A commentary on the Psalms (continued)

3, 900 words

This is a continuation of the introductory reflections of October 2 which should be read first. This addendum concludes with a commentary on Psalm 1.

 

11.

Relationship to “God.” The dilemma for us here in the West is that our tradition has imagined “God” as a humanoid person. We are all formed in this tradition and our relationship to the Sacred seems cast in concrete. It is not easy to tinker with. Those who will not abide it often end up feeling they have to drop the Sacred altogether, so welded is it to our psyche.

Our prayer life, beginning in ancient times with the psalms, reflects this fact. It is quintessentially dialogic. It extends to an imaginary Providential “God” the childhood relationship we had to our parents. It is a wonderful scenario, really, that we should always have a loving parent watching over us, to whom we can turn when we are helpless, and whom we can trust, when things are going bad, that all has been foreseen and is being permitted out of benevolence for us. So even bad things become good because they are all willed by a vigilant “God.”

The only problem is, none of it is true.

We have to face the facts of our experience. There are no miracles. Providence, except in the most bare-bones Aristotelian sense of God providing the Natural Order, is a fantasy. There is no separate entity called “God.” Thomas Aquinas thought of “God” as the Pure Act of being that energized all existing things. Less philosophically, the author of John’s first letter used the world LIFE for the source of all things.

This choice agrees with experience: there is a palpable LIFE of which we are not the originators, which constitutes our own identity and is the basis of our activity in the world, which also enlivens every living thing and we suspect is latently present in all material energy at whatever level of evolutionary emergence. This LIFE has generated in all things an irrepressible desire and corresponding fury to survive. It drives evolution. From this undeniable perception there arises in human beings, individually and collectively, a sense of the Sacred. This pheno­menon has appeared in every age and in every place, and shows no signs of disappearing.

Starting with these bedrock data we have to develop an explanation that concurs with the facts, not only the physical but all the facts … including our irrepressible thirst for LIFE, our spontaneous rejection of injustice and our innate sense of the Sacred. If we examine religious traditions across the globe we discover that, while all acknowledge the desire for endless life, a sense of the sacred and the primacy of conscience, some are better at harmonizing with the bare physical facts than others. Those like Buddhism / Hinduism that imagine LIFE as stemming from a non-humanoid force, an energy that pervades and suffuses all things, are better at explaining why things are what they are and why occurrences happen as they actually do. On the other hand, those that project a rational humanoid personality as the Source and matrix of this vast universe, like the “religions of the Book,” have great difficulty explaining reality as it is experienced, observed and measured, without imputing a callous indifference or even sadistic malevolence to this supposedly divine “person.”

However, attributing some inchoate non-specific benevolence to this Source, in the sense of an overabundance of LIFE expanding only in one direction: toward more LIFE, seems to me quite appropriate in explaining the facts. It also concurs with our experience of other material life forms.  But is that enough to justify the imagery of a loving Father or Mother, or calling it “Love,” etc.? In the absence of any way of specifying what is “behind” this force (if indeed there is anything behind it), I think appropriate metaphors concatenated into poetry can form the basis of a legitimate attempt to relate to that force. But this relationship is unique. What do I mean?

We are quite capable of having relationships with non-human entities, generally animals fairly near to us in evolutionary development who share many of our cognitive abilities though we have traditionally denied that they are persons. We recognize them as conscious entities, and they do the same with regard to us. I am not suggesting that relationship to our Source is to be equated to relationship to animals, I am simply pointing out that we are not confined to relating to human beings, and we have no moral expectations from the animals even while we truly know they have individual “personalities.” We recognize their gregariousness with us, and we love them, and they us.

Now, the relationship to our Source, I contend, is real and literal, but it is not necessarily personal in a human sense. By thinking LIFE is literally a rational person like us, you cannot avoid attributing a willfulness to the physical events, like the Haitian earthquake, or the Nazi Holocaust, that contradict any claims for a benevolent divine providence. I believe this is one clear source of the religious disconnect that is characteristic of our times.

I think it is a legitimate practice to imagine LIFE poetically, as a person, so long as we don’t attribute a literal significance to it. It helps sustain attitudes of gratitude, awe and desire for union — more LIFE. It’s similar to the way people use the word demons to refer to their anti-social urges and paranoid feelings. In ancient times people actually believed evil spirits were the cause of such things. We can see why. Demon is a metaphor that aptly describes the subconscious and unintended nature of our negativity: it feels like it’s coming from some outside malevolent source. But of course, we know better.

Calling LIFE a person is analogous. But when trying to determine what is literally real, the facts take precedence over the metaphor. If we use the metaphor we have to be clear: we really do not know what LIFE is. Even Aquinas insisted: we know only that “God” is, we don’t know what “he” is. LIFE is not a person as we understand the word. It does not act like a person: it is not an independent entity as far as we can see; it is only visible as the life of living things; it does not project an identity: it is the source of the identity of everything that exists; it is not perceptibly conscious except in its emergent forms; it does not respond to communication except through the human persons it enlivens; it does not interfere with nature on our behalf nor does it help us when we call on it … except through the personal human agents which it constitutes. But, in itself, it is not either identifiable or definable. If it is a person, there is no way for us to know it for its behavior doesn’t correspond to any of our criteria for personhood. Our prayers are dialogic, but if we’re honest we have to acknowledge they are all one way, for “God” never answers, except in the non-specific general benevolence of abundant LIFE.

If “God” were a person like us, we would have to hold him accountable for having the power and refusing to help people in need, just as we would hold any other person accountable under similar circumstances. And if he were ever put on trial for permitting the Holocaust, just to mention the most egregious of his failures to act on our behalf, the barrier to believing in his “benevolence” would be declared insuperable, and he would be condemned.

Is this blasphemy? It’s blasphemy only for those who are like the pagans of old who accused Christians of blasphemy because they called Zeus a demon’s phantasm. They cling to imagery instead of clinging to LIFE … in which we live and move and have our being.

I don’t know what LIFE is in itself; I only know what I see it doing. And really, what it is in itself is none of my business. Ultimately it has no effect on the undeniable facts of my relationship to it: that I am not self-originating and that I am metaphysically dependent on my Source and matrix, LIFE, which I can see, proximately, is an energy that is directed exclusively toward more LIFE. I know it is at least that. Is it more than that? If it is, it cannot be anything that would contradict that. And whatever that “other thing” might be (if indeed there is some “other” thing), I really don’t need to know it.

*

But that still doesn’t resolve the issue. Material LIFE, the source of my own identity, my sense of the Sacred and the object of my undying gratitude, is still elusive. How do I relate to it?

I believe that using poetic metaphor is not only legitimate but, it seems to me, inevitable. Human consciousness as it has evolved on this planet is a survival tool that was shaped and sharpened in the struggle to identify food, foes and mates so that the human community — the vehicle of survival — could continue. Our forebears had to differentiate between the species and the individuals within those species that would help them survive and those that would not. Given the conditions under which intelligence was formed, it is extremely difficult to consider a relationship to our existential Source — or indeed, to our own negative feelings — without imagining these things in a way that reflects the evolved categories of human thought. We are familiar with it in literature as a device called “personification.”

But our relationship to matter’s living energy, the very building blocks that constitute my “self,” is not just an opaque and impenetrable mystery, leaving us with no alternative but our poetic personifications. There is a way to understand this relationship precisely as a relationship. And I contend, it is this unique relationship that provides the basis for our new way of praying the psalms. Let me explain.

We do not easily recognize the reality of compenetrated structures, i.e., structures that are the locus of two levels of reality simultaneously, as in the case we are dealing with here: material energy and its evolved forms — the components and the composite. So we tend to talk about either the components or the composite (because they are things), but not the co-existent unity. The problem is, that when we do that, we omit the very valence — the interactive connection — that gives both the components and the composite their specificity. For the composite is what it is because of the specific components that comprise it, and vice versa: the nature of the components cannot be ascertained and appreciated without including what specific thing they are capable of becoming.

We might be inclined to say that the composite is a co-valent reality, for its very composition is the integration of a multitude of components. But the co-existence dimension — the relationship between them — is muted if not entirely unnoticed because our brains are organized to see things, not relationships.

In the case we are dealing with here, LIFE is not a thing, an entity, even though we find it hard to think of it as anything else. The word LIFE, like the word “God,” is the placeholder for a relationship. And what I am saying is that it is the relationship that is the reality that makes me as a composite to be real. It is the composite that reveals the presence and character of the components. I am nothing without the matrix in which I live and move and have my being. And the matrix remains unknown until what it does becomes visible. Those are raw physical / metaphysical facts. These two elements, my components (matter’s energy) and the composite (me), are one and the same “thing” … together, and only together do they become a “thing.” I am physically / metaphysically myself only because of the active and “willing” presence of my Source and Sustainer — material LIFE — the living dynamism of material energy that now exists in my form. And the components — matter’s energy — appear to be meaningless mechanical particles until they display their potential in the emergent forms produced by their evolving self-elaboration, in this case “me.” That’s when I discover that matter’s energy is LIFE, as John meant it.

I am, simultaneously, both myself and my source.

What the psalms do is to make my feelings and my voluntary moral, political activity align with my physical / metaphysical reality by focusing on the relationship that makes me be-here and therefore determines the dynamism — the drive for more LIFE — that defines me. The psalms are an instrument of personal integration for they insist that I turn my attention to the generous living presence and creative moral pressures coming from the material components — LIFE — that make me what I am.

The “false self” created by the untethered runaway conatus is focused exclusively on itself as if it were an independent stand-alone entity — as if it had no components, no source, no dependency — as if LIFE were its own creation. The conatus is physically / metaphysically blind. The self, it thinks, is only itself, alone in the world, able to define itself as it chooses. It is not aware of its own co-existent inner structure, living a material LIFE that is not its own, that preceded the existence of its organism, and was passed on to it in its entirety by a chain of others going back before the emergence of humankind.

The organism, now, identified as the “self,” owns and autonomously deploys LIFE as if it were exclusively its own … as if the organism were self-originating. This misperception is the source of the falseness, and the existential insecurity experienced by the blind conatus. Knowing quite well how vulnerable and powerless it is, it thinks it is totally alone, and that terrifies it. It feels alienated from its own life and it is that fear of isolation and sense of emptiness that propels the paranoia and the craving to accumulate — things, power, fame, relationships — that lie at the root of the miseries we heap on one another. Convinced we are empty inside, we reach outside ourselves to fill the vacuum.

Security can only come from the re-education of the conatus, so that it knows clearly that its organism is composed of pre-existing elements that belong to a living totality that has always been here and cannot ever be destroyed. The conatus needs to be taught that this is what self-preservation really means: identifying itself with material LIFE, the energy of that totality resident in every organism and that will live on after our “self” disappears. The conatus needs to learn it is not alone.

That is the work of the psalms. Like the practice of mindfulness, they are a program of re-edu­ca­­tion for the conatus. They bring the co-existent presence of the components of the living organism into sharp focus not only by evoking an imagery that reminds us of the dependency that we routinely ignore, but also by aiming desire in the right direction — the direction of the moral implications of that co-exis­tence — more LIFE. To be the offspring of LIFE means I am innately structured to generate LIFE. The lifelong reproductive urges of my material organism are a sign and undeniable proof of that. By morality we mean behavior that is orientated toward more LIFE. The psalms are the poetic instruments of desire for more LIFE … they implore, beg, cajole, ask, and demand; they are action oriented … they desperately want something to happen to preserve and enhance LIFE — they are the whip and tether of the “re-educated” conatus. Even at their most contemplative they are restless, yearning, calling for a deeper and more intimate union with their Source and Sustainer, with matter’s energy, LIFE, that John said was the wellspring of all things.

 

 

HYMN TO MATTER

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This hymn comes from an essay called “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” the third part of a collection of essays published posthumously as Hymn of the Universe in 1961.  It was written in 1919 after Teilhard’s service as a stretcher bearer in the French army during WWI.

‘Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat. ‘Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untamable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.

‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.

‘Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

‘Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.

‘Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.

‘Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.

‘I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured — a mass of brute forces and base appetites — but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.

‘You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation wherein the predestined substance germinates and grows.

‘I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the spirit.

‘I acclaim you as the melodious fountain of water whence spring the souls of men and as the limpid crystal whereof is fashioned the new Jerusalem.

‘I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.

‘Sometimes, thinking they are responding to your irresistible appeal, men will hurl themselves for love of you into the exterior abyss of selfish pleasure-seeking: they are deceived by a reflection or by an echo.

‘This I now understand.

‘If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all subsistencies and all unions.

‘If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow.

‘Your realm comprises those serene heights where saints think to avoid you — but where your flesh is so transparent and so agile as to be no longer distinguishable from spirit.

‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’

Jersey, October 8, 1919


THE PSALMS

 PSALM 1

Background: This psalm is not a prayer. It is called a “wisdom” psalm because it follows the patterns of the wisdom literature and offers advice and encouragement. It seems to have been appended to the corpus of the psalms after their collection on the return from Babylon, and perhaps as late as the Septuagint (third century BCE), as an introductory counsel and exhortation. Its later addition may have been a factor in the alternate numbering between the Septuagint and Hebrew Manuscripts.

It utilizes the usual parallelisms that characterize all Hebrew poetry. It focuses centrally on the law, the Torah, and establishes the paradigm that functions throughout the wisdom literature: the Torah translates into wisdom, and it is wisdom that will guarantee a long life, heath, security and happiness.

Clearly it was selected as introductory because of the simple stark choice that it offers. It sets the tone for all the psalms. Make a decision, it says. There are only two choices, life or death. Choose LIFE.

Reflection. Happiness is choosing LIFE, following the instructions of our conscience, the law embedded in our flesh that guides us.

But be careful. It’s not a dry quid pro quo business decision. Don’t be fooled. There is no reward for good behavior. When you choose LIFE, you get more than you bargained for. You will soon see that you have chosen your LIFE. It will become your delight, your fascination, your obsession. You will fall in love with it. You will think about it day and night … you will forget about other things.

It is your LIFE, and with it you and your people will grow and flourish. It becomes more LIFE.

It seems like a choice, but is it, really? What’s the alternative? Who would choose death? Who wants to be blown away with the wind and live isolated from people? That’s what’s at stake, nothing less.

What’s behind it all is the very Source of your own LIFE. That means it is your own LIFE — your real self with others — that hangs in the balance. It is yourself and your people you are choosing when you choose LIFE.

[Psalm 1] From the New RSV

1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Notes

“Happy.” For the psalmist there is no afterlife, so as always, he is thinking of earthly happiness. Living by the “law,” the Torah, (similar to the Tao, the “way” of the universe), doesn’t earn happiness as a reward, rather it is happiness itself, because it is the way of justice and love.

“Prosperity” is the achievement of social harmony, justice, peace, mutual assistance — the source of all human security and joy, physical and psychological.

“the wicked” end up being destroyed, isolated, rejected by the community not because “God” punishes them, but because LIFE’s happiness — a human community of justice and love — is to be found following the instructions of the Torah. The wicked “scoff” at this to their peril.

 

 

4 comments on “A commentary on the Psalms (continued)

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    ‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’ (Teilhard.)

    Purification, embrace of the universe seem to be an escape from entropy?

    Or given what we know of entropy and the way we theorise about the ‘future of the universe’, does not Teilhard leave us ‘hanging’ in a hollow universe?

    That’s why I like to think I am drawn into a world of communication, to be a communicant of a Self-Communicator who offers information that has made me different with a difference that allows me to enter into relationship with others, via the very material universe that through many thresholds crossed, eventually came to me; all this thanks to the ‘message received’ of the Self-Communicator who gratuitiously enters into partnership with me and others as we continue to decode the message of material reality, and its embodiment in worthwhile exemplars in history.

    And what of this is ‘saved’? The project of the Self-Communicator in which I became a partner, but necessarily a humble partner, with all the materiality and truthfulness that humility conveys.

    Always with thanks for your meditations, Tony.

    Noel.

  2. tonyequale says:

    Noel,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t agree with Teilhard’s vision in all respects. He was a dualist a la Henri Bergson who believed “spirit” was not just another, but a separate aspect of reality that developed by struggling against the inertness of matter. I don’t believe that. I believe that “spirit” is one of the aspects of matter’s as yet unexplored potentialities. But Teilhard represented a forward step in the Catholic-Christian worldview that was revolutionary, because he had such a profound appreciation of matter in a culture that had condemned matter as a dead petrified anomaly, completely alien to a spiritual humankind and whose only value was to be manipulated, controlled, exploited and discarded.

    Matter’s energy, in my view, which I equate to LIFE, communicates itself necessarily in the forms that evolve from its more primitive manifestations. Its apparently infinite potential only emerges into visibility over time and at the pace that its mechanisms will allow. This accounts for reality as we see it. We do not have to project a separate “Mind” out there somewhere “revealing” itself to other “minds” which, out of an abundance of compassion deign to embrace matter as a waif that would otherwise be excluded from the destiny of real being.

    Also if your ultimate premise is the revealing “God” of tribal origins, you end up always trying to find some way to “include” other traditions by absorbing them somehow into your own preeminence. Better, to my mind, starting out on an even playing field. We are all made of the same clay, not only humankind, but earth’s whole biosphere. Trying to ground environmental responsibility in something other than our common origins and destiny will ultimate peter out in a vapid unsustainable moralism.

    Also colonial imperialism doth not a superior religion make. Our western arrogance has a double source: the Romanized Hebrew scriptures, and a Romanized Platonism. Each reinforces the other following the model established by Philo of Alexandria. Hebrew tribalism was upgraded by the Roman Empire but never rejected because it served Roman arrogance, and Platonism was upgraded into Cartesian scientific reductionism and likewise lives on to support our self-idolatry as “minds” superior to matter and those tawny unscientific people across the globe whom we have always denigrated as “animals.”

    Wrestling with one’s tradition because it determines the imagery I am forced to deal with is one thing. But to erect it into a sacred premis from which I elaborate my view of the world is another altogether. I prefer to start from the most universal ground possible.

    Thanks again for your contribution to this endeavor.

    Tony

  3. Joe Gibbons says:

    This is not a comment,Tony, but an observation as a question.
    Do you think of Religion as the largest setting in which to investigate Relationships?
    Relationships of all sorts; Sciences, Humanities, Literatures, Faiths, Politics and so on.
    As I struggle to understand your reflections and to precis them for myself it seems that there
    is no larger category of thought than Religion.
    Thanking you in advance,
    Joe Gibbons

    • tonyequale says:

      Joe,

      Thanks for your question.

      Religion in its purest sense, is the celebration of a relationship. The relationship is to our Source and Sustainer. It is unique among relationships because it includes all others, but that inclusion is experienced indirectly. The focus is on one relationship and others as they bear on that.

      Theology, on the other hand, is the attempt to rationally understand, interpret and situate religion’s relationships in all their complexity, and therefore, as a “science” works in the largest setting of all, because it includes all things. But theology still needs the specific disciplines to provide the details. So for example, one learns about our Source by examining living organisms, but without biology you don’t have a clear, accurate and detailed knowledge of what living things really are. The same is true of all matters. Theology is like the organizer of a multitude of disciplines, not with regard to their content which it depends on them to provide, but regard to their significance.

      Tony

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