The Sacred and the Profane

1.

For people like myself, trained since childhood for the Catholic priesthood, the “sacred” was neatly divided from the “profane” and easily identified because it was thoroughly exhausted in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

What was sacred was what was declared sacred by the teachings of the ecclesiastical authorities and accepted as sacred by those who submitted to their teaching. “Sacred” was a word, therefore, that labeled a social bond: the Roman Catholic Church, docens et discens, both teaching and listening … and when that bond was broken — when I stopped listening — the word and category became meaningless; the sacred no longer existed. Suddenly, for people like me, nothing was sacred.

The division of reality into sacred and profane has been called a “principle,” following the categorical analysis of social philosophers, like Emile Durkheim. Along with the prestige of his name, saying the distinction between sacred and profane is a “principle” implies that it is grounded in reality, i.e., that there is something intrinsic and necessary about dividing the world into sacred and profane. But in fact it is merely the generalized description of a series of human societies that have, since time immemorial, divided reality into the “sacred and the profane.” So it is not a principle, it is rather a sociological “law” in the sense of a valid description of a repeated pattern of behavior for “larger” societies (not all sub-groups are covered) that, until modern times, seems to have had no exceptions. But it cannot be used as a universal premise from which to deduce incontrovertible conclusions … even when its predictions appear to be confirmed. It’s the nature of a scientific law. The most it can validly claim is that it is an accurate description of observed facts and its predictions have a high degree of probability. It cannot be adduced, for example, to disprove either of its two contraries: that some people may believe everything is sacred, or that some may believe nothing is sacred. Indeed, if the attitude that I once had represents the “truth,” as I believed it did, then the law would be invalidated because for me, temporarily, there was nothing sacred.  On the other hand, perhaps many people will finally come to the same conclusion that I have:   everything is sacred.

The Catholic Church of my formative experience was a perfect example of Durkheim’s sociological law, because it had, at least since the third century of the common era, declared itself to be the only authentic source and repository of the sacred in the universe. “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” was coined by Cyprian of Carthage around 250 ce. It was the same as saying the Church alone is sacred and outside the Church everything is profane. The Church, still to this day in its official documents, claims that anything besides itself that has any sacredness to it at all, has received that sacredness through contact with the Christian message or its ritual … or with Christians whose thoughts and actions had been sacralized by those words and rituals. Until that contact is made and those transformations occur, all of reality remains profane, and being profane according to ancient Christian ideology connotes a measure of corruption; non-Chris­tian reality is un-redeemed, “unregenerate,” under the control of Satan. That means it is not only not-sacred, but it is anti-sacred — actively hostile to the sacred. To one degree or another, non-Christian … and then, after the Reformation, non-Catholic … meant “actively evil.” Thus was the “sacred” made distinct from the “profane” in Western Catholic eyes, a condition that called for a “mission” to transform the profane into the sacred (make everyone Catholic), or if that proved impossible, to preside over their damnation, for the profane had no right to exist. By thus demonizing the existence of non-Catholic, non-Christian, and non-human reality, the core beliefs of the Catholic Church have maintained the perennial justifications for the separation, exploitation and even the extermination of “the profane” which includes all of nature.

A binary system

But notice in the traditional scheme of things: the sacred and the profane are intrinsically bound together in a binary system. You can’t have one without the other; if there were no “sacred,” there would be no “profane” and vice-versa. Once the sacred disappears, the profane disappears with it. We should take note of the transcendent importance of this fact. It means that by doing away with Durkheim’s categories, we immediately do away with the age-old justifications for the traditional hostilities that characterize the human family and condone disregard for species other than man and the earth that spawned us all. It is an absolutely necessary first step on the road to a new way of being-human. So when I thought that nothing is sacred because I realized that the claims of the Catholic Church were false, I also implicitly acknowledged, whether I was aware of it or not, that nothing is profane. Annihilating the sacred/profane dichotomy set me on a promontory with a view of universal reality rarely achieved by religion-bound humans in this vale of tears. By discovering that nothing is sacred I came within reach of its correlate implication which is much more important: nothing is profane.

Once you make that step, and realize there is nothing profane, you have opened a door to a respect and esteem for things (and people) that you may have been taught by your religious tradition to hold in disdain. Words like “respect” and “esteem,” like “cherish” and “love,” come awfully close to what people have in mind when they use the word “sacred.” Opening our eyes to the transcendent significance of that step is the beginning of wisdom: the understanding of what “sacred” really means — that everything is sacred.

2.

So we have stumbled onto a series of paradoxes: the path to understanding that everything is sacred begins by realizing that, in the traditional sense, nothing is sacred. And since the traditional sacred has always been identified with traditional religion, saying nothing is sacred necessarily involves the abandonment of religion in its traditional form. The ultimate paradox is that the universalism that first-century Christians claimed to bring to the religious life of humankind has been vitiated by the sectarian beliefs that have come to define the Christian institution at least since the third century. Clearly we are dealing with two different notions of what “sacred” means, and the traditional, sectarian meaning we are familiar with — which requires a complementary “profane” — is not only at odds with the earlier version but it has clearly displaced it. My rejection of the accepted dichotomy as meaningless represents a first step toward the other. I am on the way toward a new way of being human.

It’s important to keep in mind that both I and Durkheim before me were working off that “traditional” definition of “sacred.” The word “sacred” had been given a sectarian significance by a class-dominated Christianity that was almost two millennia old by modern times and formed the horizon of our lives. We knew nothing else. I contend that the “sacred/profane” dichotomy became a categorical paradigm in Durkheim’s mind because Christianity in its sectarian form dominated the religious environment in which he was formed. From there it was not difficult for him to see that Christianity’s precursors, like Judaism and later Islam, concurred; Christian sectarianism had, in fact, emerged historically from and recapitulated their fundamental assumptions. The “religions of the Book” all divide the world between the sacred and the profane. Asian religions like Jainism, early Buddhism, Taoism are different. They do not fit so easily into that schema.

If we look at the question as a function of logic, my conviction that being “sacred” can only mean being opposed to what is “profane” is really the result of a circular reasoning. The very category is established only by ecclesiastical fiat — an historically conditioned sectarian Christianity taken as a paradigm — and when made to function like a universal “principle” proves only itself. As a premise it is false and misleading. When the term is finally factored out, the equation yields the beginnings of an understanding of the universality of the sacred. A “sacred” that needs a “profane” to make itself intelligible is logically untenable — it floats groundlessly in mid-air — and its effects on the human project, predictably, distorting.

Existence is sacred

If our “classical” sociological definition of “sacred” is indefensible, what then is the true one? The true definition of “sacred” stands on its own.   It has no need for opposition to an imagined “profane.” The sense of the sacred is the primordial human reaction to being-here — existence, LIFE. It is the direct corollary of the irrepressible joy-of-life that accompanies the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation and the inescapable ecstatic embrace of self-identity. It is inescapable because it is embedded in the organic matter of which we are made. It is innate. As such the sacred is revealed as absolutely universal, for all things share that élan, and it is necessarily self-grounded, self-evident, and undeniable. There is nothing profane, as I discovered from my insight that nothing is “sacred,” and therefore no transformation from profane to sacred is required. The spontaneous focus of the conatus’ self-embrace is for the organism to continue to be what it is. To continue in existence as I am is survival. Survival is not optional. It is the “law of nature” that establishes the foundational priority of the sacred. We are in the realm of metaphysical transcendentals here: the sacred is an intrinsic and inalienable property of existence that emanates from the drive to survive. Transcendence — the characteristic of properties that qualify absolutely everything that exists — arises from the very inner depths of mundane reality itself and is intimately identified with it. I am organically predisposed to cherish life.

3.

If the “sacred” is the psychological reflection of the very energy of existence itself, its universality is primordial. How did such a transcendent foundation get trivialized into the sacred / profane dichotomy so characteristic of our religions? Our particular Western Christian way of structuring the sacred-profane divide is rooted in our history. Specifically, it comes from two beliefs inherited from ancient times, each coming from one of the two source cultures which melded in Christianity: (1) the Greek belief that (sacred) spirit “fell” into (profane) matter — the body — a substance distinct from spirit and the cause of all human weakness, corruption and mortality, and (2) the Jewish myth-turned-belief that the events in the garden of Eden literally introduced evil, suffering and death (the profane) into human life, a subsequent corruption of pristine (sacred) reality that reached even to the human spirit. Both were erroneous, but Christians believed them; together they guaranteed that the natural universe including humankind would be considered corrupt and evil without the saving action of the Christian Church.   The Church was sacred, everything else — absolutely everything — was profane. The Greek and Jewish traditions had concurred in this: nature as we know it was the result of an unnatural “fall.” Both agree: the universe is not what it was supposed to be; it had to be “saved” from what it had become and transformed back into what it should have been. “Nature” was corrupt, it needed to be made whole and healthy by something more powerful than nature — something “supernatural.”

Christians then, taking the “fall” as the primary fact of life and the source of all human suffering and mortality, claimed that it was the death of Christ that “saved” us and reversed the effects of the fall. They then said that the Church was the “body of Christ,” the repository and exclusive agent of the “saving power” of Christ’s death through time. This dynamic, in place by the third century, set the clear lines that divided the sacred from the profane for western Christendom for millennia … for me and for everyone else.

4.

But it was not always so. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim is their inspiration, was conspicuous in flouting the customary sacred/profane taboos of the time. In fact, if the gospel accounts can be trusted, it was precisely Jesus’ penchant for disregarding the prohibitions against contact with the profane that was the main cause of contention in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities: he consorted with “tax collectors and prostitutes,” he performed works of healing and condoned his disciples’ gathering grain on the Sabbath, he healed lepers, the possessed, the blind and crippled, a hemorrhaging woman … all of whom were considered unclean, “sinners,” and were to be avoided. Some of the most moving stories about Jesus recounted his characteristic way of treating the “profane” as if they were “sacred:” the story of the prodigal son, the woman taken in adultery, his friendliness with the Samaritan woman at the well, the gentile woman in Sidon who asked him to heal her daughter.

It seems Jesus knew that nothing was profane without having to get there by the “back door” — by way of thinking that nothing was sacred. Everything in his demeanor and what he said indicates that he had a profound understanding of the primordiality and the universality of the sacred. For Jesus, everyone and everything was sacred, nothing was profane.

Some people attribute this to a “special knowledge” he had because he was “God.” But there is nothing in the narratives to indicate that he was telling people something they had never heard of or did not immediately recognize as human and completely familiar. This was not an esoteric “gnosis,” it was the fundamental message that Jesus had gleaned from his formation, life and experience as a Jew who knew the story of his people and the poetry of the prophets who interpreted that story. Jesus had no knowledge that was not available and familiar to all. If there was any source of his simple wisdom outside of his personal experience and family formation, it was the Jewish religion as practiced in Palestine of the first century ce. His vision was entirely human, profoundly human.

The only thing “divine” about him was the depth of his humanity. He was one of us, no more no less. The claim that Jesus was “God” is just another alienating tactic designed to excuse refusal to embrace the natural humanity that we all have. The kind of humanity Jesus was talking about is familiar to us all; and we have all met many people of other traditions and no tradition, who live it with an ease and simple joy that owes nothing to the “sacred” beliefs, rituals and practices hawked by the Catholic Church. Jesus, like any good Jew is a mensch — a human being. That’s all he’s talking about: be a mensch, be what you are. Be a human being. Being a human being means recognizing that being human the way Jesus was human is completely natural; it means living with the understanding that everything is sacred.

 

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In anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s attempt to reform Roman Catholicism, I am happy to announce the publication of

Christianity 2017

Reflections on the Protestant Reformation

by Tony Equale

mos snapshot

On October 31, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). The Declaration summarized and officially sanctioned the many reports of earlier dialogue commissions going back to 1972. In the Preamble the signers state that

on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.[1]

Given the centuries of division that resulted from the mutual condemnations of these two Churches on this very doctrine, that the signatories can announce “a common understanding” leaves many observers baffled and incredulous. If the Churches can now say that “in the light of this consensus, the corresponding doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century do not apply to today’s partner”[2] it immediately raises the question of just exactly how important could those once contrary expressions have been?

One is daunted by the thought of parsing the verbal niceties that must have gone into this “consensus” when one also learns that “these condemnations are still valid today.”[3] Apparently this most remarkable concurrence has been achieved without any significant modification by either party.

The correct articulation of the function of faith in justification was of primary dogmatic importance to both Churches in the sixteenth century. If that function was indeed never really a source of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration states, then it has to be asked: besides the dispersal of political power, did anything of significance occur in the transformations we call the Reformation?

In the reflections that follow, the “com­mon understanding” of 1999 must serve as an ever-present caveat, providing us with an ongoing corrective as we reflect on the events that tore Christendom apart starting in 1517. For, however authentically “evangelical” a Reformation event might appear to his­tory, we will be constantly reminded by the JDDJ that in five hundred years time it will be dismissed as irrelevant.

This preliminary analysis, therefore, allows us to begin with a tentative conclusion: the true significance of the Reformation might not lie on the visible surface but somewhere deep underground where neither Church could see it at the time … and still may not. It asks a second question: what still needs reforming?

This is much more than a pious resolution. It has to do with religious truth. We are talking about an alleged foundational distortion in the mediaeval view of the world — an error that made life unbearable for the ordinary Christian — that Lutheran evangelical “justification” claimed to have identified and corrected. But, since the doctrine was never in dispute, it means that no such correction ever took place. Reform at the doctrinal level, in other words, never occurred. In all likelihood the error is with us still, affecting “Protestants” as much as “Catholics.”

It suggests there is a doctrinal “reform” of Christianity as a whole that still remains to be achieved — a reform at depths that “justification” never reached.

Christianity was chosen and overhauled by Constantine to be a new engine for a theocratic Roman machine that was already a thousand years old. Everything important was already in place; all Christianity had to do was to keep it all going. In fulfilling that role Rome’s official religion found it necessary to elaborate a new “doctrine” of “God” that was contrary if not contradictory to the Jewish Yahweh that Jesus knew as “Father.” It is this doctrine, I contend, conformed to the needs of the Imperial apparatus that dares to define a “God” that is transcendent, immutable — a pure spirit ruling a purely material universe — in every sense an emperor that mirrored the society that had conjured him.

This imperial “God,” accepted by all without question from then on, lay beyond reach of “justification by faith,” articulated by Luther in the sixteenth century. Like “justification” itself, “God” is a doctrine that all Christians have shared since the days of Augustine.

I submit for the readers’ evaluation the following reflections as prima facie evidence that the traditional “doctrine of ‘God,’” is the source of Christianity’s intrinsic defects.

[1] JDDJ, Preamble, #5 The document can be found at the Vatican website

[2] ibid., main text #3 ¶13

[3] JDDJ, Preamble #1

 

Christianity 2017 will be available shortly at Amazon and other booksellers.  Until then it can be ordered at Boundary Rock Publishers, 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380, or at Lulu.com.  The price is $23.53 which, if you order from Boundary Rock, includes shipping.  You may order by e-mail at the following address: boundaryrockpublishers@swva.net or you may call: (540) 789-7098.  Please leave a name, address and phone number, and speak slowly and loudly.

Eckhart’s mystical program

Meister Eckhart was a mystic. He integrated his spirituality and his science — a project that we would emulate in our times and with our “science” — but he did it in an extraordinary way: he transcended religion. In Eckhart’s view, as we “become,” by choice after choice one with God … as we withdraw from attachment to anything but pure absolute being, we eventually “break through” all separations, divisions, oppositions and individualities and we become one with and within the “One” in which all things subsist— the “Godhead beyond God.” This wasn’t just a religious moment; it was a cosmological event.

The “One” in Eckhart’s picture can easily be substituted by matter’s energy and the mystical relationships remain the same except for the emotionality associated with a personal “God.” But “withdrawing all attachment” should have already eliminated that as an obstacle. As the following citations shows, Eckhart explicitly denied that the “Godhead beyond God” was a “person.”

Eckhart’s sense of the Divine Unity is the bedrock feature of his theology. His own terminology about the “Godhead” is even more challenging than our descriptions of it. He says the “Godhead” is

“… a non-God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a non-image, rather … He is a pure, sheer, limpid One, detached from all duality.

… If the soul sees God as He is God, or as He is an image, or as He is three, it is an imperfection. But when all images are detached from the soul and she sees nothing but the One alone, then the naked essence of the soul finds the naked formless essence of divine unity, which is superessential being …”[1]

Eckhart scholar Robert Forman comments:

Eckhart stressed the absolute desert-like silence of the Godhead … beyond even the bare threeness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   … beyond all distinctions, those between creatures and God, … and even the subtle distinctions between the Trinity and the Godhead. Most importantly, all creatures come to be cognized as non-distinguished from the divine expanse which has been (since the Birth) encountered within myself. The peculiar oceanic feeling is hence encountered not only internally but externally … . It is to find oneself amidst the ontological core of the cosmos.[2]

Forman continues: “When Eckhart speaks of the ‘Breakthrough’ in the first person he suggests that it involves perceiving the unmoved mover which stands at the source of both “myself” and the world. This entails the perception that self and other are One. He quotes Eckhart:

When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works and of God Himself, then I am above all creatures and I am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain forevermore … this breaking through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am the unmoved cause that moves all things.”[3]

This is truly extraordinary language for a mediaeval scholastic. But it is even more remarkable when we see its resemblance to the projections of cosmo-ontology which sees a “living matter” — an equally singular source — at the basis of all cosmic development.

Beyond “God” to the Godhead       

The famous sermon of the Meister given on the text “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” from Matthew’s gospel, is especially strong in its insistence that the God of religion and of religious spirituality must be transcended and effectively shed before the authentic connection with the ultimate Source of the Sacred can occur.

Other mystics say virtually the same thing. The detachment of the “dark night” of John of the Cross in which blind, empty trust alone, beyond all knowledge or clarity, beyond all consolation or assurance, is similar in that it insists that all concepts and images are transcended when authentic mystical contact takes place. In this same regard, the Buddha was particularly trenchant against “religion” and the gods. This reinforces the traditional scholastic rejection of anthropomorphism. The very nature of reality precludes any imagery of an “Intelligent Designer.”

Here is more from Eckhart on the issue from the same sermon. It should be easy to discern when Eckhart uses the word “God” to mean the object of our religious understanding, which is to be transcended, and when he intends the “Godhead” which is the true goal of the individual’s quest.

… If you want to be truly poor, you must be as free from your creature-will as when you had not yet been born. For by the everlasting truth, as long as you will to do God’s will and yearn for eternity and God, you are not really poor; for (s)he is poor who wills nothing, knows nothing and wants nothing.

Back in the Womb from which I came, I had no God and merely was myself. I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. And what I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I existed untrammeled by God or anything else. But when I parted from my free will and received my created being, then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not God, but rather, he was what he was. When creatures came to be and took on creaturely being, then God was no longer God as he is in himself, but God as he is with creatures.

Now, we say that God, in so far as he is only God, is not the highest goal of creation, nor is his fullness of being as great as that of the least of creatures, themselves in God. … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, and taking the truth, break through into eternity, where the highest angels and souls too, are like what I was in my primal existence, when I wanted what I was and I was what I wanted. Accordingly, a person ought to be poor, willing as little and wanting as little as when he did not exist.

. . .       

The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything. But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that. God is free of everything and therefore he is everything. He then who is to be poor in spirit … knows nothing of God, or creatures, or himself. …

Thus far I have said that he is poor who does not want to fulfill the will of God but who so lives that he is empty of his own will and the will of God, as much so as when he did not exist. Next we said that he is poor who knows nothing of the action of God in himself. … But the third poverty is the most inward and real … it consists in that a man has nothing.

… If it is the case that a man is emptied of things, creatures, himself and God, and if still God could find a place in him to act, then we say: as long as that exists, this man is not poor with the most intimate poverty … since true poverty of spirit requires that man shall be emptied of God and all his works, so that if God wants to act in the soul, he himself must be the place in which he acts … he would himself be the scene of action, for God is the one who acts within himself. It is here in this poverty, that man regains the eternal being that once he was, now is, and evermore shall be.

Therefore I pray God that he may quit me of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions. It was here that I was myself, wanted myself, and knew myself to be this person, and therefore I am my own first cause, both of my eternal being and of my temporal being. To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever.

For what I am as a temporal creature is to die and come to nothingness, for it came with time and with time it will pass away. In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten, I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be. If I had not been, there would have been no God. …

The similarity of Eckhart’s “Godhead” to Spinoza’s “God/Being” is striking. Each eschew humanoid imagery in describing our relationship to our Source and Sustainer. It’s not my intention to promote Eckhart’s neo-Platonism or Platonic theories of the pre-existence of the soul. But his sermons are not only theoretical doctrine; they are the records of his mystical experience, just as Spinoza’s doctrine of “God” in his Ethics is really the metaphysical translation of his mystical experience of himself in the world. This means to me we should examine the expositions of these extraordinary people as their experience of being human — mystically human.

What I hear from Eckhart is that his experience of connectedness with the Sacred deepened progressively over the course of his life and eventuated in an awareness that goes beyond religion and religion’s “God, and meshes with the reality at the core of all things. He senses himself to be one with everything, and one with the source of all, which he defines in the terms used by the science of his times: being. He calls it “Godhead” and distinguishes it from religion’s “God.” His neo-Platonism is an interpretative tool of his experience. His experience is what interests us; and his experience took him beyond religion’s “God.”

I contend that the imagery Eckhart used to describe his experience concurs too neatly with the perspectives evoked by a universe made of matter’s living and existential energy to be a mere coincidence. I believe he experienced his organism’s unity with the material cosmos and “being” was the word he used to represent it.   What we have in Eckhart’s writing — despite its neo-Platonic assumptions — is a reliable guide to a mysticism based on an encounter with the substrate-object of the individual human organism’s self-embrace: matter’s energy.

Whether or not Eckhart perceived the full significance of what he was experiencing I claim you cannot fully embrace what you are as a human being without loving the living substance of which you are made. It was matter’s energy and matter’s energy alone, whose survival mechanisms were passed on through reproduction over eons of geologic time, that put you here and made you what you are.

YOU ARE THAT!

 

 

[1] Walshe, M. Meister Eckhart, German Sermons and Treatises, London, Watkins, 1979 vol 2: p. 331

[2] Robert Forman, Meister Eckhart, The Mystic as Theologian, 1994 Element Books, Rockport MA, pp.178-180

[3] Walshe, op.cit. vol.2: p.275

Eckhart and Materialism

In the early fourtheenth century Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, didn’t have to contend with the sense of doom that confronted the sixteenth century Reformers. The neo-Platonic mysticism that dominated his thinking seemed impervious to institutionalized guilt. Unlike Luther and his Catholic colleagues two centuries later who were forced to find mechanisms to circumvent the permanent “original” alienation of the Augustinian worldview, Eckhart was able to ground intimacy with “God” on what the science of his day — scholasticism — had asserted about the very nature of reality itself. No by-pass mechanism was necessary. For creation was not only “God’s” doing, it was “God’s” very Being. Union with “God” was innate, primordial, permanent and inalienable.

I contend a metaphysics based on modern materialism supports the same conclusion.   The relationship between the human organism and its existential source is genetic.

As a scholastic, Eckhart understood both creation and spiritual transformation to be a function of participation in being. We are not familiar today with the Platonic pattern of locating existence primarily in the conceptual “genus” or over-class (the idea) and in the individual only derivatively. The super-essential or super-generic idea of being ― which was taken to be “God” ­― defined and characterized the individual. If you existed, you shared “God’s” essence which was existence itself. In fact, in this arrangement, you were a very minor partner: “God” defined both what and that you were.

In Eckhart’s world no one had their own being. The shared concept was the precise mirror-image of the shared reality. There is only one “being,” and it is not only owned by God, it is “God’s” own. It is not only God’s; it is “God.”

Relationship to God, therefore, in the scholastic system, was not a personal choice on our part nor is it in any way dependent on our consequent behavior or God’s. It is not a human achievement. It cannot be lost. It is not created by redemption, merely “upgraded.” It is not voluntary. It comes first; it is our very existence itself. The “act” in which we exist is “God.”

This helps explain why accusations of “pantheism” always dogged the theology of the high middle ages. Many said such ideas naïvely assumed oneness with “God” and ignored the distance created by divine transcendence and human depravity. When the Black Plague hit Europe in 1350, it was a cause of great disillusionment. People came to believe that their former clarity about God’s forebearance was benighted. “God” was suddenly a dark and brooding presence: even more wrathful and punitive than Augustine had warned. Christians began to march to a different drummer; it led eventually to the Reformation.

A Material Universe

Things have changed. “Ideas” are no longer believed to create and shape reality as they did in the middle ages. In our time science has discovered that the cosmos is made of a homogeneous energy substrate that takes various forms some of which we have traditionally called “matter.”   Because all of its manifestations are made of the same underlying energy packets, I call this substrate matter’s energy or material energy. It is all there is. Everything is made of it.

Matter’s energy is existence in our modern scheme of things. The spiritual “essence” or immaterial idea no longer explains what something is nor is it believed to be the conduit for existence. Living organisms differ from one another because each species is brought to maturity and sustained in its uniqueness by a controlling bio-chemi­cal template called DNA derived from the parents and passed on by sexual reproduction. DNA is entirely material. It has been clearly established that DNA, which performs the functions once attributed to “essence” in the Platonic system, is an endogenous product of matter’s energy, self-elaborated over eons of geologic time by the successive generations of material ancestors that preceded the current phenotype.

While DNA controls the development of progeny, it was itself constructed bit by bit by the inclusions of successful variations that resulted from the living organism’s drive to survive. In other words, it was the fortuitous survival of evolving organisms that created a DNA that now allows their inheritors to survive. DNA does not suddenly appear full blown out of the blue … or out of the Mind of God. In the modern view survival, i,e., existence, is the driving factor, DNA, essence, is the derivative.

What needs to be emphasized is that the two “systems,” the modern and the mediaeval, the materialist and the idealist, are totally incompatible with one another. Either some version of Plato is right, or some version of modern science is right. Either “matter” is dead and mindless and it needs a living “Spirit” to populate the universe with a myriad of things by implanting spiritual “ideas” (essences) into it, or matter is itself alive, evolving on its own in order to survive, and by evolving creates the substructural combinations later used to elaborate the almost infinite number of species of living organisms visible on earth including those, like us, with mind.

Evolution

Some will insist that something needs to explain why there is such a thing as evolution capable of forging both a material substructure and later living species. “God,” they say, designed evolution as a tool to accomplish his creative will.

The suggestion shows that its proponents do not understand how evolution works. Evolution is the result of survival, it does not create it. What survives is what happens to remain after a variety of experimental modifications were launched to confront a particular environment. Those organisms with variations that failed, cease to exist. Those that survive do so because the changes they incorporated permit them to continue in existence. Species evolve because they pile up modification on top of modification, each one the key to survival for the organism in some environment hostile enough to have wiped out its sister modifications. Evolution necessarily produces what survives or the phenotype would not be here. The process is entirely after the fact and therefore does not require a designing intelligence to explain it.

Furthermore, why would a rational “God” who is supposedly Pure Spirit ever design a process like evolution that works entirely on random — irrational — and material factors. Is “God” trying to disguise who he is and how he works? If we define rationality as the use of purpose in the pursuit of goals, there is, besides survival itself, clearly no purpose evident in evolution and therefore no rationality. Evolution is exclusively about existence and its energy, the blind urge to be. Evolution will produce terrifying dinosaurs as quickly as gentle butterflies. The only thing evolution does not produce is non-being. On our own planet it has created an earthful of organisms that heartlessly feed on one another to survive. A rational loving “God” could hardly be said to have created a world such as ours in order to display his rational and benvolent nature. The predation inherent in the food chain is a fatal scandal for many. “Atheists” adduce it as evidence against the existence of “God,” or at least the “God” that we have imagined.

I agree with them. There is no such “God.” Our universe is not the result of “ideas” generated by an “Intelligent Designer.”

LIFE

Yet it is teeming with life. Both life and the rationality seen in humankind are the result of the same evolutionary groping for survival as every other material modification among living organisms. They suggest that matter’s drive to survive — its insistence on existence — is an energy more fundamental than mind or rationality.

This is difficult for us to accept. We tend to apotheosize mind as far superior to any other thing in existence. We used to think mind was immaterial spirit. We did not realize until very recently that mind was elaborated by matter out of some unseen potential deep within its own wells of energy. And if, as I claim, intelligence is the mirroring of the nature of organic reality as the source-paradigm of the “one and the many” (multiple specimens generated by the same DNA) then from an evolutionary point of view the emergence of mind from matter becomes comprehensible. Mind is not primarily a “seeing:” a disinterested “spiritual” contemplation of objective reality. It is rather a sub-function of human survival that enhances the individual organism’s ability to thrive in a world dominated by biological life. By the increasingly accurate identification of individuals as members of species, the human being with mind was better able to defend against predators and gather and multiply food. Mind — the ability to grasp the “one and the many — was a modification that worked.

I am inclined to pause here and point out the parallels in the two systems — platonic idealism and modern materialism — that we have been comparing. For even though they are internally incompatible, the overriding conceptual structures are similar. This isn’t coincidental. They both have identified the source of all existence, and that source in each case has to perform a similar function within its respective system.

Consider: matter’s energy performs a function in the modern paradigm that resembles the role of esse in se subsistens (self-subsistent being) in the mediaeval paradigm. Keep in mind that for Eckhart esse was “God.”

All things are created by matter’s tireless energy to continue on in existence and always remain exclusively itself no matter how elaborate the evolution. Being may be fairly considered the conceptual mirror of matter’s energy. The material substrate, analogous to being, is potentially eternal because it is neither created nor destroyed. It is obsessively focussed on existing (being-here) and every new version of itself shares that obsession. (That explains the presence of the conatus in all organismic life.) Existence is proliferated by the internal sharing of matter’s energy with ever-new versions of itself and so its creativity may be called “maternal” in the sense that it passively allows itself to “be partaken of,” it does not pro-actively generate objects that are “other” than itself. If something is not built of matter’s energy in our universe, it does not exist. Since everything is matter’s energy, it can be said that the only “thing” in the universe is matter’s energy not unlike the way Spinoza said that Being, “God,” was the only “substance” and everything else was a “modality” of “God.”

Please note: this quick sketch limns a new image of “God” not as Father but as a Mother who creates by allowing her children to autonomously extrude themselves from her substance. This passive supplying of her substance gives an entirely new non-interventionist meaning to the word “providence.”

In the scholastic system that Eckhart thought of as “science,” all these same functions were ascribed to esse in se subsistens, “being,” another word for “God.” Just as all things elaborated by matter’s energy share the fundamental qualities and features of the substrate, so too in the fourteenth century all existing things shared in the existence that was the essence of “God.”

While these parallels are analogous, they are not identical. Any direct comparison would reveal major discrepancies due to the radical difference in metaphysical content. The cosmo-ontology I espouse is a materialist philosophy germane to modern science; it is completely contrary to a platonically harmonized Aristotelian idealist scholasticism.

But mysticism goes beyond philosophy. Mysticism is the human resonance of a relationship. It is Eckhart’s mystical message that puts on display the similarities between how the ruling concepts function in each system. The imagery he uses when talking about “the Godhead beyond God,” as we will see in the next post, is quite remarkable and may be said to derive from his neo-Platonic scholasticism centered on the concept of being. I believe the fact that “being” plays a role analogous to that of matter’s energy, accounts for the perennial appeal of Eckhart’s writings. The imagery he generated to describe the “being” he encountered in the depths of his own conscious existence — an existence that was primarily that of “being” itself and only secondarily his own — can work for us as a guide as we try to descibe our experience of the material energy we share with everything else in the universe — a material energy that is so available to us that we use it to produce our very selves.