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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2 comments on “Reditus

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    Just like reading Juan Luis Segundo’s Jesus of Nazareth, an Evolutionary Approach to Jesus of Nazareth, to which I will “return” to refresh myself with the necessary nuances I think he brings to the issues discussed. E.g., that of entropy/negentropy in an evolving cosmos, and the recaptitulation offered by Jesus of Nazareth, recapitulation = putting a head on, crowning. Thank you.

  2. Sal Umana says:

    Tony, I have been meditating for two weeks on your article on “Reditus.” It is so profound and so rich that all my efforts to summarize it seem to be in vain. It is about life and death and resurrection. And, of course, the mystery of God as the source of life and energy. Since we are matter and God is matter, we are directly related to God who shares “nature” with us as Duns Scotus says. As you say, Duns Scotus in an original departure from traditional Neoplatonism, calls this first and highest cosmic principle ‘nature’, and it includes both God and creation.
    Thus, when we humans die, we return to nature. That is the ‘Resurrection’ that we symbolically declare in the Nicene Creed. But it is not so much a loss of self-consciousness as it is the acquirement of a transcendent relationship with matter/ Nature. Another way of putting it is, as you say: Duns Scotus applied Christian categories of Resurrection to what the Neoplatonists believed was a natural process: the 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.’ That is our destiny since we are “in God, in whom we live and move and have our being.”
    Very apropos of this, Joe Hassan sent a quote from Einstein through Richard Rohr:

    In a letter to a man who had lost his young son to polio, Albert Einstein writes, “A human being is part of the whole called by us ‘the universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.” [2]

    I will leave without attempting to relate Einstein to Equale, two of the greatest geniuses of this past century, especially on the hundredth anniversary of the theory of General Relativity.
    Sal Umana

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