyah (d.801), a woman from Basra who first formulated the Sufi ideal of a love of “God” that was disinterested, without hope of paradise and without fear of hell.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1979, “Islamic Mysticism,” p.943