Of Fathers and Newborn Infants

This is the season when we traditionally celebrate LIFE under the symbol of the newborn child.  The thought of newborn life immediately conjures the image of the family with loving father and mother. The following reflection is taken from a work in progress on the Reformation.  It highlights the anomalies that the Augustinian view-of-the-world presented for the Christian imagination at the beginning of the 16th century … .

Augustine’s worldview

Augustine became Christian at a time when no one doubted that at the end of their individual life there would be a private judgment which would determine the eternal destiny of their “soul:” happiness in heaven, or eternal punishment in hell.  For many people those assumptions are with us to this day.  But in the fourth century they represented a significant change from an earlier Christian view, as recorded in the New Testament: that Jesus’ return was imminent and that he would restore the reign of justice for all on a transformed earth.  Originally there was no talk of immortal souls, heaven or hell, no particular judgment; persons existed after death only temporarily, awaiting their flesh and blood resurrection in a new universe.  The “paradise” anticipated was the human body immortalized by immersion in Christ’s resurrection living on this earth, a material world made completely friendly to humankind.  There was no thought of any world other than this one.

By Augustine’s time that had all changed.  It had become increasingly clear that Christ was not coming any time soon; the immortalized body on a transformed earth had ceased being a realistic expectation.  Christians had come to believe that what was important was not the body but the “soul.”  “God” weighed the moral worth of individual souls without bodies and consigned them to live forever as souls in either bliss or torment in another world ― a world of spirits, minds and ideas familiar to the followers of Plato that would have been foreign to the Jewish followers of Jesus.  This “God” was identified as Jesus.  He had been elevated to Pantocrator (the all-ruler) less than a century before Augustine by Constantine’s Council at Nicaea in 325.  His “mercy” notwithstanding, the “Judge of the living and the dead” was obligated by the order of the universe to see that righteousness was satisfied.

Augustine was convinced that because of the dignity of the office, an insult to “God,” just like an insult to the emperor, was a major crime regardless of how unimportant the offense or how willing the person insulted was to forgive it.  Such insult was a threat to the social order.  Dignity had to be restored.  The juridical interpretation of Adam’s disobedience as a case of laesa majestas1  was clearly in the background and essential to Augustine’s theory of redemption.  Augustine’s Roman “God” could not simply dismiss the offense.  The insult to God was so heinous that the entire human race not only lost its original immortality and was condemned to die because of what Adam did, but each and every human individual born thereafter carried the guilt of the crime and was condemned to eternal punishment — hell — just for being born of Adam’s “seed.”  That included newborn infants.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, while also acknowledging the literalness of the Genesis account, the expulsion from the garden, the loss of immortality, etc., never believed that “God” imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to all of humankind or that all were condemned to hell for it.  That little added detail was the brilliant stroke of the Roman Augustine and it insured that Adam’s sin and the need for baptism would be applied personally to each and every individual across the face of the earth.  It theologically justified the practice of infant baptism already being promoted in the late fourth century as more than a pious practice.  Augustine claimed it was necessary; for the “God” that Augustine painted was obliged to send even innocent infants to hell if they died without baptism.  It was another stone in the foundational claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” — a critically important and very attractive “doctrine” for the managers of the religion of the Roman Empire.  It provided justification for requiring that everyone be “Catholic,” an imperial demand intended to establish the social harmony that was essential if the Romans were going to maintain control over such a vast and culturally disparate conglomeration of conquered peoples.  Constantine had been quite explicit about what he expected from his imperial religion.

But it was also hugely influential in portraying the kind of “God” that Western Christians imagined they would meet at the end of their lives.  It belied any claim that Augustine’s “God” was merciful.  What intensity of hatred must this “God” harbor toward us to even think of anything so utterly inhuman as sending innocent babies to hell just for being born human?  This “God” had to be a monster.  Augustine insisted on the damnation of unbaptized infants to the end of his life.

Augustine’s “God” was internally inconsistent.  Consider: “God” was forced to honor the requirement that there be just retribution for and restoration of lost divine dignity; but because he “loved” humankind, Augustine said, “God” devised a clever plan that would circumvent the death sentence and restore human beings to their original immortality.  That plan was our salvation through the death of Jesus whose act of obedience on the cross paid in full the debt owed to “God” in justice, and thus freed the human race from punishment and “God” from wrath.  Augustine’s infinitely merciful all powerful “God” who is unable to forgive is simply incoherent, if not self-contradictory.

As you might expect, this divine plan was perceived as love only by Augustine and other likeminded Romans.  For most others, like late mediaeval Christians, the fact that “God” was bound to the demands of this arbitrary “dignity-as-justice” cultural obligation and could not be moved to simply dismiss the charge for a  humanity that was pleading with “him” for forgiveness … a “God” who would even punish innocent babies … was a clear indication that their “God” did NOT love them.  And in fact most mediaeval Christians were terrified of “God” and some, like Luther, even admitted that they “hated” him.[2]  The loving fathers that they knew, like the one in Jesus’ parable, forgave their prodigal sons.  The open armed father running to embrace his wastrel son was Jesus’ own image of “God,” an image that Augustine somehow missed.  Augustine was so focused on the standard picture of punishment and sacrificial atonement that had become central to the Christian view of the world that Luke’s parable was unable to shake him out of his obsessions.  Jesus’ “prodigal father” was a far cry from Augustine’s insulted emperor.  Jesus’ “God” and Augustine’s “God” were two very different kinds of “father.”

Augustine’s so-called “God” demanded the death of his own son to compensate for his lost dignity.  Imagine the parable of the Prodigal Son being re-told in Augustinian terms:  As the repentant son approached home “… while he was still far off, his father sent his servants to arrest him, and bring him to him in chains.  And he said to him, you have dishonored me and wasted your inheritance.  You have become so dissolute that you are now incapable of doing what it would take to make it up to me.  So I will take your upright brother who has been obedient to me throughout and I will subject him to mutilation and torture and a slow agonizing death in your place so that his steadfast obedience will re-establish respect for me in the eyes of your brothers and sisters, who have become miscreants because of your bad example.  His death will be the salvation of this family.”  Preposterous!  That people ever bought such nonsense, and that even the Reformers, despite having declared that scripture was their only source of information about “God,” continued to imagine such a “God,” speaks to the Augustinian conditioning to which all had been subjected.  Mediaeval Christians were inured to the sadistic violence of the patriarchal Roman system rationalized for them by Augustine.  They considered it “normal.” They had been programmed by the religious practices and beliefs rooted in imperial antiquity that had dominated the Mediterranean world since time immemorial, and Augustine had made it all make sense.

And to make the situation even worse it was all pure conjecture.  The full story with all these bizarre interconnections had never been put together before Augustine.  He was a master at exactly this kind of thing, as we saw from his conversion.  It was a triumph of the synthetic imagination.  Augustine wove it all together: his own personal life experience, current Church belief and practice, a Genesis story with his own personal spin, and the juridical and cultural customs of the Greco-Roman overlords whose slave-based empire was driven by torture, mutilation and, quite specifically, execution by crucifixion.  But even the Roman emperors who punished those who displeased them could still be moved to pardon and forgive.  In that respect they had more freedom and moral depth than the pseudo-“God” of Augustine’s paranoid imagination who apparently had to obey the law of laesa majestas in support of the established order whether he wanted to or not

And then, for Augustine to call “God’s” planned sacrificial death of his own son, “mercy,” was a psychopathic inversion that served to justify the punitive violence that has characterized religion, governance and the relationship among peoples in the lands of the Christian West since that time.  Augustine’s “theology” was little more than a narrative that mirrored and justified the violent autocracy of the Roman Empire.  That his sketch of “God’s” character was familiar to Roman subjects from their experience of punitive authority not only gave it plausibility, but it ultimately justified the way things were.  This has been the fundamental import of western Christianity ever since.  It is the handmaiden of empire and “empire” has been written into its doctrinal configurations since the fourth century.

Luther had been thoroughly imbued with this mindset and not even his new awareness of “God’s” gratuitous donation of salvation by faith could extirpate the violent punitive sadism embedded in this imagery.  It was Augustine’s “God” that had become the unquestioned horizon of mediaeval western Christendom and, as for everyone else who took religion seriously, it had become part of Luther’s idea of “normalcy.”

Luther put it on public display on more than one occasion.  In 1524 when the German peasants rose up against the oppression of their overlords, Luther called on the armed nobility to pitilessly slaughter the “evildoers.”  This is from his second letter on the Peasant Uprising:

Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or diabolical than a rebel.  It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.[3]

And later, when the Jews failed to see the “truth of the Gospel” as he had newly revealed it and did not convert, he called for their enslavement and expulsion from Germany.  His admonition for the treatment of the Jews written in 1543 three years before he died, called for

Firstly, that their synagogues and schools should be burned down and what will not burn should be razed and covered with earth, that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of it again … next, that their houses should be broken and destroyed the same way … Thirdly that all their prayer books and Talmudists … should be taken from them … Fourthly, that their rabbis should be forbidden to teach from now on, at the risk of life or limb … Fifthly, that escort and road should be completely prohibited to the Jews, … Sixthly that they should be prohibited from usury and all their cash and fortunes in silver and gold should be taken from them … seventhly, that young strong Jewish men and women should be given flail, axe, hoe, spade, distaff, spindle, and be left to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows … For as all can see, God’s wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better.  So away with them at all costs.[4]

That the Third Reich sought to exterminate the Jews was a Christian inheritance, not some deformity of the Aryan brain.  I don’t bring this up to indict Luther or Protestantism; these attitudes were common throughout Christian Europe north and south of the Alps.  But it gives a very clear picture of the violent and punitive attitude considered “Christian” in obvious conflation with a “God” of righteous violence that Augustine’s theology had justified.

Augustine’s theology conformed to and served to confirm the ongoing upper-class subversion of Jesus’ message, effectively harnessing it to the goals of the Roman system.  The reversal of Jesus’ image of God — from an empowering, liberating, loving and forgiving father, to a pusillanimous, self-involved, legally rigid, implacable mirror-image of the narcissistic autocrats who ruled Rome — immediately entailed a corresponding reversal in the attitudes required for an authentic relationship to “God.”  Augustine’s Emperor-“God” demanded obeisance, obedience, acquiescence of mind and behavior to his will.  Quid pro quo: “you will obey or you will be punished.”

Jesus’ “Father,” in contrast, asked us for something else entirely: insight into his self-donating gift of creation which we celebrate symbolized in newborn life … and a generous forgiving love for one another, recognizing his image and consciously attempting to imitate his generosity.

The difference could not be more profound.

 

[1] Laesa majestas was a juridical category that judged the seriousness of a crime according to the status of the person offended.  Status always had to do with one‘s position in the body politic and so the offense had the overtones of treason.

[2] Luther explicitly admitted that in the Preface to the First Volume of his Latin Writings (1545) (reprinted in Hans Hillerbrand, The Protestant Reformation, (revised) , Harper Perennial, NY  (1968) 2009, p.29)

[3] Martin Luther, Against the Murdering and Robbing Hordes of Peasants, 1525, reprinted in Michael Baylor, The German Reformations and the Peasants’ War, Bedford/St.Martins, Boston/NY 2012, p.131

[4] Martin Luther On the Jews and their Lies, 1545, reprinted in Oberman, Luther, Yale U.Press, 1989 tr Swartzbart, p.290

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Western Culture and its Christianity

I began this train of thought by identifying autogenic disease as “western.”  But clearly the background conditions it addresses transcend any region or culture.  The inescapable business of surviving from day to day requires of everyone, western or not, that they deal with the shortcomings of their bodily existence confronted with a material universe whose processes and properties are determined by the implacable laws of physics and bio-chemistry.  It describes human life everywhere.  It’s the human condition.  Why single out the West’s response? … and why call it a disease?

… because western culture reconceived the human condition in moral and religious terms.  It ascribed will and intention to what were biological realities.  Death was interpreted as the punishment of an angry “god” directed at human beings despite the abundant evidence of the mortality of all organic life.  The ancients didn’t need modern science to see the reality around them.  The Platonic-Christian vision called death and diminishment “evil” and identified us as its source — that it was all our fault, our sin — introducing a dynamic of guilt and self-loathing and a justification for escape that became the core of the human project in Western Europe.

The existence of exploitive economic stratification among us — broadly speaking the enslavement of some people by others for the purpose of escaping the conditions placed on every organism to work for its own survival — was drawn into this worldview. Slavery was justified by Aristotle as the “spiritual” (mental) superiority of the masters over the slaves: that slaves were more “material,” sub human, and needed direction. It was a self-deception of appalling proportions.  There is no excuse for it.  In Aristotle’s world the use of “slaves” for the most demanding intellectual and administrative tasks was pervasive; the Roman elite routinely assigned educated Greek slaves to teach their children.  There is no possible basis for Aristotle’s outrageous claim except the crass, willful intention to justify a class system in which some people make other people do the work that is everyone’s responsibility. It represents the escape from the conditions of materiality erected into a “philosophical principle.”

This is endemic. Every ill we suffer coming from our ancient inherited social inequalities was either created or intensified by the refusal to accept the inescapable: we are all, each and every one of us, biological organisms trying to survive in a physical, bio-chemical world, and “work” is each organism’s necessary interaction with the environment to secure that survival.  I believe the enslavement of some by others for the purpose of evading that responsibility is the aboriginal source of all injustice, and the accumulation of superfluous wealth merely an addictive by-product.

I contend that the “escape from the human condition,” sanctified and elevated into cultural imperatives and concretized in religious beliefs and practices, was the autogenic disease that the Reformation was attempting to cure with religious treatments.  The reformers were left nearsighted by their times; they saw trees but not the forest … but they had an excuse: before the advent of modern science no one could.  They saw the problem in Christian terms.  But in reality what they were looking at was only the tip of the iceberg, the latest phase — the mediaeval Christian phase — of a profound and ancient delusion that had reached a point of crisis.  For the Mediterranean world had been infected with this disease since before the advent of Christianity.  Christianity had embraced it, canonized it, and spread it throughout the Roman empire.  By the 14th century it had grown to epidemic proportions; it was aggravated by the flagrant corruption of the Church hierarchy in the 15th.   In the 16th century what the reformers proposed was insufficient, for it was aimed at the symptoms of the disease in its Christian form and not at the source.  At a deeper level the Refor­ma­tion changed nothing, for the root of the problem — the disdain for matter — was left untouched.   The venomous snake of organic escape was still alive and well.  The Reformation merely precipitated a molting that shed the skin of the mediaeval form and allowed it to begin a new phase that eventually became the modern form.  But the characteristic alienation: the belief in the corruption of the body, the guilt and self-hatred and the desire to escape organismic life in this material universe that began in ancient times, lived on and is with us still.

Since the beginning of the common era — when Christianity was born — the West has generated a set of erroneous beliefs that made a religion out of our struggle with the laws of nature: it raised our survival efforts to the level of a holy war; it demonized matter as the “enemy” and split the human being asunder, setting an imagined “spirit” warring against its own body.  It was the onset of a plague we have carried, and spread, ever since.

It made the body’s neutralization and ultimate obliteration a sacred quest, and has for millennia seriously attempted to factor out of the human equation the reality of being a material organism in a material environment. The fact that the goal was so delusional as to be impossible to achieve made for necessary compromises that further undermined the sense of integrity of the individual attempting to comply with its demands; society’s acquiescence, then, could be nothing less than corruption. The inescapable guilt and sense of failure created by this state of affairs was almost predictably interpreted as the result of immorality, the confirmation of the theory of an original “sin” that caused humankind to be corrupted and bound to matter.  We have since learned that it was all nonsense.  The only thing immoral in this whole scenario was the cultural ideology, the religious message, placing demands on the human organism that could not be met because they were the fruit of illusion — the illusion that we are “spirit” and that matter is our mortal enemy.

Relational morality

In such an alienated context modern technological interventions can be morally problematic, even though not immediately perceptible on the surface.  The morality I speak of is not casuistic, it is relational; it reflects who we think we are.  Its import is revealed over time in the application of these interventions, which are often exaggerated and inappropriate.  Let’s take a minute to explore this issue.  Cosmetic surgery may serve as a good example but the analysis is applicable to all kinds of technological interventions like the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

Everyone instinctively has qualms about cosmetic surgery. But it’s not “immoral” by our conventional standards, so why are we uncomfortable with it?  I believe what bothers us is a lack of balance so often present that derives from an inaccurate relationship to one’s self-in-the-world.  Conventional morality permits unrestricted recourse to cosmetic surgery (for those who can afford it), but it uses personal alienation as a premise from which moral permissions are derived.  Specifically, the reasoning is that since the matter of our bodies is a meaningless substrate, we have a right to change or manipulate it as we wish.  It has no intrinsic value or significance in itself.  Therefore cosmetic surgery is ad libitum. The only thing that could challenge its morality would be giving it precedence over other, necessary, life-saving surgeries.

But it seems obvious that decisions based on the meaninglessness of matter will be skewed and out of balance. A culture that denigrates the natural conditions of genetic inheritance and the natural curve of the life cycle as mere mindless mechanisms to which we are chained as to an alien and hostile process, will deal with them as invasive elements that get in the way of our lives, and decisions based on that attitude, understandably, will make us “uncomfortable.”

My modern western culture tells me “matter” is an obstacle and at best my slave. “Matter,” for this view of the world, — in the peculiar way it has evolved … in what specifically it has achieved … in the particular way it works within the laws of nature — is not “me.”  I do not have to love it, cherish it, respect it, protect it, or live with it: I do not have to consider it sacred. The only thing sacred in this view of things — the only thing worth cherishing and protecting  — is what gives “me” enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment, as if “I” were different from my organism.  Such an attitude is a denial of the fact that my own personal self is identical with my emergence as the organic offspring of this material world; there is no “me” apart from it.

But make no mistake. The attitude I’m talking about is not meant to serve as a new premise from which to deduce some new moral conclusion … and it could as easily serve to impel the choice to have cosmetic surgery as to reject it.  Rather it is a call to see behavioral choices not as the application of an abstract principle of morality, but as a function of relationship.  It represents a change in the locus of morality, from the calculation of negative prohibitions to a conscious embrace of one’s reality-in-context which can induce positive response as well as negative avoidance.  In the case we are considering here it is the antithesis of the western autogenic pathology because the relationship in question is the relationship to our selves — our  bodies.  Disdain for the body as the enemy of “spirit” has been used as a premise for negative commands, and even as we moderns repudiated its practical applications, the premise has remained intact and continues to rule our thinking.  We may no longer use it to repress our pleasures, but it lives on in our general disregard for non-cerebral species and the delicate balance and fragile interdependence of the complex ecosystems that sustain life on our planet.

Hence it is no surprise that all kinds of behavior tend to get out-of-balance. First-level pleasures become the standards that determine my enjoyments: they run my life.  But once I embrace my body as “me,” the innate love I naturally bear myself opens the door to deeper gratifications that come from being this particular body at this time on this earth.  The experience precludes any claim that there is “no value” here; the “value” is, in fact, transcendently existential; for it is the condition of the very possibility of my being-here. I cannot be-here without simultaneously having a definite place in the genetic chain of organic life and a biological organism with a necessary life-cycle of its own, umbilically connected to its environment in real time.  The mystique of embracing my body-self in THIS world provides an enjoyment that is unique.  Absent that depth of awareness, it is simply not accessible.  Many people never experience the profound contentment that comes from knowing they are exactly where they belong.  They remain strangers to their own body-selves and the earth that spawned them all their lives, forever wishing they were something or somewhere else, abusing themselves and soiling their nest in the pursuit of some non-existent utopia … a true “no-place.”

The ground of these experiences of belonging are scientific biological realities that cannot be denied. Genetically determined biological reproduction is the origin of all life on our planet.  There is no other basis for existence.  To be alive on this earth — to be-here — is to be an emergent leaf at the end of a branch of an immense tree, a totality that is interdependent in space and time.  It reveals that the cultural premise that identified humanness with an other-worldly spirit and gave encouragement to the exploitation and denigration of matter to have been a huge “metaphysical” falsification.  It was a vicious illusion, and a primary source of human alienation.  I cannot treat my body, bound as it is to the absolute conditions of its viability, as if it were other than “me.”

Relationship

Please notice what’s happening here. This moves the discussion decisively out of the arena of casuistic morality and into the realm of relationship, where “right and wrong,” “good and bad,” are a function of identity, love, trust, mutual agreement, communication, solidarity, commitment.  The religious issue in this relational frame of reference does not bear on “morality” in the sense that we are familiar with, i.e., that such and such behavior is “good” or “bad,” permitted or forbidden as determined by abstract “principles” applied with logical consistency.  It is rather a question of how I am related to myself and from there how I am related to everything else around me, individually and collectively, and what that means for what I do under the sun.  The real issue is how I answer the question: Who am I? That is where morality resides.

The answer, I submit, is: I AM my socially-reproduced-organism-product-of-this-earth. It is precisely because I have THIS organism reproduced from the living matter of THESE parents embedded in THIS social matrix, who live at THIS point in time in human history on THIS planet, having evolved from THESE remote ancestor species that I am here at all, and therefore that I am “me.”  There is no “me” apart from what constitutes my coming to be as an organism in real time in this universe.  No organism can be conceived apart from the chain of causes that produced it and sustain it.  There is no identity for a leaf apart from the tree that bears it. There was no independent “infusion” of a “soul” by “God.” I believe that were our culture to inspire the members of its social network to an organismic self-embrace at this depth and with this relational accuracy, the decisions about “cosmetic surgery” or any other human activity — one way or the other — would be made without ever having to ask in what case an intervention might be considered right or wrong.

The shift from casuistry — which characterizes a legal, negative-command morality, based on the superiority of “spirit” over matter — to relationality, is the key to this point of view that I am promoting. Relationship rules. Moral behavior results from, it does not establish relationship. It is significant that Martin Luther’s seminal insight was similarly relational.  The “faith” that justified was really a trust that could only exist when the two “individuals” involved — “God” and the human person — had a relationship.  And as he conceived it, morality flowed from the trusting relationship, it did not create it.  When Luther insisted that we were not “justified” by works, what he was basically saying was that the relationship to “God” is not created by what we do — our obedience — the relationship is prior to and is the condition for our doing whatever we do.  The behavior is shaped by the relationship, not the other way around.  “Luther rejected the Aristotelian notion that good works make a good man, and insisted rather that a good man does good works and does so freely and without legal regimentation.”[1]

Ancient hubris

The denial of our reality as evolving matter’s integral organic offspring — whose survival is secured by working within it — is an old problem.  Modem runaway technology is also an escape from individual labor.  It recapitulates the hubris of ancient times when, by turns, an individual’s efforts were directed toward the exploitation of others for the selfish purposes of self-aggrandizement and avoiding the survival labor that is the onus of every organism on the planet … and then, after a moral awakening, the attempt to domesticate one’s “selfish” body with a relentless asceticism whose central requirement was the renunciation of sex, fundamentally a delusional rejection of the individual’s place in the chain of organic reality.  Both are attempts to deny having a body, and both reject the responsibility to work.

The ascetic “vision” was considered an esoteric gnosis by Greeks in the Platonic tradition, appreciated only by those initiated into “philosophy” taken as a kind of religion.  It should be noted that its practitioners were of the same ruling classes, able to pursue these “spiritual” goals only because their “carnal” needs were taken care of by the work of slaves, women and other menials.  “Rational” pursuits served to distinguish the “spiritual” elite from the “sub-human” proclivities of those who served them (and men from women), or more accurately, it identified being a biological organism as “animal,” or at least sub-human, “low class,” inferior, effete and unmanly.[2]   This was, until the imperial imposition of Christianity on all in the fourth century, only a “minority report” that existed within a conquest-driven Mediterranean culture that survived economically by the massive infusions of slave labor[3] and had re-conceived the naturally egalitarian act of copulation as an expression of male supremacy and domination.[4]  Many of us are quite familiar with the main lines of these flip-sided profiles.  The ascetic version is the traditional program still offered to Catholicism’s spiritual elite … and it is still expected to arise from a conversion from “worldly” pursuits which include marriage and the work needed to sustain a family.  Please note: the ascetic does not work, or if he does he takes it on as an ascetic discipline. In this view of the world there is no recognition of the responsibility of the organism to labor to survive. 

Prior to the separation of Church and State beginning only in the late 18th century, the theocracies of Europe were all Christian and while the main lines of this classic bi-polarity remained intact, the ascetic version was held up by all, Protestant and Catholic, as the highest that an individual could achieve.  That means that it reigned as the human ideal in the West, preached from all pulpits and sanctioned officially by all governments however hypocritically it was lived in practice, for 1400 years.  That the West internalized those values and that they live on today should surprise no one.

This is not insignificant. What other cultures identified as the very essence of a tragic myopia  became in the West the goal and purpose of life.  A “matter” that was believed to be the evil nemesis of the human “spirit,” was disrespected and its needs disregarded.  The word “tragic” is appropriate.  For this is not just an unfortunate shortcoming that adds more discomfort to an already difficult struggle.  To fail to accept the material essence of the human condition is fatal; and apparently from the way things seem to be going, by not respecting the materiality that is the necessary envelope in which we survive, the resulting mindless exploitation, both of humans and the earth, has not only destroyed harmony among us but it is annihilating other species and threatening the very life-support­ing capacity of the planet.  Without our material matrix … and without mutual support among us, we will not survive.  However “normal” it may seem to us who live with our situation every day, we cannot afford to misunderstand the depth and virulence of our autogenic sickness.  Western culture is the repository of the myopia that bears forward that misguided quest, and because of its unparalleled technological success, the proverbial spider has drawn other once wiser cultures into its web and is consuming them.

[1] Hans Hillerbrand ed., The Protestant Reformation, Harper, 2009 (1968), p.31-32

[2] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: men women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity Columbia U.Press. 1988

[3] See Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275 – 425, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 58 (fn 150) – 60.  Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary — upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BCE, about 35% to 40% of Italy’s population (Encyc. Brit).  For the Empire as a whole, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10 – 15% of the total population. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire’s population. About half of all slaves worked in the countryside, the remainder in towns and cities.  (Wiki: Slavery in ancient Rome)

[4] Brown, op.cit.

Autogenic Disease (II)

This post is the second half of “Autogenic disease” (the first part can be found directly below this).  The first part ended with this statement“Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, as the conspicuous symbol of one’s ‘achieve­ment’ as a superior being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything material through cerebrally devised technology — the new paradise.”

 energy and entropy: LIFE and death

“Ultimate control” ultimately implies, of course, the conquest of death.  It has been the West’s holy grail since ancient times, and Christianity, once our program of choice to win this victory, has been abandoned by the dominant culture and its quest taken up by technology.  Through the marvels of medical science today we are experiencing the postponement of death to a degree that we never have before; it seduces us into thinking success is just around the corner.  But death at some point, even for those who have unlimited access to the technology of postponement, must be embraced.  We are material organisms in a material universe.  Death comes with the kind of existence we enjoy.  It is not an alien intrusion or a punishment for “sin,” much less an unfortunate anachronism come too early for the predicted conquest by technology.  Matter is what we are, and this is what matter does.  We need to know why that is.

Understanding what matter is helps us understand why it behaves the way it does.  Matter is not a “thing” it is energy.  “Energy” is another word for disequilibrium.  Energy refers to a state of tension that results from things not being where they should be … and which are therefore driven … pulled, drawn, impelled … to traverse the distance that separates them from the place where they belong.  Energy is not a fixed and stable quantum. It is the manifestation of an instability under pressure to do whatever it takes to rectify imbalance and achieve stasis.  The resulting potential-for-movement is the energy LIFE uses for its purposes.

All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental instability.  A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through space at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity.  The energy in a waterfall is the force generated in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equilibrium.  When that force is exploited to accomplish work, it is called power.  In another example, the way batteries work is that electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, in one location and forcibly introduced and held in another.  The artificially displaced electrons are under tremendous pressure to return to the atoms from which they were taken — atoms that are now highly charged because their protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons.  When a pathway — a circuit — is created allowing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploited to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive machinery.  This is how we harness power: we interrupt and exploit matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.

The very nature of energy is disequilibrium; it is not a thing but a “need” to restore stability.  It only lasts as long as the need lasts; once balance is achieved, the energy disappears.  The dissipation of energy in the effort to restore equilibrium is called entropy.  The very nature, therefore, of material energy is entropic.  It tends, of its very nature, to seek equilibrium, to dissipate itself and disappear.  This even happens to the more fundamental particles which are composites of even smaller energy packets.  Protons, for example, are composed of quarks held together by gluons, the “strong force.”  But even that force is not eternal and someday the quarks will return whence they came, the proton will succumb to entropy; it will disintegrate and its energy disappear.

We call the disappearance of energy, death.  A biological organism dies when the various components at all levels of composition — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held together “unnaturally” (i.e., it is something they would not do on their own) under the forcible drive and direction of a zygote’s DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold together and they return to their former states.  The “particles” remain, their individual energies now determined by their own entropy.  Nothing ever disappears except the energy gradients involved.

That is how LIFE lives: it appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends.  LIFE is anti-entropic.  The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.   It is precisely its “being-toward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates the energy we call voltage.  The irresistible “gravitational pull” — like falling water — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our endeavors, just as we exploit the movement of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones.  So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to abandon their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to dieTo dissipate energy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also eliminate the very well-spring of living motion: entropy.  Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrinsic to LIFE.

Sex and evolution

All biological organisms are manifestations of matter’s conversion of its ultimate weakness — entropy, death — into the energy of LIFE.   Matter does what it does because it evolved that way over eons of geologic time; its “limitations” are an intrinsic part of its development, the accompaniment and by-product of the process by which organisms adapted themselves to their environment and survived.  In our case human weaknesses like our strengths emerged organically from the process of surviving under environmental conditions that obtained over very long periods of time … and they persist because those conditions have not changed.  What evolved is now internal to us and binds us with an unbreakable valence to the environment that elicited that evolution.  There is no “essence of humanity” independent of that particular process.  We humans are-here … and we are what we are … because of it, and for no other reason.

One of matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduction to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter.  But there was a twist.  We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life simple cell division — cloning the same individual — was superseded two thousand million years ago by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual organisms producing a third independent of each; sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capabilities.  We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward.  It happened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us.  The sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identities and our social lives originated in that epic achievement.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it.  This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the reproducing organism which dies.  Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving.  Nature’s concern is not the individual, it is something else … .

“Matter” evolves by working with and within itself.  It’s a very slow process of random interactions that may (or may not) finally yield a viable result — a result that can “live” within the whole.  Matter is one thing and one thing only — material energy — homogeneous, universal, invariable.  Because it is the one and only thing there is, every new form that its internal intra-actions take can survive only if it continues to “fit” within the ultimate sea of homogeneity of which it is a part.  There is no other option.  Matter has to work this way because there is no “existence” apart from this ocean of being.  The metaphor of rockets that break free of earth’s grip and reach into “outer” space doesn’t work here.  There is no escape velocity to take us outside matter’s “gravitational field” because outside matter there is nothing.  Material energy, such as it is, is the absolute condition of anything being-here at all, and entropy — the process of reducing all energy to a lifeless equilibrium — is the source that LIFE mines for its energy.

I am convinced that very few people realize this and there are even scientists and technicians that work with matter’s properties everyday among them.  I vigorously contend that this view is difficult for people to understand, not because of the complexity or abstractness of the ideas but because we have been programmed to think of things in the opposite direction.  We reject matter’s existential universality and ascribe LIFE to an outside “spiritual” source that — no matter how it is contradicted by what we see with our own eyes — we cling to as our escape vehicle from a material world that we have been taught is alien and hostile to our destiny as human individuals.  The inability to understand that we are matter is the source of our disrespect for matter and disdain for its ways.  We have been telling ourselves another story for so long … and we have developed so much of what we think and do around that other story … that we spontaneously project that matter is inferior to “mind” and supine before the “will” of our rational intelligence, as if they were two different things and our brains weren’t themselves organic matter.  Matter to western culture is alien, and at best a slave to kick around, not the sacred matrix which spawned us and in which we remain always immersed like a sponge in the sea, the root and ground of our intelligence itself.  We behave as if there were nothing in mat­ter we need to listen to … to learn from … to be patient and deferential toward, to collabor­ate with, to embrace, to serve … nothing sacred.  We think of ourselves as “spirits,” cerebral “gods,” all-powerful bodiless brains, whose destiny it is to mold a lifeless profane matter to suit our individual desires — to remake the world in the image and likeness of our personal illusions.  And we have been encouraged in our self-exalting hubris by our mother culture’s various epiphanies through the millennia — the principal one of which for us has been mediaeval Catholicism and its “reformed” Protestant progeny — and the legacy they passed on to our modern culture of finding ways to escape from embracing our reality as biological organisms in a material universe.

I do not reject technology.  I propose we use it to deepen our contentment with what we are — individuals within a material totality — not to run from it into a world of illusion.  Part of contentment, of course, is the commitment to equality among us for access to the goods of the earth.  Knowing who we are and how we are related to our source and sustainer is what I mean by religion.  I believe such a radical reformation of religion would transform the way we organize our life on this earth — an earth which gave birth to us and to whose limits we remain forever bound.

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:

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