The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

1

The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

2

It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

3

In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

4

These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

5

I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

6

Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

Advertisements

REVOLUTION OR REFORM:

a meditation on Psalm 58

PSALM 58

Background. The “gods” referred to here are an imagined “heavenly court” — minor divinities believed to be subordinate to Yahweh. They are called in other places “the sons of God.” These divinities were also assigned other tribes to protect and promote. The poet rebukes them, surely, because they have not brought their wards into subservience to Yahweh; they have allowed them to perpetrate injustice and violence on others which probably included Israel. The psalmist is furious over this, as the extreme violence of his language reveals.

Rational thought is the realm of the gods. And for humans, what you consider good and worthy of your disciplined service is inspired by the “god” you worship. So the “gods” are judged guilty of plan­ning evil because the actions of their people are evil and must stem from the evil thinking or at least the conscious permissiveness of their “god.” The “stinking thinking” of course, is that you are superior to others and have a right to lord it over them.

The Psalmist calls on Yahweh to confirm his supremacy by a visible display in reverse order: the op­pres­sor nation will be defeated and its arrogant thoughts of superiority conspicuously humiliated thus proving that its “god” has been reined in and his “thinking” made once again subservient to Yahweh’s plan. Faith in Yahweh and his thought-path — the torah and the ascendancy of Yahweh’s people — will be restored.

In Israel’s history, this interpretation of international politics sometimes played itself out with savage consistency by all nations to the point of wholesale population relocation or even national extermination, the latter strategy pursued by the Hebrews themselves in their conquest of Palestine. The “target” of the extermination was putatively not the people but the “god” whose thought-path was their life.

Reflection. The theological cosmogony imagined in this poem is utterly foreign to us. We have little choice but to resort to metaphor. It is axiomatic for us that Yahweh is an ancient metaphor for LIFE, and in all cases we want LIFE as dharma — the rational thought-path of self-control, egali­ta­rian justice, com­­pas­sion and generosity — to assert its supremacy above all other competing ideo­logies. LIFE is not tribal, as Yahweh was. It is universal, as is its dharma, its torah, its thought-path. It applies to all. Everyone knows what it is.

This supremacy impacts politics as much as individual spiritual liberation. Trun­ca­­ted ideological distor­tions that would make “gods” out of something less than LIFE — the individual “self,” the race or nation, the educated elite, the dominant gender, or the wealthy, powerful and merciless bosses in every sector who function on the illusion that they are owners of others — must all be de­feated and those various con­cept­ual surrogates made subservient to LIFE. They are all functions of the isolated ego. For it is my self I promote, my nation, my ideology, my status, career, credentials, and credibility that drive and justify the violence I heap on others. These are all rogue “gods,” and in order to conquer the promised land (fully appropriate our humanity), they must be made to submit to LIFE, applying whatever violence it requires, and the attraction of their thought-path exterminated. This is where spirituality and politics intersect; it is what makes monasticism and revolution dif­fer­ent applications of the same insight and vision.

1 Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?

2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.

3 The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies.

4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear,

5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter.

6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!

7 Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

9 Faster than a brush-fire flashes through thistles, may he sweep them away!

In the most trenchant and uncompromising terms, anything that would dare assert itself above LIFE as the goal and purpose of our human existence as a community of life-sharing individuals, must be neutralized — aborted, exterminated — and swept away. They are our sworn enemies. To value anything above LIFE is to invite disaster.

10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

 

Fifty years ago, in the decade of the ‘70’s, the idea of “revolution” was part of everyday conversation, and many seriously pursued it as a real possibility. That is not true today; people claim it is just not possible. What is called “revolution” today are actually proposals for reform: changes for the better that do not contemplate a change of system.

Even in those days what “revolution” meant was not always clear. It varied among the political theories and nascent parties that espoused a change of system. That variety didn’t only stem from debate about what the replacement was supposed to look like, it was originally and more maddeningly due to disagreement about what exactly it was about the system that was the root source of the injustice.

For me, there is no debate. I want to make my position clear on this point from the start. I contend that the bedrock human value that is deformed is the dignity and autonomy of the human individual, ground up and blown away by the forces of social, political or economic organization. The prospects for revolution may not currently augur well, but revolution is as salient today as ever. It is not the power to vote, or parity in remuneration, or access to goods and services, or public recognition and commendation, or proportionate representation, even though these secondary indices correlate with the primary problem. It is the requirement that, as the condition of becoming a fully fran­chised member of society, the individual must abdicate his/her individual dignity and autonomy to such a degree that he can be said to be — and behaves as if he were — owned by someone else. The most common form of this in our society, sustained by economic necessity, is aptly called “wage slavery,” [cf my blogpost for Aug 27, 2017] though the grosser forms of slavery that are sustained by physical and/or emotional vio­lence, inclu­ding extreme spousal and child domination and exploitation, also abound.

From this perspective, the problem I have with the Capitalist system is not primarily that it is capi­talist, but that it is master/slave. The “capitalist” designation is secondary and injects injustice indi­rectly through its fictional claim to ownership of the means of production. Capitalism refers to the ownership of stuff: land, buildings, machinery… and the money that allows you to obtain them. Master/slave, on the other hand refers to the ownership of people, either directly as chattel, or indirectly through the ownership of their labor. I contend the “original injustice” is right there. You cannot own someone’s labor any more than you can own his/her person. It is a metaphysical contradiction. Work in community is the human organism’s necessary interaction with its environment for the purposes of survival — an absolute requirement for all biological organisms in a material universe. Labor can only be communally shared; it cannot be sold because it cannot be owned by anyone else. It is when capitalists claim to also buy and own the labor of those who work on their farms and factories that the fiction of ownership makes them complicit in the injustice.

At the foundation of the injustice — the justification for the master/slave relationship — lies a faulty view of human nature. It is a view built on the discarded belief that the human indivi­d­ual is made of two metaphysically distinct components, body and soul, comprised respectively of two distinct kinds of “stuff,” matter and spirit. On that basis it was believed that the “soul” was an entity distinct from the body; superior to it because it was living thinking spirit and body was only dumb lifeless matter; the soul was master and the body was supposed to be its slave. All the prob­lems in human society, it was claimed, stemmed from the disastrous reversal of that “natural” stra­ti­fication: the body, somehow, through some original mishap, had come to throw off the domi­na­tion by the soul and in many cases usurped its role and ruled the person. This “un­natural” situ­a­tion could only be rectified by the soul reconquering the body by discipline and obedience to disci­plined superiors who imposed “spiritual” norms, re-establishing the reign of spirit over matter. The Christ­ian­ized Roman Empire, whose economy was based on slave labor, was considered the authority that im­posed those norms.

Because it was believed that the “soul” was really the person, the body and its needs requiring labor and struggle was deemed something of an inferior alien “thing” that, like a wild animal could be trained and exploited, used and abused, bought and sold. The slavery that was the foundation of the economic life of the ancient Roman Empire, from which our modern Western civilization emerged, was considered the direct and accurate reflection of the dual nature of man. All bodies are the slaves of spirit, if not your own, then someone else’s.

The supposed dominance of spirit over matter also established the superiority of mental activity over physical labor and the corresponding right of those who lived by mental activity — the educated elite — to direct and control the lives of those who lived by the sweat of their brow and the labor of their body. This also provided a justification for the subordination of women to men, a pheno­menon already well established by male physical dominance and the soft nurturing character of the female organism shaped by evolution to care for and share life with children. Even among wealthy landowners, boys were educated girls were not. Thus it came to be believed that the male head of family owned and managed his wife and children, the way one would own tools or furniture and do with them whatever he wanted. The incorporation into the family of ser­vants and slaves, conquered by war and bought for a price, was considered a simple extenuation of the ownership which the paterfamilias exercised over his household — land and animals, buildings and wagons, tools and people: women, children, slaves.

Wage slavery in turn is the continuation in modern form of those beliefs inherited from ancient times about the nature of the human being. The belief that society is naturally and necessarily com­prised of intelligent thinking educated owners who direct the work of the thoughtless sub-hu­man illiterate inferiors whose labor they own, incapable of surviving without the master’s control and direction, is more than a caricature. There is no democracy on the job. The owner is an absolute dictator whom the worker is bound to obey because he owns his labor.

In all forms of master/slave the value of human labor was not determined by the integral connection between the human material organism in community interacting with its cosmic material envi­ronment. It was determined by the profit it brought to the owner’s person, the “soul,” one’s own or the buyer’s. The result was that the vitality and guiding authority of that material cosmic symbiosis atro­phied. The reality of (and respect for) the material organism integrated in its human com­mu­nity and nested in its mat­er­ial environment disappeared. The “soul” always remained “free” in theory but the body could be sold into slavery, permanently or for a time, to do whatever bidding was required of it. The social sys­tem obliterated individual autonomy and its authentic relationship to its matrix as the condition for its inclusion in the community of sur­vival. The body had no say, for its needs were material and disdained as worthless.

Revolution

I contend that the master/slave system in all its forms is dehumanizing. It supposes and in turn supports a false notion of human nature and militates against the integrity of the human organism dependent on the human community. “Revolution” is a political symbol that proposes the complete elimi­nation of the master/slave system. Changes in other categories of social role, status and distribution of goods will come in its train, and as determined by the nature of the egalitarian socie­ty resulting from revolution.

A truly revolutionary program may not be possible at the present time because the political conditions are not propitious, but despite that fact, plans for the radical change of economic/social sys­tem have to continue to be hammered out and proposed to the world. And these plans cannot be allowed to be watered down to the point where they become acceptable to the current Capitalist version of the master/slave system. Why? Because the system is dehu­man­izing. And it’s pre­cisely for that reason that revolutionary vi­sions, despite their “impossibility,” stand in a class apart from those that offer reform. Preserving intact the revolutionary intent of these alternatives is one of the few ways we have of holding aloft a vision of the integrity of the hu­manity that we are privileged to bear and pass on. We are meant to become fully human as individuals in a human community that respects and protects our fragile and vulnerable humanity. That means that slavery in all its forms is banished from human life. That is not an optional choice, and it is not possible under Capitalism’s version of the master/slave, two-class, two-sub­stance theory of human nature. Wage slavery is slavery.

In my opinion the furthest we’ve gotten along these lines are reforms: proposals for changes con­ceived to function within a system that will harness them to its own dehumanizing agenda or it will neutralize them. Reform is not revolution. In order to effectuate such reforms you have to emas­culate revolution and turn it into a non-threaten­ing modification of traditional Capitalism. That leaves our dehumanizing master/slave paradigm in place and festering. Reform will work within things as they are. Please note: the beneficiaries of the system – wealthy, white, male, edu­cated people — support reform efforts. And the reason why, I suggest, is because whatever the benefits reform might achieve for others, it does not threaten their privilege.

I admit that reform is better than what we have now. But reform does not address the threat to our humanity. Revolution — the annihilation of the master/slave relationship — does. Without it nothing changes except that the slaves are given a stake in the system (possibly to perpetuate it) and some may get to con­sume more. The multimillennial dehumanization created by the master/slave system will continue on until it finally produces a humankind totally disfigured by selfish uncontrolled consumption, a massive social inequality and widespread destitution created in its pur­suit, and the resulting destruction of Earth’s ability to support life. The system will not tolerate any­thing that contradicts its two-class, master/slave view of human nature that has made “gods” and masters of the elite who control it. It will precipitate Armageddon before it would ever embrace Revolution.

 

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

2,300 words

The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.

We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.

Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred is not a “person,” it is the living energy of matter. It has no “will” for us beyond the survival and integrity of what has been brought into existence. Obedience in this context is not a valid category and therefore being forgiven for the failure to obey has no meaning.

But this is nothing new. Asking forgiveness from “God” was problematic in our tradition even prior to the modern age. By the standard mediaeval interpretations, “God” was conceived as Pure Spirit, living in a state of impassable perfection and happiness in an eternal “now” outside time. “God” could not be affected in any way either for better or worse by anything occurring in the world of matter. He could not be injured, much less insulted. Since he has everything, “God” really does not want anything, not even our obedience — except as part of a general benevolence for the welfare of all things. No injustice could be done to “God;” nothing can be taken from “God,” especially unintentionally, and I think it can be reasonably assumed that the last thing on any normal sinner’s mind is an intention to insult “God.” So forgiveness, literally speaking, made no sense. There is no objective damage. And yet we pursued it.

Damage in the world of time

No matter what the “offense” perpetrated by a sinner, the only changes that occur are in the world of time. The primary effect is the loss of the moral integrity of the sinning human being who places himself out of sync with the natural order. The individual distorts himself in the perpetration of an act of selfish injustice. But damage is also done to other people by immoral behavior, and indeed, the very definition of immorality is the intentional causing of injury. Injury can also be done to organisms other-than-human and even the earth itself and its life-support systems. These are all potentially vulnerable. Forgiveness is not appropriate in these latter cases, however, because despite the objective damage they are not conscious agents capable of an act of forgiveness.

Trying to understand how “forgiveness” came to be such a transcendent category for us, despite the fact that it only makes sense within human society, and not with “God” or nature, I am led to consider the fear factor, a derivative of the experience of autocratic rule characteristic of the early governments of civilized man where our ancestral Judaism was born. Since “God” was imagined as “king,” disobedience and offense was expected to bring severe punishment as was usual from kings. Even after damage was repaired, the kings’ need to maintain control meant nipping disobedience in the bud. It demanded punishment, unless the offense was forgiven.

In the case of “God” as imagined by Judaism and Islam, mercy and forbearance were emphasized. People knew they could rely on the forgiveness of “God.” In the case of Western Christianity, however, the theology of Augustine of Hippo imagined a universal sin — that everyone was guilty of — that was literally unforgiveable. In such a scenario, this transcendent offense to “God” was the very fulcrum around which all of cosmic history turned. It was inconceivable that a transgression of such magnitude as to have caused the physical and moral deformation of the human race and require the sacrificial death of the very Son of “God,” could be forgiven by a simple apology. The Catholic Church as theologically conjured by Augustine’s theory was given the power to condition “God’s” forgiveness on a greater expression of remorse and acquiescent behavior. Punishment, therefore, was never off the table, unless a Church-guaran­teed forgiveness was obtained.

In this case the emphasis on forgiveness derived from the leverage the Church was given over the lives of people by Augustine’s theory — a leverage that it exploited to the greatest extent possible during the theocratic rule of the middle ages. This helps explain why our western cultural conditioning in this regard is so much greater than other traditions born from the same original sources. Convinced that “God” hated us for the insult of Adam’s disobedience, we spent our lives trying to secure the forgiveness of “God,” always aware that if we failed, eternal torment awaited us.

But once that nightmare is put to rest, forgiveness only seems to make sense as a valid interpersonal exchange among human beings. Let’s consider. People are vulnerable to having their resources stolen or destroyed, their livelihoods undermined, their reputations ruined, their physical integrity compromised. The community itself as a collectivity can also be damaged by having its structures skewed by the waves of repercussion that shake society’s confidence in its members’ benevolence and reliability. Greed, selfishness and injustice generate fear and distrust. Once society has to assume that its people are “like wolves” to one another, its very institutions have to adjust accordingly; they become disfigured and the people who are responsible for maintaining them are inevitably rendered less compassionate in the performance of their duties. One who has caused such damage needs to remedy it; begging forgiveness from the community and the individuals he injured is only one part of the solution. Erasing the damaging effects must include trying to disable their tendency to propagate themselves into the unknown future among generations yet unborn. Unless the perpetrator can convince others that his behavior will not repeat or worsen its effects, society remains damaged no matter how much it wants to “forgive” the perpetrator.

This “chain effect” by which injustice, greed and selfishness expands outward into the future is what the Buddhists call “karma.” What you do has repercussions that are not always foreseeable, and their effects belong to the injustice originally done.

The “original” injustice

In domestic situations the injustices committed by family members against each other can be subtle and profound, creating rancor and bitterness that also rolls on into the future. It generates reactive destruction in the lives of others who were not even alive at the time of the original offense and have no idea of the origin of the violence that is now being directed at them. I believe that it is axiomatic today to consider the family the initial link in the chain of causation that produces people who are predisposed to lack of self-respect, selfishness, defensive hoarding, competitive greed, injustice, disregard for the rights, property and labor of others, disdain for the weak and helpless, hatred towards authority figures.

Distorted attitudes in the parents, however, were likely the result of influences in their own childhood, and damage from the lives of ancestors is now being passed on to these children — brand new organisms which entered the world without predispositions of any kind. So while the causation extends into past lifetimes before the current family, and may be said to be itself the result of cultural factors inherited from outside the home and from unidentified events occurring in the even more distant past, each new birth provides an unencumbered organism, a new hope, as it were, radically capable of avoiding the anti-social proclivities that seem to make human happiness a chimera — an impossible dream. So because the actual “original sin” is not only diffuse and unknowable, it is also in the past — over and done with, and its perpetrators out of reach, beyond correction or control. If society is to be changed it has to be done by the presently existing individuals.

I believe that this more or less represents the analysis that gave rise to the Buddha’s insight that social justice had to be a function of individual transformation. He placed the entire weight for the termination of the chain of karma and the achievement of harmony in society on the back of the individual, regardless of the fact that the individual and his anti-social instincts may themselves be dependent on earlier lifetimes and social sources. The Buddha is saying effectively, “I don’t care how deep into the past its roots extend, if I can gain control over this karmic phenomenon it ends with me here and now! The rest is not my business:”

I have scoured the past looking in vain for the builder of this house. Many indeed are the cycles of life that contributed to it. But now I have seen you, housebuilder, you shall not build this house again. Its rafters are broken, its ridge pole is shattered, the mind, embracing the eternal has attained to the extinction of all selfish desires.[1]

The house is the human organism conditioned to selfishness. The housebuilder, of course, is the energy of the organism’s conatus harnessed to the delusional demands of the false self to achieve a permanence that is impossible. Buddha spent precious little time speculating, dwelling on the past or wallowing in remorse. His entire focus was on ending suffering for oneself and others here and now by transforming the affective life of one’s body into a body of desires that mirror the “way of heaven.” This concept of “the true path” or nature, what the Hindus called Brahma, he called the dharma. The Chinese called it Tao, The Hebrews called it Torah. I have called it LIFE — the living energy of matter. It is concretized for humankind in the universal call for justice, compassion and generosity toward one another and toward the earth that spawned us. Buddhists collapse it into an “eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. The fifth category “right conduct” contains the five basic moral norms: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not transgress sexual standards, do not incapacitate yourself with intoxicants.

There is no time or place for remorse or a need for forgiveness in the dharma. Buddha’s dharma — LIFE — doesn’t need your anguish; if you suffer remorse it’s because you have added to the burden of existence for yourself and others by your selfish greed and self-projection. LIFE doesn’t want you to suffer remorse. It wants you to get back on track, transform yourself, and stop creating suffering for others. You only suffer grief and remorse because of the evil that you have done. Do right and you will stop the suffering that comes from remorse. The excessive wailing over your faults and the blame you have earned for yourself, is just another symptom of your illusory belief that you are a permanent fixture in the universe, too good and too impor­tant to have committed such failures. It’s another symptom of the attachment to the ego. You are not immortal; you are vanishing. Do the good you can before you’re gone.

Instead of remorse, change yourself. Instead of moaning and wailing over your failures, putting yourself first again as usual, put others first. Instead of pursuing forgiveness from an imaginary “God”-person, which you may think is some kind of shortcut to rectitude given gratis from on high despite having done nothing to earn it, start pulling your own weight in the effort to create a just, compassionate and generous community of human beings living sustainably on a cherished and well protected planet.

Remorse, after all, is nothing but anger at yourself. Yes, you betrayed yourself. Forgive yourself, and move on. That’s a forgiveness that makes sense. If we are enjoined to control our anger at others, we are also required to control the self-indulgent anger we heap on ourselves for having failed to achieve permanence and eternity in the good memories of others. It is just another ego trip. In the Dhammapada on anger, the Buddha addresses the self-recrimination that is just another example of a waste of time, postponing the real work of self-transformation:

There is an old saying: “People will blame you if you say too much; they will blame you if you say too little; they will blame you if you say just enough.” No one in this world escapes blame. There never was and never will be anyone who receives all praise or all blame.[2]

Rather than worrying about how we look in the eyes of others, the Buddha advises us to engage in the struggle to transform our delusional “self” into the Self that lies at the core of our being, the self that is the mirror and agent of the dharma — LIFE. Take the time and energy you would spend in “securing” forgiveness for yourself and invest it instead in the practices of mindfulness and meditation that will help you identify the disguises of your self-serving self. Turn your efforts to living with justice, compassion and generosity, and whatever you had hoped to gain from forgiveness will be yours and more.

 

 

[1] The Dhammapada ch. 11 ## 153-154, a composite of various translators.

 [2] Siddhartha Gautama, The Dhammapada, ch XVII ## 227-228 tr. Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Tomales CA, 2007.

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

The Big Picture (5)

A review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

5

Relationship to the living source of LIFE and existence is what I mean by religion and I claim that austere as they are, the conclusions of this essay can provide a foundation for a religious view that is compatible with science and with the pyscho-social needs of the human individual. Furthermore, these conclusions can be reconciled with the basic teachings of all of our traditional religions — especially their mystical side — once they have been purged of literalist scientific pretensions and claims for direct revelation from “God.” In other words I believe the conclusions of this analysis can serve as a universal philosophical ground, finally pro­viding a solid basis for a unified understanding of the universe that reductionists like Carroll have discarded as an unnecessary addition to the physical sciences.

The religious ground envisioned by this approach differs from the traditional religions of the West which were all founded on the belief in the existence of an individual humanoid transcendent “God”-entity. While they all include a “minority report” that envisions an immanent “God,” the dominant belief system, called “theism,” imagines “God” as a human being, much smarter and more powerful than we are, who stands over against the rest of creation as an individual “person,” immortal, all-powerful, and not constrained by the limitations of time and space. “He” is like a male head of household who wants a specifically ordered behavior from humankind encoded in rules that must be obeyed. This “spirit” God will reward or punish each individual human being after death in the spirit world where he is thought to reside and where the human being will spend eternity.

In sharp contrast, the real LIFE in which we are immersed in this material universe — the only world there is — is not an individual entity. LIFE exists everywhere as a pervasive force that is fully operative simultaneously in all things, immanent in and indistinguishable from their own respective existential realities and proportionately actuated according to the level of material complexity achieved by evolution. It appears to be an emanation of the energy of material existence itself because its primary manifestation, the conatus, is exclusively focused on physical survival. As such it is responsible for the continued evolution of material forms which appear always to move anti-entropically in the direction of greater aggregation of parts and integration of complexity conditioned on the ability to exist in this material universe.

LIFE is completely immanent in the material universe; it is not distinct from the things that are alive. It is only a posteriori, in evolution, that LIFE displays its peculiar transcendence: each and every achievement of evolution has been transcended — over and over again — always plundering the entropy against which it pushes in the direction of greater depth and intensity of existential participation. Evolution has populated at least one planet with an astonishing array of living organisms of every kind imaginable and every degree of complexity filling every environmental niche where survival is possible, all made exclusively of the same material substrate, elaborated from primitive one-proton hydrogen atoms that constitute the gas clouds, stars, galaxies, black holes and other massive structures of the cosmos. The astonishing, exclusively upward anti-entropic display of ever more complex and intensely interior organisms occurring over so many billions of years and achieving such stunning results suggests that LIFE will always continue to reach out toward ever more comprehensive control of existence, horizontally establishing an ever wider beachhead of survival and vertically toward a more intense penetration into the interiority of existence, the material source of its energies.

Reductionists maintain that it is a fallacy to claim that there is an “upward” trend in evolution because they say evolution is not an “active” phenomenon — a response to learning from the environment — but rather a “passive” result emerging from random mutations that do not respond to environmental pressure. I have argued with them on that score in section 2, citing work by biologists who say genetic adaptation actually occurs at rates that are far too high for the classic theory based on random mutation to hold. Accor­ding to these scientists it appears that some learning from the environment must somehow be penetrating genomic insularity and creating genetic changes that are not random.

From the long-range perspective of cosmic history, however, the undeniable fact of the general correlation of evolutionary complexity with time, i.e., that increasingly complex and conscious organisms have emerged in the direction of time-flow, is evidence of a presumptive adaptational causality. The massive accumulation of an infinity of phenotypes all growing in complexity and consciousness as a function of time (i.e., evolution never regresses despite potential survival advantage), evokes a pro-active adaptability not explained by random mutations: evolution goes exactly as far as the currently achieved organic complexity and the environmental context will allow.  It minimally suggests an internally directed intentionality analogous to a non-rational “Will.” It is the task of scientists to identify the mechanisms that may be involved in this, but even without that help, philosophers still have to acknowledge the facts.

*

We ourselves, living material organisms of the human species, are direct inheritors and full participants in this cosmic drama. We are all and only living matter, made of the same quarks and gluons, muons and neutrinos held together by the strong force that constitute everything else in the universe … a universe so unimaginably vast and full of matter’s living energy that it jams our mental circuits. With our mysterious and marvellous intelligence we are the most penetrating of the living organisms that our material universe has evolved to date. Our interiority gives us a privileged window on the dynamism of LIFE itself for we ourselves are not only fully alive, but we can see, feel, taste, hear LIFE directly in itself because we activate it autonomously, as our very own identity, each of us, at every moment of our lives. We not only have LIFE, we are LIFE, and we understand it connaturally, intimately, as the inheritors of its powers and the victims of its yearning. We feel in the marrow of our bones the emptiness — the insatiable thirst for LIFE and existence that embodies our longing — a thirst in which we live and move and have our being. We own LIFE as ours. But LIFE is not some “thing”; it is a hunger and desire for LIFE as if we did not have it at all. We are LIFE’s “Will-to-be-here” willing ourselves to be-here … feeling the creative power of our emptiness, nailed always to the cross of our entropic wellspring: living matter.

Religion is our collective human attempt to relate to LIFE, which means to relate to what we are and simultaneously yearn for. The conatus/entropy incongruity is the heart of the human condition. The treasure we carry in vessels of clay is ourselves willing ourselves to be-here even as we drift toward an inevitable death. Religion as relationship to the LIFE-force itself involves embracing ourselves in a most profound way — a way that includes the mortality of all living things because the LIFE we share is the same.   We ourselves are the doorway to our encounter with LIFE. How do we do that? Who will guide us? For millennia we tried to relate to a “God” that pulled us aside at death one by one for judgment and punishment. Now, who will teach us how to rest in a colossal living embrace that makes us family with every other yearning thing in the universe? Instead of being held up for ridicule as guilty individuals we have been “willed” into existence as a cherished part of a cosmic totality. Our cuture has not prepared us for this.

Religion is a natural, spontaneous reaction of humankind born of the irrepressible conatus along with the sense of the sacred and the awareness of the contradiction of death that it immediately engenders. The conatus and its sense of the sacred originate in matter’s living energy and are a foundational instinct, unmediated and underived, that can be ignored but not suppressed. They appear on the planet with the emergence of humanity itself. Because of the primordial nature of this instinct it took concrete social form — religion — from the earliest moment and has evolved through the millennia molting its outward practices in tandem with the historical context, but always driven by a spontaneous and unsuppressible urge. The conatus is sufficient and necessary to explain it. The religious instinct in and of itself does not imply the personal theist “God” of the West; and indeed not only in the east but peppered across the globe, the instinct has resulted in all kinds of religious structures with “gods” that were often indistinguishable from the powers of nature represented by animals or geologic and cosmic forces personified. They are metaphors that all point toward material LIFE as it really exists; even Christianity’s emphasis on the cross points to the central contradiction: a conatus feeding on the energy of an entropic matter — LIFE springing from death.

*

How do we relate to this discovery? I turn for guidance to the great mystics — the people throughout the world who have sought personal contact with religion’s Source. Even though they come from traditions with vastly different images of the LIFE-source, the mystics agree to a remarkable degree on what relationship to it looks like. Their descriptions, as I read them, confirm for me that the relationship to “God” or Brahman or Tao of which they spoke in their time and within their cultural context conformed to what one would expect if the literal object of their gratitude and love were matter’s living energy as I am proposing, rather than an individual spirit/person entity or other transcendent “divine” presence.

For consider:

  1. The mystics all agree that that encounter with [LIFE][1] is indisinguishable from an encounter with oneself. [LIFE] and the living human organism are one and the same thing.
  2. In all cases any imagined life in another world is conceived as having begun and being fully present here in this life to such a degree that the future aspirations become a subset, if not superfluous. They become more important as symbols of the encounter with [LIFE] here and now.
  3. Mystics share a universal conviction that [LIFE] is not a separate entity/person but an energy resident in all living things that has no will of its own aside from the endless will to live and to live endlessly in the living individual organisms. [LIFE] and the totality it enlivens are one and the same thing even as each individual living organism activates LIFE as its own and autonomously, and the LIFE force goes on to transcend current forms and evolve ever new ones.
  4. They all say that the core of relationship to [LIFE] is detachment from an ersatz “self” created by a false importance assigned to the individual conatus mistakenly thought to be independent, permanent and self-subsistent. They encourage, instead, the identification with a universal “Self” — a totality that includes not only all living things, but also everything that exists. It is the totality to which the “self” belongs and to which its conatus should be subordinated.
  5. They concur that while rational behavior is essential to being human, it does not provide the permanence that the conatus seeks. Paradoxically, moral achievement, like other forms of individual success, insofar as they are pursued for self-enhancement, are to be the object of detachment — a letting-go that allows the LIFE of the totality to assume the control of the human individual and direct behavior.
  6. They all counsel a relationship to [LIFE] that does not presume interpersonal humanoid reciprocity. They are acutely aware of the fact that [LIFE] is not an individual entity, like a human person, because it is not the energy of a material organism. [LIFE] is the existential energy of all things activated in ways proportionate to the complexity and interiority of the organism. Therefore, the great mystics all tend to encourage relational practices to [LIFE] that transcend “conversational” — one-to-one — communication. They avoid traditional religious “petition” for a miraculous intervention to alter reality for the benefit of certain individuals so characteristic of Western Christianity.
  7. They universally counsel love for all things. [LIFE] and the totality that [LIFE] enlivens are in a sense more real and more substantial than any individual.

The mystics in all cases point to a spare and indistinct conceptual structure at the foundation of their experience. As a primary exercise they are all, including western mystics, vigorously focused on the deconstruction of the literalist imagery of their respective religions. They consistently discourage the pursuit of and attachment to anything like visions, consolations, or feelings interpreted as interpersonal “contact,” emphasizing instead trust in the solidity of the LIFE we actuate. They describe the object of their quest — LIFE — as the unspoken background that increasingly becomes the object of our peripheral awareness. They are quite clear that the heights of religious experience for them have occurred when they were simply being themselves, living with the background awareness of their immersion in LIFE. They speak of a sense of contact that is not conceptually clear, but is an “unknowing” … and that the object of this awareness is more like no-thing than something.

Through exercises focused on mental attention the mystics train themselves to transform the connatural sense of emptiness and yearning into an awareness of their immersion in LIFE — possessing and being possessed by LIFE — resulting in a deep and abiding peace.

 

 [1] Brackets are used to indicate that what I am calling LIFE was called by other names by the various mystics, according to their tradition: “God,” Brahman, Tao, etc.

Luther’s “faith”

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

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

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

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

Roman Christianity in Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luther’s faith

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

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

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

Anabaptists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bainton, Great Voices …, p.71

[9] Ibid.

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

Another narrative

The key to understanding Augustine’s theory of Redemption (and its untenability) is that it works in tandem with his version of the doctrine of Original Sin.  Divine intervention — grace — is absolutely necessary because, according to Augustine, Original Sin has rendered human nature so thoroughly corrupt that no merely human effort, no matter how heroic and sustained, could ever avoid much less reverse human moral degeneration.  “Sin,” in this sense, affected the whole human race … no one was excepted:

… [Adam] through his sin subjected his descendents to the punishment of sin and damnation, for he had radically corrupted them in himself by his sinning.  As a consequence of this all those descended from him and his wife … — all those born through carnal lust on whom the same penalty is visited as for disobedience — all these entered into the inheritance of original sin. … ‘Thus by one man sin entereed the world and death through sin and thus death came upon all men …’ By “the world” in this passage, of course, the apostle is referring to the whole human race. (Augustine, Enchiridion, VIII,26)

Augustine’s innovation imputing guilt and moral impotence to absolutely everyone, clearly, was crucial if he was going to provide a rational ground for the universal necessity of the Church and its ritual ministrations.  His predecessor, Cyprian of Carthage, had ennunciated the principle 150 years earlier during the Decian persecution: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  But think of what it meant that every human being who died without baptism went to eternal torment.  As we saw, Augustine’s consistency required he apply it rigorously, even in the case of unbaptized newborn infants.  He had to insist that “God’s” justice completely trumped his mercy.

Besides its utter absurdity, Augustine’s theory of Original Sin falls on a number of factual counts.  First, it contradicts what anyone could see even without the advantages of modern science, namely, that death is natural.  All organisms die.  The claim that we were created naturally immortal because of our “spiritual” soul, was a Platonic theory that was philosophically contested even in ancient times and became a generally accepted “fact” only with the ascendancy of Christianity and the outlawing of other religions and philosophies by Rome.  This was not limited to the West.  The eastern Orthodox to this day continue to insist that death is not natural.

Second, from the clear evidence of an abundance of good, just and loving people, who in those days were all pagans, it is patently clear that human nature is absolutely not corrupt, and quite capable of living morally on the resources provided by nature.  Claims of universal depravity in Roman times was a “spin” created by Christians to justify their call to abandon ancestral religions and “convert.”  The inability to ac­know­ledge even the innocence of newborn infants was the most egregious example of this myopia.  It was an extrapolation.  Augustine’s primary evidence for the corruption of human nature was, in fact, his own sexual addiction — actually, what he himself admits was a deep attachment to his common-law wife interpreted as a moral trap by his own vaulting ambition and delusional belief in the superiority of celibacy.  All he had to do was to fully embrace his marriage and his “sense of corruption” would have ended then and there.  He couldn’t do that because it would have meant career suicide: he was upper class, she was lower class.  

Besides, Augustine’s obsessive pursuit of celibacy was, in my opinion, an attempt at self-aggran­dizement propelled by 9 years as a “second-class” (non-celibate) Manichee.  Moreover, the denigration of all forms of sexuality as “carnal” and “imperfect” was a pervasive attitude in the mediterranean world which included the Christian Church of his time; and it was a cherished conviction of Ambrose of Milan, his mentor at the time of his conversion.

Third, Augustine’s metaphysical interpretation of what happened in the Garden of Eden (i.e., that nature was metaphysically changed) is entirely gratuitous.  It is contrary to the obvious intentions of the Jewish biblical authors and the current Jewish scholarly understanding of the story as a parable encouraging obedience to the moral counsels of Israel.  Yahweh’s rejection of inherited guilt, explicit in both Exodus and the prophets,[1] is quite unambiguous and totally belies the fundamental premises of Augustine’s treatment.  The Eastern Orthodox have always rejected Augustine’s interpretation as non-apostolic.

Fourth, according to Augustine, and his 16th century Western defenders in the reformed tradition, “God” predestines every human being to heaven or hell by choosing to save the (undeserving) elect while he knows but does not choose to save the (equally undeserving) reprobate.  Such convoluted contortions presuppose a real distinction between “knowing” and “willing” in “God,” which, even in the case of human beings is a contrived conceptual fiction, and for “God” whose every act and thought are acknowledged by classical theology to be identical with “his” essence, there is no distinction between knowing and willing.  The entire effort is revealed for the circularity that it really is: the attempt to justify a theory of “redemption” that was concocted out of thin air, and hang it on a “sky hook” suspen­­ded from non-existent premises.

Besides, why does “God” choose to save some and not others?  No one knows, and we are advised not to inquire.

… [God] simply does not bestow his justifying mercy on some sinners.  …  God decides whom to withold mercy from according to a standard of fairness which is most hidden and far removed from the power of human understanding.[2]

Predestination is presented as a matter of pure whim, without rhyme or reason.  This gives rise to the Christian’s complaint: when it comes to punishment, reasons abound … and “God” himself is bound by them — he must punish the guilty, even newborn infants.  When it comes to mercy, however, there is no such obligation; all we are told is that he saves some and abandons others to their fate “for the sake of his glory.”  Augustine’s “God” was definitely not a liberal.

 *      *      *

Here is where I stand: There was no “Original Sin” as Augustine claimed, and there is no such “God.”  Therefore the perennial Christian belief that we are “saved by Jesus’ death” from selfishness and isolation may very well be true in some other sense entirely, but in the traditional sense that they have been given in Western Christian history — as atonement to an insulted “God” for the sin of Adam and the recuperation of a lost immortality — they are unjustifiable nonsense, rationally and scripturally.  Augustine’s attempt to “explain” redemption in those terms is pure fiction, a tale of zombies, resident evil and “fate” — a paranormal nightmare, the horror movie of the Western World.  That Hollywood and Burbank continue to pour out great quantities of films and TV series based on these themes speaks to the depth of the imagery in the popular mind inculcated by 1500 years of Augustinian Roman Catholicism.

Luther and Calvin did not have an option.  They awoke at the end of the middle ages lost in the maze created by Augustine’s tormented Roman mind: a humanity thoroughly corrupted by “Original Sin” and an an emperor “God” whose commitment to the rights of authority was more fundamental than his compassion for the human condition.  The “reformation” was their attempt to find a way out of the labyrinth.

They never did find their way out, because given the premises there is no way out.  They did the only thing you could do: trust “God” and ignore it all.  It’s an historical lesson that we cannot afford to forget.  For look what it did: it left everything in place, by which I mean Augustine’s dysfunctional “concept of ‘God.’”  That “God,” dreaded by his worshippers and ridiculed by his skeptics, is the very same “God” that mainstream religion imagines today.  From my point of view, the “reformation” reformed nothing.

The Eastern Orthodox narrative

Christians in the West have so internalized this scenario that they think there can be no other story; but it is only one explanation among many.  A different one is told by the Eastern Orthodox and it’s a story they claim the Church Fathers have been telling since Apostolic times.  I present it here not because I espouse it or because it is any less incompatible with the world as science understands it, but simply to show that the same events seen through the eyes of the same ancient pre-scientific worldview can be given a very different interpretation from Augustine’s.  It is an interpretation that has as much ancient tradition behind it as our own, it does not assassinate the character of “God,” and does not require the personal dehumanization and political emasculation of its adherents.

The following is a précis of that narrative taken from the book, The Ancestral Sin, by John S. Romanides.[3]  He begins with an “Original Sin” that did not pass the guilt on to the entire human race.  Adam and Eve were the only ones guilty of that sin of disobedience, no one else.  Human individuals were not born guilty and infants did not merit eternal damnation.  What got passed on were the bodily effects: death, hardship, toil, and a humanity less disposed to strive for theosis, “perfection,” because of death.  The fear of death had predisposed us to selfishness and made forgiveness, mildness and generosity the object of derision.

The great enemy is the fear of death … and it was introduced in the garden by Satan, they insist, not God.  It is the fear of death that makes us grasping and ungenerous.  Jesus died and rose, not to atone for sin or placate the Father, but in order to conquer the fear of death for us.  Jesus’ resurrection and our incorporation into it overcomes the sting of death and with it the selfishness that death inspires.  He thus leads his brothers and sisters to a life of compassion and unstinting generosity in imitation of the boundless generosity of “God.”  We become like God — divinized — by being immersed through baptism in Jesus’ divine humanity and learning how to love one another without measure as “God” loves us; the human family is transformed and the earth along with it.  This is theosis, human perfection; it is immediately, intrinsically social.  We become fearless; we can afford to fight for justice and live with joyous abandon.  We learn to love one another the way “God” loves us.

Notice: there is no insulted “God,” no infinite offense, no atonement, no compensating for the disrespect to “God’s” authority, no universal guilt, no “double predestination,” no moral impotence, no infants condemned to  eternal torment.  The “God” imagined by the Greek Orthodox narrative “seeks not his own” and wants nothing except to have us understand him and share his joyous life of boundless love.  There is also little talk of “heaven,” it being understood that to love one another as God loves is itself paradise, and if indeed there is such a place, what makes it “heavenly” is the love that will bind us all together there even as it does here.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Ex 20:5; Ez 18:20

[2] To Simplicianus, I. 2,16 quoted in Fredricksen, op.cit. p.182

[3] John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, tr. George Gabriel, Zephyr Press, Ridgwood NJ, 2008 (1957).  Fr. Romanides was a theologian and Patristic scholar who taught theology at Universities in Thessalonica, Greece and Balamand, Lebanon.  He died in 2001.