In my blogs and books over the last 4 years I have tried to lay the foundations of a new religious vision based on the avalanche of evidence that this universe of “matter” is the only thing that exists. The discoveries of science have persuaded me that there is no world of “spirit” inhabited by etherial beings whose characteristics are entirely mental in nature. For us, of course, this means that our thinking minds do not indicate the presence of an invisible separable “soul” that belongs to that other world and will return there after death. There is only one world, this one, and it is made of what we call matter, and that includes our organisms which think.
Given the unfortunate history that falsely identified our sense of the sacred with that imaginary world, we are left to wrestle with the negative imagery that has labeled all things material, including our own bodies, as of little value, if not evil. Since Religion is a poetry that expresses and celebrates our sense of the sacred, it must find a way to recalculate its route, turning around 180o on its assessment of matter and the human organisms made from it. Our “sense of the sacred” must now focus directly on the very thing that our tradition, for millennia, claimed was alien and most hostile to our true destiny as human beings. This is nothing less than a sea change in “who we think we are.”
I have attempted to initiate this recalculation. Those efforts necessarily had to confront the dualist justifications that lay at the core of the ancient theology of matter and spirit. But re-thinking the metaphysical bases of “who we think we are” is only a part of the exercise. There is, more importantly, what we used to call our “prayer life,” a poor phrase for the poetry that expresses our relationship to our source and matrix, in which “we live and move and have our being.” The matrix I’m speaking of is the existential energy of matter which generates our sense of the sacred by impelling us and all living things to love our life and everything that sustains it.
The poetry that celebrates this relationship has also been called “spirituality,” an even less felicitous term inhertited from the old dualism. Unfortunately both terms are misleading. I would like to avoid them. The phenomenon I am speaking of can be defined as that set of symbols that express our affective relationship to our source and matrix, and which necessarily embody who we think we are.
The minute you speak of symbols, however, you are in the realm of metaphor, where words are not used to denote specific delimited realities, but rather to describe and evoke a relationship. To that end they are made intentionally allusive, inclusive and evocative of realities that transcend, overarch, embrace and compenetrate the individual. It is poetry. This is a realm that science can only describe from the outside, it cannot enter and understand. Only human beings can do that. Poetry is quintessentially human; it is what we do. It is the precise articulation of the bearing of the whole organic human being … it is how we say exactly what we, as thinking organisms, see and touch.
I want to begin exploring this aspect of religious renewal by looking at one such poetic piece that comes from our ancient Christian tradition.
The first letter of John
The New Testament document, traditionally called the first letter of John, opens with an unexpectedly concrete declaration. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim to you.”
The persuasive power of eyewitness testimony using words like “I saw” and “I heard” is an important part of social reality for us, countervailing the conjecture that often casts a shadow over the narration of remembered events. The forensic determination of what is “true” often hangs upon the credence given to such unambiguous claims of having a window on the truth.
But even so, the statement is unusual. The truth is not only what “John” saw and heard, it is something he gazed upon and touched with his hands. It seems he isn’t just talking about an idea, a narrative or an event, a theory or a scientific “law.” It is far more personal and intimate and with a claim to a far deeper truth. He called it LIFE. He said it made him part of a special community based on a a relationship with LIFE itself.
John was very clear about this LIFE: he said it was “from the beginning,” the “Father.” He was also quite explicit about his conviction that the man Jesus, whom he called Christ, the Jewish messiah, enjoyed a special relationship to the Father. He said he was his “son.”
Given the millennia of official Christian interpretation of these terms, it will seem iconoclastic to read back into John’s first paragraph the metaphoric ambigüity that he actually left embedded there. But please notice: John did not say that Jesus was “God;” he never does. Despite his belief that the community that Jesus enjoyed with the Father was so intimate that there was little reason to distinguish them, John did in fact always distinguish them. That’s why he calls him “son.” Calling Jesus “son” was a way of saying that the community with LIFE — the Father —included a human being. Jesus was not “God”… he was human, John saw and touched him. That meant that human beings can enter that relationship with LIFE. That astonishing possibiity was what John was so excited about. Human beings are invited to have intimate community with LIFE itself. And just as Jesus became “God’s son,” we become “God’s children.”
I interpret John’s effusive terminology throughout the document as poetic magnification intentionally blurring the physical boundaries separating individuals, defining them instead by the intensity of their relationships. We are obviously not dealing with “clear and distinct” categories here. Jesus was one with the Father because he lived the “truth” of love. Such “truth” can be called a message, and it can also be called “light” because it is visible. To see and touch one who lives in love is to see the LIFE that is “the Father” with our own eyes and touch it with our hands.
Once we assume such a perspective on this ancient letter every line becomes clear despite the shifts in metaphysical assumptions and the use of words. We no longer speak in metaphors and overstatement the way John does but we know what he means. He’s talking about love. And so it becomes completely intelligible to every human being across the face of the earth no matter what their culture or language. John is speaking of LIFE as love — human love — what you can gaze on and touch with your hands. He says it is light … it is “God.” The man Jesus lived such a life and so he was the “son of God.”
The “first letter of John” is not science; it is poetry. But it is poetry with a point: LIFE is love … and Love is “God.” This is not some new philosophy, the rediscovery of a lost alchemy, or a newly identified pychological mechanism specific to the human organism, much less was it a “revelation” from “God.” John says it was ap archēs, “from the beginning” — something that’s always been there, something we’ve always known, all of us, even the animals, from the beginning … ap archēs … from the very beginning. LIFE is love, is “God.”
[Ancient Greek mythology proffered the idea of the αρχή (archē), the original principle or basis of nature. … the oldest writings describe … something beneath our ability to understand or explain. In his seventh century BCE Theogony, Hesiod speaks of the archē as a formless surging immateriality out of which the gods and nature emerged. Orr, Emma Restall, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, Moon Books, an Imprint of John Hunt Publishing, Hants, UK, 2012, (p. 173).
Of significance here is that many Greek philosophers, principally the pre-Socratics and Stoics, viewed ἀρχή as θεος, that is God. … As the ἀρχή, the absolute beginning, God is then that which cannot either “come into being” nor can it “pass out of being.” William Marsh, Nothingness, Metanarrative and Possibility, Author House, Bloomington, IN, 2009, p.263]
As a Jew, John says love is a “commandment.” And probably Jesus did as well, after all, he was a Jew too. “Commandment” was their central category — the traditional Jewish way of explaining how tightly we are bound to “God,” to LIFE. There was no distance between these realities, hence no vacilation, no hesitation. “God” commands and we obey. But it was a metaphor; for we all know “God” does not speak and issues no commands. “God” IS LIFE and life is Love. … we “obey” because this is our innermost definition as living things, the source of our being and the explanation of our becoming. It is LIFE that fathered us. LIFE “rules” and “commands” and we “obey.” It is all metaphor. We are what we are, and we do what we do, because we are constructed of LIFE … and life is love. And John proclaims that he has seen it and touched it, and that is “God.”
John is not offering happiness or a way out of the pain. He is not saying that LIFE is fun. We know it is often intolerable. But it is what we are; there’s no way out of it. It’s what we are because it’s what “God” is — LIFE and love — and we obey … or we stop being ourselves, and that would be hell. Please be advised. There is no solace in any of this, not from John and not from me. He made mention of the joy it gave him to talk about it, but he ignored the question of happiness. There is no other world to escape to, neither in the sky nor in our heads. To talk about love is not to apply an anesthetic designed to take away pain. LIFE is not painless and so to love it is to embrace the pain; to make painlessness our “God” would be to fall into an idolatrous trap — another circle of hell — that will keep us chasing our tails forever. What I hear John saying is that LIFE is love and love is relationship, and so it creates a community to which we belong, where we are known and cherished and accepted for what we are, where we are at home with our “Father.” Will that make us happy? He never says a word about it. The only thing John says is that he saw and touched LIFE, and it was a koinonía, a community, a “fellowship” of living things that emerged “from the beginning,” “the Father,” LIFE.
A material mysticism
My intention here is not to provide an updated interpretation of an ancient Christian document in order to justify the religious institutions that claim it as their heritage. I am trying to introduce a configuration of ideas meaningful to human beings that constitute a one-world “mysticism” rooted in the transcendent energies from which our material organisms have evolved. I use “John” to help me express it because I think he had a similar vision and said it in a poetry that is both unique and familiar.
I’ve used the word “mysticism.” I want immediately to define what I mean by it and distinguish it sharply from other uses and meanings, especially the popular dualist belief in another world, the “spirits” that inhabit that world and the privileged access to arcane knowledge of its existence and character. I mean none of that. Here, I use mysticism to signify a way of relating to reality that consciously minimizes the perception of entities as separate individuals and promotes an “awakening” that sees them as science tells us they really are — integral parts of an overarching super-entity — the way leaves are part of a huge oak tree. The leitmotif is the unity of this one material universe and the intimate family relationships created by their common evolutionary emergence from its foundational energies.
Because both Jesus and John were Jewish, John’s vision was not dualist. His eschatology — what he believed was the reward of following Jesus — does not come after death or at the end of time or in another world, it is realized here and now. It is a koinonía, a “fellowship” in this world, a relationship that includes the “Father” — LIFE itself. There is no abstract “humanity” definable by “thought experiments,” i.e., fantasies about “souls” that may have come from another world. Our material organisms are what we are, evolved over aeons of time from the living energies that constitute the reality of this universe, this one world where we belong. I particularly like John’s characterization of LIFE as ap archēs, “from the beginning.” Notice he did not say LIFE was started by a “spirit” that comes “from somewhere else.” Real reality, LIFE which is “God,” has been here from the very beginning. It is its archē, its source, its“Father.” LIFE is why there is this material world. And the “fellowship” with LIFE has always been here too, realized to an extraordinary degree in people like Jesus who, because they live in love, have identified with LIFE and become indistinguishable from it. They take on its quality as archē and so have been called archon, “ruler,” “Lord.” John’s hyperbole defined Jesus by it. Jesus loved; he was one with LIFE, hence he had a special fellowship with “God,” the “Father.” That made him the “son” of “God,” the “Lord” of LIFE. This is all poetry.
I also like John’s concreteness. He is not inviting his readers to observe and contemplate abstract “truth,” or to acknowledge “dogma,” to obey rules or perform rituals. He was inviting people to see, hear and touch LIFE, and be embraced by it concretely. It was a mysticism, not an application for membership in an organization. That meant awakening to the real relationships among things — their intimate and pre-existent organic unity.
This runs counter to our cultural presets. We have been trained to think of ourselves as separate “individuals” and that our individuality is based on the absolute separateness of our material bodies and “immortal souls” from every other thing in the universe. Because of those separations if we want community we have to create corporate entities and join them — become memebers. There is nothing natural in this. It is something that comes later; it is not from the beginning.
In contrast, my focus is on a mysticism of matter — a natural, pre-existing unity — ap archēs. The solitary individuality created by matter’s impenetrability and the “soul’s” uniqueness seems to militate against the kind of unity required by the mysticism I am talking about. Construct an organism of impenetrable parts like those our culture imagines and you have an entity which, looking inward, is an ad hoc temporary composite of “body and soul” (mind and matter) and, looking outward, a totally separate individual in a universe of unconnected individuals. No mysticism could possibly occur in such a world. The only unity available is extrinsic, achieved by juxtaposing two unlike things alongside one another. Such communities are mere aggregates, like an ocean of water molecules or a bar of iron. Any amount can be divided off and separated from the mass and it will have no effect whatsoever on the rest. These “communities” are not organisms, they are simple amalgams.
But let’s look more closely at what science tells us about the way material organisms are related to their own components and to the other entities with which they share the universe. Far from being insuperably separate individuals, the unity among things is actually so total it is almost an identity. Let me explain.
The Universe of Matter: One Organism
First, everything is made of the same substrate material. Whether we consider it “matter” or, what seems to be more fundamental, a homogeneous energy that re-incarnates itself as all the sub-atomic particles of the “standard model,” everything in the universe is made of it — particles, things, forces, fields, spacetime itself — everything. There is nothing else. The fundamental particles that emerge out of this foundational energy — categorically, quarks and leptons — combine and recombine to produce new entities, protons and neutrons, which form the nucleus of atoms, bound together by the “strong nuclear force,” the most powerful “glue” in the universe, itself a form of this energy. One-proton hydrogen aggregates and by fusing and converting into helium creates the energy furnaces called stars. We could call this “morning and evening, the first day.”
Then, atoms of every kind, formed from protons and neutrons in the crucibles at the heart of stars, are blown out into the vast realms of interstellar space by exploding novas. This material congeals into suns like ours and their planets like the earth we live on, from which we arose. Please observe, there is no new material. It is all the same “stuff” released at the big bang.
Following that, atoms on earth came together in new combinations that coalesced as molecules which ultimately result in new entities that never dissolve back into their components except when forced to under artificial circumstances created in the laboratory. Water is one example of such entities; there are many. Many were built of combinations with Carbon and oxygen atoms that figure so prominently in organic matter.
Carbon-based molecules continued to build, rearrange and complexify in a process that eventuated in the ability to self-replicate. These self-replicating molecules, like RNA and DNA became the genetic memory for the reproduction of living organisms, at first of primitive one-celled protozoa, and then very soon thereafter by natural selection, multi-celled colonies and organisms that radiated outward to produce the almost incalculable number of living speciess of plants, insects, fungi and animals that populate the earth today.
The salient point is that all these developments evolved from the very same material substrate, the living energy that IS our material universe. At the end of the day, the most complex organic structures, capable of what appears to be materially transcendent activity, like human brains, neurological systems and hormones, are all made of the very same proto-components that coalesced within nano-seconds of the “big bang,” the primaeval explosion that marked the beginning of the spacetime in which we live. These foundational components, the subatomic particles, quarks and leptons, are the building blocks of all things. Our brains are exclusively made of quarks and leptons.
What at first appeared as an insuperable isolation is now seen to be an absolute homogeneity among all things deriving from their common origin in the energy of matter. But it’s not only the origin, the very material is also the same. All things are constituted of the same primordial elements. No new material entered the universe after the big bang. Things are not only the same family because of their evolution from one another, they are simply the complexified re-arrangement of the same original reality revealing a unity that approximates a single totality, a universal identity. There is no impenetrability … there is no insularity. The universe is one genetically related family. All the things in the universe, scientifically speaking, are the complexified re-organization of the same parent particles, evolved through natural selection into everything we see. Even the analogy of leaves and branches of the same tree, sprouting from the same roots, nourished by the same soil, pales in comparison with the reality. We are all made of the same clay!
Our human organisms are simply complex reconfigurations of this same material energy. Every particle that comprises us, including those that pass so quickly through our bodies in respiration and in metabolic combustion, have been in existence since the “big bang” — 13.7 billion years ago — and show every indication of continuing to be here endlessly. This energy, LIFE, is neither created nor destroyed, we come from it and in it “we live and move and have our being.”
This is the ground of our mysticism. We are one … not by dint of some charismatic preacher’s poetic turn of phrase, or some esoteric metaphysical inference, or the magical power of an ancient sacramental ritual, but because of the genetic provenance of our flesh and bones, brain and hormones, from the living energy of matter. We are all … and only … THAT! LIFE, material energy. All of us … every species and phylum, every last particle and function, form and instinct … was produced and evolved by our ancestral line, ap archēs, “from the beginning.” We are one family by nature. John called it LIFE, “God.”
What I am proposing is a natural mysticism, based on solid science. In a real sense, there is nothing “mystical” about it, and the false dualist meaning that the word has been given should be deleted from our dictionaries. This unity is real. Exploring and celebrating these relationships amounts to “awakening” to their existence and real character. The sense of belonging, of being at home in the universe, results from an “enlightenment” allowing us to see with our eyes and touch with our hands the LIFE of which we are made and which enfolds us as a parent does a child. We swim immersed in what spawned us like a sponge in an infinite sea. There is nothing new here, nothing arcane or hidden. It’s all been here “from the beginning” the way an oak tree is in the acorn waiting to be sprouted. What’s different is that “light” has made it visible for us, and part of that “light” is science. What our hands touch we can now feel is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. Once we allow our eyes to open onto this reality, we can appreciate the LIFE and love pulsing in all the things around us. The spontaneous affection and gregariousness of living organisms of all kinds, from insects, animals at all levels of intelligence and our own infants and young children, put on vivid display the love that emanates naturally from organic LIFE. We realize we have always known it, from the very beginning of our own conscious existence. At one time, when we were children, it dominated our lives — our perceptions and behavior — but then, under the pressures of survival in an alienated society, it receded into the background. Some come to see it as a liability; some have even tried to suppress and extinguish it. But it’s always there. It’s who we are. And John reminds us of what we are “from the beginning,” LIFE.
Those special people — like John and Jesus or the Buddha and many others — who help us remember what we have been from the beginning, are held in great esteem. They bring light into the darkness. We recognize how they identified with LIFE and how perfectly they aligned themselves with its loving energies. In our enthusiasm for the light they bring, we call them “gods,” even LIFE itself. They help us remember what was from the beginning. But we have to be careful, as they were careful or we will miss the point of their message. LIFE — “God” — even though that is what we are, transcends us all. None of us is “God.”
The corporate institutions tied into the class divisions in our societies since time immemorial have used our enthusiasm for these special people to alienate us even further from the natural fellowship we have with LIFE. They are responsible for some of the worst “darkness” we face; for it is darkness disguised as light. John astutely identified them as anti-christ for in his lexicon of categories they usurp the place of the one who would liberate us, and they enslave us instead. How will we know them? “By their fruits,” Jesus said. They seek first places at table, they replace love with law, invitation with coercion, mutual support with exploitation, equal respect with domination based on class, race, gender, age, … persuasion with force, trust with dogma, generosity with self-interest, community with social stratification, personal depth with success and the accumulation of wealth. Contrary to light and love John sums it up as darkness and hatred. It’s not LIFE, it is death.
a rebirth of LIFE
Today is the Winter Solstice. We continue to celebrate the cycles of renewal established in ancient times based on the annual voyage of our planet around the sun. This solar phenomenon has remained a fixed feature of our symbolic lives even as one religion has supplanted another throughout the millennia of our social history. Following the “rebirth” of the sun’s energies for earth, the yearly realignment of our affective lives — recalling us to lives of love — has most recently been associated with the birth of Jesus, our current “god.” This seasonal ritual has a long history lost in the mists of time before records were kept, when we celebrated the births of gods whose names and exploits we no longer remember. John’s letter about Jesus is part of that ancient legacy. He invites us to to hear the message of LIFE and embrace its fellowship. Those, like John and Jesus, who recall us to LIFE have changed many times in the past, and they will change again. But a sign of their authenticity will always be that they remind us to see and touch what has been … and we have known … “from the beginning.”