In search of a new doctrine of “God” (II)

The “sense of the sacred” in my view stands on its own as a human phenomenon — a common psychological and social experience. It does not immediately imply the “existence of God,” as some claim. Nor does it appear to be derived from religious socialization; for people who do not believe in “God” also have a sense of the sacred.

Rather, in recognition of the intense emotional investment in whatever is considered sacred, it may be reasonably understood as a derivative of the conatus, our drive to survive as human beings. I will dare define it here: the sense of the sacred is a by-product of our existential self-em­brace. It is the affective resonance of our appreciation of our existence — an appreciation innate to our organic matter which radiates out to everything that has to do with it, from its source, to all those things believed necessary to maintain it.

[ Note: Some readers may object to the use of the term “sacred” because of its religious associations through the millennia. I recognize that it is a problem word in this regard. I will gladly accept the use of another word or phrase for “sense of the sacred” so long as it continues to refer to a subjective feeling imputing an ultimate value requiring recognition. Its interpretation may be a matter of legitimate dispute, but the existence of the phenomenon is not.
Also I am intentionally bracketing the effect of society’s collective appropriation of the conatus’ energy to create religion.]

So we start with a sense of the sacred as a human experience, and pursue an enquiry that tries to determine whether or not it has a justification that transcends cultural programming and personal predilection … or to say it in a different way, an enquiry to determine exactly what may explain it, and what it, in turn, explains. Effectively we are examining the root and ground of the conatus.

Essentialist-spirit­ua­list philosophy grounded the traditional “sacred” in two ways: (1) It said that “Being” was a spirit-“God” who designed and sustained our being with a participation in “his” being, and (2) that human beings each had an eternal personal destiny with “God” precisely and only because we were “spirits” as “he” was.

The cosmo-ontology that we are proposing here affects each of those points differently. As far as (2) is concerned, eternal personal destiny was called into question because our position challenges the existence of the separable immortal individual soul. Personal destiny from now on will have to be calculated on a different basis, and with an entirely different result. To the degree that the sense of the sacred was tied to the (eternal) existence of the immortal individual soul, it is gone.


But in the case of (1), participation in “God’s” being, the question remains open. In the non-dualist view we are proposing in this study, the sacred is theoretically sustainable based on the “participation” cre­ated by the com­­mon possession of the substrate, matter’s energy. What it comes down to is this: material existence as we have been studying it, performs the theoretical role once assigned to “God” as “Being” — it is that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

How do these competing “grounds of the sacred” compare:

First, traditional participation suffers under an insuperable liability. It is premised, as we saw, on subsistent ideas. But there is no “World of Ideas” that makes traditional “participation in being” possible and there is no world of separable spirit. This will affect the “concept of Being” as the ground of participation. “Being” is an idea; it is not a “thing.”

The term “God” has been so wedded to the essentialist view that some feel it is impossible to use the word “God” without evoking essentialist spiritism. But the issue in this case is the word, not the reality.  There is no question that material energy is an existential factor of sufficient ontological heft to sustain the self-em­brace that gives rise to the conatus and our sense of the sacred. Matter’s energy is indisputably that “in which we live and move and have our being” and therefore, objectively, can explain and justify the sense of the sacred derived from the conatus.

Second, process, that aspect of matter’s energy revealed and mea­­s­ured in time, is fundamental to our definition of existence. The basic “stuff” of reality is not a “thing,” but a dynamism with a non-rational intentionality, a self-embrace for which rational consciousness is secondary, emergent, not antecedent, not directive. Anything built of it, therefore, will also be a self-embracing process, not an idea with a purpose embedded in a “thing.” To the extent that “sacredness” was dependent on the presence of static essences wed to final causes (purposes) and possibly a “divine” terminus, an Omega Point, it is gone. What kind of “sacred” does non-rational process, reflected in the conatus, evoke? My answer: only itself, an endless pro­cess of existing, a self-embrace that is equally functional at every point along the timeline of development.

Third, we can say that a shared substrate that evolves all things suggests a participation that is material, genetic and thoroughly a posteriori. It is not built on an a priori plan moving toward an Omega; it’s built on the aggregation of constituent parts, reproduction, symbiosis, a “genetic” relationship — family, community — the result of a process of invention and integration driven by an existential self-embrace.

If the energy at the base of matter — which I call existence — now performs the existential functions once assigned to “God,” there is no reason, as far as I can see, why it cannot provide the philosophical grounds for our sense of the sacred. But I want to emphasize, the sense of the sacred is a first-level phenomenon; it is indisputably there whether we find sufficient and necessary grounds to explain ity or not. Even further removed is whether such grounds approximate to what we used to call “God.”

“God” has always been considered “pure spirit.” The energy of matter cannot be postulated of “God” with­out imputing materiality to “God.” This is a critical issue for our tradition. That “God” might be material has been considered entirely unthinkable in the history of western philosophy. (But, see the appendix to the Mystery of Matter on the materiality of God.) The word “God” carries an ideological overload connoting “spirit.”

Matter is a living dynamism … does that make it sacred?

So let’s bracket the word “God” for now. Hasn’t the function of the concept, “God,” in fact, been replaced with matter’s energy?

The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is explained by a conatus, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, “good,” by which I mean “sacred.” But the conatus — the human drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo­geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred.

But the conatus requires a recognition of its creative power that was in evidence in even its most primitive state. Accepting the conatus as a living dynamism at the sub-atomic level, however, takes an understanding that transcends the information available to particle physicists working in isolation. Recognizing the homogeneity of the dynamism of the conatus across the levels of existence requires the use of a retroactive interpretation that looks at, not only what physics can directly observe and infer about the big bang revealed by particle colliders, but at what these particles are observed doing later on at virtually every level of evolutionary emergence. The panoply of forms, pre-living and living, conscious, intelligent and purposeful, that result from the repeated application of the “stuff” and collective strategy initiated at the big bang, is exclusively built of quarks and electrons … unless there is an outside “spirit,” the conatus must come from there.

The evidence for it is clear. Its character as existential self-embrace is within us, and it is through the intimate “experience” of one’s own conatus that it becomes more than a syllogism and overflows into a deeper understanding of all reality. But, that having been said, I want to emphasize, it always remains a syllogism:

Major premise: “life” cannot be reduced to mechanical reflexes (i.e. there is a qualitative difference between life and non-life);
Minor premise: but our planet is teeming with life, and every living thing is constructed only of a physical substrate which on its own and in isolation appears absolutely lifeless.
Conclusion: therefore, either there is another, immaterial, source that introjects life into “matter,” or the substrate, despite all appearances and reductionist claims, is itself a living dynamism.

The syllogism is inductive and after examining premises and evidence concludes that “matter is a living dynamism” activated proportionately (analogically) across the phyla of living things as we have been saying. If it cannot validly do that, the argument fails, and the reductionist position holds, although always with a condition … reductionism, in turn, must itself explain “life.”

Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean­ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like (however true that may be), I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor­phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists metaphorization. And meta­phor is the only valid use that that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al­ter­native imagery.

[ Note: It’s important to emphasize that in this study I am trying to remain strictly philosophical. I am not rejecting religion … how “religion” may respond to the new understandings we are discovering here is a separate topic altogether. By emphasizing the damaging power of the “G” word I am simply attempting to maintain the in­de­pen­dence of a very fragile, easily derailed speculative imagination, which is the only instrument we have for exploring the sacred depths of reality as it has been revealed to us by science. ]

Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost anything that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

In search of a new doctrine of “God”

Our view that “matter is a living dynamism” may seem to approximate the position of those who believe they see an “Anthropic Principle” operating in the evolution of life in the universe. Some try to use it as a proof of creationism. Their argument is:

… since the laws of physics are perfect for the emergence of chemistry, and che­mis­try is perfect for the emergence of life, then it all must have been designed so as to yield life in general and human life in particular. Had any of the laws of physics been anything other than what they are, the universe would have been very different, and perhaps not possible at all, and life as we know it would not have evolved.[1]

To assert that such features were imposed from without by the work of a Master Mind and Craftsman is gratuitous; there is no evidence to support it. But we can (must) say what we see … and what we see has produced a universe too vast to imagine with at least one planet teeming with a near infinite variety of life. Minimally it must be said, with Peirce, that we are looking at a living spontaneity, a living dynamism.

Creationism is wed to a supernatural theist notion of “God.” Practically speaking, that means a spirit-“God”-person who is a cosmic agent, who thinks and acts rationally (i.e., with reasons, for a purpose) on material reality from a spiritual realm beyond material reality. Creationists not only claim that the physical properties of the Universe were specifically designed for life by this rational “God,” they also insist that direct divine intervention was necessary on multiple occasions thereafter for the emergence of phenomena like life, animal sentience, human consciousness and many other things. To my mind, this is absurd. The “anthropic” properties could not have been very well designed if subsequent in­ter­ven­tions of a miraculous nature were still required to produce these emer­gent effects. On the other hand, to accept a “deist” evolution in which existence was initiated by a rational Creator and then aban­doned to its own devices, would make the “anthropically designed” universe someone’s little game, and the anguished struggle for existence a senseless torment needlessly extenuated over eons of geological time — all by the whim of an uninvolved absentee Parent. The projection is internally incoherent; for it is incompatible with the very notion of the omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and providential “God” held by its protagonists.

The suggestion, on the other hand, that the primordial energy at the base and at the beginning of our universe may be described as an immanent, primitive, foundational, non-rational intentionality — a paroxysmal self-embrace of existence whose subsequent devel­op­ments were all un­pro­gram­med self-elabor­ations, while not supporting the cherished image of a rational, purposeful, providential “loving Father,” does admit the possibility of a benevolent intentionality so immensely self-donating, universal and non-particu­lar as to appear utterly “impersonal” to us. It can also correlate with the traditional characterization of “God” as esse in se subsistens, for matter’s energy, as far as we can see, is neither created nor destroyed and appears to have no explanation beyond itself. This is sharply distinguished from traditional supernatural creationist theism on the following counts:

(1) There is no rational consciousness embedded in the primordial intentionality of existence. This is where we part company with Whitehead, for example, who claims that the “primordial nature of God” (which for him is the material substrate) is imbued with an appetitive “envisagement” of what he shamelessly equates with Plato’s “world of ideas.” But there is no other world, and no “mind” that constitutes it. The conatus, as we observe it across the levels of emergence, approximates to desire, not to thought, purpose and plan. And its “objective” is not a plethora of Platonic “essences” accounting for the “forms” of untold number of species, but rather one single common goal in all its emergent forms: existence! This non-rational, non-teleo­logical cha­r­acter remains functional without rational purpose in every form matter’s energy evolves, no matter how primitive or developed. At the most primitive level there is, obviously, no evidence of any rationality; but even at the most advanced levels, as in humankind, it can and most often does pre-empt and override a contrary rational preference: for the conatus spontaneously rejects life-denying choices and suicidal intentions.

(2) There is no plan, no purpose, no “point.” The only “purpose” is to exist. As a self-embrace material energy can’t help existing; it is neither created nor destroyed. It has to exist. That is the very meaning of “necessary.” I have already had the temerity to suggest on more than one occasion that in this vision existence displays itself as a dynamic material version of esse in se subsistens.

(3) There is no creative action, no “efficient causality ad extram” as from one entity to another (as, for example, from “God” to creation), for there is only “one thing” relating to itself. The physical-biological elaboration of the universe is (and doesn’t just appear to be) entirely immanent, i.e., a self-initia­ted, self-sus­tained, self-contained and self-directed process. It is a self-elaboration, a self-extru­sion, a self-unfolding not entirely unlike the way the oak tree rises from the acorned earth, or the way the rose unfurls its splendor.

(4) Its transcendence consists in its ability to go beyond what exists at any given point in time and “extrude” new forms of existence from itself. Considering the “distance” covered from the first proton to the emergence of humankind, this transcendence is as beyond comprehension in depth and complexity as the physical universe is in size and volume. Infinite? Why quibble … ?

is existence “necessary”?

With such an all-encompassing definition of existence as esse in se subsistens, haven’t we come full circle on our initial critique of the concept of “being” and now find ourselves ironi­cally saying that existence (the word I have chosen to contrast with “being”), by being a self-em­brace, is self-explana­tory, self-subsis­tent and therefore necessary (and infinite)?

Our earlier critique of the concept of “being” was fundamen­tally a rejection of the ancient philosophical methodology which inva­lidly drew conclusions about reality from an examination of concepts alone. But, whatever we claim to know, cosmo-ontology insists, must be directly observed and verified or be an immediate corollary to those observations. It is impossible to verify any necessity that is not a conceptual tautology … nor an infinity that is not a conceptual projection.

But please note: Cosmo-ontology is not there­by denying that matter’s energy may be both infinite and necessary. Our rejection is as provisional as any other hypothesis. We cannot affirm it, but that doesn’t prove that something infinite and necessary does not exist and that, perhaps, the totality of material energy necessarily exists … and is infinite.

a living dynamism

If we were to classify “things” in an order of increasing complexity chronologically following the elaborations of evolution, we might come up with a “horizontal” chart that runs across the page from left to right in the following manner:

strings-quarks–>protons–>hydrogen atoms–>heavy atoms–>molecules–>complex mole­­­cules–>viruses–>bacteria–>eukaryotes–>multicelled organisms … etc, etc.

With such a schematic it is easy to think of these entities as distinct and separate from one another. One might then be temp­ted to imagine that life begins at a certain point on the chart, perhaps with viruses or bacteria, the earlier entities obviously not being alive.

But this way of looking at things fails to illustrate that the entities to the right in every case are constructed of and include those to their left. The more primitive are structurally integral to the more complex. A vertical chart would display these cumulative inclusions more graphically to show clearly that all things are simply extensions of what went before and ultimately only varied combinations of the particle-energy substrate at the very base of the pyramid.

This is why reductionism always remains an option. Every part of every thing is made only of quarks and electrons. The very same quarks, with the very same “spins,” “colors” and electrical charges exist in the protons of hydrogen and oxygen atoms whether they’re found in the fusion furnaces in the heart of stars, or in a molecule of water in a muscle cell in a human heart. The “quark in my heart” is neither more nor less than a quark; but that quark is me! These quarks of mine throb with life … where does that life come from? Either there is another source of life, like a separable soul providing life to my quarks from “outside,” or the life comes from “inside” the quarks themselves which have somehow cobbled together a set of interrelationships so clever and powerful that they can activate potential life and thought and love! For, by our science, there is nothing there but quarks.

From our observations, then, all life forms including ourselves are constructed out of untold numbers of living cells, that are themselves formed from aggregates of complex molecules, and those molecules are combinations of the many atoms built up from the simplest one proton hydrogen. Entering the proton opens us to a nano world of particles, too small to see or manipulate, where the foundational stuff of atoms — quarks and electrons — are a form of the primordial energy responsible for everything that exists in the universe, whether inert or living, infinitely large or infinitesimally small — everything! The ma­n­ifestations of life with its fierce desire to be-here that we are familiar with on earth have apparently drawn their energy from this energy substrate of the universe. As life complexifies and intensifies through the levels of evolutionary development, one thing seems to remain constant, an existential self-embrace: a raw, implacable, insuppressible existential dynamism the drive to survive. Unless someone would unscientifically attempt to insert an arbitrary wall of division between living things and the substrate out of which they are constructed, we have to say that life reveals that matter’s energy itself is a living dynamism in which “we live and move and have our being.”


We might say that since the significance of being-here (existence) is established in all cases exclusively from its apprehension in experience, it is qualified by the constitutive role of the conscious organism (the human being), which was evolved by and for the self-embrace of matter’s energy. From such an endo-existential etiology, we should expect little more than existential tau­tologies. Human consciousness is material energy looking at itself. Existence is nothing other than our experience of matter’s energy.

In the ancient traditional usage, on the other hand, the ersatz significance given to “being” was believed to be established not from observation but rather from its conceptual characteristics derived from another world and were considered more real than material existence itself. The exchange of the one perspective for the other reflects the philosophical shift from the ancient / mediae­val vision of rational divine spirit, creating fixed permanent immaterial essen­ces, based on eternal ideas, terminating in a fixed, eternal divine unity as finality, … to the world-view suggested here, of material energy, in a process of blind, purposeless existential self-embrace, utilizing integrative recombination (community) as a tool of creative development, anticipating an unprogrammed process without term. If the keynotes of the earlier view of the world were immortal living spirit, eternal idea, fixed essence, pre-deter­mined static end, those of the vision proposed here are undefined existential energy, groping self-embrace, temporary phenomena, endless unprogrammed “pointless” process.

The word and concept “being,” developed within the essentialist world-view, performed the functions for which it was designed. The view of the world revealed by modern science and cosmo-ontology, on the other hand, requires a different terminology and concept. We have chosen existence, presence, being-here, which we equate with matter’s energy.

[1] Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature., p.29

Human violence and the “holiness” of “God”

As more and more information emerges about the life and intentions of the Orlando mass murderer, it becomes harder to dismiss the possibility that Omar Mateen was a closet homosexual, conflicted and ambivalent about his homosexuality, who was driven to a state of self-loathing by his Islamic faith and who attempted to express his rejection of his perceived “moral depravity” symbolically by “exterminating” himself and the gay community to which he was attracted. If this is correct it would provide a stark example of the perdurance in our world of ancient categories of “holiness” that are destructive of human life. The fact that these categories functioned to produce a crime of heinous proportions is a compelling argument for rekindling a religious activism — aka “reform” — that will unapologetically attempt to neutralize what is clearly false, dysfunctional and intolerable in religious doctrine.

It tends to confirm my thesis: doctrine matters.

One of the most perplexing paradoxes is the clear connection between the “Holy” God of the Book and a genocidal violence perpetrated by “his” followers on fellow human beings in the name of that “holiness.” In our Judaeo Christian tradition this appeared in the earliest scriptural records of Israel’s “contract” with their god Yahweh.   Wandering Jewish tribes newly liberated from servitude in Egypt claimed that Yahweh also gave them the lands of Palestine that once belonged to Canaanites. Yahweh’s munificence was unlimited; there was only one condition: “he” demanded that they kill every non-Jewish man woman and child living in those lands.

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God. (Deut 20: 16-18 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

It is indisputable that the Bible called for the extermination of people whose only crime was that they practiced a religion that was “abominable” because it acknowledged gods other than Yahweh. It was the clearest statement possible of the connection between a “holiness” linked to “God” and genocide. If we accept historians’ consensus that the date of the redaction of the book of Deuteronomy is 600 bce, this call for a genocidal holy war (Hebrew: herem) on unbelievers anticipated the Koran’s jihad by 1200 years, and may very well have been its inspiration.

There are some inconsistencies between the two versions of holy war, Jewish and Islamic, that might be interesting to examine: for example, the Koran expresses great respect for the Bible and the Jews and jihad was conceived as a defensive response to outside attack, while the biblical herem requirement was clearly xenophobic and an instrument of territorial expansion. But the most obvious incongruity is the fact that it was the “holiness” of “God” that was adduced as the reason for the mass slaughter of other human beings. What could “holiness” possibly mean if one of its obligations entailed the extermination of whole populations carried out not only with impunity but as an act of obedience and worship? Another way of putting it is to ask, what kind of “God” not only permits but actually requires the wholesale slaughter of “his” creatures?

I have been arguing for years that there is no sense talking about the reform of religion without addressing the issue of the “doctrine of God.” Nothing proves my point better than this biblical harnessing of Yahweh to the national ambitions of the Hebrew people. It redefined Yahweh as a local political operative. But that took some doing because Yahweh was not easily yoked to local politics. Genesis claimed that Yahweh created all things. That would automatically make him everyone’s god. If Yahweh was to enter local politics on the side of the Hebrews alone that original universalism had to be inverted. Yahweh first had to be identified with the Hebrew people  bound by a contract that made “him” exclusively their god and they exclusively his people. “He” thereby became a god whose power was only on display in the military victories and international ascendency of his people. His “divinity” thus became dependent on the well-being of the Hebrew nation, for otherwise no one would know that “he” was really “god.”

It was this exclusivity that drove the development of the notion of “holiness.” For what was “holy” in Hebrew was kodesh, “set-apart,” “separated,” a “sacred” that was distinguished from a “profane” that paralleled the separateness of Yahweh from the other gods and therefore the separateness of the Hebrew people bound exclusively to Yahweh by contract.

The “contract” was a simple affair: the people were to obey certain laws, abstain from certain foods and practices, perform certain rituals and above all avoid “contamination” with gods other than Yahweh, and Yahweh would give them power and prosperity.   The uniqueness and the “separateness” that characterized the relationship between Yahweh and his people was thus objectified in the terms of the contract detailing what “holy” human practices corresponded to the “holiness” of Yahweh. The entire phenomenon was generated as the objectification of the “special” and unique relationship between Yahweh and the twelve tribes.

“Moral behavior” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition was made part of this constellation of practices. The “ten commandments” and the rest of the Jewish law was part of the contract. This is important to emphasize. From the earliest times in our tradition, morality was conceived, not as our groping discovery of what works for the harmony and well-being of human beings in society, but rather as a “special practice” that identified its practitioner as a member of Yahweh’s contractual household. Thus Yahweh was thought to be invested in human moral behavior as an expression of respect and surrender to “him” and not as the autonomous discernment of what is good for people. Both the motivation and the ultimate validation of the moral code was displaced from human responsibility to divine command.

As time went along and the “God of the Book” came to displace all other religious imagery in the Western World, even Greek rationalized morality, logically deduced from the “purposes” the philosophers claimed were embedded and self-evident in everything created, was subsumed under the category of the “contract.” Relationship to “God” was upgraded to a “new contract” by the Roman Empire to include the imperial version of Christianity and the entire “known world” (which happened to coincide with the Roman State). Thus the Roman authorities, wearing the mantle of the “teaching authority” of the Christian bishops, knew exactly what “God” wanted from every individual and in this context the human sexual apparatus, obviously designed for reproduction of the species, when used for purposes foreign to its design, was to be condemned as evil.  Such behavior was “unholy” and broke the contract. It was contrary to the will of “God,” it corrupted the human individual and any society that allowed it would call down the wrath of “God” for having broken the contract. The authorities entrusted with the safety of society had no choice but to expunge any individuals who refused to desist from such “unnatural” behavior. The very survival of the community was at stake.

In Islam, the sixth century Koran repeated the injunctions against homosexuality found in the Jewish Bible connected with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later in the Middle Ages, when Islamic philosophers began to interpret the Koran in the light of Aristotle and other Greek moralists, they applied the same rationalist arguments for maintaining the traditional condemnations.  Punishments for homosexual activity in Sharía law are particularly harsh:

homosexuals are demonized, banned, beaten, probed, forced into marriage, flogged,  incarcerated, lashed, hanged, brutalized, stoned, thrown from roofs, tortured and shot.

A 2014 fatwa from the mainstream proclaimed that homosexuality is “abnormal” and abhorrent” and confirmed that gays should be killed: “The punishment for men or women who are unwilling to give up homosexuality and therefore are rejecting the guidance of Allah Most High is in fact death according to Islam.”  An imam invited to speak at a Florida mosque in 2016 said that killing gays was an “act of compassion”. (

But aside from the harshness, as far as religions are concerned, there is virtually no difference in the moral take on homosexuality between mainstream Christianity and Islam. Some fundamentalist Christian preachers in the aftermath of Orlando have been heard agreeing that homosexuals should be executed. And that should not surprise us because they are both, Christians and Muslims, operating from exactly the same premises: a “doctrine of God” that imagines an anthropomorphic, rational, personal deity who micro-manages human life providentially and who judges all human behavior against the bar of the particular “contract:” a “holy” code of conduct that supposedly mirrors the “holiness” of “God.” No amount of spontaneous compassion for the victims of the massacre or revulsion at the actions of the perpetrator will change this underlying mindset, because the premises which justify mass murder remain intact.

I claim there is no such “God.”

Until we begin to understand that our spontaneous reactions imply a different concept of “God” from the one that supports mainstream religion, we will never be able to avoid the implications of the premises: that there is a “God” whose “holiness” is not defined by love but by a “code of separation” based on special behavior designed to establish the superiority of one people over another. This sectarian “God” is very different from the universal Source and Sustenance of Life in our cosmos. For the “God” “in whom all things live and move and have their being” stands firmly against any attempt to advance the interests of one community over another. “He” is the “God” of all things. It is the premise from which all validity in religion is derived.

Poetry and Religious Truth

Truth” in the west has been identified with “science” from well before the advent of modern times. The ancient Greeks sought a rational understanding of the world we live in; they called their quest philosophy, the love of wisdom, but they thought of it the way we think of science.

Theology was born in this context. At the dawn of western science there did not exist any clear separation between theology and physics as we have it today. For millennia, theology was not only considered a science, it was the science, the instrument that reached to the inner nature and operations of reality.

But science had to compete with poetry. That was a problem for the scientists. Socrates, you’ll remem­ber, had great difficulty with the poets because they could not use other words to explain what they wrote.[1] He considered them alien to the rational-scientific quest he was pursuing.

I believe Socrates was blinded to the value of poetry because of the solid possibilities that logic seemed to offer: clarity, precision, verifiability, therefore “truth.” Poetry seems to have none of that. Multi-layered, peppered with mixed imagery and allusions, full of intense personal feelings, poetry seemed entirely subjective. Socrates wanted to know “what the poets meant.” They answered by telling him to go back and re-read their poetry; apparently they felt their words had been very precisely chosen. There was no other way they could say it. Socrates could not understand that. His demand to “explain your poetry using other words,” was, as far as the poets were concerned, an attack on the jugular. What better way to tell a poet s/he’s failed? Perhaps there was an odist or two among those who voted for the hemlock.

One modern poet calls his own poetry a “raid on the inarticulate.”[2] He speaks of “shabby equipment,” words — the poor, worn implements of daily life — that were never meant to carry the weight of the realities that the poet imposes on them. So, because words are not quite adequate, the “metho­dology” of the poets is special. And it’s used to communicate a special truth, a truth that is in a class apart from the measure­able realities of the so-called exact sciences. The methodology is metaphor, and the special truth is “relational truth.” What do these terms mean?



Relational Truth

“Relationship” is a very specific feature of our lives as human beings. It is a complex and interior experience of inter-personal connectedness of which our own participation is an integral part. Our relation­ships are difficult enough to perceive accurately but even more difficult to communicate to others. How do I express the unique relationship that I have with some­one I love. I am aware that scientific descriptors, even from a science spe­ci­fically dedicated to human perceptions and emotions like psychology, are totally inadequate for this purpose. Enter the poet. Her task is to try to find that combination of metaphors — symbols and images that lie outside the range of ordinary speech — which may convey with greater human accuracy the multi-faceted dimensions of the relationship. “Human accuracy” here is “truth” and refers to the ability to evoke in another person, an experience as close as possible to the poet’s experience in its individuality, com­plexity, scope and depth of feeling. Solomon’s poet, for example, might say:

“You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.”

How is the poet’s “love” as “terrible as an army set in battle array”? You may “get it” or you may not. But if you connect with it, you will understand what experience the poet is trying to convey, and in that act of understanding you will provide a “third party verification” both for the experience and the accuracy of its articulation. Poetry is not (only) entertainment, an elective pastime for the literati. It’s the only instrument we have for communicating “truth” at this level, relational truth.

So, I believe Socrates was wrong. The poets labor with as much commitment to accuracy and clarity as any sincere scientist or philosopher. Their art is the attempt to find those precise phrases, that precise sequence of words, that evoke human relational experience. And religion is our human relationship with the source of our existence … whatever it may be.

My point is that “relational events” or “inter-personal events” differ as object from other objects and therefore are communicated by a different kind of discourse. These “relational realities,” which include the existential relationship — i.e., my relationship to the source of my existence — are experienced by the knower as objects that include his/her self. The resonating subject is the predominant component of the object known, making the object inaccessible to another subject except through a recognized similar experience. So communication in this area involves “construc­ting” (poiein in Greek) something that evokes the same experience in the hearer. The “constructor,” the poeta, tries to create external conditions (words, dramatic dialogue, paintings, music, dance, ritual, etc.), a symbolic “construct,” a poema that accomplishes that task. And metaphor is its instrument of choice because it uses words not as concepts that try to comprehend and define the object, but as symbols that refer to and evoke the object in the experience of others. Evocation invites the hearer to find the object within his/her own file-cabinet of experience and thus interpret, compare and verify its truth. There is no other way these com­plex, interiorly experienced realities can be communicated and verified except by speech that of its very nature can only evoke and not denote, describe and not define, invite and not impose.

Traditional western theology has historically been considered an exact science in the rationalist sense. Realities that we know in and through our own experience, and whose inner workings apart from us we can only adumbrate, we in the west have historically claimed to know with quasi-mathe­ma­tical precision. All our religious discourse, doctrine, creed, dogma, even ritual formulae, have been infected with this rationalist contagion. Religion has been subsumed under the heading of “truth,” and “truth” in the west is prejudicially the result of rational inquiry.

But what gets lost in our scientistic scenario is that “true” religious speech is indeed critical to our lives but in a way that antecedes and bypasses logic. Religious discourse, — ritual, creed, doctrine — is not science; it is poetry and as such it provides evocative descriptions of our relationship to realities whose inner mechanical workings are irrelevant to the relationship whether I do or even could come to know them or not.

For example, the perception in which I relate to my wife does not include knowledge of the vegetative functions of her organism or the neurological operations of her brain. And yet I claim to have an accurate grasp of “who she is.” I may call her a butterfly today and a soaring eagle tomorrow, but even though literally she is neither, I know exactly what I’m talking about, and so does the reader. The ruling element that gives those words meaning is relational experience.

Now, in the case of “God,” the relationship stands on its own: I understand myself to exist and that I am not self-originating. I immediately understand — from my side — the relationship I bear to the existential source of existenceeven if I don’t know what that source is. Religion is the reflective description of my experience in the form of “doctrine,” which is symbol, metaphor, poetry. I say “’God’ is my Creator.” Literally, scientifically, I know neither “God” nor what it means to create. All I know for a fact is that I am not self-origina­ting; but that is sufficient to establish the relationship. Both “God” and “creation” are metaphors for what I do not know but to which I bear a constant and inescapable relationship. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip had no knowledge of his anonymous benefactor, and his conjectures were upended in mid-stream, but his awareness of what he had received and his sense of loyal gratitude was the same regardless.

Doctrine’s interpretative tool, theology, comes next. It is simply a kind of literary criticism that evaluates religious poetry in the light of the “facts” and how well the words chosen convey the indicated experience. At no point in the process does the presumption of claiming to know the object — “God” — apart from the relational experience of it, intrude.

All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating.




… an implicit comparison between two unlike entities … The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make a new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought anteceding or bypassing logic.[4]

Metaphor is a symbol. As a symbol it does not conceptualize its object, it “refers to” it … or, as Wittgenstein might say, it “points to it.” Metaphor is a linguistic device that applies words to realities they were not meant to define. Metaphor is a word adequate for one reality which is used “improperly” to stand for another which has no adequate word, or whose usual word has been judged inadequate. Metaphor does not define, it rather evokes and suggests; it “points to.” But the metaphor’s very “impropriety” accounts for its evocative quality, for it throws the listener back onto his own experience for under­standing. It contributes a new, fresh and vital element that other­wise would be absent. “The winter wind with its long fingernails tore the canvas to shreds.” The wind does not have hands and fingernails, but the imagery evokes the destructive action of the wind. “Long fingernails” are symbols. They do not define any “scientific” reality; they rather describe how the wind’s action makes us feel ― and therefore how we relate to it.

Poetic metaphor is a most appropriate instrument for speaking about our relationship to “God.” For, besides more accurately communicating the experience, its symbolic character guarantees and protects apo­phasis: “God” remains ineffable, undefinable, unknowable. Metaphor is conceptually empty. Metaphor makes no pretense at grasping and comprehending its object. The believer using a metaphor is consum­mately aware that its employment is improper, therefore temporary, provisional, and compelling only in the personal sense. No one is compelled to assent unless their own experience verifies it.

If we say that the concept “God” is itself derived only from human experience, it means that the “objective” element in our knowledge of “God” includes the experiencing subject. I am not using the word “objective” to mean “the thing in itself apart from its being the object of a knowing subject;” there is no such thing. In the case under consideration here — knowledge of “God” — there is nothing known outside of the insepar­ably subjective feature of experiencing “God” in the intimate realization of our own “non self-origination.”

Does this mean that “God” is not real? … only on the gratuitous assumption that what can’t be verified independently of experiencing subjects is non-existent. But no one would say that. The most that even a scientist would claim is that you cannot compel assent to the existence or character of things that are not independently verifiable. That in itself does not prove that they do not exist, nor does it establish their character, i.e., what they are like. Unfortunately, the word “truth” has been arrogated by the over-enthusiastic scientism of our times to refer exclusively to “know­ledge” that has been subjected to the kind of probity demanded by science. Relationship — the intentional valence between conscious organisms — may be accessible to scientific measurement as far as its emotional resonance or other observable by-products are concerned, but no one would say that those things were themselves constitutive of the relationship. The emotions of elation that accompany a realization, for example, might be measurable, but they do not constitute the realization. Religion is not about what things are, but how we relate to them. I relate to the source of my existence as to “God,” and the nature of that relationship is determined by the nature of my existence and how I experience it, not by what I have been led to think “God” is. I articulate the nature of my existence, i.e., that it is not self-originating, and celebrate it in poetry. That is religion.

I call metaphor a tool of poetry and that poetry reaches “truth” — but not a scientific truth that is verifiable independent of the experience of the subject, demanding acknowledgement without concurrent experience. This “poetic truth” that I speak of, however, is also truth, it is objective and it is verifiable. It’s the communi­ca­tion and sharing of experience; as such it cannot be communicated without being verified. You verify it with your own experience, however, not some independent measuring device or a logical syllogism.

Religion tries to turn the experience of “God” into words. Poetry is our almost exclusive tool for com­muni­cating truth in these interpersonal regions. But I want to emphasize, it’s aim is truth: what is real and really there — the relationship.   We are not talking about fabrications of the imagination.[5] I am objectively related to the source of my existence — in which I live and move and have my being, whether I scientifically “know” what it is or not — and I express that relationship in religious poetry. Poetry uses metaphor, symbol, fables and allegory, to express relational truth that cannot be expressed in any other way. The very nature of the realities we’ve been talking about, realities whose existence is knowable only as interpersonal relational events, must necessarily use metaphor for their expression.

This is true of all relationships. Who would ever deny that the relationships between spouses, or friends, or siblings, or parents and children were real, even though there is no physical or chemical or laboratory test that could verify their existence?


The root of religious speech is human experience which is historically and culturally conditioned. Speech about “God” that was forged at a particular time and place bears the stamp of that particularity and will need constant translation and renewal if it is to correspond to what is experienced by other people at other times and under other circumstances. The words of one age do not necessarily communicate in another. “Original sin,” for example, may have captured a Greco-Roman’s intuition that something was radically wrong with life under the Empire, but a modern South Asian may find such an idea unthinkable and an insult to the goodness of God. “In our countries,” says Sri-Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balusuría, “the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.”[6] Metaphor preserves the relativity of local expressions.

Moreover, the uniqueness of metaphorical projection introduces a fragrance and intensity to religious communication that more adequately corresponds to the nature of the human experience in question here, mystical experience. The mystics speak of “the cloud of unknowing,” for example, a haunting image to describe the ineffability of “God.” If this evocative quality should be lost, religious truth, as we are defining it, would not be adequately transmitted; metaphor is critically important in this respect.

Again, in this same connection, while metaphor communicates, and communicates well, it also retains the quality of indefinability, a fundamental characteristic of all interpersonal encounter. It evokes, it does not define. The “doctrinal terms” are temporary because of their evocative function. Once they cease to evoke, they no longer communicate. The experience to which they refer, how­ever, remains always what it was. New conditions may require new metaphors. This is most relevant to our reflection. For it means that metaphor preserves inviolate the apophatic principle of Christian tradition, that is, the radical unknowability of God. For metaphor is essentially empty.

Theologians must analyze, weigh and judge all these terms used to define elements of religious experience. It hardly needs saying that much of what is most sordid and shame­ful in the history of humankind is directly trace­able to the unwarranted ascription of literal scientific objectivity to locally conditioned religious experience and the metaphors used to evoke them. The conviction that one has the absolute truth about “God” and how one should live has provoked and excused wars, pogroms, conquests, slavery, persecutions and xenophobic hatred of all kinds. What’s at stake, as we’ve unfortunately come to realize in these times, is nothing less than genocide carried out in the name of “God.”


[1]Plato, The Apology in The Works of Plato, tr.Jowett, Tudor, NY, vol.III, p.107.

[2]T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” V

[3]Song of Solomon 6:4

[4]Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Mic VI, p.831

[5] H. and H.A. Frankfort, “Myth and Reality,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, U of Chicago Press, 1946 & 1977 p.7; and also “The Logic of Mythopoetic Thought,” pp. 10-11

 [6]Sri Lankan Catholic theologian, Rev.Tissa Balasuriya on original sin, quoted by Celestine Bohlen, NYT article 1/15/97