This is the compilation, in proper sequence, of the series of blogs entitled “Christian Universalism” posted in 8 installments on this blog over two months starting November ’19. It is about 20K words, with the numbered sections comprising about 2,000 words each.
The title is an adjustment. I did not want to alienate those who do not, or can no longer, identify with the Christian religion. But that’s a problem. For what I propose is precisely meant as a challenge to Christians. I believe that Christian sectarianism has been uniquely responsible for creating the divisions ― racial, national, ethnic, economic ― that characterize our world and threaten to tear apart the human project. A “Christian universalism” would be a welcome relief. Christians do not seem to realize that there is a universal call that all of humankind has been responding to all over the globe since the moment of our evolutionary emergence. If they cannot see that holiness is everywhere, it is my suspicion that, having convinced themselves that they alone are holy, they have forgotten what it looks like.
Sitting at the feet of their founding teachers and not their self-serving managers, Christians can re-learn what the essential elements of religion have been since well before their own was born. Coming to esteem what all of humankind has been faithfully wrestling with always and everywhere, they may reverse their own tradition’s involuted, self-idolizing energy and turn it outward toward the promotion of the religious efforts of others. Becoming a “church for others” simply mirrors the life and vision of their rabbi, Jesus, who was a “man for others.”
Universal religion does not exist. The only thing in our world that even comes close seems to be an imagined ideal round table where the various religious traditions sit and talk, sharing the understanding of their beliefs with one another. Whatever universal agreements may come out of such exchanges, if they ever actually occur, remain momentary, serendipitous events; they have significance only for the few people privy to it. They are not codified anywhere and generally have no impact on the institutional life of any of the participating members.
Nobody is keeping a record; and for sure no one is building a consensus that might be said to represent a universal understanding of religion and its significance for humankind. The purport of this reflection is to say, very clearly and unambiguously, it’s about time we started doing this. The point of view adopted here is that, much to the chagrin of absolutist authoritarian hierarchies like that of the Roman Catholic Church, religion ― institutional structure, beliefs, ritual and moral behavior ― is undebatably relative to the cultural, historical and linguistic groups that embrace it. Religion is a universal human phenomenon; it is found everywhere, and its factual ubiquity suggests that a thorough, disciplined, sincere, honest, humble, and religiously sensitive study would reveal why. The “why” is the common core of the universal religion we seek. It will embody the reason why humans are religious.
Academic courses and departments of Comparative Religion abound. But I want to emphasize, except for a few creative students of that discipline, the kind of consensus that I am talking about has not emerged there, and in fact is not even contemplated. Comparative Religion is an academic discipline whose objective is the tabulation of the way practitioners of the various religions resemble one another or diverge in the areas of religious life mentioned above. It is a branch of social science; it is not itself either a religion or a religious pursuit, search or quest. Its most accomplished students need not be religious or even have any respect for the relationships that are the objects of their expertise. They are solely interested in the knowledge of what religion is and how it functions for the varied human populations across the globe.
The quest I am talking about, while it might have the same material content as Comparative Religion, is vastly different. I am proposing the religious pursuit of the universal religion that lies hidden and dormant beneath the various historically and culturally conditioned forms in which we actually find it functioning in our world. This proposal obviously assumes that there actually is such a reality, but it also recognizes that such a religious pursuit can only be carried out from inside the religious relationship, by those who know what it is. What is being sought is the accurate identification and description of the human event ― the embrace, the surrender ― that practitioners recognize as the mark of authentic religion.
This essay will be an attempt to confirm the claim that there is such a common core, and that clarifying what it is will enhance and purify all the various traditions. In fact, I hope to show that it is only the faithful conformity to the common core that legitimizes any given religion and serves as a standard by which to evaluate its authenticity.
Hence, this study will be circular in character, by which I mean it is committed beforehand to its conclusion: it presumes that a universal religion exists, what it seeks to do is sketch out its contours and understand the dynamics of the religious relationship, how it works in itself and therefore how and why it works everywhere in all the various disparate forms in which it has arisen among us.
* * * * *
Coming at this question as I do from a Roman Catholic background, I am quite aware that such a point of view contradicts the absolutist claims of the official Catholic hierarchy and dogma, which, I would quickly add, are merely the explicit expression of what is tacitly held by most Christian churches. Christians in general believe their religion is the definitive word and will of “God” which mysteriously confers legitimacy upon all other religions in the world. The words of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Jesus, August 2000 could hardly be clearer: “. . . the sacred books of other religions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.” [I,8]
In contrast, I am seeking what will be the core of an, as yet, non-existent “universalist Christianity.” What that might mean is unusually well expressed, it turns out, in the Roman Catholic Church’s very condemnation of it. The following quotations, interspersed with my observations, reproduce in its entirety a single paragraph of Section V, #19 of the same Vatican declaration cited above. The characterizations that the Vatican finds so abhorrent ― not surprisingly ― are exactly the qualities we desire in an authentic universalist Christianity.
The declaration singles out for criticism:
. . . conceptions [of the Church] which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as ‘kingdom centered.’ They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally concerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a ‘Church for others,’ just as Christ is the ‘man for others’ . . . [ellipsis in the original, nothing is omitted]. Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well.
The document acknowledges “positive aspects” without mentioning what they are. But we have no problem imagining how refreshing it would be to have a Church which was not eternally preoccupied in proclaiming its own importance . . . or so concerned with maintaining an image of holiness before the world that it covered-up the most heinous crimes of sexual abuse of children. Wouldn’t we all rather it be a humble and penitential “Church for others,” aware and forthcoming about its own failings and interested only in promoting God’s image in humankind wherever it is found? The Church we dream of will praise the effectiveness of other traditions’ symbols and practices for the building of the kingdom, and encourage its people to remain committed to their ideals and their traditional practices. But no, instead we get pummeled for having the sacrilegious audacity to put others first:
First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is ‘theocentrically’ based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures, and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.
The universal Christianity that I am speaking about is not at all “silent” about Christ. In fact it is based on the universalist insight that Jesus himself gleaned from the prophets and preached to his Jewish contemporaries. That insight was not about his own “divinity,” it was about the “Fatherhood” of “God,” which means precisely that Jesus himself was theocentric and not self-centered. He explicitly rejected any claim that he was “God.” It is the self-centeredness of the Roman Catholic Church that accounts for its inability to recognize Jesus’ message as a call to be “for others.” It was an insight that called for the early Christian rejection of any sectarian claims to exclusivity and uniqueness in favor of the “one divine reality by whatever name it is called,” exactly as Paul of Tarsus evoked it at the Areopagus in Athens. It was, moreover, that same Christ-inspired universalism that emboldened Paul to propose a universal membership in the community of the followers of Jesus which eliminated compliance with the conditions of joining the Jewish national sect. It was theocentric; it was not self-centered.
For the same reason, they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed ‘ecclesiocentrism’ of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity”.76 [the footnote references Redemptoris missio, an instruction of John Paul II]. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God.
Indeed, it is the “mystery of creation” that is uniquely responsible for generating religion. It establishes the existential dependency that is the ground for Jesus’ insight into the Fatherhood of God; . . . for the Greek poetic acknowledgement of the divinity in which we ALL live and move and have our being; . . . for the recognition of our common humanity demanding a compassion and moral responsibility that means justice for all, everywhere and without consideration for ethnic origin, language, color of skin, economic condition, or level of cultural development. The “kingdom” ― every last bit of it ― is totally dependent on the “mystery of creation” and not to some “uniqueness” of Christianity.
Uniqueness, indeed! It has been the traditional emphasis on the superiority of the Christian Religion that is uniquely responsible for the crimes that permitted Christianity to be used as justification for the conquest and exploitation of third world peoples, and for the perennial virulent Christian anti-Semitism that provided the fuel for the Nazi Holocaust. Nor can we forget the horrors perpetrated by the Christians on the Arab world in the Crusades and the expropriation and expulsion of the Moors from Spain. These were undebatably the products of “ecclesiocentrism” whose bitter fruits we are reaping today in the violent attempts of people to regain their dignity, achieve autonomy, create equality, and transcend the debilitating racism that poisons human social interaction. The horrors of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians can be seen as a distraught and grasping over-compensation by frightened Jews and guilt-ridden Christians for the millennia of hatred and genocide born of Christian arrogance. If we set any store by Jesus’ terse wisdom that “by their fruits you will know them,” then by the actual historical fruits of Christian mission to the third world, and its criminally negligent stewardship of the defenseless people under its own roof ― women, children, enslaved Africans and their descendants, Latin Americans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, gypsies ― we know that what supports the outrageous claims for the uniqueness of Christianity must be uniquely inhuman.
My purpose is not to deny the religious legitimacy of Christianity, but I claim the contrary of the arrogant hubris of the Vatican. Far from conferring validity, whatever validity the various Christian sects ― including the Roman Catholic sect ― have, they get from their conformity to the essential characteristics of “universal religion,” the common legacy of humankind, a natural derivative of the human organism itself. It is the acknowledgment and promotion of this religion of humankind on the part of Christians, that I am calling “Christian universalism.”
an evolution of The Book
Universalism is not just an idea. It has had a long and tortuous history in the lands of the West ― lands that are now dominated by religions whose origins are in “The Book.” By “The Book,” of course, I am referring to what is known as the “Bible,” which is a large collection of documents, compiled and organized by religious officials at the time when the nation of Judah was being reconstructed after the Babylonian Captivity, about 600 years before the common era. It contained earlier accounts that were simultaneously religious and historical, of events cherished and passed on by the remnants of people who identified themselves as members of one extended family, the offspring of a man named Abraham, who came from a city in ancient Sumeria, present day Iraq, located where the Euphrates once entered the Persian gulf.
Originally, there was no distinction between religious and historical. Later material began to be included that was more identifiably poetic and moralistic, what people in our time call “religious.” But the Bible was originally constructed on the premise that the history of the nation of Israel (later called Judah) was actually the narrative of the exploits and accomplishments of a near-eastern war god, named Yahweh, who had selected the descendants of that one extended family to be his representatives. The history of those people, who called themselves Hebrews, was the history of Yahweh.
The relationship between the Hebrew people and Yahweh was conceived as contractual. It resulted in what came to be known as the promises of the “Covenant” or Testament.” Yahweh promised he would guarantee success in war and prosperity in peace to the descendants of Abraham in return for obedience, praise, sacrifice and the promotion of his reputation among the gods. It was definitely a quid pro quo. Yahweh was to be their only god, hence idolatry, the worship of other gods, was the greatest of crimes. The worship of Yahweh, which evolved into the Jewish religion, was an ethnic, national, political, necessarily theocratic state of affairs. The relationship maintained these features of national ascendancy until Israel’s fortunes turned permanently sour at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar uprooted the entire population of the kingdom of Judah (what was left of Israel) and deported them to Babylon, it became clear in a way that could not be disputed, that the “contract” between Yahweh and the nation of Israel as traditionally understood had fallen apart.
Since political success was tied to fidelity to Yahweh, it was always assumed that if there was defeat or calamity, it had to be because some “sin,” known or unknown, had been committed by the people to merit Yahweh’s “punishment.” But after the exile, awareness of the overwhelming power of the successive Mesopotamian empires disabused the returning Jews of any hope in their own eventual supremacy in the world of geo-politics, despite Yahweh’s promises; it was dawning on them that defeat was a matter of political impotence, not a punishment for sin. The “contract” had to be re-thought. They were faced with a choice: either abandon Yahweh (which would mean the loss of national identity and absorption into another nation and god), or stay faithful to Yahweh and abandon the traditional terms in which relationship to one’s “god” was to be understood..
New religious thinkers of deep traditional faith who had experienced the exile and come in contact with other “nations” began to look at Yahweh with fresh eyes enlightened by their own widening vision. Authors like the writers of the book of Job and of Qoheleth refused to delude themselves about reality. Face it, they said. Yahweh permits the just to suffer. Why? The ancient formula that all suffering is a punishment for sin . . . that if you suffer it is by default because of you . . . was challenged. But it was not only challenged, the challenge was published and read and its depth and significance recognized, for it came to be included in the collection of the sacred writings of the nation. These included the prophets whose unwavering conviction of Yahweh’s goodness began to adumbrate the importance of justice across national boundaries despite disparities of political power. The very injustice done to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was an affront to Yahweh, not because they were his people, but because injustice was wrong, and Yahweh was the guardian of right and wrong everywhere. The psalmists were clear: the perpetrators of injustice were following other gods, and they should be ashamed. The psalmists also upbraided Yahweh without apology for not punishing those who make the just to suffer, but they never embraced the fiction that suffering was on Yahweh’s initiative. Suffering is caused by human injustice perpetrated by unjust selfish people who follow false gods; Yahweh does not condone injustice, he does not reward those who cause suffering . . . why, he even fails to punish the guilty.
This unmistakable universalism developed in tandem with a growing sense that Yahweh was Israel’s “one” god because, in fact, he was the only god there was. A monotheistic Zoroastrianism had become dominant in Mesopotamia around the time of the exile and seems to have been the religion of Cyrus the Great of Persia who ended the Jewish exile in 538 b.c.e. An earlier monotheism which had a brief ascendancy in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten was squashed by the religious elite but obviously was not eradicated from people’s minds. Some have suggested that Mosaic monotheism was inspired by that phenomenon.
The conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 b.c.e. introduced Greek philosophical thought to the region and monotheism was clearly part of it. Theological monotheism ― that there was in reality only one god ― as opposed to henotheism which recognized a supreme god among many gods, was a correlate of universalism, because it said unequivocally, the same one god ruled everyone. And the belief that it was the same “God” who legislated the moral code, meant that all of humankind was enjoined by the same morality.
In the second century b.c.e., the successor state to Alexander’s conquests ― the Seleucids ― occasioned a nationalist reaction in Judah known as the Maccabean revolt. It was a reassertion of the vision of a Yahwist theocracy against the Hellenizing that came with Greek domination of the region which was once the chess board for the maneuvers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After a century of civil war within Israel, the victorious rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, came to rule an independent theocratic Jewish nation of Judah for about 70 years in a respectful alliance with the Seleucid Greeks. That ended in 63 b.c.e. when Judah became a client state of the Roman empire.
In Jesus’ time, the Jewish debate between religious nationalists and those who favored collaboration with the “Greeks” that had been at the root of Judah’s civil wars, continued on in the divisions of Palestinian Jewish society among Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, with the Pharisees and Essenes disputing between themselves the inheritance of the Maccabean vision. Whether Yahwism was a viable political possibility was an issue that many saw as a specifically religious question, to be solved not by political analysis and a realistic assessment of possibility, but only by an accurate theological interpretation of the “promises of Yahweh.” Not only are there indications that Jesus was well aware of this debate, but also it seems plausible that both Jesus and his cousin John had been associated in some way with the Essenes. Reports in all the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus believed that an apocalyptic event was about to occur. Was this a retro-projection made by Christian communities suffering Roman persecution? We may never know.
I believe that Jesus’ message contained, tacitly, a universalist insight ― a potential religious “revolution” of huge significance ― derived from the essential premises of Judaism. It was fundamentally the insights of Job, Qoheleth, the later prophets and psalms. It was an authentically Jewish development that transcended the primacy of the nation of Judah as a political theocracy, and therefore implicitly went beyond the sect (“Judaism”) that was its ideological justification. Jesus, in other words, without making it the center of his vision, embraced the elements of a universalist view that was being spontaneously generated by an evolving Judaism whose ancient forms of expression remained sectarian. Jesus’ views, surely, were spurred in part by a realistic evaluation of the actual course of Mediterranean political history and Israel’s unavoidable subordination. In his frequent evocation of the “kingdom” there was no indication that Jesus meant to lead a return to political power and autonomy. In his statements he was careful about the way he challenged Rome.
That realization ― acknowledging that the ancient promises were not realistic ― had begun as early as the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century b.c.e. It marked the transformation of Yahweh from a minor Mesopotamian tribal war-god into a supra-national, universal “Deity” of which there could only be one. However, the dream of Israel’s national-tribal ascendancy continued along with these universalist developments. Many Jews remained attached to the fantasies of national autonomy and supremacy until the Jewish-Roman wars of 70 c.e. and 150 c.e. put an end to them for good.
Was Jesus himself ever partisan to those fantasies? The evidence is not entirely clear, but for sure the purport of his message as recorded in the gospels was moral, spiritual and, explicitly non-political. Jesus’ followers, then, picked up the essence of his tribe-transcending insight and began to find ritual and propositional expression for this non-sectarian message about Judaism, authenticated, confirmed and inspired by his extraordinary personality. Jesus was a Jew; he directed himself only to Jews and remained a Jew until his death, but the implication of his religious vision was a universalized Judaism. Given Judaism’s tribal origins, this may have been a bridge too far, for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities of his time concurred in effectuating his elimination.
With Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew who was reared in Greek culture, the embrace of Jesus’ universal insight led to the attempt to find a justification that was not based on a Judaism that remained tribal and sectarian. As a “Greek,” Paul’s own membership in the Christian community was the embodiment of Judaic / Christian universalism. Paul found a ground of support in the person of Jesus himself and the divine mandate that Paul believed was created / revealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. With this new “direct” source of legitimacy, Christianity no longer looked to Judaism as its source of divine authority and relied rather on a “divinely chosen” messiah, the risen Christ, whose “obedience unto death” had earned him “a name above every name” and, surely, a direct line to God himself.
Once Christianity began to function in observable cultic groupings in the Greek-speaking world, the Christians’ “god” ― Christ ― was informally assumed into the pantheon of the Mediterranean gods by the all-tolerant, all-embracing blithely polytheistic Greco-Romans. Jesus’ later ascendancy to the position of “highest god” made Christianity a powerful tool for the legitimation of Roman rule, and that fact was certainly a primary motivating factor for Constantine’s pressure on the bishops to adopt the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea.
Roman rule, unfortunately, was precisely about wealth and power. It was not Jesus’ “kingdom,” even though it appropriated that language for itself. Christianity became the Imperial recapitulation of the tribal theocracy that had originated in the city-state of Rome many centuries earlier. This had the effect of totally reversing Jesus’ universalist insight and using his “divine authority” to support the political ambitions of this one particular city-state which, even after the profession of Christian beliefs, still operated with its more primitive tribal structures. These included a “mandate from heaven” to rule the world for the Empire now made one flesh with its Church. Christianity was dragooned to fill the theocratic role once performed by Roman religion; and it turned itself inside out ― literally ― in order to do it.
The changes in Christian priorities occurred well before Constantine and Nicaea. It was a development that took three hundred years to mature, driven by the Greco-Roman educated classes who came to dominate Christianity, bringing their two tier ― master / slave ― class system and Platonic philosophical idealism with them. The election of Christianity by Constantine was the final step in a long process of naturally evolving acculturation. Christianity became the new face of Roman religion: the guarantor of divine protection and the justification for Roman conquest and rule.
The transfer of the functions of state religion for the protection and advancement of the “city”-become-empire from the traditional gods to Christ, tapped the residual theocratic potential embedded in the original Judaic literature from which Jesus emerged, and turned Christianity back into an Old Testament-inspired sectarian expression of a political theocracy: it became the religion of Rome, and effectively turned the “Father” of Jesus back into a tribal war-god ― but now the “tribe” was the Roman ruling class. The universalism that was at the heart of Jesus’ message was annulled and absorbed into Rome’s claim of universal dominion (a corollary of “God’s” providential will), and Jesus’ “kingdom of justice” came to mean a pax romana that was often simply another word for the desolation left in the wake of Roman conquest.
Jesus spiritualized the word “kingdom” and insisted, as did the prophets, that “God” ruled the hearts of men because he was the Father of them all. The message was just that simple, but the implications have been impossible for western man to swallow; for it meant that we are all one family . . . we are all brothers and sisters, and western Europeans, for some reason, could not accept that. We need a universal religion to express that reality. The Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, which continues among us as the Roman Catholic Church and its “reformed” iterations, is not that religion.
Could this anti-universalist development ever be reversed? A return to the universal insight and message of Jesus would have to refuse all sectarian identification because it would eschew all political pretenses. Jesus’ “kingdom” can only be a metaphor for what rules the heart of man. Augustine’s identification of it with the Roman Empire ― and the Roman Empire and its successors as “God’s” providential will for the diffusion of the “gospel” ― was a theological travesty of the first order. It is this travesty that has come to define an intolerant and supremacist Christianity, the principal tool that created the racism, inequity, and the exploitation of people and the earth characteristic of our times. It has inspired a rebellion of the marginated in virtually all the continents colonized by Christians. The violence on the part of the exploiters in reaction to this demand for justice — effectively rejecting the brotherhood of man and reasserting the supremacy of Christian ethnicity — may have already sealed our fate as a species.
the mystery of being-here
The turn to non-biblical sources in an early attempt to establish Christian universalism was, ironically, a scriptural event. Paul of Tarsus, in looking to justify the transition beyond a sectarian Judaism did not limit himself to the Risen Christ; he turned to ancient Greek creation poetry of an immanent sustaining energy as if it were a scriptural authority. It’s significant that he did not cite Genesis. The “Fatherhood” experienced by Jesus evoked for Paul, not Moses’ Yahweh, but the universal existential experience of humankind: The “Unknown God,” said Paul, is familiar to us all. “God” is where “we live and move and have our being.” Paul’s “God,” near though “unknown,” was the same as Jesus’ “Father.” We have known “God” all along through our very own being-here.
What name Moses had once given “Yahweh” based on what he expected from him ― a violent liberation from Egyptian slavery and later the spoils of conquest: wealth and power ― was now superseded because Paul could see that Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted “God” as his “Father” and it had nothing to do with wealth and power. Paul was unambiguous: “God’s” Fatherhood is bound up with sustaining our being-here. And our being-here was no mere extrinsic relationship to gift and giver. It was an organic immersion in the source itself. We were embedded in “God’s” reality like a sponge in the sea; we were an intrinsic part of “God.” And there was nothing supernatural about it; the relationship to “God” was not conditioned on being a Jew, and it preceded any membership in the Christian community and access to the sacraments. “In Whom we live, move and have our being” ― ò theos for Epiménides, a poet of the 6th century b.c.e. ― was Paul’s Greek translation of the “Fatherhood of God.”
[Please note: I am using the term being-here and not “being” because I want to emphasize the concrete nature of existence and our ordinary human perception of it. We all know exactly what that means.
The term “being” by itself, however, has traditionally been used to refer to all kinds of things, and probably most often an abstract philosophical idea. The “idea of being” or the “concept of being” is not a “thing” out there somewhere. We have to be reminded of that because all the characteristics of “God” that are listed with such definitive authority by the practitioners of mediaeval philosophical theology, come exclusively from an analysis of the concept of being. That is an exercise in abstract logic applied to a concept ― a human mental product with no empirical connection to reality whatsoever. But because it is logically impossible to deny the comprehensive all-inclusive character of the concept of “being,” it has been taken to be “God” in our tradition. It was this logical lock on the human mind ― equating “being” with “all possible perfections” ― that has called forth, over and over again in the history of western thought, the claim that being able to think the concept of “being” was itself a proof of the existence of that to which it referred, “God.” These have been called “ontological proofs” because they are based on necessity as an intrinsic quality of “being” (but note: as a concept). “Being” had to be there because it is absolute and universal and includes the “perfection” of actual existence, and what was “absolutely perfect” was what we call “God” and so “God” had to be there.
So, I repeat, I do not mean that. What I mean by being-here refers to something else.]
Being-here refers precisely to the real presence of things ― what makes them actually here, now, and not just an idea, a future possibility or a past memory. There is nothing absolute or transcendent about being-here. The concept of being-here is the generalization of a present experience; it does not pretend to refer to something that is not experienced in real time. That is the difference. The Platonic idea of “being” was believed to be more than what gave it rise; it was thought to have its own separate, independent existence. Being for the Greeks was an entity called “God.”
The phenomenon which is the human experience of being-here has certain common, universal and undeniable characteristics that derive exclusively from generalizing on those experiences. First, it is a sensory perception and therefore whatever mental features it generates are bound to the human body as a bank of sensory receptors . . . the human organism is the absolute inescapable place where the perception of being-here occurs. Even were the experience to happen during a reverie of the imagination ― a kind of Cartesian “meditation” ― it is a bodily experience and cannot occur without its material foundation. Hence, being-here is a material experience; whatever “mental” dimensions it may have, they are tightly bound to the sensory apparatus of the body.
Being-here, I contend, is the empirical counterpart of the traditional notion of “creation.” Creation constitutes the most important single element grounding agreement among all religious traditions, regardless of where they may situate it in their particular hierarchy of “beliefs.” That we are-here in this world that is-here and how that all came about is one item of primordial significance common to all. Today, we recognize that the question corresponds to a universal desire to know ― a curiosity not entirely alien to awe, but not bound to it ― and thus is legitimately considered separate from religion. Before the age of science, however, no such separation was even thinkable.
For the Genesis thinkers there was no distinction between science and religion. When they said “God made the world” they were responding to their “scientific” need to explain how this spectacular world got here and at the same time they were following their own religious sense of existential dependency and need to connect with their source of existential support. Imagining that there was “someone” who could put together the incredible world they saw before them, a world which included their own body-persons, inspired a profound and insuperable wonderment. The world ― “creation” ― was the revelation of a transcendent existential power and engineering ability that spawned us; it was our “Father” in whom we all ― the entire cosmos ― live and move and have our being. It became the ground of religious universalism.
The starting point and constant guide for the religious journey is being-here. At some point we wake up to the fact that we are-here, and didn’t have to be. It is the beginning of the experience of faith.
emptiness and faith
The keystone in the study of religion is the full understanding of the universal phenomenon of faith ― a word that in this essay does not refer to religious beliefs. Here, faith means the acquiescence to a relationship of trusting existential dependency that entails moral responsibility.
The content of the experience of faith, as I conceive it, is existence: being-here, what we call life. Briefly my intention is to show that the principal elements of natural religion flow directly from a trusting existential dependency. Faith, like morality itself, is a natural, spontaneous and irrepressible reaction to life. It comes with being human; it may take unexpected and unfamiliar forms some of which may appear to be quite irreligious, paranoid and immoral, but it cannot be avoided or eliminated.
Religion, in a second step, is the organized social expression of faith. It is an inevitable development; for wherever there is a common set of significant experiences among human individuals, it will always find social interpretation and expression. As time goes on and social context changes, any particular religion may or may not maintain its expressiveness for the faith of the group using it. Religions change for the same reason they emerged to begin with: the spontaneous faith generated by existential dependency will always seek confirmation, interpretation and a symbolic expression agreed on by the community. Because faith is, as I claim, natural, spontaneous, irrepressible and universal, it will always force religion to emerge where it doesn’t exist, or evolve where it does. All religions maintain their authenticity by evolving; for it is only by evolving that they continue to be a credible expression of spontaneous faith. And faith without religion ― without an anchor in the consensus of the community ― can go in any direction.
faith and emptiness
‘Faith is a relationship of trusting existential dependency that generates moral responsibility.’ There is more to that definition than meets the eye. As the first step in unpacking it I want to clarify the term existential dependency. What it means is what the Buddhists of the Middle Way meant by sunyata, “emptiness.” That word was the fulcrum of a metaphysical analysis ― a theory of being ― that they elaborated to understand and explain Gautama Buddha’s much earlier teaching on enlightenment (which he did not explain in metaphysical terms).
Emptiness was not a subjective feeling, or a phase in ascetical progress like a “dark night of the soul.” It referred to a permanent objective metaphysical condition. It meant that characteristic in things that made them incapable of being-here on their own. To be “empty” meant to not have the wherewithal to make oneself be-here; it meant to be existentially dependent on something(s) other than one’s self for one’s own being-here.
Now the Buddhists elaborated the concept of emptiness in a way that coincided with the universal interconnection of causes that are operative in the production of any phenomenon. They called it “co-dependent co-arising.” Everything that is-here, every phenomenon of whatever kind, regardless of whether it appears to be a stand-alone “thing” or just a quality of a thing, is dependent upon a multitude of factors other-than-the-phenomenon in question for that phenomenon to be-here. For example, in order for the rose to be-here, other things that are not the rose must also be-here and functioning. There must be soil, water, warmth, sunlight, pollinating insects, etc., etc. And for there to be those proximate causes there also need to be an array of more remote geological and atmospheric conditions producing and sustaining them. All these factors are co-dependent and they must all arise and be-here at the same time or there will be no rose. The idea dovetails with the Buddhist idea of “no-self” (anatta, or anatman) because the co-dependent co-arising of any phenomenon from and with its causative factors proves that the phenomenon under examination is, in reality, not itself. Its very self is being actively produced and sustained by a multitude of things that are not itself.
Keeping this dimension of existential dependency in mind shines a spotlight immediately on its universal character. For it means that emptiness is a characteristic of absolutely everything that exists; all things are empty of their own existence, and the very fact that they are-here indicates that everything else on which they all depend also has to be-here. This clearly involves the whole of the material universe. Everything, including every human being, exists in and, more significantly, is dependent upon a vast matrix ― a network that embraces the totality of things that are-here.
Now I claim this sophisticated “philosophical” analysis is performed spontaneously and wordlessly in real time by every conscious human being on the planet and at a relatively early age. Everyone is aware at some level of conscious articulation that they are empty of their own being: they are not self-originating and they are not self-sustaining; they did not put themselves here, they rely on a multitude of other things to keep them being-here, and they cannot prevent their ultimate disappearance.
In the case of the human individual, the “thing” in question is its very own self. This realization of existential vulnerability occurs in an organism that is impelled by its inner constituents to always preserve itself above all things and continue to be-here. This drive, traditionally called the conatus, is so intense that it programs the organism to do virtually anything that is required to stay alive. This “instinct for self-preservation” can be overcome but only with extreme difficulty. It amounts to a “catch-22” from nature: you MUST ALWAYS stay alive, but you DO NOT HAVE the wherewithal to do it. The Buddhists identified the illusory attempt to create that wherewithal as the root of all dissatisfaction: samsara, “chasing the wind.” We all recognize the instinct to stay alive is what lurks behind all injustice, exploitation, political oppression, tyranny and enslavement. The oppressor threatens death or its equivalent and no one can resist it.
community and morality
The combination of the compulsive drive of the conatus in tandem with the awareness of emptiness ― existential non-independence ― accounts for the intense valences created from the earliest infancy between the individual human organism and the human community into which it is born. The vulnerability of being human generates a dependence on other human beings, and makes its inversion in exploitative oppression, particularly demonic. Human community is set in stone from the start. Survival for the infant is a gift received from others who provide what it cannot provide for itself. The content ― the “what”― of the social transaction is human existence, life. Human community is bathed in the warmth of family love, but the stock-in-trade is not just a warm feeling, it is life itself, survival ― being-here.
The individual’s experience of emptiness immediately elicits human community; and human community immediately brings a demand for equity to reign in the transactions by which all humans survive; for the vulnerability is universal. This is the origin and the significance of morality: morality is the identification of the attitudes and behavior necessary for peace, harmony and equity in human society united in the common pursuit of an elusive survival. Its corruption is our principal enemy. It has nothing to do with “obedience” to a god-person. Such a deflection was a fiction: a poetic way of bringing a sacred intensity to bear on social interaction. Morality is a natural corollary of emptiness; it is the social dimension of being-here for human beings.
Faith includes the recognition of the organic connection between universal emptiness and human compassion, mutual assistance and the protections of larger society ― justice ― which is our only defense against existential impotence. Faith is primordially expressed in the acknowledgement and embrace of emptiness and a reaching out to others for understanding, help and stability.
Ancient primitive religion imagined that the vulnerability that remained after society had done all it could to protect itself and its members, was in the hands of some supra-human agency that wielded a controlling power over the events in the world of humans. In most cases this power was imagined to be held by one or more invisible divine “persons” who were related to humankind rather like older siblings. The inquiry into universal religion identifies the energy driving this primitive imagery to be the same existential dependency that humankind faces today but, informed by science, no longer projects onto personal deities. Today, even religious people of all traditions have adjusted to the fact that there are no “divine persons” who control the factors by which humankind survives. The erstwhile claims of “Christian Science” have been muted if not totally silenced. Recourse to medical intervention for illness and the pursuit of political remedies for social problems are universal among all religious people. And those who are informed know quite well that it was the evolution of living matter that produced the intricate interconnections that keep our vast cosmos in balance.
This highlights the foundational role of faith. As used here, faith is the experience of metaphysical emptiness. It is not the experience of an invisible divine presence or entity. Faith is the interior perception of one’s own existential vulnerability coupled with the recognition that other human beings have the same experience, generating the same feelings that produce the same questions and preoccupations, needs, fears and hopes. Morality is born of that empathic insight. It gives rise to compassion and is at the root of the universally recognized moral obligation: “treat others as you want them to treat you.”
Internal moral insistence, called synderesis, is the basic sense of right and wrong. It impacts everyone connaturally. It is not unconscious, but at the same time it is not the conclusion of an explicit reasoning process. It is not suppressible. It is a corollary of existential dependency and as such it is universal. Its primary mandate is justice and its empirical awakening is in the spontaneous, irrepressible reaction to injustice. Moral responsibility and existential dependency are corollaries. You can’t have one without the other. Moral responsibility implies the shared experience of existential dependency as much as it is implied by it.
The origin of this correlation between existential dependency and the moral sense arises in the same ground as religion ― faith ― the spontaneous and connatural recognition that we are all existentially dependent. It is the universality of emptiness that generates compassion and the immediate awareness that I must treat others as I want to be treated. Those who dismiss this primordial insight always do so by denying their essential emptiness and live in a fantasy of their indestructibility. We tend to associate it with the insufferable immaturity characteristic of adolescence, but a deeper look reveals that there are ideological fantasies that can provide the same assurances for the deluded at any stage of life. Some religions play that role either alone or in conjunction with an ethnic tribalism lost in the illusions of its own superiority.
Faith, we said, was a trusting existential dependency. Now why include trust in this foundational phenomenon of humankind’s presence in the world? Because in the first instance the recognition of existential dependency involves no fear whatsoever. No infant is born afraid or suspicious. The very idea is absurd. The newborn awakening to consciousness implicitly trusts what it is and where it has awakened. It has no worries at all. The human organism spontaneously trusts being-here and being human. The child doesn’t have to learn to trust; it is born with it. It is the very nature of the material energy of the components of the human body. Living matter is at home in the universe. It must learn to mistrust. Faith holds both its emptiness and its boundless trusting optimism in one undivided embrace. It is no more surprised or distressed by its emptiness than its hunger pangs, as it expects both will be answered and satisfied. It is natural and spontaneous. Trust is embedded in the very matter that our organisms are made of.
Trust should not be confused with an oblivious ignorance or reckless disregard of vulnerability. Without an awareness of vulnerability there is no trust. Trust is precisely the sense that vulnerability belongs here which implies that it trusts that its counterpart of support also is here.
Trust is not confined to infancy or childhood. Trust is the air we breathe always. We have not appreciated the extent to which our lives are dominated by it. It is so common, so necessary and so taken for granted that we have to make an effort to recall and remind ourselves how universal it is.
Consider: we trust the infallible process of fetal formation in the womb from zygote to birth; we trust the perfectly proportioned paced development of our organisms from infancy to adulthood; we trust all the internal functions of the body having to do with the processing of nourishment, waste, respiration, circulation of the blood, sleep. We never question them until they malfunction, and even then our medical interventions are generally dedicated to the elimination of obstacles to the body healing itself which we trust most of all.
Of course, we also trust the network of cosmic forces that sustains our solar system and we trust that our planet will be able to continue to supply the oxygen, weather, warmth and water we need to sustain ourselves. We trust the human community we live in. We trust our families and friends. And we trust strangers: co-workers, teachers, doctors, technicians, security personnel, public officials . . . the list is endless. All these fine-tuned interconnections, environmental and social, were created by eons of patient evolution.
After all this, to say we trust being-here seems like the most unoriginal and commonplace of statements. But of course we do. We are made of trust. It is a corollary of being empty. For, being empty as we are, if we did not trust, we would disintegrate.
creation or emergence
Understanding what it’s like to have faith is an entirely interior event. Faith is about relationship and as with all relationships, no one can speak authentically about it who has not experienced it. The very nature of relationship, except for its observable and measurable “exterior effects,” is its interior content: the shared reality ― whatever it might be ― between the parties. In the case of the existential relationship, the shared reality is the empty being-here of the recipient ― its conditioned human life. Its dependent “self” is the content of the transaction. Its “self” belongs as much to the donor as the recipient and it doesn’t cease belonging to the donor upon being received. That is the source of its emptiness. The recipient doesn’t entirely own itself.
The content is what the parties related to one another “carry back and forth,” which is the transactional sense evoked by the underlying Latin verb “re-ferre, re-latus.” In the faith relationship the content “traded” and shared is existence itself, what I am calling being-here. What is being given and received is being-here, life. And while this unique and precious commodity is quite deeply appreciated and intimately cherished by the individual recipient, the donating source ― the provider(s), the co-owner(s) ― remain(s) unknown. What provides being-here is not apparent, and the faith that is its recognition has relied on socially available confirmation, imagery and symbols for its expression. Hence it is clothed in the language, ritual and story of the local community ― its religion ― and differs from culture to culture. But the general dynamics ― the operating forces, the “carrying back and forth,” the giving and receiving, the recognition of common ownership, the faith ― are the same for all regardless of locality or culture; faith is universal because emptiness is universal.
In the human domain those dynamics are what we call “inter-personal.” Faith is the acknowledgement of an existential relationship seen from the side of the recipient whose very person ― one’s very self ― in perceiving itself as being received, simultaneously adumbrates itself in that same act as having been given. The experience triggers a spontaneous evocation of awe, gratitude and a sense of being embraced by the unknown donating source(s). It is absolutely unavoidable and undeniable. All human beings aware of their dependency know this experience. It is universal.
But what does personal mean when there is no humanoid “person” on which the existential dependency is known to rest? To answer that question is one of the principal goals of these reflections. It is the source of the most common confusion in this area: since the operating dynamic from the side of the receiver is necessarily “personal” (for it makes the human person to be-here and to be supremely grateful), it has been assumed that the existential source was also “personal” and “benevolent.” The fact that there is no consensus among the world’s religions in that regard has not been appreciated, and in the West, especially, rejected categorically. In our times science seems to concur with the view that the only “persons” (as we understand the term) involved in providing existence were the human ones from whom one is descended.
The West insists the source of being here must be a god-“person.” Well, of course, all the western religions derive from “the Book” and are built on an ancient pre-scientific narrative that imagined a personal god who created the world with a purposeful plan like any craftsman, freed the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians, accompanied them in their conquest of Palestine, gives moral commands, expects to be obeyed and answers prayers in anticipation of rewarding or punishing people for their conduct. Such pre-scientific guesswork ― common sense as it may have been at one time ― is completely inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. No one in ancient times saw “God” creating the world. We now know we live in an evolving universe constructed entirely of material energy whose organic elaborations (all the known species of living things) are driven solely by the compulsion to be-here, an energy intrinsic to matter. The “common-sense” conjecture of our ancestors that a super-human architect and craftsman was responsible for all this amounted to a primitive “science,” meaning a concrete physical explanation of how the construction actually took place, not a metaphysics. (By metaphysics I mean a theory of abstract [conceptually structured] causation). They cannot be faulted for making a plausible guess under the circumstances. But, as science, it is no longer valid; we now know that it never happened like that. Construction took place in another way altogether: matter’s autonomous self-elaboration ― evolution
creation or emergence?
It must be acknowledged, moreover, that the very idea of creation ― the conceptual structure that corresponded to what the ancients thought creation meant ― was derived from and remains wedded to that that mistaken science. “Craftsman” and “creation” are correlative notions that refer to concretely imagined events. You cannot suddenly admit that the “ancient science” was faulty but continue to assert that the belief in “creation,” as a concept, was not. The very idea of creation ― and I mean to include in this idea the thought, planning, and intended purpose for the thing created ― came from the imagery. If you change the image of a rational craftsman who does things for a purpose, the idea of what creation is ― the conceptual and epistemic structure ― changes in tandem. With evolution, the word and concept “creation” no longer embody the reality of the way being-here is known to be shared between source and recipient, because the features associated with rationally applied construction are no longer there.
The new imagery is provided by what is now known to be the actual process ― the “transaction” ― that made all the structures, forces, features and species of living organisms of the known universe to be-here as they are: the evolution of living matter. The action is not one of “creation,” it is one of autonomous self-emergence. It is the spontaneous expansive activity of a living matter whose non-personal, non-intentional, non-purposeful dynamism is locked into an unchanging energy of growth and intensification. Life moves in only one direction: more life.
With the transmission of being-here by the evolution of living matter and not by a craftsman’s planned, purposeful creation, the new emergent “thing” transmitted remains as much a part of what did the transmitting (the evolving) as what emerged. In this conception immanence takes on a concrete imagery: the emergent species always remains nested and embraced (like a sponge in the sea) by what gave it rise: living matter. The “new thing” emerges incrementally; it never stops being the “old thing” even as, little by little, it becomes unmistakably what it now is and is not what it came from. And in the case of humankind the perception of emptiness includes all the co-dependent co-arising factors ― human and non-human “causes” ― that are active in the emergence of the human organism. The human being knows that it is, undeniably, a biological organism, the direct offspring not only of its human ancestors, but also of a multitude of other things in this cosmos. The human organism always remains comprised exclusively of the sub-atomic particles, valences, forces and fields from which it emerged and whose continued functioning is necessary for its own continued existence. Its “self” always remains what it was made of, even as it launches itself as autonomous.
excursus: the philosophical inversion
The conceptual change implied by the change in the scientific description also affects our traditional philosophical assumptions. And in one key respect it actually inverts them. This is significant, so let me digress briefly and try to explain.
The assumptions of Greek philosophy made since the days of Plato are that “things” are what they are by dint of their “essence.” Essence was believed to be the idea of the “thing” that was implanted in it by its creator. Since the Creator was believed to be rational and functioned like a craftsman, the idea of a thing was itself derived from the purpose the craftsman had in mind when s/he created that thing. The idea and the purpose were the same; they were the “essence” of that thing.
That “essence” was spiritual because it was an idea. An idea was the product of a “mind” and since the mind was believed to be a spirit, the ideas it produced were also said to be spiritual items ― which is the way we think we experience them, i.e., as immaterial. An idea does not occupy space, it is able to co-penetrate matter co-existing in the same “place” without contact or displacement. It is absolutely universal and denotes every instance of its essence without exception: the idea of horse includes every horse that ever was, is or will be. It is also uncomposed; it is not made of parts and so cannot decompose (implicitly it is therefore immortal). Matter, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same space, is limited to the one and only concrete thing that it is, is composed of parts which disintegrate ending the “identity” of the thing.
This “world-view” promoted first by Plato and continued in slightly modified form by Aristotle, defined western thinking from about 350 bce until the modern era. It is really only since Darwin’s proposals about evolution in the 19th century that it has become generally accepted that all of the foundational priorities assumed by “essentialism” are completely wrong. As it has become increasingly irrefutable that matter is self-elaborating, the need to have “idea-essences” in order to explain why things do what they do is superfluous. Matter does what it does because it is driven to be-here by its own internal material energy and the forms that it assumes and the abilities it produces are in response to what works ― what allowed it to be-here.
Under the Platonic philosophía perennis, reality was made of two separate and completely dissimilar substances, matter and spirit, and was described in a series of conceptual dyads: act and potency, prime matter and essential form, body and soul, essence and existence. In each of these pairs one side corresponded to immaterial ideas and the other to its material partner. Notice that it dovetailed with the “rational craftsman” theory of universal construction. They were all different ways of imagining how the ideal immaterial “reality” in the universe interacted with matter. In all cases, spirit was the guiding element ― the immaterial idea coming from the craftsman’s immaterial mind; and the trailing, dead and inert “empty receptacle” which received the enlivening directions coming from the immaterial idea, was matter. Matter in itself, without form, was dead, inert, lifeless, shapeless, not unlike soft and pliable clay in the hands of the potter. Matter could be acted upon but could not act. Matter was pure empty potential that brought nothing whatsoever to the composite except the ability to be molded, shaped, directed and activated by the idea-form-essence / source of life.
There was a scholastic maxim: “being comes through the form.” What comes first in an essentialist world is the idea ― the “whatness” of a thing: that which makes a thing to be what it is, gives it life and therefore explains what it does. And in all cases “what” something was, was determined by the purpose for which it was made by its maker, the idea in the mind of the artisan. Aristotle called it the “final cause” because it determined the end to which the “thing” was designated. The contribution of the material receptacle into which the essential form was “poured” was precisely its emptiness: its shapelessness and its malleability: its non-determinateness and its readiness to being shaped by form; its inertness and need to be enlivened by spirit. Form worked on matter as a potter’s mental plan on soft, wet clay. But although matter had to ultimately yield to the shaping power of form, the resistance it offered engaged and intensified form’s activity, giving a focus and creativity to the resulting composite that drove the evolving history of the cosmos. (The last image was the contribution of Henri Bergson to the philosophía perennis early in the 20th century, in a book called Creative Evolution. Despite its title, it was a reaffirmation of traditional creationist dualism.)
Essentia-lism was an IDEA-lism. It was dominated by the primary and guiding reality of ideas, and by the spirit-minds that generated and understood them. Ideas and spirit-minds were real. They carried and transmitted being. Matter gave an edge and creativity to being only by its resistance to it; it was a kind of non-being. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries imagined Being like pure brilliant light shining from its source (the “One”) into an infinite darkness of non-being and enlightening whatever it touched in proportion to its distance from the source of light. Hence the cosmos was populated with a hierarchy of “things,” combinations of darkness and light, that differed from one another in brilliance to the degree that they more closely or more remotely reflected the brilliance of the “One.”
The philosophical inversion I speak of occurred when the world realized that ideas are not things, and minds are not entities separate from the bodies they inhabit. There are no “essences.” Ideas do not preceed reality, they follow it. Ideas are the mental states of the brains of human organisms which are formed by their perception of existing things. Human minds are the imagined identity behind that activity. Evolution is not the creative result of “spirit” overcoming a resistant “matter” and there are no “idea-plans” or purposes implanted in things by a some celestial Potter. It is living matter itself obeying its own dynamism to be-here whose incremental micro-adjustments of its own inner components result in combinations that survive when they match the support potential in the surrounding environment. That is what is occurring in evolution. If I were to use the traditional scholastic terminology, the conceptual relationships are turned on their heads. The “form” or shape that something has does not determine how it will survive, it is in stumbling upon the combinations that survive that gives to things the form and characteristics that they have. That means, in scholastic terms, being does not come through the form, form is the result of the struggle to be-here, form comes through being; essence does not precede existence, it is the other way around: existence precedes essence. In other words, it was in discovering how to be-here that things developed the shape, abilities and characteristics that they have. This turns the philosophía perennis on its head.
These developments in our common understanding have resulted in the realization that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is superfluous, scientifically speaking. If once upon a time, the idea of spirit was necessary to explain both what things are and how they got here, that is no longer the case. And the simple application of Ockham’s razor ― eliminating unnecessary factors in our explanations ― calls for a re-thinking of exactly what reality is made of.
This creates a dilemma. If spirit was a “theory” that was once the best explanation of the cosmic process, but now is no longer needed, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really exist at all and may never have been the object of our experience as we once believed. We also once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but no longer. We can be deluded.
But the issue is complex and far from resolved. Spirit’s role in emergence, is one thing; but there are other areas where “spirit” cannot be so easily dismissed. How do we explain our unique human abilities: self-consciousness and self-identity, thinking, imagination, appreciation of beauty, morality, the pursuit of truth, the desire for immortality and the love that forms the steel hoops that grapple us to our friends and families? There are those who would call such things illusion. I do not. There is no way to deny what we experience, and no amount of sophistry a la Daniel Dennett, can eliminate the reality of a dimension of this cosmos, internally observable to humans, that we have traditionally attributed to a separate spirit. To say that the existence of spirit as a separate kind of reality opposed to matter is no longer needed to explain the cosmos does not necessarily prove either (1) that such a thing does not exist (with another function) or (2) that spirit may not bear a relationship to matter that is different from the “substance”-definition and the associated total separation and opposition imagined by our Platonic forebears.
It is this latter alternative that appears to me to be the most compatible with both the discoveries of science and our own undeniable experience. I believe there is no such separate “thing” or immaterial “substance” called spirit; truly spiritual phenomena exist, but they are the emanations of a property of matter that we had ignored, fatally distracted by the prejudices of our Platonic, Cartesian dualist tradition which denigrated matter as dead, inert and passive.
Stone reductionists, like Daniel Dennett who are willing to call us “robots” or “zombies” and claim our interior experience of consciousness is an illusion rather than question the mechanistic materialism that he subscribes to, are one group. Unfortunately, the word materialism without qualification, has been identified with that position alone. Many believe that it is impossible to salvage that word for other applications and suggest the use a different term altogether for a reality that is, in fact, comprised of the potential for both kinds of phenomena: spiritual and material. They propose we call this alternative view “neutral monism,” in order to emphasize that (1) it is not a dualism because there is only one kind of substance in the universe, and that (2) that one substance is neither what we used to call “spirit” nor what we used to call “matter.” It is neutral. It is some other thing with the properties of both.
Currently we do not have a word for this view. I call it Transcendent Materialism: “materialism” because whatever “spiritual” phenomena are-here, are exclusively the emanations of a property of matter; “transcendent” because this potential is responsible for matter evolving — transcending one form and bringing forth other, unique, autonomous and definitive forms. “Transcendent Materialism” explains emergence.
Frankly, I am impatient with those who continue to use the word “materialism” simplistically without qualification to mean physicalist reductionism. There has been enough discussion in academic forums on neutral monism in our times to warrant acknowledgement of multiple meanings to “materialism.”
Transcendent materialists look on the spiritual not as a “thing” or substance but as a phenomenon ― an undebatable reality of experience. We are materialists, but for us matter itself even in its simplest most primitive forms has the potential for what it eventually displays after eons of evolutionary complexification: life and consciousness. We adduce the ancient principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” which means “nothing comes from nothing” to explain the etiology. In other words, if “B” truly emerges from “A” and from “A” alone, then the full explanation for “B” must exist in “A.” Whatever it is that is responsible for what we once attributed to a separate spirit, is actually a property of matter. Hence matter, in total contrast to what Plato and Descartes were saying, is far from inert, lifeless and passive. Matter is the bearer of LIFE and thought.
Now we understand the reason why being-here is only and always a perception of the sensory apparatus of the conscious organism: “Spirit” is a material reality. Spinoza said it in his own way in 1665: “Extension is an attribute of God; God is an extended thing.” (Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Part II, proposition II).
more on spirit
Many people continue to identify the belief in a separable “spirit,” as absolutely indispensable to their religious lives. They simply cannot imagine “faith” without it. “To believe,” for them, means believing in entities and a reality other than this world of matter. In fact they often describe atheism simply as “materialism,” equating religion with belief in spirit.
Part of what seems to make spirit indispensable is the traditional Christian projection that there is a world other than this one, and it is populated with spiritual entities. Few people are aware that the origins of that view was Plato who conceived of a “world of ideas” where the immaterial “essences” (ideas) of existing things resided. Later this “other world” was identified as the “mind of God,” and divine entities like the Demiourgos-Craftsman and the World Soul also lived there. In Christian hands this eventually became the “Trinity” and was assimilated to a “place” where separated “souls” lived for all eternity with “God.” It seemed like belief in spirit was necessary to support belief in this “other world.”
I would like to get into the weeds on this topic because it is so central to our tradition. Almost all Christians share that worldview.
I want to challenge it. Not because I have an some definitive alternative but because the certainty with which the traditional view is maintained is entirely unwarranted. My challenge is to say that we simply don’t know. But I add immediately that not knowing does not affect faith in the least. I could never say “there is no such thing as separable spirit,” because logically speaking, you cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove that something doesn’t exist. I cannot prove that there is no such thing as spirits, or other immaterial entities like ghosts, specters, angels, devils.
Without trying to deny anyone else their opinion, I want to say definitively that those who claim that the existence of separable spirit is absolutely necessary for faith and that without it you cannot have authentic religion, are dead wrong. I may not know what’s definitively true, but I sure know what’s NOT true. And to say that “spirit” MUST exist as a separate entity, that “God” MUST be one of these separate entities, and that “God” CANNOT be what “material reality” is, is simply not true. In effect, they are all attempts to prove a negative; they are saying “such and such CANNOT BE” when there is simply no way to know one way or the other. I’m not saying I know; I am saying no one knows.
“God” is whatever “God” is. It’s not up to me to decide or demand, and what I would prefer is not the criterion for reality. The same holds true for the “after-life” or some projected world of immaterial entities. There either is or there isn’t such a thing. We have no control over it at any rate, and believing or not believing it has no effect whatsoever on whether it’s there or not. The fact that I may not like the way things are does not give me the right to claim they cannot be that way. They are whatever they are and my job is to find a way to love my life, the people who made my being-here possible and the source and process that has made me what I am, no matter what the ultimate mysteries of reality turn out to be. I am saying they are all ultimately irrelevant to faith. I ask the serious religious person who claims to “love God”: what if “God” turns out to be a material energy, will you still love “God”? What if there is no after-life with you in it, will you still love “God”? Do you love God only because you think “he” will give you what you want?
The key is to commit to reality. It doesn’t matter that we really don’t know what reality is, we can trust it. What do we need to know? By the time we’re five years old or so, we have been around long enough to know that it’s good to be-here. We know we belong to our people and to the planet. Life works. We like it. We belong here. We know we can trust it. Trust is natural. In fact, most of us live our lives without our sense of trust in life ever being broken. And those who have their confidence in life seriously challenged by tragedy, usually regain it before very long as the human organism recovers and becomes re-engaged in surviving. Thinking about tragedy recedes over time. Despair depends on thinking; the unthinking body does not know despair.
Faith that is collectivized as Religion is a trusting relationship to our source, whatever that is. It does not have to know “God” or what “God” might be like. All it knows, and it’s not debatable, is that the human being is not self-originating, self-sustaining, or self-subsistent; it is dependent, contingent and metaphysically empty. It cannot account for its own existence; but it trusts what it is implicitly. What “God” means in the common estimation of mankind is that unknown “something” that ultimately accounts for my being-here as a material part of a vast cosmos that appears to be made of the same matter as I am.
I do not know what’s on the other side of the existence equation: I do not know all the forces and factors that have gone into my being-here-now. What I am calling faith acknowledges that reality, and without knowing exactly what is responsible for my improbable presence here or the presence of the universe itself, I embrace it with confidence as my unknown source, whatever it is. I surrender to the fact of my dependency and recognize that metaphysical emptiness is the air I breathe. It’s what I am. It pervades and affects everything I am, everything I do and everything (and everybody) that I am connected to in my life upon the earth.
It is my contention that not knowing , far from being an obstacle, is actually an essential element of faith, and it is attested to in all the religions around the world. But, not to worry. It’s an element that can never be lost, because no one knows, and the so called propositions of belief that declare that there is a “God” and that “God” is this or that, are not knowledge. They are place-holders for faith. If they are taken as knowledge, faith disappears. Ultimately they are symbols, metaphors, verbal tags developed in the past by people who, like us, did not know, but recognized there had to be something there to explain it. They trusted what they did not know. They selected place holders to stand for our emptiness and that unknown reality that sustains it until the day when it would be found, known, and the mystery of being-here solved; in the meantime, they trusted it. Those place holders are not the sustaining reality. They are substitutes for our trusting ignorance. They stand for whatever the reality is that accounts for the emptiness of the cosmos, but in themselves they do not denote it, define it, describe it or contain it. What it is, is not known, and, as many religious traditions claim, may very well be unknowable. They are symbols. They do not provide literal knowledge. Our sense of trust is built, not on that ignorance, or the tags that stand for it, but on the confidence that our material organisms have for being-here.
Those that assert that the place holders generated by their local community alone authentically symbolize the reality that no one knows, are wrong. The reason they make that fundamental mistake is because they do not think they are only place-holders; they think they are literal reality: knowledge.
Please notice: This denial of the validity of the symbols of other communities is a multi-millennial defining characteristic of Western Christianity. Christianity abandoned its early attempts to promote Jesus’ implicit universalism in favor of an implacable and genocidal intolerance that has been its consistent contribution to the disunity of humankind throughout its long history, most clearly in evidence since the installation of Christianity as the State religion of the Roman Empire
The nations and people who internalized Christianity have come to dominate the globe. The crass and habitual denial of validity to all symbols other than Christian is expressed in the Christian claim of supremacy over all other religions, which in the context of the theocracy that wed religion to ethnic and national identity, meant the unrestrained conquest and despoliation of non-Christian people everywhere that Christians went, justified by the alleged supremacy of Christian symbols. Thus the insistence on the literal reality of Christian symbols has led directly to the exploitation, enslavement, plunder and subjugation of people all over the world, as well as the sadistic and genocidal treatment of the non-Christian people who lived within its territorial boundaries.
Jesus’ warning: “By their fruits you will know them,” is actually a mirror for Christians if we dare to look in it. By our fruits we will know who we are and what the intolerance of our religious symbols has made us. We have become monsters to the world, and the globe is tearing itself to pieces in the effort to get rid of the legacy we have left it.
It is all a function of the Christian claims to supremacy. And the claim to supremacy is based on the fiction of having knowledge ― infallible truth. That claim is the one single and indisputable source of western dominion and the resulting global inequity, third world poverty, racial hostility and our seemingly insoluble violent conflicts as a species. And, it is our continued insistence on our supremacy ― our Christian religion welded in steel to our Caucasian ethnicity ― that resists and will prevent any insight into the only real durable solution to our conflicts: our self-embrace as a family of humankind. Our Christian religion has justified our fear, hatred and exploitation of non-Christian people. It is the single most divisive influence in our world and it has been actively undermining human unity and solidarity at least since the end of the middle ages. We have to look in that mirror.
It is sheer madness to use the “infallibility” that justifies the traditional western Christian ideology of supremacy to insist on the literal facticity of symbols ― a facticity that has prevented the solidarity we need to find common solutions. If a particular constellation of beliefs ― beliefs that include the literalness of symbols like spirit that are not in any way essential to faith ― have been identified as responsible for multiplying the torments we heap on one another, it is probably wrong.
* * * * *
No one knows “God.” We don’t even know whether we are talking about a force or an entity, a person or a presence. We don’t know whether the imagery we have inherited from our tradition is anything more than guesswork and myth. We don’t know that “God” is spirit. But we have always claimed “God” could not possibly be matter, without ever really justifying our prejudice. Could “he” be? Well if all we have to go on is what we see around us, and everything we see around us is made of matter, including our own selves, there is a good chance that if we are dependent on something for both what and that we are, that thing might very well be material. I’m not saying that proves it is. Nothing says our source has to be matter anymore than there is something that demands that it not be matter. I am saying it’s plausible; and those that choose to use matter’s creative energy as their symbol for “God” have as much access to an unknowing trust as the rest of us. Our symbols are not knowledge. They are place holders, and at no point do we confuse them with literal reality. We just don’t know; and at this point in time there is no way to overcome our ignorance.
If we are insuperably ignorant, then knowledge can’t be essential to faith. What’s essential is what we cannot deny: that we are empty of our own being-here and our bodies naturally trust being-here. We trust what put us here, whatever that may be, and we trust where the whole thing is going, wherever that may lead. We don’t “know” any of these things. What we do know and must all agree on, is our undeniable experience: we are empty of our own existence, and we reach out to one another for confirmation, interpretation and support because we empathize with one another. We love being-here and together we are determined to survive. This is bedrock. This is faith. Faith is natural, spontaneous and undeniable. It is the surrender to the human condition. To deny it, to suppress it, to cynically exploit it or destroy it in a tantrum of frustrated anger, I contend, is to lose our humanity.
And if you destroy your humanity because it doesn’t match your blueprint for the “true religion,” I can guarantee you, no “God” will come to your rescue.
Whatever symbols allow us to embrace our emptiness, reaching out to one another in empathy and compassion to support our trust in being-here, are authentic Religion.
Jesus and Buddha
Despite superficial differences, I contend there is a profound concurrence between the religious visions of Buddha and Jesus . . . and, in my opinion, it stems from their experience of being-here. The agreement consists in the fact that both of their core symbols ― the “fatherhood” of “God” for Jesus and “no self” for Buddha ― are really conceptual derivatives of the same experience, and the two apparently divergent images are simply due to the different cultural matrices in which the experience occurred. I claim that both Jesus and Buddha experienced the same thing: their radical trusting existential dependency. Neither one had any experience of the other side of the equation: where their being-here came from, i.e., what was the source and sustaining factor that accounted for their being-here and for why they spontaneously trusted it.
This is salient, particularly, in the case of Jesus where it has been assumed by a naïve literal take on the gospel narrative and mediaeval theological retrospection, that Jesus had direct, person-to-person knowledge of “God” the “Father” because he was “God” the “Son.” I deny that, and I am supported in that opinion by scripture scholars of all denominations. There was no “trinitarian” reference in Jesus’ awareness of the “Fatherhood” of “God.” His reaction was that of a believing Jew who, upon emerging from the Jordan after a life-changing act of personal surrender, fully embraced what his Judaic tradition told him was his “creature-hood” launched and sustained by Yahweh his “Creator.” Furthermore, his reading of the prophets and the psalms had subsequently defined and refined the personal bearing of Yahweh as one of total personal benevolence, and the word “father” was the most apt image for that reality.
But I want to emphasize: Jesus did not “see” anything. What he saw was his own existential dependency along with the spontaneous sense of trust in life that he had experienced since infancy which his family and religion had reinforced and interpreted. He was as blind to the source that sustained him as the most hardened atheist. His innate trust had been interpreted by the consensus of the community to mean the benevolence of Yahweh, his Creator.
In the case of Buddha the “quest for enlightenment,” was a culturally encouraged religious pursuit which had a long and revered tradition behind it. It was a quest in which many people in Buddha’s time were already intensely engaged and to which Buddha himself had dedicated many years of personal effort at great cost to his standing in the world. It predisposed him to find what he did. That the “liberation” he experienced took the form of ending the cycles of samsara ― “chasing the wind” ― that enervated daily life and poisoned human community, is no great surprise. Samsara had long been identified as the cause of human sorrow in the Hindu tradition. Buddha’s discovery was not a new religion. It was a simple advance on the elusive Hindu asceticism that had preceded him. He found that mortifying insatiable desire ― no matter how long and how intensely ― was not sufficient to end samsara. What was missing was denying the “self” that lay behind it. It was a unique insight that allowed for a “middle way” between an impossible and fruitless asceticism and a life of self-gratifying illusion.
Once the illusory “self” was identified as the real culprit ― the hidden demon that kept trying to dig, or build its way out of a trusting emptiness ― denying the pretensions of the self proved to be the key to personal liberation and community harmony. Buddha did it by saying there was “no self.” There was nothing to build, and nothing to protect, because there was nothing there. It allowed for the pursuit of a middle path in ascetical practice that led directly to the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation: letting go.
The key point for this reflection is that by eliminating the “self,” what was being held in a trusting embrace was emptiness. For to say there was “no self” was precisely to affirm a transcendent confidence in the totality of all things in which we are sustained like the knots in a cosmic net. There is nothing to us. We are the product of other things. We are “caused,” in Buddhist terminology, by a multitude of causes, proximate and remote, which are themselves similarly caused. The entire network is also empty; it is somehow sustained and he never asked how or why. It was sufficient to understand that certain attitudes and behavior follow from the fact. We are not a stand-alone, independent self and the desires that assume and nourish that illusion must be challenged by unmasking the fallacy ― the “self” ― that gives them their energy. Mortification had to be directed at reducing and eventually eliminating the fallacy of the “self.” The entire exercise is in function of embracing emptiness.
I am claiming that neither the Buddha nor Jesus saw anything. They had insight. Just like you and me, they saw themselves for exactly what they were: existentially dependent items in a vast universe to which they belonged, spawned by forces that impacted the totality, and which they trusted totally. For the Buddha those forces ― whatever they were ― were not him “self.” They were part of a totality that could be trusted. For Jesus, it was a personal force, Yahweh, whom he was taught had brought the whole cosmos into being, and him as part of it, that could be trusted. The Buddha’s lack of concern for identifying any ultimate source, turned out to be ironically identical to Jesus’ belief that it was Yahweh’s craftsmanship ― for we now know that Jesus was dead wrong. That means that, in fact, he also knew nothing. The only factual experience that they had ― and they both had the same ― was their experience of their own existential dependency, or emptiness, in conjunction with a spontaneous trust in being-here interpreted by their religious traditions. It should go without saying, that all of us, believer, agnostic or atheist, live in the same universe with the same human organism as they. We all have the same experience. Trusting that experience and the biological organisms that share it, is what I call faith.
* * * * *
This discussion of the concurrence of Buddha and Jesus is recapitulated in every human being. The human organism spontaneously infers what is missing in the picture of its dependent existence. The fact is, there is no personal, rational, planning, purposeful, hovering providential “God”-Creator-of-the-Universe that anyone knows, no matter how intensely they claim to believe it. No one has ever met “God” nor related concretely and directly to the source of its being-here. Those who claim such a “person” exists are projecting an inference, often transferred to an image or a religious belief, not an experience. If we are honest we have to say we have no direct evidence ― only indirect clues left by the existent structures in our world ― of the ultimate source of being-here. We have to admit that all we know directly and empirically is our emptiness and that of everything we know in the universe considered alone or as a totality. The rest is projection.
However, not all projection is unfounded; some is the result of valid inference. First, the metaphysics is undeniable. Being-here has to be accounted for either in itself or in its cause(s). The very fact of emptiness immediately implies a correlate that explains how something that cannot account for its own existence can be-here. In the case of human beings dependency is evident in a myriad of ways that affect virtually every aspect of the human organism’s presence in the world throughout life and in a most dramatic and undeniable way at death. Making the inference implied in all this conditioned existence results in a “concept,” an idea called “ultimate and necessary source.” An emptiness of the character exhibited by a human organism requires a corresponding “filling” source to account for all of it ― and from the number of manifestations of dependency there is clearly a need for a multitude of sources which must finally include the source of the being-here itself of the entire network.
But that’s all we ever have: the flip-side of our emptiness. “Source” is gallingly abstract: it is an intellectual image that receives every bit of its concrete character from the nature of the emptiness it is filling. Let me emphasize: the projected image ― the idea ― of the unknown source has exactly the dimensions suggested by the effect that elicits it. All the effect can tell us is that the source must somehow possess what the effect lacks. We never encounter any “thing” we can call “ultimate source.” We only generate an idea required by our intellect looking with great perplexity at one side of an obviously multisided relationship and where the principal source of being-here itself ― the “other side” ― never appears or takes any identifiable shape of its own. hatever shape it has is generated only by the inferring intellect and it is entirely determined by the shape of the emptiness from which it is epistemically derived. At the end of the inferential exercise there is not one wit more direct concrete visibility of the source than there was at the outset. The concept, “source,” is entirely exhausted in the character of the dynamic, the inference; there is no concrete image whatsoever outside of the image of the empty receptacle. Like a mirror, the only thing visible is the image it is reflecting. But there is “nothing” there.
I claim that that is what people are experiencing when they say they have had an experience of “God,” and that, in essence, it is the same as the experience of the atheist. The only concrete experience anyone has is of their own emptiness; the imagery they generate about their source is a self-projection produced by their own minds out of the elements of the dependency-experience they have of themselves as interpreted and given imagery by their community. In other words, what they are looking at is their own foundationless self and they are picturing an inverse function that is necessarily inferred from that. The “God” they see is themselves “inside out,” as it were ― themselves with their inferred cause ― themselves without the limitations of their perceived dependency.
This “unlimited self” comes close to what the Hindus call the Atman. In this case a local religion has elaborated symbolic imagery and corresponding rituals that are understood to refer to what always remains beyond visibility. All that is ever concretely seen is one’s empty self. The “apophatic” tradition shared by the religions of the book ― Judaism, Islam and Christianity ― is similar. Apophatic means “speechless” and refers to the absolute unknowability of “God” in those traditions ― a claim, by the way, that is most often honored in the breach, as these religions insist on giving us detailed knowledge of “God” and telling us exactly what they imagine he wants. If “God” cannot be known, as these traditions claim, then that should explain why the fears and apprehensions that derive from emptiness do not go away with mere declaration of “belief” in “God.” Belief is projection based on inference; it is not the same as knowledge. An unknowable “God” is, psychologically speaking, the same as no “God” at all. Hence many “believers” who project such a “God” define faith as a mental struggle. “Faith” for them is not simply accepting your emptiness with trust and leaving the unknowable unknown; it is forcing yourself to imagine something that is not there; it is an exercise doomed to frustration. This is another form of samara, “chasing the wind,” and Buddha counseled against enquiring into it. Hence he never tried to explain how the entire universe could be empty.
Now in my view, no human being can avoid this experience of the empty self. Nor can anyone deny the spontaneous trust and joy of being-here, which is innate. This joy of being-here is a positive connection with the totality of things that can be clouded over, suppressed, betrayed, ignored, denied and dismissed (not to mention poisoned, tortured and punished) but never eliminated. It is an organic function of matter’s existential energy. In other words, just to be-here is to know with absolute certitude that you belong here; it is to love and desire being-here, and to rejoice at the possession of life. It is to trust your emptiness. It is not a “free” choice. It cannot be avoided. We can’t help it. It’s time we stopped second-guessing it and let it be there.
the embrace of emptiness
The spontaneous joy in being-here which is characteristic of all matter, continues to generate its characteristics in whatever form it assumes through the developments of evolution. Once we step back from our anthropocentric perspective ― stop putting humankind at the center of the universe ― and start looking at things from the point of view of the myriad of living species all around us, we can see that the sorrow that humans experience is exclusive to us. Every other species of living thing lives in a state of constant joy, marred only by and strictly limited to the moments of danger and hunger that are unavoidable for living organisms in a world of random occurrences. The generalized dissatisfaction that enervates humankind even in the absence of any hostile circumstances, is a suffering exclusive to us. It derives from the samsara that we alone generate because we alone can think; we can imagine what does not exist. That very often means yearning after what we don’t have and what we are convinced will make us permanently happy. But nothing can make us permanently happy. We can never overcome our emptiness; it is what we are. Meditation proposes to end thinking that is nothing but chasing the wind and to surrender to what we are by looking at it and embracing it.
Humankind is aware of its emptiness. Its conditionality is in evidence in a multitude of ways and the general daily activity of the human species ― our work ― is dedicated to responding to the need for food, clothing, shelter and protection from dangers. These are the primary objectives necessary for the procurement of survival. The sense of emptiness, however, that humans alone are aware of, doesn’t end with the achievement of daily survival. The existential dependency that underlies superficial conditionality, unlike other needs that can be satisfied, is insatiable. Its principal source is the awareness of death, but the threat of death for humans is not limited to the moments of mortal danger as in the case of other animals who do not think. For humankind the awareness lingers and devitalizes all accomplishments that otherwise might seem to hold out a modicum of satisfaction. Death pervades the human consciousness often subliminally, and death’s ultimate finality robs temporary achievements of the rest they promise. This generalized sense of dissatisfaction, by not ever finding a proper object that will put it to rest (since there is none), remains diffuse and unfocused. It is an unspecific energy that can be directed toward the pursuit of virtually anything the individuals imagine will be a source of ultimate satisfaction. It is an energy that has been used to amass fortunes and create empires, but it is all chasing the wind.
* * * * *
We think in imagery. And what we think about engages our affect toward acquisition or aversion depending on how we think it will impact our happiness. The entire enterprise is a work of the imagination. The unavoidable human awareness of emptiness guarantees that the unrestrained imagination under the blind impulse of the conatus will try to imagine a way out. What will fill the emptiness and make me happy? No amount of repeated frustration will ever convince us that there isn’t something that will work. And so we try one thing after another, sometimes even after they have proven to be failures. The society in which we live has its own ideas about what will make us happy ― usually wealth, power, fame, status, pleasure ― and it encourages people to pursue them. Much of the economy is built on selling you what you need to acquire them. We tend to internalize that message and buy what they tell us we should ― until it becomes clear that it, too, is chasing the wind.
If we’re lucky we will run out of options before we destroy ourselves and others, trying to gather the wind. To “run out of options” means to wake up. What we awake to is the realization that we are irremediably empty across the board and that the answer is not trying to fill the emptiness (or escape from it), but to embrace it with trust. We see, at first perhaps only for a moment, that we have been chasing the wind. Of course there’s nothing to stop us from returning to those empty pursuits in despair. In most cases a sustained awakening is achieved only after a number of such episodes.
This is what Buddha means by enlightenment and Jesus means by the kingdom within us. And it’s a vision that in its practical applications is remarkably similar to religious and therapeutic programs from all over the world and from all epochs of human history. It is a universal discovery. It belongs to all of humanity, local expression of it and claim authorship.
It is not simply an ascetical discipline ― a gaining control over unruly desires and aversions. It is, more importantly, a contemplative awareness grounded in an increasingly confident trust in what I am, however empty, expressed in a grateful embrace of what put me here ― whatever it may be, proximate and remote ― and a compassionate embrace of other people who are all in the same boat. The discipline is to direct behavior, seriously and consistently, toward the goals of compassion and gratitude where an expanding, ever-more confident trust calls. In the case of Jesus’ vision, the ground of trust is the love of a Father-“God” whom, he insisted, knew every sparrow that fell from the sky, and could be trusted through death.
Jesus’ trust was tested when his simple message was deemed so threatening to the exploiting powers that ruled his world, that he was tortured and executed for it. His followers have always revered his death as an event of universal significance for humankind. To understand it, they said, was to know the answer to the human dilemma, and to embrace it was “salvation.” Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted his “Father.” A community of such people threatens the powers that be, because it elicits a compassion and mutual support for one another that no empire can smother or replace. It threatens the fear-of-death / master-slave system with resurrection.
But notice: this way of looking at Jesus’ crucifixion sees its significance derived from the universal condition of human emptiness and the accuracy of trust as the human response: it is a dramatic and moving example of trust in a context of utter despair. It does not claim to be doing any more than what is within the reach of any human individual trying to respond authentically to life. In other words, it draws its sacred liberating power from being the right response to the human condition, not from some storehouse of “grace” in another world. It does not create and confer a unique meaning of its own, introjecting an exogenous “divine” into human life. The power it transmits is a human moral energy, entirely natural, made available by Jesus’ example and grasped by the empathy of the human individuals who hear, recognize and are moved by his story. Jesus’ “obedience unto death” earned him “a name above every name” among us because he exemplified in a most graphic way the correct universal response to human emptiness. It is its human universality that makes the cross a transcendent event for humankind.
It is the human condition that gives the cross its meaning, not the other way around.
Trust never ends . . . because we are made of matter. I believe no one dies in despair; the sense of trust is an organic and insuppressible material instinct. Despair is an effect of thinking, imagination. Hope is a physical bearing, an innate function of the components of biological life. As one evidence of this I cite the difficulty in committing suicide. 92 to 95% of all suicide attempts end in failure. I credit this to the behavior of the human organism which insists on being-here despite the efforts of the suicidal “self” that has decided to quit living. To be effective, suicide must be as carefully planned as a murder because you cannot count on the body to cooperate. The components of the body, in all other respects lock-step obedient to the “mind,” kick into autonomous mode and cling to life despite clear orders to the contrary from the thinking “self,” even when it “makes sense” as in doctor assisted suicides. Comas are another example. The extenuated nature of comatose life in the absence of brain activity is a testimony to the disregard that the body has for what is going on or not going on in the mind. It’s as if thinking were disconnected from its organic foundations. The organism’s blind desire to live attests to its insuperable sense of belonging to this material cosmos. It confirms the Buddhist claim that suffering ― the suffering that is unique to humans ― is almost entirely due to our imaginations, the mind. And it reinforces the Buddhist counsel to control what we think and let the natural instincts of our biological organisms determine the limits of our desires to accumulate, protect, aggrandize and defend our “selves.” In almost all cases the illusory, socially concocted, empty “self” desires much more ― and other ― than what the body needs and wants. Those socially generated selfish desires are the product of dreaming about filling an emptiness that cannot be filled. Regardless of how negative the reaction to life from the self-serving “mind,” the body at all times is anchored in its unwavering embrace of life with all the trust and hope that goes along with it.
The body is rooted in the present moment. Buddha’s initial step in meditating, according to sutras from the Pali Canon, is to concentrate on breathing in order to get in touch with the body, withdraw from daydreams and enter solidly into the present. Being aware of breathing ― staying within the ambit of the body ― is essential throughout the subsequent steps. Mind is dealt with as a part of the body. We are biological organisms. The function of the mind is to be at the service of the organism not the other way around.
Another example of organic trust: We are normally oblivious to the possibility of death. The announcement of our own terminal illness or the unexpected demise of a young healthy person we know well can be immobilizing. But the heightened awareness of our fragility and the pointlessness of efforts to survive wears off. No one can function normally in an atmosphere of impending death. While it affects our long-term calculations in how we will organize our goals, death is generally suppressed and ignored. Living in the constant awareness of death is extremely difficult to do. In this respect the mind displays its organic basis in the body. We are programmed to live; there is no death-instinct that overrides the spontaneous expectation of living endlessly.
The expectation of endless life might be considered the most characteristically human of all our traits, but, I contend, its source is the body, not the mind. The mind learns to hope from the spontaneous trust of the body. Organically ― i.e., biologically speaking ― the body simply expects to keep on living and demands its mind-directed “self” to make appropriate efforts toward that end. There is no natural “algorithm” that anticipates death and programs the body instinctively to die. Hence the impulse to accumulate endlessly is a function of that same expectation. The obsessive search for a miracle-cure even in the last days of an incurable illness reveals our insatiable hunger for life and our innate expectations. There is initially no thought of “life after death” because originally and fundamentally there is no thought of death. We have to learn and remind ourselves we are going to die. Like all living things, the human organism is exclusively oriented toward living; the “endless” part is simply another way of saying there is no other expectation because no “other” experience can be imagined than living in this body.
Once death is transformed from an imminent threat to a mental concept, it continues to function in the mind of the thinking “self” as a modifier of feelings, expectations and reactive behavior. It is through the thought of death that death becomes a “thing,” or a heuristic (guiding) factor (an idea) in the determination of goals and behavior. Things are done, goods accumulated, and some things are avoided in the effort to thwart an imagined death that is not imminent and rarely predictable. It is all a work of the human imagination. Animals cannot relate to any of this because their ability to imagine what is not here, now is extremely limited. Animals fear death when it threatens. And the minute the concrete danger disappears their fear disappears.
A psycho-conceptual transition takes place when “death” is elevated from a here-and-now experience to a mental concept. Being-dead cannot really be imagined because we cannot imagine non-experience, hence it is transformed into an idea which is then thought of as a “state” ― in fact an imagined “life” after death, often called simply, “the after-life.” Notice: we cannot think “non-life.” Eternal life is precisely an imagined “state” that has been generated from the biological instinct and spontaneous concrete expectations of endless life pushing back against the knowledge (the thought) that we will die. I claim that both the “state of death” and “eternal life” are abstractions ― projections ― generated by the imagination, derived from knowing that death comes to us all despite the felt instinct and expectation of endless living. They are both projections from our experience of living as biological organisms on this earth. We cannot imagine not being-here, and so we imagine that not being-here is really another kind of being-here. I claim that we all die expecting to live on in some way simply because anything else is totally unimaginable to the human organism.
We are matter. Matter is totally and exhaustively what it means to be-here. They are identical. Matter belongs here. The brain, made of organic matter, cannot imagine not being here. And it’s a sheer fact of cosmology that all of the sub-atomic building blocks of matter ― the quanta packets of material energy that constitute the elements in my body ― have been-here uninterruptedly for at least the 13.7 billion years since the big-bang. None of the particles that now comprise the matter of our bodies came from anywhere else, and as far as anyone can see into the future of cosmic history, they will never stop being-here until the cosmos itself stops being-here. Whatever else it might mean to be human, and whatever further destiny we may have, these are the inescapable parameters of our human reality ― the boundaries within which everything else must occur. We are the vortices ― the eddies and whirlpools ― spun out within the flow of the cosmic river. Whatever this cosmos is, that is what we are; its destiny is ours.
the just society
Human community is a derivative of universal natural faith. The emptiness that conditions life for all human individuals causes them to reach out to one another for interpretation and support. Biological survival is certainly a primary factor, created by a longer childhood dependency than any other animal species; but family and clan interdependence entailed the evolutionary development of brains that can “read” others. A great deal of the operating time of the human mind is spent imagining what others (who are significant to one’s survival in society) think, feel, desire, intend, and can do for them or against them; and most of human conversation is dedicated to sharing it. We may trivialize it by calling it gossip, but it is what we do.
The ability to sense what others are feeling when something happens, or what they “mean” when they say or do something, is called empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel the similarity between others and myself ― it implies a high degree of self-awareness. Intelligence evolved, apparently, driven by the need to navigate relationships in a complex society. Its unavoidable by-product was self-awareness ― the knowledge of one’s own emptiness, and the equally unavoidable expectation of endless life, for despite how inexplicable and improbable it all is, here we are, and we love being-here.
Given the biological reality of the drive to survive, the ability to empathize can go in any direction. There is no guarantee that this extraordinary emotional clairvoyance will not be put to selfish purposes. Knowing that I am “needy” and therefore what “neediness” looks and feels like, I have a window that opens onto a vulnerability in others. What may have served as a tool to alleviate another’s anxiety, can always lose its “other”-directedness; when neediness no longer evokes sympathy, it is reduced in my field of perception to something I can exploit.
Similarly the implicit awareness that there is a warm sustaining wind that bears us all aloft can also evoke a selfish reaction. I trust life and those around me; that means I know that others spontaneously trust me and are not initially wary and self-protective, in fact they are predisposed to support and protect me. I can exploit this spontaneous reaching out ― the very need that is creative of human community ― and turn it to my own advantage. That such a turn poisons the wellsprings of life together is disregarded. Our ability to empathize is not ultimate or absolute: it is subordinate to other forces in the human organism ― like the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement ― that are easily mis-taken as its contrary. At some point the conatus must consciously be directed to serve empathy or it will distractedly pursue selfish interests.
The spontaneous trust in life with which we come into this world, continues to penetrate and pervade all of our endeavors. An expression of this is the feeling of indestructibility that arises from the unchecked natural expectation of endless life. It is a biological disposition we are all familiar with, especially when young. It is generally held in low regard by adults who call it “adolescent.” It displays a naïve trust in life that can be dangerous. It is associated with having an aversion to the work that society deems necessary for survival. It is also seen as a source of recklessness that can result in fatal or crippling accidents. (That doesn’t prevent society’s managers from exploiting youthful naïveté to build armies of self-doubting teen-age boys “trained” to risk their lives and kill on orders. Young males are redundant for society’s reproductive needs and are treated as expendable.) But we have to recognize that this “frivolous” youthful attitude arises from a natural proclivity of the organic matter of our biological organisms to simply enjoy being-here free of care. Until the work of providing survival has been made so unachievable as to require total dedication to nothing else, thus disabusing the individual of dreams of a care-free life, it is the normal condition. We are all naturally care-free; we are spontaneously optimistic because we are made of matter; matter “knows” it belongs here and instinctively expects that all will be well. We must learn that is not the case.
The instinct to be care-free does not necessarily imply irresponsibility. In a random universe the urge to spend our days in play is quickly modified by the realities of survival. I contend that the effort to irresponsibly secure a care-free life for oneself ― selfishly seeking to avoid work at the expense of others ― is the root of social injustice. It is my opinion that the class divisions in society arose in the distant past, when some who had gained control of the survival process, in order to make life secure and care-free for themselves, coerced and extorted the labor of those who could not resist them. They became masters and made the others their slaves. Everyone acquiesced either actively or passively and the pattern became a system. Some claim the original model was the subjugation of women by men.
Master/slave systems provided a concentration of wealth and an organization of labor that was used to build all the great empires on the planet. All of us that are alive today came from one of the civilizations in which those empires flourished, and our current global civilization is in a process of concentration and once control is unified it will be an empire. There are very few human communities, even now, whose work life is not part of the global economy and its class divisions of labor. We have all internalized its principal features and transactional dynamics. We have all been formed by the master/slave system.
Work patterns in a master/slave system share certain distortions. For example, it is to the advantage of masters to eradicate care-free attitudes from their slave-laborers in order to get more work out of them. Instilling fear, and making any kind of satisfactory accumulation extremely difficult, the “masters” hone and sharpen their “slave” tools for their service, robbing them of the joy of life and a sense of security. The aim is to eliminate “frivolity” and make work’s survival achievements the only satisfaction available to the worker. This is done precisely so the masters can avoid having to live under such burdens themselves. They justify this by telling themselves (and their slaves) that there is a difference between them, a difference in their humanity ― that human nature is not universal ― that the masters are superior human beings and the slaves are inferior; that “nature” designed the division of labor.
The reasons adduced in the West for the class divide have been amazingly adaptable through the millennia: first it was claimed that the slaves were more “carnal and unthinking” and the masters more “spiritual and rational” ― slaves were like children who needed the masters to organize life for them; then later it was held that the masters were war lords and paladins who defended the people, and the people worked for them to maintain them in their warrior life-style and insure their protection; then, when new lands were discovered, it was said that the dark-skinned people who were made slaves were not Christian, had never been baptized and therefore were under the dominion of Satan and needed to work for their Christian masters as a discipline of exorcism; and finally in our time that the masters are wealthy owners because they are intelligent and disciplined and the laborers are not. Hence the almost unchallenged agreement is for working people to “go to college” so they can become members of the educated elite and ultimately become owners themselves. The “story,” regardless of how it has changed, remarkably always comes to the same conclusion.
These efforts have resulted in normalizing an unnecessarily hard and sustained work-effort for those who must sell their labor. The business of working to stay alive has been made more onerous than it needs to be precisely because the economic life of society has been organized so the masters can live “care-free” lives, and habituating the slaves against any hope of procuring the same for themselves is an essential part of it. Economic life has been structured along class lines for so long that we cannot imagine anything else. Everyone has internalized these myths. Any hopes the slaves still harbor for living care-free become exclusively focused on the day they themselves can become masters over others. Yes indeed, go to college.
I do not believe in the “supreme value of hard work.” I see that particular “belief” as another dogmatic mystification created by the masters to keep the slaves disinclined to expect that the system will ever allow them to be autonomous and care-free responsible collaborators as workers. Their only hope is to become masters/owners themselves. They are driven to “succeed.”
I contend that in a just society ― one that has made the pursuit of distributive justice its constant priority ― personal insecurity is eliminated or reduced to a minimum and shared by all. Everyone knows that their work will guarantee them survival and a standard of living on a par with everyone else. Resentment at inequality, and the exhausting over-exertion expended by those who are not paid a living wage for a normal day’s work, simply does not exist. Most of us have never lived in such a society, even growing up in our families which often mimic the pressures of larger society in order to “train” their children. I submit that economic life has been so distorted in the societies we are familiar with ― societies that function on wage slavery and the normalization of insecurity that is intrinsic to the master/slave paradigm ― that the unnecessary impoverishment and insecurity of the working classes (and the unnecessary anxiety of the ruling classes) would be totally eliminated if it weren’t for this internalized expectation. Like everything else in human life that exacerbates the insecurity of existential dependency, it is a product of our minds. Our minds create the structures that enslave us. Life is hard; but we have made it harder.
* * * * *
Humans have evolved the ability to imagine what’s not there. One of the “things” that’s not there, says the Buddha, is the imagining mind itself. We imagine that our imagination is an entity, separate and independent, that we identify as our “self” in opposition to the body and all other “selves,” when in fact it is actually a function of the body, a tool of the self-conscious organism that survives only in its social network. The imagination gives the organism the ability to anticipate, “under”stand, and empathize (relate) with others. The real self is the full human organism and the mind is its instrument of survival-in-society. The greatest of human tragedies is that we take the image-making imagination and the images it concocts to reify and aggrandize itself as if it were a separate self, not the complete human being, ― and then re-imagine society to be made up of similar selfish avatars in competition with one another for ascendancy. It’s like a masked melee of the WWE.
The Buddhist project includes using mind-control techniques ― principally, meditation ― to reduce and eventually eliminate the false images that our imagining minds generate about who we think we are. The widespread suffering that comes from the frustrated attempts to secure ultimate happiness through selfish accumulation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others is the primary damage that comes through a runaway imagination. “Living in the present moment” is a mantra that proposes to get us out of the fantasy that we are disembodied independent “selves” and that something will fill our emptiness and make us, as separate individuals, secure and care-free. It calls us to let go of selfish delusions and to focus on our reality as biological organisms who have need of one another here-and-now.
Accepting our emptiness, our insuperable vulnerability and complete reliance on the forces of community life-support, leads to a simple acknowledgement: some version of the golden rule must override all other considerations. We must treat others as we want to be treated. It is the foundation stone of a just society. It is natural, intuitive and universal. We don’t need “God” to reveal it to us. It is the totality of our moral obligation and the whole purpose of our political designs. Any nation, political party or religious sect, regardless of its venerable antiquity and claims to sacred origins, or the impeccable logic of its social systems and the perfect balance of its economic structures, that has not discerned the primacy of that moral imperative, is exposed as false and dangerous to the human project. By their fruits WE know them. The gods we need are the ones who remind us that we are all we’ve got.
The just society is our tool of survival. I wonder if we fully appreciate what such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s clearer in the obverse: without it we will not survive.
The just society, unimaginable only to those who have imagined it out of existence, begins with a simple transformation of who we think we are.
 Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim. Dennett suggests that consciousness is an illusion.
 Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism” in Strawson et al., Consciousness and its place in Nature, Imprint-Academic, Charlottesville VA, 2006, pp 3 – 31. The entire essay is an elaboration of ex nihilo, nihil fit.