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 all. A 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 energy. Material 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 subjectivity — personality — 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 beloved. The 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.