a confession

2,000 words

In response to comments from readers, and despite the risk of accusations of duplicity, I would like to confess that I am really operating on two levels simultaneously and never refer to it. On one level, I try to elaborate a plausible physical/metaphysical worldview that is consistent with all the relevant data: modern scientific thinking, the core features of the religious legacy of our ancestors and the common consensus of the global community. The result of that work is a world­view that I call Transcendent Materialism. Its details can be found described and defended throughout these blogs and in my books. I work hard at assembling that conceptual system and try to cover all the bases, fill in the corners and tie up loose ends as much as I can. My goal is to construct a synthetic worldview that is consistent within itself and synchronizes with all aspects of reality as we understand it today.

I am convinced that there is an underlying concurrence among those sources which I try to uncover and bring to light. I am convinced it accurately represents reality. But I am quite conscious of the fact that it is a theory. I am only concocting something that is plausible. It is conjecture, well founded, perhaps and sincerely held, but still guesswork. I do it because I feel it offers a better explanation for our cosmos than all others that I have encountered. But at the end of the day I am well aware that I don’t know. The value of such a worldview, in my own mind and intention, is that it will be recognized as indisputably more plausible than the medieval world­view offered by Christianity since the 13th century to insulate the absolutist dogmas which are central to its theocratic pretensions. I want to make clear now, if it has not been obvious before this, that my primary purpose is to challenge arrogant Christian claims to absolute truth ― claims that have been used to justify the western domination of the globe.

Undermining the Catholic/Christian pretense to supremacy is the whole point of the exercise. At the end of the day I am hoping that people will come to the realization that Christianity’s absolutist declarations are self-serving and of dubious credibility. I am not saying its teachings are lies; the motivations are sincere. But I would like everyone to understand that, like the rest of us, the Christian Churches simply do not know. Christianity, like all other religions, offers symbols for the unknown source of our material universe and ourselves as its progeny. The best we can say is that some of that symbolic imagery evokes an attitude of awe and trust ― what I believe is an authentic human response to being-here.

 

Having said that, on another level altogether (the level where I personally live) my view on the unknowability of “God” implies a very simple response. I know that everything I write and most of what I read is speculation. I know that I know nothing. Beneath the sophisticated guesswork there is a very simple bedrock, and what can be said definitively about it is limited to very few words, for it is not knowledge about absent or invisible things, it is the description of the terms of a surrender.

For me not knowing is more than just the way things happen to be. Rather, it’s because things happen to be that way that there needs to be religion. Religion is not necessary in any absolute sense. Religion is necessary only because we do not know. Religion is the symbolic interface with a reality that is beyond the reach of our knowledge. Theology begins here. Far from being an obstacle or a liability, not knowing is the indispensable condition for the existence, authenticity and vitality of the religious quest. Religion is the poetic representation of a living presence that we experience in our material organisms but do not know.

We do not know the answers to the most fundamental questions of the source and ground of reality (which includes us), that have engaged enquiry for as long as humankind has been-here. But rather than a problem and source of contention and conflict, I maintain not-knowing defines and directs religion: it guides it. It’s a corrective that eliminates the wrong directions and false turns that have historically resulted in competing claims among traditions that have caused such violent conflict among us. In strictly methodological terms, The theology of unknowing that I am proposing is not a speculative system, it is a guide for making practical choices in the absence of knowledge. It is a religious pragmatism based on the solid conclusions of experience recognized by everyone, everywhere and at all times since the emergence of humankind on this planet. The authentic human response to LIFE is not knowledge and control but gratitude and trust. Growth in human authenticity (holiness) is growth in those attitudes and corresponding behavior.

Theology should be focused on clarifying and specifying what the terms of surrender are. Not-knowing, unlike “dogma,” is not a symbol or a conjecture or a plausible guess. Not knowing is a raw naked fact, perhaps the most significant and undeniable fact bearing upon our relationship to our source. Theology, insofar as it is committed to discovering and submitting to the truth, is built on this first and indisputable fact: we do not know. Religious universalism derives directly and unconditionally from that. No one knows . . . no one has ever known.

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

The word “apophatic” is of Greek origin and is usually reserved for the mysticism of “unknowing” associated with the writings of an anonymous sixth-century Christian Syriac monk known as Pseudo-Diony­sius. The monastic tradition it comes from is actually much older and pre-Christian.  It is a neo-platonic pan-entheist vision focused on relationship to “God” as the transcendent source and matrix of our existence. While I personally disagree with the metaphysics, I propose returning to the fundamental contours of that theology ― its dynamic import and intention ― and assigning it the principal role for guiding our religious lives.

The word “apo­phatic” means “speechless” and immediately redirects the one seeking the face of “God” from the intellect to the will. The quest is not about knowing. It is about a surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life.

“God” cannot be known. The word “God” itself is only a placeholder for the unknown source and sustainer of the cosmos. The conceptual, propositional, ritual and disciplinary edifice that we call “religion” should be constructed firmly on that basis: we do not know, and not-knowing is a desideratum, a gift to be embraced, the fertile ground in which our religion takes root and grows. Not-knowing is intrinsic to the authentic religious quest; it makes quite clear that the ascent is a growth in trust fed by an ever deeper gratitude for life and appreciation of one’s own material organism. To embrace oneself is to embrace that “in which one lives and moves and has one’s being.” It is to embrace whatever the word “God” might ultimately refer to.

Trust also corresponds to an ever wider circle of letting-go. Letting-go means accepting ourselves as material organisms subject to the unavoidable conditions of our materiality in a material universe. We have to let go of attempts to escape that fundamental reality. We have virtually no control over (1) our biological inheritance, (2) the material and social conditions required for our continued survival, and (3) that we will all certainly die. The “escape” we must let go of includes such fruitless reactions as self-aggrandizing selfishness, individual or tribal; the refusal to collaborate with others for mutual survival and the search for justice in society; and I personally would include as an escape the projection of a future life in another imaginary world as an excuse for exalting oneself over others and not cooperating with the universal human community. Learning to live within the parameters possible to us ― which includes the necessary self-regulation and communal collaboration that are necessary to survival ― is the human quest. There is no other, for there is no way out of being material organisms in this material cosmos. It is the human condition.

The correlate to not-knowing is trusting, just as its opposite, knowledge, seems to promise control. I am focused on building a theology on the foundation of an unknowing trust that besides setting us reliably on the paths that all our great teachers, east and west, have laid out for us, simultaneously generates two important by-products for the human community:

(1) it undermines any claims to absolute truth and the corresponding “supremacy” of any religious tradition and its ethnic-tribal adherents over others.

And (2) it establishes an unambiguous parity with those who, avoiding verbalized “beliefs” altogether, have been denigrated by self-exalting religious prejudice as atheists, agnostics, apostates, materialists, non-belie­vers, pagans, etc.

Everyone must trust. The material conditions of our lives is the great leveler. The most convinced atheists spend their days in trusting reliance on the common source of our living organic inheritance whatever that might turn out to be just like the rest of us; and they face death with the same apprehension and the same frustrated expectation to live on that comes from our biological organisms. We all have the same desire to live forever. Some think, despite every indication to the contrary, that we will live again after we die, and others, accepting the evidence of the universal experience of all organic life, don’t. The common denominator is that in each case we are dealing with opinion; no one knows.

The fact that religious people choose symbols to stand in the place of their ignorance and non-religious people refuse to use any symbols at all, doesn’t change the common condition that affects us all: none of us know; all of us live in a state of utter existential vulnerability; we all go reluctantly into that dark night; all of us have to reach out to one another if we are going to survive; and at the end of the day we all have to learn to let go because ultimately we have no idea of what is going to happen to us. “Religions” that exploit human insecurity and offer a quid pro quo of one kind or another that supposedly guarantees a control over our destiny after death, are in fact, working in direct opposition to the objective of authentic religion which is to trust despite the darkness. At best, such guarantees may be acceptable as symbols for the trust that our awe of life evokes in us.

At the same time it must be said that those who take the absence of knowledge as justification for a nihilistic disdain for life and contempt for the struggle of people to survive in a just society, have to suppress their own bodies’ natural joy in living, instinct for self-preservation and empathy for others. Not knowing is just that. A nihilistic response is an unwarranted claim to know.

 

That is the theology I pursue and propose. The rest, which includes physical/metaphysical theories of reality and the polemics they generate is optional, conjectural, somewhat arbitrary and at all times secondary to what I consider authentic religion. That doesn’t mean such “scientific” pursuits are invalid, just that they are not religion. Religion is surrender in darkness driven by the awe and appreciation of being-here. It does not depend on what we think we know or don’t know about the ultimate source and destiny of it all. Once that premise is clearly stated and understood, the wider discussion can proceed. Otherwise, the elaboration of a compelling worldview that correlates to our real condition will necessarily become distorted in the vain attempt to assign it absolute value and turn it into religion. For, without a clear and universal acceptance of the supreme value of not-knowing, conjecture will be conscripted by our insecurity to play the role of “the answer” ― knowledge ― skewing everything that follows and re-instal­ling the conflict of warring absolutes (built on fictional securities) that now characterizes religion.

11 comments on “a confession

  1. cicciogerace says:

    Thanks from one Brooklyn paesano “gent” as youse guys used to call us…

    saluti,

    Ciccio Gerace

  2. theotheri says:

    In my humble opinion, this is the best thing you have ever written. I must admit that maybe I think so because it is also where I have arrived. I mostly use different words and surely travelled here by a different road. But for me, living in mystery, accepting that we don’t – we can’t – know, and yet to trust our existence is the only act of what I might call Faith that I find both strengthening without forcing me to accept unprovable, imprisoning even, dogma.

    Thank you so much. Terry

  3. rayvoith says:

    Thanks for this entry – it clarifies for me what your message is

  4. Bill Marrin says:

    Thanks, Tony, for a beautiful piece. Your response to “Chomsky’s challenge” was a breakthrough moment for me.
    I’ve been preoccupied with the process of development toward the “surrender in darkness” we ultimately must come to. Religion must nurture that development, to be worth anything, and a community of faith will necessarily include people at all stages along the way. How do we find a language for that? Dogmatic shibboleths have not provided much help for people who don’t have the time to excavate their genesis in the struggle for authentic (if mythic) expression. Francis’ initiatives toward reorienting the emphasis onto gratitude and mercy many be a start.
    Bill Marrin

    • tonyequale says:

      Bill, hi,

      I appreciate your comments.

      I’m sure you are aware of how traditional and orthodox “darkness” and “unknowing” is. These days I’m reading Pseudo-Dionysius and the influence he had on the theologians of the 13th century, particularly Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. In the theological conflicts that surrounded the abandonment of Augustine and the embrace of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists who influenced “Denys” in that era, it was specifically the Aristotelian emphasis on the solid and ineradicable reality of the human body made of matter that made the unknowability of God a central tenet of the new way. It was the linch-pin connector between speculative and mystical theology for them, between theory and practice.

      Aquinas says, the way of negation (i.e., that we only know what “God is NOT) means that the wise man remains “in a kind of darkness of ignorance . . . by ignorance we are joined in the best way to God, and this is the kind of darkness in which “God” is said to dwell by Dionysius.” While we may dispute the Aristotelianism that formed the basis of their speculation, there is no dispute that the mystical, loving and trusting embrace of the source and sustenance of our human organisms occurs in exactly the kind of darkness that the wise men of our tradition have always said it was where they “found” “God.” Even without agreeing with or even understanding “why,” I think we can’t go wrong following that path.

      Good luck,

      Tony

  5. Noel McMaster says:

    Blessings, Tony. I read that with satisfaction. It gives me information that makes a difference, otherwise known as a communication. In fact I would see you as a communicant in a mystery that presumes a medium of communication, otherwise known as our material universe. And with that there is a communicator, has been such since the singularity of the Big Bang. At that point we come forward in the relativities of the cosmos, and can continue to ponder ‘the other’ or ‘the absolute’ other than the relativities of time and space. I think there is thus ‘a place’ for a Self-communicator as you take us on the quest which immerses us in information that represents a difference that makes us different, i. e., renders us communicants of a Self-communicator.

    Blessings,

    Noel.

  6. Steve Gill says:

    I had a strong reaction to your “Confession” article. My comments are critical yet i do appreciate your raising these issues.

    A Reply to T. Equate’s Confession
    TE’s theology is found in Not Knowing, the unknowability of God, and the rejection of Absolutism especially found in the Christian tradition. This “theology” presupposes that Christianity has insisted on its supremacy which has led to factionalism and the phenomena of “warring absolutes” which is really about our factional insecurities. He finds his approach as a plausible world view that favors gratitude and trust over knowledge and control. He advises surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life and to what is authentic leading to personal growth. Intention and the dynamic import is a principle guide for our lives.
    While I may agree with some of his positions, I find his confession and his proposal contradictory and not very grounded. For the most part it sounds like a proposed belief system in line with the Post Modernistic perspective that there are no absolutes and that therefore nothing essentially matters (i.e.: Nihilism) except perhaps for “not knowing.” This perspective necessarily concludes with what appears to be something close to an atheistic or agnostic position. We are led to believe that either we assume a traditional Christian view replete with absolutist’s dogmas that are self serving and wholly dubious or we take on the post modernists’ faith system perspective that there is no absolute dogmas and that God is beyond our understanding. This dualistic presentation leaves me to reject this false choice.
    We are asked to surrender to the idea that God is not knowable or accessible to us. The mystics and notably Thomas Merton would argue that evidence of the divine is all around us and through our engagement in a contemplative practice we can become more aware of God’s presence. I believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God and the Divine light does shine within us. To me, the Old Testament’s story of Moses being in the Presence of God using the imagery of the Burning Bush is instructive of our ability to access evidence of the Divine that is knowable to us. I do not mean to imply that we are able to fully understand God given our limitations. However, aspects and symbols of God can be seen and experienced and we yearn for that vision, that experience. Rather than determining that we know nothing, instead we “know” more than we can even imagine.
    The need for religion to pacify us was and is real. Admitting that we do not know rather than making up a dogma to explain a spiritual phenomena is often the appropriate yet difficult course. Two dogmas that are man-made and are found nowhere in the Gospel are the infallibility of the Pope and Original Sin. The former was established in the 19th Century to bolster the Pope’s power and control over our lives. And the latter was to justify the conclusion that Christ died for our sins. Both dogmas in my view are false. I would instead just accept that ‘not knowing’ without having to affix a solution or satisfy a mystery is optimal and would in these cases support Mr. Equate’s position. But his “confession” does not convince me that there are no dogmas or absolutes. And Mr. Equate has dogmas of his own. Take the principles of trust, surrender or gratitude. Are they not absolutes? He is assuming that these ideas are not principles or standards inherent in religious or spiritual belief. And consider that killing or murdering, lying, and cheating are prohibitive under most circumstances. These too are absolutes although exceptions do apply as they have always applied by tradition and by history.
    According to Mr. Equate, the mysticism of “not knowing” predates Christianity. And it is my understanding that “not knowing” is at a higher level of wisdom than ‘knowing” in the Buddhism tradition. I believe there is a place for “not knowing” and I also have determined that dogmas are at times but not always created to make us feel better because of our discomfort with ambiguity. But tolerating ambiguity is part of our development and should be a part of our spiritual practice and religious maturity. And letting go of our need for dogmas is very appropriate but only in the right circumstance. And our spiritual maturity includes an “utter existential vulnerability.” And I can accept and even surrender to life as it is with awe and appreciation. But “not knowing” is a complex dynamic that must consider context and the issues at hand. I believe in absolutes when we inherently know or have faith that they apply to the present circumstance. Solving the problem of warring absolutes is not solved by eliminating absolutes. Loving your enemies, a Christian principle or absolute that has rarely been applied, can be seen as an absolute that can potentially wash away or reduce conflict.

    So Mr. Equate’s confession does not work for me. I believe in absolutes when they apply to the matter at hand. And I believe in the knowability of God while acknowledging our limitations as human beings to know God in all of God’s manifestations. And I believe that falling for Mr. Equate’s confession is dangerously close to a post modernist position that leads to chaos over order, and to a nihilism that I would argue is a destructive and paralyzing rather than a plausible world view.
    .

    • tonyequale says:

      Steve,

      Thanks for your response. I appreciate it very much. I recognize that you are a “seeker” with some experience in the disciplines of spiritual growth. I applaud and encourage that. I’m sorry that you don’t seem to see my work as a contribution. It is meant to.

      I had some reactions to your comments.

      You speak of “Post Modernism” as if it were some kind of identifiable ideology or philosophical system, when it is actually nothing more than an informal label that some people use to charac-terize general tendencies. I believe it is very sloppy on your part to use that as some way of identifying my position, and, from the way you seem to understand it, I suspect that you have imagined it to be a monster and then condemned me for it.

      You say, “We are asked to surrender to the idea that God is not knowable or accessible to us.”
      First, I refuse to use the word “God” because the word has been shanghaied. I insist that what we think is “knowledge” about “God” is nothing more than our imagination. I believe there is a source of our sense of the sacred; I also believe that source is responsible for everything there is and the way it is, but by calling it “God,” it remains overlaid with definitions and characterizations that I consider groundless and untenable and at best poetic projections. I claim we do not know “God.” Even more than that, “God” is considered unknowable by all the mystics of the Christian tradition, ancient and modern, including Thomas Merton.

      Secondly, I never said or implied that our source is inaccessible. In fact I have made it quite clear that the unknowability of “God” is a premise used by the mystics to redirect the spiritual aspirant from the intellect to the will. “God,” says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing cannot be known, but he can be loved, that is the way our source is accessible to us. Your failure to acknowledge that, indicates that you were not particularly attentive to what I actually wrote. You seem more interested in trashing the label you decided to paste on me.

      Then, while excoriating me for rejecting absolutes, you blithely discard Papal infallibility and Original Sin, two of the dogmas of the Catholic Church claimed to be absolutely true. While I may agree with you, I think you have to realize that by deciding that those particular dogmas are not true and that others are true, that you are picking and choosing among your “absolutes.” That means, to everyone else in the world, that your absolutes are relative to you.

      In your next-to-the-last paragraph you seem to be agreeing with what I am saying while still accusing me of trashing “absolutes.” It dawns on me that you might be confusing the word “ab-solute” with the words “serious and committed.” I can understand the mix-up, because the feeling of commitment to a way of life involves being “absolutely sure” that those values are precious and must be pursued. However, Steve, you must understand, “absolute” is a technical term used to qualify the philosophically validated truth of a proposition. It means the proposition in question must be accepted by everyone as true or one is said to forfeit rationality. The Catholic Church has a long list of “absolutes.” But in science, “absolute,” as a matter of fact, is a term that no one uses because even the truth of the most cherished and indisputable scientific “laws” are still considered relative to the number of instances in which they have been verified. However unlikely, the possibility is always open that the next instance will contradict the entire experience of the past. The term is important only in the most rigid of logical applications. I don’t think it is particularly helpful in ordinary discussion.

      So thank you for reading and commenting. I feel that you may have misunderstood the general direction of my work because you have not read many of my blogs. I think if you read blogs from the archives (which go back as far as 2009) you will get a better sense of what I am trying to say.

      Peace,
      Tony Equale

      • Steve Gill says:

        Thanks for your reply. You are right that I have not read any of your previous blogs. Languaging may indeed be a problem for me in responding to your article But I wonder: If “God” is not “knowable” at some level (experientially, subjectively, etc.) than what is the point of our contemplative practice?

        Steve

  7. tonyequale says:

    Reply to Steve Gill’s second comment:

    Steve, thanks for responding.

    Contact with “God” (forgive me, I do not like using that word; but since you insist on it I have no choice. I am responding under protest, and I retain the right to disavow misinterpretations of my position based on my being forced to use that awful word), according to all the Christian mystics, from Origen to Merton, IS NOT KNOWLEDGE. It is an embrace in darkness that is had in an act of human trust and love. We do not know “God.” The only thing we know is what “God” has made possible to be — principally our own personal existence. Through that we adumbrate, as through a glass darkly, our source. You know that there is a source, but you do not know what it is, or what it is like.

    Please try to understand this. You have been sold a bill of goods. Those with experience — i.e., the mystics — have all concurred, over time and over theological idiom, THAT “GOD” IS NOT KNOWABLE, and that to pursue “God” intellectually is the surest way to never make “contact.”

    Never mind reading me. Read Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, Eriugena, Aquinas, Eckhart, the Clowde of Unknowying, Tersa of Avila, John of the Cross etc., etc. They all agree. Contact occurs in darkness. It is a function of FAITH by which they mean TRUST, not dogmatic clarity.

    Good luck. You’ve a lot of reading to do.

    Peace,

    Tony

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