This is the third in a series. To read the entire series and in proper sequence click on the “page” titled “+ THE SENSE OF THE SACRED” in the sidebar to the right.
Religious conservatives like Kolakowski criticize the venality and self-centeredness of the culture that emerged with “modernism” (the industrial technology-based world that arose with the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries — the age we live in), and propose a remedy in the return to a traditional religious vision. They decry the loss of the sense of the sacred which they claim belief in “God” alone can restore. Some of them espouse a politics of the Ayn Rand persuasion. Applying standards set by their guru, they have concluded that since “wealthmaking” is the work of “superior” human beings, it is a sure sign of “God’s” presence and approval. However simplistic, the view is consistent with the traditional Christian belief in divine providence which has always claimed that nothing exists that “God” does not will or permit. Providence has been the logical source for the legitimacy of rule by the wealthy in the popular mind since long before the advent of Christianity … and Roman Catholic Christianity saw no reason to change it.
Clearly, then, there is no way of preventing belief in “God” from being used to confer a “divine right” on the arrogant self-glorification and crass inequities harbored by this theory. To suggest that adulation of wealthy individuals somehow corresponds to having a sense of the sacred is laughable, despite the evidence for its widespread acceptance not only today but throughout history. If anything, “God’s” traditional role as conceived in the western religious view has rather functioned to undermine our sense of the sacredness of all human life and the rest of the material universe.
But the theory hardly needs refutation. The more serious thinkers among them, like Kolakowski, do not make an idol out of wealth. But beyond saying that in the absence of other values, venality and selfishness take over by default, they make no effort to refute the theory; they simply ignore it. For me, this is problematic. The logical implications of tradition are often taken places by the popular mind that do not appear on the verbal surface of doctrines like “providence.” The job of the philosopher is precisely to get below the surface and follow where the tracks lead. And when these unexpected consequences show themselves to be damaging to the human project, the entire world-view on which they rest is called into question. The connection between “divine providence” and the idolatry of wealth and power may not be explicit, but people have always lived by its inner logic. I have great difficulty in suppressing the suspicion that “philosophers” who do not see it and confront it, are in fact under its spell.
The traditional sacred world-view that religious conservatives want us to return to is built around a few key tenets that they claim are critical to a sense of the sacred. I believe there are three: (1) the belief in a rational humanoid “God” (labeled “supernatural theism”); (2) the belief that besides this universe of matter there is another world where “spirits” alone live; and (3) the belief that we will be judged and receive eternal reward or punishment in that other world after death. The disappearance of these beliefs does not mean an end to the sense of the sacred, as I have been arguing throughout this series, but rather represents an evolution. Conservatives’ only real complaint is that where this evolution is going is not to their taste. I have dealt with these issues many times in the past, but I want to reflect on each of them again, briefly.
The first tenet is that “God” is a “person,” rational and purposeful, almighty and omniscient, providentially managing all events in the universe as traditionally imagined. If “he” weren’t, there would be no need for theodicy. Theodicy is a branch of theology dedicated to defending “God’s” reputation by explaining why “he allows” evil and suffering in the universe. It’s only if “God” controls every last event by rational choice or conscious permission, that any accusation could be leveled at the quality of his management. It is this same infantile belief in “divine providence” that is responsible for the claim that “God” “wills” certain people to have wealth and power, and certain empires to rule the earth, just as he wills (predestines) some to be saved and leaves the rest to wallow in their turpitude and ultimately reap damnation. This is the “doctrine” that had Augustine in a hammerlock. Some years ago I attributed it to a theological aberration, rational but erroneous; but now I believe it is more the result of a puerile lack of intellectual rigor, the inability to get beneath traditional imagery dominated by the values of a paternalistic, authoritarian culture.
I am talking about an anthropomorphic imagery we have about “God” that we have inherited from our tradition. It is almost ineradicable. The overwhelming power of cultural inertia is at work here. No matter how we twist and shout, every time the word “God” is used that imagery kicks in. Without a program of daily “meditative therapeutics” it is almost impossible to stop thinking about “God” as a rational person who micromanages the universe. The clue that this is at root sloppy thinking is that we do exactly the same thing with other forms of life like animals, and even “nature” itself. We invariably project the kind of intentionality onto these things that only rational beings could have. In biology it is at least acknowledged to be metaphorical speech even if little effort is made to correct it. In the case of “God” why should it be so hard to admit that all imagery is equally metaphoric — with all the distance from literal reality that that implies? Even for the mediaeval scholastics, saying that “God” had “intellect and will” did not mean that “God” had thoughts, desires, preferences and feelings like an ordinary “person.” “God” is not a person as we humans understand the word … and who else is there to understand it?
So let it evolve. To change the imagery also requires changing the word. I use the word LIFE, meaning what stands at the core of material energy in which all things have existence and vitality not as recipient strangers but as intimate participating symbionts, like the members and organs of a universal body or the leaves and branches of a cosmic tree. If the imagery surrounding “God” were not taken literally, but rather as a poetic personification of LIFE — then the need for “theodicy” will disappear; the survival struggles of living organisms and the immense failure of rejected evolutionary genotypes will be seen as a natural by-product of LIFE exploring its own inner potential. It seems obvious that matter’s super-abundant energy is no more consciously intentional than our own instinctual drives which derive directly from it; matter is uncontrollably driven to exist. It is a passion not an action. We know what that feels like because we experience it in ourselves. Matter’s energy does not choose to create any more than it chooses to live; its creativity is an emanation of the irrepressible LIFE at the core of its existence. LIFE is not a rational project. It is not chosen. It is a force whose non-rational and irrepressible character has earned it the label “impersonal.” It is only we “persons” who bring “reason” and deliberation and calculating purpose to it; and it is we who erroneously project that since our “reason” evolved from it, it had to have “reason” itself for, ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” But the “principle of sufficient reason” is an axiom created by us. There is nothing a priori about it. It must submit to the evidence like every other “truth;” and the scientific evidence in this case indicates that mind came from mindless matter and not the other way around, obeying “principles” and driven by energies that we have yet to understand.
In the conception I am proposing we are not other than “God” even though none of us, nor even all of us collectively, is “God.” The projection of “God” as a separate person is just another example of the symbol-making function of human consciousness, taking invisible forces and universal homogeneity and rendering them imaginable by turning them into objectified entities with a human character. Freud identified belief in a “God”-person as the need to feel protected by a Parent — the residue of our childhood dependency. As a metaphor “God” refers to the energy for existence and its corollary creativity — LIFE — possessed by all who share the matter of this universe. This “God” is making exploratory mistakes and suffering — probing to find those combinations of factors that will allow LIFE to continue and express itself, survive and create. It is this process that has produced the creative effects of the evolution of organic matter. Our human nature was one of them.
When one contemplates the “distance” matter has traveled from the initial proton formation following the big bang to the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens, the extrapolation of this creative potential into the future leaves the mind positively overwhelmed — overcome, overawed, speechless. What is there about matter’s energy that is not to trust? Who is not glad they are part of this process? And if you don’t see it, take my word for it, every particle of your being has been part of it for 13.7 billion years and will be part of whatever billions of years more it will go on exploring what it can become.
There is no one providentially micromanaging the universe. There is no one to accuse or exonerate. And we all know it because that is exactly the way we live our lives. We pray to express our desires out loud, but no one relies on “God” to provide them with health and the means of survival. Those that do, we take to court or the manicomium. Our daily bread is the work of human hands. And so is the management of the resources of the earth. Our environmental irresponsibility will not be forgiven and forgotten by a doting Parent. If we allow the earth to be destroyed we will be destroyed along with it.
If you think “God” is literally a rational humanoid person, open your eyes, there is no such “God” out there! We have our little aphorisms to explain things, like “God helps those who help themselves,” but he doesn’t help the helpless, does he? — those who cannot help themselves. The ability to even imagine a “God” who could be so heartless as to refuse to intervene in cases of a toddler with cancer or the depredations of pedophile priests when he could, tells me more about the impoverished humanity of the imaginer than the character of “God.” Trust me … you can trust the character of “God,” if “God” doesn’t intervene, it’s because he can’t. The absurdity here is indisputable … the traditional version of “providence” is utterly false. And if “providence” is false, supernatural theism is false. There is no such “God.”
But if you think of “God” as a symbolic personification of the life-giving creative energies embedded in the matter of which all things are made, then the sense of the sacred is redirected toward the living “divine” potential of matter and a family solidarity among all things that share this treasure. There is no loss of the sense of the sacred, and we are rendered respectful, reverent, collaborative and intimately familiar with the earth and the other species — our siblings — that it has spawned. This view of things is called pan-entheism. Panentheism grounds a universal mysticism compatible with science that our former world-view — supernatural theism — lacked entirely.
But can we “relate” to this “God”? Is there, in other words, at some remote and inaccessible depth, a non-rational center analogous to “personality” or “intentionality” that is the source and final gathering, a still point — an Alpha and Omega — of this vast astonishing display of existential energy? The only thing we have evidence for is the LIFE we see on our planet and in the universe around us, and which we also hear echoed in our own sense of the sacred, and there is nothing to suggest that our ordinary use of the word “person” accurately describes it. Whatever “person” could mean outside of the context of our experience is, by definition, beyond the reach of our imagination. People — and traditions — who see a loving Parent behind that opaque mask are taking a leap, making a choice, and projecting a metaphor to describe that choice, not drawing a conclusion … and so are those who don’t. Each of them must accept responsibility — and be respected — for their choices.
Our relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being” can only be characterized from our side, because we have no idea what the source of LIFE really is … and personally, I don’t care; it’s none of my business. I don’t have to know. “God” has a right to be whatever “he” is. In my own particular case the awe and gratitude I feel toward whatever it is that has given me my very self — both what and that I am — remains foremost in my thoughts. I love my life. I can’t help it. The abundant LIFE that has made “me” possible, I legitimately refer to as “benevolent” regardless of the random events that accompany what it has done for me. It’s similar to my parents’ mindless ecstatic copulation unleashing the penetration of a random egg by a random sperm. It does not diminish the gratitude with which I cherish them and their love for me to know they did not “choose” me personally. I was a random stranger who entered their lives for better or worse. I am no less grateful to whatever it is, and however mindless and “impersonal” its mechanisms, that spawned and sustains the universe, the earth, all its species … and me. It seems to have no control over its inclination to generosity and creativity. I really don’t know what it is like outside of its echo in my sense of the sacred … which is my awe at being-here. I love it for I love being-here being me. “God,” for me is a metaphor for the LIFE that roils all around me and inside me — the energy we all share.
“God” is whatever “he” is. What you or I think he is has no effect on the reality. Our religions — even if they should turn out by some chance to be accurate descriptions of “divine” reality — are the result of our projections … our conjectures … our inferences … our traditions. We have no independent source of information about “God.” “No one,” says John, “has ever seen God.” Since religion is our projection let us humbly recognize that it is really we who are being projected and described … we, this matter of which we are made … which accounts for our instincts … our aspirations … our hopes … what we cherish as sacred. It’s natural that we imagine “God” in our own image and likeness, we have nothing else to go on. It is good that we be what we are, with our symbols and metaphors … and leave “God” to be what “he” is.
A World of Spirits
The second “traditional” belief is that there is a separate world of spirit and our souls really belong there; the material universe is only a temporary exile. The belief is actually quite Manichaean, for it denigrates matter and fails to explain the ancient Christian hope in the resurrection of the body. For consider: with this belief there is absolutely no need for you to be reunited with your body; “salvation” begins when the body is finally sloughed off at death. All reward and punishment is fully applied to your disembodied “soul;” the body is utterly superfluous. “The resurrection of the body” — a belief already so threatened by the second century that it had to be expressly elicited in the Creed — was a meaningless addition to the newly adopted platonic-Christian world-view; it had become an empty formula.
That wasn’t true of the earliest followers of Jesus. Paul’s converts believed they were their bodies and therefore required a physical, bodily immortality won by the resurrection of Christ. They did not believe in the immortality of the human “soul” as Plato taught. Immortality was a special gift to Christians, the result of being steeped in the mysteries of Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism and the eucharist. Paul’s message was clear: the body had to be saved or there was no salvation … we have to rise or there was no resurrection. There is clear evidence of this as late as the second century in the writings of the apologists. To my mind it is significant that the change over to the Platonic view occurred exactly at the time the upper classes were taking control of authority and ritual in the Church and insulating themselves as a hierarchy from the body of believers. Platonism was the favored philosophy of the Greco-Roman upper classes.
Matter cannot be reduced to the inanimate and mechanical features that it displays in its more primitive, less developed manifestations. This material universe has evolved living, sentient, conscious and intelligent beings; there is no indication that at any level — plant animal or human — things are made of anything but matter. Matter, in other words, is capable of everything we see it doing right before our eyes, even if we don’t understand how it does it. There is no need to call on other-worldly “spirit” to explain it. What we used to call “spirit” is really a developed property of matter.
Rationally speaking, the very idea that a spiritual “God” created matter is absurd. It is self-contradictory. Consider: If “God” is pure spirit with no admixture of matter, then matter is “his” complete antithesis. There would be no possibility that he created matter because he could never have thought it or even imagined it. Where would he go for the blueprint? Whoever or whatever is responsible for creating matter had to be matter. Either “God” could think matter, which in classic theology would make “God” to be matter, because “God” is what he thinks — “his” essence is his existence — or matter had to come from somewhere else other than “God” at which point “God” ceases to be “God.” The very thought is absurd.
The claim that there are two distinct “realities,” matter and spirit, and that spirit is in fact immortal, vastly superior to matter, and that matter’s mechanical inertia is what undermines the rationality of spirit and leads it into “sin,” has served to denigrate matter and especially the human body. Our experience in the West is that under the tutelage of a dualist platonic Christianity our culture has fostered a schizoid alienation for individuals leading to emotional pathologies and destructive social dysfunctionality. Dualism holds that matter is perishing; the human soul alone will not perish and therefore it is the only entity in the material universe that is of any permanent value — the only “sacred” thing in a world of “profane” matter. Dualism seriously limits and deforms our sense of the sacred.
Contrariwise, there is no loss of the sacred if there is no spirit, and even if there were no immortality of any kind. The recognition and respect for the independent value of existence continues to function because it is an intrinsic part of our human apparatus, and with the disappearance of that other world, our sense of the sacred is forced to focus on this world and the species and people in it — to recognize their value and serve their needs. This is closer to what Jesus taught than what the Church began teaching in the second century. Even at the sermon on the mount, which used a “judgment after death” scenario as backdrop, the entire focus of Jesus’ message was on responding to the concrete physical, bodily and emotional needs of human beings in this world — feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, making peace between people. There were no supernatural mechanisms suggested. Jesus did not say, “I was hungry and you infused me with sanctifying grace so my hunger could gain merit in the afterlife … I was in prison and you issued me an indulgence so I could go to heaven after my execution.” Nothing Jesus said was focused on what to do for the afterlife … how to get into heaven, how to avoid damnation. His vision had to do with life in this world and treating it like the sacred thing it is. Not only would none of his message be lost if there were no spirit, it is less likely that we would be distracted by the self-interest of reward and punishment. It is an invitation to serve one another and the earth with a pure heart.
Heaven or Hell
This brings us to the third belief that completes the scaffolding of our traditional world-view: divine judgment with reward and punishment after death. As we’ve already mentioned this was definitely not the focus of Jesus’ preaching. As far as the historical record is concerned, it seems to have been a belief of the ancient Egyptians at least as far back as c.1500 bce if not earlier, but there is no evidence for it among the Jews or the Greeks. It became a generalized belief in the mediterranean world only after the beginning of the common era with the ascendency of Platonism and Platonism’s absorption by Christianity. Plato was inspired by the Pythagoreans and there is some evidence that they, in turn, were influenced by the Egyptians. Judgment-after-death goes hand-in-glove with the Platonic doctrine of the separable soul, which was not a Jewish and therefore not originally a Christian belief.
Why did Christianity make the change? I believe that as the expectation for an imminent general resurrection and apocalyptic end-of-time proved illusory, Christian leaders realized they had to either close up shop or re-invent their narrative. It would be reasonable to estimate that the “wake-up call” occurred no more than two generations after Paul’s kerygma, beginning in the second century. It coincided with all the changes we have encountered in the very early evolution of Christianity: it reflected the upper-class assumption of command and control. Jesus had promised a “divine judgment” that would punish those responsible for creating a world full of violence and plunder. The new Christian authorities decided that a judgment of the individual soul at the time of death preserved the essence of that promise and spread around the blame. It wasn’t that much of a shift … it was becoming a general belief anyway. It meant that the failure of the parousía to materialize would no longer be a public embarrassment, and the fear that “judgment” inspired in the individual believer was very effective in getting people to obey the “commandments” and the church authorities. Eventually imperial interests also came to see how effective it was for securing behavioral compliance throughout the Empire.
The sense of the sacred is not diminished in the least if the traditional Christian belief in the individual judgment is discarded. Christianity lived without it from the time of its birth until the upper-class take-over in the second century. The argument that only fear of punishment will stop people from “sinning” is typical of upper-class prejudice toward the lower classes; it infantilizes the Christian believer; it discourages moral and relational maturity and it excuses the failure of the individual to assume responsibility for his/her behavior. The truth of the matter is the fear of hell was politically expedient for the State. It guaranteed compliance to law without requiring a massive police presence for enforcement. It was a manipulative theocratic mechanism; it had nothing to do with relationship to “God” or our sense of the sacredness of the world.
Self-transcendence in the service of some ultimate “value” has been recognized throughout our history as a “peak experience.” Traditional religions have claimed ownership of it and concretized it in rituals of sacrifice. The act of serving something greater than oneself has generated feelings that are uniquely ecstatic and gratifying. The refined pleasure they give is so intense and extraordinary that it is self-justifying. It has become a desideratum — an end in itself — for many people. It can be an addiction. Some people cannot live without having a cause they are ready to die for.
Take away the sacred — something to die for — and what’s left? … the simple pursuit of survival and the relationships, physical comforts and pleasures that gratify our daily routines and sustain us emotionally. Many believe this is the “ultimate value.” But no sooner do we express that insight than we realize that we invariably bring our sense of the sacred to bear on it, for those who believe it is the real destiny of humankind, also believe it is “sacred.” They tend to exhibit the same non-rational willingness to endure suffering for their conviction and to guarantee that all people have access to these simple goals as any true believer. What this tells me is that we are so constructed of the “sense of the sacred” at the foundations of our humanity that we take its very antithesis and metamorphose it into a sacred object. The “sense of the sacred” is as bedrock as you can get with humankind. You cannot get beyond it. Whatever we do humanly, that is by evaluation and choice and not as a response to imminent death or basic instinct, is driven by our sense of the sacred.
So, are we caught in this trap? Are we simply programmed to be creatures of religion?
Only if you think that religion owns and defines the sacred.
If these reflections have tried to say anything, it is that the sense of the sacred is an inalienable human instinct. It is a connatural reaction that is the reflection in us of what we share with our source … the material energy in which we live and move and have our being. It does not belong to religion, it belongs to us. It means we belong here and we should learn to feel at home in the material universe that bore us. It invites us to appropriate for ourselves the right and obligation to direct those energies to the protection and enhancement of LIFE’s creative project.