“Sh’ma Yisrael …”

Friends, This is a long piece (about 3800 words) that resulted from a recent conversation with Pete Hinde and Leon Krier.  It attempts to break new ground.  I am counting on your observations to help me clarify and emend its shortcomings.  I am sorry for the length, but I think it is worth a patient reading. 

Sh’ma Yisrael …”

At the base of all our spiritualities there is the ancient belief rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and inherited by all the religions of the book that “God” is a “person.”  Everything else is derived from that — the doctrines of creation, providence and prayer, theories of sin, suffering and death, incarnation, redemption, reward and punishment after death, etc.  It is all in function of a personal “God.”

Many simply assume that our intersubjective relationship with “God” depends upon “God” being literally a “person” in human terms.  To sustain belief in that kind of “God” you cannot affirm evolution as it really is:  a self-originating, self-elaborating, autonomous material development.  You have to imagine a “God”-person intentionally choosing to create the material universe — either by direct action or through the agency of evolution, considered as a material tool selected by a spiritual “God.”

Many Catholics, inspired by Teilhard de Chardin, believe that a personal humanoid “God” chose (designed?) evolution to do his creating for him.  Their “God” is separate from evolution which they think of as “his” created agent, like Plato’s demiourgos.  They think this means that science and religion are reconciled, just as Philo, Paul, Justin, Clement, Origen and Arius thought Moses and Plato were reconciled through the mediation of a “subordinate” Logos, the Christian upgrade of Plato’s intermediary between a spiritual “God” and a material creation.  But the “solution” in all these cases is a superficial revisionism that is not only internally incoherent (by claiming that evolution, a non-rational process, has been set in place by rational choice for rational ends) but also keeps the essence of an untenable theism intact, leaving true immanence shattered and in ruins.

I want to emphasize: it’s this element of rational intention, so essential to our definition of human “persons,” that militates against the accep­tance of evolution as it really is.  Evolution is not an intentional  process.  It extrudes new things from the material substrate of the universe spontaneously — without rational design.  It is driven by no other factor than survival.  The insistence that “God” is a humanoid “person” who chooses — does things for reasons — demands that evolution either be rejected outright or rendered meaningless.


At this point I want to introduce the notion of intentionality as a contrast with “intention.” It is similar to the way that personality contrasts with “person.”  In each case the abstractness denotes something broader and more fundamental than the very specific rationalized human version evoked by the concrete words.  Intention is rational and limited to human beings, intentionality is not.   We have arbitrarily limited subjective intentionality to what we humans experience as intention and hence we have limited personality to persons.

The kind of thing I am referring to is really nothing new.  We experience intentionality that is not intention in other life forms and even in ourselves all the time.  The gregariousness of animals (even at low levels of biological complexity), their survival drives to feed themselves and avoid predators, their urge to reproduce and care for their offspring, are all examples of intentionalities that are not intentional for they are not rational­ And, if we look carefully and objectively at ourselves we will frankly admit that much of what we pursue in life, what we like to call our choices and preferences in all areas, are often no more rationally intentional than the reactions of the animals.   Historically speaking, it was this penchant of ours to follow our intentionalities rather than our intentions that gave rise to the classic “spirituality” of the past — a program dedicated to providing the “spirit” with the resources necessary to dominate and control “the flesh.”  This is a clue to where intentionality as opposed to intention lies: in our bodies.  It is a function of material energy.  It is the  expression of the respective conatus proportionate to each kind of thing.

Since the end of the middle ages, our dualist Cartesian mindset, invested in making the sharpest possible contrast with human rationality, avoided associating these “animal” proclivities with intention in any form and so defined them rather as “instincts,” by which was meant pavlovian reflexes not distinguishable in any way from mechanical reactions.  But we realize in our own case, our non-rational intentionalities function integrally with our intentions; our urges are not separate and opposed to our rationality.  I believe that fact together with the direct observation of the phenomenon as it functions in other life forms justifies the affirmation that the same is true of all things, proportionate to their level of evolutionary emergence.  This represents a sea change in our view of the world; for prior to this we thought of evolution — like all material processes — in strictly mechanistic terms.  Evolution is intentionless, and on that basis we denied it any intentionality at allA mechanistic evolution (devoid of intentionality) while contrary to the rational nature of a “personal” “God,” ironically allowed that “he” might use evolution as a tool, but “from a distance,” i.e., not be identified with it.   But the solution doesn’t work; for to claim a rational, intentional “God” selected a non-rational intentionless tool in order to create the universe, is incoherent.

Further down, at the fundamentalist level, some dispute the universal validity of evolution on scientific grounds.   While there is, in fact, a “data gap” with regard to the evolution of species (no one has actually observed the emergence of a new species) it is merely an academic glitch.  But it is being exploited by these people to draw the entirely unwarranted conclusion that evolution is “only a theory” — a conjecture.  It is not.  Evolution is an established fact.  The focus on the “data gap” is intended to provide justification for those who want to deny evolution altogether.

The rejection of evolution, like its reduction to a lifeless mechanism used by a living “God,” is all about preserving the image of “God” as a rational humanoid “person” who functions intentionally.   It prevents us from appreciating the real depth and breadth of “participation in being” — the true immanence that obtains between us and “God.”  What I am saying is that by denying the real autonomous reality of evolutionary self-extrusion, which is driven by an intentionless non-rational intentionality, we are actually undermining the true significance of our relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being.”

Evolution and our sense of the sacred 

So how does this work?  How can I reconcile my insistence on the unintended (non-per­son­al) necessities of the evolutionary process as observed and confirmed by science, with the equally insistent demands of my sense of the sacred which loves existence and therefore is spontaneously drawn to a relationship of love with its source and matrix?   This is the heart of the issue, and I refuse to deny or downgrade either side.  These two realities, evolution as it really is and the sense of the sacred, both exist, and without them I cease being human.  How can this be understood?

(1)  Relationship.  I begin by saying I know nothing except “my side” of this relationship that is constitutive of my very self.  All I know of the other side (my source and matrix) are the “material” elements that comprise it, and those material elements are as observed and measured by science at all levels.  I call it matter’s energy.  As in the case of any two entities that may relate to one another, science can describe them, it can break them down into their components, it can determine their compatibility for relationship, and it can even observe and measure how they react when they actually do relate to one another, but science does not … cannot … know when, how or even whether these composites should inter-relate subjectively.

I am human and so I choose intentionally.  From my side, that I recognize an unmistakable intentionality and choose to relate (to have an affective bearing) to the “source and matrix” of my self, cannot be judged much less impugned by science.  If I choose to “love” that matrix, for example, science has nothing to say about it, for “love” (except for its measurable physical reverberations) is an exclusively intersubjective phenomenon.  Where science does have competence is over the “facts” of the observable, measurable behavior and structure of “that in which we live and move and have our being” — i.e., over the object, what I choose to love, matter’s energy — not that or why or how I choose to love it or what it means to me to do so, for science cannot interpret what this intentionality means to me.

First conclusion:  All things are exclusively made of material energyMaterial energy is not just as physics and chemistry observe, study and measure it, but as it is displayed in all its composite forms throughout all levels of emergence.  There exists at all levels a proportionate intentionality that renders material energy the potential object (and subject) of an intersubjective relationship because of its constitutive connection to the multi-graded intentionalities of the organisms that emerge from it.

(2) Subjectivity.  Subjectivity is what makes something capable of relationship.  A synonym is personality.  Parallel and corollary to what we have done with intention, we have also improperly restricted our traditional definition of subjectivitypersonality — to “persons.”  That is inaccurate both positively and negatively.  Positively, we actually do have intersubjective relationships with entities that traditionally are not considered persons, like our pets, farm, zoo and wild animals (including even birds and insects which are not of the higher orders of intelligence) where an experienced mutuality is operative on both sides of the valence.  Negatively, we have no right to decide a priori that true “subjects” who can “relate” must think and choose as we do.  This was the scholastic error and Thomas was part of it.  They arbitrarily declared that a “person” was an entity with the faculties of intellect and will.  Intellect and will are the components of human rational intentionality and therefore constant features of human intersubjective experience.  It is an entirely gratuitous over-generaliza­tion to insist that all relational subjectivities must function likewise.  With such an anthropocentric definition of subjectivity there is no room left for the kind of intentionality that may be so boundless as to be incapable of the limited episodic activity required by a human interchange.  There is nothing to prevent me from imagining an intentionality so universal in its reach and so changeless in its operation as to be indistinguishable in every way from a force of nature.  We have arbitrarily defined such invariable uniformity as the exclusive characteristic of inert, lifeless matter, mechanistically devoid of any resident vitality or intentionality and incapable of being either the subject or object of “love.”

Second conclusion:  the invariability of natural forces and processes does not preclude the possibility that they are the expressions of a non-“personal” subjective intentionality and therefore the valid interface for a relationship.

(3) benevolence and love.  We have been inconsistent within our own philosophical tradition by preferentially defining love and benevolence as transactional functions that mediate between separate needy “selves” necessarily involving the transfer of desiderata.  They are imagined, in other words, from the perspective of “give and take,” or “need and provision.”  It reveals their anthropocentric origins.  I love someone and so I give them something they need, or I am the recipient of something they see that I need.  Even affection, in this view, falls under the category of “need and provision” and so “love” becomes an “act of charity.”

The glaring inconsistency I’m referring to is that we know quite well that we also experience “love” as a simple state of contemplative admiration which results in the supremely quiet pleasure of basking in the presence of the beloved … an attitude that gives rise to a different kind of affection altogether … one that bypasses “need and provision.”  That my ultimate satisfaction consists in my awareness that the beloved exists and is here with me is a universal human experience (if not its very apex, as Aristotle claimed).  A love of this type does nothing, gives nothing, needs nothing, asks nothing, wants nothing, except what it already has: co-existence, co-presence, being-with the belovedThe assumption that religion necessarily brokers a quid pro quo relationship with “God” is challenged by this fact.  For just as we can “love” our source and matrix in an act that is coextensive with our own self embrace without asking for anything further, our source can also make existence available to us without it being a “gift” to “another.”  It can extrude it from itself the way a bud or a branch is extruded from a tree.  The extrusion always remains a part of itself, and yet it exists as “something new.”  This metaphor evokes pan-entheism.  Love of the beloved and love of self are the same thing, for the realities, while distinct, are not different, separate and other.  In this sense, there is no “creation,” there is only evolution.

When we talk about our relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being,” I can easily imagine a “God” whose self-possession is so bottomless and changeless that it uncontrollably extrudes (exudes or “oozes”) an abundance of existential offshoots from its own substance unintentionally, purposelessly … as a necessary effluence of its own fullness, endlessly generating other co-existents that emerge from it like branches on a tree.  It “can’t help it,” in other words, and the end result is that all things remain an integral part of itself.  There is no “other” and yet all things emerge into existence as a function of a non-rational creative intentionality in which all participate because they are all the emergent forms of the same substrate.

My “personal” relationship to the source and matrix of my “self” need not be focused on a desideratum like my well-being or eternal life.  There is nothing to prevent me from sitting in sheer contemplative delight, passively and endlessly enjoying the palpable co-presence within my own body — as my own body — of my source and matrix.  Like the leaf and the tree, I and my source are one and the same thing.  But don’t misunderstand.  While the leaf is not separate it is distinct from the tree; the leaf emerges from the tree, the tree does not emerge from the leaf.  I am here integrally but distinguishably at one with my source and matrix, and I love it!  “Sh’ma Yisrael!

Third conclusion:  “religion,” as a love relationship with our source and matrix, does not require that there ever be anything other than the natural order exactly as it is, or that I and those that I love ever be or get anything more than what we have received, now or after our death.

(4) metaphor.  The traditional Christian metaphors and images, especially the ones that Jesus used or created or acted out … “God” as loving father … the lilies and the sparrows of the field … the sun shining on the just and unjust the prodigal son … the sermon on the mount … the woman taken in adultery … the good samaritan … feeding the multitude … etc., etc., all serve to illustrate the unwavering universal benevolence of “God” and what imitating that benevolence would look like among us.  Those metaphors can be applied to any factual configuration that is found to exist in nature.  The ersatz dualist Platonic “science” of the ancient world, used for more than a thousand years in an effort to “scientifically” ground the love relationships that Jesus declared to be the leitmotif of his Jewish vision, was in fact not a part of his message nor is it necessary to sustain his vision.  For my part I would claim Jesus’ vision was ill-served by it.  His vision stands on its own.  It needs no philosophy or theology to justify it.  Love, in every direction, works for us.  We all know it.  It is self-evident.  End of story.   Whether universal reality is all matter, or all spirit, or a combination of the two is irrelevant.  The existence of an immortal soul or a parallel “spirit-world” is not essential to that vision.  That “God’s” benevolence might come from a material subjectivity which creates by an intentionality expressed as an invariable evolutionary self-extrusion — however unimaginable and foreign to our experience — is also completely compatible with Jesus’ message.  Going a step further, if we want science and philosophy as they exist in our times to conflate with Jesus’ vision of love, then we have to stop insisting on the ancient obsolete scientific view of “spirit” as opposed to “flesh” (the ground of “person” and its conscious rational intentionality) that has resulted in the rejection of evolution and the establishment of traditional doctrines like creation, providence, original sin, incarnation, redemption, the indispensable church, etc. most of which were never part of Jesus’ message.

Fourth conclusion:  those traditional dualist religious doctrines that have been rendered untenable by a theology informed by science and shown to be incompatible with the message of Jesus, can and should be transformed into metaphors, given a new meaning by the parables, and used for the promotion of Jesus’ vision of love.

The Persistence of Religion

The goal of the reflections in The Mystery of Matter was to understand existence.  The conclusion was that existence is matter’s energy.  Using the imagery provided by modern physics, the energy into which “matter” is convertible, fundamental reality, is the energy to exist.  It’s another way of saying that material energy is neither created nor destroyed.  This energy of which we are made is responsible for an existential inertia in all things to continue existing and, as expressed in us and other conscious animals, a conscious drive to survive that necessarily involves the palpable love our own life.  It is the dynamism behind evolutionI have argued that it is from there — what Spinoza called the conatus sese conservandi (the instinct or urge for self preservation)— that our sense of the sacred springs.  We love our life, therefore it is precious to us — sacred.  Everything that produces and supports our existence … going back to the very root source of the energies that generated organic evolution itself … is also sacred.

From this apparently simple identity comes an insightful paradox: there is nothing about us that springs from anywhere other than the organic base of our bodies.  The “perception of absolute value,” once thought to reflect an altruism exclusive to immaterial spirit and impossible to animal selfishness, is in fact a function of our bodies.  The sense of the sacredness of existence comes from what we are.  It is an organically grounded instinct that radiates its appreciation outward to everything on which the survival of the organism depends.  It is necessarily communitarian.  Everything reaches out to survive.  It is not a choice.  Integration, coalescence — community — is the very nature of the material substrate of the universe.  We deny it at our peril.

There is no need to have recourse to two different sources of explanation for the religious proclivities of the human species, because there are not two dif­fe­rent “kinds” of reality out there, one spiritual and altruistic needing to be nourished, and the other material and selfish that must be starved.  There is nothing besides matter’s existential energy and its spontaneous expectations of endless life.  It is sufficient to explain everything we are, everything we want and everything we do.  It also explains the anguish we feel when we learn that life is not endless and we will die.  Religion deals with these two irreducible poles of the human condition — the sense of the sacred and the rejection of death.  They are in fact nothing more than the echo of the conatus as it navigates its way through the real world.

Human beings are not blind.  We know the universal matrix that extruded and sustains us and we know the extent of the community that we rely on to survive and postpone death.  And we hold as sacred all those things on which our survival depends … past, present, future, terrestrial and universal, near and far.

Religion is our responsibility

Religion, which arises from this inevitable tension, will always be with us in some form or another.  But not necessarily in the way our dualist (spirit vs matter) traditions have han­­ded it on.  What form religion might or should take is not the subject of this chapter. Here we are interested in understanding the persistence of the phenomenon, and the collective responsibility that derives from it.

Stated simply: given the humnan condition religion will always be with us therefore it behooves us to work for its sanity and humanity.  The reform of religion is not a “religious” project, it is a ethical-political imperative.  It belongs to the whole of humankind, because grappling with the meaning of the conatus-threat­ened-with-death — the apparent contradiction of the thrust of existence — is the universal condition of our species.  We all face the same existential paradox, and for everyone it remains unresolved.  It is of concern to all of us that we avoid false solutions that set us against one another and threaten our well being and survival.  However tactfully we decide to deal with traditions made delicate by their antiquity, we should not let it blind us to our right and obligation to do so.

In searching for new ways to deal with the existental paradox, we should turn our attention to the “naturalization” of the traditional religions we have inherited.  “Religion” — our inescapable confrontation with the void — is poorly served by “supernatural” dualism focused on the putative reality of another world and the consequent unreality of this one.  For even when it avoids the escapist temptation to abandon this world altogether — an attitude that dominated the Christian mindset for millennia — it still insists that the only thing sacred resides somewhere else and that we have to go there to make our unholy world holy.  Such an attitude denigrates the matter of which all things are made; it alienates humanity from its organic self.  It eviscerates our love of life and allows us to shirk our responsibilities or even become bitter, despairing and vengeful.  The sacred depths of nature itself, the mystery of matter’s existential energy, should rather be the focus of religion’s celebrations, its encour­agement to trust existence and shoulder social and environmental responsibility.  The burden of this mes­sage belongs to us all.

We should be disabused of any illusion that we can walk away from religion.  The “secular” luxury of think­ing we have the right to ignore the problem, or that we can leave it to “religionists” and their hierarchs to deal with, is a fantasy of its own.   The reform of religion is a problem for the whole human race.  As with our environmental myopia — a similar flight from an onerous responsibility — the survival of our species hangs in the balance.  Religion can destroy us in whole or in part, and it’s not going away.

It is just as insane to think we can ignore it as to think we can destroy it.  Religion is not going anywhere and it’s not going to change on its own.  There is no option.  We have to come up with sane alternatives to the insanities we have inherited.

Religion in a Material Universe

July 28, 2012

Willis, Virginia, USA


the pre-publication of Religion in a Material Universe

Author, Tony Equale, 282 pages.

To order: see below

 Religion in a Material Universe

Existence (esse) is not a self-subsistent “idea” as Plato thought, it is a palpable, concrete, dyna­mic reality: material energy as modern science has discoveredWhat does that mean for reli­gion?  Because exis­tence is nothing but matter’s energy, we ourselves are made of it exclu­sive­ly; there is no imma­terial “thing” that exists alongside of, different from and opposed to matter anywhere.   Our love and thirst for existence is an organic function of our material bodies; it is the source of both our sense of the sacred and our abhor­rence of death, and therefore it is the proper object of religion.  Religion, in other words, is a spontaneous human pheno­me­non whose origin is in the body; it is com­pletely natural and virtually unavoidable.

“Superna­tural religions” belie this.  They insist that there is another world of immaterial things which grounds and explains our sense of the sacred and our desire for endless life.  Our world is not sacred, they say, it is in fact corrupt and needs to be made sacred by that other world that is located in another place altogether — a place of immaterial spirit, where our “souls” really belong and will live forever.  Thus these religions are hostile to existence as it really is and so distort and under­mine our relation­ship to it.  By locating the sacred somewhere other than this material universe, they separate it and us from our world, and that means they make us strangers to our own bodies, to our brothers, to ourselves. 

Assessing the significance of this disconnect, which turns out to be a simultaneous defense and condemna­tion of “religion,” is the burden of Religion in a Material Universe

A further step — an issue at the present time — is that the hierarchs, the “holy rulers” of these supernatural religions, are representatives of society’s ruling elite who have arroga­ted to themselves exclusive control over knowledge of that other world and access to it.   Catholicism is the best but not the only example of this.  On top of the alienation embed­ded in dualist “dogmas,” these overseers deified themselves, neutralized the natural power of human com­munity and replaced it with discon­nected individuals seeking “salvation.”  They intensi­fied our alienation exponentially.   Today, the aggressive reassertion of this ancient expro­pri­ation by the Catholic hierarchy is playing a role in the efforts of the ruling caste to shred the funda­mental rights and the common good of our secular society.  We should not be surprised.  The prototype they are working from, after all, is the Roman Empire.

It must be recognized that any internal reform that these religions might carry out to rectify this situation will have to address the more fundamental problems created by erroneous doctrine and a false view of reality.  Those doctrines exploit our natural sense of the sacred and our fear of death; they justify and are the instruments of the hierarchy’s power over the minds of men.  The pathos and polemics that surround the Catholic failure to stay committed to the path laid out for it by Vatican II, has to acknowledge the deeper doctrinal layers that underpin and explain it.  Vatican II did not challenge doc­trine and dogma. Our bitter experience of the recrudescence of all the worst features of mediaeval authoritarianism and dog­matic atavism was, in hind­sight, almost inevitable.  You cannot have a reform of Catholi­cism without a prior reformu­lation of Catholic doctrine.  And you cannot accomplish doctrinal re­struc­­turing using the same philoso­phi­cal tools and obsolete scientific worldview that were forged by the very doc­trin­al complex it justifies.  These circularities are vicious and must be broken before any pro­gress can be made.

Religion in a Material Universe is an attempt to make a serious contribution toward this founda­tional reform — the re-smelting of the ring of power, beating the swords of Roman Imperial Dogma into the plough­shares of Jesus’ simple Jewish message: to imitate our “loving father” from whose being we come and whose existence we share.

 TO ORDER:  This book is being published by IED press, Pamplin, VA .  However, that process will likely take some months and those copies will be sold at higher prices due to the publisher’s “take” and booksellers like Amazon.  There are a limited number of pilot copies available now directly from me for $20 (shipping included).  Everything is the same except for the absence of an ISBN and bar code. The cover may also change.  You can order by responding to this e-mail at aequale@swva.net or writing to 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380.  You can also call: (540) 789-7098.  Please leave your name, an address where you can receive packages and your phone number or e-mail where you can be reached.  Pre-payment would be appreciated, but is not required. 

Tony Equale