Spacetime in an Expanding Universe

This is a continuation of the post of Aug 19th on Transcendent Materialism; it was revised on Sept 1.  

2,500 words

The few short paragraphs quoted below are from an information website called space.com. The fact that space expands and advances simultaneously with matter is well known and can be found stated in many places, but it is expressed particularly well here. It parallels what I have been saying about time and suggests that matter and spacetime are not two separate and distinct “things” but rather that spacetime is a product of matter’s continuous emerging presence, precisely because matter’s core energy is transcendentally existential, i.e., that continuing to be-here from one moment to the next is a positive physical event generated by matter. Matter’s continuity in time is not a passive “non-happening,” a mere continuity; being-here is an active event produced by existential energy. Matter actively and autonomously perdures in existence and emanates spacetime creating a “place” for itself and a “now” where before there had been nothing.

The Big Bang did not occur as an explosion in the usual way one thinks about such things, despite what one might gather from its name. The universe did not expand into space, as space did not exist before the universe, according to NASA. Instead, it is better to think of the Big Bang as the simultaneous appearance of space everywhere in the universe. The universe has not expanded from any one spot since the Big Bang — rather, space itself has been stretching, and carrying matter with it. [1]

Please be aware of the metaphorical nature of that last sentence. Space does not “stretch” or “carry.” They are words intended to evoke the simultaneity between matter’s presence and spacetime. A different metaphor ― one suggested by transcendent materialism ― might use the word “exude.” As matter emerges into existence it can be said to exude spacetime as the cocoon that enwraps it, the vehicle (the “carriage”) it which it rides, the nimbus or aura that surrounds it like a cloud, the radiance that emanates from its creative action.

Since the universe by its definition encompasses all of space and time as we know it, NASA says it is beyond the model of the Big Bang to say what the universe is expanding into or what gave rise to the Big Bang. Al­though there are models that speculate about these questions, none of them have made realistically testable predictions as of yet.[2]

The gaps in knowledge referred to here, I believe, derive from the necessary limitations of physics. The sciences begin with existence as a given. They do not question it, therefore what it is flies under their radar. They do not understand autonomous emergent existence as a physical event and therefore it is not even considered as the source of spacetime. All they can do is observe the correlation ― the simultaneity ― they have no way of identifying the causality.

These descriptions are difficult for us to imagine because we have pre-formed images of reality stemming from our ancient dualist metaphysics that are incorrect; we considered being to be a creative “idea” and single act in the distant past but not a physical, material event occurring now in real time. Similarly, we cannot picture matter as producing spacetime because we think of matter as passive and inert; matter in the dualist worldview can’t create anything. With no physical “cause” of space we had to think of space as a pre-existing “region” (created by “God”?) and time as prior to and independent of matter’s duration ― an independent outside measurement of matter’s continuity ― rather than, in both cases, its products, its emanations.

We also tend to think of existence as a onetime thing accomplished in the distant past. We assimilated the “big bang” to the archaic notion of a “moment of creation” by a rational divine Craftsman ― a single occurrence that happened long ago, and that all subsequent motion is simply passive inert matter coasting on the kinetic energy imparted to it by the initial explosion. According to transcendent materialism, however, existence is in fact an ongoing, continually emerging series of physical events occuring in real time wherever matter is found, because matter is in reality an autonomous living energy that, far from being the result of, was itself responsible for, the big bang. “Creation,” the autonomous, physical, self-transcending self-extrusion of every particle of matter’s energy, is going on right now from moment to moment everywhere, wherever there is matter pressing its being-here forward into ― and thus creating ― the next moment, and sequential spacetime is the way we experience it.

The key to the new imagery is to accept that existence is a material act, a physical function of a material energy. Once we allow ourselves to understand matter as physical energy, and specifically existential energy, (meaning the positive and abundantly expanding force that overcomes nothingness), then it is not so difficult to understand that matter emits spacetime as the sweat of its labors, the vapor trail of its lift-off into nothingness.

There is no such thing as nothingness; but there is a conceptual clarity brought by the illustration. “Conquest over nothingness” is the metaphorical translation of the spontaneous human perception of the “positivity” of being-here. That existence is a positive force means that we know instinctively (connaturally) that none of us nor any of what we see around us has to be here. That remains true for us moment after moment. Nothing has to be-here and that implies that energy has to be expended moment after moment in order to make something be-here. Existential energy is activated continually and our human experience of matter enduring includes the spacetime that is its corona ― its emanation.

Another aspect of this physical/metaphysical position is the exclusively human perception of the supreme significance of the present moment. Humans understand connaturally that to be-here is radically limited to “now” and only now. Humans have a privileged position from which to observe the phenomenon precisely because they are themselves conscious observant matter. It is their own existential emergence in time that they know internally to be undeniable for they experience their own conscious presence moving forward in time. They know when they are-here and when they are not for they know what it feels like to be-here. They know that the past, no matter how recent, is no longer here, and that the future does not as yet exist. Existence is absolutely confined to the present moment. Despite the mathematical ratiocinations of some theoretical physicists,[3] people spontaneously dismiss any notion that existence is not confined to “now” or that “now” does not exist.

With regard to matter’s existential energy being inexhaustible which I claim is true even after all other energy gradients have been reduced to equilibrium (in agreement with the first law of thermodynamics), there is this additional corroborating information found in the same citation from space.com:

If the density of the universe exactly equals the critical density, then the geometry of the universe is “flat” with zero curvature like a sheet of paper, according to NASA. If so, the universe has no bounds and will expand forever, but the rate of expansion will gradually approach zero after an infinite amount of time. Recent measurements suggest that the universe is flat with only a 2 percent margin of error.[4]

 

In a recent article edited and reprinted by Aeon Magazine entitled “No Absolute Time,”[5] the relativity of time (i.e., that time is perceived differently at different “places” in the universe), elaborated mathematically by Einstein’s theory in 1905 and anticipated in more general terms in the 18th century by David Hume, would be supported by the claim of transcendent materialism that matter’s very sequential presence, which we humans experience as time, is a result of a series of imperceptibly discrete physical events. As a physical event initiated by each particle of matter, the continuous material emergence of existence itself makes temporal sequence relative to each particle’s location, direction and velocity. Time will appear differently to observers depending on where ― in which portion of matter and under what conditions ― emergence into existence is occurring. This consistency with current scientific thinking serves as a corroboration of the metaphysical claims of transcendent materialism. Matter is not passive, dead and inert; it is an inexhaustible “living” existential energy.[6]

The moment of creation

These reflections on the nature and action of matter’s energy, lift a veil on the reality we experience everyday. The humdrum, boring business of “passing time” when supposedly nothing is happening, actually turns out to be our distracted attendance at the very moment of creation. “Now” is the “place” where existence is actuating itself in all the things with which we live, move and have our being. It reveals that creation was not something accomplished at some point in the distant past, but is an ongoing event occurring before our eyes and experienced directly by us as we emerge into physical existence now. Time “passing” is our experience of the continuous extrusion of existence by matter’s autonomous transcendent energy and that includes the matter of our own biological organisms.

This is extremely significant for us. That our own lowly flesh, so shamefully denigrated and merilessly flayed over millennia by the worshippers of an arrogant disdainful imaginary “spirit,” should now be finally recognized as the autonomous endless engine of LIFE and the place where LIFE enters the world, opens the doors to a self-apprecia­tion that was our birthright but which our Western mindset has ever denied us. Now we understand what our bodies have been trying to tell us with their hunger to be-here and what we have suppressed by embracing the Platonic paradigm. We realize this treasure we carry in vessels of clay is the very energy of LIFE itself. It invites us to a contemplative self-embrace that, from the moment it is experienced, reverberates throughout our organism in a realization that is self-explanatory and self-confirm­ing. Once we pass through that door, we are not likely to return to a world where our bodies are treated as dead and putrifying, contaminating everything around them. We know we are home because now we know what being home feels like … .

We belong here with our material siblings spawned from the earth. We have no need to go any­where else or do anything our bodies were not made for; for in experiencing the continuity of time our very bodies, made of matter, are participating in the welling up and overflow of LIFE. The stillness of “now,” so cherished by contemplatives, reflects matter’s temporary achievement of absolute existential equilibrium in the present moment dissipating its energy by filling the void of nothingness. Suffused with the security and serenity of “now” our organism’s innate creativity can emerge naked and unafraid, exploring a vulnerability it otherwise could not afford to leave unprotected. The tranquility of a “now” understood as the place where being-here emerges in the freshness and power of the first instant, is like a “worm hole” to another dimension of reality, one that intersects our horizontal evolution vertically like a needle injecting LIFE. It is the invisible engine throbbing endlessly at the core of matter. When we understand what matter is, we realize that we have been walking on a field with a treasure buried in it. (These images are all metaphors trying to describe a subjective realization, they do not refer to the metaphysical structure of matter’s energy.)

Our sense of the sacred which we had mistakenly identified exclusively with the narratives of our ancient pre-scientific religious tradition, is not demolished by the scientific discovery that those stories were mythic, but is rather enhanced, intensified and grounded more firmly. Science as interpreted by a cosmo-ontology (metaphysics based on transcendent materialism), pictures a universe made of living material energy, autonomously evolving ever new forms of itself: living organisms, newly organized and equipped to pursue matter’s obsessive embrace of being-here.

Physics examines what is-here and analyzes how it is internally interrelated. Metaphysics, on the other hand, interprets what being-here means to us. In acknowledging the need to pursue that task as a central and absolute condition of our full sanity, metaphysics establishes that for humans self-embrace necessarily has a cognitive dimension, for our organisms are suffused with cognition. There is no perception, experience, thought or action that is not simultaneously a product of mind. We are material organisms that are both conscious and self-con­scious.

We cannot be integrally human if we do not understand that our conscious/self-con­scious biological organisms are the emergent forms of material energy evolving through time. We are a function of being-here, and everything we are is conditioned by it. Where it goes we go. Its destiny is ours. Every particle of transcendent matter that comprises us has been here at least since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, and will be-here endlessly. As we embrace what we are in the “now” that only we can understand, we realize that the endlessness that characterizes material existence is ours, for we are THAT. Being-here-now anticipates all the nows that await us. In embracing it ― in understanding that we are home now ― we realize that we will always be home.

 

[1] https://www.space.com/52-the-expanding-universe-from-the-big-bang-to-today.html (Space.com is an “info-entertainment” project of Futureplc [https://www.futureplc.com/], a global multi-platform media company.)

[2] Ibid

[3] Physicist Carlo Rovelli in his 2017 book The Order of Time has a chapter entitled “The End of the Present” (p.38 ff.) in which he makes the extraordinary claim that “Not only is there no single time for different places — there is not even a single time for any particular place.” (p.40)

As far as the first part is concerned he acknowledges on p.43: “The notion of ‘the present’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away. Our ‘present’ does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us.” That is exactly what is meant by the relativity of time explained in the Aeon article cited above. I agree with it completely. The transcendent materialism that I espouse, in fact, provides a metaphysics that supports and explains it.

However, with regard to the second part of his claim that there is no “present” even locally, I would have to say, frankly, his presentation is incoherent. His “proof” is a set of unconnected statements that have no justification beyond the arbitrary diagrams he himself has created to explain them. One might get the impression that Rovelli is indulging in the trendy pastime of debunking the common intuitions of humankind based on nothing but his status as a “scientist” and feels no responsibility to make himself intelligible.

Rovelli doesn’t even claim to have proven his thesis. He acknowledges that the only solid conclusion he can draw is: “A common present does not exist.” (pp.50, 55) I agree, and I have stated that repeatedly. That our perception of time is relative to its various local iterations is the key take-away in all this. His final words sum it up: “Is not what ‘exists’ precisely what is here ‘in the present’ “? (p.55) If the answer to his question is “yes,” then to insist that “there is no present” would be to declare that there is no existence emerging from moment to moment ― that there is nothing here.

[4] Op.cit. “space.com” see fn.1

[5] https://aeon.co/essays/what-albert-einstein-owes-to-david-humes-notion-of-time?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=261a81cfdf-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_08_19_06_45&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-261a81cfdf-68964173

[6] See fn.3 above

 

Transcendent Materialism: notes on terminology, methodology, physics and metaphysics

These are unconnected notes. They are the written-out versions of spontaneous reflective probings. Some were anticipated in my 2010 book The Mystery of Matter. They are not meant to be definitive, thorough or systematically consistent with one another. I wanted to float some new ideas past discerning and critical readers who might possibly be stimulated by the exploratory nature of these ruminations to contribute some thoughts of their own. The ultimate intent is to generate a plausible world­view that will integrate science and the human needs that until relatively recently had been met by a religion that is increasingly considered rationally discredited. 

6,400 words

matter

Transcendent Materialism, it should be emphasized at the outset, is materialism. The word “transcendent” qualifies matter; it does not imply bypassing, going beyond or adding anything internally or externally to matter. That matter is “transcendent” means simply that matter has, as an intrinsic property, the potential to exist in ever new forms through internal reconfigurations accomplished autonomously and serially in time. In effect, the term announces the central role of evolution in establishing the character of reality, and it asserts that whatever form matter assumes, it will still be all and only matter.

That means reality is homogeneous. Transcendent Materialism is a monism. It proposes that there is no other “substance” anywhere. Reality ― all of reality ― is comprised of only one “kind of thing,” matter. Matter and existence are one and the same thing. Anything that exists ― anything and everything, cause or effect ― is made of matter.

That needs to be said clearly because word “matter” comes to us with heavy historical baggage: for almost two thousand years it was universally used in the West in a dualist metaphysical worldview as the counterpart to a “second substance” called “spirit.” Because of that background, many people assume that matter refers only to its former truncated role in that binary system ― as the dead, passive, inert, unconscious, composed and mutable partner to spirit. Spirit, the “second” substance, was believed to be alive, unchanging, simple, uncomposed and either actively rational as a mind or, as an idea/essence, the product of a mind, therefore inherently teleological. Spirit implied rationality and gave purpose to a directionless matter.

Transcendent Materialism holds there is no such “second substance;” there is no spirit. Whatever qualities, dimensions, abilities, properties, energies, and destiny there are in the universe that were once explained as the products of “spirit” are, in fact, functions of matter. Mind, once assumed to be itself spirit and the generator of ideas with purpose, is a product and derivative of matter. Hence, the erstwhile a priori claim that purpose characterizes all of reality even the forms in which matter existed before the evolutionary emergence of mind, can no longer be sustained. The existence of purpose in any phenomenon, or the totality of phenomena, must be proven and its provenance explained. Until proven otherwise, it is assumed that matter has no purpose beyond being-here as itself.

Because of that and in order to avoid falling back into dualist assumptions, it would be better to use a term other than “matter” altogether. I have chosen to refer to the single substance that comprises reality as “matter’s energy” or “material energy.” Those terms are consistent with the most recent discoveries of physics. They not only reflect the current state of scientific thinking, but the inclusion of the term “energy” immediately precludes assuming the passivity, inertness and unconsciousness associated with the term “matter.”

Saying it that way, however, is not meant to add any property to the most primitive forms of matter that, in fact, are not observable. It is only meant to prevent the exclusion of a potential whose presence is suggested by the later emergence of transcendent features. Besides, the observability available at any given point in time is not an absolute determinant of presence, as the instruments that enhance the reach of perception continue to expand. Future observers may actually “see” what is now only conjectured. The only point is to deny the traditional assumptions that prejudice matter’s energy.

But the word “matter” is shorter and simpler. Therefore I often use “matter” without qualification; but unless it is clearly indicated that it is the old dualist version that is meant, it should be understood as “material energy.”

However, matter is, in fact, all and only energy. It is misleading to say “matter and energy are convertible” as if they were two distinct things. That phrase rather refers to two phenomenal forms in which energy appears to our sensory apparatus. Everything in the universe is some form of energy. The denseness and impassibility we are accustomed to associate with the word “matter” is a misleading inheritance from pre-scientific times that skews the imagery and devalues the use of the word. There is a temptation stemming from our idealist-dualist past to conflate energy with “spirit” and give “matter” the meaning it had in that pre-scientific system. This is entirely wrong. Energy is nothing but material and is appropriately classified as matter.   “Matter’s energy” and “material energy” add modifiers that are necessary to prevent matter and energy from sliding back into our age-old substance dualism.

 

existence

Since matter is all there is, it equates to existence. Existence is self-explanatory. That means, among other things, that there is no outside explanation for existence. We all know what existence means because, being matter, we exist. We know it “from the inside” as it were. Unfortunately the only way we can articulate our understanding conceptually is to contrast being with non-being, as if each were a “thing” or a state. But they have conceptual reality only.

There is no such thing as “non-being.” Explanations that have recourse to “non-being,” “nothing,” “nothingness” etc., as part of their apparent cogency are metaphorical and illustrative only. They effectively reveal existence to be a self-explanatory self-grounded dynamism not needing any further explanation. Traditional propositions used in metaphysics as points of departure like “Why is there something rather than nothing,” are meaningless except as illustrations. For the question assumes that we have an authentic knowledge of some aboriginal primordial “state” or condition called “nothing,” against which existence reveals its supersedence derivatively. That is utterly absurd. Logically speaking “nothing” cannot be known because there is nothing to know. Nothing does not exist. Non-being is a fabricated concept derived from being, not the other way around. The use of the idea of non-being derives from and emphasizes the supreme importance of being-here for us, and helps us to realize what existence is. We know existence directly and without need of any further explanation or justification. We cannot define existence in terms other than itself, and we cannot justify our claim to know it. This is ground zero.

But we have to be careful. The words existence, being and even being here are abstractions ― generalizations of our experience of real existing things. The words are not pictures of any “thing.” This denies the ancient and mediaeval conviction that being is an entity called “God” based on the Platonic belief that “ideas” or concepts were stand-alone substantial realities. The various forms of material energy that are-here (all the things and forces it comprises in the real world) actually exist. But existence is not something apart from the concrescences (knots) of material energy ― things ― that are present-in-the-world. Existence is a conceptual generalization that gathers and represents all the concrete experiences we have of actually existing things. The generalization is only as accurate as the concrete experiences it gathers. Non-being, or nothing, however, is even further removed from reality because it is not a generalization of anything. There is no “nothing” anywhere. It is a pure conceptual fantasy generated out of our immediate perception of the positive energy of matter: matter is an energy to be-here materially which we know and understand connaturally.

If something exists, it is material, and matter, for its part, bears the energy of existence as an intrinsic property and does not require the presence of anything other than itself in order to exist. Matter, in other words, is not a “principle of being” as it is in Aristotle’s system, requiring the presence of “form” (essence/idea/spirit) as a second principle in order to achieve reality. Existence is simply material energy; and matter is existential energy.  It’s clear with these premises that the reason, source and explanation of existence must be found within existence itself, and that source and explanation must itself be material energy. Matter, therefore, in some way that still remains to be fully explored and articulated, must be said to be the source of its own existence. Whatever “God” there is ― defining “God” as the source, ground and reason for the universe ― is constituted of material energy.

Prescinding from the form that matter may have assumed at any point in its trajectory through time, it has to be said that because the reason for matter is to be found within itself, matter always existed and will always exist. Since the only way that existence is, is material, and since all matter exists in time, we will therefore speak of matter/existence as being endless … but not eternal. Endless is the form that material existence takes in time; eternal, meaning something that simply exists without reference to time, is meaningless. It is an empty conceptual abstraction with no empirical ground; it is an idea that draws its static unchanging character from the nature of the human process of conceptualization, not from reality.  I use the word being-here instead of being for the same reason. Being-here connotes our active, time-governed presence-in-the-material-world, whereas being as it has come to us from the obsolete dualist worldview, imagines that our ideas of reality ― the products of human mental processes ― are themselves eternal unchangeable realities that stand on their own and add essential notes of information about the universe that would not be available otherwise. I contend this is fantasy; it is the reification of our imaginings. Being, like being-here, if it continues to be used, can only be a generalization ― a word / concept that attempts to depict the common element in all the experiences we have of things that actually are-here insofar as they are matter’s energy being-here, creating space and time. The same is true mutatis mutandi of all concepts. They are generalizations of the content of individual experiences.

 

time

That matter is endless is a corollary of its intrinsic temporality. No matter exists outside of time and there is no time where there is no matter, i.e., where nothing exists. Where there is existence there is time because existence is only matter’s energy. Physicists lately have been trying to explain time as a function of entropy. There is nothing wrong with that, except it is not the ultimate explanation. They are thinking physically and not metaphysically. Physics begins with the given universe already being-here and explains its phenomena in terms of cause and effect within what is already given ― physical phenomena are internally self-consistent. Physics does not question existence itself. Entropy is a correlate of time, and so time can be explained as a function of entropy. But because they are exact correlates, entropy can also be explained as a function of time. Physicists choose the former because time for them is a mental concept, while entropy is a physical phenomenon and that gives it a causal priority over time. Cosmo-ontologists (materialist metaphysicians), in contrast, because of their focus on existential energy (being-here) as the ground and explanation of all things, are able to discern the material existential character of time. Time is precisely the intrinsic condition of matter’s being-here because matter’s energy is a material presence-that-moves-beyond-itself-and-perdures-materially and time is the way we material humans experience that perdurance. It is the primordial manifestation of matter’s transcendence and the ground of evolution. Matter moves beyond its current configuration but it always remains matter. Time is the very way that matter is-here. To-be-here, in other words, is to be in a material process of existential conquest ― it is to exist, develop and perdure by expanding materially: i.e., proceeding forward from being-here in this particular configuration moving into where it is not and re-configuring itself in the process. Evolutionary process is not something that happens to matter’s energy as if from the outside or ex post factum. The very energy of matter’s presence is a forward motion into existentially unconquered territory ― being displacing non-being now ― moment after moment after moment.

Let me offer a metaphorical picture to explain what I mean. Think of matter, which is existence, as if it were a spotlight. Where there is matter there is existence or light, where there is no matter there is nothingness or darkness. Matter’s existential energy lights up darkness only in this “spot” we call now; it makes something to be-here where there was no “here.” To be here is what it is because it energetically overcomes and displaces not-being-here. Its energy is expansive: it moves into the darkness where it was not.

(I emphasize the metaphorical nature of this fantasy. It is not a “picture” of reality; it is offered only to illustrate the dynamism involved. There is no such thing as “non-being” or “nothingness;” and being-here is not a light. They are conceptual/verbal concoctions ― fantasy. What is real is the physical nature of existence: being-here is a material phenomenon, a time-creating self-transcending energy that is a property of matter, present, operative and observable only in the actual forms, individual and collective, that matter has assumed.)

Perhaps a better illustration is the very expansion of the universe itself, which is quite real. We have a hard time imagining the reality occurring here, because we tend to imagine “space” as pre-existing the things that fill it so we think of the universe of material energy expanding into empty space. That is not what’s happening at all. The reality is that “space” is a function of matter’s conquest of what-is-not-there; space is created (out of “nothing”) by the expansion. What do things look like at the very edge of the expansion of the universe where the things that are-here meet what-is-not-here? Do you have a hard time imagining that? So do I. We can’t imagine it because we cannot think non-being. We know there has to be such a “place,” though there is no “place” until the event ― being-here as an active conquest ― occurs now. In that ethereal “location” ― now ― where being-here creates “space,” you can intuit that it is also creating time. Well, that is precisely what’s happening everywhere, moment after moment. Both space and time are the continuous products of transcendent material energy insisting on being-here moment after moment and creating space and time as material by-products.

The “arrow of time” goes in only one direction. That is not difficult to understand for cosmo-ontology where the point of view is being-here and being-here can only continue to be-here by moving into some “place” where it was not (creating space-time as it does so). It must move from the ground it has conquered and holds as presence, onto new ground where nothing has been present before. That can only be one direction ― from this now to a now that has never been, from a “place” where it exists into what-is-no-place. Once the question is framed in terms of existence, regardless of the inability to imagine it, the thought of being-here moving to some place where it has already been is absurd. It’s very dynamism is creative: it is to move to where it was not, to overcome “non-being,” to expand, to create “space.”

It is a conundrum for physics because physics takes existence, presence, as given. All its explorations occur after that definitive conquest. That’s why it misses the forward energy of time. There is nothing in physical reality that demands that time’s arrow must only go forward. Hence physicists try to explain time’s direction and look for a physical cause. Cosmo-ontologists (materialist meta­­physicians), on the other hand, who recognize matter’s existential energy as the fundamental material dynamism giving rise to our experience of time, are not surprised to observe that matter’s energy produces a one-directional trail pushing being into non-being, and in no other way.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine material energy, being-here, and the metaphysics that describe it as a train in motion. The train is time moving in one direction because matter is driven to be-here moment after moment. Then, imagine the physical forms that matter’s energy has assumed and the physics that studies them as passengers or cargo on that train. The train is going in only one direction, but the passengers are free to move forward and backward. Physics, since it does not study the motion of the train itself (matter insofar as it creates space-time), sees the train as a static environment. Physicists can only observe and measure the motion of the entities in it (which are observed moving forward relative to the ground). They can clearly imagine the possibility of items moving toward the rear of the train, and the forward motion remains a mystery or is attributed to time’s correlate, entropy, because they do not look at being-here as a physical dynamism, they take it for granted. Entropy is conjectured as a cause when actually it is an effect of time’s direction.  Entropy measures and describes sequence in terms of the irreversible dissipation of energy between existing material things, whereas time is the human experience of the sequential motion created by matter’s energy existence ― expanding its presence.

An added confirmation of this way of looking at time is that is supports and helps explain the theory of the relativity of spacetime as proposed by Einstein.  Material energy, in the form that it has assumed in any particular place in the universe, is concrete and specific and our experience of its existential process (“moving” from being into non-being) is empirically generated.  We call it time.  Time is a human experience produced by a physical event.  Time is not an innate idea, an eternal background reality, or an a priori form of sensibility.  Both space and time are concretely engendered by this specific matter which we experience differently from other matter.  There is no anticipated simultaneity or pre-existing reality for either space or time, time is relative.

 

energy and entropy

All energy is a function of disequilibrium. The achievement of total equilibrium equates to the complete absence of energy. Matter’s existential energy is generated by the gradient difference between being-here-now and the nothingness it must confront and vanquish if its particular concrescence ― knot ― of material energy (this “thing”) is to continue to be-here in the following moments. Existential disequilibrium is created when the positive expansiveness of matter’s energy meets what-is-not-here; equilibrium is restored when matter’s existential energy pours itself into it, as it were, as into an empty receptacle, filling it full of existence, replacing non-being with being. (Please be aware of the metaphorical nature of that description. There is no “pouring” or “filling.”) Equilibrium is achieved in the triumphantly existent now and the energy of matter momentarily disappears in a point of existential repose (now) only to be immediately regenerated in the next moment by the disequilibrium created by the looming precipice of nothingness into which matter now peers.

Entropy is a concept proper to thermodynamics that attempts to observe, describe and measure the dissipation of energy which accompanies the reduction of disequilibrium. The energy of existence itself has never been the focus of entropic analysis and interpretation because being-here in the Platonic paradigm of “spirit/idea” was thought of as a metaphysical reality but not a physical function. Understanding being-here as a physical function proper to matter transforms metaphysics from an analysis and interpretation of ideas into cosmo-ontology, the “prequel,” the missing first chapter in the narrative of physics. It provides a wider context for the interpretation of physical concepts like entropy allowing them to be seen in a new light that reveals relationships that had perhaps been missed or unavoidably inverted. Our analysis of time was one example of that inversion affecting entropy that was due precisely to the failure to understand existence itself as a material (physical) energy.

Cosmo-ontology (the metaphysics of existence-as-matter) predicts that the ever increasing entropy created by the dissipation of energy in the universe can never reach 100% because even in a state of “heat death” predicted by the theoretical physicists ― where every possible form of disequilibrium has been eliminated ― there will still be the existential energy of endless matter superseding “non-being” and creating space-time. The measurable energy of the universe may “flat line” but the timeline of inactive matter will continue endlessly, confirming the prediction of the first law of thermodynamics that matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed.

 

 metaphysics

Metaphysics (I offer “cosmo-ontology” as a new label for this discipline) begins with being-here as that particular aspect of all phenomena that is especially significant to human beings. And it is significant not only because we humans ― like all living organisms ― are selfishly driven to stay alive and therefore obsessive about being-here, but because we are uniquely convinced of the utter gratuity of it all. None of it has to be here. How do we know that? Frankly we have no idea how we know that. All we know is that we do, and we express our intuitive conviction by asking a question that for all its irrationality we all find compelling: “why is there something rather than nothing”? It never spontaneously occurs to us that being-here has to be-here … that there is no such thing as nothing and there never was … and that nothing will never ever exist, while matter’s energy must exist endlessly.

There is a profound circularity operating here. Since matter’s energy must be-here, and since the human organism, including its sensory and neurological systems responsible for its conscious intelligence, is entirely made of matter’s energy, it should come as no surprise that every aspect of the human organism is determined ― absolutely driven ― by the forward energy of being-here. We ARE, like all matter, the energy of being-here pushing its spotlight into the darkness of non-being. The fact that we know there is no such thing as “non-being” doesn’t stop us from speaking in those terms because they somehow express exactly our groundless connatural intuition into the positive, abundant and expansive character of being-here. When all the dross and symbolic forms of expression are burned off, we are left with this: human conscious intelligence intuits the positive character of being-here and cannot explain why it is absolutely convinced of it. It will always remain a marvel to us that there is something rather than nothing. I believe that this insuperable circularity is simply the predictable outcome of our own materiality. We ourselves are constructed of matter’s existential energy. Our being-here is not something added to our persons, something we have and can lose (which is the way we normally think). Being here materially is what we ARE. We have always been here and will always be here although not in the current human form or with the “self” we now enjoy. We are constructed of matter ― the very energy to be-here which has to be-here. It is not possible for any part of our organism not to reverberate with being-here as a connatural phenomenon wherever we encounter it, in ourselves or in any other form that material energy has taken … including the totality.

Metaphysics (cosmo-ontology), seen in this light, is the exploration of the implications of our material identity, and the possibilities and consequences of its denial. Since we humans are matter’s existential energy with a unique capability for self-embrace ― a conscious self-appropriation that goes far beyond what we see in other forms of living organisms on earth ― understanding accurately what being-here means for us is of paramount importance. It is not an optional pursuit, or entertaining exercise where the results are unimportant in comparison to the delight of the inquiry. How we understand what we are doing here, based on first understanding what being-here really is, will determine our destiny as a species, and perhaps even the destiny of all the other living species who emerged from the earth with us. Metaphysics, in this scheme of things, is not a dispassionate inquiry. It is a highly charged self-interested pursuit of the truth about being-here. Acknowledging our inescapably subjective investment in this science suggests that something similar is probably functioning beneath the surface of claimed objectivity in every science and pursuit of humankind. We are made of matter’s existential energy and being here is not only what we do, it is what we are.

There are some who will point to this subjective investment as a liability. They say it skews the inquiry fatally by placing an irresistible existential pressure on the students of the question to find answers that satisfy human aspirations and quell human fears.

Humans are able to question the meaning of being-here precisely because, alone among all other forms of living matter that have emerged from the earth, humans know they will die. Being-here, besides being the source of constant preoccupation, also becomes an intellectual obsession. The joyful pursuit of securing the means necessary for being-here is fatally enervated by the know­ledge that ultimately it is all for naught. The instinct to embrace what we are with gratitude, joy and generous creativity is not only potentially crippled by the awareness of death, but it can come to be seen as an unnecessarily cruel deception casting a pall of despair and bitterness over life. We tend to attribute social pathology and our interminable slaughter of one another to this flaw in the human species … and indeed, some in their hopelessness, have declared human life a pointless burden and respond with a selfishness that increases everyone’s suffering confirming the attribution.

But there is no necessary connection between the subjective instinct to be-here and distortion of the truth. It is just as possible that the desire to embrace life with joy will drive an inquiry past the dangerous shallows created by death and into deeper regions where navigation is open and endless. I believe that the intense motivation that may drive the metaphysician can be a source of dedication to honest and careful thinking, thorough inquiry and the disciplined exploration of implications.

Because cosmo-ontology is a materialist metaphysics it will work closely with physics which also deals exclusively with matter. But the focus on existence is what distinguishes the two and necessitates metaphysics. The claim of some logical positivists that science alone, especially physics, is sufficient for establishing origins, and that metaphysics is an exercise in fantasy is wrong, because physics does not question existence. Taking existence for granted is myopic to an extreme degree for the enquiring human being who is necessarily and uncontrollably interested in being-here. Both tools, science and philosophy, are needed to complete this pursuit. And indeed in the system offered here, the final identification of matter with the very energy of existence itself, is determinative in establishing a clear direction for human endeavor and aspiration that differs markedly from earlier directions that have been deemed failures and abandoned. A global humankind, cast adrift from its various traditional moorings by a science that was unavoidably less than holistic, is well served by a discipline that plumbs the significance of being-here as science has observed and measured it. Science provides the data, philosophy, specifically metaphysics, questions the data looking for an existential interpretation significant for humankind. And it does so because the question of existence, far from being irrelevant, corresponds to the most insistent instincts in the human species ― that derive from what we are: matter’s living, existential energy.

  

conatus

Conatus denotes the embedded instinct for self-preservation that is the observed characteristic of every known living animal organism on the face of the earth, and is projected onto plants and fungi as well. Because it is characteristic of every form of living matter regardless of diversity, difference in complexity and location on the timeline of evolutionary emergence, it is reasonably retropolated to also characterize non-living matter and, in my scheme of things, would explain the undeniable evidence of transcendent emergence before the dawn of observable life. It is another, and almost predictable expression of matter’s energy to be-here. It would hardly seem reasonable to claim what I do about the “nature” of material energy as an existential conquest and expansion if something akin to the conatus did not exist in proportionate measure in all of matter’s energy commensurate with the degree of evolutionary complexity it enjoyed. The fact that it is such a prominent, undeniable and universal feature of the biological organisms that have emerged from the earth, confirms the existential characterization of matter that I have been offering in these ruminations.

As a side note, the universality of the conatus has not stimulated an enquiry into its significance because science, even the biological sciences where the uniformity of the conatus in all the millions of species studied is the elephant in the room, do not relate to existence. So the relevance of the conatus was missed altogether. I believe this is a clear confirmation of the distinction between metaphysics and the sciences, especially physics. Existence is bracketed by the limited focus of scientific knowledge and the understanding of what it means to be here for which we all hunger is simply ignored. It is another item on the list that demands a holistic integration of the disciplines that study our world.

Once the biological conatus is plausibly considered as existing in proportionate degrees in all the forms of matter even those prior to the emergence of life, it is reasonable to suggest that the progressive integration and complexification of material energy clearly on display in the elegant table of the elements and the accumulating development of complex molecules are evidence of a proto-evolu­tion that is a precursor of the behavior of biological life. Thus I feel it is appropriate to speak of matter as a living energy at all levels of its development, with the caveat, of course that this characterization be understood analogically, i.e., proportionate to the level of autonomy achieved by evolution and accurately observed and measured by science. Use of the term living is not meant to offer any additional information to what science provides about the behavior of the various forms of inanimate matter. The sole purpose for employing this counter-intuitive description is to establish a presumption for the presence of a potentiality present in minimally perceptible form ― perhaps only at the quantum level ― and could easily be missed by the scientist who was prejudicially convinced of its impossibility. Just knowing that matter is a living dynamism opens the observer to the possibility of actually seeing evidence of it.

 

thought

We humans interface with the rest of the material universe through self-conscious thought. Thinking refers to the practice of making mental pictures of our presence-in-the-world in order to facilitate our survival as biological organisms. It is a function of the conatus ― a direct derivative of our instinct for self-preservation. Accuracy of thought is important if we are to survive, and so we attempt to include as much detail and fidelity to time, process and interaction among entities as possible. Thought or thinking is the process of making pictures, and the pro­ducts ― thoughts ― fall into various categories depending on content, origination and their applicability to the survival interests of the organism. The two principal categories in my system are knowledge and understanding.

Knowledge in my lexicon refers to a thought product that is a picture derived from an experience that at the conscious level does not relate directly and proximately to the needs of the conatus. Knowledge is characterized by an affectivity that has been called “objective” or disinterested, even though in most cases it is not. The organism may be subconsciously aware that the objects of thought in these cases have an impact on the “self” but it operates in background mode and the conscious sense is that the organism is simply “looking at what’s there.” These “cerebral” or “rational” mental pictures comprise the bulk of the thought process, and they are quite intentionally cultivated by the sciences that condition the validity their conclusions on the objectivity of knowledge.

I use understanding in contrast to knowledge to denote a thought product that is a mental picture that originated with the activation of the conatus. It is often called subjective, instinctive, reactive and self-interested. With understanding, the somatic dimension is front and center. This results in an awareness that includes the destiny of the self to one degree or another, a mental state consciously aware of the profound survival connection between the self and the object of thought and awareness. I call this resulting mental state a realization because the object of thought is seen to be existentially relevant i.e., it has a direct bearing the knower’s own being-here and it brings an affective sense of conviction that is particularly intense.Knowing” the force of gravity is one thing, seeing a tree fall on your car pushing the roof to the floorboards gives you a new “understanding” that makes you “realize” what gravity “really” is.

Understanding, like all thought, regardless of the intensity of self-interest involved is totally dependent on observation, and observation is totally dependent on the sensory and neurological apparatus of the biological human organism. The ability, therefore, to form mental pictures of one’s presence-in-the-world, whatever qualities it may generate that appear to transcend materiality, is grounded in the matter of the human body. All concepts ― human pictures of reality ― are totally derived from and dependent upon matter. The ability to imagine something that is not there, or to conclude, for whatever reason, that some entity ― even myself ― might become other than it appears at a given point in time does not constitute a transcendence over matter. The same is true of the generalizations that we call concepts. They are all a work of the imagination. Imagination does not go beyond the ability to isolate and reconfigure the elements of empirical phenomena pictured in space and/or time for the purposes of staying alive. It is as sensory and material an operation as any that humans perform.

No matter how intense the realization, and despite its accompanying sense of conviction, all human thought is a work of the imagination. Concepts are representations of material phenomena couched in the sensory images of experience in order to facilitate our interaction-in-time with the universe of matter. There is nothing infallible or eternal about them. Even the sense impressions, immediate as they were once thought to be, in fact operate integrally in the self-interested, self-preserving dynamism of thought and are vulnerable to the re-arrang­ing which constitutes it. In fact it is difficult to achieve a detachment of the sense impressions from the self-interested thrust of human thought without the use of outside tools, like laboratory procedures and double-blind studies, specifically designed to suppress that influence and achieve accuracy.

In every instance what is occurring is a material interaction and survival is its ultimate focus.

 

self-appropriation

Self embrace is the goal and destiny of human life. This apparently solipsist conclusion corresponds to the tautological circularity that our enquiry has uncovered in our universe made of living matter. Material energy which is the constituent reality of all things bears ultimate reference to itself alone. Matter’s existential energy, exists only to exist; it is-here only to be-here. It doesn’t exist in order to become something else, go somewhere else or do something that it is not currently doing or, or that it could not, in the near or distant future, evolve out of its own components. Things are-here for only one reason: to be-here. Everything we have examined confirms this conclusion. Matter’s energy is totally focused on its own abundant expansion into all the “places” it is not. Matter’s existential energy is the living embodiment of creativity: the conquest of non-being by being. It is not an energy that matter has, it is an energy that matter is. To be-here is to be matter; to be matter is to be the energy of expansive, overabundant, endlessly conquering existence.

We’ve seen how this plays itself out in area after area of our inquiry: the irrepressible conatus, the creation of an ever expanding space-time, the evolution of pre-living forms of matter, biological evolution, human reflexive consciousness as a function of being-here featuring the inability to think or imagine or want anything but being-here, the insuppressible perception that being-here, besides being the ultimate desideratum of the human organism, is a positive, gratuitous, and altogether marvelous phenomenon, and appropriately considered the object of wonder and gratitude. The instances are multiple and consistent in this regard. When we understand the transcendence of matter, we realize what we are. In human terms that translates into creative generosity.

We could take a moral turn at this point and, using Buddhist and Christian models of personal growth and maturity, try to show how the inversion of values triggered by an incorrect interpretation of the urgings of the conatus accounts for the classic spiritual pathologies, individual and social, on which both traditions concur. Specifically, the almost unavoidable deflection of the energy of the conatus from the survival and enhancement of the totality of matter in the universe to the selfish aggrandizement and pleasuring of the individual human organism in isolation has been identified as the paradigm of “the corrupt human condition” ― selfishness. Similarly, we could show how the goals and even the practices of personal transformation in each tradition which are designed to counter selfishness are in general agreement with one another and correlate closely with the supreme value of existence-in-the-present-moment as the concrete form in which being here authentically occurs, and whose embrace simultaneously establishes a relationship of oneness with the entire universe of living matter. Oneness with the totality, the mystics’ quest, is achieved by appropriating (realizing) one’s physical / metaphysical homogeneity with all things. We are all made of the same clay. The result is a clear vision of the supreme achievement for the individual-in-community of a loving and grateful understanding of one’s “self” as a highly evolved version of matter’s energy bearing universal matter’s fundamental dynamism of expanding abundance forward into where-it-was-not. The agenda of the “self” is not ultimately for the “self” alone or even for the “self” to decide; the decision and the purpose has already been set: it is the agenda of matter’s living expanding energy. It is a realization that the human generosity exemplified and inspired by matter’s energy is not merely an optional, gratuitous and personally satisfying choice of life-style, but is the necessary emanation of the human organism’s very own constituent structure. Expansive abundance ― transcendence ― is the very nature of matter’s living energy at every level of evolutionary emergence; and as material organisms extruded by a material universe it is our nature as well.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

“Catholics”

A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

2,500 words

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.

Anachronism

The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction to the latest re-issue of the book, blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely.  While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue.  The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930.  Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.

critique

I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed.  Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed.  You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks disingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

 

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017

Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

This blog is dedicated to elaborating the social implications of a new set of premises about the nature of reality that modern science has helped us establish.   After 500 years of careful observation and critical analysis we are now fairly certain that we live in an exclusively material universe.

That wasn’t always true. We used to believe that reality was dominated by and could only be understood as idea, an immaterial product generated by an immaterial substancespirit-mind — and that the entire universe was the result of a Spirit-Mind’s insertion of a multitude of self-reflective immaterial ideas into a formless plasma called matter.

That unchallenged assumption which molded our thinking for thousands of years, has been overturned in our times.  It is a radical inversion that has amounted to a complete reversal of our image of reality and our scheme of values. Trans­cen­dent phenomena like human consciousness, whose “obviously immaterial” characteristics were once taken as prima facie evidence for the existence of spirit-mind and an entire other world where spirits originated and to which they were destined to return, are now, without losing anything of their quality as phenomena, accepted as functions of this one material world. There is no other world.

Of all the implications of our new understanding, this is the one that is the most relevant to our lives: there is no other world.

Being and work

Science has discovered that all of reality — everything — whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy. To be, in other words, is to be matter. Based on that central fact, material energy is, in corollary fashion, also responsible for the by-products of its time-driven dynamism: (1) a conatus or drive for self-preservation observable in each and every living organism, and inferred to exist in some form in every particle of material energy, making survival (existence) an innate and insuppressible urge; (2) evolution, defined as an adaptive mechanism driven ultimately by the conatus that guarantees matter’s continuing existence despite the changing environmental conditions that impact its survival; (3) a sense of the sacred arising spontaneously in human beings whose innate self-con­scious desire to exist, springing also from the same conatus, reverberates in an insuperable appreciation for and desire for union with the projected source of existence, material energy, LIFE, as a guarantor of survival.

Because to be-here is the inner dynamism that constitutes its very reality, everything matter does and becomes is a reflection of its existential bearing. Every living organism of whatever kind and at whatever level of complexity or ability to act is driven to survive because and only because it is made of matter. Everything it pursues and everything it does, whether in action or at rest, is a question of continuing to exist. It ultimately defines work.

Life from LIFE

Living organisms openly display dynamic characteristics which may not be perceptible in inanimate matter before it has been drawn up onto the plateau of life — the most revealing of evolution’s stunning achievements. Matter’s energy even at the most primitive levels must possess in dormant form the potential for what it does at the level of life. Nothing comes from nothing. Hence we say that matter is a dynamism driven by LIFE whose potential is released through the aggregations and complexifications achieved in the process of evolutionary adaptation.

These evolutionary developments are observed occurring throughout pre-life as well, first in the construction of the elegant table of the elements and, later, in the emergence of ever more complex molecules. These innovations reveal matter’s communitarian nature: matter achieves survival by unifying and re-arranging its separate particles and forces.

The process of evolution by unification and complexification continues at the level of life. Very early in earth’s geologic history unicellular organisms invented sexual reproduction and discovered the survival power of multicellularity and the division of roles within the resulting organism. Both advances involved the enlistment of many individuals in the pursuit of a common benefit; both measures enhanced survivability exponentially. Multicellularity, in turn, seems to have been taken up as a paradigm for species’ societies at all levels. The congregation of individuals and the distribution of roles and functions within the survival community proved to be the most effective strategy for the continued existence of the individuals of a species. All individual organisms survive communally with other members of their own species and also, symbiotically with members of other species. Commonality is a function of the unity of material energy. Communal survival activity shared among individual organisms is work. Work’s communal, collaborative nature is aboriginal: it is both the source and the result of 14 billion years of material evolution.

This communal character stands in sharp contrast with the exaggerated individualism evoked by the Platonic paradigm.   The separate soul of Plato’s imagination was quintessentially solitary. If it was to liberate itself from the dungeon of the body and its corruptions, it had to do so alone. There was no communal “salvation” in the Platonic system. A mother could not save her thieving son, nor a village its drunken idiot. Family and clan lost whatever survival significance they may have had in a material universe, because in Plato’s universe the world where survival was really won was another world reached only by dying — a world of bodiless spirits, where the relationships spawned by bodily reproduction were meaningless. Entrance into that other world required the death of the body along with all its genetic connections to family and clan. The only saving connection was with the impersonal rituals of the Church. The Church took the place of all natural communities.

Work as a function of existence

In a material universe, however, collaborative work is the direct result of the insuppressible urgings of the conatus in the real world and therefore is part of the line-up of characteristics that are found wherever material energy is found. They are corollaries of existence. It is precisely because all matter is innately driven to survive, that all matter is also collectively active in the pursuit of its continuance. That activity is work. It is a universal expression of the dynamism of the conatus and I claim it is a feature of all of reality.

[A note: Since my interest in this reflection is work as a human activity, my terminology will reflect that. But I want to state clearly at the outset that there is no intention to exclude non-human reality from the analysis or the conclusions. Work is a dynamism for continued existence that is natural to all material reality. There is evidence that at the quantum level, matter is proactive in the genetic adjustments neces­sary for the adaptation of the living organism to its environment. If that is true, it means that evolution itself is the result of work.[1]]

Human Consciousness. Human self-awareness represents another astonishing plateau in evolutionary development, responsible for characteristics that seem not to have existed in any prior life-form, analogous to the way life did not appear to have been present in earlier material entities that were not alive. But following out the analogy, and faced with mounting evidence of the presence of complex consciousness in animals other than human, we are compelled to attribute some dormant potential for consciousness to the very quanta packets of energy that constitute the building blocks of everything material in our world. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “interiority” of matter.

Some modern philosophers, like Galen Strawson, have suggested this feature of reality be called panpsychism. The meaning of the term is contained in its etymology: “everything,” pan, is “mental,” psych-. In other words, similar to our judgment about the presence of LIFE dor­mant in inanimate objects, mind is present as a dormant potential existing in all material reality because all psychic phenomena of whatever kind are clearly the products of material activity coming from organisms that are all and only comprised of and nourished by exactly the same quanta of material energy that constitute everything else in the universe. The data of daily observation, in this regard, is so universally corroborative of this conclusion that we are confident of it even though we have not as yet determined what mechanisms are employed in the activation of that potential. The simple fact of the matter is that consciousness exists, and there is nowhere else it could have come from except this world’s matter.

Desire. The full flowering of mind, most evident in the human species, reveals the intense appetitive nature of the conatus. With the evolution of higher consciousness it becomes clear that the conatus was not just a mechanical drive, a blind and passive reflex, but rather a living thirst, a passionate self-conscious hunger to be here that when satisfied fills the organism with ecstatic joy, and when thwarted, with dejection and despair. This nuances our understanding of the nature of work. Work is not only a reaction to the animal instinct to stay alive, it is a response to the desire for existence.

The human species’ conscious awareness of the inevitability of death is an aspect of this mental phenomenon. It adds a special dimension to the human conatus. The human instinct for self-preserva­tion necessarily extends its preoccupations to the place where the ultimate threat to the organism is perceived to reside. Hence the human conatus is necessarily addressed to transcending death. LIFE is assumed to have a source. Given the imperiousness of the conatus, desire for union with that source is not avoidable for the human organism. That means religion or its equivalent is natural and spontaneous; it springs from the very instinct for self-preserva­tion.  Work is the active application of that instinct.

This passion to possess existence through union with its source is a response to the Sense of the Sacred. The reflexive awareness of this appetitive relationship to existence generates the peculiar communal response called religion. Religion is work like any other, only clearly focused on the pursuit of that aspect of the conatus’ goal that reaches beyond daily survival. Thus religion must be understood as a function of matter’s existential bearing, bound up with work and the very destiny of the human individual stemming unavoidably from its being a material organism facing death whose innate instinct is to be-here. That internal contradiction is elemental to humankind and explains its unique sense of disconnect with the natural world.

Religion or its equivalents are natural and unavoidable. Insofar as work is the emanation of the conatus, in the case of humankind that conatus and its genetically driven activity is necessarily suffused with the passionate desire to ensure that the organism continues existing endlessly, because at any other terminus, death would give the lie to the conatus. It is not surprising, then, that human work would extend its reach beyond securing shelter and the day’s food. We can say a priori, that virtually any human endeavor that goes beyond securing those basic survival needs, contemplates projects that in one sense or another appear to guarantee the conatus’ ultimate goals, whose most fundamental characteristic is endless existence. These activities are the equivalent of religion and can take almost any form.

Religion, in this scheme of things, then, is only the most formally labeled and socially acknowledged example of this uniquely human pursuit of immortality. It is not difficult to identify others; they are myriad: all achievements that are believed to linger in human memory offering a kind of life beyond death, monumental projects including the magnification and ascendancy of the nation, military and economic conquests, academic, artistic, literary and athletic achievements, the abasement and exploitation of others for the purposes of asserting one’s or one’s tribe’s superiority, fame derived from any source, competitive activities specifically designed for creating distinction and recognition, the superfluous accumulation of goods, power, influence, land, capital, money. Animals do none of these things, because none of them are necessary for survival. These all speak to the attempt to extenuate and amplify individual existence beyond one’s limited “size” and location in the time-line of social history. I would put the perennial drive toward empire on the part of nations in this category of ersatz religion. It is an attempt to achieve immortality, and individuals identify with empire as their own participation in immortality. Empire is not only a pursuit of the elite.

If religion in our day no longer fires the imagination with hopes of immortality, it’s not because humankind has lost the hunger for endless existence. It’s just that, having decided that religion’s narrative lacks credibility, people have turned to other endeavors as more realistic substitutes. Whatever else has changed, the innate insuppressible human passion for endless life has not, and work as the emanation of that passion, will always tend toward securing it. Hence work must also be understood — and judged — under the rubric of man’s sense of the sacred as the pursuit of transcendence.

The dangers here are real. The perennial tendency of nations to take conquest and domination of others as a sign of superiority, is one of the principal substitutes for transcendence. The unabashed admiration on the part of most readers of history for the great empires and their accumulation of wealth, power and territory, suggests that the futility of seeking that kind of ascendancy has yet to be appropriated and internalized. There seems little chance that a political dynamic built on any other purpose will be put in place anytime in the near future.

Work in a Material Universe

Given this background, work has to be seen as (1) a natural and necessary activity of material organisms in pursuit of survival, (2) necessarily having a community dimension not only stemming from the communal processes that characterize evolution but because human survival is not physically achievable by solitary individuals working alone and because the collaboration among individuals is itself constitutive of society giving work a defining importance for humankind. Work is also (3) necessarily a pursuit of transcendence: the individual is transcended through collaborative endeavors which identify the worker with the surviving community and the attempt to embrace the source of existence by mutual consent of the collaborators. It doesn’t matter what that source of existence is believed to be. Even if it is only “the memory of humankind.” These are all transcendent pursuits and should be assessed as such.

Work as survival. The primacy of survival activity — work — as the fundamental expression of the conatus means that the entire category of servile labor, necessarily the object of disdain and revulsion in our erstwhile dualist-spiritist universe, is revealed as completely baseless. There is no distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. There is no sub-human, bodily labor distinct and separate from reason and therefore there can be no sub-human “carnal” people consigned to the eternal repetition of mindless tasks. Survival work is not only the responsibility of each and every human organism for its own sustenance, it is the very expression of the organism’s roots in matter which grounds its existential bearing and the equality among human individuals that shapes the community that survives by it.

Work and existence. By survival work the material organism is manifesting openly its acknowledgement of belonging to the totality of matter’s living energy, the source of confidence in the endlessness of its being-here. Hence work is more than mere physical exertion; it is a dynamic declaration of self-aware­­ness and self-accep­tance. It is the conscious embrace of materiality. The organism embraces itself precisely and unapologetically as a material organism and takes a profound satisfaction in what work achieves: organismic life for another day — food, clothing, shelter and human community built by cooperative collaboration. Work is the expression of and commitment to belonging fully to the totality that endures. And belonging to the community of matter is the surest guarantee of individual endurance.

Work as ascesis. Work can no longer be thought of as a punitive discipline, the result of and punishment for some ancient transgression of our forebears, and a liberation of the spirit from the flesh. Work is rather a carnal joy and a privilege: the opportunity to express our intimate participation in the source of existence itself: material LIFE. The principal reward that work provides — survival — is immediately confirmed by ancillary benefits that enhance the organism: a strong healthy body full of energy and enthusiasm for life; a positive disposition and self-esteem that prevents the onset of depression or despair that the awareness of death might otherwise engender; the sense of security derived from the palpable comradery, companionship and mutual support generated by working cooperatively with others for the survival of each and all.

Far from being the whip that begins the process of liberating the spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, work in a material universe allows the material of the human organism to realize its full capacity to bring resident reason and spontaneous compassion born of material empathy to interface with the matter that work is transforming. Mirror neurons, the physical source of our empathy, are pure matter. We are all pure matter. The work worked and the working worker. The weight of matter borne is no longer a crushing burden that breaks my carnal will and forces compliance with my spiritual soul, but is rather a sibling’s touch that evokes in me a creativity not unlike that of an artist, who in elaborating what his vision reveals, may see a potential that no one knew was there. It’s like clay molding clay. The resulting mutually compenetrating engagement is explosive. Hesiod noticed certain workers got it right: “… they do their work as if work were a holiday.”

Manual labor in particular, which involves the intimate and continuous contact between my body and the matter under elaboration, becomes an occasion for the acknowledgement of the most important relationship of all: of the material energy which I am and the material energy that constitutes everything in the cosmos. It is one and the same. I AM THAT! This sense of intimate oneness with all that IS — LIFE — can serve to sustain a sense of one’s secure belonging to existence that has always been the great goal, the desideratum, of ascesis since before the advent of Christianity.

Of course all this assumes that work is guaranteed its primary and constitutive goal: survival.   Justice for the worker first and always means that work’s fundamental existential bearing is not frustrated.

Survival as a community effort

The significance of this new paradigm for the structuring of just and fulfilling work relationships hardly needs to be elaborated. First of all it reveals the class system that continues to divide work along servile physical lines to be baseless, demeaning and inherently destructive of the integrity of the human organism. Whatever needs to be done to secure survival is a responsibility that devolves upon everyone. If work is divided among the members of the community it is done for efficiency and convenience, not as a reflection of some putative quality difference among human beings, much less some illusory distinction between matter and spirit.

That some people are so wealthy that they never have to work is not a “blessing,” it is a travesty.   And those who intentionally pursue careers that will free them from the onus of physically providing themselves with food, clothing, shelter and community have entirely missed what it means to be human.

This has a primary application in the equality of men and women despite the obvious role differences established by their bodies. The female organism is not “more carnal,” more subject to emotional needs for being the place of gestation of offspring. All human organisms are equally capable of assuming all the roles in a complex society. Male-female role differences may be established by convention but they always remain conventional; there is nothing necessary about them. Reproduction is an instinct and function of all organisms. Indispensable genital equipment and efficacious function are features of every individual body, male and female. To heap burdensome and self-effacing tasks on one and not the other is a profound injustice, and may be the result of conscious exploitation. Platonic dualism lent itself to exactly such distortions of humanity.

In the case of children, the development of the rational function should no longer be given such priority as to entail the suppression or disregard for the wholeness of the human organism. Children’s emotional balance, ability to relate to others, predisposition to sense their unity as material organisms with other species of life and more primitive forms of matter’s energy, should be given as much emphasis as the development of their rational abilities to control the outside world by logical cerebration and emotional distance. The child should be educated to empathetically relate in organic material solidarity to whatever part of reality she/he will be later asked to manipulate and control with their work.

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

This topic — the division of labor in complex society — brings together all the contradictions that come from our tortured history.   I believe our materialist paradigm can offer new insights into how to resolve the problems that Platonic dualism bequeathed to us.   Having established the premises, future posts will begin reflecting on what this may mean for the future of work in a material universe.

 

[1] Cf McFadden and Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Random House, NY, 2014, pp. 219-221.

Surrender

2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017