Self-embrace

Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.

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In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

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I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

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The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

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Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

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We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

Emptiness also means that the realities that we see directly, throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have perennially claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

(Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda

 

 

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The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

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

On the “will” of “God”:

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

On divine Providence and predestination:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

PSALMS 59 & 60

PSALM 59

Background. A lament with political overtones, maybe from a king, focused on the “nations” (goyim) that are creating problems for “the city” of the Hebrews. It may be imagined that a restive population of “pagan” tribes subordinate to the Hebrews and dwelling in their midst is creating problems, perhaps insisting on calling out to its gods at night when it is difficult to locate and identi­fy. Whoever they are, they return “howling like dogs and prowl about the city.” It is seen as a harassment stemming from open hostility.

It is in that context that the psalmist calls for a unique “punishment:” do not exterminate them (extermination was the standard treatment) or the Hebrews will forget what is was to live among enemies. Rather keep them alive in a state of wretchedness and impotence as a standing display of Yahweh’s power for the encouragement of the Hebrews and a constant warning to the subject tribes to remember their place.

Verses 11 to 13 contain the psalmist’s poetic call for Israel’s enemies to be punished in a way that would maximize its display value and Yahweh’s universal power. Do not kill them, the Hebrew poet says, let the consequences of their defeat remain visible as a standing manifestation of Yahweh’s supremacy. Augustine applied that literally to the Jews of his own time.

Reflection. Augustine’s elaboration of this theological fiction, like many of his fantasies, is conditioned by his belief in the divine destiny of the Roman Empire. It can be found in his Commentary On The Psalms. His remarks on these two verses of psalm 59 are extensive, verbose and convoluted. In summary they clearly illustrate: (1) Augustine’s insistence on identifying the Jews of his day with the Jews at the time of Christ who were instrumental in his death, (2) his claim that the mark of Cain mentioned in Genesis applies to all the Jews, implying contemporary Jews are “Christ-killers” by symbolic extension. It is that mark, he says, that makes the Jews stand out uniquely among all people as not being Romans. (3) His unwarranted identification of the hypocritical Pharisees in Matthew 23 with all contemporary Jews, and (4) the clear implication that Jews are to be kept alive as examples of punishment and failure, vitiates any claim that he held that mercy should dictate Christian policy toward the Jews in the Roman Empire.

Augustine’s injunction about the treatment of the Jews is used again in his Adversus Judaeos Tractatus, a 5,000 word piece that is usually omitted from collections of his writings, listed as PL-42 in the official collection of Latin Fathers. But psalms 44, 49, 68, and 79 are also each cited numerous times and played a major role in that exposition. Together with his un­am­biguous condemnation of the Jews in the City of God, the Tractatus makes it quite clear that the “policy” of not killing Jews based on verses 11 to 13 of psalm 59 was a theological justification for a vengeful and punitive segregation. It must also be acknowledged that its concurrence with the puni­tive and sadistic intention of the original Hebrew psalmist is spot on.

In the Tractatus Augustine says quite directly in two places “you,” referring to his contemporary existing Jews, “occidistis Christum in parentibus vestris.” — “You killed Christ in [the actions of] your parents.” Calling present day Jews “Christ-killers” as he does here, cannot square with his­tor­­ian Paula Fredricksen’s claim stated in the subtitle of her 2010 book, Augustine and the Jews, that Augustine’s “theology” derived from psalm 59 amoun­ted to a “Christian Defense of Jews and Jud­aism.” His intentions were clearly vindictive and sadistic as he projected the future necessarily observable misery of the Jews as a real positive and desirable instrument in the promotion and supremacy of Christianity.

Augustine’s lame attempt to cite the “mercy” of God by saying “do not slay them,” while at the same time encouraging Jewish impoverishment and segregation as “Christ-killers,” was, predictably, ineffective. Pogroms of the Jews occurred with increasing frequency and intensity as Christendom became more self-consciously ascendant through the middle ages. Church-sanctioned violence against “infidels” during the crusades unleashed a pent-up Christian hatred of the Jews that showed that ordinary Christians had not even heard of Augustine’s theory. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons in 1146 calling for Christians to slaughter Muslim infidels who despised Christ, and simultaneously to not kill Jews based on Augustine’s reading of psalm 59 fell on deaf ears. People were unable to fathom the difference, and pogroms continued despite his efforts.

This is abhorrent. Augustine’s religious fantasies here as elsewhere were completely dominated by his more fundamental belief in the providential role of the Roman Empire, and the Roman obsession with control and punishment for non-compliance. We can do nothing but forcefully condemn such sadistic attitudes — seeing positive advantage in another’s suffering — clearly enun­ciated by the Hebrew poet, accurately identified by Augustine’s reading of the poem and rein­forced as an acceptable and even laudatory sentiment by his “Christian” application of it to the Jews. Augustine’s treatment, citing the psalms over and over, is tant­amount to saying: this is God’s will, confirmed in scripture and embedded in the psalms, the prayer life of the Church, the earthly embodiment of the risen Christ, which sings these psalms as its daily and continuous conversation with the Father. It is claiming this is what Christ wants, in blatant contradiction to what Jesus himself was recorded as saying on the cross: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. Augustine’s ability to disregard the mind and spirit of Jesus’ message is not unique to the “Jewish issue.” His characterization of the Father’s rage at the insult of Original Sin completely contradicts Jesus’ image of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. This anomaly is found throughout his theology. Its frequency and consistency is such that it may provide an interpretive clue for understanding opaque sections of Augustine’s thought: when in doubt about what he means, assume a punitive imperialist mindset.

The problems presented by this psalm are another reminder of what we are dealing with in this ex­ercise. The psalms are not for us, as they were for Augustine, sacred words that come from the mouth of God, or even vehicles of trustworthy religious sentiments discovered by our forebears and passed on to us in poetry. The psalms, besides their primitive assumptions about divine intervention in history, in many cases call for responses that are simply beyond the pale of human decency and mor­a­­l­ity as we understand it. They cannot be used by people attempting to conform their atti­tudes and behavior to norms urged by Jesus and Buddha. We are forced to wrestle with the psalms for only one reason: they have been used since time immemorial to define and intensify the religious sentiments that supported our culture and civilization. They were powerful influences in our formation, and if we are going to transform ourselves we have to reconfigure the psalms in accordance. We go through them thoroughly and critique them without remorse, identifying and condemning attitudes and sentiments that we know now are inconsistent with our moral and spiritual values. Psalm 59 as interpreted by Augustine will deform and dehumanize anyone who uses it as prayer to guide and habituate a spiritual attitude. The process applies to all the psalms. The psalms must be wrested from their theocratic and self-serving tribal matrix and re-conceived in a way that conforms to our values. If that is not possible, they must be discarded. At the end of the day we must remind ourselves we are dealing with ancient tribal literature, not the revealed word of “God,” and prayer originates in the human heart, not from a printed page.

1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.

2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.

3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,

4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!

5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil.

6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.

7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”

Analogously, for us, the “nations” who worship “false gods” are our own selfish proclivities that urge us to give our disciplined service to something other than LIFE. We dedicate ourselves to our own self-aggrandizement: the conspicuous accumulation of goods that identifies the respectable member of society; the pursuit of career recognition in the amassing of credentials, titles, achievements, and a level of remuneration that, delusional as it is, is considered an expression of personal worth. This is not even to speak of the grosser “gods” of physical gratification and display to which even those disciplined to ego-enhancement continue to maintain a surreptitious relationship. “Who will hear us? Who will condemn us”? since everyone is doing the same thing … no one dedicates their lives to LIFE, so there is no one who can even recognize the immensity of the breach.

They howl to satisfy their unfulfilled needs. They prowl at night, robbing us of sleep, our fantasies are filled with them: remorse for lost opportunities, imagined betrayals, beginning with our parents, that kept us from achieving the divinity we yearn for, the ego-surrogate for the LIFE we refuse to acknowledge and serve as our true selves.

But LIFE still resides deep within us. The real self, buried beneath the layers of pathetic fantasy may be muffled, but it is not mute. We can hear its voice — our own voice — quietly laughing at the debris that remains of our pointless efforts to replace it by building a “self” that doesn’t exist.

8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.

9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.

10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.

11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.

12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,

13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.

These “gods” are liars, howling about our emptiness as if we had it in our power to fill it by satisfying selfish desires. It can’t be done. When I think of the damage they have caused, my head swirls with fantasies of retaliation. But then I realize, it is this false self — me — that I want to punish; for these “gods” are not other than myself. No, the solution is to stop building a replacement for what already exists in all its pristine perfection, the Self that is my LIFE. The solution is to stop serving my false self and serve LIFE. The Buddha saw it and said it very clearly:

But now, I have seen you, housebuilder; you shall not build this house again. All its rafters are broken, its roof is shattered; the mind has attained the extinction of all selfish desires. (Dhammapada XI: 154)

14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.

15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.

16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.

17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.

 

PSALM 60

Background. A national lament after a military defeat. It might be taken as a royal complaint that Yahweh permitted Judah’s defeat. Murphy (The Jerome Biblical Commentary) conjectures the battle in question may have been with the Edomites and failed to take their fortified city, Bozrah. An ancient oracle is restated (vv. 6,7,8) that confirms Yahweh’s dominion over all of Palestine and Transjordan. Murphy cites another commentator who gives a possible date around 720 bce seeing allusions to the conquest of Northern Israel by the Assyrians in a campaign that occasioned an Edomite uprising. At any rate the king’s complaint that Yahweh is not upholding his side of the contract is unambiguous. A war god that does not provide victory is quickly changed for one that will. Amos and Hosea’s complaint about the recrudescence of B’aal worship in this era correlates with this possibility.

Reflection. Yahweh was a tribal war god. LIFE is not. We can file no complaint when we fail to defeat our enemies, because they are, in fact, ourselves. The LIFE that makes possible my behavior in the world among my fellow humans provides the possibility of true moral action. That is a guarantee. What it does not promise is that our efforts to replace our natural selves with another one, concocted out of figments of our imagination, and designed to re-invent our selves as lords over others, will work.   It does not because it cannot promise the impossible. That imaginary “self,” artificially constructed out of imaginary elements in order to achieve an imaginary superiority, will last exactly as long as the conjurer’s art can make others believe it is real. And that sleight-of-hand is difficult to pull off because the magician himself knows what a fraud he really is. The mirage will last until the first attempt at drinking real water by some­one really thirsty reveals that there is nothing there but desert sand. To drink real water that sustains LIFE, you’ve got to go to your real self, LIFE itself, the sustaining core of your own being. Tap that well, serve that master, and you cannot fail to live.

1 O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!

2 You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, it is tottering.

3 You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.

LIFE has not failed us, we have failed LIFE by seeking to project ourselves over others when our real job was to serve them. Forcing what was never meant to be has left us staggering, exhausted and directionless.

4 You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot.

5 Give victory with your right hand, and answer us, so that those whom you love may be rescued.

6 God has promised in his sanctuary:

“With exultation I will divide up Shechem, and portion out the Vale of Succoth.

7 Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my scepter.

8 Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”

The promises of LIFE are infallible and its potential is unlimited. Even now leaders and heroes abound who would gather us together to make another attempt at conquering our false selves, usurpers installed by our own treachery in the place of LIFE. Ourselves … this is territory we were meant to conquer for LIFE. It is our destiny. It is ours by right of birth.

9 Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?

10 Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies.

It’s no use whining … trying to lay the blame on someone else. There is no one else. By ourselves we have created this selfish vortex and set it spinning in the world; and by ourselves we can re-capture and train it to selfless service. For help we can call on LIFE, our real self.

11 O grant us help against the foe, for human help is worthless.

12 With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

2,300 words

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

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

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

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

Damage in the world of time

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “original” injustice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Jesus of Nazareth and the doctrine of “God”

Originally posted Sep 1, 2016

2,100 words

In the narrative of one of the earliest Christian training manuals, the gospel of Luke, Jesus introduces himself publicly for the first time in a local synagogue of Nazareth as the suffering servant of deutero-Isaiah. Using the words of the prophet, he announced that he was “sent to embolden the poor, to heal the broken in spirit, to free the slaves, to open the prisons, to comfort the grieving.” It later becomes clear that he also identified with the suffering people he was sent to serve because that announcement is repeated at key junctures through­out his career with an ever sharper focus on his own torture and death as a required feature of his mission.

It is my contention, that this man had a unique perspective on religion gleaned from his own personal interpretation of the significance of the poetry of Isaiah and other post exilic Jewish writers. Those powerful passages on redemptive suffering stood in striking contrast to mainstream Jewish theories about the cause and meaning of their national abasement which by Jesus’ time had gone on for centuries.

The author of “Luke,” following the narrative sequence laid out by “Mark,” says that Jesus had a foundational vision of his own vocation that occurred as he emerged from the waters of John’s baptism. “Sonship” was the dominating sentiment at that moment and it was taken to imply a commission from his “father.” Not unlike Isaiah himself who had a pronounced sense of being chosen and sent, Jesus was driven by his “father’s will.” Thereafter, allusions to his “mission” are unmistakably associated with a personal mandate: that his message included his death. Jesus saw it as a “command” from his father that as son he was bound to “obey.” Later in a letter to the Philippians Paul would claim that it was that very “obedience unto death” that earned Jesus a “name that was above every name.”

Who structured this interpretation of Jesus’ life? In the misty realms of gospel authorship, we cannot determine whether the focus on Isaiah’s poetry is from Luke or from Paul who was traditionally believed to be the inspiration for Luke. But there is also nothing to prevent it from actually being Jesus’ himself, presented by Luke as the origin of a series of predictions of his own death built on the jarring counter-cultural assertions of Isaiah, and never comprehended by his followers. The narratives reported that it was Jesus who appropriated Isaiah’s “servant” poetry as his own personal destiny. We are not under any obligation to deny these reports. That was the poetry that Jesus’ followers heard him proclaim — a poetry which he immortalized by giving his life for it — and which they never understood.

So here we have the beginnings of a radically new perspective on religion. Never before had humankind suspected that the traditional notion of “sacrifice” to placate the gods was anything more than a gripping symbol of a quid pro quo relationship with the invisible forces that protected or punished them. Never before had they thought to identify the elements of the human condition itself — suffering culminating in death — as the force that bound them umbilically to their Source and Sustainer.

I believe that the man Jesus had an extraordinary perception of the central place of brokenness and impoverishment in human life, traceable to the insights of Job and the post exilic Hebrew poets as well as his own experience of life under the systemic exploitation of the subjugated Jews by the Roman Empire. That insight was the source of his remarkable compassion for the poor, the sick, the crippled, the lepers, the possessed, the accused, all of whom were considered outcasts by the standards of mainstream Judaism.   The ease with which he sided with social rejects suggests that he had seen through the self-deceptions of self-righteousness promoted, perhaps unwillingly but by all calculations inevitably, by the quid pro quo mainstream interpretation of the place of Jewish law and ritual in the contract with Yahweh. Jesus seems never to have been fooled by the official “holiness” of the religious authorities and the practices they fostered much less by the officialist interpretation of the perennial Jewish national humiliation as punishment for breaking the contract with Yahweh.

I may be forgiven if I find this extraordinary to an extreme degree. In a world where theocracy ruled undisputed, no one doubted for an instant that “divine providence” was behind the ascendancy of conquering empires and the degradation of the conquered. Rome was universally considered “diva” — divine — by all nations because “God” had clearly ordained its conquests and its universal rule. Jesus seems not to have believed that. What, then, did that imply about his belief in traditional “providence”? Political power as a sign of divine approval and sanction to rule was a universal belief with which Jesus’ own Judaism was in complete agreement. Probably today a majority of people around the world still believe the same thing. How did he get past that?

The same convictions held true for individual health and strength, success and good fortune, status and position. In Jesus’ world “God” was behind it all, rewarding those who were faithful to the contract, and punishing in this life those who were not. Failure, poverty, destitution, loss, chronic illness, disability, isolation, demonic possession, death — it was all a sign of “God’s” displeasure and punishment. Job himself could never get beyond all that; how did Jesus do it? That Jesus was able to see his father in a way that his contemporaries did not, besides the influence of Job and the Jewish poets, remains a mystery; for we do not know what youthful experiences may have contributed to it. What we do know, however, because it is not possible to deny it, is that he had to have a “doctrine of God” that was contrary to the accepted wisdom of his age and his own ancestral tradition. He had to know that his father was not the “God” who rewarded and punished behavior, littering the streets with lepers and blindmen, paralytics and cripples, the tormented and the insane. He had to know it was not his father who sent the legions of Rome to pollute the Jewish temple with abomination, to plunder and enslave the world, to destroy languages and peoples, creating desolation and calling it peace. Jesus’ father was not “God.” He knew it from the moment he emerged from the Jordan. He knew the “God” who ruled the Sabbath was not his father, because his father had given the Sabbath to man. His father was the Source of his humanity, and so he called himself the Son of Man. Jesus knew who he was.

But even in his lifetime some tried to call him the “son of ‘God.’ ” He would not stand for it. He wouldn’t even let them call him “good,” for he said that word was reserved for “God” alone.   He knew who he was, and he was not “God.”

Others got the same impression. The Marcionites, a successful but later suppressed Christian community that flourished a century later in the polytheist Greek-speaking world, were convinced that there were indeed two separate and distinct “Gods” opposed to one another: the Promulgator of the Law, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

It appears Jesus had created an insuperable dilemma for his followers. How were they to understand this new doctrine of “God” that contradicted everything they had learned about the way things were? They believed he was the Messiah and they thought that meant that soon the legions of “God” would engage the legions of Caesar and “save,” “redeem,” and restore Israel to its inheritance. They didn’t count on him being the Son of Man who embraced death — the very human condition that they had been taught to believe was a punishment for sin.

They thought long and hard but they never understood him. In the long run they could not get past the reality of it all. No one could embrace the human condition. No one could embrace death. If death is not overcome in this life then it must be that we finally get beyond it in the next. What were they to do with Jesus’ macabre dance that made him turn toward death every time he had the chance to avoid it. Some were sure he was a madman. His raving even brought his mother and brothers calling out to him at the edge of the crowds to come home and stop all this nonsense. One of his followers, determined not to follow him to the death he so clearly seemed to desire, sold him out to the religious authorities who represented “God,” the Law, the Romans, and the way things were. He knew that what they were saying was right. It wasn’t just one man’s morbid fascination with the underclass, Jesus’ mania for liberation would cause the whole nation to perish at the hands of the Roman overlords, sent by divine providence itself to control a lawless world. Everyone knew what side “God” was on. Judas was not about to be fooled by Jesus’ trust in some “father” no one had ever met. There was only one “God” and Judas knew what he was like … everyone knew what he was like.

Jesus, it must be acknowledged, was not entirely free of that misperception, either. When, at the end, he cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” it wasn’t only a culminating literary allusion to the suffering servant in the “prophecies” of Psalm 23. It was because he too had come to believe that his insight into the redemptive power of suffering should have made his death an event of unalloyed triumph for him and for all of Israel. It was not. At the end, I believe, Jesus saw what we all see. His despair was real, and full of disillusionment because he saw that Isaiah’s “prophecy” was not literal fact but poetry. It was the final hurdle. At the end, like all of us, he had nowhere to turn but to his father.

His followers were thrown into a panic. The dreamy poetry about trusting LIFE and Isaiah’s version of redemptive death had turned into hard reality. Death was no longer a metaphor. It had happened. They had been so mesmerized by him that they were no longer able to turn back and go the way of Judas. What had following him gotten them? Nothing. He had left them with nothing but death — his humanity shorn of any delusion of a grandiose triumphant messiahship.

They couldn’t handle it. They convinced themselves that the wisps of stories they were hearing were true: he had to have come back from the grave like the way Job was rewarded for his long-suffering. I contend that his followers’ belief in the resurrection was the sublimation of death, the transferal of Jesus’ embrace of the human condition into a symbolic triumph over death that never occurred. They had no framework in which to insert the raw fact of death and the diminishments that are its equivalent. Jesus’ unqualified embrace of the human condition and the Source from which it came could not be seen as the profound spiritual victory it was without some scaffolding that would illuminate its significance. Resurrection as a symbol would have done that. But it was not taken as a symbol. It was offered as literal reality, eternal life, designed to overcome literal reality, organismic death. It was like the imagined restoration of Job: it offered an answer where there was no answer.

I believe the entire later development of Christian Doctrine including especially the unconscionable homoousion of Nicaea, promoted over the open protests of the Council Fathers by the emperor of Rome, was the further elaboration of that scaffolding. It surrounded Jesus’ humanity with blankets of protective gauze effectively insulating him from the human condition that was the centerpiece of his vision. Making him to be the very “God” that his experience at the Jordan had revealed as bogus was the ultimate in demonic irony. That this claim to be “God,” this betrayal of the Judaic tradition, which Jesus himself explicitly denied in the only written records we have, should now be considered the litmus test of authentic Christianity is beyond my ability to fathom.

I contend the millennial development that we call “traditional Christianity” is based on a “God” that never existed and that Jesus never espoused. It is the direct antithesis of the man Jesus’ vision of his relationship to his father and the embrace of the human condition that was its moral and spiritual face. Jesus’ “father” is our father: the Source and Sustainer of entropic LIFE as we know it in this material universe. Like Jesus, we have nowhere else to turn.

 

Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

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

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

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

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

Being and work

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

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

Life from LIFE

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

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

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

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

Work as a function of existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in a Material Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival as a community effort

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

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

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

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

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

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

 

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

Surrender

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roman Empire

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

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

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

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

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

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

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

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

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

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

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

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

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

Humility in a material universe

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017