Autogenic Disease

The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress.  The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reforma­tion of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations.  This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.

 Autogenic Disease

So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.

Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.  Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend.  We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it.  We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are.  We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind dieWestern culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise.  Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism.  It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies.  That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet.  The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself.  To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault.  It’s a function of having an imagination.  Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well.  If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality.  Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh.  But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous.  In modern times our escape vehicle is technology.  We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness.  At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds.  These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy.  Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own.  We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe.  We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature.  Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination.  We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams.  What we want slips through our fingers.  It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to.  It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago.  Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature.  And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe.  We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other.  While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate.  For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second.  What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it.  That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this.  For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination.  And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist.  The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied.  This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology.  Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth.  Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs.  It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption.  The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people.  What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions.  We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death.  In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are.  Most people have never had the experience.  “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them.  And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services.  That “speech” was also officially protected.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it.  There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc.  The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear.  Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise.  This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need.  Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand.  I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology.  I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset.  I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us.  How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.  

Next post:  Energy and entropy, LIFE and death:

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Pan-entheism and “prayer”

(first of a series on “Prayer in a Material Universe”)

1. Pan-entheism

“Pan-entheism” is a term that tries to say in one word that a “divine principle” constitutes the structural core of everything that exists.

To put it another way, pan-entheism means that existence as we experience it in ourselves and in the world around us is the active presence — the energy — of a divine principle or source.  It is all there is.  There is nothing else.  It is the definition of existence, esseThe use of the word “divine” is meant to describe the psychological effect — the relationship — which this existential “donor” activity has traditionally generated in the human recipient.

I am intentionally avoiding the word “God,” because it immediately connotes a rational humanoid all-powerful and all-knowing immaterial personal entity who plans, chooses, acts and guarantees the realization of “his” plans for our material universe.  I claim that such a “person” — the traditional “God” of supernatural theism — does not exist.

The “divine principle” I speak of, as far as human knowledge can discern, is not an entity.  It is not “an individual,” much less a “person” rational or non-rational.  What is undeniably known is that it is a “prin­ciple,” “source” or “wellspring” of our material existence — what the Greeks called archē (αρχη),[1] that is perceptible, i.e., empirical: able to be experienced, observed, measured or related to only in its “concrescences.”[2]

“Divine principle” does not refer to any entity or quantity that is directly known.  It refers to whatever it is and however it may achieve its results, that either is, or is responsible for, the following effects that impact human beings at the very core of their existence and identity:  (1) the existence of a universal and homogeneous indestructible material energy, observed, measured, described and made clearly known to us by science, that constitutes the basic components of every structure and every force and feature of the cosmos including ourselves; (2) “life” experienced as a conatus sese conservandi, an “instinct for self-preservation,” derived from the existential energy of matter, characteristic of all known organisms which is expressed as the spontaneous desire to survive, defend, enhance the organism and to reproduce, thus sustaining an evolutionary process from which emerge new and unforeseen entities that populate our planet in a near infinite number of species; (3) a necessary embrace of existence, also known as a sense of the sacred in humans, springing from the connatural concurrence of our organismic conatus with the availability in the environment of the resources necessary for the successful pursuit of survival and reproduction.  Humans necessarily take joy in being-alive and necessarily cherish whatever provides, protects and enhances their life … I repeat, necessarily.  It is a function of the conatus which is itself a necessary function of material energyNo one can suppress their existential hunger, nor their joy when that hunger is satisfied.  These are bodily reactions beyond voluntary control.  We are physically predetermined to love being-here.

The “divine principle” is the unknown “source” that is, or provides, the matrix which makes us ourselves and the means to remain ourselves.  Logically speaking, the sense of the sacred that arises spontaneously in us is not an option; we are locked into an auto-appreciation whose denial is not possible without being pathological and self-destructive. The inner logic of the constitutive connection between the individual and its various sources of support reaching ultimately to its existential source extends the diagnosis of pathology to cover the denial of the divine principle itself.  One cannot cherish oneself without appreciating the sources of one’s support.  The alternative is a self-contradiction and therefore — theoretically — not an option.  That it has, in fact, been claimed a valid choice is an anomaly made possible, and in some cases seemingly inevitable by a severely distorted social history regarding “religion.”  This is a very big topic that we will deal with at another time.

Defining the source of existence as a “divine principle” is also an attempt to identify all the “being” there is (whatever exists) as its manifestation while at the same time refusing to say that the two are simply one and the same thing.  From the side of the concrescences, the concrete existents, there is nothing there that is not the activated divine principle, while from the side of the divine principle, whatever it is, there is obviously always more potential than what has been activated in the various concrete existents, singly or collectively at any given point in time.  In other words, what actually exists and the divine principle are not simply one and the same thing … but what actually exists is only an expression — an observable activation — of that one same divine principle.  The scholastics called it esse.

That means that the only visibility, the only empirical reality this “divine principle” has is in the concrete existents which it constitutes and enlivens.   “Constitutes and enlivens” is intended to evoke an immanence that is quite thorough.  To repeat what was said earlier, “It is all there is; there is nothing else” but this divine principle.  The archē does not reside in the “thing” as a separate entity/tenant, but rather suffuses it totally: for it is the very existence of the “thing.”  They are completely commensurate.

That is what I mean by pan-entheism.

2. Experience and intention (attention)

Based on the foregoing, it follows that all human experience — interior or exterior — is necessarily, in fact if not in awareness, an experience of the divine principle.  Existential energy’s empirical qualities are palpable in the conatus of each respective concrescence; the archē, source, is not experienced as separate from the entity driven by the conatus (mine or others’).  Nor does it immediately imply that the experiencing subject adverts to the relationship.  There is no immediate evidence that there even is a relationship.  The conatus is not spontaneously reflective; it is focused on the survival of the composite organism in space and time, the tasks that survival requires and the enemies that threaten it.  The conatus is a drive emanating from the existential energy of matter; it is common to all matter; it is not an exclusively human phenomenon and it is not fundamentally rational.

Since the divine prin­ciple is not an entity it is not directly or separately perceptibleIt is not a thing.  Its active presence takes the form of the concrescence in question.  That means there is no distance, no difference in fact between the divine principle and the existing “thing” which it activates.   Whatever distance (and difference) there is between them, is due to the focus of human consciousness alone; it is entirely a question of human cognitive attention.  Consciousness does not directly experience the divine principle as such; it only experiences the concrete existent and its intentions, driven by its conatus; any conscious focus on the divine principle is indirect — an inference.

We directly experience the divine principle because, metaphysically speaking, it is all there is.  But, psychologically — from the perspective of our awareness of it — that it is a “divine principle” is an inference.  It is what we are experiencing, but it is a mediated experience, a “cause” known only in its effects.  Our awareness of what it is goes beyond what we experience; it is metempirical.   But the “distance beyond” is exclusively due to the empirical focus — the intentionality — of human consciousness.  There is no relationship as between two entities, for there are not two entities there.  The divine principle is not an entity.  There is only one entity, the concrescence, and it is constructed of the “divine principle.”  The unity here is total.

Reductionists claim this metempirical designation is really a pretext for admitting illusion and duality into the equations about reality.  They say it is “mysticism,” which for them means conjuring imaginary entities and forces and a world that does not exist.  They speak as if this inference were a gratuitous projection.  But it is not; it is similar to my knowledge of the components and functions of my body — from large organs down to the quarks and muons that are the substrate of matter.  My know­ledge of my own substructures is an inference based on the observations and measurements of science expanding on what I have learned over a lifetime of experiencing life in my body.  It is a valid way of knowing certain things so long as it is employed with due regard for its limitations.  This inferential “know­ledge” does not imply there is more than one “thing” there.  No substructure or component of my body has any identity or conatus-energy that is independent of my integrated self.  They are all known to “me” as if they were “other” than me, for my only direct experience is of my self … everything else is inferred.

This metempirical awareness may enter into the way I manage my life.  I may, for example, take the advice of medical science that warns me that smoking tobacco may cause emphysema and decide to quit, while someone else might declare that they “don’t believe it” because they do not directly experience smoking as painful or debilitating.  Metempirical knowledge may be both valid and logically compelling, but it still remains “beyond experience” and its compelling quality comes from logic, reason, inference — not from direct experience.

But metempirical does not mean it’s not there or even the totality of what is there; it only means the difference and distance is in our heads, not in reality.  Every facet and feature of everything that exists, is a function of material energy either in itself or as an effect of some immanent unknown material “source” (archē) that sustains that energy from within (from our point of view, they are both the “source of material energy” and any distinction between them is irrelevant).  Our experience, therefore, is always and only the experience of this material energy of which we are constructed; there is nothing else there.  And that “source,” archē, immanent in material energy, generates a “divine” relationship with us because we are stunningly aware that it makes us to be-here and to be us.

 3. “Prayer:” relationship to the archē

The word “prayer” is term whose traditional literal application of “asking God” for something is anthropomorphic and obsolete.  I am reluctant to use it at all because it suggests expectations that do not exist.  But since its grosser uses have been transcended even among many traditionalists, I now use it, cautiously, to mean only our affective relationship to our source.

Now, I claim that the conatus of any given living thing is the concentrated display of its existential energies, the expression of its very coherence as an integrated organism made of parts.  We can see and attend to the form those energies take in living things by observing their behavior and we can draw certain limited conclusions about the character of their source from what we see … always keeping in mind, of course, that their source is not separate but is immanent in their substructure.  Since we have identified the source of these energies as a “divine principle,” it follows that what we are experiencing when we observe the conatus of organisms other than ourselves is the effect of this divine principle as it functions in the real world.

But we also know the archē more intimately because we can attend to the conatus within ourselves.  I claim that the simple act of turning attention to one’s own emerging existence in time with all its associated needs and desires, brings us into indirect, mediated (i.e., mirrored in ourselves) contact with the “divine principle.”  It is, in all essential respects, what has been classically called “mystical experience” or the experience of “God,” notwithstanding its simple and undramatic nature.  Gregory of Nyssa called it the “sense of presence.”  I believe it is fundamentally the same as the Buddhist practice of “attending to the present moment,” what they call “mindfulness.”

Such a perspective follows logically, given the premises outlined above.  My personal conatus is the “gathering,” the synergy resulting from the coalescence of the existential energies (the more primitive conatus, if you will) of the various sub-structural elements that under other circumstances may subsist independently as themselves, but now cohere and are integrated as “me.”  Their combined existential energies collaborate across the entire structural spectrum — organic, molecular, chemical, atomic and sub-atomic (themselves all more primitively structured) — in a seamless unified experience of self-identity.  There is only one “experience,” one conatus, one entity — and it is myself.

But the “present moment” includes the existential energy on display in everything around me.  Any given “present moment” is witnessing material existence creatively occupying new ground that a moment earlier had been “non-being.”

Pan-entheism and “prayer”  — “treat everything as if divine”

Pan-entheism says the “divine principle,” the archē, is inseparably immanent in things.  It doesn’t “dwell” there as if it were a second entity.  There is no second entity.  As esse it is indistinguishable from the existential energy of living organisms and all their constitutive substructures.  I want to emphasize: It is not only phenomenologically indistinguishable, it is physically/metaphysically identical for there is nothing else there but “divine energy” in the form of material existence integrated into an “entity” as this particular organic concrescence.

Not only does every type of micro substructure collaborate in the phenomenon of conatus-driven organic life, but the macro features of the “superstructure” — the fully integrated organic individual — are themselves the end-products of evolution that have been shaped by material energy for material survival through eons of geologic time.  The human “body” is the evolved result of the sequential synergies of more primitive ancestral material organisms driven by their archē-energized conatus to survive.

So we see that both structurally and genetically the conatus I experience as myself is the gathering of the existential energies of evolving matter.  My experience of my living striving self is the experience of the “divine principle” — LIFE, archē — as it gives shape and life to all things.  I claim this is what is palpable in “mystical experience.”  Christian mystics through the millennia who have claimed to have “experienced God” were in fact experiencing themselves as the expressions of the archē … and the “growth” that they claimed was occurring in this “relationship” with the “Other” was in fact the growth in their own personal awareness that everything, including themselves, is “divine.”  The personal theist “God” is a metaphor — a poetic personification — of the self-appreciation and personal trajectory of the conatus, increasingly aware of and increasingly determined to act in congruence with, its source.

Don’t get me wrong.  You do experience “God,” but what pan-entheism tells us is that the experience is of ourselves as the expression of the “divine principle” not of some separate “person.”  The “presence” that energizes existence is mediated through its concrescences.  “God” is the immanent energy of existence not a separate “entity.”  The scholastics called it esse.

“Well, isn’t ‘God’ transcendent as well as immanent”?

Even allowing  the use of that word which comes from essentialist metaphysics, “transcendent” never meant that “God” was an entity; quite the opposite, essentialists employed it to mean that “God” could not be delimited to any finite reality, and an “entity” of whatever kind, by definition, is not other entities and therefore to that degree is not infinite.  Also “transcendent” does not imply that “God” is rationally interactive.  That was an imaginary projection of theism and it is belied by experience.  “God” is not another “person;”  we may talk to “God,” but “God” does not talk to us.  The personal humanoid “God” is a fantasy that has stood as a metaphor for my self as the locus, mediator and mirror expression of the archē.

Metaphor and religion

Don’t misunderstand.  There is nothing necessarily misleading or illusory about religious metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  They are not lies (except if they are taken literally); metaphors are poetic symbols that help us relate to what we cannot see or say and can barely understand; They are necessary to sustain our relationship to our immanent metempirical source.  They lose their validity only when we forget that they are metaphors — relational poetry — not literal “facts.”

The existence of the archē, source of existential energy, responsible for our dependent relationship, is a “fact;” it is the only “fact” that religion validly knows.  Exactly what the “source” is, however, is not known.  Religious metaphors that “personalize” and “humanize” the archē are poetry.  They achieve an affective intensification that is altogether fitting, given the intimate nature of the relationship that is created by the source which is providing me with me.  Nothing could be more personal, more constitutive and therefore more emotionally important to me than what gives me myself.  It would seem incomprehensible not to turn to poetry to extol it, and the ecstatic language generated by the various traditions in the effort to do so reflect an appropriate passionate enthusiasmWe are dealing here with the extreme emotional reverberations of a relationship that is constitutive of human personal existence and identity.  This is not frigid science.  It is the expression of a generative love-relation­ship, a carnal event of unparalleled intimacy with which the interpersonal conjunctions of orgasmic sexual experience pale in comparison.

This perspective is borne out by the great mystics of our tradition for whom the “experience of God” is not something separate from or independent of their personal existence.  It is identified with their own individual moral and emotional development that flowers in compassion, generosity and service to others.  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the earliest mystical theologians said that “God” is “known in the mirror of the soul.”[3]  Using the sun as a symbol for “God,” Gregory says while we cannot look at it directly, we can “look upon the sun within ourselves as in a mirror.”[4]  He also says he experiences “God” not as an entity with a nature, or a recognizable “person” with a face, but rather “as an indefinable presence.”[5]

Gregory’s philosophical perspective on “God” was different from ours.  He believed that “God” was a “person.”  But, even so, he was quite clear that in spite of it, as far as his own experience was concerned, what mediated the presence of “God” was himself.

But of course this “mirroring” works in both directions.  Negatively, if the attitudes and behavior I have forged as my “personality” are egocentric, dissolute, unfocused, self-preoccupied, at the whim of every passing desire and insecurity, my “relationship to ‘God’” will reflect it: scattered, unsure, demanding, adolescent, if present at all.  Or another example: if, like Augustine, I decide to build my life around the condemnation of the spontaneous emanations of my body, it should be no wonder that a relationship to “God” based on such a distortion will turn out to be unsustainable.  How can I despise myself and still love my source.  Relationship to “God” will quickly be declared impossible without the “miraculous intervention” of divine grace and a limitless “forgiveness” coming from another world.  One may assume that a “God” who doesn’t perform such a “miracle of grace” in my case does not consider me worth saving.  What are my options then?  Suicide?  Perhaps I can wing it … repress myself … do whatever it takes to tell myself (and convince others) that I am not a reject … if I can’t “be,” perhaps I can “seem” … and at least stay alive.

The depths of self-loathing, repression, and self-deception in such a scenario are bottomless.  And many are quite familiar with it.  The correlation between a healthy balanced human development — which integrates these bodies evolved by LIFE and the society in which they are formed and sustained — with “relationship to ‘God’” is absolute.

What we have made of ourselves determines what we think about “reality” and the “God” who is the source of that reality.  Is this purely arbitrary?  What we think we are is certainly our choice, and comes to be embedded in the social structures that evolve as our culture.  (And the culture, in turn, shapes the personalities of the young ones who follow us.)  It can be a wise choice.  A personal/communal integration focused on shaping one’s personal desires around “wanting for others what one wants for oneself” mirrors the universal availability of the divine principle, and it integrates social justice and personal morality.  Freud said emotional maturity means that our personalities pass from being selfishly “oral” and “anal” to finally becoming “genital” because they become “generative” — generous and life-giving.  The individual is intrinsically communal.  The experience of ourselves receiving and sharing LIFE in a “divine milieu,” is the experience of “God.”

We can see how pan-entheism integrates our religious relationships, our growth in personal liberation/integration and social/political justice.  They are all facets of the same “relationship to ourselves” that is our participation in LIFE.

Make no mistake.  LIFE, archē, is really there, and we know it because we are really here.  But it is not a separate entity.  It has emerged and is on display as us — the living elements of an evolving superorganism.  Our bodies — our communal selves — are where it manifests itself.  We sense its presence mirrored in our selves, and we relate to it with poetic metaphor.   It is in LIFE itself that like sponges in the sea, we “live and move and have our being” and it is in us and our material universe that the archē is incarnate.


[1] The word archē is an ancient Stoic term used by Philo and the epistle of John.  It is often mistranslated as “the beginning.”

[2] “Concrescence” is a term coined by A.N. Whitehead to refer to a “thing” that acquires a complete complex unity — a sustainable coherence — within the primitive substrate which we have been calling “material energy” and Whitehead calls the “primordial nature of God.”

[3] Jean Danielou, From Glory to Glory, texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical writings, St Vladimir’s Pr, NY 1979, p. 25

[4] Ibid., p. 26

[5] Ibid.

Arius and Athanasius

Arius and Athanasius: … what was each trying to accomplish?

Arius was trying to do two things.  First, by emphasizing Jesus’ traditional identification with Philo’s LogosCraftsman, Arius was trying to preserve inviolate the sense of the utter unknowability and inaccessibility of the “One” beyond all ousía.  We needed a mediator precisely because we could not contemplate the “One” directly and by our own lights; “God” was beyond us.  Looking at Jesus we would be content with a human model and we could let “God” be whatever unknown thing “he” was and thus the correct relationships would be maintained.  Second, as a corollary, he was out to preserve the humanity of Jesus, and thus protect him as a human role model and teacher of human wisdom against a tendency to have him absorbed into the unknowable Father and thus made irrelevant to a humankind who needed a shepherd they could see and follow.

Athanasius, for his part, was committed to what Christianity had always claimed was the epic achievement of Jesus: that he broke down the walls of separation between us and “God” and brought “God” near.  Jesus forged an intimate connection with the Godhead by grafting us into his own flesh.  For Athanasius this intimacy was only secondarily relational.  It was first and foremost metaphysical.  We participate in the life of God not primarily through obedience, nor even by admiration and love, but we actually become “flesh and blood” members of the “body” of Godsharing his ousía and its immortalitybecause the ousía of Jesus IS the same ousía as the Father.  Morality is a derivative: since we are being “metaphysically” divinized we are expected to behave like “God.”

For Athanasius, if theosis, “divinization,” was going to occur, homoousía had to function in two directions simultaneously.  Jesus had to be homoousios with “God” and the human being had to be homoousios with Jesus.  The Incarnation was a bridge.  It meant that ultimately we were homoousios with God.  To share ousía with the source of LIFE was to achieve immortality.

Athanasius’ premise, however, was the same as Arius:’ the high God was transcendent, remote, inaccessible, alienated from us and it was Jesus’ epic achievement to bring him near.  For Athanasius that meant in his own flesh;  Jesus had to be homoousios — “God” — to do that

But consider: if the premise is false, i.e., if “God” is not remote and inaccessible, the rationale for everything that follows from it, disappears.  Anyone who reads the gospels will immediately recognize that Jesus’ Jewish message contradicted the very premises that drove the Arian dispute.  There was no infinite gap between “God” the Father and us.  Jesus taught that “God” was our father … loved us … was near to us … clothed us like the lilies of the field … cherished every hair on our heads … mourned every sparrow that fell from the sky … ran to us when we were still far off … .  If Athanasius honestly felt that he needed the homoousios to bring “God” close, he never really heard what Jewish Jesus was saying.

In the context of a mindset that considered the high “God” remote and inaccessible and humankind hopelessly alienated, making Jesus the high “God” had an effect that was, in hindsight, entirely predictable.  Instead of bringing “God” near, it made Jesus remote and inaccessible and took from us one who was once our brother.

Immortality

Athanasius’ argument in the decades of polemics sub­se­quent to the Council was that the homoousios guaranteed theosis, “divinization” and thus immortality.  It was a notion that was given deep mystical applications later on.  Fifty years after the Council Gregory of Nyssa will describe theosis as an ever deepening process whereby we are borne into the unfathomable heart of the self-existent Godhead by our identification with the risen flesh of Christ-God.[1] “Salvation,” in his view, is not simply a “state of safety,” it is an endless ecstatic activity totally engaged at each “present moment” in exploration — a continuous mind-expan­ding adventure that begins right here and now and continues in an unpredictable creative newness for all eternity.  Christianity is a relationship to LIFE that implies endless living, not a morbid, static “non-condemnation.”[2] The key word is “implies.”  Immortality was a secondary and derived feature of this conception, the primary focus was the connection to LIFE itself.

Dodd in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel has a lengthy commentary dedicated to showing how John in his gospel clearly distinguished these same two aspects of “eternal life” and emphasized the priority of relationship to LIFE in the here and now.[3]

In the dialogue preceding the raising of Lazarus the evangelist appears to be contrasting the popular eschatology of Judaism and primitive Christianity [life after death] with the doctrine which he wishes to propound.

That “doctrine,” Dodd goes on to say, is implied in Jesus’ expansion of Martha’s statement of belief in the “resurrection on the last day.”

The implication is that the believer is already “living” in a pregnant sense which excludes the possibility of ceasing to live.  In other words, the “resurrection” of which Jesus has spoken is something which takes place before bodily death and has for its result the possession of eternal life [LIFE] here and now.  … The evangelist agrees with popular Christianity that the believer will enter into eternal life at the general resurrection, but for him this is a truth of lesser importance than the fact that the believer already enjoys eternal life, and the former is a consequence of the latter. … the “death” which is in view is rather the mode of existence of unenlightened humanity. … For John, this present enjoyment of eternal life has become the controlling and all-important conception.[4]

We might go so far as to say that if it were possible for us to contemplate the resurrection on the last day as a fait accompli, it would still be, as in the raising of Lazarus, no more than a sēmeion [sign, symbol] of the truth that Christ is himself both resurrection and life — the giver of life and the conqueror of death.[5]

But for Athanasius, guaranteeing Jesus’ divine status was motivated by much more practical interests.  He was convinced that our metaphysical state prior to baptism was a state of insuperable alienation from the source of LIFE and necessarily incurred death.  It was not at root a moral condition of malicious will or weakness of character.  It was the way things were.  Death was due to a corrupt nature.  It was “science.”  And the “scientists” at Nicaea were not intellectualizing, they were being stone practical: they were talking about conquering death.  The fact that there was death in the world proved to Platonic scientists that an unnatural “fall” had taken place.  Death could not possibly be natural … for we are spirit and spirit cannot dis-integrate.  It was a metaphysical reality that only the Creator could change.  This was Platonic science.

Now, it is important to ask, what exactly was this state of alienation?  The background all along was the Platonic belief that human nature was intrinsically corrupt due to a pre-historic fall of spirit into grubby matter.  This was the metaphysical assumption which the Greco-Roman educated classes accepted as scientific truth.  “Original Sin” was its reprise in a Judeo-Christian idiom.  By Athanasius’ time the story of Genesis had already been retrofitted to accommodate Plato’s “science.”  The key factor is that Platonism had made this “fall” metaphysical, not moral or relational, and its sign was physical death.  “Original Sin” was given the same role.  It was not principally moral, it was metaphysical.  To turn things around, being good was not good enough … you had to be reborn as a new kind of entity, and Christianity provided that rebirth because it was the source of LIFE himself — the Logos — who was incorporating you into his “body” in baptism. 

Plato generated a cultural illusion that death was unnatural, a sign that something was wrong with nature.  What makes this all so bizarre is that every other life-form on the planet dies naturally.  That undeniable fact never made a dent in the insane Platonic belief that death in our case was unnatural.  If we are not struck by the obvious delusional nature of this conviction, it is only because we ourselves are culturally engulfed in it.

Christianity for all its historic importance, was only a minor subset of the overall Platonic two world, spirit-matter, life-after-death fairy tale that has characterized our civilization since at least 350 bce and maybe earlier.  It is the peculiar legacy of Greek “science.”  It’s good to remind ourselves that the majority of the ancient Mediterranean religions — the many Mysteries, the Hermetists, the Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Mithraists — that existed at the time Greek Christianity was born, all shared that vision.  This was intensified in Late Antiquity.

… the religion of the age was to a great degree other-worldly and escapist. Despairing of true happiness for themselves in this life or of the triumph of peace, justice and prosperity on earth, men turned their thoughts to a future life beyond the grave … In the mystery religions … the dominant motif was to seek assurance for a life after death. … In philosophical circles there was a strong tendency to regard the material world as inherently evil and the body “a cloak of darkness, a web of ignorance, a prop of evil, a bond of corruption, living death, a conscious corpse, a portable tomb.”[6]

These religions were all dualist, and they all believed that we were spirits that should not have to die.  Christianity was only one of Platonism’s many cultic forms; it displaced all the others only because of the single fortuitous event of becoming the religion of Constantine, the Roman emperor.  The empire carried it to all of Europe and the European nations spread it to their colonies throughout the world.  It was a local myth that enjoyed a global expansion by sheer historical accident.[7]

The much touted quest of Athanasius for “mystical” union with God is overstated by Williams.  Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, like so many Christian apologists, is trying desperately to find some core values in the Nicene formulas that will give them a trans­historical and transcultural significance.  Whatever mysticism Athanasius was trying to preserve he based on mechanics and hydraulics that were designed to work within an ancient physics and cosmology.  He was grounding his mysticism on the science of his times.  It turned the Church’s sacraments into magic talismans, objective “instruments” which infallibly produced a metaphysical transformation “infusing” humans with “divinity” which would eliminate death in their case, individual by individual.  Moral and relational changes were secondary to these physical/metaphysical changes and were thought to follow naturally.  The entire picture was sheer fantasy, and it easily sidelined the here and now relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being.”  Homoousios was an essential part of a self-interested solution to a terror-of-death generated by the “immortality mania” characteristic of a Platonic universe.  As Dodd said:  “Hellenistic society … was haunted by the spectacle of phthora [decay], the process by which all things pass into nothingness, and which engulfs all human existence.”[8]

But if we are sensitive to these underlying Greek aspirations represented by Athanasius we can see the analogue between what he thought he was guaranteeing with the homoousios and the religious aspirations of all humankind which seeks “union” with its source and sustainer naturally.  The Nicene controversy was born of the unresolvable inconsistencies of the Platonic view of the world.  By attempting to resolve those inconsistencies in Platonic terms it locked Christianity even more inextricably into the Platonic Universe.  But the Platonic Universe does not exist. They did not know that in the fourth century, but in the 21st century we do.  What needed to be said to guarantee union with the “source of existence” in a Platonic Universe, does not need to be said to guarantee that same union in ours.

We can see by the visions of both Arius and Athanasius how they were utilizing familiar features of their common Platonic world view to support the relational priorities that they each saw made possible by the Christ event.  That imaginative process resulting in two hundred years of violent disagreement and division eventually settled nothing.  And I contend there is no way it could have.  For the only reason they saw their respective positions as incompatible was that they were looking at them primarily as objective scientific facts rather than relational goals.  The relational goals of each were legitimately and traditionally Christian.  Why couldn’t they see that? … because they were mesmerized by what they thought were the facts.  Arius was saying that because Jesus, factually, was a creature, to worship him as “God” was idolatry: it sapped our sense of the awesomeness of God and diluted our worship.  Athanasius was saying if Jesus were not in fact God, theosis could not take place, and there would be no resurrection.[9] The philosophical world-view that they both shared had the familiar fixed features of Philo’s Platonism which determined the facts of the case.  And they each “worked backwards” from their preferred relational effect to what had to be the “scientific” cause in the Platonic universe.  They were interested in the facts.

This was not their doing.  Right from apostolic times the use of Philo’s Platonic “facts” to “explain” the Christian world­view to Greeks in their own terms, eventually got out of hand and supplanted the primacy of the relationship.  Jesus’ Jewish message had no such complexity.  It was relational in the most simple, uncomplicated terms imaginable.  Love “God” and love people.  Nicaea could have reinforced that message, but it did not.  Nicaea might have confirmed the validity of the relational goals promoted by each side and left the expression of it in the form of the liturgical metaphors where it had been safely kept for 250 years.  But even if that were their intention, would Constantine have let them do it?  I don’t think so.  The Emperor wanted a religion that gave him “facts” and “certain knowledge,” a basis for demanding subordination and behavioral compliance, not some symbolic invitation to embrace the darkness.

But religion is born and thrives in darkness.  We are related in blood and bone to what we neither know nor understand.  Religion does not attempt to escape that ignorance; it revels in it.  Ignorance feeds the sense of the awesome mystery of existence … and religion embraces it!  Religion’s “knowledge” of “God” is not scientific, it is biblical: it is carnal knowledge — know­ledge that comes from the intimate surrender of relationship, not science.  To science religion is darkness.

Today, we have an entirely different world-view from fourth century Platonism, the “science” of its day.  But If their relational goals — an awe-filled relationship with the unknowable invisible source of cosmic LIFE, triumph over the fear of death, solidarity among suffering human beings, “redemption” from a sense of alienation from ourselves and the cosmos that spawned us, the retention of Jewish Jesus as role model and teacher of human wisdom — are important for us, we will seek to ground those relational choices in the world-view that we share with one another today.  The “facts,” the science has changed; but the relationships are heuristic: they guide the enquiry.  Those relationships are what we have chosen them to be; it is what we think we are.  And through our cultural tools like religion we become who we think we are.  We cannot pursue our relational goals in the scientific world-view of Arius and Athanasius.  It was theirs, it is not ours; we have our own.  But if the relational goals of the Judeo-Christian tradition — love of the Source of our spectacular universe and love for one another — are to remain the same, we have more than the right, we have the obligation to understand, ground and celebrate those goals in terms of the science / philosophy of our times.

There is no sense even thinking about eliminating scientific world-views altogether.  The quest for some kind of “fact-free” other-worldly “religious” approach to this business of religious relationships is an illusion.  Relationship is not a theoretical exercise.  Relationship cannot occur in a world that does not exist.

We can only understand the doctrinal tradition we have inherited from the distant past by understanding the world-view of those that created it, which in the case of traditional Christianity is not ours.  And we can only assess the validity of the relationships that their efforts envisioned by testing them against the demands of our view of reality.

These things are ours to decide.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”


[1] Williams, op.cit,. p.26.

[2] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Bk II, #219 ff.

[3] Dodd, pp. 144-150 and 364-366

[4] ibid pp. 148-9 (emphasis mine)

[5] Ibid., p. 366

[6] Jones, op.cit., p. 41 (sic. He quotes someone without giving the reference.)

[7] Augustine’s claim that the centuries of slaughter, treachery, rape, plunder, slavery and cultural obliteration that went into the creation of the Roman Empire was, all along, “God’s plan” for the universal expansion of Christianity, is the absurd extension of this mega-Myth.  And if it weren’t for our cultural blindness such an outrageous claim would be considered self-serving on the very face of it; it was a contradiction of the character of “God.”  Like “Original Sin” and “life after death” it’s part of the artificial scenery — the stage backdrop against which we watch this “drama” we have created for ourselves unfold.

[8] Dodd, op.cit., p.366

 [9] The immortality of the soul was not a generalized belief among the earliest Christians because Platonism, which was the ideology that proposed it, did not dominate Mediterranean culture until centuries later.  One’s personal resurrection was considered a special gift that resulted from being incorporated into the death and resurrection of Christ.  For the Greeks, man was mortal; only the gods were immortal.  In his tract On the Incarnation, Athanasius shows residual signs of that older belief, and his desperate insistence on the homoousios can be understood as a function of it.  Effectively for Athanasius, if Jesus were not “God,” being incorporated into him would not guarantee immortality.


ARIUS and NICAEA

Reflections on Religion and Science in a Material Universe

Announcement:

There is a new book by Tony Equale just written and right now in the process of being published.  It is called “Arius and Nicaea:  Science and Religion in a Material Universe.”  It is 165 pages.  It should be available for sale here in Willis, and on Amazon and B&N before or right after X’mas (I hope). 

The book deals with the Arian dispute of the fourth century which occasioned the Council of Nicaea and the dogmatic declaration that Jesus was “God” of the same nature as the Father.

The book is a combination of historical and philosophical reprise designed to reconstruct the mindset and intentions of the actors in this ancient drama that settled Christianity’s core identity and decided the destiny of Eurasia for the next two millennia.  We, in our day, are its direct inheritors.  The analysis in the book uses this understanding heuristically: as a guide for our own deliberations about the present and future of “religion.”

We live in a material universe.  How does Nicaea suggest we should deal with that?

 

The following snippet is from the introduction:

 

Arius and Nicaea

Science and Religion in a Material Universe

The Arian controversy, theoretically resolved at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, was a crossroads in the development of Christianity.  There is virtually nothing else that all Churches, east and west, cite as the absolutely non-negotiable litmus test of Christian orthodoxy than the acceptance of that first ecumenical Council held under Imperial auspices early in the fourth century.  What is most remarkable about the irrevocability with which the Council’s declarations have been embraced is that they represented an unprecedented innovation in Christian doctrine.

The Council condemned the teachings of Arius of Alexandria who said that Christ was “God” only in a derived sense; like everything that exists, he was a creature.  The Council declared, to the contrary, that Christ was not only divine but that his divinity was “the same as that of the Father.”  That had never been explicitly stated by any Christian theologian prior to the Council without being condemned,  and, it may be presumed, had never before been the officially sanctioned object of universal belief.

The canons of Nicaea represent the clearest and possibly most important example of a change that is rationalized in orthodox terms as “the development of doctrine.”  Richard Hanson in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, says the story of Nicaea

… is not a story of embattled and persecuted orthodoxy maintaining a long and finally successful struggle against insidious heresy.  It should be perfectly clear that at the outset nobody had a single clear answer to the question raised, an answer that had always been known in the church and always recognized as true, one which was consistently maintained by one party throughout the whole controversy.  Orthodoxy on the subject of the Christian doctrine of God did not exist at first.  The story is the story of how orthodoxy was reached, found, not of how it was maintained.

There is no doubt that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine.

Interested?  You may order by communicating directly to 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA. 24380.  The phone number is (540) 789-7098.  The price is $14.92.  You may also order by making a request in a comment on this blog.   Shipping is included in the price. 

The book is also available in paperback at Amazon.com

I hope you can find the time to read it.  It will be well worth your while … you won’t encounter this perspective anywhere else.

Tony Equale

charisma and structure: a reflection

We live in a material universe.  Human individuals are biological organisms.  They live and then they die.  When they die their visions, their energy, their projects end.  The only way to insure that their aspirations will continue on past their lifetimes is through the institutionalization of their intentions in the form of social structures.  Society is potentially immortal; its members are not.

Society is a virtual reality.  Virtual reality is what we construct with our minds; it has the reality that we give it.  Even though these mental projections are invisible and have no mass or velocity, they are very real, for other socialized individuals are formed by them and  translate them into visible tangible realities:  work, buildings, machines, rituals, armies, cemeteries.  The declarations, constitutions, laws and the decisions made by social entities, are the only way that the élan of any individual or group of individuals can live on through multiple generations.  This is what it means to be human: we are what we think we are, and what we think we are is embedded in the virtualities of our social structures.

Even though they are only virtual reality, social structures obey laws that are not entirely unlike biological organisms.  Evolution is one of those laws.  The ongoing conversation between what our ancestors thought and what we now think, inevitably entails modulation — change.  This is  universal; it applies as much to the Catholic Church as to any other social institution.  Who Catholics think they are — how they perceive the world around them and how they think they should behave — cannot be determined solely by the decisions of generations past.  It evolves under pressure from new emergent realities, and from new knowledge about old realities.  Modern Catholics are finding it increasingly difficult to understand themselves and the universe that spawned them in the terms inherited from ancient times which the Catholic “teaching authority” insists continue in force today.  This intelligibility gap is threatening the ability of Catholics to identify themselves as Catholic.  Many have left, and many others who continue with the Church find they are only able to do so with a host of mental reservations.

The recent efforts of the current Pope, Francis the First, illustrate the problem.  His world-astoun­ding interview, published on September 18, calling on the Church to return to gospel values and to stop “obsessing” over sexual issues, was met with near universal enthusiasm.  But many question what effect such sentiments will have on the Church institution past the excitement of the moment or, assuming the Pope sustains the spirit of his remarks by personal charisma, past his lifetime.

During the last 50 years the conservative reversal of the directions laid out by Vatican II were more than a matter of the personality preferences of the popes who ruled in those years.  They not only insisted on the validity of structures forged in ancient times by people whose historical mindset and cultural assumptions no longer exist, but those popes were also successful in appointing so many like-minded bishops and Cardinals (who alone elect the pope) that the entire “teaching authority,” the magisterium, now reflects those values.  The personal vision, energies and projects of Francis, the current pope, even if they run deeper than a mere personal style, are necessarily confined to the limitations of his individual human organism.  When he dies, the spirit he represents dies with him unless it is institutionalized in the modification of social structures.  We must be honest.  At this point there is no indication that Francis has any intention of doing that.

We Catholics understand this phenomenon quite well; we’ve been through it before.  We are living in an era when the ultra-sacred and, we were taught, “infallible” recommendations of an ecumenical council have been thoroughly disregarded and often eviscerated by the very authorities entrusted with their implementation.  Our disillusionment  quickly turned to cynicism when, on re-reading the texts more attentively, we realized that the Council itself had been very careful not to challenge the continuing validity of the structures of traditional Church teaching going back to ancient times.  In other words, the Council, prestigious as it was, like Pope Francis today, confined itself to recommendations that had no effect on doctrine.  We all know the result of that policy.  Despite the buck-stopping claim that the Council was the “voice of the Holy Spirit,” its recommendations were marginalized by the Vatican authorities whom “infallible dogmas” had intentionally placed beyond all control and accountability.  The Vatican apparatus trumped the “Holy Spirit” … effortlessly.  It wasn’t even a contest.  The “Holy Spirit” was no match for the entrenched power of the governance structures of the Church.  Francis’ charismatic “spirit” can hardly lay claim to a greater appeal than that evoked by an ecumenical council, and so he can hardly be expected to fare any better in a contest with those same ancient structures that continue to rule.

The comparison reveals the stark reality of life in a material universe.  “Spirit,” whether Francis’ or the Council’s, only lives in bodies — living human organisms.  If the Church structures that shape living organisms do not embody and evoke that spirit, the spirit dies.  It has to.  It’s the way things are.  The spirit of any individual, even the spirit of Jesus’ himself, was dependent upon “taking flesh” in human society and the structures that maintained it.  Francis’ “spirit” in like manner needs to take flesh in a living community of human organisms and the virtual structures that identify, sustain and protect it, or it will die.

The “re-prioritizing” that was the point of Francis’ interview should never have been necessary if the correct priorities had been maintained.  How did it happen that they weren’t?  Clearly the fault lies with the structures themselves which are claimed to protect Catholic values through the millennia.  Their very purpose was to insure identity … precisely to prevent the loss of perspective and the distortions of inverted priorities.  If the priorities were so lost that the Pope needed to scold the entire “teaching authority” for “obsessing” over the wrong things, then clearly, unless you want to make the absurd claim that all those men are morally corrupt, it is the structures themselves that are dysfunctional — inimical or irrelevant to the spirit of Jesus’ life and message, and they must be overhauled and in some cases eliminated altogether.

The “spirit” of Jesus that Francis is calling forth obviously has not been accurately identified and adequately protected by these structures inherited from ancient times.  His “spirit” in other words, does not share the mindset which the traditional structures create in individual Catholics.  And unless the structures evolve and change … go through a metanoia every bit as penetrating and transformative as that which pride-filled, selfish individuals pass through when they “convert” from serving their false selves to serving LIFE … the false priorities which those structures encourage or tolerate will reassert themselves in short order.  They will continue to exercise their deforming power and subvert priorities as they always have.

Those who have been brainwashed into thinking the Church will be automatically protected from error are more than deluded.  For the very delusion harbors the seeds of self-destruction.  It encourages churchmen to believe their structures are eternal and their authority is a sacred right; they run the risk of a self-idolatry and a worship of power that is the complete antithesis of the message of Jesus.  What, after all, is the obsessive condemnation of the sexual vagaries of others but the flip-side of self-righteous self-projection.  What is the root of the bishops’ cover-up of predator priests but the attempt to maintain social prestige with the appearance of “holiness” while sacrificing the safety of children and refusing to admit the truth of their dysfunctional structures to the world — and to themselves.  There is more than human failure here; there is also an insidious  doctrine that falsely claims the Church is a “divine” institution authorized to teach the entire world and run by men who rule by divine right.  These anti-gospel structures must be derogated if priorities are to be set straight again.

Francis is only an individual human being, no less dependent on the virtualities of human society than Jesus was for the diffusion and perdurance of his message.  If the things Francis is talking about are not concretized in the structural changes needed to sustain them, nothing will change … and the ephemeral nature of his charisma could actually have a subversive effect; for once people realize that the Church is structurally incapable of changing its structures, and that even the charisma of a pope is powerless against it, they might lose all hope for reform.  The very structures that need changing are the ones that dogmatically (and allegedly “infallibly”) preclude the possibility of change.  It is the quintessential “catch-22.”  Catholic identity has been wed to these claims to exclusivity and unchallengeable power guaranteed by divine infallibility for more than a thousand years.  It has become clear that the spirit of Jesus and Catholic claims to preeminence as defined and protected by the dogmas and laws of the Church are mutually incompatible — they cannot live in the same organism.

A choice, therefore, will have to be made between them.  But it won’t be the first time.  Unfortunately, the fact that a Catholic Church with false priorities — so indicted by the pope himself — is still with us after all this time and so many attempts at reform, tells us that when confronted with the chance for conversion, the “teaching authority” of the Church has always preferred “tradition:” the bludgeon of imperial domination over the healing power of Jesus’ spirit of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

History does not bode well for what will result from this Pope’s charisma … unless he changes those structures.

The Sense of the Sacred (III)

This is the third in a series. To read the entire series and in proper sequence click on the “page” titled  “+ THE SENSE OF THE SACRED” in the sidebar to the right. 

9.

Religious conservatives like Kolakowski criticize the venality and self-centeredness of the culture that emerged with “modernism” (the industrial technology-based world that arose with the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries — the age we live in), and propose a remedy in the return to a traditional religious vision.  They decry the loss of the sense of the sacred which they claim belief in “God” alone can restore.   Some of them espouse a politics of the Ayn Rand persuasion.  Applying standards set by their guru, they have concluded that since “wealthmaking” is the work of “superior” human beings, it is a sure sign of “God’s” presence and approval.  However simplistic, the view is consistent with the traditional Christian belief in divine providence which has always claimed that nothing exists that “God” does not will or permit.  Providence has been the logical source for the legitimacy of rule by the wealthy in the popular mind since long before the advent of Christianity … and Roman Catholic Christianity saw no reason to change it.

Clearly, then, there is no way of preventing belief in “God” from being used to confer a “divine right” on the arrogant self-glorifi­cation and crass inequities harbored by this theory.  To suggest that adulation of wealthy individuals somehow corresponds to having a sense of the sacred is laughable, despite the evidence for its widespread acceptance not only today but throughout history.  If anything, “God’s” traditional role as conceived in the western religious view has rather functioned to undermine our sense of the sacredness of all human life and the rest of the material universe.

But the theory hardly needs refutation.  The more serious thinkers among them, like Kolakowski, do not make an idol out of wealth.  But beyond saying that in the absence of other values, venality and selfishness take over by default, they make no effort to refute the theory; they simply ignore it.  For me, this is problematic.  The logical implications of tradition are often taken places by the popular mind that do not appear on the verbal surface of doctrines like “providence.”  The job of the philosopher is precisely to get below the surface and follow where the tracks lead.  And when these unexpected consequences show themselves to be damaging to the human project, the entire world-view on which they rest is called into question.  The connection between “divine providence” and the idolatry of wealth and power may not be explicit, but people have always lived by its inner logic.  I have great difficulty in suppressing the suspicion that “philosophers” who do not see it and confront it, are in fact under its spell.

The traditional sacred world-view that religious conservatives want us to return to is built around a few key tenets that they claim are critical to a sense of the sacred.  I believe there are three: (1) the belief in a rational humanoid “God” (labeled “supernatural theism”); (2) the belief that besides this universe of matter there is another world where “spirits” alone live; and (3) the belief that we will be judged and receive eternal reward or punishment in that other world after death.  The disappearance of these beliefs does not mean an end to the sense of the sacred, as I have been arguing through­out this series, but rather represents an evolution.  Conservatives’ only real complaint is that where this evolution is going is not to their taste.  I have dealt with these issues many times in the past, but I want to reflect on each of them again, briefly.

 God

The first tenet is that “God” is a “person,” rational and purposeful, almighty and omniscient, providentially managing all events in the universe as traditionally imagined.  If “he” weren’t, there would be no need for theodicy.  Theodicy is a branch of theology dedicated to defending “God’s” reputation by explaining why “he allows” evil and suffering in the universe.  It’s only if “God” controls every last event by rational choice or conscious permission, that any accusation could be leveled at the quality of his management.  It is this same infantile belief in “divine providence” that is responsible for the claim that “God” “wills” certain people to have wealth and power, and certain empires to rule the earth, just as he wills (predestines) some to be saved and leaves the rest to wallow in their turpitude and ultimately reap damnation.  This is the “doctrine” that had Augustine in a hammerlock.  Some years ago I attributed it to a theological aberration, rational but erroneous; but now I believe it is more the result of a puerile lack of intellectual rigor, the inability to get beneath traditional imagery dominated by the values of a paternalistic, authoritarian culture.

I am talking about an anthropomorphic imagery we have about “God” that we have inherited from our tradition.  It is almost ineradicable.  The overwhelming power of cultural inertia is at work here.  No matter how we  twist and shout, every time the word “God” is used that imagery kicks in.  Without a program of daily “meditative therapeutics” it is almost impossible to stop thinking about “God” as a rational person who micromanages the universe.  The clue that this is at root sloppy thinking is that we do exactly the same thing with other forms of life like animals, and even “nature” itself.  We invariably project the kind of intentionality onto these things that only rational beings could have.  In biology it is at least acknowledged to be metaphorical speech even if little effort is made to correct it.  In the case of “God” why should it be so hard to admit that all imagery is equally metaphoric — with all the distance from literal reality that that implies?  Even for the mediaeval scholastics, saying that “God” had “intellect and will” did not mean that “God” had thoughts, desires, preferences and feelings like an ordinary “person.”  “God” is not a person as we humans understand the word … and who else is there to understand it?

So let it evolve.  To change the imagery also requires changing the word.  I use the word LIFE, meaning what stands at the core of material energy in which all things have existence and vitality not as recipient strangers but as intimate participating symbionts, like the members and organs of a universal body or the leaves and branches of a cosmic tree.  If the imagery surrounding “God” were not taken literally, but rather as a poetic personification of LIFE — then the need for “theodicy” will disappear; the survival struggles of living organisms and the immense failure of rejected evolutionary genotypes will be seen as a natural by-product of LIFE exploring its own inner potential.  It seems obvious that matter’s super-abundant  energy is no more consciously intentional than our own instinctual drives which derive directly from it; matter is uncontrollably driven to exist.  It is a passion not an action.  We know what that feels like because we experience it in ourselves.  Matter’s energy does not choose to create any more than it chooses to live; its creativity is an emanation of the irrepressible LIFE at the core of its existence.  LIFE is not a rational project.  It is not chosen.  It is a force whose non-rational and irrepressible character has earned it the label “impersonal.”  It is only we “persons” who bring “reason” and deliberation and calculating purpose to it; and it is we who erroneously project that since our “reason” evolved from it, it had to have “reason” itself for, ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.”  But the “principle of sufficient reason” is an axiom created by us.  There is nothing a priori about it.  It must submit to the evidence like every other “truth;” and the scientific evidence in this case indicates that mind came from mindless matter and not the other way around, obeying “principles” and driven by energies that we have yet to understand.

In the conception I am proposing we are not other than “God” even though none of us, nor even all of us collectively, is “God.”  The projection of “God” as a separate person is just another example of the symbol-making function of human consciousness, taking invisible forces and universal homogeneity and rendering them imaginable by turning them into objectified entities with a human character.  Freud identified belief in a “God”-person as the need to feel protected by a Parent — the residue of our childhood dependency.  As a metaphor “God” refers to the energy for existence and its corollary creativity — LIFE — possessed by all who share the matter of this universe.  This “God” is making exploratory mistakes and suffering — probing to find those combinations of factors that will allow LIFE to continue and express itself, survive and create.  It is this process that has produced the creative effects of the evolution of organic matter.  Our human nature was one of them.

When one contemplates the “distance” matter has traveled from the initial proton formation following the big bang to the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens, the extrapolation of this creative potential into the future leaves the mind positively overwhelmed — overcome, overawed, speechless.  What is there about matter’s energy that is not to trust?  Who is not glad they are part of this process?  And if you don’t see it, take my word for it, every particle of your being has been part of it for 13.7 billion years and will be part of whatever billions of years more it will go on exploring what it can become.

There is no one providentially micromanaging the universe.  There is no one to accuse or exonerate.  And we all know it because that is exactly the way we live our lives.  We pray to express our desires out loud, but no one relies on “God” to provide them with health and the means of survival.  Those that do, we take to court or the manicomium.  Our daily bread is the work of human hands.  And so is the management of the resources of the earth.  Our environmental irresponsibility will not be forgiven and forgotten by a doting Parent.  If we allow the earth to be destroyed we will be destroyed along with it.

If you think “God” is literally a rational humanoid person, open your eyes, there is no such “God” out there!   We have our little aphorisms to explain things, like “God helps those who help themselves,” but he doesn’t help the helpless, does he? — those who cannot help themselves.  The ability to even imagine a “God” who could be so heartless as to refuse to intervene in cases of a toddler with cancer or the depredations of pedophile priests when he could, tells me more about the impoverished humanity of the imaginer than the character of “God.”  Trust me … you can trust the character of “God,” if “God” doesn’t intervene, it’s because he can’t.  The absurdity here is indisputable … the traditional version of “providence” is utterly false.  And if “providence” is false, supernatural theism is false.  There is no such “God.”

But if you think of “God” as a symbolic personification of the life-giving creative energies embedded in the matter of which all things are made, then the sense of the sacred is redirected toward the living “divine” potential of matter and a family solidarity among all things that share this treasure.  There is no loss of the sense of the sacred, and we are rendered respectful, reverent, collaborative and intimately familiar with the earth and the other species — our siblings — that it has spawned.  This view of things is called pan-entheism.  Panentheism grounds a universal mysticism compatible with science that our former world-view — supernatural theism — lacked entirely.

But can we “relate” to this “God”?  Is there, in other words, at some remote and inaccessible depth, a non-rational center analogous to “personality” or “intentionality” that is the source and final gathering, a still point — an Alpha and Omega — of this vast astonishing display of existential energy?  The only thing we have evidence for is the LIFE we see on our planet and in the universe around us, and which we also hear echoed in our own sense of the sacred, and there is nothing to suggest that our ordinary use of the word “person” accurately describes it.  Whatever “person” could mean outside of the context of our experience is, by definition, beyond the reach of our imagination.  People — and traditions — who see a loving Parent behind that opaque mask are taking a leap, making a choice, and projecting a metaphor to describe that choice, not drawing a conclusion … and so are those who don’t.  Each of them must accept responsibility — and be respected — for their choices.

Our relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being” can only be characterized from our side, because we have no idea what the source of LIFE really is … and personally, I don’t care; it’s none of my business.  I don’t have to know.  “God” has a right to be whatever “he” is.  In my own particular case the awe and gratitude I feel toward whatever it is that has given me my very self — both what and that I am — remains foremost in my thoughts.  I love my life.  I can’t help it.  The abundant LIFE that has made “me” possible, I legitimately refer to as “benevolent” regardless of the random events that accompany what it has done for me.  It’s similar to my parents’ mindless ecstatic copulation unleashing the penetration of a random egg by a random sperm.  It does not diminish the gratitude with which I cherish them and their love for me to know they did not “choose” me personallyI was a random stranger who entered their lives for better or worse.  I am no less grateful to whatever it is, and however mindless and “impersonal” its mechanisms, that spawned and sustains the universe, the earth, all its species … and me.  It seems to have no control over its inclination to generosity and creativity.  I really don’t know what it is like outside of its echo in my sense of the sacred … which is my awe at being-here.  I love it for I love being-here being me.  “God,” for me is a metaphor for the LIFE that roils all around me and inside me — the energy we all share.

“God” is whatever “he” is.   What you or I think he is has no effect on the reality.  Our religions — even if they should turn out by some chance to be accurate descriptions of “divine” reality — are the result of our projections … our conjectures … our inferences … our traditions.  We have no independent source of information about “God.”  “No one,” says John, “has ever seen God.”  Since religion is our projection let us humbly recognize that it is really we who are being projected and described … we, this matter of which we are made … which accounts for our instincts … our aspirations … our hopes … what we cherish as sacred.  It’s natural that we imagine “God” in our own image and likeness, we have nothing else to go on.  It is good that we be what we are, with our symbols and metaphors … and leave “God” to be what “he” is.

 A World of Spirits

The second “traditional” belief is that there is a separate world of spirit and our souls really belong there; the material universe is only a temporary exile.  The belief is actually quite Manichaean, for it denigrates matter and fails to explain the ancient Christian hope in the resurrection of the body.  For consider: with this belief there is absolutely no need for you to be reunited with your body; “salvation” begins when the body is finally sloughed off at death.  All reward and punishment is fully applied to your disembodied “soul;” the body is utterly superfluous.  “The resurrection of the body” — a belief already so threatened by the second century that it had to be expressly elicited in the Creed — was a meaningless addition to the newly adopted platonic-Christian world-view; it had become an empty formula.

That wasn’t true of the earliest followers of Jesus.  Paul’s converts believed they were their bodies and therefore required a physical, bodily immortality won by the resurrection of Christ.  They did not believe in the immortality of the human “soul” as Plato taught.  Immortality was a special gift to Christians, the result of being steeped in the mysteries of Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism and the eucharist.  Paul’s message was clear: the body had to be saved or there was no salvation … we have to rise or there was no resurrection.  There is clear evidence of this as late as the second century in the writings of the apologists.  To my mind it is significant that the change over to the Platonic view occurred exactly at the time the upper classes were taking control of authority and ritual in the Church and insulating themselves as a hierarchy from the body of believers.  Platonism was the favored philosophy of the Greco-Roman upper classes.

Matter cannot be reduced to the inanimate and mechanical features that it displays in its more primitive, less developed manifestations.  This material universe has evolved living, sentient, conscious and intelligent beings; there is no indication that at any level — plant animal or human — things are made of anything but matter.  Matter, in other words, is capable of everything we see it doing right before our eyes, even if we don’t understand how it does it.  There is no need to call on other-worldly “spirit” to explain it.  What we used to call “spirit” is really a developed property of matter.

Rationally speaking, the very idea that a spiritual “God” created matter is absurd.  It is self-contradictory.  Consider: If “God” is pure spirit with no admixture of matter, then matter is “his” complete antithesis.  There would be no possibility that he created matter because he could never have thought it or even imagined it.  Where would he go for the blueprint?  Whoever or whatever is responsible for creating matter had to be matter.  Either “God” could think matter, which in classic theology would make “God” to be matter, because “God” is what he thinks — “his” essence is his existence — or matter had to come from somewhere else other than “God” at which point “God” ceases to be “God.”  The very thought is absurd.

The claim that there are two distinct “realities,” matter and spirit, and that spirit is in fact immortal, vastly superior to matter, and that matter’s mechanical inertia is what undermines the rationality of spirit and leads it into “sin,” has served to denigrate matter and especially the human body.  Our experience in the West is that under the tutelage of a dualist platonic Christianity our culture has fostered a schizoid alienation for individuals leading to emotional pathologies and destructive social dysfunctionality.  Dualism holds that matter is perishing; the human soul alone will not perish and therefore it is the only entity in the material universe that is of any permanent value — the only “sacred” thing in a world of “profane” matter.  Dualism seriously limits and deforms our sense of the sacred.

Contrariwise, there is no loss of the sacred if there is no spirit, and even if there were no immortality of any kind.  The recognition and respect for the independent value of existence continues to function because it is an intrinsic part of our human apparatus, and with the disappearance of that other world, our sense of the sacred is forced to focus on this world and the species and people in it — to recognize their value and serve their needs.  This is closer to what Jesus taught than what the Church began teaching in the second century.  Even at the sermon on the mount, which used a “judgment after death” scenario as backdrop, the entire focus of Jesus’ message was on responding to the concrete physical, bodily and emotional needs of human beings in this world — feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, making peace between people.  There were no supernatural mechanisms suggested.  Jesus did not say, “I was hungry and you infused me with sanctifying grace so my hunger could gain merit in the afterlife … I was in prison and you issued me an indulgence so I could go to heaven after my execution.”  Nothing Jesus said was focused on what to do for the afterlife … how to get into heaven, how to avoid damnation.  His vision had to do with life in this world and treating it like the sacred thing it is.  Not only would none of his message be lost if there were no spirit, it is less likely that we would be distracted by the self-interest of reward and punishment.  It is an invitation to serve one another and the earth with a pure heart.

 Heaven or Hell

This brings us to the third belief that completes the scaffolding of our traditional world-view: divine judgment with reward and punishment after death.  As we’ve already mentioned this was definitely not the focus of Jesus’ preaching.  As far as the historical record is concerned, it seems to have been a belief of the ancient Egyptians at least as far back as c.1500 bce if not earlier, but there is no evidence for it among the Jews or the Greeks.  It became a generalized belief in the mediterranean world only after the beginning of the common era with the ascendency of Platonism and Platonism’s absorption by Christianity.  Plato was inspired by the Pythagoreans and there is some evidence that they, in turn, were influenced by the Egyptians.  Judgment-after-death goes hand-in-glove with the Platonic doctrine of the separable soul, which was not a Jewish and therefore not originally a Christian belief.

Why did Christianity make the change?  I believe that as the expectation for an imminent general resurrection and apocalyptic end-of-time proved illusory, Christian leaders realized they had to either close up shop or re-invent their narrative.  It would be reasonable to estimate that the “wake-up call” occurred no more than two generations after Paul’s kerygma, beginning in the second century.  It coincided with all the changes we have encountered in the very early evolution of Christianity: it reflected the upper-class assumption of command and control.  Jesus had promised a “divine judgment” that would punish those responsible for creating a world full of violence and plunder. The new Christian authorities decided that a judgment of the individual soul at the time of death preserved the essence of that promise and spread around the blame.  It wasn’t that much of a shift … it was becoming a general belief anyway.  It meant that the failure of the parousía to materialize would no longer be a public embarrassment, and the fear that “judgment” inspired in the individual believer was very effective in getting people to obey the “commandments” and the church authorities.  Eventually imperial interests also came to see how effective it was for securing behavioral compliance throughout the Empire.

The sense of the sacred is not diminished in the least if the traditional Christian belief in the individual judgment is discarded.  Christianity lived without it from the time of its birth until the upper-class take-over in the second century.  The argument that only fear of punishment will stop people from “sinning” is typical of upper-class prejudice toward the lower classes; it infantilizes the Christian believer; it discourages moral and relational maturity and it excuses the failure of the individual to assume responsibility for his/her behavior.  The truth of the matter is the fear of hell was politically expedient for the State.  It guaranteed compliance to law without requiring a massive police presence for enforcement.  It was a manipulative theocratic mechanism; it had nothing to do with relationship to “God” or our sense of the sacredness of the world.

10.

 Self-transcendence in the service of some ultimate “value” has been recognized throughout our history as a “peak experience.”  Traditional religions have claimed ownership of it and concretized it in rituals of sacrifice.  The act of serving something greater than oneself has generated feelings that are uniquely ecstatic and gratifying.  The refined pleasure they give is so intense and extraordinary that it is self-justifying.  It has become a desideratum — an end  in itself — for many people.  It can be an addiction.  Some people cannot live without having a cause they are ready to die for.

Take away the sacred — something to die for — and what’s left?  … the simple pursuit of survival and the relationships, physical comforts and pleasures that gratify our daily routines and sustain us emotionally.  Many believe this is the “ultimate value.”  But no sooner do we express that insight than we realize that we invariably bring our sense of the sacred to bear on it, for those who believe it is the real destiny of humankind, also believe it is “sacred.”  They tend to exhibit the same non-rational willingness to endure suffering for their conviction and to guarantee that all people have access to these simple goals as any true believer.  What this tells me is that we are so constructed of the “sense of the sacred” at the foundations of our humanity that we take its very antithesis and metamorphose it into a sacred object.  The “sense of the sacred” is as bedrock as you can get with humankind.  You cannot get beyond it.  Whatever we do humanly, that is by evaluation and choice and not as a response to imminent death or basic instinct, is driven by our sense of the sacred.

So, are we caught in this trap?  Are we simply programmed to be creatures of religion?

Only if you think that religion owns and defines the sacred.

If these reflections have tried to say anything, it is that the sense of the sacred is an inalienable human instinct.  It is a connatural reaction that is the reflection in us of what we share with our source … the material energy in which we live and move and have our being.  It does not belong to religion, it belongs to us.  It means we belong here and we should learn to feel at home in the material universe that bore us.  It invites us to appropriate for ourselves the right and obligation to direct those energies to the protection and enhancement of LIFE’s creative project.

Tony Equale

The Sense of the Sacred (II)

This is not a separate essay.  As the section numbers indicate, these reflections are the continuation of the last post “The Sense of the Sacred,” Aug 2, and are built on those premises.

 4.

The sense of the sacred is always associated with the community on which survival depends.  So the religious rituals of self-sacrifice performed the secondary function of sacralizing social life by grounding the community — its routines, its regulations, its castes and its “values” — in the wellspring of the sacred, but always in terms of religion’s separation of the sacred from the profane.  As society changed — specifically in how it guaranteed survival — what religion had narrowly sanctioned as “sacred” had to change with it; if it didn’t, society would generate a religion that would.  Society and religion are integral.  Theocracy is the normal state of affairs; it is natural.  Religion is society’s sounding board for declaring its values sacred.  Those values are what justify society’s survival system guaranteeing existence.

The adjustments made by Christianity in the second century of the common era is an example of a change of this type.  It adapted to living permanently with and within the Roman Empire instead of actively anticipating Rome’s downfall in the Second Coming.  Those modifications were responsible for allowing Rome to feel confident that in selecting Christianity as its state religion it was not shooting itself in the foot.  There were a number of features that assured the empire that its own existence and values were safe with Christianity: hierarchy, a rigid upper-class control of authority and ritual, a quid pro quo “salvation” conditioned on compliant behavior judged by a demanding “God” who sanctioned Rome’s right to rule.  It was a far cry from the original invitation to join Jesus’ “Way,” an egalitarian movement of the common people wrapped in the arms of a merciful “God” who promised the final overthrow of Rome’s system of injustice and idolatry.  Christianity effectively re-invented itself, choosing to function on a dynamic that was quite the opposite of that of its founder.  It changed its world-view from one-world to two, and embraced as its own the class structures that were at the very heart of Roman exploitation.  Christianity never challenged the ancient Mediterranean economic system which was based entirely on slavery on a vast scale.  Control by an aristocratic hierarchy and serfs bound to the land remained in place throughout the subsequent history of Europe in all the nations of the West including the Americas, until the late 18th century.  And all through that time its sacred justification was provided by the Catholic Church and its many reformed versions, very few of which ever challenged those structures.

We can’t fail to appreciate the political implications of all this.  These dynamics are not just the fall-out of ancient illusions; they are invariables that do not change with time or with the symbols that objectify them.  The Catholic/Christian hierarchy was tied to the Roman Imperial, class-based world-view.  They have not officially represented European nations since Europe’s “democratizing” project began with the French and American revolutions.  The Christian state religions of Europe disappeared but left a great tension in their wake.  Society requires a “religion.”  We are still defined by the inescapable need to sacralize the social realities by which we survive and work out our destiny.  Our sense of the sacred will not go away, and the connection between survival (being-here, existence), the community, what we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for, and “God” is a constant.  “God” is a projection of human existential dependency.  It is naturally dominated by society’s existential (survival) role.  Young men have always killed one another and died willingly for their clan and nation even though they were of the same religion.  Religion did not create this disposition; it was an innate inclination and ancient religion was the expression of it.  The human proclivity to be of service to the “sacred” as determined by the survival community will continue to function in the absence of an established religion; it will ineluctably interpret as sacred the processes by which the community currently guarantees survival, and it will eventually develop symbols and rituals — however “irreligious” they may at first appear — that objectify and externalize those “sacred” processes.  In the United States politically conservative Christians, the most socially prominent of whom are the Roman Catholic hierarchy, are currently attempting to redefine Christianity along the lines of the “modern” sacred categories of economic wealthmaking — the corporate business model — in an attempt to align their religion with the values that rule our societies.  The fact that this redefinition stands in stark contrast to the words and spirit of their founder is generally not a matter of serious concern — nor has it ever been.

This is not the willful immorality of greedy and arrogant men, it is the normal process by which society attempts to find a way to declare itself sacred.  A new sacred world view begins to emerge and to function as the old religion did, shaping and subordinating all of economic, political and social activities to the new values.  If a traditional religion can re-tool itself to do this, all the better.  In the case of Christianity, impossible as it was to imagine, it changed itself to reflect the sacred structures and values of the Roman Empire.  If it wants to become the “state religion” of today’s global capitalist empire currently managed by the United States, it will have to reinvent itself once again.  Some believe that transformation is, in fact, well under way and that a return to theocracy, now openly part of political discourse, lies ahead.

 5.

 In our times, traditional hieratic controls and their associated values in the West began to be abandoned two hundred years ago with the collapse of the ancien regime and its birth-right nobility rooted in land and agricultural wealth.  The Catholic/Christian hierarchy had been wed to that nobility.  Simultaneously, the industrial and political revolutions spawned a technology-led world of values focused on “freedom,” increasingly interpreted in our day to mean the opportunity for any individual to pursue the unlimited accumulation of wealth for the purposes of consuming at levels once available only to the aristocracy — the “good life.”  The “divine birth-right” class structures supposedly razed in that transition, were quickly re-erected under the rubric of the “superiority” displayed by individuals who had the ability to produce and accumulate wealth.  Wealthmaking took the place of nobility of birth; it became an ultimate value and qualified the economically successful — despite their lack of political credentials and experience (like movie stars)— for membership in the ruling elite.  Political power was now a derivative of wealth and not birth.  By our time it has already become “tradition” and is given the deference reserved for venerable elders.

The current survival pattern in mass society is based on industrial production.  Even our food is produced in industrial modes.  Production and consumption are mutually dependent aspects of this system.  This is the mechanism by which the community provides actual survival and security to its individual members, hence it has become sacred and its sacredness radiates out to sacralize whatever serves and strengthens the system.

Each side of the cycle of production and consumption requires the other.  Production must be aimed at providing what consumers want, and consumers must be encouraged to want what is being produced or the system will fail.  Success in selling, and active participation in buying not just anything, but specifically the products that are being made by the production machinery, take on a value — a “sacredness” — determined by the needs of the survival system as it has evolved regardless of its relevance to the optimal physical and spiritual health of the human organism.  In order to guarantee survival, the system itself must first survive, and consumers must be made to “sacrifice themselves” for it.  These are common patterns that have defined the “sacred” life of the species since time immemorial.  People sacrifice themselves for the survival of their way of life.  Human society is like a “superorganism” and its parts and members spontaneously live for what they see is the good of the whole … by which they survive.

This accounts for some of the anomalies that characterize our times.  For example: national governments like our own, dedicated to keeping the system alive, use public funds to shore up industries and enterprises which provide dubiously important goods and services on the claim that they are so essential to society’s survival that they cannot be allowed to fail.  Governments are also officially in the business of finding overseas clients (consumers) for their producing industries.  Where a country like ours has, for historic reasons, developed a machinery for making weapons of war, the government encourages other governments, however poor their people, to buy these military supplies, effectively transforming themselves into warmaking nations pushing their neighbors to arm themselves in self-defense.  In 2012 The US accounted for 79% of arms sold to third world countries.  This insanity does not come from a satanic desire to foment wars or to divert much needed resources from the poor, it is the result of having to support the nation’s productive sector and the high paying “jobs” that it supports.  No religion denounces it.

An entire industry has developed — advertising — dedicated to manipulating consumers so they will desire the items that are being produced regardless of quality or need.  The tools of persuasion employed to these ends can be so seductive, and their public display so unavoidable, that they undermine the individual’s self-posses­sion and self-control.  Studies have shown that the high American obesity rate and associated disorders like type 2 diabetes correlate with the avalanche of advertising by large restaurant and fast-food chains.  Despite everyone’s recognition that this is more than a mere annoyance, and that the damage to the public’s health is significant and costly, there is no effort to control it; rather, consistent with the analysis presented here, it is declared constitutionally protected speech: advertising is essential to the running of the system, and so is “sacred.”  The churches, of course, never say a word about it.

Few remain unaffected by the brainwashing.  People find themselves drawn into habits of “conspicuous consumption” where a decision to buy is not made because of need, but for other reasons:  a visible proof of their worth as consumers — their value as participating members of society — and a response to subconscious desires created by commercial advertising.

Valid members of society are certified as such by their participation in the consumption of what the economic machinery is producing.  The pursuit of “social justice” is co-opted and rendered acceptable because it is seen as the attempt to include more people in the consumption benefits of the “good life,” thus strengthening the system.  Those who don’t agree with these values are considered eccentric if not sociopathic.  This applies to those who dare to pursue “other” goals: the formation of an egalitarian, classless society, the radical equalization of wealth and international power, the enrichment of human relationships, a pursuit of know­ledge for wisdom and not for “higher paying jobs,” the enjoyment of manual skills and communal labor, eliminating reliance on the production machinery of the system, solitude, silence, and the contemplation of LIFE.  These “sociopaths” are often (self) quarantined in asylums of varying degrees of coercion and respectability, from jails to monasteries.  Why do we all find this “normal”? … because the definition of what is “sacred” is dependent on the actual survival systems that are in place.  We all know what is expected of us even if it is never articulated: producers must provide what will sell (this includes intellectual, esthetic and religious “products”), and consumers must buy what is being sold (however superfluous) … and we comply.

Careers and life-styles are chosen, not because of interest in the work, but because people want to secure for themselves sufficient consumer power to sustain their recognized membership in “respectable” society.  “Respectability” is the system reinforcing itself by transforming what it needs into “sacred values;” those who do not venerate those values are ostracized.  This is the role of religion.  It sanctions the status quo — it “baptizes” how we actually survive and galvanizes people into the common effort.  Those that think it functions otherwise are living in illusion.

Contrary to what many believe, this is not a corruption of religion, it is rather its authentic historic role.  Society is normally and naturally a theocracy.  Mystics like Jesus and the Buddha were eccentrics — sociopaths — who were so appalled at conditions and so transfixed by the universality of the sacred and its echo in us that they were able to transcend society’s mediation of existence entirely and relate directly to its source in our sense of the sacred.  Their sense of the sacred did not correspond to any existing social structures and so could not be immediately utilized.  Each of them took the symbol of “God” from their ancestral religion and revised it so radically (Buddha eliminating it altogether) that it could no longer serve to support their society’s sacred claims.  Each ended up negating the social order of his day.  Jesus projected the end of the world and the beginning of a society ruled by “God” himself, and the Buddha counseled leaving society entirely and permanently living in the sangha, an alternative community sheltered from society’s false “sacred.” Their visions implied a new society.  Their message was a rebellion against the status quo.  Each was later co-opted and harnessed into service by being integrated into their contemporary society’s religious project.  And so their visions were deformed.  Now we have the delicious irony of a Jesus who said we had a “loving Father” who forgave all, himself being turned into the “Terrible Judge” of the living and the dead, and a Buddha who rejected belief in the gods entirely, being made a god who grants what people desire.

6.

 There are a number of ways people have reacted to modernization and the end of state religions, but they never go so far as to challenge consumer-focused wealthmaking as sacred and the consuming individual as the symbol of respectability the “proper” (sacred) way of being-here as a human being.  Conservatives loudly bemoan the loss of the “old values” embedded in traditional religions and claim to seek to reimpose them.  But it is significant and very revealing that they do not challenge the heuristic role of wealth in the exercise of political power: they do not advocate for the re-installation of birthright aristocracy.  But while their own self-interest is surely a factor here, what I want to emphasize is that they are promoting a value that has gained credibility as the sacred symbol of the system by which we all currently survive; wealth­making and the wealthy consumer are icons that are now old enough to be respected as tradition.

Then there are the people conservatives call “liberal” whom they accuse of simply letting the “takers” (non-wealthmakers) guide economic and social policy.  In an “Ayn Rand” scenario, conservatives equate the accumulation of wealth with hard work and intelligence, the qualities of “superior” human beings.  You don’t have to know someone personally to know their “worth” as human beings, you just have to look at their level of consumption.  Liberals are accused of not respecting the accumulation of wealth as the sacred guiding principal of personal superiority, social aspiration and the true indicator of the right to rule.  It is similarly revealing, however, that liberals for their part do not argue with the premise, but rather vociferously deny the charge. They make it a point to declare the goal of public policy to be the “good life” for all, an expansion of the power to consume at high levels identified as “middle-class,” a maneuver they insist will strengthen the system.  There is no commitment whatsoever to reduce superfluous consumption, to pursue the equalization of wealth or the elimination of the enormous disparities of income in a world where one half of the population of the earth, 3 billion people, live on less than $3 per day.  Conservatives seem not to hear any of this this and insist on denouncing liberals as “socialists” which identifies them as demonic — the anti-Christ.  Their sense of the sacred is clearly in play here.  But in fact, from the perspective of sacred values there is no difference between them and they are both supported by religion.

Practically, however, those differences can be very important because even a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth can spell the difference between life and death for people on the edge; but I want to emphasize, that is more a by-product than a goal.  Liberals’ redistribution efforts are rarely couched in such basic terms; they prefer to describe their policies as functions of upward mobility — giving more people access to the “middle class” and the power to consume at respectable levels.  It reveals that whatever else is going on, the system will always be served and preserved.  There is, in fact, no serious talk of socialism, and for conservatives to call the adjustments proposed by liberals socialism is ludicrous.

They are both illustrations of the undisputed place of the power to consume as the sacred value in the culture of our time.  The entire globe is now infected with its pursuit.  Whether in the long run this will be good or bad, beneficial or not, for a human species that must find ways to sustain the earth’s life-support systems and sister species if it is itself to survive, remains to be seen.  But we can be sure of one thing in advance: whatever guarantees being-here will eventually become “sacred” and society will find some way to proclaim it loud and clear.

 7.

 The upshot of the discussion so far is that the sense of the sacred is an abiding feature of humankind as it has evolved.  The claim that the loss of tradition entails the loss of the sense of the sacred is simply not true.  The sense of the sacred cannot be lost.  The loss of tradition involves a change in the focus of the sense of the sacred and therefore a change in what symbols are used to objectify it, and what kind of society it sanctions, but the sense of the sacred remains.  It can be manipulated, deformed and exploited, but it cannot be eliminated for it is our instinctive predisposition to recognize and cherish the matrix in which we live and move and have our being. 

As a non-rational instinct, our sense of the sacred functions less like reason and more like taste.  The principal source of taste is tradition.  People tend to like what their ethnic and family traditions have liked.  Food is a prime example, but tradition determines taste in many areas, like politics and religion.  Tradition is an objectified set of symbols — a world-view — whose values are held in high regard because of precedent alone.  It is the power of social inertia.  What is sacred is what everyone believes has always worked for community survival.  Like the common instinct to do what you see everyone else doing, respect for what people “have always done” is an non-rational survival mechanism, hard-wired in us by evolution, of awesome weight and momentum.

Traditional taste is dominated by assurances that are not rationally grounded.  They come only from a trust in what we believe worked for our ancestors. The naïve attempt to make the current system conform to the traditional “sacred” is pathetic and doomed to failure; few really try it though they couch their goals in those terms.  The truth, as always, is rather the opposite: religion tends to conform to the system within which it lives and survives. 

Part of what complicates these issues in our times is the simultaneous presence of multiple obsolete historical traditions and their availability for the refined taste of the discriminating consumer.  In this form religion has become a “product” of commercial enterprise.  Like a museum that provides an esthetic experience of life in another era, the “Church” makes a business of offering the experience of an ancient tradition as an item for sale, and thus secures a respectable place for itself as a wealthmaking business in a business society.  The traditional “sacred” it brokers, however, is irrelevant to the times we live in, as its own submission before the “god” of the marketplace for its self-identity shows.  The overt call, quite explicit in documents coming from the Catholic hierarchy, for church personnel to concentrate on promoting the “Catholic brand” and the crass marketing of “Catholic education” to those who can pay regardless of religious affiliation makes the case clearly.  The corporate business model dominates Catholic policy in practice and is more consciously articulated as such all the time.

8

Whatever “new sacred” might be emerging under pressure from new survival imperatives created by our global economy at the present moment does not (yet) enjoy the assurances that come with time and tradition.  Conservatives are afraid, correctly in my opinion, that future survival for our self-consciously global community depends upon an abandonment of many of the practices that are proving to be destructive of the earth’s ability to sustain life, and will require an equalization of wealth and power across the globe.  Both these inevitabilities will entail a radical reduction in consumption as currently enjoyed by the heretofore privileged “first world.”  Traditional focus on wealth and the wealthy will no longer work.  Emerging needs will require “socialism,” and tradition cannot support it.  Accepted tradition, per se, carries weight regardless of the incredibility or even absurdity of the objectified symbols it happens to rest on.  Conservative ideologues attempt to provide some rational support to what is really cherished and chosen for other reasons, not for their relevance to what the human community actually needs.

It is proverbial that you cannot argue with taste.  You can argue with the rationalized world-view that is adduced to support it, but since taste is tied to a tradition embraced for itself and ultimately without needing any further reason, demolishing its rational supports will change nothing.  It will simply reveal the non-rational roots of these preferences.

It hardly needs stating that when conservatives claim that the loss of tradition has caused a loss of the sense of the sacred, what they are really complaining about is that the sense of the sacred is now beginning to project different sacred objects — symbols and rituals that do not accord with their taste.  They simply do not like the emerging world-view, which they presciently call socialist; but they cannot claim that it represents a loss of the sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred cannot be lost, it can only be changed.  They do not want these newly emerging values to determine how society will structure itself.  They want to preserve “old” structures.  It is not surprising; those structures are the very ones that preserve (their) wealth and privilege.