Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

The mystics, east and west, are a key resource in the pursuit of the universalism that I am convinced lies at the heart of all religions and traditions, among which I include compassionate atheism. The mystics are cherished everywhere, but in the west particularly, they are not taken seriously as a source of “truth.” They are considered rather as visionaries, poets, holy to be sure and inspiring but not entirely reliable because the considerable emotion they display gives rise to the suspicion that they are subjective.

In the Christian west, Jesus fared no better. Observers will notice that gospel accounts do not record that Jesus enunciated virtually any of the “doctrines” that were later counted as core truths of Christianity. Hundreds of years later, as Christian doctrine came to be “defined,” mainly by councils sponsored by the Roman emperors, Jesus was divinized and treated more like an object of worship than a source of doctrinal truth. He was sidelined like all the mystics, even though it was his “defined” divinity that was called upon to “prove” doctrinal infallibility.

In the east, in contrast, the words and practice of Buddha became the subject of discussion, debate, interpretation and eventually canonization in the form of written documents considered by consensus to accurately reflect the mind of the founder. What there is of authentic dogma and ritual in Hindu-Buddhism, is closely linked to practice and bears no reference to the anatomy of the universe or the favor of the gods. The focus is what in our tradition we would call “prayer life,” and spiritual transformation; that practice, among Buddhists, is specifically meditation. Doctrine amounted to accurately identifying and applying the methods of meditation and, of course, achieving its goals: individual peace and social harmony in this world.

This was not true for Christianity where the words and attitudes of Jesus were used to justify a religion structured around dogma and rituals created by the Roman Empire broadly patterned on its earlier state religion. Early Roman religion was a local version of the polytheism common to the Mediterranean region built on the myths of the gods. It was not complex. Its purpose was to secure divine favor for the advancement of the interests of the polis. Social harmony and consensus among the citizens came as a byproduct of that, but were hardly secondary. By the beginning of the fourth century the old state religion of the mythological gods, whose adolescent antics were ridiculed relentlessly by the philosophers, had lost all credibility and the Roman Empire needed a replacement. It selected Christianity. As part of that award, not only the buildings and temple paraphernalia of the gods were turned over to the Christian Church, but with the “donation of Constantine” came a responsibility: to sustain the worldview and purposes of the Roman state religion. Christianity re-invented itself as the ground for Rome’s theocracy.

The “Way of Jesus” which had produced the gospels was ultimately swallowed up by the Imperial embrace. Jesus himself was not interested in using “God” as a prop for state power, so if his followers were to fulfill the role offered to them by Rome they would have to stop following Jesus. Effectively, the religion that came to bear the name “Christian” found itself required to reinterpret Jesus’ words, attitudes and behavior, lifestyle and motivations, in order to subordinate them to Roman priorities. It made Jesus an inspirational, even consoling figure, but it prevented the codification of his message, which was so thoroughly opposed to the demands of the Roman state that it got him killed. Jesus’ use of the words “kingdom of God” was precisely intended to situate ultimate loyalty and behavioral compliance in justice and compassion among people not in any state authority, whether it be the Jewish nation or the Roman Empire. In the frenzy to accommodate themselves to the windfall of Constantine’s “donation,” Christians had to ignore all this. They did. Some say they still do.

Roman “Christian” Doctrine came to be determined on other bases, some a crass, politically motivated exaggeration, like the Greek philosophical divinization of Jesus pressured by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicaea, and others the result of the interpretative fantasies of Hellenizing Jews like Paul of Tarsus and John following Philo, and neo-Platonic Roman philosophers like Augustine of Hippo who concocted “doctrines” like Original Sin which were not part of the Jewish doctrinal legacy and never even alluded to by Jesus. Nicaea, taking place in Constantine’s own private villa and with his dominating personal participation, proceeded to its decisions despite the fact that not only did the assembled bishops try to resist the emperor who insisted they use the word “homoousios” to describe Jesus’ divinity, but also with Jesus himself who, as recorded in the gospels, explicitly denied being “God.”

What “divinization” missed was the heart of the matter.   What made Jesus a great spiritual teacher was the fact that he was an ordinary human being whose extraordinary human experience had brought him to a profoundly human reinterpretation of the theocratic Jewish tradition and turned it into a potential universalism of irresistible appeal. It was providential that his message was preserved in the gospel narratives of his life and work or we may never have known what it was, for it is not borne forward by the dogmas of the religion. He saw “God” as a loving Father, not a demanding and punitive Monarch who would reward you with conquest and slaves if you obeyed him. The gospels, written by his earliest followers for whom it was entirely enough to say that Jesus was God’s messenger, have preserved for us the character and significance of his message. The claim that he was a “god.” or even, outrageously and blasphemously that he was “God” himself, served to distort, undermine and fatally emasculate the radical transformative power of his discovery and his invitation.

Re-forming Christianity

But while the theocratic exploitation of Christianity has created outrageous doctrine that because of its antiquity, we realize now, will never be repudiated by the Churches whose success is tied to the appearance of tradition, the authentic religious endeavor should nevertheless move resolutely to the task of a new kind of codification: to identify and articulate the vision of Jesus in the light of the universalism it shares with all other religions. And in pursuit of that end, as a first and immediate item of common data across time and traditions, the experience of the mystics should be considered foundational. What Jesus and the mystics all have in common is the recognized superlative nature of their lived religious experience and practice. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus is recorded as saying. Indeed. It is the only test of religious truth.

Religion is practice. It is the art of living humanly. It is not primarily focused on “truth” taken as objective “scientific” knowledge. This should not be misunderstood. Knowing what things really are is important for determining what they can and should do; that holds true for humankind as well. But in our case, knowing what we are as human beings comes at the end of a process of discovery. We know what we are by seeing what we do that works. So practice, the lived experience of people like Jesus and the mystics who have achieved unequaled success in the art of living, has been the origin and energizer for most religions throughout history.

Unfortunately, because of the “other worldly” emphasis of mediaeval Christianity, some mystics expressed their discoveries in terms of visionary experiences. Despite their own clear rejection of assigning any importance to these forms of expression, the word “mystic” in the popular mind evokes enthusiasts who have psychedelic and hallucinatory experiences. But in reality, as a serious reading of their work will show beyond any doubt, their “doctrines” were about the moral and emotional transformation of the selfish individual into a generous and compassionate human being, for the benefit of all, and the practices necessary to achieve it.

Religious reform, then, which amounts to a re-appropriation of religion’s original vitality, should be equally based on the experience of these extraordinary people.

Jesus was one of the mystics. Christianity originally began as an attempt to follow and elaborate on his lived experience. That process got sidetracked and in many ways actually reversed by the Roman take-over. That reversal is not an insignificant development in the history of humankind. Among other things it has meant, after two thousand years of Christian “truth,” the domination and exploitation of the rest of the globe by White European Christians who falsely identified the wealth and power of their nation-states with the success of their “faith” applying the theocratic justifications embedded in Romanized Christian doctrine.  Correcting the false directions taken by Christianity and undoing the damage done by Christian theocracy will require reinstalling the lived experience of Jesus and other mystics from across the globe at the foundation of a new doctrinal edifice. There is no alternative. Many who have accurately seen the source of the problem, and yet, in an attempt to respect traditional institutions, believed that somehow the damaging effects of doctrine could be ignored and authentic religious experience pursued on a parallel track, have again and again had their hopes dashed as “reform” has been demolished by theocratic doctrine. We should have known better. The very attempt is schizoid. It belies the obvious integrity of the human organism whose thoughts and actions can be split from one another only at the cost of sanity. It is not insignificant that some have defined holiness as a profound and available sanity. What is eluding us transcends “truth.”

The mystics’ vision

I suggest starting here: Mystics, east and west, broadly speaking, agree on one foundational experience that characterizes their practice: the self is intimately one with all things. It has two aspects: (1) There is an intimate connectedness among all things creating an inescapable bond of unity with the whole universe. This is, in practice, most often seen in action within the human community in the form of justice, compassion and mutual assistance. (2) The practitioner’s self has a unique role in the establishment of the religious relationship which grounds universal connectedness. The human individual’s intimate relationship to all things originates in the depths of the self. The self is the wellspring of the principle of unity.

In practice, while the first expresses itself most often in human society, it is fundamentally universal; we see it functioning today in a concern for the whole planet. The second corresponds to a sense of ground residing in one’s own interior depths. It also sets up a relationship with that ground which may or may not be interactive as between two “persons.” All this remains to be explored in detail.

Both of these aspects of common practice give rise to other secondary explanatory “doctrines” which differ among the traditions depending on the “scientific” (philosophical) context provided by the local culture in which they are occurring. But I want to emphasize: the two foundational items are features of direct experience. They are not beliefs or objective truths “out there;” they are the descriptions of personal experience that are universal among the mystics. There is, initially, no talk of “God” or of any explanatory “entities” not encountered directly in the process of living. Such second tier explanations are claimed to be “revealed,” or conjectured, or inferred, but in all cases they are ancillary and, despite the dominant role they may come to play for the particular tradition, they are the doctrines that vary most among the mystics. What all mystics have in common with little divergence is the originating experience: a oneness with all things realized through the source of unity found in the depths of one’s self.

This is absolutely universal among them. For the mystics, we are intimately related, by dint of something resident in the self, to everything that exists, even the inanimate. I want to sit quietly with this for a while as experience before analyzing it in future posts. I think it is fair to say that it is not unfamiliar territory for any of us.

Christian Universalism (VII)

the just society

9.

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 motivating 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.

 

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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). 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-maker 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 arrogant 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, 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.

 

 

 

Christian Universalism (VI)

endless trust

1,250 words

8.

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 can’t 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 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.

Christian Universalism (V)

Jesus and Buddha; the embrace of emptiness

3,350 words

6.

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. 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 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 is exactly as empty as 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. Whatever 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 “no-one” 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 generated 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, in other words, 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.

 

7.

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 samsara.

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 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, 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.

That trust was tested in his case 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 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 worldIt 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.

 

 

Christian universalism (III)

the mystery of being-here: emptiness and faith

3,500 words

1.

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 resurrection of the Jewish messiah; 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 all of us. “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. Where 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, a “thing” 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.” It 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.

 

2.

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 that must also be present and operative 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.” And 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 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 vulnerability. 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.

Trust

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 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.

Relationship to “God” is a work of the imagination

This post is very long.  But it is composed of 5 sections, each of about 2,000 words which is convenient for one reading.  I opted to include them all here rather than in 5 separate posts, because it is one integral piece, and eventually the sections will have to be taken together.  As usual I invite your comments.

1.

The Imagery of “God”

1.1   Images

The sound of the title, I’m sure, is shocking to many believers.  I suspect their initial reaction is that it is “atheist.”  A moment’s reflection, however, should remind them what all the major theist traditions acknowledge: that “God” is unknowable.   Like it or not, regardless of the intensity of your faith, you have to imagine “God” and what that word means.

It might be less threatening if we realize that the imagination isn’t only functioning when we try to think of “God.”  It’s what we use for thinking virtually all the time.  The primacy of the imagination in our cognitive relationship to the world is not a new idea. Wittgenstein insisted that our ideas are really “pictures” of various states of affairs, from things, to people, to narratives, to complex interrelationships.

Moreover, for those of us who are convinced that the only way that anything can be-here in our universe is as matter, it is no surprise to discover that we work primarily in sense images.  Images reproduce concrete sense-based perceptions.  We are made of matter. Our organic brains evolved as a more efficient tool for helping us navigate in a world of matter where survival is dependent on using and defending ourselves against other forms of matter.

It’s because we generally work in images that most of us have a hard time with abstractions, like mathematics above the most elementary levels, or metaphysics.  We tend to put images in the place of abstractions. Until we can find an image we can “wrap our head around,” we don’t feel that we understand.  When we do, however, we say we “see” it and we “grasp” it as if the abstraction were a visible or palpable object . . . and indeed, in a real sense it is, because what we claim to recognize is the image we have substituted for the abstraction in question. There is a great deal of projection in what we claim to know.

1.2   The naïve image: “God,” the Craftsman

Now this is nowhere more true than in our attempts to “grasp” how it is that we can be-here, alive and ourselves. We imagined that we were “created” by a divine agent ― in the West it is called “God” ― and we generated an image of what we think “God” and the act of creation was like. This resulted in similar answers across the globe. People everywhere came to more or less the same conclusions about divine agency because we all “think” in more or less the same images . . . and that’s because our experience of being born into and struggling to stay alive in this material world is the same for all of us.

We wake up to find that we are-here, alive and growing from helpless infants to strong, intelligent reproductive adults in a community of people who are just like us needing to eat and stay alive in a world of matter. The universal experience that constitutes interaction with the world for material organisms provides the only analogy for imagining how the world and everything in it, including ourselves, could come to be here.

Our images are based on observation. The most fundamental of all observations is that something comes to be-here only and always after not being-here. Organisms that were not here come to be here born of other organisms. I myself am one of them. Our own children appear as if out of nothing. Hence it was natural to assume that the whole world and all the things in it came to be-here after not being here. It would not spontaneously occur to anyone that everything has always been here.

Our assumptions were expanded by the experience of our own work projects. The shelters we construct to protect ourselves come to be-here only because we put them here. The tools and weapons we use do not spontaneously appear. We make them. We are the agents of the changes that make things appear where before they were not, and our work is done for a purpose.

These simple connections generate the universal images about how things come to be here in our world. It would be virtually impossible for pre-scientific people, precisely because we think in images, to have conceived coming to be in any other terms. The inevitable conclusions: that things came to be here after not being here at all and that some purposeful agent had to have made that happen, are found all over the globe.

So, a picture was generated of some person, like a Craftsman, who constructed the things we see around us and made a world appear where before there was none. Given the immensity and complexity of this world, this Craftsman would have to be both intelligent and powerful to an extraordinary degree. The spectacular beauty and elegant inter-dependence of things suggested the builder was no mere laborer, but an artist and architect of transcendent capabilities. And the fact that the life that we have as part of this project is so precious to us ― our very selves ― this Craftsman is like a father to us and “he” must love us. We called “him” “God.”

“God” was a work of the human imagination. We connected the dots that we saw around us and “God’s” shape emerged. The only problem was that it was all pre-scientific guesswork and much had to be corrected once science entered the picture. Science’s image of the universe was actually quite different from what our first impressions suggested. We thought we saw dots where there were none, and dots that were invisible to the naked eye but which science could see, had been left out of the spontaneous process. Once science was able to amend the picture we had of the universe, we found that there was a new set of dots.  The spontaneous assumption about a divine Craftsman was no longer a credible explanation.

1.3   The new image: evolving matter

The first and probably most seminal correction was science’s discovery of the autonomous action of matter in the development of all the forms and features that populate the universe. Science was able to identify “creation” as a process in which the material energy released at the initial explosion that launched our visible cosmos, aggregated, integrated and complexified in incremental stages through random interactions during an almost unimaginable amount of time, producing everything known to exist. “Everything” is meant literally. Material energy, working on its own and without rational purpose, not only produced the primitive hydrogen atoms whose aggregation in huge masses under the compressing force of gravity generated fusion reactions that created stars, but continued thereafter to forge new combinations of particles within these stellar furnaces to produce all the atoms found in the elegant table of the elements which are the building blocks of life on earth. All of it was done by material energy, acting randomly and without any apparent rational purpose, plan or outside producer.

The intricate interconnections of things, once believed to be proof of the guiding hand of a creative mind, were now known to be the residue of developments that conformed to what went before. By proceeding in ever so minute increments, a highly complex finished product, like the human eye for example, was simply the last refining step in the long development of the light-sensitive capacity of the most primitive unicellular organisms, and the very basis of vegetative life on which all animal life depends. Plants derive their energy from sunlight which they utilize to drive their life and growth.

If there was no purposeful, powerful and managing agent involved in the production of the universe . . . if, in other words, we had imagined a “God” who was not really there . . . what’s the point of using the word at all? We had so identified “God” with “Craftsman” imagery based on the way we made things that when the truth came out we were left high and dry. Our imagery did not fit the new picture of the universe. Unfortunately we had used “God” to integrate our communities and our personalities, so eliminating “God” had the effect of creating havoc on all sides. Many see the travesties of the modern age as the result.

To compound the problem, the word “God” was so deeply identified with a false and misleading imagery that as a matter of practical fact, the word could not be upgraded in the popular imagination to refer to anything else. That was disastrous for religion in the West whose teachings, rituals and intimate life of spiritual transformation, for millennia, have been built around the relationship to a “God”-person. Adjusting to reality as revealed by science requires an overhaul of revolutionary proportions. And given the intimate dependence of personal and societal integration upon this inter-personal and purposeful, intervening image, any thoroughly adequate adjustment to reality would have to involve both a catastrophic breakdown of earlier imagery and an epic reconstruction of new ones with their associated affect. The entire project was so huge as to be inconceivable.

Why not just abandon the entire enterprise, admit that “religion” was a failed construct of our pre-scientific imaginations, and be done with the whole thing once and for all? Any attempt to keep it afloat would necessarily involve confusion and misunderstanding at best, and more than likely deception and exploitation of the uneducated by unscrupulous charlatans.

 

2.

Being-here

2.1   Conatus: the desire to be-here

Unfortunately, humankind is burdened with objective, data-based experiences that suggest a larger picture than science is able to explain and that will not go away. It seems that learning that the “sun does not rise or set, but that we go around it” is not the model that exhausts the misperceptions of the traditional worldview. For even understanding quite clearly that all things were elaborated by evolution and that there is no “Craftsman” who willed and who made us, questions that only religion seemed willing to answer remain, and refuse to disappear.

The first of these science-proof items is the intense addiction to being-here that is experienced by every human being. There is an unmistakable and indisputable spontaneous self-embrace in which each of us is acutely aware of being who we are, and that we are alive. The experience of having an uncontrollable urge to stay alive, accompanied by a concomitant fear of death ― in other words, that my being-here is transcendently important to me ― will not evaporate even though I know that I am nothing but a temporary concrescence of material elements that is born, grows, lives, reproduces and dies. Once I accept what science has discovered, it should be of absolutely no concern to me that this constellation of coherent elements that constitute my organism will go through exactly the same cycle as all other living things and that my “self” will disappear. And yet it is and will not go away. I am unable to assume an “objective” point of view on my living and dying. I am desperately in love with being-here and being myself, and the disillusionments of science will not dispel it.

Now I don’t bring this up as a proof or even a suggestion that my “self” is different from my organism, and that it will somehow escape the fate of the matter of my body, which many religions espouse. Other religions, like Buddhism, which recognize the anomaly of a self-love that is at odds with the realities of a universe of composing and decomposing matter, have sought ways to confront the perception of a transcendent “self” as a delusion. So this question is not new or foreign to the religious quest. Whether they opted to embrace it or to repudiate it, human beings have always acknowledged the phenomenon: we are in love with LIFE and there is no way to avoid it. We have to either embrace it or suppress and transcend it, but we cannot ignore it. It is the horizon of our existence. Our destinies as individuals and as communities are absolutely determined by how we react to this endless and insuperable desire for self-preserva­tion, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the very dynamism for survival that science has identified as the driving force behind evolution.

The endless and insurmountable desire for self-preservation has been called conatus. It is a traditional term, originally Latin, coined in ancient times to refer to the protective self-embrace observed in every living organism, plant and animal, including humankind. Each living individual, regardless of species, is a “self” of some type and is hard wired to selfishly seek to preserve and expand its own individual life. Extrapolating from our own experience, there is a possessive feeling that each self has about its own life that derives from this instinct.  We love ourselves helplessly.  It is not an option.  It reveals that being-here for living things is not just a dry, inert fact.  Being-here is a cherished proprietary dynamism that corresponds to an insuperable affective obsession on display in living things.  Being-here is clearly a unique and continuous object of ultimate and insuppressible desire which, by being shared in all its detailed characteristics by living things of all species without exception regardless of their level of cognitive ability, suggests there is one source common to all: matter’s energy itself. 

If both microbes and men manifest the same observable behavior with regard to the desire to be-here, it seems incontrovertible that being-here must, in some way, be at the very core of what they both are. Both are evolved combinations of the atoms and molecules that congealed and interconnected by the primal energy released when this universe was born. They are living matter. That’s all they have in common. The fact that they both share and display a transcendent desire for their particular configuration of material elements ― however disparate in other regards ― to remain endlessly, i.e., without any indication that there is an acceptable moment when that coherence should cease, seems to precisely describe what we mean by life. Life is the emergent ability on the part of material energy to behave in such a way as to display an unconquerable need to continue to be-here.

The fact that material energy was-here in similar formations prior to the emergence of primitive living organisms, but without any observable display of affect toward being-here, reveals that a new dimension was activated in the emergence of life: being-here became aware of itself as a supreme desideratum. The desire for food, for mates, to avoid predators, are all functions of survival.  Being-here, in other words, for living things is to die for.

There was nothing in the discoveries of the physical sciences that gave the slightest hint that there even might be a conatus. Why should being-here be any “better” than not being-here? Why should matter care whether it continues or not? As far as science is concerned they are just contraries. To be or not to be, for science, are of equal value. Like hot and cold, heavy or light, positively charged or negatively charged, moving or at rest, neither is more “important” than the other. Science can observe the phenomenon of the desire to be-here, and the aversion to not being-here, but it has no basis for evaluating them. The conatus is a sheer gratuitous primary datum: it is just there; it comes with life.

The salient fact for our discussion, however, is that for us being-here is not only important, it is of supreme and unequalled importance. It’s importance is so inescapably fundamental that it cannot be suppressed and gives every indication of being hard-wired into our very bodies. I not only desire being-here, I cannot not desire it: I cannot ignore, avoid or suppress desiring it. This fact was not predictable, nor perceptible much less explainable by physical science. Yet it is the most significant, essential, decisive, and destiny-shaping fact for me: the supreme value I place on being-here which accompanies an innate desire to survive. Physical science did not anticipate the conatus, because it did not anticipate LIFE.

2.2   matter’s energy to be-here

Since being-here is of such transcendent importance to us, we are forced to take up again the question of existence that religion had naïvely attempted to answer by imagining a super-human Craftsman. How can we approach this question now that we have the discoveries of science to prevent us from imagining things that are not there? For now we know that the Craftsman-god was a naïve and erroneous product of our imagination.

The first thing is that it would seem that whatever is responsible for my being-here is probably also responsible for this overwhelming desire that shapes my life and the destiny of the various communities in which all of us live. Clearly, whatever drives the autonomous evolution of material energy has got to be the prime suspect, for we can trace all the developments that shaped and empowered our organisms to that force.

But evolution is not a “thing” or a physical force like magnetism. It’s a word-picture created by human beings that tries to describe how matter’s intrinsic energy changes its own internal configurations through time. The substance and the energy involved belong exclusively to matter. There is no outside force called “evolution” acting on matter and making it change. It is matter itself, entirely on its own, utilizing the inherent energy that constitutes its reality, attempting to remain itself, that continually adjusts its internal interrelationships to allow for its existence in ever new environments. The keynote and final arbiter of evolution is survival. Ironically, the constant change that characterizes evolution is a function of the pursuit of stasis ― sameness. The changes that matter undergoes have no other purpose or “intentionality” than that which has constituted matter from the beginning: to be-here and to stay-here, i.e., to resist any change that would entail not being-here.

Evolution, then, is simply the external expression in time of the internal dynamism of matter. And because survival is the result and the only “purpose” of evolution, we can safely impute an existential intentionality to that dynamism.

Existential intentionality. I want to clarify exactly what I mean by using this term. The words “intentionality” and “purpose,” taken literally, imply something like conscious choice. I do not mean that. But I need to use those terms because I simultaneously want to avoid any suggestion that there is no biased dynamism inherent in matter, i.e., the claim that matter is disinterestedly inert, with no active preference whatsoever. I am trying to describe an energy, which as a matter of indisputable observable fact, is directed toward and results in survival. Matter does not exist in a dead state. It has an energy that inclines it to adjust itself internally so as to continue to be-here.
There is evidence that suggests that evolutionary adjustment is not entirely random. It never adjusts in the direction of not being here. Sometimes its adjustments fail to achieve their purpose. But matter never seeks oblivion which it would do as often as not, if it were not a dynamism with a bias toward being-here, for in that case, to be-here or to not be-here would be the same.
This is a key point in the rejection of mechanistic reductionism. Reductionism claims that there is no existential proclivity in matter, that matter is totally inert, that evolutionary change is, therefore, completely random, and that survival is a matter of sheer passive chance, no more likely than death. I claim, in contrast, that the very desire for endless survival that we as human beings experience internally ― the conatus ― is the exponentially intensified conscious extension in living organisms of the primitive inclination of matter to be-here. We all have that experience because we are all and only matter. We all know exactly what that means and we know there is no need to prove it’s there.
Matter has an existential dynamism that constitutes its potential for emergent forms like life and consciousness. Life, as observed therefore, is the expression of that existential energy intensified through the engagement of matter itself (in the form of the individual organism) in its own “adjustments in the pursuit of survival.” Consciousness represents a further development in the same direction. They are all functions of survival ― the more intense and efficient application of the imperative of the conatus: to be-here.
To the objection that by claiming a bias toward being-here that I have introduced teleology ― purpose ― into matter’s dynamism, I answer that a purpose orientated dynamism would mean acting for a reason, and there is no reason to want to be-here. There is no purpose to being-here. The need to be-here does not arise for any other reason; it is desired for itselfIn achieving existence, the quest ends.  There is nothing more that is wanted.  It is primordial bedrock, self-explanatory and self-grounded.

Matter is energy, and that energy is existential. It is exclusively, helplessly driven to be-here.  This ultimate foundational fact provides the sufficient and necessary ground for understanding the entire universe of things and their development, including humankind; for there is nothing in the universe but matter’s energy and the totality is the simple, unending, unalloyed, pursuit of being-here.  There is nothing ― no animal, no person, no “God” ― that is not part of that.

The insuppressible human question that gave rise to religion, and whose answer ancient, prescientific guesswork got terribly wrong, remains unanswered.  What is responsible for our being-here and being what we are? Science was able to show that there was no purposeful rational agent who did this. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. In learning that everything was the result of evolution, we not only discovered that there was no Craftsman, we simultaneously learned that it was matter itself, acting autonomously in its defining compulsive pursuit of being-here that was the engine that drove the development in the universe, producing all the varied life forms and human consciousness that we find on earth. In identifying living matter as the creative source from which all things emerged, have we stumbled upon the holy grail, humankind’s eternal quest: the face of “God”?

2.3   Is matter “God”?

Unimaginable. We recoil at the thought. For more millennia than are recorded in any of our chronicles, we have supposed that “God,” whatever else that word might mean, had to at least be a “person.” “God” could not conceivably be less intelligent, less loving, less purposeful, less intensely self-aware than we are. After all if “God” made us, “God” must be like us. This fit perfectly with the imagery we had generated about the Craftsman whom we conjectured created the universe of things. It never occurred to us that what was responsible for everything we see around us might not look or act like us at all. Furthermore, religious traditions going back before recorded time, in assuming that a trans­cendent “personality” lie behind the existence of the universe, had encouraged making contact with that person by offering sacrifice, by communicating our personal and community needs, by obeying behavioral codes, by giving gifts in acknowledgement of our gratitude for being-here, by pleading for help ― in short, by relating to our creator the way we would relate to any human person who was in a position to do something for us. So the word “God” embodies not only the erroneous cosmological imagery and associated ideas we have been examining in this study, but it is drenched in the affective psychological intensity that is the residue of the accumulation of eons of human emotion poured out in the gratitude, fear, love and pleading that has characterized how we related to that “God-person.”  If “God” is matter and is not a person, that whole imaginary construct comes down like a house of cards.

What does that mean for our “religious” lives? Does it mean religion is dead? The burden of this essay is to emphatically answer: No. These discoveries demand that we change the imagery that we had generated about what our creative source is like and relate to it as it really is observed, measured and experienced and not as we once imagined it to be. We are tied neither to images nor to words. The image of the Craftsman and the word “God” were hypothetical constructs that worked for our pre-scientific view of the world. But just because the word and image have to be abandoned doesn’t mean we can abandon the relationship, because the relationship is existential for us. It is what put us here and sustains us. We know it is real because we are real and we are not self-originating. It’s time to change our imagery, not deny that we exist and did not create ourselves.

The relationship ― our being-here as we are ― came first and remains fundamental.  It is the only fact.  Our attempt to understand it is not fact but conjecture, and comes second. Our conjectures ― our imaginings ― are not the standard of reality. Discovering that our source is not as we had imagined, does not give us the right to disregard the implications of what we are learning. We are, and always remain, the offspring of our source, whatever it is. We are what we have been made, and our continued survival depends upon our conformity to what we are, not to what we once thought we were no matter how ancient or robed in venerable tradition. We have been evolved by matter’s energy and our lives must coincide with its fundamental dynamics or we eviscerate ourselves.  This is not a matter of choice and we all know it, for quiet as it’s kept, we do what we need to survive regardless of the counsels of our tradition.

 

3.

the psychological transcendentals

3.1   Trust

How does this play itself out? The first, and as it ironically turns out, the overarching constitutive step in surviving is trust. There is nothing new here. No matter what the imagined world-view, the mechanism of engagement is trust and it’s no different in a universe of matter. We have little choice. Everything that we are, every ability we have, even our very being-here itself has arisen without any contribution from us. We awaken to find ourselves immersed and borne along in a vast project generated and propelled forward by the energy of matter alone. Our own human organisms are only one slim line of that development, sustained through millennia of time by a network of vital connections with the rest of the universe that we are only now becoming aware of. None of the features of our bodies and minds that we cherish as our very selves, were designed, fabricated, or placed into active service by us. It was all given. We are not self-originating in any way. We had no say in when we awoke, and we cannot prevent our components from being reused by other organisms when we die. Our active participation is limited to the most minimal intervention, which unfortunately includes the possibility of self-rejec­tion. We can opt out, but even there, only by advancing early to the death-step. We never really escape the life-cycle which is our destiny no matter what we do.

Trust is the air we breathe; it is the ocean we swim in. We are not even aware of it until we turn full attention to it. We have to trust all the time. We trust in the perfect functioning of our bodies interacting with earth’s supply systems of air, water and food. We trust that our lungs will always draw in oxygen and our blood will always carry it to all parts of our bodies for the combustion in our living cells. We trust our organs to correctly process the food and water we ingest and distribute it appropriately for the full functioning of all our members and abilities. We trust that our DNA will infallibly guide the ontogenesis that brings our developing bodies from infancy to full reproductive maturity. We trust that sperm and egg will unite and by some marvel in nine months inerrantly develop into a new fully equipped human organism by combining the DNA of both parents. (And by the way, those marvels are true of every animal and plant.) We trust our parents to feed and protect us until we can survive on our own. We trust larger society to support the efforts of families to prepare their children for surviving.

I have not even mentioned the almost indescribable numbers of support systems existing on the planet on which we depend: for food, water, air, shelter, material for our clothing, our machines of service, our infrastructure of roads and bridges, medical intervention, the arts and sciences. We are, in reality, the continuous product of a multitude of factors that are all outside of ourselves.

Trust is a pervasive indispensable component of human life. One philosopher describes trust as “existential . . . primordial and atmospheric (generalized, ambient, and diffuse).”[1] Those terms accumulate to an attitude present in all human activity that is so fundamental, universal and necessary as to amount to a psychological transcendental. We cannot function without trust at every level of our presence in the world. Any notion that our being-here is an independent phenomenon which we control as individuals is sheer delusion and trust is the psychological correlate.  We are dependent upon a multitude of concurrently existing realities which, because they provide their support activity so efficiently and without interruption, we hardly ever notice. This utter dependency is not imaginary, it is real. Becoming aware of exactly what it consists of, in depth and detail, is essential to our understanding of what we are. Reminding ourselves of it should be part of a daily meditation. We are a part of an immense whole. We find ourselves borne up in a web of sustaining material elements that range in kind from other human beings to the oxygen atoms in the atmosphere. The dependency is not superficial, as Courtright says, it is existential. And it is total. It bears upon our very existence and at every moment in time. We come to discover, much to our surprise, that as far as being-here is concerned we are in every respect the product of factors other than ourselves. We had nothing whatsoever to do with getting here, and our contribution to staying here consists mainly in the intelligent gathering and use of the support materials we need, which also have been provided to us by others.

Trust is nowhere more constitutively in play than in the ultimate question that plagues us: our destiny. Apparently in this respect we are alone among all living organisms. But just as we are only now coming to realize what put us here and supplies us with what we need to stay here, we have no idea what death may mean if indeed it is anything more than the cessation of life. But it seems that the unbroken continuity of factors that conspired to put us here and cooperate with our efforts to stay here, has launched us on a trajectory of wall-to-wall trusting that, just on the face of it, would seem almost impossible to stop.   The dynamism of life has demanded and confirmed our trust at every turn in the road.  Being-here and trusting are absolute correlates.  How can we stop when death looms?

My own opinion is that we can’t.  For if we do, the psychological impact is so devastating that it can result in the abandonment of the will to live.  We are our material organisms, and our organisms are a single, undivided “thing” in process through time. We cannot compartmentalize ourselves by denying the integrity of the continuum of our lives. We can’t have full trust at one moment while simultaneously knowing that trust will become meaningless at some moment in the future. For it is the existential power of the totality on which our dependence rests that is in play in this question. Having learned that we are not just ourselves but more realistically an extrusion of the universe of matter, to suddenly learn that our destiny is to have that identity terminate, fatally undermines its possibility. If the totality abandons me at one point, it cannot be trusted at any point.

3.2   co-dependent co-arising and the delusion of the “self”

This appears to be a “catch-22;” for, as a matter of galling fact, we all die. But under analysis, the idea that being-here as material energy actually ends is not a proven “fact.” In reality it is just another “picture” generated by our naïve conjectures about being-here. It is an imagined state of affairs ― an image constructed on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions.

  • It assumes that the “I” that experiences life and death is a stand-alone, independent “thing” separate and apart from other “things,” a “self” that comes and goes.
  • It assumes that matter’s being-here as this particular organism of mine is significantly different from the same matter’s being-here in whatever other form it may take when my organism no longer controls it; it assumes that because the difference is significant to me it is significant in itself.
  • It assumes that my organism’s dependence on the universe of matter of which it is an emergent form, is discrete, i.e., that it represents a transaction across a separation-boundary between two distinct independent entities, the universe and me, rather than “me” being  an undulation, a “ripple” in the smooth fabric of the totality.  In other words, the data are equally well accounted for if both I and the universe are one continuous reality, my organism being simply a branch or leaf that the cosmic tree extrudes as it grows through time, and not a separate reality in myself.  I am the offspring of living matter.
  • The naïve assumption that the appearance and disappearance of things is explained as their coming from nothing and going back into nothing is the most unsubstantiated of all. This is all the work of the imagination, and as with all our “pictures” it must be submitted to a rigorous analysis. It may be, as science has suggested, that matter’s energy has always been-here, is neither created nor destroyed, but merely changes form, and the human organism is one of those forms.
  • Probably the most common unproven assumption in the west is that my “self” is a “soul,” a real separate substance, different from the matter of my body both in form and destiny.   Questioning the substantial reality of the “self,” however, runs into resistance in the western mindset due to the millennia of Christian promotion of the Platonic theory of immortal spirit.  People’s emotional attachment to the idea of the “soul” can be chalked up to its role in justifying belief in immortality, and a final judgment in which the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. But as far as the observations of modern science are concerned, the “self,” by the very fact that it disappears when the supporting organism dissolves, appears to be what Aristotle called a metaphysical “accident,” which means a real feature of some “substance” (thing) that depends on that substance in order to be-here, and disappears when the substance disappears; it has no independent existence. The “self” in this conception is the conscious identity of the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation characteristic of all living things. It is the integrated result of the accumulation of the existential energy of the material components of the human organism. Our so-called “spiritual” characteristics are entirely body-dependent; they derive from the human body’s neurological configuration. And we know that, because when the brain is damaged, they are distorted or disappear. “Spiritual” is a misnomer if it means our human capacities are due to the presence of a separate substance called “spirit.” “Spirituality” is a property of living matter.

3.3   the sense of the sacred

Little by little you can see that we are building up a new imagery about our being-here, and it is all centered on matter’s living existential energy in a way that is totally compatible with science. Notice there is no use of the word “God.” Matter is an energy to be-here which in order to secure its continuous survival changes its internal configurations. This change in response to mod­i­fi­cations in the environment is called evolution and is what created all things. The source of our being-here is matter’s living energy; it made us in every intimate detail and it made and shaped the planetary environment from which our organisms were drawn and to whose current features we are conformed. We live in a condition of absolute inescapable trust in everything it has done, for it is our very selves.

It is hardly necessary to describe the intense affect that is generated in us over being-here. We are supremely happy at being alive and being able to stay alive. It is a necessary by-product of the conatus; we cannot help being grateful, for we cannot not want to be-here. This is a primary datum in our analysis, for I contend that it is this innate, hard-wired, intense love of being-here that is responsible for our sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is a subjective reaction to an absolutely objective state of affairs: we are-here as dependent entities and we love it.

What I mean by “sacred” is the value we assign to something that is supremely important for us ― something that is identified with our existence itself. The reaction is as fixed a feature of our human nature as can be found. It is absolutely universal, and may be considered a second psychological transcendental ― in the same category as trust. Whatever we identify as responsible for us being-here, being ourselves and staying-here, generates a feeling in us that bathes that thing in our love, gratitude and protection. I mean this in the broadest possible sense. For we hold many things to be sacred: our bodies, our spouses, our parents, our children, the social institutions that protect us like doctors, the courts, security personnel, the people that have been good to us or who are responsible for our continued survival, even if they happen to be selfish and unsavory.  Despite their variety what these things all have in common is their existential impor­tance for us.  This is all completely consistent with a hard-wired conatus and in fact the absence of such a reaction would call into question its very existence.

This analysis applies, a fortiori, to whatever people have identified as the origin, source, manager and guarantor of their being-here ― historically that means the “god” who was once imagined to be the Craftsman who created the universe. This explains the “religion” phenomenon and its substantial similarity all over the globe. While the look and shape of this cosmic Craftsman has differed wildly in different times and cultures, and the attempt to make effective contact with “him” took various and sometimes contradictory forms, the fundamental human dynamic was the same: to express gratitude to and secure the friendship of the one who made us to be-here and had our destiny in his hands.  It is a direct a derivative of the conatus.  Religion is a natural and virtually inescapable reaction, bound as a practical corollary to the sense of the sacred which is itself a corollary of the conatus and therefore psychologically transcendental.  We cannot live without it.

Matter’s energy, according to the view embraced in this essay, is now thought to be the source and sustaining matrix of being-here that was once imagined as “God.”  But we don’t call matter’s energy “God.”  Why not?  Because matter’s energy, while it plays the same creative role as was once assigned to “God,” as actually observed and experienced in our world, is not a rational person who acts for a purpose.  In fact, matter’s energy is no-thing and does nothing. It chooses nothing, it intends nothing, it wants nothing, it knows nothing. Its energy is entirely exhausted in being-here.  It in no way resembles what we once imagined “God” to be.  Matter’s energy is simply not “God,” not metaphorically, not symbolically, and not metaphysically.  It is what it is: the energy of being-here and it has no independent form of its own  . . .  it is always and only found in the forms it has extruded: the atoms and molecules, rocks and minerals, plants, fungi, insects and animals including humankind that populate our universe.  We are all the common possessors of LIFE.

3.4   oneness with all things . . . the ground of trust and the embrace of death

Regardless of this break with our historical religious terms and imagery, matter’s energy for those who accept the findings of science, is the source and sustaining matrix in which we live and move and have our being.  We have little choice but to be grateful for our provenance from the timeless and tireless struggles of matter’s energy to find ways to continue to be-here, for it produced us.  We fully understand the dynamic that ruled material development through the eons of cosmic time because we are its offspring and we feel within ourselves the same thirst for being-here.  We are matter’s energy.  Humankind is simply its extrusion in time and complexity: LIFE in human form. Conforming to the inner dynamic of matter’s energy is no big deal for us, for it is who we are and what we are innately driven to do: survive as human beings. We cannot not want exactly what matter’s energy wants: to be-here.

Our identification with the material universe ― the totality of things that are-here ― is not a rare, mystical experience, a romantic and poetic sentiment limited to spiritual adepts and refined literati.  It is raw universal scientific fact.  That most people are unaware of it is entirely due to our cultural inheritance.  Certain ancient illusions have been erected into unchallenged assumptions which have been accepted for millennia. These “eternal truths” that are not true at all, like the independent existence of the “self” based on Plato’s ancient metaphysical theory of the human soul, have become part of the fixed horizon of our lives and social interactions.  We continue to acknowledge them in ritual and ceremony even when we are not articulating them explicitly.  Many cling to these illusions despite the clarifications of science because of their consoling effect. People need to trust life, and the story of the immortal soul seems to fill that need because it denies death. But its alleged consolation has an underside: it is individualistic to the point of solipsism and stone selfish; it militates against any sense of connection with other people and presupposes a radical separation from the universe of things. It is totally incompatible with the findings of science and runs counter to the spirit of our traditional teachers.

The identification of the human organism with the matter and energy of the universe, on the other hand, is extremely effective in providing a solid basis for trust. For once we realize the independent “self” is an illusion generated as a byproduct of the conatus, we can disregard its demands for immediate and unconditional satisfaction. There is no toleration for the refined selfishness engendered by the belief in the “soul.” Knowing ourselves to be simply a packet of matter’s energy we appropriate to ourselves the creative evolutionary power and endless ability to survive which characterizes the totality. We can say, WE ARE THAT! echoing the Hindu insight into the identity of the human person with the source of the universe’s endless life. The realization is the same because underneath the different images, both focus on the primacy of the whole, the totality, and disestablish the illusory hegemony of the “self” created by our desires for pleasure and fears of poverty, pain and death. The isolated “self,” against the backdrop of our reality as part of the whole, is exposed as false and delusional, and the acquiescence to its imperious selfish demands potentially destructive.

The only practical argument for the independent reality of the “self” against this Buddhist-materialist vision is psychological ― it is the apparent insuppressible nature of the conatus.  Desires and aversions springing from the human organism’s need to survive and reproduce will not go away. Proposing a metaphysical vision that disregards their reality, opponents say, is counter-indicated and invites frustration. But the argument is specious and self-serving. What I am saying does not dismiss the conatus as unreal but it also does not erect it into a separate “self” with metaphysical prerogatives.

This conforms to everyday experience. For the demands of the conatus are regularly and quite normally suppressed or transcended by mature adults for the sake of their life with others. The urges arising from the conatus are not absolute; they are subordinate to the individual being part of a larger totality, which in this case is the human community. Subordination to society does not destroy the individual, it enhances it. To an even greater degree, I claim that subordination to the individual’s place in the universe of things opens a world of enlightenment that grounds a foundational trust that finally does away with the fears of death. For, without denying death (the disappearance of the illusory “self”) it reveals our identity with the endless creative power and survivability of the very energy that shaped us, put us here, constitutes and sustains us immersed in itself.  It identifies us with the very core and bedrock of being-here.  The materialist vision says that as matter’s energy we have always been-here, even from before the “big bang,” and we will always be-here  . . .  as ourselves, as material energy, not as some unimaginable “spirit.”  The reality and the project evolving through time is this cosmic process, not a separate individual destiny for an imaginary “self” that is “saved” alone apart from others.  It neither denies death nor the reality of the individual organism with its individual feelings and needs.  The only thing it denies is the independent separate “spiritual” reality of the “immortal soul” and its indepen­dent solipsist destiny.

 

4.

Transformation

4.1  Personal transformation

Once the new imagery about who we are, where we came from, where we belong, and where we are going has been identified and thoroughly evaluated for authenticity and objectivity, a process of transformation from the old imagery and values can begin. This is not a simple affair, and the upgrade is not  easy. Each element of the old imagery has to be assessed and judged for its relevance to the current project. Some will be rejected, some will be accepted and continued. Of those that are accepted, many will have to be modified or nuanced in order to fit into the new picture. This is also a work of the imagination. Just as any good story-teller has to craft his words and carefully select the sequence of events and images so that the intended effect on the reader will occur, so too the spiritual aspirant. This is not easy. As in all projects errors will occur, and errors will lead to delays and distortions in the lives of the practitioners.

The principal image to be deactivated is that of the Craftsman/spirit who designed the universe for a purpose. We know it is not true. No one designed the form that things would take ― they incrementally and necessarily assumed the forms that permitted them the best chance of survival. And there is no purpose to being-here; being-here is the only reason for being-here. And the implication of not being created by an “Intelligent Designer” for purposes chosen by “him,” is that there is no moral code issued from this Craftsman/spirit obliging us to obey certain rules of conduct. “Revelation” from another world, in this regard, never occurred; moral insights about individual integrity and just dealings with others are the products of intelligent human observation and judgment; they were recognized as contrary to vulgar practice and projected to have come from the Craftsman spirit, rather than our common possession of LIFE with all other things. No one will judge, or reward and punish our behavior, now or after death, except ourselves. Regardless of how deeply ingrained this imagery might be, it does not correspond to what we know about reality, and it can only distort the lives of those who use it to determine how they will live.  Our lives are in our hands.  It is we who decide what it means to be human, based on our intelligent assessment of what makes us truly happy as a community; and it is our desire to be-here as the human beings we are that shapes our attitudes, directs our behavior and motivates the discipline needed to make that vision a reality.

The key image to be cultivated is the individual’s fundamental reality as an organism made of the same living matter found in all things in our material universe.  We are all the extrusions of living matter ― LIFE.  The most direct way of doing that is meditation and continual mindfulness.  Meditation means a period of time exclusively dedicated to the change of imagery.  The purpose and explicit effort is thought-control and the exploration of the implications of the changeover from the image of the Craftsman/spirit to living matter in process.  Mindfulness means the effective extension of the efforts of meditation at all times throughout the day, even in activities that have no explicit reference to self-imagery.  None of the practices recommended are sacrosanct.  They are chosen for what works. So there is no reward for performing them except the personal reward of achieving a new way of looking at reality and the new positive attitudes that result.  The point is personal, emotional, attitudinal, behavioral transformation, not compliance with a code of practice.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh recommends mindfulness: the conscious effort to transform every activity into a moment of awareness of one’s unity with all things by looking for the specific connection that is embedded there, often unnoticed. He speaks of eating, for example, as perhaps the best illustration of how a daily routine can be converted into a mindfulness practice. The very essence of eating is the incorporation of other things made of matter into my body. It is a quintessentially material operation in which the homogeneity of all matter and the depen­dence of my organism for its survival on a vast array of other living and non-living things existing in my environment is on unmistakable display.

The ultimate effect is the reduction in the importance accorded to the “self” and its desires which are often satisfied unconsciously; mindfulness makes desires conscious and disposed to be controlled.  A new appreciation of the what the self is and can do is the result.  Identification with the totality also shifts desire; concern for others begins to take center stage because the self now think of itself as one with others ― people as well as other living things and the resources of the earth.

4.2  Social transformation

One of the principal effects of existential imagery is in the interaction among the individuals in society. Some see these effects as derived from individual morality, but other observers, acknowledging the primacy of the religious worldview in social structure, see it the other way around. They believe religion originated as the codification of social mores. In any case, rulers have always recognized the potential for social control embedded in the existential imagery of the religious world­view and have sought to link their governance to its theocratic influence. Individuals who have internalized preferred behavior and values need no external coercion. Religion and the state have always been in intimate alliance.

The change in existential imagery brought about by transcendent materialism necessarily impacts one’s life in society because it sees the individual as a part of the whole. Of course, the vision applies fundamentally to all things, but in practice, the place where interaction for survival and self-fulfillment occurs is in human community. It is society where the human individual meets the universe of matter and ekes out survival. The shift in priority achieved by this change in imagery immediately challenges the false assumption of one’s own individual reality and importance, undermining the clamor for attention and constant satisfaction demanded by the conatus.

The new imagery establishes that individual human organisms are all fundamentally the same.  It therefore grounds and prioritizes cooperative collaboration in all human interaction, and implicitly repudiates inequality in the access to adequate food, clothing, shelter and the possession of goods, services, security and leisure.  The slavery and other forms of coerced labor, along with significant disparities in access to the means of survival associated with the traditional class system, were all justified by the existential imagery of the Craftsman/spirit.  For it was the metaphysical dualism ― the division of reality into matter and spirit ― that has been used at least since the ascendancy of Greco-Roman civilization about 500 bce, to ground a specious belief in the superiority of some people over others. The superior people were identified with “spirit,” mind and morality, intelligence and integrity, and the inferior people with “matter,” flesh and feeling, sensuality and selfishness.  The latter were considered akin to the animals, capable only of bodily labor and needing its discipline in order to dissipate wanton urges and be kept under control.  The recognition that matter is transcendent ― i.e., life and consciousness are properties of matter’s existential energy ― terminates dualism’s divisive and distorted view of reality once and for all.

 

5.

Mysticism

5.1  The mystique of the personal Craftsman

One of the principal features of the traditional existential imagery is the personhood of the Craftsman/spirit imagined to have created the universe.  The new imagery, based on the worldview sketched by science, finds no evidence of the rational, purposeful, intentional actions that are the signs of the presence of a person as we understand the word.  Matter’s energy elaborates its marvels simply by its own incremental adjustments to being-here.  While this doesn’t support what we’re accustomed to, it suggests a mystique of its own which we will explore shortly.

The pre-scientific imagery of the Craftsman necessarily assumed the presence of personhood and an individual personality in this “God” who made us to be-here. And the spontaneous act of awe and gratitude that followed upon the realization of our vulnerability would necessarily include all of the feelings that humans have toward other persons who give them gifts of great value: a warm intention to give them gifts in return, a willingness to do what pleases them, the desire to extol them and enhance their reputation in the eyes of others, and the desire to “be with” or “get close to” them out of love but also out of a selfish hope that such gifts will keep on coming.

This last inclination ― to “get close to” the source of our being-here ― has given rise to a passionate western mysticism found in all the religions that owe their foundational concepts to the Hebrew Bible, what are called “religions of the Book.” It imagined that our being-here was the expression of a personal love on the part of the creator.  Because the Craftsman was believed to be a person who designed us and created us out of love and as a mirror-image of himself it spontaneously evolved into a pursuit of an interpersonal love-relationship.  This took two forms: parent-child, and husband-wife. The poetry that was created to express that belief was concretized in two images corresponding to each kind of relationship: obedience to a demanding father, and falling in love, betrothal and marriage. This double imagery tended to divide the “ordinary” Christians from the elite spiritual aspirants in pursuit of perfection, the former relating to “God” as his child, the latter as his bride or lover.

5.2  The nuptial image

The soul as the Bride of “God” had a long antecedent history.  At first, when tribal communities were consolidated by being identified with a divine person, relationship to the tribe’s god was sealed by contract.  In the Bible it was translated as “covenant” or “testament.”  The god was expected to advance the tribe in war and insure prosperity, and in return the tribe would “love, honor and obey” the god.  The similarity to a marriage contract was apparent from the start.  Love poetry of the most intimate erotic kind was used to describe this relationship, most likely it was common love poetry appropriated from the community and applied by the priests to the sacred contract. Thus a Hebrew tribal god, Yahweh, the warrior who was believed to have freed the Hebrews from Egypt and conquered Palestine for their use, was poetically imagined as the male lover in the Book known as “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon,” and Israel was his adoring and obedient bride.

Once the Hebrew Bible was “discovered” by the Greeks, who were awed by its poetic monotheism, they had it translated into Greek; it entered the Greek orbit and its specifically Hebrew significance became vulnerable to Greek modifications. Hebrew categories were adjusted or even changed in the process. Of these, the emphasis on the priority of the individual human person, considered by the Greeks to be grounded in an immortal spiritual “soul” that could exist separate from the body, almost inevitably turned the Song of Songs from poetry about Israel’s communal contract with Yahweh into a saga of the intimate relationship between Plato’s Crafts­­man­/spirit, and the individual human “soul.”  Thus the nuptial imagery of theist mysticism was born. It was embraced by all the religions of the Book and characterizes Christian mysticism as well as Islamic.

Intimately connected with the parallel mistake of imagining “God” as a benevolent and provident “father” who micro-manages our individual lives, the significance of the nuptial distortion is very revealing of our most intimate needs and deepest desires.  It’s a no-brainer: we want to be loved and cared for.  We do not easily abandon the childhood consolation of knowing that our parents are there, love us and are watching over us. Imagining “God” as father or personal lover allows us to continue our childhood fantasy into adulthood, as Freud insightfully pointed out.  In tandem with promises of life after death for our immortal “souls,” it allowed us to avoid confronting the harsh reality of our fragile and temporary existence as material organisms.

This is not just an individual hang-up, as Freud might have meant it.  It’s a massive collective fantasy about a “God”-person that has been conjured through millennia of time collected in the narratives of the Hebrew tradition.  There is an unbroken line from the first images in the Hebrew Bible to the most sophisticated philosophical abstractions of the high middle ages. It’s a fairy tale that simultaneously serves the psychic needs of individuals and com­munity alike.  These images are a common legacy ― the family stories ― that is the very glue that has held our western civilization together for thousands of years and the Christian version of that imagery is only the last iteration of a long process that had originated even before the Bible in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It’s no wonder that it’s so hard to let go of, and when its imaginary nature is finally acknowledged, the resulting ungluing leaves residual effects in the form of persistent subconscious attitudes and a feeling of normlessness and a loss of self-esteem that fill the vacuum.

The recovery of the glue that will bind society together in the celebration of life and a common pursuit of mutual support, is totally dependent on finding a new imagery for the relationship we have to being-here.  Once we know what we are, we can decide how we are going to relate to LIFE: our source, matter’s energy, ourselves, other people on whom we rely for support and affirmation, the animals, plants, minerals, soil, air and water that supply us with fuel and building materials for our bodies.

5.3  A new imagery, a new mysticism

When the imagery about the “creator” changes from Plato’s Craftsman (who came to be identified as the Christian Logos) to matter’s living energy, the concept of “person” as we understand the word no longer applies and the nuptial imagery becomes incoherent. Relationship to “God,” for which Christian mystics from late antiquity to mediaeval times used betrothal and marriage imagery as a primary descriptor, was suddenly rendered meaningless.  There was no longer any possibility of a “marriage” relationship between “God” and the “soul,” because our creator showed no signs of being a “person.”

The anguish and personal devastation caused in the lives of Catholic monks, nuns and lay people who had shaped their spiritual lives around that imagery, was the result.  But it must be frankly recognized that we are only talking about an image, a work of the imagination.  It was not metaphysics, it was not “fact.”  It was a stretch even in the middle ages, because the applicable traditional metaphysics for union with “God” was participation in Being.

Participation in Being was an ancient Greek notion. It was what Paul had in mind when he quoted Epimenides’ phrase that “God” was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”[2] This profound unity, like that between wellspring and effluence, light source and radiation, is difficult to grasp without pictures.  And, except for some monastics, it was ignored.  It was easier, and better for business, for the hierarchy to sell “salvation” to the masses of Christians by appeasing a distant wrathful “God” that lived in another world.  With participation in Being, source and effect, while distinct, are simultaneously the same; it would have called into question the very idea of eternal punishment.

But if we employ the concrete imagery of matter’s energy provided by modern science, it is easy to picture ourselves constructed of the very same “stuff” that evolved us and evolved into us.  As the Hindus say: WE ARE THAT!  We are our own source.  There is no distance from the origin and source of life, for we are materially one and the same thing ― matter’s living energy.  But even though there is no separation, we remain at the same time always distinct, because matter’s energy ― LIFE which is neither created nor destroyed, goes on to enliven other forms after the decoherence of our organisms and the disappearance of our “selves.”

Our “selves” are peripheral to the process, they are spawned by it but have no control over it.  In fact the only thing that ever changes is the temporary form that matter assumes as it transitions from one to another in the course of time, and the only thing that ever stops being-here is the illusory “self.”  Matter’s energy recycles itself eternally but never loses its power to evolve and sustain ever new and unpredictable forms.  To identify with our components is to concede the unreality of the “self;” it is to fully realize our oneness with the universe and its creative power, for our components are the same everywhere and in all things, and contain the power of life.

So if the creator, matter’s energy, turns out to be the very thing that we are constructed of, then we are faced with the strange paradox that we are ourselves that which evolved and sustains us in existence.  I say “strange” only because we have been so accustomed to think of our “selves” as “other” than our creator for so long that finally having a picture of what we really are: the very matter that made us, feels unnatural.  How could we be “God”?

But this is not the complete novelty that it may seem. We have been anticipated in this paradox by a mediaeval mystic, condemned in his time by the Church, Johannes “Meister” Eckhart.  His insight into the full significance of participation in Being uniting him organically and genetically to “God” led him to say the following:

It was here [in unconditioned being] that I was myself, wanted myself and knew myself . . . and therefore I am my own first cause, . . . . To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever. . . . In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten. I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be! If I had not been, there would have been no god.[3]

These extraordinary statements from a Dominican friar in the fourteenth century remain incomprehensible without understanding what being meant to those theologians. “Being” was “God.”  To exist was to participate in Being.  The Church condemned Eckhart as “pantheist.” Now, in our times, we can grasp what Eckhart was trying to say.  For, from what we have learned from science, there is no distance between us and matter’s living energy.  The relationship to an imaginary distant Craftsman-god “out there” who designed and made us out of love and invited us to draw near, now has to be turned inward to our very organisms. “Drawing near” has lost its meaning for there is no distance between us; the transformation called for by this imagery is subtractive. We need to eliminate those misperceptions, negative attitudes and selfish behavior that keep us from seeing and acting on our identity with our creator.  We are our creator.  There is no original sin; we have inherited an original goodness that has become clouded over by the collective mistrust and paranoia of our insecure and grasping cultures.  Our creator, matter’s living energy ― LIFE out of an irrepressible desire for being-here, has assumed our form.  Our human material organisms ― our bodies, ourselves ― are the closest, most accessible source of information about what this material energy is  . . .  for WE ARE THAT and we have a privileged place from which to observe what it is and what it wants.

Maybe we never asked our bodies what they want.  What is the flesh we were taught never to trust crying out for?  What is human happiness?  Are we really missing something, or have we just been misled by fantasies about being bodiless “spirits” from another world that made us contemptuous and selfish about our earth made of clay and the vanishing bodies it has spawned?  Have we failed to set our sights on the self-transformations necessary for embracing ourselves and our planet home with gratitude and contentment, and a disciplined service, preferring instead to chase the wind from bitterness over the limited and fragile nature of it all?  I think our culture failed us.  Until we love what we are, we cannot afford to be selfless.

The potential for a new moral awakening and a new mysticism does not lie far under the surface of the new imagery provided by science.  We are what we are.  And embracing ourselves as we are can be as difficult and challenging as embracing another person  . . .  as they are.  Is the nuptial imagery actually an apt metaphor for self-embrace?

5.4  Self-embrace and the goal of psychoanalysis.

The similarity between the effects of the imagery change for our “religious” relationship and the goal of psychotherapy is striking.  In fact, except for the religious insistence that our source, while materially identical with ourselves, simultaneously transcends us in time and space, the effects appear to be the same in both: self-acceptance, self-embrace, accompanied by a selfless service of others, our material universe, our matrix.  This similarity has been acknowledged for a long time.[4]

What exactly the parallel psychological dynamics are is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is salient for us is that in both cases the transformations have to do with human beings’ relationship to themselves.  They are not due to the interactions with a divine Spouse-“person” who, like a lover, reacts positively to signs of love and fidelity from the “bride,” and withdraws affection when they are not forthcoming.  The “stages” that represent the “ascent” of the “self in transformation” are entirely predictable and dependent upon one’s embrace of oneself as an element in the universe of matter, which in turn is dependent upon the renunciation and self-discipline expended in the effort.  We come to respect and love ourselves because we see the sacrifices we are willing to make to realize our unity with all and rid ourselves of selfishness and pride.

The specific focus on the transcendence of matter’s energy over the limited organisms that it extrudes is the key difference that sets the religious view apart from the therapeutic, for it claims the relationship is not just simply to oneself alone. In loving myself, I am loving my source and all the other things, living and non-living, that it has evolved into.  Grasping this difference returns us to the difficulties we encountered earlier in trying to find images that accurately represented this dependent co-inherence ― a picture that illustrates the scholastics’ notion of participation in Being and the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self,” the human identity with the universe.  We found then, and repeat with emphasis here, that it is the fact that all things are the extrusion of matter’s living energy seeking ways to continue to be-here in a changing environment, and remaining as the structural material of the organisms that it has evolved, that grounds our identity with all things.

It is an image that helps us understand that when Paul used the word “God” he meant that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

 

[1] Jeffrey M. Courtright, “Is Trust Like an ‘Atmosphere’? Understanding the Phenomenon of Existential Trust.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 20:1 (Spring 2013).

[2] Acts 17. Epimenides lived in the 6th century bce.

[3] Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the Poor,” tr, Blakney, Harper, 1941, p. 231

[4] Herbert Fingarette, The Self in Transformation, Harper Torchbooks, NY, 1963, see esp. chapter 7, “Mystic Selflessness” p. 294 ff.

JOY

3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]

 

[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201