(This is the final installment of an essay posted in three parts. The two previous parts are below this. It’s been divided for readability. Those interested in looking at the whole piece will find it as a “page” with the same title in the sidebar to the right below the books.)
Morality has always been associated with a sense of the sacred. In our tradition the sacred has been equated to “spirit” but, we must acknowledge, more fundamentally to existence. It’s because spirit was considered the origin and goal of existence that we somehow believed matter to be the source of the immoral.
All that has changed. In a material universe, existence is matter’s energy. We experience it internally as our drive to survive. It is the source and foundation of our sense of the sacred and from there, morality. Morality is what respects, protects and enhances existence. That is no less true in our evolving universe of matter than it was in a universe that we once thought was created by “Intelligent Design.”
Jesus’ message of the dignity and autonomy of the human being coincides with this view of things to a remarkable degree.
In a universe planned by a rational “God,” as we once imagined it, whether created directly by fiat or indirectly through evolution, what things are had to be personally intended. It was “God” who “willed” their nature, and also, therefore, the way they should act. It’s no surprise, then, that even though human morality was known to have social benefit, it was embraced primarily as an element of the human individual’s (and the tribe’s) relationship with “God.” It became part of the “matter” of the sacred contract between “God” and his people, under the purview of religion. Ritual and morality together were taken as the visible display before the world of the honor that this particular people had for their “God,” and it became the condition for “God’s” benevolent providence in return. Obedience to the divine person who “saved” and protected the tribe was a sacred responsibility of the individual. The violation of morality was only indirectly considered a crime against the welfare of the community; it threatened the community because it was, first of all, a “sin” against the “God” by whose favor it thrived.
In the universe as we now know it to be, however, created by the survival struggles of matter, the divine principle — archē, LIFE — is resident in matter as its existential energy. It is the very drive to survive that is the locus of the “sacred.” It is where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself. The “sense of the sacred” — i.e., that humans cherish what provides and supports their existence — derives directly from the conatus, the force of LIFE immanent, distributively, in every particle of matter and gathered, exponentially intensified and ultimately “personified,” in each complex organism made of it. Thus in our material universe the only “will” that such a “God” could possibly have, if one were to insist on the use of those terms and categories, is that organisms do what is necessary to survive. To survive is the only “natural law.” In such a universe no one, except the seriously insane, has any trouble discerning and implementing natural law.
It is immediately clear, however, that we are speaking metaphorically. For neither “law” nor “commandment” are any longer relevant terms for responsible human action, for “obedience” is not a possible valence between LIFE and the human beings who bear it. LIFE is immanent in matter: it is not other than the organism it enlivens and it is not conditioned on behavior. LIFE comes free and, self-destructive behavior aside, no amount of “immoral” behavior will cause it to withdraw. Because it is not a rational “other” it is not “personal” in any ordinary sense of the term. Therefore “obedience,” in a material universe, is no longer a literal religious category because it does not correspond to the nature of the relationship between LIFE — the divine principle — and man. This is a sea change in the fundamental understanding of our relationship to “God,” ourselves, society and the environmental matrix in which we are nested. If the divine principle is not-other-than-myself it makes no demands that are not already my own and no “obedience” is possible. Obedience can only be a metaphor.
For those who have been accustomed by their tradition to literally identify obedience to a divine person as a “sacred” act whose performance made one sacred, such a change can be more than challenging, it can be immobilizing. It seems to imply the elimination of the very possibiity of connecting to the “sacred” at all. It is not easy to “think outside the box” when it comes to personal relationship, and it is the “personal” aspect that is under threat here. One obeys a maximally superior person. Trying to imagine a relationship to “God” that is NOT characterized by obedience bypasses the very categories with which we define ourselves as human: we are human because we are persons and we cannot imagine relating to “God” otherwise. So to change the basic structure of our moral obligations threatens our understanding of who we are.
If “tradition” and “what we are used to” were the only considerations here, there would be little hesitation about what we would prefer. But, fortunately or unfortunately, besides being “persons” we have a connatural relationship to impersonal truth; it comes with the organism. It was “selected” because it helped us survive. We are drawn to conform our minds to it no matter what our personal preferences. The “truth” in this case is that science belies the possibility of conceiving “God” as a person who rationally “chooses” to create the universe, either proximately through a direct command as creationists believe, or remotely through the use of evolution as a “shaping tool” designed to accomplish “his” “will.” Science has discovered that there is no rational plan discernible in either the emergence of pre-life physical / chemical combinations or living organic genotypes throughout cosmic history. The same holds true for “providence:” there is no rational plan in the ongoing management of the events in the cosmos. Everything that occurs outside of conscious choice is the result of the power of material energy exclusively driven and steered by its hunger and ability to exist — the energy resident in matter. The violent interaction of pre-living aggregates of matter, as in earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados and other natural occurrences, are random. They are not planned and cannot be prevented. They are not the result of providence.
This turbulent “drive and ability to exist” also seethes and roils at the core of the human organism. It is where LIFE and the human being are more than in direct contact, it is where they are one. We call it, following Spinoza, the conatus: the palpable, irrepressible force of life, the instinct for self preservation expressed and on display in the human organism feeding, protecting and reproducing itself. The conatus of the rational individual is thus the ultimate source and ground of individual autonomy, the social imperative and the sense of the sacred. If there is any relationship that is “sacred” in our material universe it is right here in the conatus, “where the rubber meets the road,” where LIFE takes on flesh and displays itself for all to see.
In marked contrast, in the traditional “spiritual” universe that we imagined was created and run by a divine “Mind,” the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement, far from being the sacred meeting place of LIFE and man, was mistrusted and disesteemed, along with its derivatives: the drive to survive, consume and reproduce. We have been slowly emerging from these cultural prejudices over the last centuries, but they had been firmly in place for two millennia and still exercise a profound influence on the imagery that dominates our thinking. In many cases the moral behavior once mandated by them has been transcended in practice but the theoretical rationale for the change lags behind leaving the moral agent unsure and unintegrated. Without a guiding idea of how to interpret these instincts and use them constructively in society, the corresponding behavior often suffers from excess, sometimes in one direction, sometimes another.
This forces the community to assess the relative value of the various behavioral “experiments” under way, and over time and by consensus new codified norms of behavior begin to congeal. But the “muddling through” remains a problematic procedure for those who were accustomed to commandments that come down from on high which one “obeys.” The new understanding of the sacred nexus of “God and man” in the conatus, however, provides exactly the moral clarification that makes “muddling through” more than acceptable, it makes it an act of creative responsibility and collaboration with LIFE. The sense of the sacred, derived from the “divine-human” conatus, brings its centered and mindful energies to bear on the human decision-making process. It allows for the broadening of the power of discernment and identifies its ultimate goals as more than just the xenophobic protection of the individual and its local tribe.
“Obedience,” the traditional practice, represented a deflective appropriation of responsibility. By that I mean the one who obeys is necessarily choosing to behave in accordance with someone else’s appreciation of what morality demands. The one who obeys acts responsibly precisely by deferring to another’s view of responsible behavior. There is nothing wrong with that, but it implies the inability of the obeying subjects to make their own moral evaluation appropriate to the situation. It is good for children to obey, and they know it.
In an ideal scenario, where there is no lack of knowledge and information on the part of the one following orders, obedience presumes only a lack of perspective. The “general” person, allegedly in a “position” to see the whole situation in a way that the “private” person cannot, gives the orders to which the other submits. This example makes no adverse judgment on the moral capacity of any individual because the commander-obeyer relationship is entirely due to the range of vision provided by “position.” When the “positions” are reversed the erstwhile inferior will have the wider range of vision and therefore will give orders as appropriately as the former superior. This presumes the positions are reversible.
But the indentification of responsibility with obedience alone, as is the case in a “God-commanded” morality exclusively administered by a hierarchy, contemplates a permanent state of moral myopia and impotence. The “positions” are never reversed. If the only way someone can be said to be acting responsibly is that they obey, it implies that they are intrinsically incapable of discernibng and/or implementing moral behavior. Such a person is not expected to ever achieve full human autonomy.
In a universe where “God’s” agents command, everyone, regardless of perspective, obeys. Contrarywise, in our material universe, where there are no “divine commandments” because “God” did not plan the structure of human nature, everyone, regardless of the lack of “position,” is called upon to collaborate in discerning, through the process of trial and error, what works for the well-being of the community. The claim of “private” persons that they were only carrying out the orders of the “generals” no longer serves to exonerate immoral behavior. “War” as the state sanctioned mass killing of those who are officially declared to be “enemies,” can no longer be justified on the sole basis of “obedience” to legitimate authority. The trial and error results of millennia of human experience indicates a growing consensus across the globe: war is immoral. War has been delegitimized by the common consent of the human family. That it has not been codified is simply the baleful effect of the irresponsibility of the entrenched ruling class. In the long run universal consensus will rule. This is the way morality evolves and comes to be codified a material universe. We live in such a universe, and the autonomous responsibilities of each and all to collaborate in community survival are finally coming to be acknowledged. It is the ground of a community comprised of free individuals. “Democracy” and other forms of true social cooperation are impossible without it.
It is interesting in this regard that not only did Jesus’ moral preaching bypass any reference to “obedience” as the essence of the sacred relationship, but he himself conspicuouly sought out the companionship of those reputed to be the disobedient: sinners, prostitutes, lepers and other maimed individuals who bore their malady as a sure sign of “sin.” (“Lord, who sinned, this man or his fathers, that he should have been born blind?” Jn 9:1). Jesus’ earliest followers, those who offered the first interpretations of his significance, declared that the derogation of the supreme place of “law” in deciding right behavior and a right relationship to “God” was an essential element in his message. Jesus appealed to the spontaneous sense of “humanity” within people. “Humanity” transcended “law” and was to be used to discern right behavior.
Why did he do that? Consider the dynamic that is set in motion for those considered “disobedient”: they have lost all outside reference that would give their behavior sacred status and sanctifying power. To connect with the sacred now they have nothing but themselves. Perhaps this is why Jesus found “sinners” so special: having despaired of any hope for justification from outside they were ripe for the discovery he was trying to elicit with his message: that the sacred is already present at the core of our being. They were no longer distracted by the illusion of a sky-hook; they were thrown back on their own center as the only possible source of the sacred. That’s exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate. That turn inward produces a different kind of person, with a different kind of sanity, a different kind of spirituality, a different kind of community and a different kind of morality — one born of the autonomous appropriation of collaborative responsibility. It is a vision of humanness grounded in the recognition that we are, as the emergent display of the living “God,” ourselves the source of the sacred. That, I contend, is the core of Jesus’ message. The sacred is embedded in our organismic humanity.
In a material universe the point from which esse radiates has shifted from outside this world and outside the body to the organismic center, the conatus. This shift corresponds directly to where we believe the divine principle — the archē, source of existence — resides. It is not in another world populated by immortal spirits; it is immanent in this material world as the existential energy of matter itself. The fact that in our material universe the sacred is identified with the autonomous discernment and responsible implementation of morality does not militate in any way against the uninterrupted categorical supremacy of “the sacred.” It simply finds its source in a different place: right here in this world of matter activated at the intensity level of the human conatus itself.
What originally seemed like a sea-change turns out to be nothing of the sort, for we have learned that imputing the norms of morality to the will of a rational “God” was all along a metaphoric projection of the biblical authors. “God” never issued any commandments. Those claims were poetic hyperbole. The result of this awareness is that our autonomous “muddling through” can now be valued for what it is: the creative collaboration with LIFE, not the disregard for “divine commandments” that never existed. By not having “someone to obey” we do not abandon our spontaneous instinct to surrender to something greater than ourselves, we pursue that goal now through our partnership with others in the discernment and implementation of what is good for our community and we surrender, we commit ourselves to that service. Thus morality in a material universe is sacred from start to finish: from its origins in the LIFE-energized conatus to the autonomous efforts to preserve and enhance the community as the guarantor of personal survival.
Tony Equale , March 2014