Reditus

 

This is a reflection based on the final sentence of the previous post: “it is trust in what Teilhard calls ‘the heart of matter’ that will open the door to the grateful embrace of death as the reditus ― the joyous return of our organisms to their material wellspring ― that completes the cycle of our lives.”

Reditus is a Latin word that means “return” and refers to the ancient neo-platonic belief that being is cyclical and that all things are destined to return to the source from which they came and are born to new life in the event. The theme was picked up in Christian times by the ninth century Irish theologian John Scotus Eriúgena who drew on the Greek Fathers especially Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. The “rebirth” of the neo-platonists was identified by Christians as “resurrection” — of Jesus first and then all of creation after him. They applied Christian categories to what they believed was a natural process. According to them,

the whole of reality or nature is involved in a dynamic process of outgoing (exitus) from and return (reditus) to the One. God is the One or the Good or the highest principle, which transcends all, and which therefore may be said to be ‘the non-being that transcends being’. In an original departure from traditional Neoplatonism, in [Eriúgena’s] dialogue Periphyseon, this first and highest cosmic principle is called ‘nature’ (natura) and is said to include both God and creation. [1]

Exitus-reditus was widely acknowledged as valid even by philosophers who were not neo-platonists. Thomas Aquinas used it to organize his Summa:

The overall-plan [of the Summa Theologíae] is on the “origin-return”(exitus / reditus ) pattern of (i) one source of all being, differentiating into everything else, and (ii) the eventual return (or renewal, III, 91, 1, ad 4, Suppl.) of all things to their source, (cf. I,102,2), found in Plotinus (c.250), and others.[2]

Also known as the doctrine of the “eternal return,” it was shared among many cultures.

In ancient Egypt, the scarab (or dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal renewal and reemergence of life, a reminder of the life to come.

The ancient Mayans and Aztecs also took a cyclical view of time.

In ancient Greece, the concept of eternal return was connected with Empedocles, Zeno of Citium, and most notably in Stoicism (ekpyrosis — “conflagration” is a Stoic belief in the periodic destruction of the cosmos by a great conflagration. The cosmos is then recreated (palingenesis) only to be destroyed again at the end of the new cycle).

The concept of cyclical patterns is very prominent in Indian religions, such as Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism among others. The wheel of life represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept known as the Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and knowledge.[3]

Upon reflection, it seems hardly surprising that humankind should have hit upon the theme of a cyclical universe that eternally returns to its starting point. The signs of such patterns are everywhere on earth, from the daily circuit of the sun and the annual changing of the seasons that accompany planting and harvest to the reproductive strategies of every living species. Whatever temporal linearity exists, seems to be only a minor part of a larger repetitive process in which macro structures are maintained by the coming and going of micro individuals who cycle through existence in endless repetitions.

The individual human life cycle is one example of this overarching pattern which predominates in all of nature. Individuals are born, grow to maturity, reproduce their kind and begin a decline that leads to death. The disappearance of the individuals seems to be integral to the continuance of the species since the major achievement of these individuals is the fresh generation of their own replacements. The very purpose of the genetic development and psychological needs in individuals seems to be to retain the youth of the species.

Species seem to have bypassed death. Species are maintained in existence and remain the same by the continuous life-to-death cycles of individuals. Nature’s concern is the species, not the individual. But how can that be true? Species do not really exist, they are only ideas of ours; the only things that actually exist are the reproducing individuals. The species is a mental abstraction that represents the evolutionary accumulations assuring reproductive success to the newest individuals.

But in the case of higher animals, the tendency to form community and to secure survival as a group brings the notion of species closer to an actual collective reality. Not entirely unlike the way unicellular individuals formed collectivities which eventually became multicellular organisms, the increasing collectivization of survival evokes the possibility that social collectivities might someday become identities in their own right. Social insects seem to have made a similar transition from a community of cooperating individuals to an entity — the hive — which more closely approximates an individual organism.

Evolution nudges reproduction away from pure circular repetition into a gentle spiral that might more aptly be called recapitulation.   Evolution introduces linearity into the equation and makes cyclical renewal actually the bearer of something new, something never before seen — an achievement that, even if it is transcended, will never be reversed. It is the display of the irreversibility of time.

We humans have observed these patterns play out on earth for hundreds of thousands of years. It is no wonder that we spontaneously think that “return to origin” — the reditus — is some kind of cosmic “law” that determines how material organisms will behave — a pre-conceived purpose that all things are destined to obey.

Material energy creates time

But I demur. Such a conception assumes that matter is passive, inert, and requires direction from without. This is fantasy. Matter has rather shown itself to contain an energy — LIFE — that pulses in its own most intimate interior. Rather than the temporal conditions of the universe determining how matter shall behave, I believe that the existentiality of material energy, — matter’s insatiable drive to-be-here — is responsible for the generation of the perception of time in human minds. Material energy produces material existence continuously without pause and in so doing its activity appears as an endless sequence of moments.

Matter is both cyclical and linear. The cyclical characteristic derives from its need to remain itself — to stay the same — something that can only be done by repeating patterns of proven success. But it is the very same drive to survive that also impels adjustments to changing conditions. These adjustments introduce the linear dimension into matter’s structures and stake out territory that forms the arrow of time.

Matter evolves. That means it becomes more than it was, by utilizing the energies released by its interactions with and within itself. Evolution produces newness, not the newness of a new substance, but a modification of its former self that results in a new way of achieving survival — perduring in time. The “substance,” in other words, is always the same, but it always displays its homogeneous energy in new ways … ways determined by its own interactive creativity.

Human death in a material universe

What all this means is that individual death has been de facto incorporated into matter’s existential strategy. We are made of material energy and we are constrained by the very nature of what we are to follow these patterns. But this runs against our cultural grain. We have been told for thousands of years by our western religions that we are not matter, we are spirit and therefore we transcend the material conditions by which matter has negotiated survival. When we die, we were taught, our “souls,” now separated from our bodies, go to another world, a world of spirits, our true home, and without the encumbrance of the body cannot suffer nor ever die. Such a conception provided consolation and offered hope, for however natural individual death might be, the organism is focused exclusively by its conatus — the echo of matter’s existential energy — to live forever. Death feels unnatural to any organism, and western religion responded to that feeling. That spiritual paradigm remains attractive because it offers hope: it claims our souls are naturally immortal. Death is said to affect the body alone; effectively, in this view, death is an illusion.

The material paradigm that I espouse, on the other hand, offers consolation of a different type. Individual death is not called an illusion, but it is understood to be an integral part of the survival strategy that secures a transcendent existence for the species. What’s most important in this view is that it acknowledges the subordinate place of the individual in the scheme of things. What seems to be uppermost is the species which is increasingly concretized in a larger and more interactive human social life. Human Society, in other words, more and more approximates and embodies the evolutionary achievements of the species, so that the life cycle of the human individual, in a way that goes far beyond any similar effect among the animals, impacts and is incorporated into the species. By cyclically reproducing its own replacement, the human individual contributes to the linear progression of the human species (human society) as it evolves through time.

So we can say that the material model, by justifying the human life cycle from birth through reproduction to death as directly contributory to species enhancement, makes individual death an integral part of the evolutionary process. Death is not an illusion, but is essential to the advancement of the species. Death does not disappear, but now has meaning.

“God” is the energy of matter

Let’s for a moment grant my hypothesis: that “God” is the energy of matter. Universal evolution, in this case, represents the elaboration of the inner LIFE of matter: it is “God” in process. That we humans are nothing but matter means that we are integral to that evolution: we are born of it, we are borne along by it, and we contribute authentically to its “trial and error” exploration of possibility. We also enjoy its new discoveries and successes. Our individual lives have meaning.

When I die the coherence of my particular material package ceases to function, but the “matter” itself does not disappear. The LIFE residing in the particles does not disappear either, despite the fact that it is no longer operational at the level of the human organism. As these newly de-coupled particles drift back into the pool of material energy at death, their residual LIFE becomes available for integration into the coherence of some other still functioning organism — in every case an organism that is itself cycling back into death after passing through its reproductive phase and enhancing the evolutionary progress of its species.

Taking a step back brings the larger picture into focus: all living matter is engaged in a cyclical process of individual reproduction and the evolutionary advancement of its species.

Recapitulating all these processes occurring simultaneously among living species, and incorporating by extrapolation all those analogous processes taking place in pre-living matter, it seems unlikely that the evolutionary advances achieved by the material energy of our visible universe over the past 14 billion years will ever stop.

The very humanity that I enjoy is one of the more extraordinary products of that process. The distance traveled in complexity and range of ability from the free protons available after the “big bang” to our improbable and truly astounding humanity, boggles the mind. But however stunning it is that we are the “offspring” of those protons, there is nothing in me but complex combinations of those same elements which have been here for 14 billion years, and nothing to suggest that the process has closed, should ever stop, or change direction. Now we ourselves with our purposeful minds are part of the selection process. Selection is still “natural” but thanks to us, it is no longer “pointless.” It’s up to us to make sure that the “point” we make is a useful one.

The “pool” of living matter to which my package of material components returns at death is accessible to the totality. It will be integrated into whatever new level of action matter has achieved, and, as matter, I will always be part of it … I will enjoy that “new life” whatever form it might take.

Relationship

The relationships in this scenario are unique because we are dealing with identity rather than difference. Being made of matter’s energy means I am genetically related to “God:” we are no longer strangers. But the “exitus-reditus” framework still obtains and provides a direction that will never change. I will never be “God” in the traditional sense because I will never be source and origin. And “renewal” for me will always mean a return to the wellspring of my being. At no point, however, can such renewal be considered a “salvation” except metaphorically, poetically. So we are left with a relationship that has all the tension and intimacy characteristic of a relationship to “another,” but still rests securely in immanence — metaphysical identity.   “We are even now the children of God and it has not yet appeared what we will be.” (1 Jn 3:2)

This materialist paradigm supports a feature of religion that was always acknowledged but was never given any place in the structure of things because the metaphysics was simply not there. That feature is the relationship to myself. Like everything else in the old paradigm it was juridical: I was assumed to be a “sinner,” a stranger to “God” because of my assumed moral turpitude. Embracing my reality has always been recognized as essential to the awakening of the religious consciousness, but there was no place in the traditional structure to locate it metaphysically, hence “original sin.”  Now there is. I am related to myself as a participant in the sacred because I am matter, genetically made of “God-stuff” not needing “salvation” but drawn irrepressibly into an ever deeper intimacy with all things because of my identity with the source of being.

Suffering and death are an inescapable part of that material struggle to survive. Sharing “God’s stuff” means sharing matter’s way of surviving.

[1] Moran, Dermot, “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/scottus-eriugena/&gt;
[2] James F. Ross, The Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas: Christian Wisdom explained philosophically, 2001, http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~jross/summatheologie.htm
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return
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“God is dead … and we have killed him”

One of the principal threads running through the previous post was that over the course of centuries the concept of “God” in the western mindset became cosmologically dysfunctional. Beginning in the fourteenth century and culminating with the theory of evolution in 1859, the evidence for the action of a rational “God” in the physical occurrences in our universe evaporated.

This had a devastating effect on western religion which was founded on belief in exactly such a cosmological “God” ― a “God” who not only designed and created the universe, but providentially manages its development forever thereafter. “God” was imagined as pure spirit but his “mind” was not limited to the world of Ideas. He affected the course of events in the material universe. It bears emphasizing that long before God was imagined as a “spirit,” “Creator” was the first and more fundamental definition. A “God” who does not dominate the material universe is not God as the word has been understood since time immemorial.

Even after the traditional “God” had been defined as “spirit” by Plato and was understood to have his greatest impact on the “souls” of humankind, his power was never conceived as limited to the internal forum. “God” was an all-powerful “God” whose presence dominated the physical world because he owned it. And since there were no obstacles to his power, whatever happened in the real world had to be either directly intended by him or at least permitted to occur with his knowledge.

Nietzsche believed this cosmological “God” had disappeared so completely from the mind of western man that awareness of the magnitude of what had been lost would require a dramatic announcement ― that “God is dead” ― because people no longer even noticed his absence. The “God” who died, of course, was the cosmological “God,” the Creator of heaven and earth, for we now know that no one created or manages the universe. The death of such a force should have brought everything to a halt. Apparently no one could comprehend the immensity of what had occurred; it needed a “madman” to open their eyes:

Have you ever heard of the madman who lighted a lantern and ran to the marketplace calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! Is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden ? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?-the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, — you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knives … (Nietzsche, The Gay Science) [1]

The madman’s repeated accusation, that “we have killed him” refers to the realization that the “death of God” occurred because we no longer believe in him. We are all, religious as well as non-religious, complicit in the death of “God.” For no one can believe in the cosmological “God” any longer — all the works we once thought were wrought by “God” we now realize have material causes. And by allowing ourselves to conceive God in terms other than the cosmological, our noisy insistence that “we believe in God” rings hollow.

A “spiritual” God

The problem is compounded because we are encouraged by our progressive theologians to conceive of God as “spirit,” i.e., someone whose influence is felt in the world of the human mind and heart and not in the world of matter. By avoiding the ancient connection with the material universe altogether, they avoid the embarrassment of being ridiculed for saying that “God” acts in the natural world in ways that are clearly known to be false.

I believe these theologians are contaminated with the ancient western pathology of hylophobia. They have been acculturated by two thousand years of Platonic “spiritualism” to feel comfortable with a “God” who lives in another world not made of matter and relates exclusively to human “souls” which are also believed to be immaterial. That this material world and our material bodies are left out of the equation was the price they were willing to pay for finding a niche of safety away from the undeniable “death” of the Creator God.

I don’t know if we realize how momentous that transition was. Perhaps, as Nietzsche said, we need someone sufficiently isolated from society ― a madman ― to have the audacity to bring the message home. No “God,” no matter how ideologically sophisticated and consistent with the political values of intelligent, thinking people, can be possessed of the stature and significance of the cosmological “God.” Many have settled for a spiritual “God” who is the projection of human needs, aspirations and ideals. After all, “God” has always functioned for us in those areas anyway. But I challenge it. My position is that to opt for another “God” ― a “God” who is not bound to this universe of matter as intimately as was the late, great “Creator” ― is to opt to have no “God” at all. The issue is straightforward: an image or “idea” of ours, no matter how divine, that bears no reference to the actual existence and destiny of the material universe, is not “God.”

Non-overlapping magisteria

Religion and science seem locked into a fatal struggle for the hegemony of the modern mind. Religion, based on “God” as the cosmological ground, agent and explanation of all things in our vast material universe, seems to have been demolished by the indisputable evidence of science that the source of all the forms and features in the universe, and the myriads of living species that populate the earth, is matter itself. Religion without its ground and primary actor ― “God” ― is dead. Religion depends upon belief in a cosmic “God.”

In the late twentieth century the science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould saw this situation as intolerable and unnecessary. Both science and religion have an important place in our lives, he said, and they can co-exist if they are not set in eternal opposition to one another. He suggested that science and religion should be assigned to non-overlapping magisteria, NOMA, where each is master of its own domain, and the other has no rights.

As Gould says:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”[2]

For Gould, it seems, the “spiritual,” specifically identified as “purposes, meanings, and values,” is said to define religion. But I claim that the more fundamental characterization of religion is relationship, not purposes or values. For it was originally the ownership rights established by the act of creation that bound the dependent creature to its real Creator. Relationship can only be had with a real “God.”

It’s no wonder, then, when it became clear that “God” was not the “Craftsman” who designed and directed the existence of all things, that religion was shaken to its core. For the objective basis of the relationship was obliterated. If “God” in this case is nothing but a human ideal no matter how beautiful, then God and I bear no independent relationship to one another. “God” becomes a projection of mine, the product of my needs; he becomes my creation. The “ideal” function can only go so far before it is forced to submit to its source for validation, which is myself.  The “God”-function effectively disappears and is assumed to be just another property of human nature.

So far we have done little more than restate and hopefully clarify the problem: There is no evidence for the existence of a cosmological Creator “God;” but clearly, a purely spiritual “God” is not “God” at all, for we are matter and it has been shown by science that no rational “God“ designed and fabricated any part of the material universe.

According to the old paradigm, “God” who was “pure spirit” was related to matter because he was its Creator and Master. The relationship was derived from the authorship of both design and construction. In the Platonic view “God” and we are made of different “stuff” but we are bound together ― morally, juridically ― by the act of creation which establishes “God’s” ownership and our human obligation to obey “him.”

In the universe revealed by modern science, however, there is no rational “Creator” who “owns” creation by designing and constructing the cosmos either directly himself or through an intermediary. Material energy itself and its need to evolve in time is now known to be the source of both what and that things are. Material energy is now “God” for us; for material energy, acting materially (i.e., evolving), is responsible for everything once attributed to a personal, intelligent, designing “Creator.”

Our understanding of what “God” is like, however, radically changes in this scenario. “God” and the material universe are now related not juridically but genetically, i.e., intrinsically: they share the energy by which both live. Material energy establishes a physical bond with its emanations that is even more intimate than that of Creator to creature, and while it preserves intact the ancient religious convictions about “God’s” immanent presence and generative role in the cosmos, it does not contradict science’s discoveries about the way the universe evolved.

Material energy is “God.”

We and “God,” in this view, are related genetically ― i.e., we share what we are: the very “stuff” of our beings. We are not primarily related to one another by what we have done for one another or what we may do in the future. Therefore the relationship transcends moral conduct, and endures even in the absence of appropriate relational response. Morality, in other words, is a derivative of the relationship; it is not a condition of its existence. Inappropriate behavior cannot demolish or structurally alter the relationship. We are and remain “God’s offspring” forever.

In this modern paradigm “God” bears the ultimate constitutive relationship to the cosmos by being “that in which all things live and move and have their being:” “God” is the source of the energy of matter itself and in sharing “his” energy, shares everything “he” is except the way the sharing takes place. What is unchanging, in other words, is the structure of the relationship. The donor never becomes recipient, and the receiver, in using the donated energy and sharing it with others never becomes its ultimate source or origin. The dependency is always maintained. No matter how brightly the sun shines in a mirrored image, the image never becomes the source and origin of light and heat.  “God” is not an idea; “God” is real and the relationship is real.  We are indeed “his” offspring.

NOMA no more

In this paradigm there is no advantage whatsoever to pushing the false claim that science and religion function under two distinct and unrelated magisteria. It challenges the pseudo-scientific willingness to work in a metaphysical vacuum, eternally acting as if the issue of the source of the material universe is not relevant to science’s search for the complete chain of causes. It also challenges religious authority’s claims that religious explanations that ignore or even contradict the confirmed discoveries of science are valid by reason of the independent character of the religious magisterium.

Religion can no longer disregard science. Insistence on its own independent line of thought grounded in the immateriality of “spirit” reveals that much of theological production is self-justification ― an attempt to validate religious practices, institutional structures and the careers they generate by fabricating separateness and division in the universe.

At the root of all this lies the prejudicial hylophobic assumption that matter is incapable of having evolved into humankind with its ability for rational thought and religious yearning. Until we surrender to our spontaneous sense of awe at nature ― the echo of the sacred depths of the very matter of which we are made ― we will never trust it. That would be unfortunate; because it is only trust in what Teilhard calls “the heart of matter” that will open the door to the grateful embrace of death as the reditus ― the joyous return of our organisms to their material wellspring ― that completes the cycle of our lives.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich; Forster-Nietzsche, Elisabeth (2010-12-23). The Gay Science. From Nietzsche Complete Works Collection 20+ Books And Biography (Kindle Locations 18918-18920). Kindle Edition.
[2] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria