This post reproduces the last 8 pages of An Unknown God. It is divided into three parts to encourage a less hurried and more reflective reading.
If, as is proposed in these reflections, we consider “God’s” generative presence to be, in fact, existentially constitutive of all the components of the human person, then the awareness of self is, in fact, the contemplation of the divine presence. Human consciousness is simply attending to the fundamental energy of ongoing, emergent existence sustaining the whole organism, the self. This is what we in the West have traditionally called the “God” of mystical experience. I believe the human experience of the existential origination in the here and now of one’s own personality, one’s self, welling up from the primordial energy of life, the driving force of being’s “congenital self-embrace,” is what the mystics have been calling the experience of “God.” That presence, i.e., that existential energy and drive, is always there. It is physical, material and entirely empirical; but it is none the less Sacred. It is transcendent in the sense that it is constantly extruding new forms from itself, it is beyond my capacity to create or control and it is the sustenance in existence of everything else that exists ― i.e., things beyond me that owe nothing to me for their existence. The absolute invariability of the energy of existence and its homogeneity throughout the universe as well as its complete identification with all things as they are, has fooled us into thinking it was not “God.” Naturally. For we had naïvely preconceived of “God” as a separate entity rather than as the existence of everything that exists. The divine presence, however, is stable and continuous, homogeneous and universal. Even though it may be more than, it is not distinct from, the being of all the things that are. So in experiencing existing things-in-process, one is experiencing “God.”
Please do not misunderstand. I am not trying to “reduce” the experience of “God” to its material components in order then to dismiss it. Entirely to the contrary, I believe the material components are the primordial and defining expression of the Sacred. I’m trying to understand a mystical phenomenon that is common to people from diverse cultures around the world and at all times throughout the millennia of recorded history. We in our culture have unfortunately only been willing to acknowledge true mystical experience in those people involved in orthodox Christian practice and in line with the elite educational status currently established by Christian society. But I believe that the mystics of all traditions have encountered what we are seeking. Christians happen to call it “God;” many others do not. Hence the word “God” must always remain in a state of active deconstruction. Since “God” is unknown, even the use of the term runs the risk of resurrecting the old personalist, activist, anthropomorphic designer imagery for us. Especially in the West we need to remind ourselves constantly that “God” is not like us at all … even while we ourselves are the gate that opens to contact with “Him,” or as Eriugena says, we are the “mask that ‘God’ wears.”
In the descriptions of their experiences, I trust the mystics ― all of them, Christian and non-Christian. What the Christian mystics have called “God,” I am convinced, is the simple, silent perception of emerging existence as the elements of my material organism maintain their “presence” successively through time. In experiencing my material presence I experience “God’s” presence. I personally believe that what we have called “God” IS the energy of this very physical presence which we experience in its dimension as Sacred Source. According to the mystics, if we can become still enough, quiet all desires and “listen” to existence emerging in the depth of our being, we will experience what they experienced: the breath of the Sacred on our cheeks, Elijah’s gentle breeze.
This existential presence is passively generative, allowing all us creatures to drink from the bottomless cup of existence, the true Holy Grail. It can only be put in terms that describe a maternal love that is primordial, universal, unchanging and entirely non-interventionist. This mother “God” does nothing but simply allow “Herself,” i.e., “Esse,” existence, matter’s energy to be used by her children in whatever way they decide. Once the human being realizes the overwhelming and invincible Love that is at the source of his / her palpable, empirical self, the experience of self becomes the basis of mystical experience. It provides a “profound and available sanity,” as one Christian poet put it.
Read what they’ve written, East and West. The conceptual emptiness, the existential “darkness,” the loving trust, the resulting confidence ― the sense of ultimate security and personal value, the utter tranquility and quiet joy ― are all there in each one of the world’s mystical traditions. And yet their “theologies,” the roster of their beliefs, are all different. In the East there is little talk of “God;” and even among the Hindus where there is belief in the “Absolute,” it is not “personal.” Brahma is a suffusive creative presence, but it is not a “person.” How is all this possible if the traditional theological claims of the Christians about “God” are literally true?
For me, and for many others who come from a Christian background, mystical experience is not exclusively due to “sanctifying grace” channeled through the Catholic sacraments. But it is a full and authentic experience of the Sacred nonetheless, shared and confirmed around the world. It is an unmistakable marker pointing to the ultimate source of our existence. I would have no problem with Christians calling it an experience of “God,” if it weren’t for the fact that they insist on taking “God” as an anthropomorphized person, made in our image and likeness. They have given the object of that experience an interactive personal and interventionist character ― consistent with their anthropomorphic image of the Almighty Father “God” of naïve providence, who is also the “Intelligent Designer” of the Cosmos ― that I am convinced is just not there. Before you dismiss me as a refractory atheist, however, please note: the great Christian theologians, like Aquinas, agree with me. Their notions of providence are universally non-interventionist. That should be no surprise. Otherwise, if “God” were a person as I am a person, and micro-manages the universe, “he” must be held accountable for the horrible things “he” allows to happen. In practice, based on these anthropomorphic premises, Christians in fact do get angry at “God.” This is patently absurd, and is the source of an unnecessary anguish added to the suffering in question. “God” does not micro-manage the universe, and the sooner we acknowledge it the more comprehensible life becomes. Anything that seems personally interactive with “God,” either in history or psychic states, is supplied entirely by the human subject’s imagination.
The personalist and activist “God” of the early Christians is a legacy of those ancient near-Eastern people, the Hebrews, responsible for the Scriptures that created the Abrahamic Tradition which the present-day Jewish, Christian and Islamic currents have all inherited. It has traditionally been called the “Old Testament” by Christians who appropriated the text and promoted its “God” as their own. That “God” of the Hebrews was in every respect the heavenly counterpart of an ancient near-Eastern Sheik. He was Father, Warrior, Lover, Protector. He was jealous and demanding, and by turns angry and forgiving, punitive and compassionate, ferocious and gentle. But above all He was jealous. He was the same as all the gods that represented their people in the pantheon of the Fertile Crescent: like a lover, “He” wanted to be the only one ― the only god of the Hebrew people.
But this “love-affair” meant, like matrimony, that the god became identified with the historical fortunes of his partner. All the other gods in the Near East neighborhood disappeared, swept into the “dustbin of history” when their people lost military power, political autonomy and national identity. The god of the Hebrews avoided that fate. But it was not because “he” prevailed over his rivals. It was just that “he” was lucky enough to find favor with the world conquering Greeks and through them acceptance into the new pantheon of the emerging Hellenic Mediterranean Empire ultimately managed by Rome.
The Greeks inherited Palestine in the conquests of Alexander the Great. They became enamored of the Judaism they discovered there. They had great respect for the monotheism recorded in the Jewish Scriptures. The Hebrew “God,” Yahweh, refused either to be named or allow any images to be made of him. This paralleled the developments in their own Greek religious thinking espoused by the Pythagoreans, Plato and the Stoics and most recently, Aristotle, tutor and advisor to Alexander. The Greek philosophers came independently to the conclusion that the all-too-human antics of the gods of Olympus were absurd. “God” was, as the Jews suggested, “One,” nameless and imageless. The Jewish Scriptures, enjoying the prestige of antiquity and the weight of an independent source, corroborated these new directions in Greek thought and gave the Greeks courage to pursue the terrifying task of dismissing their traditional gods. They were so impressed with the Jewish Scriptures that they had them translated into Greek. The sponsors of the Septuagint, Philo tells us, were none other than the Ptolomys of Egypt, the regional kings and Greek heirs of Alexander the Great.
The Greek philosophers saw “God” as an immutable source of “being,” oblivious to the vicissitudes that attended life for any of the creatures that flowed from the “One’s” existential superabundance. It was of less concern to them that the anthropomorphic imagery describing the Hebrew “God” of the Scriptures would not jibe with either the ethereal conceptions of the philosophers’ “One” or even the Hebrew Yahweh’s own demand for a nameless and imageless worship from his people. But they considered the Hebrew imagery harmless at any rate, and it satisfied the needs of the ordinary people who required something concrete and could not relate to the empty conceptuality proposed by the philosophers.
Emptiness ― the Dark Night
But for mystics, conceptual emptiness was not a problem. It was the very air they breathed. In the Hindu East ascetics exhilarated in the rarified atmosphere at the mountaintop of the Absolute. In the Christian West, however, the search for the quiescence of all imagery and desire that was the condition for “contemplative union,” was more problematic. Given the belief in a personal “God” who might be expected to engage the “soul” in dialogic interaction ― minimally giving commands and punishing disobedience, often warm and revealing and then turning cold and hidden ― the quest ironically included efforts to transcend the ups and downs of the “relationship.” In the 16th century, the explicit and most emphatic counsel of Carmelite mystic John of the Cross was to reject those aspects of the relationship that resembled the satisfactions (or frustrations) of personal (human) contact. Forget all such things, advised John. The contemplative was to pursue “God” in the darkness and emptiness of “faith alone,” ― in a “Dark Night.” Even the sensations that “God infuses,” John says, the “soul” must
set no store by them; it must set them aside and take up a passive and negative attitude with regard to them. … all the soul has to endeavor to do with respect to all the sensations that come to it from above … ― it matters not if they be visions, locutions, feelings or revelations ― is to make no account of [them] …
These counsels were traditional in the Christian mystical writers throughout the centuries. What Dionysius the Areopagite, and the author of The Cloud called “unknowing,” John of the Cross called the “Dark Night.” The mystics of the West universally claimed that sustained contact with “God” was a work of one’s own self-management directed precisely at getting beyond any imagined “personal” interaction. It meant entering into a humanly unimaginable “relationship” that was not personal at the level of human experience, and therefore was like walking in darkness. To call it “personal” was a statement of imagination based on belief, not fact, that sustained the “love” from the human side. This is a very revealing paradox. The personal “God” of the mystics in the West is declared by their very own counsels to be a stable interior presence which became the object of contemplation only through the programmed negation of all the imagined feelings of interpersonal exchange. The “God” that the mystics knew by experience was akin to the “One” of Plotinus and very different from the “God” preached by the Church. It brings up the same old question: “What is ‘God’ really like?”
The goal for the mystics was absolute quiescence. They attempted to attune themselves, by a process of progressive detachment, to the almost imperceptible hum of “God’s” unchanging and non-interventionist presence at the core of the “soul” providing nothing but existence.
“God” does nothing to the soul and that’s for two reasons: first because the “soul” has everything it needs to live out and fulfill its human destiny, and second because “God,” having everything, wants nothing for “herself,” not even obedience, not even love. “God’s” presence is pure unmixed gift, the sheer overflow of a superabundance of being. By failing to emphasize this, the traditional religious imagery implied some sort of need in “God” which only the compliance of the human individual could satisfy. How else could they claim “God” was angry with them, or pleased … or in the case of the mystics, “drew close” or “moved away”? This is obviously impossible. The mystics knew that “God” who needed nothing, wanted nothing and, in fact, did nothing. “God” was at the core of the soul, silent and un-demanding. “God” was neither enhanced nor diminished by anything the human individual did or did not do. And to perceive this absolutely silent presence of “God” one had to be as empty of all needs and as fully at peace with oneself as “God” was. One had to learn to be silent, just as “God” was silent and to love oneself unreservedly in “God,” as “God” loves herself ― and us in herself ― unreservedly.
This may not sound traditionally “Christian.” But of course, we’ve not been taught the doctrines of the mystics. Aquinas’ doctrine of contemplative egalitarianism was shelved in practice. For even in our time the Catholic Church continues to promote a bi-modal spirituality: one for the ordinary people, and one for the religious elite.
Mystical spirituality has ideological social implications. It impacts conventional mores. For it means everything else besides “God’s” presence becomes secondary ― not eliminated but secondary ― morality, politics, “social skills,” education, marketability. It is the ultimate basis of socially independent human self-esteem. To hear such a faint and inaudible whisper means to ignore the imperious call of every huckster in the psychic marketplace, even those considered spiritually refined, like honor, reputation, “integrity,” esthetic sensitivity, “self-fulfillment,” success. Don’t get me wrong. These things are good. But they are not ultimate. They are not “God.” For the mystics, to hear “God” meant to need, hear, see, want and have nothing else. It wasn’t even enough to say that to have “God” was to allow oneself to be given, to let oneself be loved, to be “breathed” into being; for the positive component of each of those correlatives was itself a desideratum, the object of a definable desire. And you could not hear the silent melody of existence while you were invested in having anything else. To have or know “God” was, therefore, to be content not to have, not to know, not to speak … simply to be. And to be for a human being is to be one’s self. To learn how to simply be oneself was the exercise of a lifetime.
Now the irony is that the exercise required here is not to exercise at all. It is to do nothing to achieve or accumulate an experience, since trying to have the experience militates against it. The goal, in the final analysis, is simply to re-enter the unchanged stream of life and work within it with a new awareness, an attunement, a sensitivity, an alertness to the background sound of existence, the Sacred, which we in the West call “God”. It is to remain in a condition of passive receptivity with regard to existence that does not project itself, organize itself or assert itself in any way. It is a state of non-pursuit, particularly with regard to the mystical experience one was after. Indeed, what one was after was precisely not to be after anything. This cessation of striving, desire and even concept formation was “emptiness,” sunyata for the 2nd century Buddhist Nagárjuna. In general, Buddhists called it nirvana. The Western tradition is in every respect the same. Here’s the way 14th century Johannes Tauler put it:
” … all the energies of your soul must be silent. It is not a question of learning to do, but of learning not to do.
I believe there is a nexus here between practice and theory that is very important. The experience of the mystics points to an underlying metaphysical reality that I am convinced can best be described in the terms I have been using throughout this analysis ― that phenomenal existence is matter-energy. “God,” I propose, is the name that we of the Abrahamic lineage have traditionally given to the source of our existence. I conceive of that source not as the historical “initiator of being” but rather as the very inner energy of the outpouring existence of what actually exists now. In other words, I don’t look for “God” at the beginning of time but rather in the here and now. This is not new. It is a traditional statement for philosophical theology. “God” is the source and core of phenomenal existence in the present moment. The “source” that I’m speaking of produces a necessarily palpable effect, viz., here and now existence as we know and experience it. (Here and now existence can have no other definition for us than “what we can experience as present.”) Experience, therefore, ordinary, everyday, mundane experience is at the very center of the definition of the “Source of Being” and therefore “God,” or “the Sacred.” We can only experience what is material. “God” dwells in the core of the self as emergent existence and can be experienced.
The mystics not only knew it, they knew how it worked.
As human beings, we are in a unique position with regard to being, because our cognitive apparatus not only experiences existence, but we can reflect on it. We know that things are here. Moreover, since we ourselves exist, we “understand” existence, not conceptually but connaturally, from within, as interior experience. This is the basis of mysticism. Mystical experience, I submit, is the interior, connatural, cognitively transparent co-dwelling with one’s own existential energy, one’s self, as it emerges continuously producing the flow of time. It is a material experience. Such experience is not immediately conceptual, and for the mystics there is no necessity for it ever to move to the conceptual level, though obviously it can because it has for those mystics who have written about it. They wrote about it to share it, and to invite others into it. That experience of the self emerging into (or being sustained in) presence, existence, from moment to moment, for the Western contemplative is the experience of “God.” And I leave open (because I believe irrelevant) the question whether that energy is itself “God” or only the un-mediated effect of “God’s” active presence. In either case, presence, existence is “God’s Presence.” “God’s” presence IS the human organism experiencing its own existence. The self is the palpable breath of “God.”
Taking it a step further: this interior experience of “emerging being” is validly extrapolated, as a conclusion of analysis, to all things. Since we know ourselves interiorly and immediately as “matter-energy emerging into existence” through the moments of time, we can rightly claim to know all things, even the most unfamiliar and unrelated, residing in the most remote corner of the universe. For, however alien in other respects these far off entities or aggregates of entities might be, they, like us, are material energy that exists in time. We, ourselves, are THAT ― that very same energy of matter. This provides the conceptual basis for our metaphysics, our speculative understanding of all things, the whole of existence, cosmo-ontology. Our science has discovered that everything that exists is materially homogeneous; existence itself is homogeneous.
What I experience of my existence emerging in time I realize is a progressive event, a process that I project to be true of everything that exists, right now, everywhere, even where I will never be or ever be able to imagine ― galaxies at the limits of the reach of our instruments or the deepest, densest “singularity” of the darkest black hole in the universe, wherever it may be. It is all emerging into existence progressively creating time, NOW, exactly as “I” experience it in my self. I am no different from any of THAT. I am a “thing” among things, or better, a process among processes. The “me” that spontaneously thinks of itself as a different kind of “thing” from all the things around me ― a “thing” that has existence on its own ― is deceived. What has existence is the substrate, a potential called matter-energy, combining and re-combining, composing, decomposing eternally, but in my case, temporarily gathered as “me.” “I” realize that there is no “me” with its own independent existence, being, substance or “stuff”! My existence is composed of the “stuff” of the universe. Similarly I understand that everything out there is conditioned in exactly the same way. The illusion the mystics dispel is not that there are things “out there” with special characteristics and manner of surviving; the illusion is rather that these “things” exist on their own, in their own right, independently. Substantial, “stand-alone” existence is the illusion. What exists, in fact, is the primal energy of which all things are made. These “things” condition one another universally so that the character and “stuff” of each enters into the character and stuff of every other. The experience of the mystics is that being is a constantly emerging gift, as a current from a spring, one shared homogeneous thing, given, received and given back ― a metaphysical recycling.
Existence is a property of matter-energy, or matter’s energy is a property of existence; it doesn’t matter which way you put it because wherever you find the one, you find the other. Some have identified it with vibrating strings thought to underlay sub-atomic particles. Or perhaps there is an even more elemental building block out of which even the strings are formed. It doesn’t matter. But please be advised: it is both concrete and scientifically specific.
This energy base, whatever it is, is the ground in which all existence is rooted, even our cognitional existence. This energy temporarily re-arranges itself as “me.” “I” am merely a momentary concrescence of matter-energy that dismantles itself in time, permitting its sub-atomic components to be re-used in other modalities and other entities endlessly. I cannot cling to this special configuration called “me.” In a real sense “I” am not really there. The Buddhists called it anatman, the illusion of the substantial self, i.e., the illusion that the self has stand-alone existence. This makes the self, like all other things, an empty phenomenon. Emptiness is the Buddhists’ favorite word for the way they believe we should look on reality. Eckhart said it a slightly different way: he said we were nothing. He equated the illusion of stand-alone existence with “sin.” Sin, he said, was behaving as if we had existence from ourselves ― as if we were “God.” The self, he said, was nothing. The paradox for us is both galling and apparent. For it is this evanescent self that is the gateway to our direct experience of matter’s energy, “God.”
The point of these final reflections was to let mystics describe their experience of “God,” and try to understand it. We focused on the 14th century because it was the time when contemplative prayer moved out of the monasteries and into the lives of ordinary people. And thanks to the erroneous imagery associated with “divine providence” it also represented the beginnings of a paranoid, alienated Christian world-view in which we ourselves were formed and are right now in the process of reforming yet again. I think that at this point in time we are turning back to our roots; and that is giving us a new perspective on other traditions as well as on science. The mystics through the ages and across cultures tend to describe their experiences in similar terms. Their observations corroborate the discoveries we made about existence or presence, arrived at through a kind of physical / metaphysical or cosmo-ontological enquiry. It is our perennial search for the Sacred Source of our being, what we have traditionally called “God.”
So what seems to be a sequence of disparate topics is really an interrelated history-conscious exploration of the anatomy of our spirituality, grounded in our view of the Sacred world. These connections ― historical, scientific, philosophical-doctrinal, mystical ― are organic and integrally related. We arbitrarily turn them into separate “topics” to concur with our (equally arbitrary) separate academic disciplines. But our prayer-life is one integral whole with our belief system and our scientific view of the world. Mysticism ― Religion ― Cosmology / Ontology ― the physical and biological sciences ― our “spirituality.” It’s all one thing.
In this vision, our intellectual, academic divisions are finally overcome. There is “consilience;” we can think and live in awe with one undivided mind in this Sacred world.
 John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk III, Ch. XIII, 4 & 6 (Penguin p.293-4)
 Johannes Tauler, Sermon 31, in The Rhineland Mystics, ed. Davies op.cit. p.71