This phrase, used in the fourth gospel and the first letter of John, is like a Zen koan. It is an obvious fact that everyone knows but no one takes the time to think about. A minute’s reflection, however, will show that it opens the door to a potential enlightenment on the whole issue of “God.”
It tells us not only have we never seen “God,” it intimates that we never will. What we “see” is what is here: ourselves and our world. The rest — the “facts” of traditional anthropomorphic religion — is pure projection, and in our day much of it proven false.
But what we do see is massive. What is–here is immense beyond description: … this universe, too vast, too lost in “deep time,” too complex to even hold in our minds, … this earth, teeming with life forms whose variety seems beyond limit, … and these human organisms of ours whose depths and capacities, even as we use them with ease and agility, we do not understand. Whatever else might be “out there” that we cannot see, the “elephant in the room” that we can see, is huge. And except for general categories, we are still very far from even cataloguing it, much less understanding how it all works.
But it’s not a total mystery. We have already discovered that earlier conjectures about our origins were completely off base. We know now that we were not fashioned by some rational intelligence for a purpose. Our bodies were not designed by a divine craftsman to interact with the forces of our world so that we might ultimately “discover” that we really belong to a different one. We know that our organisms and everything else we see (and even what we can’t) is made of an energy to be-here that we call matter. Matter’s energy constitutes every form and feature in our universe, from galaxies like our own milky way, billions of stars a hundred thousand light years in diameter spinning around their singularities, to the infinitesimally small nano-constituents of the atom itself — the quarks and leptons that we know exist and the vibrating strings that we suspect are their components. This energy, which takes various forms and is found continually morphing between invisible energy and visible matter, is what has “created” everything, including whatever it is in our brains that allows us to ask these questions. We may not know how matter does its tricks, but it is undeniable that it does them, and the result is beyond spectacular: it is this universe of things that spawned and cradles us.
Evolution, from our point of view, is the most spectacular trick of all because it is responsible for us being here, and being what we are. Evolution puts on display in the most unmistakable way, what matter’s energy is all about. Matter’s energy is about being-here. And in pursuit of that compulsion it will do absolutely anything … anything that will work. How our improbable humanity emerged out of that formula for selfish mayhem has been the subject of debate since Darwin: If “survival” is responsible for what things become, how did “being human” and the “purpose” that characterizes our behavior, get to be here?
The answer to that, apparently, is that as evolution moved along, increasingly complex biological organisms began participating in their own “natural selection,” at first ever so slightly and then to a greater and greater degree. “Selection,” which includes mate selection, seems to have hit upon the enhanced survivability that results from working together. As the social skills necessary for successful life-in-community came to dominate the selection process, physiological changes like the ability to use language and the development of mirror neurons that make empathy possible were teased out of prior structures and, because they worked, remained. The result, after some millions of years of genetic drift in the direction of community of life, is this human organism as we now have it, adapted to intense and intimate social interaction, and at this point so committed to that path that we are no longer able to survive on our own as individuals.
At one time we thought our minds and hearts belonged to another world — a world of “spirits” — and yearned to return there. We know now they were really developed by matter’s obsession with continuing to exist as itself in this world. Our so-called “spiritual” faculties, which we thought were patterned after a spiritual “God” are really the exponentially heightened abilities to understand one another and communicate among ourselves. Our minds and hearts are the tools for communal survival in this world, not for escape into another.
We humans are a function of material energy. At no point in our long development did we ever lose the foundational intent of matter’s energy: to be-here. Despite the range of our interests and intellectual capacities, and the depth of our ideals and cultivated altruism, we are still driven uncontrollably by matter’s instinctive thrust to survive. Following Spinoza, I call that instinct the conatus. It is a universal characteristic of every living organism on the planet, and because we experience it within ourselves, there is little need to describe it. Everyone knows what it’s like. It comes from being alive. It dominates our activities. Our religious tradition thought it was the selfish effect of “Original Sin” and told us it was an ongoing sign of our corruption and guilt. But now we know better: it’s because we are matter and matter is an energy for being-here. Another word for that energy is LIFE.
The conatus is not just an “instinct for self-preservation” activated when danger is imminent, but functions as the driving force behind every aspect of organic life that is focused on being-here. It is the conatus that activates the lust to reproduce … the hunger that impels the search for food … the empathic need to know what others are thinking … the paranoia to protect ourselves from potential threats … the ambition to accumulate security against an uncertain future … and the violence to defend ourselves when we are under attack.
And it is the conatus that is responsible for our sense of the sacred, for it is our need to survive that causes us to trust and worship whatever it is that we think gives LIFE and can guarantee that it will never be taken away. We are matter’s energy; and therefore we want to be-here.
Survival is not optional. The perception of what it is that guarantees continued existence changes with time and circumstances, and because of the power of human imagination it may even be pure projection, but whatever it is, we are inclined to surrender to it and drink from its existential well-spring. It is the spontaneous reaction of the organism. In our times and emerging from our peculiar religious history, we have a set of complex perceptions in that regard that are unique to us: some are positive, deriving from our knowledge of where existence actually comes from, and some are negative; they are the repudiation of perceptions of the past that have proven erroneous.
Whatever the perception, however, clinging to LIFE is an irrepressible feature of organisms constructed of material energy and for humans it necessarily includes the community. Our community, without which we cannot survive, is sacred to us. Material energy is focused on survival, and what secures survival must necessarily dominate the affective life of the organism. It is a biological inevitability which is borne out by our observations of every biological organism on earth: we are all driven by our conatus.
It is exactly here that any thought that the conatus leaves us subjectively enclosed is vanquished. For the conatus is common to all biological organisms, not just human. Thus our sense of the sacred, which is unique to us, is seen to have a ground that crosses specific (i.e., species) boundaries. We are all made of the same clay and it is that “clay,” i.e., matter, that is at the base of everything we are, everything we have and everything we do. LIFE is sacred to us: we can’t help it!
Unless you could prove that LIFE came from something other than material energy, the display of its characteristics in biological matter is reasonably “retropolated” to inanimate matter. Matter, in other words — all matter — contains within itself the power of LIFE. Matter is somehow “alive.”
“God,” we have to acknowledge, is first and foremost an idea of ours. “No one has ever seen ‘God’” is another way of saying that. “God” is not an entity we can point to; “God” is the product of the imagination of those pre-scientific ancestors of ours who assumed that a rational person was the artisan and architect of the universe. They can hardly be blamed.
First of all “God” was imagined as “Creator.” Then, mystics who experienced an affective “oneness” with the universe believed they were in direct contact with this “God,” the one source of it all. The characteristics of their experience, however, have been shown to be consistent with an organism made entirely of matter becoming conscious of sharing an identity with the universe of matter. (The two propositions, however, might ultimately be identical.) Third, we have seen that matter’s energy as the source of the conatus is also responsible for our sense of the sacred and the affective intensity surrounding it. Our sense of the sacred is a function of existential need.
Matter’s energy is completely immanent. It is the matrix in which we live and move and have our being; it is constitutive of everything that we are as human beings and everything with which we interact on this earth, beginning with human community; it is the source, the archē, the LIFE force dwelling at the intimate core of all things. It seems to fulfill in every way the conditions once met by “God” except those that projected a rational “person”-entity. If we take the concept “God” functionally, matter’s energy is “God.”
Souls, “selves” and eternal LIFE
Matter’s energy grounds our sense of the sacred, but it does it by way of responding to existential need. One of the characteristics of our ancestral religion of the Book was that its “God” made promises that related to that need. The Jewish “contract” with Yahweh promised survival in the form of community prosperity and national ascendancy. The earliest Christians saw the fulfillment of that promise in the imminent coming of “God’s” kingdom on earth, an apocalyptic event that would immortalize the earth and divinize the flesh of the “chosen” community. When that promise failed to materialize, “salvation” lost its earthly dimension; “survival-after-death” was projected onto an imaginary world of spirits and reinterpreted as the immortality of the individual bodiless “soul” whose happiness is earned — quid pro quo — exclusively through obedient membership in the Christian Church identified with the Roman Empire and its successor states.
How, for its part, does matter’s energy guarantee LIFE for needy mortals? … through the awareness that WE ARE matter’s energy and matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed. It is existence itself … something as close to esse in se subsistens as we will ever see. There is no other esse, and we are exactly THAT, nothing less.
WE ARE our bodies. Our “selves” are not “things” like “souls,” independent of our bodies. The “self” is the self-consciousness that characterizes all living things without which no organism would be able to defend itself: respond to its need for food, find mates, escape danger, fight off enemies. “Selves” are the emanation of the living biological organism and its social identity; they are the gathered self-interest, the conatus collected from hundreds of billions of cells locked together in organismic collaboration and with other organisms. Selves do not exist apart from the organism-in-community that emanates them. The “self” is the self-awareness of this socialized body. When this body loses its coherence and returns to less complex configurations of material energy at death, the human “self” disappears. In fact, if key areas of the brain are damaged or destroyed, the “self” may even disappear before death. But the material energy does not.
Once our perception of who we are shifts from an imaginary permanent “self” to an identification with the totality of matter’s energy as the real permanent reality in a material universe, our demand for an individual “salvation” ceases to make sense. During life the conatus still functions as always, prioritizing the survival of the living organism-in-community, but we will be discouraged from allowing that instinct to construct an imaginary afterlife. Our new angle of vision provides the basis for a significant reduction in self-concern, and a reason to bask securely in the well-being of the whole — the LIFE of this universe in which we live and move and have our being — and to trust where it is taking us … because where it goes, everything we are goes with it..
Every particle in our body has been here since the beginning of our cosmos, and it is guaranteed to be part of whatever happens in the future. If in the course of the last 13.7 billion years beginning with just quarks and leptons evolution has achieved such marvels as populate our world, what should we expect from the next 13.7 billion years? We can’t imagine. Everything will still be here and part of that development … everything, that is, except our “selves.” We will be re-used endlessly, just as our matrix-creator — matter’s energy — is used and re-used so totally that there is no “Self” there at all.
Our “selves” disappear. Our shift to the primacy of the totality upends the extreme focus on the individual that has characterized mainstream western cultural development since the middle ages, impelled by Christianity. It seems to correspond appropriately and in parallel with the de-individualization of the god-function that accompanies that shift. With our new cosmo-ontology, the emphasis is no longer on a transcendent solitary “One” as Plato imagined it, lost in the narcissistic bliss of self-contemplation, but rather on a diffuse immanent LIFE that is “self-less-ly” held in common by all things, and in which “we live and move and have our being.” In our case it allows human participation in the extrusion process even to the point of self-extinction if we so choose. Borrowing from our tradition an apt term and imagery I call this dynamic a kenosis — a “self-emptying” — fully aware of the paradox: that it is a personalist metaphor for a communal process that is in fact utterly devoid of self … a process with which we merge fully and can embrace as our own at death.
But we do not relate to existential issues outside of personalist categories, because our conatus as interpreted by our culture has made us “selves,” “persons.” Our very survival is interpersonal. Creative interactions of this significance in our human world are only done by persons and persons “read” them as a “self-donation.” The “self” that we received from our parents, even though their coitus was not directed toward us personally, we gratefully acknowledge as their gift to us. It is entirely understandable that we would ascribe analogous phenomena occurring on a cosmic scale to a cosmic “person.” And, as long as we are aware that it is a metaphor, I see no reason why we should stop. As a metaphor that captures the intense feelings that the gift of LIFE evokes in us, nothing else comes close. But as an analogue for an imaginary “entity” like Plato’s “One,” it is completely misleading. LIFE is not an individual entity of any kind, much less a “person” who does these things for reasons. It is present, shared and fully operational in all things. It is esse, the existential energy of matter.
But for those of us who have been subjected to the assumptions of reductionist materialism — the orphaned residue of Cartesian dualism — the question always remains: is this LIFE really alive? … is it benevolent? … or is it a mere physical force like gravity or voltage that only creates the illusion of being alive?
Obviously it is not “personal” in our sense of the word. The ultimate question is whether LIFE represents some kind of transcendent benevolence. The answer, it seems to me, lies in how it displays itself in what it has become. For it is material energy that has emerged as LIFE, and in our case human LIFE. Not only is our world full of LIFE flourishing in forms too numerous to count, but we have our very selves as lab rats to probe and question. We are the observable display of matter’s properties and intrinsic capacities and we have a privileged insider’s view. What are we? Are we alive? Are we “benevolent,” or as Daniel Dennett suggests, are we just robots and zombies and our very self-consciousness merely another robotic property? After all, we ourselves ARE what we are asking about, for we are matter’s energy in one of its living organic forms. We are the ones who have to answer that question.
The Psalmist asks: “When will I see the face of God?” Those who share that yearning should keep in mind “John’s” warning: “No one has ever seen God.” The visible manifestations of material energy that abound in our universe and in our human organisms-in-community are the only indications of “God” that we have, and if we follow the counsels in John’s letter, our love for one another — which mirrors and re-activates the universal kenosis of our source and matrix — is what makes “God” visible.
 Cf previous posts on this blog: “Matter and Mysticism” I and II, Nov 30 and Dec 7, 2014 respectively.