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.”

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3 comments on “existence is a totality

  1. rjjwillis says:

    Tony,
    How welcome is the sun, especially when one emerges from the black hole!
    Your remarks here bring light, in a new way. What a rich way of thinking about community: a free interchange of all that we all with the totality of what is.
    For me this holds echoes of what some consider in the Gaia Hypothesis. For them, we human beings are the evolutionary capacity of the earth to become aware of itself. And jumping on to the Chardinian bandwagon they see the next step in evolution to be a conscious earth. This does, of course, turn upside down the given belief that we humans appeared on earth to subdue it and to use it as a springing board to heaven. We are made for the earth, not the opposite.
    The electronic web of communication that now encircles our earth is out of the capacity of any one of us either to comprehend or to control. Might it not be the harbinger of a conscious earth that we, all unwittingly, are nurturing into existence?
    To the earth and to existence, Bob

    • tonyequale says:

      Bob, Thanks.

      We are indebted to those who have been called to peer into the abyss. They call to us, we can’t turn away our faces. Like Father Zossima, we prostrate ourselves in gratitude and veneration before them. We know exactly how much we need to hear what they see and say because we are not yet able look the void directly in the face. It’s a privilege to be included in their circle of light.

      Tony

    • Sal Umana says:

      Bob and Tony, I feel privileged to know you both. It takes 6 , 7 readings to understand what you are saying, but I am breathlessly running to keep up with you. Maybe I should just stop and “be” or rather just “exist”, as just one “concrescence” of matter’s energy. It takes a lot of getting used to, after 83 years of Ego, to realize that I am just part of earth’s consciousness of itself.It is consoling to hear Tony say that I can trust the nature and character of matter’s energy because it is after all, ME. And that is now what faith means, after all these many years.
      Sal Umana

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