An Imperial People

February 2017

2,200 words

Commenting on the conundrum we find ourselves in, faced with the clearly autocratic mindset of Donald Trump compounded by his lack of emotional maturity, Frank Lawlor, observed recently:

We have … to recognize that, as in most historical cases of upheaval, millions of our fellow citizens have willed this historical event for us all.  We have to save our national values and in the process to respect our brothers and sisters who have chosen this path for our nation.

That statement is as paralyzing as it is profound.

Lawlor’s lament is focused on the central paradox: that the problem is not Donald Trump.  Narcissistic autocrats like Trump have always abounded.  By themselves they are a threat to no one.  The problem is that more than 63 million Americans voted to give him power, even after his racist message and truncated character development had been on public display for a year and a half.  Like an IED, the home-made bomb of the “terrorist” wars, what detonated unexpectedly in our faces was the myth that the American People could be trusted to prevent any such person from getting close enough to do damage to our hallowed values as a democratic republic.  Lawlor’s stunned recognition of popular complicity with Trump’s agenda silently asks: how could such a thing happen?

My thesis is this: vast numbers of the American People embraced Donald Trump’s narcissistic definition of the meaning and purpose of American power as self-aggran­dize­ment — the control of others: Imperialism — as essential to maintaining our way of life.  The American People are an Imperial People — the inheritors of the post-war American Empire that has meant wealth for ordinary working people beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  We have come to believe that such wealth is our “right,” earned by our merits, a natural superiority falsely linked to race, culture and religion, and something we are entitled to hold onto.  Trump supporters are not the only ones who believe that.  All Americans have more than a touch of it, and like any self-exal­ting self-deception, we all have to work at controlling it or it will devour us.

power

At the very base of all this is the famous “ring of power” that Tolkien made the centerpiece of his saga.  Power feels like freedom because it allows us do what we want.  But first we have to recognize that power is a fantasy.  Until power takes on concrete existence by being exercised, it’s only in the imagination.  One can imagine using power for any number of purposes.  This is where the door opens to the demonic.  For when the psychopathic imagination — driven to compensate for personal insecurity — couples power to self-aggrandizement it precipitates a behavior the Greeks called hubris: an irrational identification of personal well-being with supremacy over others and its inverse: the belief that another person’s ascendancy represents a net loss for myself.

Some very experienced doctors of the American Psychiatric Association have publicly written to warn us that, and I quote, “His widely reported symptoms of mental instability, including grandiosity, impulsivity, hyper-sensitivity to slights or criticisms, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office.” (Gloria Steinem, 1/21/2017)

When you’re speaking of the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, whose military and economic stature towers over all others, the possibility that a self-exalting hubris will piggy-back on power projections beyond national borders, augurs ominously for the future of global society.   I’m not the only one who thinks this is what drove Mr. Trump to seek the presidency.  Already wealthy beyond measure, like Julius Caesar he was looking to secure his historical immortality by finding a Gaul to conquer, and he sold his legions of followers on the promise of plunder if they helped him do it.  Like Trump, Caesar rode to triumph on the backs of his supporters.  But Caesar was less constrained.  He lived in a culture of competing egos; he did not have to disguise his motivations.  He could admit openly that he wept because by 33 Alexander of Macedon had conquered the world, and he, Caesar, had done nothing.  Trump lives in a “Christian” culture.  He has to disguise his intentions: the rest of the world is ripping us off, he said, putting us down, creating a “carnage” of the American People.  For Caesar, Gaul was not a threat, it was an opportunity.  I believe Trump’s neo-imperialism is the same, and he has harnessed ordinary Americans — an Imperial People — to pull his war chariot because like the Roman legionaries, they think they are going to partake of the plunder. The hubris is collective.

Hubris is an ego-mania that tends to spawn analogous ego-related reactions in others because it threatens their own insecurities.  The human species seems particularly vulnerable to this false identification of individual well-being with the emasculation of others.   The whole scene descends into the madness of a zero-sum game: anything that enhances you diminishes me, and if I am to succeed at my obsessive task of creating myself by my achievements, you are in my way, you must be correspondingly diminished.  It’s bad enough when it’s found in individuals, it’s chaos when it runs rampant in society, but to have it function internationally is the depths of insanity.

I believe that what happened to our country is that the perception of superior power which is a function of our military capability and economic control, was tarnished by the series of debacles in the middle east, starting with the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters and compounded by the failure to control events in Egypt, Libya and ultimately Syria and the “Caliphate” (ISIS) in the aftermath of the “Arab spring.”  For an Imperial People who have come to believe that they are destined by heaven to rule the world (and be rewarded handsomely for doing it), any “self-determi­na­tion” on the part of others that doesn’t mesh with our interests is intolerable.

The crime of unused power

In this context, you can understand the rise of Donald Trump, floated to the surface by none other than the Imperial People of the United States.  After what has been a series of Vietnam-type humiliations, the ordinary American has come to accept the right-wing argument that his aspirations to a living standard above that of the majority of mankind have been undermined by the failure to exercise American power, rather than the failure to control a capitalist economic system that breeds massive inequality.  Rising standards of living in China, India, Brazil, Korea and other erstwhile “third world” countries accompanied by an increase of their international clout are taken as indications of a corresponding American decline.  But I want to emphasize: there is no  decline.  It is pure fiction.  What is causing consternation is that American Imperial status is no longer acknowledged by people who are beginning to feel and act like our equals.  What’s wrong with that?  This is what the Imperial mindset, silently harbored by the American people and rallied into a deafening roar by Trump’s rhetoric, will not tolerate.  The talk of “American carnage” is in reality a nostalgia for an imagined superiority and accompanying wealth that are pure fantasy, and to which, at any rate, we have no right.   The fantasy has been fanned into obsessive demand and made to work in tandem with Trump’s personal megalomania.

Many people agree about Trump’s emotional morbidity, but  what explains the totally unexpected identification of tens of millions of people with those adolescent needs?  In the case of the 2016 elections the perception projected by Trump was that there was American power lying around that was not being used, and that the refusal to use power for our own ascendancy was a direct cause of the ascendancy of our enemies and therefore was contributing to our national abasement which he said was reflected in the ordinary American’s economic stagnation and insecurity.  That was the excuse he offered and the people who supported him rushed to buy it.  But please notice: the rush was a distraction.  Its effect, if not its purpose, was to bypass rationality … because everyone knew it was a lie.  It was meant to blur the undeniable fact that the country was doing quite well economically by every parameter, especially reflected in the continued growth in the upper sectors’ share of national income.  Reality was not allowed to dampen Trump supporters’ eagerness to embrace his message.  Instead of repairing the system that has created the massive inequality that is really responsible for middle class discontent  (and secretly hoping someday to be the beneficiaries of it), I contend that these people consciously decided to join Trump in employing the excuse that their own problems were the  result  of a non-existent national abasement in order to justify the use of American power to control and plunder the rest of the world.  The ultimate reason for the Roman conquest of Gaul was that landless, impoverished Roman soldiers wanted Gallic land as much as Caesar wanted Roman glory.  Likewise, the ultimate reason for the election of Donald Trump is that the Imperial People want to maintain their higher standard of living by lording it over the rest of the world and refusing to share what they have with those they consider non-Americans, even if they happen to live here and are citizens.  They want that as badly as Trump wants to enter Valhalla.  It’s a pact made in hell.

That was Trump’s message, and despite losing by almost 3 million votes, the fact that he got 63 million people to agree with him would pose a major problem for this country no matter who happened to be elected president.  You can’t have half the politically active people of a nation sympathize with the marginalization of large segments of their own population and the employment of international thuggery to plunder other nations in the name of national ascendancy and expect that your democracy is going to endure in anything but name.  Democracy is predicated on mutual respect.  Without it, it is a dry empty shell waiting to shatter into dust. Even if Clinton had won (and it’s not clear that her foreign policy would have been all that different from Trump’s), the presence of massive numbers of these Imperial People ready to follow their next champion in the work of engorging themselves on the wealth and labor of others around the world, and suppressing efforts to share wealth and security among the poorer strata of the American population, would have continued the gridlock obstructionism that the Republican Party has made the hallmark of its contribution to American Politics for the last 20 years.  By making that accusation I do not mean to exonerate Democrats who now can be expected to begin to dance to the tune that Trump has proved is a delight to the ears of so many Americans.  We have to remember what the term “Clinton Democrats” meant.

The fantasy of Empire

Such Democrats would convince us that there is a way of being “Empire” that is “win-win”: i.e., good for us and good for others.  But it’s a contradiction.  Cooperation and collaboration can be “win-win,” negotiation and arbitration can be “win-win,” but no version of “empire,” which means only and always that one people rule and control others, can be win-win no matter what the kick-back arrangement.  For empire means control and servitude even when for some reason and at some moment it doesn’t mean oppression and exploitation.  No such relationship between nations and peoples is humanly valid, therefore it is not durable and must be constantly maintained by force and fear.

It is time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy.  The Age of Empires is over, relegated to the virtual realities of video games; the harsh violence they assume as the functioning motivation of all human enterprise is a thing of the past.  We, as a species, have turned that corner even if there still exists an Imperial People who have yet to accept it.  It’s time we cast these demons out of our heads.  We know better.  “Empire” won’t work because it can’t work.

If we are to have a future as a species it will have to be characterized by international cooperation, negotiation, and collaboration derived from mutual respect and a sincere esteem for all people as people.  We are never going to stop 63 million people from doing what they think is the best thing for them.  Our only hope going forward … and in the long term … is to help them to understand what the best thing for them really is.  They must begin to think of their well being in terms of humankind itself.  That is the enduring task, there is no alternative.

“Trump is a nut,” I shouted at my Trump supporting neighbor before the election.  He agreed with a dismissive grin.  What does that tell you?  Trump’s supporters know all too well the pact they have struck with insanity.  But they have chosen it freely.  There is no point in denying what we are up against.  The blindness and gullibility that may exonerate our “brothers and sisters” of individual guilt, make the situation even more dire and desperate.  If you are blind, you can’t change what you can’t see.

The question for the rest of us is whether we will have the courage and confidence to overcome the paralysis that the fear of that blindness arouses in us.

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest.   We can think of LIFE similarly.   All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?

The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

 

The Limits of Knowledge (3)

being-here and emptiness (l)

The perdurance of existence in time is predicated on forging ever new relationships through combination, dissolution and re-combination — change and movement intended to satisfy what appears to be an inexplicable need for existence. What presence does is to tap its own potential for continued presence. Potential for existence can be said to be an emptiness of presence that seeks to be filled.

NOTE: “emptiness” ― I use the word as a metaphor for the conatus, or drive to survive. I characterize it as a “hunger” or a “thirst” for existence. It’s something we experience with varying degrees of intensity and “realization” throughout our lives. The term is central to the vision of Nagárjuna, a 2nd century (ce) Mahayana Buddhist for whom “emptiness” refers to the fact that we do not possess existence independently but are rather “empty” of existence because we are dependent on other causes for our being here. For the Thomist tradition, with its emphasis on the ontological dependency of all things on esse in se subsistens, the same meaning is broadened and deepened.

Hence its creativity. The thrust of its energies is always directed toward more secure ways of being-here. But, we have to ask, if existence is-here-now and is-here endlessly, how is it that the goal of its quest is still existence?

It is the very restless instability of being-here, it’s apparent radical inse­curity, its abhorrence for the entropy that is its destiny, that appears to be the source of the endless energy of its explorations. Existence is not reconciled to its fate. This characteristic of existence may have eluded identification when found in primitive, pre-life forms, but it reveals itself with indisputable clarity in living things. Life, as a manifestation of matter’s energy, proves that existence is a mad desire, disruptive, violent, implacable.[2] The creativity of being-here is not a serene contemplative appreciation or a leisured aesthetic browsing. It is a passionate craving, an existential fury that seems to have no end.

Matter’s energy is the locus of this insatiability. We say that because we see it functioning across the board. The frenzy of the oak tree to reach the sun, pathetic as it might appear, is not unfamiliar to us. We do the same in our own way as does every living thing that we know. The universality of the phenomenon of a generalized existential hunger that becomes growth, accumulation and self-aggrandizement, and I contend, evo­lu­tionary development, reveals to us the inherent qualities of matter’s energy of which we are all made. Understanding that the qualities of life are due to its sub-atomic constituents, explains why insatiability, and from there, dissatisfaction, desire, anguish, ob­ses­sion — suffering — is the lot of all organic life made from this universal, primordial clay. Humans are not exempt. Suffering, the sentient side of emptiness, cannot be ignored or assuaged. Any relief proves to be only temporary. It is endemic not only to life, but, we conclude, to matter’s energy itself. To be is to live; to live is to suffer the throes of surviving. To survive — to stay the same — is to change, evolve, develop, complexify. It is to create out of emptiness a world teeming with life.

Life reveals reality. Once given the extended range of possibilities offered by that particular re-arrangement of matter’s energy we call “life,” it appears that existence flies its true colors. Presence is passionately and ruthlessly self-involved. Our praise for nature’s exquisite balance cannot fail to recognize that this balance is achieved by an almost universal violent predation, as one species survives by heartlessly taking the life of another in order to incorporate its vital organic structures into its own. Predatory activity across the board is the basic tool of the natural system. In most cases it appears that evolutionary speciation — the very design of species — is a response to available prey, euphemistically called a “niche,” or a “food source.” Thus “nature” implants its blind lust for life, and seems impervious to the slaughter it engenders. On the one hand, this points up the unity and homogeneity of all material reality, for in fact one “entity” serves to support another. On the other, hunger, hardly a metaphor in this case, appears to direct the process. Naturally the metaphors we use are themselves human as is the apparatus and the model, which is ourselves. Emptiness, hunger, are words that refer to human feelings that correspond to need. I don’t apologize for this use of words. We can’t escape from the fact that we, too, are-here; we survive by violence and we understand ourselves intimately by an understanding that recognizes that what constitutes us is our implacable conatus.

We saw in chapter 3 that certain activities, like self-replication and aggregation, once considered the exclusive domain of living things have also been discovered in non-living entities. We go even further and say that the very physical dynamisms operating in inanimate energy’s relationships — gravitation, the strong and weak forces inside the atom, electromagnetism, chemical valences and molecular attraction — are actually constitutive elements of matter’s energy as it aggregates, forming bound relationships, the better to survive. Words like “life” and “survive” are metaphors for pre-life integration taken from a resemblance to living things and human experience. But I claim they represent something real in the most fundamental forms of matter. We have identified that energy as the conatus, the self-embrace of existence, a dynamism that uses similar strategies in response to an existential lack that characterizes all of matter’s energy.

Lack? I believe we have touched a raw nerve in the organism of universal reality, an existential scar of such proportion that we are justified in calling matter’s endless energy a function of emptiness. We understand the conatus as a wound of emptiness, because we understand ourselves.

east and west

While diverse cultures may agree on how to describe “emptiness,” they have interpreted it variously and responded to it in different ways. In the West, following the belief in the transcendent importance of the individual person, need is identified as an obstacle to a­chieve­ment, self-tran­scen­dence. “Need” becomes a challenge — something to be overcome. Emptiness, therefore, as an inherent and permanent defining factor integrates only as antagonist to “self-tran­scen­­­dence. ”

In the East, on the other hand, Buddhists have a different take. Emptiness, they say, is constitutive of reality. Denying it is fatal and can be considered symptomatic of the human problem. Denial implies succumbing to the illusion of the possible permanence of the experiencing “self” and thus intensifies suffering. Buddhists believe that the false understanding of what the “self” really is (ultimately based on a mis-interpreta­tion of what existence really is), encourages us to believe that we can somehow eliminate emptiness by engorging our “selves” with existence — meaning the accumulations that are falsely thought to protect us against ultimate loss. That naturally includes wealth and power, and in our times, life-protecting and life-extending technology. Religious practice as insurance for the after-life may be considered in this category. These accumulations promise to erase suffering, death, and ultimate­­ly permit us to live forever as our “selves” in another world.

The Buddhist view challenges these presuppositions. The hoarding, grasping selfishness created by the illusion that permanence can be achieved for the “self,” only intensifies suffering for ourselves and everyone around us. What the realization called “enligh­t­enment” does, they say, is to “awaken” us from the dream of permanence and to what is really real. From the point of view espoused in our reflections here, understanding reality to be matter’s energy permits us to recognize that the permanent self is an illusion, that the craving and desire for this permanence is an unavoidable natural deception born of the internal dynamism of matter’s energy, the emptiness which fuels the survival drive, that cannot be permanently satisfied. The implication is that we should understand emptiness as the ultimate definition of individuated reality. The appearance and increased complexification of the integrated function in the evolution of life is a direct product of the hun­gry emptiness that resides at the core of all reality, driving it to aggregate and integrate in order to avoid dissolution. Identity, then, which by reproduction creates species, is fundamentally an expression of existential need — emptiness.

The corollary to this Buddhist realization-awakening, one suspects, hovering in the background though officially unexpressed, is that what really exists and endures is the Whole of being-here taken as a Totality. It is the basis for the doctrine of anatman, the unreality of the “self.” What Buddhism claims to conquer is the aggravation of the cycle of suffering brought on by the mis-interpre­ta­­tion of what this “individual self” really is and therefore from the point of view of our reflections in this essay, what being-here, existence, with its endless conatus really is. We cannot escape suffering, they say, because we cannot escape from the emptiness and the consequent hunger for existence — the unreality ­— that resides at the core of things. Life ultimately cannot unseat death. Entropy wins.

Buddhism seems to suggest that to know reality is to understand the impermanence — the non-reality — of each and every feature and fact that emerges composed of matter’s energy taken individually and apart from the Whole. Each individual manifestation of presence suffers from the same vulnerability because, at root, it cannot escape the primordial emptiness of its existential building blocks. The conatus characterizes all the strategies of survival and development as we saw. We are all made of the same “clay,” and so, by ourselves, we all manifest the same characteristic impermanence that not only drives the communitarian strategy of matter’s energy but also explains the clinging, grasping self-involved insecurity that causes so much human suffering. The source of the energy at the base of the pyramid of reality is the emptiness inherent in any given separate manifestation of being-here. The conatus appears as if it were a reaction to an absence of existence. But how can this be?

 

[2] This approximates Schopenhauer’s proposal that being is “will.”

Inventing Capitalism

Larry Siedentop, emeritus professor of political philosophy at Oxford, published a book at the end of last year called Inventing the Individual (Belknap, Harvard U. Press, 2014)It carries the provocative sub-title The Origins of Western Liberalism and proposes to trace the history of the transformation of the Western political paradigm from ancient Rome’s patriarchal / clan-based class system protected by its legal and moral codes to the one that prevails today of autonomous individuals, all enjoying the same inalienable rights guaranteed by law.  Given the history of the West for the last two millennia it should come as no surprise that Siedentop finds the roots of those political developments in the evolution of western Christianity.

The Christian Church grew from a minority cult struggling to be heard in the religious cacophony of the ancient Roman Empire to the only religion in an officially Christian state, a primacy it held for more than a millennium.  During the Imperial Papacy of the high middle ages the Church elaborated a jurisprudence and a philosophical theology to back it up that reflected the political implications of its worldview.  Those mediaeval developments were the sources of our current political preferences, and they were squarely based on the immortality and post-mortem moral accountability of the individual soul.

It is in the foundational Christian vision of the “soul” that Siedentop sees the roots of the supreme value of the human individual which characterizes modern society.  Ironically, he points out, it was the very effort of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the middle ages to protect its interests against the encroachments of theocratic secular princes that drove the Popes to assert the “Church’s” right of universal jurisdiction.  It was because the Church hierarchy had the “care of souls” that its universal right to rule was codified in law — a law which claimed to extend beyond all boundaries and include everyone everywhere, yes, even the “souls” of the very princes who challenged its power.  In pressing toward that goal, Church authorities created a canonical scaffolding that eventually served as a model for the legal systems of the emerging nation-states of Europe.

Use of the word “soul” immediately evokes a radical egalitarianism that puts every individual, regardless of social status, wealth or role in society, in exactly the same relationship to “God” and therefore to the Church and its ruling hierarchy; it supported the Pope’s claim to ultimate and absolute power.  At the end of the day, in mediaeval society, it was because the hierarchy claimed to rule both the prince and the pauper that it developed laws that treated them as equals.  These Church laws inspired the secular authorities who were desirous of achieving the same kind of central control as the Church.  It was the unwitting source of political liberalism, and it is adduced by Siedentop as the explanation for the modern “democratic” republic with its supreme respect for the equal and inalienable rights of the individual.

But Siedentop’s thesis is not without paradox.  The author has selected the one single thread out of the Christian tapestry of the “soul” that led to “individual equality before the law” because it is the specific focus of his study.  But we shouldn’t be deceived.  The picture of the “soul” is much larger and is woven of many threads which Siedentop does not track, some of which lead to social results with a quite contrary bias.  For example, in societies ruled by the Christian worldview, the very same “individual-destiny-after-death” can be cited to account for the crass tolerance for extreme inequality even to the point of slavery and human exploitation; for it is claimed that all injustices will be adjudicated after death, and the oppressors punished.  Redress need not occur in this life.  The hardships created by these “earthly” disparities are temporary; the sufferings of time are insignificant when compared to the joys of eternity. 

An extreme instance of this mindset was on grotesque display during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade launched to eradicate “heresy” in the lands of what is now southern France.  The “crusaders” felt completely justified in employing extermination tactics, in one case wantonly slaughtering 20,000 men women and children in the city of Béziers in 1209, under the religious battle cry: “Kill them all, let God sort them out.”  Clearly the butchers of “the cross” believed that each of their victims would be judged by “God” for an eternal reward or punishment, and the innocent victims of the Church-sanctioned slaughter (and its obedient agents) would be cleared of guilt and compensated by an eternity of happiness.  The “immortality of the soul” together with the individual judgment for an eternal reward or punishment after death provided a unique permission to slay indiscriminately.  Any residual guilt due to an excess of zeal in the pursuit of such a lofty goal was a minor matter — easily disposed of in the confessional.

Siedentop places great emphasis on the contrast between the ancient and the modern conceptions of the human person.  The older version, he says, identified the person as a member of a patriarchal household and its clan extensions.  He claims that such a starting point immediately involves status and inequality because there is a natural, organic subordination within the family of wife and children to the father; and the constituent clans of a community always possess a “fullness of humanity” that externs: traveling merchants, servants, employees, immigrants, slaves, never achieve.  The legal and moral extensions of that mindset create and protect class distinctions that reflect the superiority / inferiority implied in those genetic relationships.  Your “worth” as a human being was determined by where you were born in the social pyramid.  The author says that basing society on those relationships necessarily entails a structured inequality.

The individual relationship to “God,” in contrast, is said to create an invincible equality based on an inescapable moral (not physical or intellectual) accountability over which class, birthright, status or “earthly” qualifications have no bearing.

The contrast also points up a significant  difference in the thought process employed in each case.  For, under the Christian definition, you are not identified with where you come from but where it is imagined you’re going.  You are not defined by your origins in this world, but by your imagined destiny in another — a world for whose existence there is no evidence whatsoever.  Your very concrete relationships to the earth and the species that spawned you and with whom you necessarily interact for survival are determined by your projected relationship to a “God-person” whom you have never met and with whom alone, whether you like it or not, you will spend eternity.  There is no guarantee that your family or loved ones will have “earned” the right to be there with you.  You are on your own and you are encouraged to maintain an emotional distance from everyone else.  It is from these “facts” that modern society has developed its vision of what the human person is and the laws and moral codes believed necessary to protect and enhance it.

Capitalism and the “immortal soul”

But there was still another paradoxical thread whose social import tacks contrary to the wind of Siedentop’s theory of “individual equality.” Defining the very meaning of life as earning a future happiness not available until one’s total merits are tallied and weighed at death can be said to account for the characteristic western obsession with individual achievement measured by the conspicuous display of amassed wealth.  For the Christian believer the urge to accumulate necessarily becomes internalized.  The curious “discipline” of western Europeans — notorious across the globe — that allows them to postpone satisfaction and to continue working compulsively to stockpile resources long after a secure satiety has been achieved, is a peculiar dynamic that can be attributed to the internalization and progressive social application of the “last judgment” paradigm.  The individual’s drive to amass without limit is protected by an absolute right to “private” property, even after it is indisputably clear that the owner’s superabundance is surrounded by (and even may be causing) the severe deficiencies of others.

“Capitalism” sprang from these roots.  Capitalism is an application of the individual’s right to amass superfluous wealth indefinitely and use it for personal profit, despite the needs of others.  Under the ancient paradigm, superfluous wealth was considered the sole right of nobility; it provided a magnificence reflecting the superiority of the blood-line and no commoner had the right to any such public display.  Under the new “Christian-inspired” vision of man, in contrast, the ownership of great wealth is open to all individuals regardless of birth and is accompanied by the exclusive right to use it however they want.  The change reflected a revolution in human self-definition. “Full humanity” was no longer determined by noble blood but by the immortal soul preparing for its day of judgment.  And in pre-judging one’s chances business acumen was often confused with moral superiority.

In inventing the individual, it may be said that the West also invented capitalism.

Clearly, the Church did not introduce these changes.  Far from it.  The hierarchy’s reactionary resistance to the revolutions of the 19th century — giving unwavering support to the maintenance of aristocratic control and their prerogatives — is well known.  But, as Siedentop repeats over and over, the Church provided a radically egalitarian metaphysical definition of man that, however unwittingly, in the long run undermined the structural inequality of the class system based on patriarchal / aristocratic definitions of man.  The egalitarian implications of Christian doctrine were hypocritically ignored by the authorities even though it was increasingly recognized and embraced by the general population.  The Church hierarchy, in the attempt to shore up its own power, undermined the very system that sustained it.  What was revolutionary was the Christian definition of man that put each individual human being into a one-to-one relationship with “God,” solidly joined to the Platonic belief in the immortality of the human soul and its liability to eternal punishment.

Alternatives

It all seems quite inevitable, in the way that what actually happens always appears inevitable in retrospect.  There was also a relative inevitability about the earlier, second century embrace of Platonism by the Christian culture of the ancient Mediterranean.  Platonism was the conventional wisdom of the age; the upper class take-over of the ascendant sect of Christianity meant that the platonic paradigm with its “particular judgment” would be favored as “orthodox” over the earlier Pauline  vision of community salvation.  The official public “sacrifices” to the gods in which all citizens had participated as pagans were transferred to the Christian agape meal turning it into the “sacrifice of the mass;” and a quid pro quo self-interest that contradicted the fundamental thrust of Jesus’ message came to dominate the Christian religion.

But what, historically speaking, may seem “inevitable” is not so in any absolute sense.  Past contingent events do not determine future choices.  In this case the respect for the individual, so characteristic of Christianity, could as easily be derived from other grounds as from platonic theory.  It is important in this case because the platonic premises are, in my estimation, completely false: there is no “immortal soul;” there is no “particular judgment;” there is no reward or punishment after death and there is no “God”-person who adjudicates individual human lives.  The fact that our hard-won and highly cherished respect for the individual person was ultimately derived from these erroneous doctrines does not imply either that individual rights will suddenly evaporate when these beliefs are shown to have been a mirage or that there is no other ground in which equality can be rooted.  Our instinctive enthusiasm for the ultimate value of each individual has convinced us that there must be a deeper reason — one that is not tied to the platonic fantasy that there is another world where we are going after death.

Rediscovering the community

Defining life in individualist terms stands in stark contrast with basing law on intrinsically communitarian social configurations like the family and its social context.  Siedentop locates the very difference between the ancient and modern social priorities in the shift of the source of the definition of the human person from the family and clan — a source of status and inequality — to the individual immortal soul which is egalitarian.  But it is important to emphasize that the source of the inequality identified by Siedentop is the patriarchal family.  It is not because the human individual is born of a family but because the “father” enjoyed an unquestioned superiority that gave him a permanent “status.”  The father in the ancient household was also “priest” mediating relationship with the gods.  Hence the family and clan took on a sacred reality and the “father” was considered, genetically, a source of sacred value; he possessed a status that could not be lost even by physical or intellectual failures or serious moral lapses; it was his forever.  This image of the “father” was carried over into larger society.  The Roman Emperors considered themselves the “father” of the State; in imitation, the Bishop of Rome was called Papa — “Pope” — and every Catholic priest, in direct disobedience to the explicit command of Jesus, is called “father.”  Equality between levels was never possible.

It is only recently that egalitarianism has begun to penetrate the very structure of the patriarchal family itself.  Prior to this development, equality may have been operative in the public forum, but the private domain of the family was still considered sacrosanct and off-limits.  The legislature, police, courts and judicial systems tended to refrain from interfering with fathers’ rights to discipline their wives, determine the destiny of their children and dispose of the family’s goods as they saw fit.  The sanctity of the patriarchal family, despite the victory of the liberal mindset, had been most resistant to interference.  We never realized how resistant until the unexpected shock of the women’s’ movement of the last 50 years brought it to light.  The drive for women’s equality is only one expression of how far the liberal paradigm has penetrated into the foundational structures of society and, in retrospect, the realization of how little, up to then, it had.

But in the kind of “family” that is emerging, the patriarchal prerogatives are being eroded and a new kind of family relationship is developing.  In the industrialized nations where 16% of all children are reared in single-parent households (in the US it is 25%), more than 80% of which are headed by single mothers, the class structures and inequality that were once associated with the patriarchal family have less fuel to burn on.  Even where the family is comprised of both father and mother, the woman’s ability to earn a living is universally acknowledged and the consequent tendency to parental equality is unmistakable.  Respect for the rights of children in the family is beginning to be reflected in law and the policies of government agencies responsible for the protection of the family.  While these trends are far from dominant, the drift is unmistakable and, I believe, irreversible.

That means that defining the human person as an “organism spawned and sustained by a human community that provides survival, personal-identity and social significance” does not run the risk of either slipping back into a class system of structured inequality, or maintaining an ersatz equality grounded in a truncated individualism devoid of any social meaning and based on a projected destiny in a world that does not exist.  If the human person is conceptualized in exactly the terms of her biological-social reality, not only is each individual immediately validated as fully human but there is no need to search for another ground to justify the social reality by which she survives and is recognized as a person with identity.

With this perspective suddenly Capitalism is shorn of its Christian underpinnings.  The personal accumulation dynamic is exposed as an inhuman “earthly” recapitulation on the eternal Christian theme of “gaining merit,” which was itself, in turn, a corollary of belief in the “particular judgment” of the “immortal soul.”  The entire emotional drive toward personal, individual profit as a display of “merit” begins to atrophy because its “heavenly” model is discredited as delusional, and “salvation” little by little comes to be recognized as a community achievement, constructed from the collaborative contributions of its constituents.  There is no individual future life or other immaterial world to accumulate for, and the individual person begins to see her destiny identified with the survival and fully human development of the community where she lives, receives her identity and makes her contribution to others.

In such a communitarian paradigm the always glaring disjunction between the family dynamics of sharing, and the aggressive self-interest that is claimed to rule the marketplace, begins to cede to a cooperative mindset across the entire spectrum of social institutions.  Every social interaction of whatever kind — whether inside or outside the home — can now be considered part of a communal venture: mutual assistance in survival and in the development of the personal potential required to sustain it.  “Love” dominates the definition of the human person and becomes concrete: the gift of self to the community … it ceases being a “law” that one obeys in order to gain merit for oneself and a safe place in another world … and the market ceases being a place where cutting throats is considered a necessary part of living.

Luther’s “faith”

The post-mediaeval Christianity that resulted from the Reformation was western Christendom’s last self-conscious apparition before the modern age.  It represented a decentralized, nation-state version of the same theocratic and aristocratic system that the “barbarians” had salvaged and re-constructed out of the rubble of the collapsed Roman empire.  It dominated the sub-continent and its colonies until the time of the American and French Revolutions.  Its own immediate predecessor — the Catholicism of the late middle ages — was the version, modified to serve the needs of an imperial papacy, that the reformers tried to bring back to what they believed was authentic Christian tradition.  But the historical momentum of a thousand years of the Christianity of Late Antiquity limited how far “tradition” could go.

Luther’s rejection of Papal Catholicism was not a reform of “first intention.”  He was drawn into that objective only secondarily and little by little.[1]  Authority had not been a problem for Luther.  It was his personal anguish over damnation that impelled him to reject the program of salvation offered by the mediaeval Church.  It was only when his attempts to rectify the distortions that had created his torment met with theologically indefensible resistance from the authorities that he realized that it was the hierarchy that was preventing change because they were benefitting from the way things were.  His structural critique stemmed from there.  Luther believed that his scriptural and patristic discoveries represented authentic tradition and he became convinced that the Papal counter-attack was heterodox and had to be of the devil.  It was then that his cries of “Anti-Christ” directed at the Vatican began to be heard.

I contend that Luther’s original personal anguish, which he attributed to the quid pro quo mechanisms created by a self-serving Roman hierarchy, was in fact due to Late Antique Roman Christianity: the seriously flawed Augustinian concepts of “God” and man — the source of an autogenic disease that has pervaded Western Christendom unchallenged from Augustine’s time to ours.  Luther, like all 15th century Catholics, was infected with the contagion: he had no doubt about his own utter corruption and could find no reason why he should not be condemned to eternal torment by a wrathful “God.”  The discovery he made — the grace of a trusting faith — simply leap-frogged the problem: it saved him without confronting the source of the self-loathing and mistrust of LIFE.  For Luther believed he was just as corrupt, and that “God” was just as wrathful, after his enlightenment as before; the only difference was that he was assured — from scripture and tradition — that because of the death of Christ he would not be punished.  It validated his direct experience of the “free grace” of “God” evoking a trusting faith in his soul … just as it had for Paul and Augustine before him whose written accounts he believed confirmed his own.  What he had experienced was all there in black and white in scripture and the writings of St. Augustine.  Those sources convinced him that what he had gone through — the surrender of faith — was what “God” had planned for those he would save.  Luther was sure he had found the lost key to salvation, hidden by the fallacies promulgated by a priestly caste who would turn free Christians into slaves chained to Catholic ritual ministrations and a concocted list of “mortal sins.”

Luther had no inkling that the problem all along was the erroneous concepts of “God” and humankind, established in Late Roman Antiquity, that dominated mediaeval Christianity; Luther’s “solution” therefore was itself a reinforcement of those flaws.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Roman Christianity in Late Antiquity

It all began with Platonic dualism, embraced by Christianity in the second century.  By pitting the “soul” against the body, platonism set in motion a human dynamic in which the organism was required first to distrust and then to suppress itself.  Once embraced by Christianity with its belief in “sin” as an offense against a “God”-person, failure to suppress the body not only deformed your humanity, it was to risk damnation.

Two hundred years later, Augustine intensified the effect by interpreting the fall of Adam in a way that confirmed Platonism’s worst implications.  “Original Sin,” he said, was the source of an intrinsic corruption that made human flesh incapable of not sinning without the grace of “God.”  This was accompanied by an inherited guilt condemning each human individual — even newborn babies — to eternal torment, unless baptized.

It was a “one-two” punch that produced an insurmountable alienation for the believer at the most intimate level imaginable — the level of the origination of the “self.”  It virtually guaranteed a life of constant internal conflict at very best, and often resulted in something much worse, viz., physical or psychological mutila­tion aimed at the self, or, turned outward, hostility toward others.

That the “self” was a separable spiritual “soul” trapped in a body of corrupt and alien matter, was the central fact of Luther’s world as it was for the Christian world before him for more than a thousand years … and continues for most Christians today.  It’s no surprise it survived the “Reformation;” there was no possible alternative at that point in time.  The existence of “spirit” had long since ceased being a Platonic theory; it had come to be accepted as a cosmological / metaphysical “fact” that no one doubted.  Even William of Ockham, the consummate 14th century “nominalist” who rejected claims that the immortality of the soul could be proven by reason, never challenged it as a fact.  He simply shifted the proof from reason to faith.  Philosophical Platonic dualism, in other words, had so dominated universal opinion, that it even survived the complete demolition of its rational justifications.

Most people are unaware that, for Christians, it was not always so.  The separable disembodied soul/self, fully present after death, was not a feature of the Christian religion until more than two hundred years after the birth of the common era.

For the first Christians the fact that they were spiritual did not mean that there was a separate “soul” that could exist by itself without the body.  They believed, like most of their contemporaries, that reality had a spiritual side but “spirit” was not a separate “thing.”  This belief in the integrity of the human being corresponded to NT imagery about “God” that was not Platonic but Stoic (i.e., pan-entheist) that is unmistakably evident in Paul and in “John.”[2]

The earliest Christians believed the world was coming to an end imminently and that Jesus was coming back to usher in “God’s” definitive triumph over evil, rectifying the horror that life had become under Roman domination.  All this was expected to take place within their lifetime.  Those few that may die before the Apocalypse, would be brought back for judgment, but the “kingdom of ‘God’” was primarily meant for the flesh and blood humans presently alive; it was not meant for their “souls.”

But all that changed.  Platonism displaced Stoicism as the conventional wisdom of the age; and as it became increasingly clear that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon, Christians began to believe that the soul alone was the “person,” just as Plato said, and that it was the soul alone that would be judged after death and given a reward or punishment.  Prior to this time, there is documentary evidence from early Christian theologians, called “Apologists,” that the immortality of the human soul was considered a pagan theory singled out for condemnation as not Christian.[3]  The earliest Christian creed extant, the “Apostles Creed,” originating in the second century, proclaims as essential to Christian faith the “resurrection of the body” and a judgment when Christ returns; but quite conspicuously, it does not mention a “particular” judgment of the individual at death or an eternal punishment, and the word “soul” does not even occur.

Even as late as 208, Tertullian, a latin speaking Christian writing from Carthage, North Africa, thought that the human “soul” was produced by the parents; it was not “infused” independent­ly by “God,” an essential element of the Platonic view.[4]  Tertullian believed  the “soul” died with the body at death and would be resurrected with the body for judgment on the last day.  Given Tertullian’s antiquity and his insistence on apostolic tradition as a norm of doctrine, it is unlikely that he would have held such a position unless it was a general belief at the time.  At any rate it seems indisputable that the particular judgment of the individual “soul” at death was not a universal belief of the Church by the first quarter of the third century in the latin-speaking West.  So the transition did not occur until sometime in the third century.  This puts it at a great remove from apostolic tradition.

But by Augustine’s time It had become an established conviction.  In 387 the year of his “conversion,” the “soul” was considered not only separable at death and subject to judgment, but the newborn monastic movement functioned on the belief that the soul benefitted from being separated little by little from the body during life by the practice of “mortification.”  By “mortifying” the body through celibacy, fasting and other forms of self-denial you “made it die” little by little and thus progressively liberated the “spirit” from its dungeon of matter.  It’s easy to see how such a perception might descend into some form of self-mutilation.

The immortality of the separable human “soul” became such a fundamental assumption that it was not even considered an article of faith peculiar to Christians.  It was just “reality,” taken for granted to such an extent that for a thousand years the Church felt no need to define it as a dogma … and did so only in 1517 at the fifth Lateran Council in response to “Aristotelians” like Ockham, who said it could not be philosophically justified.

But consider: If there is no “self” that lives on after death, then there is no individual judgment.  But strange as it may sound to our ears, such a denial was completely compatible with the earliest Christian creeds.  An individual salvation was not part of the original narrative.  The story found in the NT said that by being grafted into the Body of Christ, growth in divinization (love for one a other in imitation of “God’s”love) was set in motion, and barring an unlikely reversal of intention, one had a guaranteed place in “the communion of saints.”  Immortality was not natural.  It was the gift of “God” sharing divine immortality with the community that was Christ’s “Mystical Body.”  There was no suggestion that there was any immortality without it; Greeks were drawn to Christianity precisely because of the promise of immortality, and immortality was communitarian — a function of incorporation into the Christian community.

The shift to the Platonic paradigm with its belief in the naturally immortal soul demanded a “particular” judgment, otherwise the incentive factor would be lost.  It created a radical individualism which had the effect of overriding the original corporate and bodily view of salvation; for in the Platonic / Augustinian view, even after becoming a member of the Church you were still on your own.  The burden on the individual was crushing; you could rely on nothing but yourself and the “grace” of a whimsical “God.”  Even the sacraments of the Church were reduced to mere preparations for an individualized grace which always remained “God’s” free choice for the “elect.”  You had no control over grace, and yet without it you were doomed.  It was in this fateful transition that the westerm “I” — guilty, terrified and alone — was born.

The individual was driven to resist the obliteration that Christian culture said s/he deserved.  The psychic vulnerability embedded in the platonic doctrine of the separable soul tied to the Augustinian version of “Original Sin” and predestination was fatal.  From birth to death, you lived in a state of trembling insecurity with no defense against “God’s” inscrutable choice.  You could do nothing to insure your salvation … nothing.  “God” would save you or not as “he” wished, and there was no way of affecting the outcome.

You can see how under these circumstances, since you could not change your destiny one way or the other, after years of struggle and despair you might simply give up.

Luther’s faith

For me Luther’s “faith” has the scent of this type of surrender.  Having realized that “salvation” was simply beyond his control, he gave up the way an alcoholic admits powerlessness and throws himself on his “higher power.”[6]  The difference is that while Augustine and other addicts sought respite from what they saw as their own self-destructive behavior, Luther’s surrender was “theologized;” it was called upon to resolve the problem of justification itself — an obsessive fear of damnation created by belief in the moral depravity caused by Original Sin, the main preoccupation of the mediaeval Christian.  Only the miraculous grace of “God” could pull you out of inevitable deterioration … and eternal torment.

In Luther’s case, the psychological release that accompanied being absolved of responsibility while simultaneously assured that he would not be punished, served as a kind of internal proof that he had stumbled upon the very mechanism of salvation.  That there was evidence of the same experience in both Augustine and Paul provided confirmation in scripture and tradition.  Against the background of the self-loathing and terror of doom caused by original sin on the individual immortal soul, faith as “surrender” brought a sense of security and inner peace that Luther had never felt before.  He spent the rest of his life trying to share his discovery which he always characterized as “freedom.”

He fully realized from his own experience such a trusting faith was not the product of effort.  Like Augustine before him who had experienced a similar “brick-wall” moment and surrender, he was sure it was the result of “grace,” the miraculous intervention of “God.”  But Luther applied his experience categorically, and so abstrated from its psychological features; he never demanded of others that it take as dramatic a form.  The faith of the ordinary Christian, if sincere, was sufficient to insure membership in the “community of salvation;” and it was membership in the “true church” that mattered.

Anabaptists

But “faith” became a major source of division among the reformers.  Those who focused on the life-transforming nature of conversion insisted that every Christian must experience a similar moment of surrender.  Since Baptism was the outward sign of inward surrender to “God,” infant baptism was seen as a travesty and invalid.  No infant was capable of any such surrender and therefore baptism in infancy could not establish membership in the community of faith.  Those that had been baptized as infants needed to be baptized again as adults.  These reformers were called anabaptists.[7]

Anabaptists were considered “radicals” and were rejected by the mainstream protestants and their aristocratic supporters who collaborated in trying to eradicate them, often by violent persecution.  In the theocratic and aristocratic mindset that remained intact after the Reformation such an assertion of secular authority was not considered inappropriate, and in fact the reformers relied on local authority — even when it was not aristocratic as in the case of the Swiss cantons — to support their efforts.[8]

In all cases, however, it was membership in the “true church” of consenting faith — the community of the predestined — that freed the Christian from slavery to the Catholic pseudo-Church which demanded obedience to its man-made laws, superstitious practices and self-serving mis-interpretations of scripture.  Shifting the definition of “Church” from the “earthly” to the “heavenly” community — taken right from books 20 to 22 of Augustine’s City of God — undermined hierarchical authority.  It provided the justification for local, regional and national churches and created a power vacuum at the papal and curial level that secular rulers were all to happy to fill.

Luther was a conservative.  He believed there was only one church; he never intended to start another one.  His goal was to reform and renew “the Church” and he had always hoped the Vatican would  embrace the authentic traditions he had uncovered.[9]  His reformed church offered a practical program that was virtually the same as the Catholic.  He had no problem with infant baptism and considered the anabaptists fanatics who had abandoned authentic tradition; he insisted on the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic species and had a great falling out with Zwingli over the issue; he acknowledged the priesthood of all Christians but he expected the community to elect and ordain qualified clergy and entrust them alone with public preaching and the liturgy.[10]  The German peasant uprising of 1525 was a direct effect of the social implications of his message and, to my mind, an indication that he was on the right track; but when the revolt turned into revolution and threatened to change the social order Luther condemned it and encouraged its violent suppression by the authorities.  He saw the nobility as divinely appointed to rule and even called on them to put an end to the abuses of the Church.

His main focus throughout was personal conversion; when it came to Church practice Luther was not interested in re-inventing the wheel.  He changed the minimum necessary to ensure separation from the parasitic Papal “abomination” that had disorted the Church with self-serving accretions. Luther’s agenda was very simple: get rid of those distortions and allow authentic tradition to have its full effect.

Luther’s “discovery” made sense only in the context of the worldview that he assumed was real.  For our purposes, however, it is important to emphasize that if none of it is true: … If there is no “immortal soul” … if there is no “particu­lar judgment” … if human flesh is not “corrupt” … if humankind does not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin … then not only do the problems that Luther’s “solution” was designed to resolve, disappear, but the entire post-apostolic Christian vision, based on humankind’s collective liability for Adam’s sin and Christ’s “sacrificial death” in atonement, evaporates as well.  Luther, in other words, was set up big time.  He awoke in a suffocating atmosphere, and he did what he had to do to breathe.  But it was based on illusion.  The Christian chimera had been conjured into existence from even before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.  Luther slew a millennial dragon that had been created from thin air; he found an escape route out of an imaginary dungeon that was a thousand years old, and in doing so confirmed the “existence” of what was never there.  His “reform” served to intensify belief in the very thing that had created his “problem,” the very thing reform needed to eradicate: Western Europe’s autogenic disease.

If there is to be another Christian reform in our time, it is to these depths that it must reach.

 

[1] Roland Bainton, Great Voices of the Reformnation, Random House, NY, 1952, p. 69

[2] Especially Acts 17 and the Epistles of John.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, U. of Chicago Press, 1971, p.30 cites Tatian (+ late 2nd century).  The immortality of the soul was considered a pagan doctrine that was originally attacked by the early Christian apologists.  cf Adolph Harnack, The History of Dogma, tr. Buchanan, Dover, NY 1904, vol II p.191,fn.4; p.213, fn.1 “Most of the Apologists argue against the conception of the natural immortality of the human soul.” Tatian 13; Justin, Dial. 5; Theoph. II.27

[4] This was re-asserted as recently as 1992 by the Vatican: The Catholic Catechism, editorial vaticano, 1992, ## 365, 366

[6] Steps 1, 2 and 3 of the 12 step AA program was modeled on the paradigm of Christian conversion characteristic of the “faith” of the reformers.  http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/twelve-steps-and-twelve-traditions

[7] “Ana-“ is a Greek prefix, the equivalent of “re-“

[8] Bainton, Great Voices …, p.71

[9] Ibid.

[10] Luther, Concerning Christisn Liberty (1520); Concerning the Ministry (1523)

“We are indeed his offspring”

Paul’s interpretation the Christ-event was tied to his expectation of an imminent parousía, and it quickly became obsolete.  Christ never returned.  What did “grace” mean in these new circumstances?  Christians would not conclude that Jesus wasn’t coming at all; they said his return was merely postponed.  It’s not hard to imagine that there was also a gradual dawning that the postponement might be quite extended.  But with it a problem began to arise: the apocalyptic pressure to join the Christian community, participate in its rituals and lead a morally exemplary life before the end, was gone.  So Christians developed a new narrative that had the effect of keeping up the pressure for moral living: reward or punishment for the individual “soul” at death.

This significantly modified the earlier religious aspirations.  Since Christ’s coming was postponed, those who died before his return would be judged and sentenced individually as souls alone and their bodies would be brought back for the final coming of Christ at the end of time to live again in “God’s” definitive kingdom.  Because the real concern became individual salvation or damnation at death, the eschatology radically changed and along with it the community dimension virtually disappeared.

With the new narrative the so-called temporary “particular” judgment turned out to be, in fact, permanent.  Your fate was sealed forever at the moment of death when you were given your eternal reward or punishment; the only addition at the “general” (community) judgment would be that your body would join you in heaven or hell.  Given the focus on “salvation” for your individual bodiless “soul,” few were concerned that their bodies would rise, and while all would hope to see their loved ones again, there was no interest in the installation of a human community built on justice to replace the brutal empires that ruled their lives.  It was all superfluous.  The change insured that Christian individuals would be fixated on that other world where they would live happily after death as isolated spirits, and they saw life on this earth as a burden to be endured of no importance except as a testing ground for earning happiness in heaven.  “Grace,” therefore, no longer referred to “God’s” compassion for oppressed humankind, the model of our love for one another, and became instead divine assistance to the individual “soul” in the struggle to “pass the test” and avoid damnation — the only thing that mattered.  It totally reversed the central dynamic of Christian life from the personal-healing and community-building power of loving others as “God” loves us, to saving your own skin.

There is no documentation to tell us exactly when this transition was made; all we know is that by late in the second century when the last of the Apostolic Fathers were writing we see evidence that it was already underway.  It also coincided with the emergence of hier­archical (class) structure in the Church community and the beginnings of proto-orthodoxy.  Christianity transformed itself from a proclamation of free forgiveness and the establishment of an egalitarian community of the human family lost in a world of voracious empires, to a quid pro quo reward or punishment in another world for the predestined individual based on his/her moral behavior assisted by a “grace” that was channeled through magical rituals administered by the elite managers of an exclusive Church.

Augustine’s “grace”

Quid pro quo was theoretically unacceptable, however, because it contradicted scripture: Paul had insisted that the “law” was abrogated.  Redemption was our love for one another; it came alive in us by our “waking up” to “God’s” free gift of forgiving love.  Augustine’s theory of “grace” claimed to counter the quid pro quo character of the new narrative, but he ended up intensifying it.  For he tried to add grace under the rubric of “divine assistance” to the profile of a transcendent “God” who was necessarily bound to protect the established order and could only “save” by first finding a way to insure that all debts were paid.  Augustine said Jesus’ death was the payment for Adam’s sin and it put the capstone on the ongoing assassination of “God’s” character.  For how could anyone believe that “God” was merciful and forgiving if he was ready to send unbaptized infants to hell and even demanded the death of his own son to “atone” for sin?  Clearly, Augustine’s “God” could not “forgive and forget;” his priority was justice, not mercy.

Besides, one needed Augustinian “grace” even to lead a good life.  This resulted in making “God” indirectly the cause of people’s damnation; for it was “God” himself who chose to intervene with his grace — or not — in the lives of those slated for perdition, saving some and allowing the others to be damned without saying why.  Divine predestination seemed unjust.  Quid pro quo at least had some semblance of fairness.

And so the people clung to quid pro quo as the only thing that made sense.  In practice, if Augustine’s theory of “grace” was intended to inspire a feeling of relief and joy about the free gift of God’s love, it failed pathetically.  A thousand years later at the end of the middle ages, quid pro quo still dominated western Christian religiosity … and it remains so today.  I claim it is due to the concept of “God” that underlay it.  Justice was the priority for Augustine’s “God,” not mercy.  Justice was grounded in the nature of things as ascertained by reason, and both “God” and man had to comply.  “God’s” mercy, on the other hand, was ad libitum, a matter of whim; “God” was under no obligation to save anyone.  This made “God” judge by profession and savior only when he felt like it.  The “law” was not abrogated and “grace” became just another requisite that the individual needed in order to be “saved” but could not count on or control …  just another source of insecurity.

Luther’s “faith”

Luther, for his part, made another attempt to reintroduce free forgiveness, but he used the same maneuver as Augustine — a reified “saving grace” he called “faith” — attributed to the same implacable Augustinian “God,” bound and obligated to defend the rationalized “order of nature” which included immutable moral principles enshrined in the commandments, the scriptural restatement of “natural law.”  Luther’s “faith” wrecked on the same shoals as Augustine’s “grace” and quid pro quo today is as prominent in Protestant religiosity as Catholic.  Luther certainly tried; and his “solution” seems to have worked for him personally.  I believe he saw through Augustine’s contortions and went directly to what was implied by Augustine’s grace: that “God” was so bound to the requirements of justice that in fact he was not capable of forgiveness.  But that was not a problem because for Luther forgiveness was not the issue.  What was called “forgive­ness” was actually “God’s” decision to not punish in acknow­ledge­ment of the fact that the individual bore no responsibility right from the beginning because the human will was not free.  The evil done by a totally corrupt and fallen human nature was not avoidable;  any good performed, therefore, from the conversion of “faith” through perseverance in a life of love, was the exclusive work of “God’s” grace.  But this more radical version of Augustinian “grace” entailed a more radical version of predestination, and it made “God” even more of a monster: for it meant that Luther’s “God” presided over the damnation of those who bore no responsibility whatsoever … Nothing surprising here; it was the same Augustinian “God” who insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants.

There is no way out.  Once you project a scenario where “God” is necessarily committed to the punishment of those who violate the commandments, you must have human responsibility and you must have quid pro quo.  Otherwise law and obedience, reward and punishment, make no sense, and the entire western Christian moral edifice motivated by individual self-interest collapses.

The Western “doctrine of God” evolved in tandem with all this.  Since “God” is totally “other,” we have nothing in common with “God;” all we can do is conform our behavior: we have to obey.  Obedience is an external link between two unrelated moral agents.  No essential “interpersonal” relationship obtains.  A “God” who is pure spirit and other-than-man promulgates a “natural law” that is pure logic and therefore other-than-human.  Humankind is related to the rational “God’s” cosmic order not internally but by extrinsic obligation constrained by rigidly deduced rational principles.  Forgiveness for violators, therefore, can only be an extrinsic pardon — a gratuitous “non-punishment” — in a relationship of infinite insurmountable distance; it can never result in, or be the fruit of, real union.  At the root of it all is the concept of a rational “God” and his relationship to the universe he made, … and humankind as part of it.  The kind of union between God and man which Jesus proclaimed is metaphysically possible only if you are “not-other” than “God.”

Jesus’ message

Jesus was not a philosopher.  His preaching described in personal terms the relationship that should obtain between “God” and man — it was not quid pro quo and it did not include punishmentIt was based on imitation, which implies similarity, sameness — “love one another as ‘God’ loves you,” “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” “forgive us as we forgive one another.”[1]  The message is repeated over and over, and while there is no mention of the metaphysical ground required to make such imitation possible, Greek philosophical Christians later decided that Plato’s science of the transcendent inaccessibility of “God” was the only valid metaphysics, and it had to take priority.  That made “God” not the same as us in any way.  It meant that a remote dissimilar “God” could not really be imitated.  The only relationship you can have with this kind of “God” is obedience and obeisance: you do what you’re told in total awe and submission.  (Other “religions of the Book” function on exactly the same dynamic).  This turned Jesus’ message upside down … and I contend that it is the best argument for saying that the only metaphysics that will support Jesus’ message is some form of pan-en­theism … i.e., that we are part of “God,” where it is understood that we are “indeed ‘God’s’ offspring,” and that by nature we “live and move and have our being” in “God.”[2]

Classic Greek Philosophical Christianity insisted we were totally “other” by nature and said that it was the Christ event applied through the Church’s sacraments that “supernaturally” made us to be “not-other” i.e., to be like “God” (theosis); but in fact the message of Jesus was the other way around: that we were like “God” from the very beginning and that’s why we could live a moral and caring life.  Traditional Christianity bids us become something we are not through the mediation of the Church; Jesus’ Jewish innovation, in contrast, was to invite us to open our eyes to what we always were from the moment of birth without mediation of any kind.  Religion’s classic program is intended to create a relationship where there was none, and reach toward an unknowable divine entity who is always beyond us, always absent; Jesus’ revolutionary program, on the other hand, is dedicated to clearing away the deceptions and confusions that have prevented us from seeing what was there all along, always present.  “We are even now the children of ‘God’ … ”[3]

The only metaphysics that is consistent with his vision is grounded in a source of LIFE — a non-rational “God”— that is immanent in the material universe … and WE ARE THAT.

 

[1] 1 Jn 4:19; Mt 5:48; Mt 6:12.

[2] Acts 17: 27-28

[3] 1 John 3:2

“No one has ever seen God”

This phrase, used in the fourth gospel and the first letter of John, is like a Zen koan.  It is an obvious fact that everyone knows but no one takes the time to think about.  A minute’s reflection, however, will show that it opens the door to a potential enlightenment on the whole issue of “God.”

It tells us not only have we never seen “God,” it intimates that we never will.  What we “see” is what is here: ourselves and our world.  The rest — the “facts” of traditional anthropomorphic religion — is pure projection, and in our day much of it proven false.

But what we do see is massive.  What ishere is immense beyond description: … this universe, too vast, too lost in “deep time,” too complex to even hold in our minds, … this earth, teeming with life forms whose variety seems beyond limit, … and these human organisms of ours whose depths and capacities, even as we use them with ease and agility, we do not understand.  Whatever else might be “out there” that we cannot see, the “elephant in the room” that we can see, is huge.  And except for general categories, we are still very far from even cataloguing it, much less understanding how it all works.

But it’s not a total mystery.  We have already discovered that earlier conjectures about our origins were completely off base.  We know now that we were not fashioned by some rational intelligence for a purpose.  Our bodies were not designed by a divine craftsman to interact with the forces of our world so that we might ultimately “discover” that we really belong to a different one.  We know that our organisms and everything else we see (and even what we can’t) is made of an energy to be-here that we call matter.  Matter’s energy constitutes every form and feature in our universe, from galaxies like our own milky way, billions of stars a hundred thousand light years in diameter spinning around their singularities, to the infinitesimally small nano-consti­tuents of the atom itself — the quarks and leptons that we know exist and the vibrating strings that we suspect are their components.  This energy, which takes various forms and is found continually morphing between invisible energy and visible matter, is what has “created” everything, including whatever it is in our brains that allows us to ask these questions.  We may not know how matter does its tricks, but it is undeniable that it does them, and the result is beyond spectacular: it is this universe of things that spawned and cradles us.

Evolution

Evolution, from our point of view, is the most spectacular trick of all because it is responsible for us being here, and being what we are.  Evolution puts on display in the most unmistakable way, what matter’s energy is all about.  Matter’s energy is about being-here.  And in pursuit of that compulsion it will do absolutely anything … anything that will work.  How our improbable humanity emerged out of that formula for selfish mayhem has been the subject of debate since Darwin: If “survival” is responsible for what things become, how did “being human”  and the “purpose” that characterizes our behavior, get to be here? 

The answer to that, apparently, is that as evolution moved along, increasingly complex biological organisms began participating in their own “natural selection,” at first ever so slightly and then to a greater and greater degree.  “Selection,” which includes mate selection, seems to have hit upon the enhanced survivability that results from working together.  As the social skills necessary for successful life-in-community came to dominate the selection process, physiological changes like the ability to use language and the development of mirror neurons that make empathy possible were teased out of prior structures and, because they worked, remained.  The result, after some millions of years of genetic drift in the direction of community of life, is this human organism as we now have it, adapted to intense and intimate social interaction, and at this point so committed to that path that we are no longer able to survive on our own as individuals.

At one time we thought our minds and hearts belonged to another world — a world of “spirits” — and yearned to return there.  We know now they were really developed by matter’s obsession with continuing to exist as itself in this world.  Our so-called “spiritual” faculties, which we thought were patterned after a spiritual “God” are really the exponentially heightened abilities to understand one another and communicate among ourselves.  Our minds and hearts are the tools for communal survival in this world, not for escape into another.

The Conatus

We humans are a function of material energy.  At no point in our long development did we ever lose the foundational intent of matter’s energy: to be-here.  Despite the range of our interests and intellectual capacities, and the depth of our ideals and cultivated altruism, we are still driven uncontrollably by matter’s instinctive thrust to survive.  Following Spinoza, I call that instinct the conatus.  It is a universal characteristic of every living organism on the planet, and because we experience it within ourselves, there is little need to describe it.  Everyone knows what it’s like.  It comes from being alive.  It dominates our activities.  Our religious tradition thought it was the selfish effect of “Original Sin” and told us it was an ongoing sign of our corruption and guilt.  But now we know better: it’s because we are matter and matter is an energy for being-here.  Another word for that energy is LIFE.

The conatus is not just an “instinct for self-preservation” activated when danger is imminent, but functions as the driving force behind every aspect of organic life that is focused on being-here.  It is the conatus that activates the lust to reproduce … the hunger that impels the search for food … the empathic need to know what others are thinking … the paranoia to protect ourselves from potential threats … the ambition to accumulate security against an uncertain future … and the violence to defend ourselves when we are under attack.

And it is the conatus that is responsible for our sense of the sacred, for it is our need to survive that causes us to trust and worship whatever it is that we think gives LIFE and can guarantee that it will never be taken away.  We are matter’s energy; and therefore we want to be-here.

Survival is not optional.  The perception of what it is that guarantees continued existence changes with time and circumstances, and because of the power of human imagination it may even be pure projection, but whatever it is, we are inclined to surrender to it and drink from its existential well-spring.  It is the spontaneous reaction of the organism.  In our times and emerging from our peculiar religious history, we have a set of complex perceptions in that regard that are unique to us: some are positive, deriving from our knowledge of where existence actually comes from, and some are negative; they are the repudiation of perceptions of the past that have proven erroneous.

Whatever the perception, however, clinging to LIFE is an irrepressible feature of organisms constructed of material energy and for humans it necessarily includes the community.  Our community, without which we cannot survive, is sacred to us.  Material energy is focused on survival, and what secures survival must necessarily dominate the affective life of the organism.  It is a biological inevitability which is borne out by our observations of every biological organism on earth: we are all driven by our conatus.

It is exactly here that any thought that the conatus  leaves us subjectively enclosed is vanquished.  For the conatus is common to all biological organisms, not just human.  Thus our sense of the sacred, which is unique to us, is seen to have a ground that crosses specific (i.e., species) boundaries.  We are all made of the same clay and it is that “clay,” i.e., matter, that is at the base of everything we are, everything we have and everything we doLIFE is sacred to us: we can’t help it! 

Unless you could prove that LIFE came from something other than material energy, the display of its characteristics in biological matter is reasonably “retropolated” to inanimate matter.  Matter, in other words — all matter — contains within itself the power of LIFE.  Matter is somehow “alive.”

“God”

“God,” we have to acknowledge, is first and foremost an idea of ours.  “No one has ever seen ‘God’” is another way of saying that.  “God” is not an entity we can point to; “God” is the product of the imagination of those pre-scientific ancestors of ours who assumed that a rational person was the artisan and architect of the universe.  They can hardly be blamed.

First of all “God” was imagined as “Creator.”  Then, mystics who experienced an affective “oneness” with the universe believed they were in direct contact with this “God,” the one source of it all.  The characteristics of their experience, however, have been shown to be consistent with an organism made entirely of matter becoming conscious of sharing an identity with the universe of matter.[1]  (The two propositions, however, might ultimately be identical.)  Third, we have seen that matter’s energy as the source of the conatus is also responsible for our sense of the sacred and the affective intensity surrounding it.  Our sense of the sacred is a function of existential need.

Matter’s energy is completely immanent.  It is the matrix in which we live and move and have our being; it is constitutive of everything that we are as human beings and everything with which we interact on this earth, beginning with human community; it is the source, the archē, the LIFE force dwelling at the intimate core of all things.  It seems to fulfill in every way the conditions once met by “God” except those that projected a rational “person”-entity.  If we take the concept “God” functionally, matter’s energy is “God.”

Souls, “selves” and eternal LIFE

Matter’s energy grounds our sense of the sacred, but it does it by way of responding to existential need.  One of the characteristics of our ancestral religion of the Book was that its “God” made promises that related to that need.  The Jewish “contract” with Yahweh promised survival in the form of community prosperity and national ascendancy.  The earliest Christians saw the fulfillment of that promise in the imminent coming of “God’s” kingdom on earth, an apocalyptic event that would immortalize the earth and divinize the flesh of the “chosen” community.  When that promise failed to materialize, “salvation” lost its earthly dimension; “survival-after-death” was projected onto an imaginary world of spirits and reinterpreted as the immortality of the individual bodiless “soul” whose happiness is earned — quid pro quo — exclusively through obedient membership in the Christian Church identified with the Roman Empire and its successor states.

How, for its part, does matter’s energy guarantee LIFE for needy mortals? … through the aware­ness that WE ARE matter’s energy and matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed.  It is existence itself … something as close to esse in se subsistens as we will ever see.  There is no other esse, and we are exactly THAT, nothing less. 

WE ARE our bodies.  Our “selves” are not “things” like “souls,” independent of our bodies.  The “self” is the self-consciousness that characterizes all living things without which no organism would be able to defend itself: respond to its need for food, find mates, escape danger, fight off enemies.  “Selves” are the emanation of the living biological organism and its social identity; they are the gathered self-interest, the conatus collected from hundreds of billions of cells locked together in organismic collaboration and with other organisms.  Selves do not exist apart from the organism-in-community that emanates them.  The “self” is the self-awareness of this socialized body.  When this body loses its coherence and returns to less complex configurations of material energy at death, the human “self” disappears.  In fact, if key areas of the brain are damaged or destroyed, the “self” may even disappear before death.  But the material energy does not.

Once our perception of who we are shifts from an imaginary permanent “self” to an identification with the totality of matter’s energy as the real permanent reality in a material universe, our demand for an individual “salvation” ceases to make sense.  During life the conatus still functions as always, prioritizing the survival of the living organism-in-community, but we will be discouraged from allowing that instinct to construct an imaginary afterlife.  Our new angle of vision provides the basis for a significant reduction in self-concern, and a reason to bask securely in the well-being of the whole — the LIFE of this universe in which we live and move and have our being — and to trust where it is taking us … because where it goes, everything we are goes with it..

Every particle in our body has been here since the beginning of our cosmos, and it is guaranteed to be part of whatever happens in the future.  If in the course of the last 13.7 billion years beginning with just quarks and leptons evolution has achieved such marvels as populate our world, what should we expect from the next 13.7 billion years?  We can’t imagine.  Everything will still be here and part of that development … everything, that is, except our “selves.”  We will be re-used endlessly, just as our matrix-creator — matter’s energy — is used and re-used so totally that there is no “Self” there at all.

Kenosis

Our “selves” disappear.  Our shift to the primacy of the totality upends the extreme focus on the individual that has characterized mainstream western cultural development since the middle ages, impelled by Christianity.  It seems to correspond appropriately and in parallel with the de-individualization of the god-function that accompanies that shift.  With our new cosmo-ontology, the emphasis is no longer on a transcendent solitary “One” as Plato imagined it, lost in the narcissistic bliss of self-contemplation, but rather on a diffuse immanent LIFE that is “self-less-ly” held in common by all things, and in which “we live and move and have our being.”  In our case it allows human participation in the extrusion process even to the point of self-extinc­tion if we so choose.  Borrowing from our tradition an apt term and imagery I call this dynamic a kenosis — a “self-emptying” — fully aware of the paradox: that it is a personalist metaphor for a communal process that is in fact utterly devoid of self … a process with which we merge fully and can embrace as our own at death.

But we do not relate to existential issues outside of personalist categories, because our conatus as interpreted by our culture has made us “selves,” “persons.”  Our very survival is interpersonal.  Creative interactions of this significance in our human world are only done by persons and persons “read” them as a “self-dona­tion.”  The “self” that we received from our parents, even though their coitus was not directed toward us personally, we gratefully acknowledge as their gift to us.  It is entirely understandable that we would ascribe analogous phenomena occurring on a cosmic scale to a cosmic “person.”  And, as long as we are aware that it is a metaphor, I see no reason why we should stop.  As a metaphor that captures the intense feelings that the gift of LIFE evokes in us, nothing else comes close.  But as an analogue for an imaginary “entity” like Plato’s “One,” it is completely misleading.  LIFE is not an individual entity of any kind, much less a “person” who does these things for reasons.  It is present, shared and fully operational in all things.  It is esse, the existential energy of matter.

But for those of us who have been subjected to the assumptions of reductionist materialism — the orphaned residue of Cartesian dualism — the question always remains: is this LIFE really alive? … is it benevolent?  … or is it a mere physical force like gravity or voltage that only creates the illusion of being alive?

Obviously it is not “personal” in our sense of the word.  The ultimate question is whether LIFE represents some kind of transcendent benevolence.  The answer, it seems to me, lies in how it displays itself in what it has become.  For it is material energy that has emerged as LIFE, and in our case human LIFE.  Not only is our world full of LIFE flourishing in forms too numerous to count, but we have our very selves as lab rats to probe and question.  We are the observable display of matter’s properties and intrinsic capacities and we have a privileged insider’s view.  What are we?  Are we alive?  Are we “benevolent,” or as Daniel Dennett suggests, are we just robots and zombies and our very self-consciousness merely another robotic propertyAfter all, we ourselves ARE what we are asking about, for we are matter’s energy in one of its living organic forms.  We are the ones who have to answer that question.

The Psalmist asks: “When will I see the face of God?”  Those who share that yearning should keep in mind “John’s” warning: “No one has ever seen God.”  The visible manifestations of material energy that abound in our universe and in our human organisms-in-community are the only indications of “God” that we have, and if we follow the counsels in John’s letter, our love for one another — which mirrors and re-activates the universal kenosis of our source and matrix — is what makes “God” visible.

[1] Cf previous posts on this blog: “Matter and Mysticism” I and II, Nov 30 and Dec 7, 2014 respectively.