The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress. The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reformation of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics. My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations. This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.
So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.
Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it. Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend. We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it. We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.
That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are. We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind die. Western culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise. Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism. It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies. That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet. The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.
Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself. To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. It’s a function of having an imagination. Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well. If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.
In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality. Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh. But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous. In modern times our escape vehicle is technology. We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness. At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.
Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds. These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy. Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own. We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.
For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe. We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature. Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination. We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams. What we want slips through our fingers. It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to. It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.
We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature. And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe. We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.
Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.
If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other. While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate. For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second. What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it. That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this. For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination. And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.
Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist. The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied. This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology. Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth. Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs. It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.
The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption. The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people. What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.
Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions. We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death. In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.
Cherishing what we are. Most people have never had the experience. “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them. And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services. That “speech” was also officially protected.
Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it. There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc. The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear. Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise. This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need. Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.
Do not misunderstand. I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology. I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset. I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us. How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.
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