This is a follow-up on the April 23rd post called “ ‘God’ is the energy of LIFE.” I believe aspects of that post can be relevant to the difficulties that some people have with the rational option to see the universe as “benevolent.” The term “matter’s energy,” after all, is not very poetic. But it is the source of the existence of the conatus, which is the wellspring of our sense of the sacred. “Material energy” is a prosaic label for what drives our spectacular universe as well as our own sense of awe. It deserves to be recast by our religious poets in terms more evocative of its indestructability, its vast and lavish abundance, its selfless availability, its inexhaustible vitality and its evolutionary creativity that has always been self-transcending; material energy displays divine characteristics.
The April 23 post contends that in the first century of the common era, Philo’s “God” was still an immanent nature-“God” and had not yet been essentially changed by the addition of the Platonic characterization as “Spirit” in a universe divided into spirit-matter. Later, “Pure Spirit” came to dominate the scene so completely that it created a new paradigm which replaced Philo’s “God” with a Platonic “God” that provided a philosophical explanation for Genesis’ transcendent “Creator.” Plato’s absolute transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” set up granite divisions in a cosmos that up until then had been physically / metaphysically continuous with the “nature-God:” “God” was integral with nature as its logos or guiding energy.
This immanentist tradition continued on in the East, but in the West it became a “minority report” — sometimes tolerated by the hierarchy, sometimes not. Ninth century Eriúgena’s Periphyseon divided “nature” (physis) between “nature that creates and is not created” and “nature that is created and does not create.” In the fouteenth century Meister Eckhart found Aquinas’ esse itself at the existential core of the human person. Nicolas of Cusa in the fifteenth century said “God” was “non aliud,” not other (than nature). Similarly seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza used the terms natura naturans for “God” and natura naturata for creation. In all cases “God” was part of nature — the originating, guiding, enlivening part.
At the time of John’s letter, one of the effects of assimilating Jesus’ life and message to “God” was to specify exactly what Philo’s nature-“God” was like. As the amalgam of the pantheon, “God” would naturally have been expected to enliven the dark and cruel aspects of nature (once represented by Hades, Ares, etc.) as well as the creative and benevolent. John clarified that once and for all: Jesus’ life showed us that “God” was light, and there was no darkness in him. It would be hardly necessary to say that, unless there were some ambigüity. No such confusion would have attended Plato’s “One.”
Jesus’ life made things clear. Nature’s immanent “God” was benevolent; and Jesus’ moral goodness — Paul identified it as a self-emptying generosity — was the mirror-image of the creative LIFE-force itself. While we usually read John as using “God” to help us understand what Jesus was, I contend that John’s point was that Jesus life helps us understand what “God” is. His approach is “inductive.” John learns from his direct, personal experience of the man Jesus, what “God” is like.
Fast forward to today: the discreditation of traditional religious sources leaves religion as we knew it scientifically high and dry. This is the heart of the problem for “religion” in a material universe. We are forced to find our reasons for the “benevolence option” not in some authoritarian other-worldly source, like scripture or the magisterium which have been discredited as sources of knowledge about the cosmos, but from what we know of our material reality using the tools we now trust. And I claim that following the example of the the dynamic inductive perspective on “God” assumed by John, there is nothing to prevent an analogous correlation of our human moral and relational energy to the energy of the matter of which we are made. Reading John’s letter in this way means John stops being an “authority” with infused knowledge from another world which he “reveals” to us in “scripture,” and instead becomes one of us — a earth-bound seeker who has “seen, heard and touched” what he was convinced mirrored the heart of nature itself, and is passionate to share his discovery.
John’s theological method is inductive not deductive, and it works on the assumption of immanence. He starts with what he experienced. Jesus’ personal kenosis reveals “God” not because Jesus was a “God entity” and spoke to us of “truths” from another world but because all human moral and relational energy is an expression of the LIFE-force and Jesus’ life was so extraordinary that it had to be the mirror-image of the LIFE-force itself. It’s a conclusion evoked by what he saw and heard … but like all the conclusions of inductive reasoning it remains hypothetical until the successes of experimental practice move it toward certitude. But John insists that he has confirned it and it is certain: “By this we may be sure we are in him … that we walk the way he walked.” (2:5) Notice it’s the walking that conjures the presence of the LIFE-force and provides certainty. “You can be sure that everyone who does right is born of ‘God’.” (2:29) “No one born of God commits sin because God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” (3:9) These extraordinary statements confirm both John’s method and his worldview. “Doing right” makes the divine energy present and visible … and confirms the authenticity of Jesus’ witness.
Analogously, in our times, our spontaneous, unsolicited recognition of the authenticity of human justice, generosity and compassion allows us to project that it is reflective of the material energy of which our organisms are made, for our organisms are nothing else. Like John, we start with what we experience: our instincts for right behavior
There is nothing new about starting there. Daniel C. Maguire bases his Ethics on a sense of justice — right and wrong — and makes no (explicit) appeal to any deeper justification. He’s able to begin his ethics there because no one argues with him about it. Noam Chomsky calls for international justice on no other grounds than people’s sense of fairness and right and wrong. Even though he has acknowledged — and it may be fairly said to be the leitmotiv of his contribution as a linguist — his belief that all human behavior is an expression of innate organic structures, he clearly feels he does not need to have recourse to such structures (or even claim that they exist) when it comes to justice. Apparently, his many readers agree. David Brooks recently wrote a book appealing for a return to what he calls personal virtues (the virtues of moral character) as opposed to marketable virtues (the virtues for knowing and making and selling) without any further justification, because everyone knows what he’s talking about and no one disagrees with him. This is what was meant by syndéresis: our human instincts for right and wrong … and it is where we start. You have to start there … everyone starts there … and I claim it is where John started.
The point of departure is our humanity. It’s all we really know. We resonate with benevolence, and, as Sartre noted, the thought that the material universe (which includes us) is a meaningless mechanism makes us nauseous (and then, bitter and angry). Why is that? Some claim this is our inveterate Judaeo-Christianity speaking. But in my estimation, our spontaneous predilection for benevolence cannot be explained as the result of a mere few thousand years of brain-washing. A survey of world religions shows the same choice virtually everywhere and from the dawn of history. It is more ancient in time and more universal geographically than Christianity. It speaks to the existence of the innate “sense of the sacred” and the syndéresis (instinct for justice and truth) that is its corollary which I contend are reactions to our organic conatus’ instinct for self-preservation. Then, unless you want to claim some hard wall of division between humankind and the rest of the natural world (including the component elements of our own organisms), there is every reason to concede that “benevolence” in the human idiom translates the superabundant life that we see teeming everywhere driven to survive by the lust for life … the insistence on existence … characteristic of organic matter in whatever form it has evolved.
Rationally speaking it’s not the same as in earlier times when benevolence was a logical “deduction” from infallible premises — the irrefutable conclusion of theological “science.” But I believe it is sufficient to support the practical choices we have to make; for our own need to survive drives us toward justice and compassion … for ouselves and for our natural world. This may be called the “argument from practical necessity.” It’s ironic but true: we need to cherish and esteem other life forms and the earth that spawned us all if we want to survive.
But really … am I the only one who sees that the deck is stacked? What other choice do we have? … say “bullshit” and die? Kill anyone who is different from us? Destroy our planet for our short-term enjoyment? If we want to survive we have to cherish ouselves and our world. We’re stuck. But the criteria by which we evaluate and choose belong to us, not to “scripture.” Some of the legacy of John, however, like the divine immanence he believed enlivened the natural world (and Jesus’ personal energies), in my opinion, is remarkably consonant with what modern science has observed about the evolution of the cosmos driven by matter’s energy to exist.
But I want to emphasize: this does not suddenly ground and justify the supernatural illusions proposed by authoritarian Christianity. It rather evokes an entirely different religion, one that is more like the kind that John was trying to construct at the beginning of the second century: a religion whose data all come from this world — the human sense of the sacred and its moral requirements — not from some other world.
This way of looking at things has certain other corollaries:
(1) no one is ever constrained to see life as benevolent … not even the most fortunate. There is enough random destructiveness out there to support those who choose to accept the Steven Weinberg hypothesis: the universe is pointless. But by exactly the same token, there is also more than enough to support the hypothesis of a creative power and self-emptying generosity so immense that, regardless of ideology, and eschewing absurd claims to providential micro-management, no one with a modicum of poetic sensitivity is inclined to reprove those who call it “divine.”
(2) the perception of benevolence is always, therefore, an intentional appropriation … a choice … without which even a religiously formed individual’s sense of benevolence will atrophy and disappear. But a choice requires some a priori recognition … even if only in the form of desire. There has to be some internal basis in the human organism. The “command” to cherish and esteem does not come from another world; it arises from the matter of our bodies. Our material organisms need to love, not only to reproduce, but to survive.
(3) those who cannot connect emotionally to “benevolence” for lack of parental inculcation (or, as with Weinberg, because of experiences like the Holocaust) may still connect indirectly through the mediation of others. This is one of the roles of the religious “fellowship” (and other “therapeutic communities”). Once the koinonía is functioning it provides the “matter” for resonance: a loving community. (“Look at these Christians [fellow addicts, fellow mourners, fellow workers, fellow activists, friends and family], how they love one another!”). Then the “Weinbergs” of this world might find themselves drawn to what their formation (or experience) had failed to provide.
If you are a theologically traditional western Christian, at some point you still have to admit there is a bedrock place in the human organism that allows it to appropriate “benevolence” based on its own connatural recognition and need. Will you reject even this as “semi-Pelagian”? If you do, as many of the sixteenth century reformers did, you will have to fall back on the absurd predestinarian position that the entire “salvation” business is a matter of divine permissions and miraculous interventions … from sin through conversion to perseverance … foreseen and managed by “God” for a display of his glory … all of which further depends on a discredited supernatural theism based on allegedly infallible “sources of revelation.” Ultra-absurd! … and no one is buying it anymore.
(4) I am also realist enough to recognize that none of this will fly institutionally, because the institution continues to chug along on that same authoritarian track it inherited from Constantine and Augustine. The reform I’m speaking of is not a mere “revision” of Catholicism, like the one that occurred in the sixteenth sentury. So if by “reform” you mean something that will work “politically” you’ll have to kick the can down the road like they did at the Reformation … and maybe for as many centuries more.