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 proteins, carbs, and oils 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, our wise and venerable forebears concluded there must have been a “mistake,” a catastrophic “fall” from the original intent of creation. A friend of mine, who obviously shares these sentiments, 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 good, rational, person-”God” (as our tradition conceived “him”) could not possibly counten­ance such a state of affairs, the Christian tradition, for one, had the audacity to condemn reality in its current form as corrupt — the result of an imagined “original sin” — and claimed to know the way things really should have been had the assumed catastrophic transgression not occurredAnd so this interpre­ta­tion was retro-fitted to explain the ancient Hebrew scriptures which said that once things were set right, “the lion will lay down with the lamb.”

But this fantasy-interpretation fails to recognize that the biblical passage quoted is poetic hyperbole, a metaphor for justice and peace among humankind.  A moment’s reflection will remind us that the lion is not supposed to lay down with the lambIt’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 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 totalityMatter’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.

It confirms that as far as existence is concerned, the human phenomenon is not the transcen­dent thing mainstream Western theistic philosophers imagined.  There is no special concession given to any individual person or species.  We are gallingly aware of this.  Western culture’s stubborn insistence on the separateness of humankind from “material” crea­tion has always been contradicted by the reality of human vulnerability. We face the same 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 … “spirits” trapped in cages of 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 esse, “being” for the scholastics, is one thing, and we are part of it.  We belongThat is our reality, our torment, as well as our guarantee of endless community.  What we are, matter’s energy, will always belong, for it will always be-here.

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. 

existences absolute availability

The availability of existence is a corollary of the metaphysical primacy of the Totality, the homogeneity of the substrate.  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.  My being-here is a gift of the totality.  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, which is total availability.

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 ourselves.  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.  These are our choicesExistence 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.”  If we were to try to characterize existence in person­al terms (metaphori­cally speaking, of course), we could say that existences intentionality toward all the things that are made of it, which of course includes us, is self-emptying.

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

One unavoidable fact that keeps tripping up any attempt to conceive of existence as a separate, objectifiable entity to which I can relate (as, for example, to the traditional “God-entity,”[1]) is that I exist.  I am a “concrescence”[2] of matter’s energy. My most immediate and revealing understanding of the intention­ality of exis­tence is had with and within my own self.  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.[3] 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 and only matter’s energy.  I am always within the circle of the existence I’m trying to objectify, 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.  Anything else would border on the pathologicalI trust the nature and character of matter’s energywhich is, after all, me. 

And that is what I mean by faith

[1] The scholastics proposed to explain the presence of “being” in all things as “participation in “God’s” being.” It is now called pan-entheism.  Here I am referring to the popular “theist” image that pictures “God” as an entity quite distinct from the rest of reality.  It is something the schoolmen, in fact, did not hold.

 [2] This is Whitehead’s term for a “thing.”

 [3] Nicholas of Cusa used the term non aliud as a characterization of “God.”

The still point of the turning world

My forthcoming book, Religion in a Material Universe, will be guided by the observed and verified presence of a dynamism in the matter of the universe that accounts for its existence and character, its vastness in space and time, and the complex self-possessed, intelligent forms that it has evol­ved, the most developed of which, to this point and to our know­ledge, is the human species.  This resident power — matter’s existential energy — accounts for the sense of the sacred in us … and the sense of the sacred is a pheno­menon we have to clarify, find a way to understand, and decide how to live with.

But that’s not an easy task.  The final chapter of The Mystery of Matter identified material energy as fundamentally unfathomable.  We cannot “know” it because we cannot objectify it.  But we understand it intimately for we ourselves are material energy; we understand it from within.  If we enquire after it, it is material energy that is enquiring after itself.  As with looking at a mirror reflected in another mirror, the self-images recede to infinity.  There is nothing to see but ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves.  In other words, we see nothing beyond our direct experience of our own existence. 

At the end of my reflections, the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of being-here puts me at a dead-end.  … I am aware that the apparent contradiction we encounter in the way matter’s energy is-here, leaves us at the edge of a void.  We have reached the end of our earth-bound knowing.  From a conceptual point of view, the rest is darkness… What I claim is the only thing left … if one has the temerity to go there … is relationship

This is the fulcrum, “the still point of the turning world.”[1]  At a certain point, all “knowing” stops and the only possibility left is relationship an embrace — built on our intimate understan­ding of existence that comes from interior experience, for we are matter’s energy and we cannot relate to it from the out­side.  We must embrace it one way or another; we have no choice, because it is ourselves.  Once this is realized another question enters the enquiry, i.e., how to do that.  Can the metaphors of our traditional religions bear the burden of accurately expressing and authentically sustaining our relationship to the transcendent existential energy in this material universe — our source, ground and matrix — ourselves?   Or must we devise new ones?

Since “knowing” has ended, we have no recourse but to meta­phors.  Metaphors refer to what we understand but cannot objectify.  They are symbols of what cannot be known or expressed in conventional terms.  They communicate understanding, which I define as an inti­mate cognitive embrace that is a work not just of the mind, but of the whole human organism in all its integrity.  The presence of the body with its conatus is an intrinsic element of this connatural understanding and its expression.  It confirms the relationship itself to be a function of material energy.  Our relationship to ourselves is the starting point and the end-point of our relationship to the material matrix “in which we live and move and have our being.”  It is the still point of the turning world.

[1] T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton.” 

“God” and religion

What does The Mystery of Matter (MM) tell us about “God” … and how important is “God” to religion?

The first problem in dealing with this question has to do with words — specifically the word “God.”  If I ask, “is there a ‘God’”? just by using the word I have already predefined what I am looking for, because in our culture that word comes already loaded with imagery and associated descriptors. That imagery, it hardly needs to be emphasized, is completely anthropomorphic and “other wordly.”  It projects human characteristics onto “God,” and believes that “God” is “other” than us and dwells in another world.

As a way of avoiding the pre-emptions lurking in the term, therefore, I have chosen to begin with the commonly observed phenomenon of the “sense of the sacred” and work backward to the source, “neces­sary and suffi­cient” to explain it, whatever it may be.  Whether that source should have the word “God” applied to it is a second issue and requires further discussion.  Any other procedure, to my mind, runs the risk of begging the question.  But notice.  “God,” as a heuristic notion, cannot survive being reduced from a premise to a conclusion.  For once it is recognized that “God” is, logically speaking, a derivative of some more fundamental human experience, “God” changes character and takes on the features of of its conceptual wellspring.  “God,” in a universe of matter, derives from a sense of the sacred that is itself the echo of a material drive.  It suggests that whatever “God” there is, is material.

In MM we discovered that our impulse for self-preservation— the conatus — springs from the very nature of the material elements of which we are con­structed.  Matter’s energy, the homogeneous substrate of the entire universe — that “stuff” from which all forces, energies, valences, properties, particles, as well as their composites have sprung — is existence.  It can be validly de­scribed as that in which we live and move and have our being.

I realize that very phrase was used by Paul in his speech on an “Unknown God“ at the Areó­pagus in Athens.[1]  Be that as it may, the description, according to MM, is phenomenologically valid.  Some may personally decide to accept the identity with Paul’s traditional description and call it “God.”  But that is their choice, and they must accept full responsibility for the use of a term that comes pre-loaded with spiritual and humanoid connotations that we know are not true.  MM does not conclude that material energy is “God.”  But it does recognize that material energy has characteristics that have been traditionally associated with divinity: Matter is (1) neither created nor destroyed, (2) the transcendently creative source of every con­struction and organism in the universe, (3) the matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being,” (4) the source of the sense of the sacredand (5) something we can relate to with trust (that was the burden of the previous chapter). The free decision to conflate material energy and the traditional language surrounding “God” is a choice, not a conclusion.

Making that choice involves some caveats. Our traditional religious “doctrines” are imbued with the archaic scientific world-view in which they were born.  They believed that “God” fashioned the universe and mana­ges all the events that occur in it.  That world-view is factually erroneous and its projections about “God” anthropomorphic; they are scientifically false and philosophically untenable.  The scientific facts are primary and must remain primary.  I limit myself to saying that the traditional poetic religious descrip­tors may validly be applied to matter’s energy as metaphor if done with due regard to the con­trol­ling dataThe funda­mental facts must always be respected: I am related to matter’s energy as to the source of my existence; that relationship is reflected in my conatus, and from there in my sense of the sacred — sep­arately from the religious poetry traditionally used to evoke it.  I have no knowledge of “God” that is independent of the religious traditions in which I was formed.

There is no problem with religion as metaphor (although some religious metaphors may require serious dis­claimers).  In fact the poetry that is religion may be essential if our sense of the sacred is to have its full creative effect.  The major problem is that religion generally does not project its constructions as poetic metaphor but rather as scientific fact.  Such an insistence is destructive not only of science, but also of the power of religious expression.  A religion that calls its mythic constructions “fact” stifles thought and opens itself — deservedly, in my opinion — to ridicule and rejection.  But, just as important, it simultaneously robs “myth” of its power to bring light and life to our existential experience.  In our “modern” era, the combination of an arrogant reductionist scientism and a religion that offers a set of parallel “facts” whose existence it pontificates by pure ungrounded fiat, has been fatal.  We in the west live in a state of spiritual impoverishment because, in the main, religion refuses to apply its sacred song to reality as science has discovered it to be.

Let me be clear: that there is a personal “God”-entity who designed and created the universe and all its forms and features by rational choice, is not a fact; … that there was an “original sin” responsible for human “concupiscence” and the loss of a natural immortality, is not a fact; … that the man Jesus was “God” as defined by traditional western notions, biblical imagery and perennial philosophy, is not a fact.  To claim these items are anything but metaphor, in my opinion, is illusion.  Insistence that they are “facts” will continue to feed the pathologies of religious bigotry, disdain for the “flesh,” disre­gard for rationality, ethnic self-aggran­dize­ment and a world where genocidal plunder has been justified in the name of someone’s ersatz religious “facts.”  Religion has no “facts.”  What it has (and can lose) is the poetic power to make richly human our relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being” — transcendently creative reality as uncovered and articulated by the science of our times.

[1] Acts 17:28.  The Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, Doubleday, 1966, fn “t” on page 231 of the NT in referring to that particular phrase says: “Expression suggested by the poet Epimenides of Cnossos (6th c.  BC).” The origin of the phrase is not “Christian.”

Religion and Trust

“New atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, calls the components of culture, “memes” in an analogy with “genes.” But unlike biological traits, memes exist only because we create them.  And yet they are not illusions.  They are the most important things we deal with throughout our lives; they are as necessary as food, clothing and shelter … as real as life and death.  It’s not surprising that sometimes we are willing to die — or kill — rather than see certain memes change or disappear.  But at the same time, we have to realize that it is we who create them.  And because we create them we can change them.

Religion is our primary defense against the potentially immobilizing and humanly mutilating effect of the void whose symbol is death.  That makes religion in some form indispensable.  But the form that it was given in the West in a pre-scientific age is not immutable.  Religion’s man­date to neutralize the sting of death must be allowed to function in terms that speak to us in our time as we have become, with the knowledge that modern science has given us.   Who we think we are has changedObeisance to a sacred past has no validity here.  We need religion. Religion exists for human­kind, not the other way around.  “The Sabbath was made for man …”

But applying the formula is not that easy.  Those ersatz “facts” — those particular traditional religious beliefs, like the immortal soul or an intervening humanoid “God” — were all we ever had.  How do we confront the void without them … in practice and in detail?  Can we have faith, in other words, trust, without our tradition­al beliefs?  These beliefs, we have to remind ourselves, are claimed to be “facts” about reality that religion insists are literally true.

Unfortunately, our traditional religion has always denied any distinction between faith and its “revealed” beliefs about an invisible world.  That insistence, in my opinion, is one of the things that drives the new atheists to question whether religion should exist at all.  Both sides in the religion debate are completely convinced that what they are fighting for is a matter of life and death.  Since culture “saves” us from the corrosive power of death, we cling to our religion because we think that without its beliefs — its “facts” — we cannot accomplish the task; and religion’s antagonists think that clinging to them as facts is the very thing that keeps us from an adult adjustment to reality that will alone grant us peace of mind.

Our pluralistic society tolerates more than one religion … as well as none.  Does this tell us something?  Is there a core insight at the heart of all these various positions that explains and justifies this tolerance?  This gives rise to the question we started with at the beginning of this prologue: Can religion move past its traditional literalism and allow itself to be re-set in another “factual” context?  In other words, can religion evolve?   Right now, in the Christian west, for those trapped by the “infallible” beliefs provided by either their Pope or their Scriptures (or both), the answer is No.  Theo­cracy and the literal facts that nourish it, is as much an ominous possibility as it ever was.  That in itself would be enough to explain the intensity of the reaction against it.

Religion? … doesn’t that mean “God”?

What is this core insight?  For organisms as complex as ourselves, shaped as we are by the inter­­sub­jectivities and virtualities of human society, the question cannot be answered without appreciating what existence means to our poor frightened species, the only animal that has to live suspended over the abyss.  I believe the core insight that drives all versions of religion is that at the heart and source of all things there exists a living dynamism that is life-giving, benevolent and trustworthy.

“Benevolence” is not “known” (provable) because there are no unambigu­ously objective facts that com­pel its accep­tance as a logical proposition.  But it responds to a different kind of logic, anyway, because it, and the “trust” it evokes in us “persons,” are not definable in any terms other than their own.  From our point of view, it’s a “person” thing.  It’s the way we are. I claim benevolence is connaturally understood in a cognitive embrace of mater­ial ener­gy in its most palpable and undeniable form: the conatus our indomitable drive to survive, the source of our love of life.  We understand intimately what matter’s energy is, in both its potential and actual forms, in ourselves.  For we are what matter is.

So, is this transcendent dynamism, “matter’s energy,” a “separate person”?   I say No, and emphati­cally.  It is not a separate entity of any kind outside of its functioning in our human organisms; there is nothing I can point to that acts like what we mean by “person.”  And we are in a posi­tion to know, because we, persons, live immersed in it every day, both inside and out­side of ourselves.  But it is something that has permitted itself to be “kneaded” into even the most minute element of this uni­verse of which I am a part, and that evokes in me the presence of a massive subjectivity of some kind, too big and too devoid of “self” to be called a “person,” that must contain within itself the potential to become me, because I AM THAT.  This is the key. Without an appreciation of the significance of the universal presence of matter’s existential energy the conatus in every life-form we know, matter is reduced to inert random  mech­an­ism, the religious project ceases to be poetry and Dennett’s robots rule the earth.  The em­brace of existence that the abyss seemed to evoke, will never materialize.  But that would mean supposing there were no human beings.

If what Dennett claims about matter is true and we are no longer human, then why do WE LOVE being ourselves and being here with our people … as does every living thing?  Even after we hear Dennett’s “truth” about ourselves, why is the spell not broken, why do we still refuse to disown as illusion this exis­tence that we love so passionately, so poetically, so mystically?  Ex­plain­ing — celebrating — this stubborn obsessive love of existence, is the poetry that is religion.

Yes, absolutely, I am talking about love.  But it’s a tough love that embraces the void.  This will entail a broad, reality-grounded un­der­standing of “bene­vo­lence” that challenges the infantile fantasies, extracted from tradi­tional reli­gion’s narratives, that up to now have been the sole descriptors for both sides of the debate.  What the “religionists” insist is literal fact and the “anti-religionists” reject, is the same impossible fairy-tale: an anthropo­morphic — humanoid — “God” of the book who “chose” evolution to do his creating for him, micro-manages the uni­verse from day to day incomprehensibly “permitting” holocausts and home foreclosures, and rewards or punishes each individual in the afterlife.

Once the book’s spirit-”God” and “his” physical interventions both before and after death are clearly under­stood to be metaphors, then the poetry of the stories, which are the epic chronicle of our people’s attempts through the millennia to relate to the void of existence, can be explored and allowed to evolve.  But until then, the “book” and its literalist promo­ters remain the primary reasons for the well-deserved rejection of religion.

If this literalism can be abandoned, we will actually begin to lay the foun­da­tions for a religion that we need to have exist … because the two end-posts of this dialog, life-fact and death-fact,  the limits where knowing ends and the void reveals itself, are the brackets within which our destiny unfolds.  Denying either pole will not be possible.  Right now, that is not true, because in the West in the name of revelation, “religion” denies death … and “atheism,” in the name of a reductionist science, denies the reality and significance of life.