People whose lives have been shattered in a mental or emotional collapse, have had to reconstruct themslves. I’m not talking about an outside event, the loss of a partner, death of a child, mutilating trauma, though those things may lead to it. I’m referring to the catastrophic breakdown of the personal self at the deepest levels, through addiction or depression or psychosis, that leaves the individual unable to function. People who find themselves in that condition have to rebuild themselves, as it were, from the ground up. And one of the techniques used is a mental exercise called “acting as if …”.
“Acting as if” involves intentionally performing what one imagines a normally functioning person would be doing in the circumstances, even in the complete absence of any feeling or conviction about it. The word is appropriate because it is a performance, an act. It’s based on a Skinnerian, behaviorist theory that mind and behavior are intimately interactive, so that just as attitudes determine behavior going in one direction, behavior can determine attitudes going in the other. The emotionally integrated individual is generally not aware of this reversibility, because s/he rarely experiences it and never needs to use it. But the person in a state of personal disintegration does. Just as smiling and laughing at yourself in a mirror can begin to lift your spirits in even your blackest moods, “acting as if” has an emotional impact that, while it won’t solve your problem, gives you a start: you start feeling what your actions imply. If you follow through on that start, you can actually change your attitudes and eventually your life.
This is more than a metaphor. It helps elucidate the fact that human personality is a function of how people perceive themselves in the human world. We are the roles we play in society. This implies that at the very center of ourselves, as at the center of an onion, there is nothing there. An onion — as dense and solid as a book — is simply the sum of its layered leaves which are a result of growth-through-time. As you go further into an onion, peeling away layers, you only find more layers. There is no center, no pit, no core. So with us. We are what we think we are ... and what we think we are is what others tell us. Our thinking, starting at an early age in response to feedback from those around us, lays down our “personality” in leaf after leaf of multiple incarnations as we act out our identity in the human world. We are what may appear to be a dense, solid and centered subject — predictable, identifiable, ready to behave appropriately as expected. And so we are. But that perceived solidity is the result of multiple thin, delicate, imperceptible, time-conditioned and phase-related layers of self-definition based on nothing except what we think we are, as expressed and concretized in what we do in the human world at any given point in time. Even our bodily functions — what one might think were absolute bedrock — can be disregarded, suppressed, reinterpreted, even neutralized by our society’s culture until those functions become completely unrecognizeable. A case in point is the mandatory celibacy imposed on Roman Catholic clergy. For more than a thousand years myriads of Christians pursuing “perfection” have told themselves that they not only can but must ignore their sexuality and learn how to function without it because human sexuality was considered “unspiritual” and therefore “not-fully-human.” Virginity was the “more perfect way” and it was made obligatory in the case of priests — the “will of ‘God.’” Not even the simultaneous belief that it was “God” himself who both designed and created human sexuality could put a dent in that conviction. Such is the power of the human mind.
Our societies and their cultures, with all the characteristics of an individual organism, operate on the same dynamic. Some have called these entities “superorganisms.” They claim to be based on bedrock values, reaching for goals established from all eternity by our bodies, our souls and our “God.” But human social values, like a baseball, are made up only of the strings of cultural choices wound one upon another over and over and over throughout the ages of historical time. So it is from nothing at all that we have conjured for ourselves national identities, multimillennial institutions, eternal laws, moral codes, age-old customs, political canons, philosophical axioms, theological dogmas that stand like skyscrapers whose stone and steel have replaced the once empty sky and blowing wind. The building metaphor is apt; for these structures are shelters for us. We use them to protect ourselves from the wilderness of a random universe; we live as if they were absolutes, we conform to them, and we spend our lives maintaining those conformations. This is the virtual reality we live in.
This means that the environment within which we work out our destiny has been created by us. It tells us in great detail who we are to think we are and what we should think the world is. The faint and distant voice of nature-without-mind can hardly be heard. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it becomes a problem when we can so transform the natural environment to which our physical organisms were originally adapted, that our bodies can no longer function in what we have made. The growing presence of a multiplicity of sythetic substances in our air, water and food, for example, seems to correlate with an increase in diseases which are known to result from gene damage and immune system failure. Many of the substances whose level of tolerable dosage for humans is simply not known have already been identified as “carcinogenic” for small animals … and we use them everyday. In another example, the modification of work and mobility habits have rendered the normal exertions that characterized human activity throughout the millennia, completely unnecessary. Without strenuous exercise, human bodies that were developed for hunting and gathering do not function optimally. This requires the artificial introduction of exercizes that simulate what we no longer do, or the application of medical treatments and medicines that attempt to compensate for the damage that inactivity causes.
But some of the most jarring changes are in the area of our mental and emotional needs. We may think our sophisticated technologies extend the range of what we are able to do, but the mathematical rationality that gives these tools their shape and determines their behavior, requires that those who use them must conform their thinking, response time and even their intended goals, to what these machines are able to do. This means that our tools, in fact, restrict our range of activities. The phenomenon also insures the social ascendency of those among us who are temperamentally inclined to these priorities. Rational and mathematical thinking not only comes to dominate the way we do things, it also means the emergence of a new type of human culture and a new kind of humnan being in which instinct, feeling, empathy, compassion, emotional sensibility, esthetics, along with other, more negative, non-rational interpersonal reactions are muted and supressed in favor of a calculating, cold-eyed approach to life-in-society. Is one better than the other? I am simply offering an observation about the direction of drift of the human personality as formed by the current techological culture and environment in which individuals achieve “reproductive success” and evolve.
We are what we think we are and we become what survival-in-society requires of us. The heuristic influence of our technologically dominated environment on the human phenomenon — body and mind, instinct and value, self and society — will become increasingly apparent in the evolution of our bodies and our communities as time goes on. We have bound our survival to goals that are increasingly determined by the tools we have created to serve us, and our very bodies will adapt to this new environment conjured by our imagination. The virtual world we create becomes the very condition of our survival. Biological law requires it. Our bodies and minds, our attitudes and values, will modify themselves to accommodate the needs of survival, just as behavior affects attitudes. Many feel that these conditions have obtained for the last 350 years at least and that the process of cultural transformation is well under way.
How has religion integrated into this reality? Religion, as we have inherited it, does not even acknowledge the presence and power of the dynamic outlined above. Our religion claims to be based on absolutes, eternal, unchangeable — the unavoidable conditions within which our destiny unfolds. But if what I say is true, religious goals and values have not been exempt from the collectively subjective conditioning that determine human behavior and social relationships demanded by a techologically dominated environment. The survival-environment has inevitably modified religion and harnessed it to the new requirements. It is one more example of the subordination of all human institutions to survival. The bodily modifications demanded by our technology have already begun to turn us into some version of robot, and religion has found a way to justify, encourage and even require such behavior basing itself, as always, on the “nature of reality” and ultimately reality’s supposed rational source, “God.”
These things have proceeded unconsciously and therefore inevitably. But, they are inevitable only to the degree that they are unconscious. Becoming conscious of them — realizing that collectively subjective choice is really what is functioning behind our perceived bedrock certainties — is precisely what allows us to exercize some control over the process. And, correlatively: the claim that our values have “come down to us from God” has up to now guaranteed an unconsciousness that has insured inevitability. But despite all claims, there was never anything inevitable here. We do not have to become “bionic men” ruled by an autistic hyper-rationality, unable to feel, empathize, contemplate and rest in relationship. If we want these things in our lives we can and must choose them. They are values that will not necessarily survive the social transformations being effectuated by our increasing dependence upon, and willingness to conform to, our mechanical and electronic servants.
The Sense of the Sacred
Religion is a tool we have devised to correspond to our sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is the only “bedrock” there is, the one source of everything religious. It is a corollary to our appreciation for existence itself, identical with the instinct for self preservation. It is one of the few things that are beyond our ability to neutralize. It is embedded in our blood and our bones. Spinoza called it the conatus, Freud called it eros. We are driven … obliged, by the particles of which our bodies are made to love ourselves and to increase and enhance our life. It is the first law of life, unsuppressible, undeniable, transcendent over all human goals and values: survival — and our sense of the sacred is its corollary. It is the primary reflective extrapolation of the conatus. If there is anything that can truly be said is “God’s will,” this is it.
The sense of the sacred is a reflective response to existence itself. As an appreciation of everything it has no limited concrete reference, no instinct-driven visible target as would a specific urge like the urge to reproduce. It needs to find visible, concrete references or it evaporates in the clouds. To maintain itself, therefore, this insight uses symbols — finite concrete objects and actions that represent and evoke the love of universal life and being. These symbols necessarily stand in the place of something they can only point to but cannot contain. They cannot contain their object because the sense of the sacred comprehends everything. Its symbol, however, is necessarily a limited concrete thing; for how do you symbolize “everything” except with “something”? There is an unavoidable, irreducible distance, therefore, between the symbol and what it symbolizes. That means, paradoxically, the symbol, however well it does its job, is NOT what it symbolizes. It is presented “as if” it were the focus of the sacred; it stands in place of its transcendent object and focus that is, literally speaking, more than it can comprehend.
This “as if” quality accounts for the inevitable division of things into sacred and profane. The symbols, meant “as if” they were “the sacred,” are mis-taken as literally comprehensive. This recapitulates the familiar process we have seen functioning with metaphors of all kinds. Metaphors are symbols that refer to but do not comprehend the object of their focus. They perform the same “as if” function. So for example, we say “let’s act ‘as if’ ‘God’ is present in this piece of unleavened bread.” In fact, there is no physical divine presence. The bread is a symbol even in the most traditional catholic terms; for the presence is called “sacramental.” The word sacrament means symbol. These terms can only mean a virtual “presence” achieved through thought and imagination. It is a “virtual” presence … that means “as if.”
Don’t be scandalized. That’s the way the human phenomenon works. We create virtual worlds and then we live in them. When they no longer “work” we change them for others. It’s what we do.
We used to claim our “sacraments” were more than symbols. We tend not to say that anymore. The notion of a symbol that physically accomplishes what it signifies is foreign to us; it was part of a world that believed in sympathetic magic. That ancient mentality thought that by portraying or re-enacting powerful events, their specific energies were made operative. Our modern mind-set will not accept that. We have been definitively shaped by scientific thinking and we will not validate any “causality” that goes beyond the direct physical influence of material things or material forces. Hence, believers take the doctrine of “saxcramental efficacy” literally or not at all, for we do not think “as if” can be effective. The “power” of the sacraments was really rooted in the conviction that actively immersing oneself in the symbolism brought the effect “automatically,” ex opere operato.
But I would like to suggest that sacred symbols achieve their “effect” through the same “as if” mechanism that works for mental patients. Modern psychology’s recognition that “acting as if” has a transformative power that can be used for behavioral and attitudinal modification, is similar. The sacraments, especially baptism as the ritual immersion in the spirit and life of Jesus, and the memorial meal that symbolizes the significance of Jesus death, constitute an “acting as if” that can be the beginning of a transformed life. What’s different in the two views is the way it works. The ancient belief thought it was “God” himself acting on the “soul” through the mimesis of the sacraments; the modern view, in contrast, sees it as the inevitable effect of a mind-body unity where the human material organism self-determines the direction of its own life. There is no divine activity. We are the ones who change ourselves, and “acting as if” is one of the tools we use to do it; it’s one of the ways we tell ourselves who we think we are.
Where is “God” in all this? “God” is not an entity-person, as we understand it, to whom we can relate as we do to one another, or to the individuals of other species. “God” is not an individual. “God” is the energy of existence — the LIFE in which we live and move and have our being. “God” is not far from us at all. “He” is indistinguishable from very material energy of which we and all things are made — observable to science and to us, and completely accessible. There is no “other world” of spirits where “God” resides. There is only this one made of matter … and as we know from our own experience of ourselves, it is a matter that is capable of thinking. Our immersion in this mystery of matter tells us we are at home in the universe. We are an intimate part of this mystery for we are made of nothing but matter’s creative, perceptive, all-embracing energy. We love it for it constitutes our very selves. We do more than love it, we worship it.
But how do we define for ourselves what exactly it is that we worship? We need no reminding of the bitter detail that we are not the source of ourselves. How do we relate to this “LIFE” that we are made of, that existed “from the beginning” and is more than us, even as it is what we ourselves are? In our tradition we make symbols to represent it, and we “act as if” we can interact with it, and it with us … “as if” it were a loving parent who gives us our very bodies — our cells and our drive to live — our “Father.”
Other traditions, less tied to anthropomorphic imagery than ours, boldly speak of “the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world” (the Hindu Brahman), … or, “the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe … the underlying natural order … to be distinguished from the countless ‘named’ things which are considered to be its manifestations.” (the Chinese Tao). These similarities to Paul’s use of the poet Epimenides in Acts 17 are not mere coincidence. For the material homogeneity and awesome creativity that characterize the world around us is obvious to all. It was acknowledged long before science confirmed it and identified evolution as the process by which the universe develops. These religious expressions are entirely compatible with the discoveries of science regarding the material constitution of everything on our living earth; they come as close to a universal agreement on the sacred as we will ever find.
But the attempt to articulate the “obvious” in such abstract terms took eons to occur, and when it did, it found expression in all the high civilizations across the planet at the same time. It is called “the axial age” and it happened around 500 bce. We should recall that homo sapiens existed and was culturally active for at least 250,000 years before that. From this point of view it is a very late development. The need to express the sense of the sacred could not possibly have waited for it. Like the conatus from which it derives, the sense of the sacred is urgent, demanding, and ultimately indistinguishable from it. It was inevitable that from the earliest times, local concrete symbols — statues of gods and goddesses, sacred oracles, shrines, temples — would be generated to stand in place of the sacred, and in their presence we would “act as if” they were. They would provide the opportunity to express the inexpressible — our awe and love of ‘being here.’ Such was the effect of Paul’s claim that the “God” in “whom we live and move and have our being” was revealed in the person of Jesus and his unique way of regarding “God” as “Father.”
Jesus’ life of generous imitative love was, like so many before him, just another symbol of “God.” As a symbol, Jesus’ life and death functions like all “as if” realitities: it stands for the creative energy and exuberant attitude from which we come. If we do what humans have always done since time immemorial and “act as if” a generous, all embracing, enthusiastic, creative, self-donating, self-emptying “Father” were, as Paul saw so perfectly expressed in the 6th century bce Greek poet Epimenides, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” our attitudes will change … toward ourselves, toward those humans who share this time in this space with us, and toward the planet that spawned and sustains us. If we treat existence “as if” it really were what we have always supected it to be: sacred, it will become THAT, for we will make it THAT!