Christian universalism (IV)

the mystery of being-here: creation or emergence; spirit

3,450 words

3.

Understanding what it’s like to have faith is an entirely interior event. Religion is about relationship and as with all relationships, no one can speak authentically about it who has not experienced it. The very nature of relationship, except for its observable and measurable “exterior effects,” is its interior content: the shared reality ― whatever it might be ― between the parties. In the case of the existential relationship, the shared reality is the empty being-here of the recipient ― its conditioned human life. Its dependent “self” is the content of the transaction. Its “self” belongs as much to the donor as the recipient and it doesn’t cease belonging to the donor upon being received. That is the source of its emptiness. The recipient doesn’t entirely own itself.

The content is what the parties related to one another “carry back and forth,” which is the transactional sense evoked by the underlying Latin verb “re-ferre, re-latus.” In the faith relationship the content “traded” and shared is existence itself, what I am calling being-here. What is being given and received is being-here, life. And while this unique and precious commodity is quite deeply appreciated and intimately cherished by the individual recipient, the donating source ― the provider(s), the co-owner(s) ― remains unknown. What provides being-here is not apparent, and the faith that is its recognition has relied on socially available confirmation, imagery and symbols for its expression: hence it is clothed in the language, ritual and story of the local community ― its religion ― and differs from culture to culture. But the general dynamics ― the operating forces, the “carrying back and forth,” the giving and receiving, the recognition of common ownership, the faith ― are the same for all regardless of locality or culture; faith is universal.

Inter-personal

In the human domain those dynamics are what we call “inter-personal.” Faith is the acknowledgement of an existential relationship seen from the side of the recipient whose very person ― one’s very self ― in perceiving itself as being received, simultaneously adumbrates itself in that same act as having been given. The experience triggers a spontaneous evocation of awe, gratitude and a sense of being embraced by the unknown donating source(s). It is absolutely unavoidable and undeniable. All human beings aware of their dependency know this experience. It is universal.

But what does personal mean when there is no humanoid “person” on which the existential dependency is known to rest? To answer that question is one of the principal goals of these reflections. It is the source of the most common confusion in this area: since the operating dynamic from the side of the receiver is necessarily “personal” (for it makes the human person to be-here and to be supremely grateful), it has been assumed that the existential source was also “personal” and “benevolent.” The fact that there is no consensus among the world’s religions in that regard has not been appreciated, and in the West, especially, rejected categorically. In our times science seems to concur with the view that the only “persons” involved in providing existence were the human ones from whom one is descended.

The West insists the source of being here must be a god-“person.” Well, of course, all the western religions derive from “the Book” and are built on an ancient pre-scientific narrative that imagined a personal god who created the world with a purposeful plan like any craftsman, freed the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians, accompanied them in their conquest of Palestine, gives moral commands, expects to be obeyed and answers prayers in anticipation of rewarding or punishing people for their conduct. Such pre-scientific guesswork ― com­mon sense as it may have been at one time ― is completely inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. No one in ancient times saw “God” creating the world. We now know we live in an evolving universe constructed entirely of material energy whose organic elaborations (all the known species of living things) are driven solely by the compulsion to be-here, an energy intrinsic to matter. The “common-sense” conjecture of our ancestors that a super-human architect and craftsman was responsible for all this amounted to a primitive “science,” meaning a concrete physical explanation of how the construction actually took place, not a metaphysics. (By metaphysics I mean a theory of abstract [conceptually structured] causation).   They cannot be faulted for making a plausible guess under the circumstances. But, as science, it is no longer valid; we now know that it never happened like that. Construction took place in another way altogether: evolution.

Creation or emergence?

It must be acknowledged, moreover, that the very idea of creation ― the conceptual structure that corresponded to what the ancients thought creation meant ― was derived from and remains wedded to that that mistaken science. “Craftsman” and “creation” are correlative notions that refer to concretely imagined events. You cannot suddenly admit that the “ancient science” was faulty but continue to assert that the belief in “creation,” as a concept, was not. The very idea of creation ― and I mean to include in this idea the thought, planning, and intended purpose for the thing created ― came from the imagery. If you change the image of a rational craftsman who does things for a purpose, the idea of what creation is ― the conceptual and epistemic structure ― changes in tandem. With evolution, the word and concept “creation” no longer embody the reality of the way being-here is known to be shared between source and recipient, because the features derived from rationally applied construction are no longer there.

The new imagery is provided by what is now known to be the actual process ― the “transaction” ― that made all the structures, forces, features and species of living organisms of the known universe to be-here as they are: the evolution of living matter. The action is not one of “creation,” it is one of autonomous self-emer­gence. It is the spontaneous expansive activity of a living matter whose non-personal, non-intentional, non-purposeful dynamism is locked into an unchanging energy of growth and intensification. Life moves in only one direction: more life.

With the transmission of being-here by the evolution of living matter and not by a craftsman’s planned, purposeful creation, the new emergent “thing” transmitted remains as much a part of what did the transmitting (the evolving) as what emerged. In this conception immanence takes on a concrete imagery: the emergent species always remains nested and embraced (like a sponge in the sea) by what gave it rise: living matter. The “new thing” emerges incrementally; it never stops being the “old thing” even as, little by little, it becomes unmistakably what it now is and is not what it came from. And in the case of humankind the perception of emptiness includes all the co-dependent co-arising factors ― human and non-human “causes” ― that are active in the emergence of the human organism. The human being knows that it is, undeniably, a biological organism, the direct offspring not only of its human ancestors, but also of a multitude of other things in this cosmos. The human organism always remains comprised exclusively of the sub-atomic particles, valences, forces and fields from which it emerged and whose continued functioning is necessary for its own continued existence. Its “self” always remains what it was made of, even as it launches itself as autonomous.

4.

The Philosophical Inversion

The conceptual change implied by the change in the scientific description also affects our traditional philosophical assumptions. And in one key respect it actually inverts them. This is significant, so let me digress briefly and try to explain.

The assumptions of Greek philosophy made since the days of Plato are that “things” are what they are by dint of their “essence.” Essence was believed to be the idea of the “thing” that was implanted in it by its creator. Since the Creator was believed to be rational and functioned like a craftsman, the idea of a thing was itself derived from the purpose the craftsman had in mind when s/he created that thing. The idea and the purpose were the same; they were the “essence” of that thing.

That “essence” was spiritual because it was an idea. An idea was the product of a “mind” and since the mind was believed to be a spirit, the ideas it produced were also said to be spiritual items ― which is the way we think we experience them, i.e., as immaterial.. An idea does not occupy space, it is able to co-penetrate matter co-existing in the same “place” without contact or displacement. It is absolutely universal and denotes every instance of its essence without exception: the idea of horse includes every horse that ever was, is or will be. It is also uncomposed; it is not made of parts and so cannot decompose (implicitly it is therefore immortal). Matter, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same space, is limited to the one and only concrete thing that it is, is composed of parts which disintegrate ending the “identity” of the thing.

This “world-view” promoted first by Plato and continued in slightly modified form by Aristotle, defined western thinking from about 350 bce until the modern era. It is really only since Darwin’s proposals about evolution in the 19th century that it has become generally accepted that all of the foundational priorities assumed by “essentialism” are completely wrong. As it has become increasingly irrefutable that matter is self-elabora­ting, the need to have “idea-essences” in order to explain why things do what they do is superfluous. Matter does what it does because it is driven to be-here by its own internal material energy and the forms that it assumes and the abilities it produces are in response to what works ― what allowed it to be-here.

Under the Platonic philosophía perennis, reality was made of two separate and completely dissimilar substances, matter and spirit, and was described in a series of conceptual dyads: act and potency, prime matter and essential form, body and soul, essence and existence. In each of these pairs one side corresponded to immaterial ideas and the other to its material partner.   Notice that it dovetailed with the “rational craftsman” theory of universal construction. They were all different ways of imagining how the ideal immaterial “reality” in the universe interacted with matter. In all cases, spirit was the guiding element ― the immaterial idea coming from the craftsman’s immaterial mind; and the trailing, dead and inert “empty receptacle” which received the enlivening directions coming from the immaterial idea, was matter.   Matter in itself, without form, was dead, inert, lifeless, shapeless, not unlike soft and pliable clay in the hands of the potter. Matter could be acted upon but could not act. Matter was pure empty potential that brought nothing whatsoever to the composite except the ability to be molded, shaped, directed and activated by the idea-form-essence / source of life.

There was a scholastic maxim: existence comes through the form. What comes first in an essentialist world is the idea ― the “whatness” of a thing: that which makes a thing to be what it is, gives it life and therefore explains what it does. And in all cases “what” something was, was determined by the purpose for which it was made by its maker, the idea in the mind of the artisan.   Aristotle called it the “final cause” because it determined the end to which the “thing” was designated. The contribution of the material receptacle into which the essential form was “poured” was precisely its emptiness: its shapelessness and its malleability: its non-determinateness and its readiness to being shaped by form; its inertness and need to be enlivened by spirit. Form worked on matter as a potter’s mental plan on soft, wet clay. But although matter had to ultimately yield to the shaping power of form, the resistance it offered engaged and intensified form’s activity, giving a focus and creativity to the resulting composite that drove the evolving history of the cosmos. (The last image was the contribution of Henri Bergson to the philosophía perennis early in the 20th century, in a book called Creative Evolution. Despite its title, it was a reaffirmation of traditional creationist dualism.)

Essentia-lism was an IDEA-lism. It was dominated by the primary and guiding reality of ideas, and by the spirit-minds that generated and understood them. Ideas and spirit-minds were real. They carried and transmitted being. Matter gave an edge and creativity to being only by its resistance to it; it was a kind of non-being. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries imagined Being like pure brilliant light shining from its source (the “One”) into an infinite darkness of non-being and enlightening whatever it touched in proportion to its distance from the source of light. Hence the cosmos was populated with a hierarchy of “things,” combinations of darkness and light, that differed from one another in brilliance to the degree that they more closely or more remotely reflected the brilliance of the “One.”

The philosophical inversion I speak of occurred when the world realized that ideas are not things, and minds are not entities separate from the bodies they inhabit. There are no “essences.” Ideas are the mental states of the brains of human organisms, and minds are the self-perceived identity behind that activity. Evolution is not the creative result of “spirit” overcoming a resistant “matter” and there are no “idea-plans” or purposes implanted in things by a some celestial Potter. It is living matter itself obeying its own inner dynamism to be-here whose incremental micro-adjustments of its own inner components result in combinations that survive when they match the support potential in the surrounding environment. That is what is occurring in evolution. If I were to use the traditional scholastic terminology, the conceptual relationships are turned on their heads. The “form” or shape that something has does not determine how it will survive, it is in stumbling upon the combinations that survive that gives to things the form and characteristics that they have. That means, in scholastic terms, being does not come through the form, form is the result of the struggle to be-here, form comes through being; essence does not precede existence, it is the other way around: existence precedes essence. In other words, it was in discovering how to be-here that things developed the shape, abilities and characteristics that they have. This turns the philoso­phía perennis on its head.

5.

These developments in our common understanding have resulted in the realization that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is superfluous, scientifically speaking. If once upon a time, the idea of spirit was necessary to explain both what things are and how they got here, that is no longer the case. And the simple application of Ockham’s razor ― eliminating unnecessary factors in our explanations ― calls for a re-thinking of exactly what reality is made of.

This creates a dilemma. If spirit was a “theory” that was once the best explanation of the cosmic process, but now is no longer needed, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really exist at all and may never have been the object of our experience as we once believed. We also once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but no longer. We can be deluded.

But the issue is complex and far from resolved. Spirit’s role in emergence, is one thing. But there are other areas where “spirit” cannot be so easily dismissed. How do we explain our unique human abilities: self-consciousness and self-identity, thinking, imagination, appreciation of beauty, morality, the pursuit of truth, the desire for immortality and the love that forms the steel hoops that grapple us to our friends and families? There are those who would call such things illusion. I do not. There is no way to deny what we experience, and no amount of sophistry a la Daniel Dennett,[1] can eliminate the reality of a dimension of this cosmos, internally observable to humans, that we have traditionally attributed to a separate spirit. To say that the existence of spirit as a separate kind of reality opposed to matter is no longer needed to explain the cosmos does not necessarily prove either (1) that such a thing does not exist (with another function) or (2) that spirit may not bear a relationship to matter that is different from the “substance”-definition and the associated total separation and opposition imagined by our Platonic forebears.

It is this latter alternative that appears to me to be the most compatible with both the discoveries of science and our own undeniable experience. I believe there is no such separate “thing” or immaterial “substance” called spirit; truly spiritual phenomena exist, but they are the emanations of a property of matter that we had ignored, fatally distracted by the prejudices of our Platonic, Cartesian dualist tradition which denigrated matter as dead, inert and passive.

Transcendent Materialism

Stone reductionists, like Daniel Dennett who are willing to call us “robots” or “zombies” and claim our interior experience of consciousness is an illusion rather than question the mechanistic materialism that he subscribes to, are one group. Unfortunately, the word materialism without qualification, has been identified with that position alone. Many believe that it is impossible to salvage that word for other applications and suggest the use a different term altogether for a reality that is, in fact, comprised of the potential for both kinds of phenomena: spiritual and material. They propose we call this alternative view “neutral monism,” in order to emphasize that (1) it is not a dualism because there is only one kind of substance in the universe, and that (2) that one substance is neither what we used to call “spirit” nor what we used to call “matter.” It is neutral. It is some other thing with the properties of both.

Currently we do not have a word for this view.  I call it Transcendent Materialism: “materialism” because whatever “spiritual” phenomena are-here, are exclusively the emanations of a property of matter; “transcendent” because this potential is responsible for matter evolving — transcending one form and bringing forth other, unique, autonomous and definitive forms. “Transcendent Materialism” explains emergence.

Frankly, I am impatient with those who continue to use the word “materialism” simplistically without qualification to mean physicalist reductionism. There has been enough discussion in academic forums on neutral monism in our times to warrant acknowledge­ment of multiple meanings to “materialism.”

Transcendent materialists look on the spiritual not as a “thing” or substance but as a phenomenon ― an undebatable reality of experience. We are materialists, but for us matter itself even in its simplest most primitive forms has the potential for what it eventually displays after eons of evolutionary complexification: life and consciousness. We adduce the ancient principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” which means “nothing comes from nothing” to explain the etiology.  In other words, if “B” truly emerges from “A” and from “A” alone, then the full explanation for “B” must exist in “A.”[2] Whatever it is that is responsible for what we once attributed to a separate spirit, is actually a property of matter. Hence matter, in total contrast to what Plato and Descartes were saying, is far from inert, lifeless and passive. Matter is the bearer of LIFE and thought.

Now we understand the reason why being-here is only and always a perception of the sensory apparatus of the conscious organism: “Spirit” is a material reality. Spinoza said it in his own way in 1665: “Extension is an attribute of God; God is an extended thing.” (Ethics, Part II, proposition II).

 

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim.

[2] Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism” in Strawson et al., Consciousness and its place in Nature, Imprint-Academic, Charlottesville VA, 2006, pp 3 – 31. The entire essay is an elaboration of ex nihilo, nihil fit.

Immanence and the “divinity” of Jesus

1,300 words

This is a reflection on the contemporary search among traditional Catholic theologians for language about Jesus’ “divinity” that is consistent with the implications of material evolution.

I put the word “divinity” in quotes because I believe that when “God” is understood as immanent it gives the word a new meaning with an imagery that is very different from what we are used to.  There is the old meaning of an all-powerful entity/person ― human-like but unlimited in reach and power, transcendent, spiritual and set apart from the rest of the material universe to which “he” is nevertheless present.  The new meaning based on immanence suggests the sustaining energy of universal existence, what some call a divine “Presence” that creatively suffuses everything that exists, a metaphysical cause that is materially indistinguishable from its finite effects.  Calling it LIFE projects an image that, to my mind, comes closest to the concept and evokes the dynamism responsible for the panoply of evolutionary effects that have filled the universe. I believe the key to a new way of expressing Jesus’ divinity is in a “new” way of expressing divinity itself ― as immanent. Once you take divine immanence seriously, things begin to fall into place.

[“Immanence” is the term traditionally used to describe “God’s” presence in the universe. Its usual expression has been to say that “God is everywhere.” We tend to think of that presence as if “God” were an entity like any other, separate but present to us like a tenant who rents a room in your house. But the deeper meaning of immanence as found in the work of Thomas Aquinas, is that “God” is present as the moment-to-moment sustaining source of the very existence of everything that exists. Aquinas’ theology of divine immanence has effectively been ignored in pastoral practice. For Thomas, the immanent “God” is present by “his” existential activation of all things here and now making them to be-here. “God” is being itself; Pure Act. All things exist by “borrowing” “God’s” very own existential dynamism and activating it as their own. It is not something that happened once in the past. It is a continuous operation that results in panentheism ― a condition where all things exist in God.]

Consider. In Thomistic terms, if “God” is the “act of existence” (the primary cause) that sustains, suffuses and is materially indistinguishable from all things as they are and have come to be (“things” = secondary causes which are both the agents and the products of evolution), then it’s a simple fact that “God” and the individual human being enjoy a “composite” relationship whose only discernible dissimilarity is that it is metaphysically structured, i.e., that it is only distinguishable conceptually as cause and effect. “God” and “creation” are not observably distinct either in composition or in activity. They are distinct only through our unique human ability to perceive and understand metaphysical cause and effect. (We unerringly perceive absolute metaphysical conditionality in ourselves, and infer an unconditioned metaphysical underpinning.)

The moral embrace of that metaphysical dependence, faith ― my conscious acquiescence to the co-presence of my source … my awareness that being-here is an exhaustive effect of “God’s” immanent primary causality (“exhaustive” = there is no other source) ― is reflected in my compassionate attitudes and behavior, which may be said to be more “godlike” the more completely each and every moment of my existence unfolds as a function of that relationship.

With such a way of looking at things ― a derivative of immanence ― not only is Jesus’ “divinity” intelligible, but so is all “divinity” among humankind, wherever faith is found, and however it was evoked in whatever community and at whatever time in the history of humankind. Gone is the problem of trying to account for the transmission of holiness/wholeness from Jesus to others, or from Christianity to other traditions, or back in time to include Judaism. We are all, Jesus no more or less than the rest of us human beings, all the immediate metaphysical effect of the suffusive presence of our immanent Primary Cause, and our “divinization” is all of the same type: moral appropriation and assimilation. It is by our moral surrender in faith causing a transformation in behavior and attitudes that we become more like “God.”

Metaphysical divinity is the same for all; we all have the same primary cause which is existentially activating us all as human beings (and only as human beings). If the immanent primary presence were “different,” we would be “different,” i.e., we would not be human. But the moral appropriation of that divinity in the surrender of faith and its diffusion through­out every aspect and every moment of our conscious communitarian lives, accounts for the different levels of the discernibility of divinity ― holiness/wholeness ― among us. Jesus, in our tradition, embodied the most complete fidelity to that “image of God” and the superlative quality of his trusting surrender is observable in his “obedience unto death,” even the dehumanizing death inflicted by the Roman thugs who ruled by torture and mutilation.

But please note: Jesus himself said that we would do even greater things than he did (Jn 14:12). How could he say that If he were indeed a “different kind of being” than we are? In the moral sphere everything is wide open to everybody. The depth, clarity and intensity of faith is as available to each of us as it was to Jesus, and the result of our fidelity to our reality as metaphysical effect is a closer likeness to the “divinity” that is our primary cause. The word for that is “divinization.” The Greeks called it theosis. I contend that that was the “divinity” that people experienced in Jesus. It was theosis divinization ― the human moral, attitudinal and behavioral expression of “divinity.”

 

Christians have never been shy about using the word “divinization.” Athanasius’ principal argument at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for acceptance of the term homoousios (which “defined” Jesus as the same kind of “God” as the Father) was that without it there was no way of guaranteeing divinization/theosis for us, and theosis was what it was all about. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had his own reasons for promoting the homoousios, but the Greek bishops resonated with Athanasius’ rationale.

Fast forward to John of the Cross, a late mediaeval Spanish Carmelite mystic who wrote around 1580. For him, the language of divinization is the same, even though his metaphors are characteristic of his time. He imagined the “soul” to be the “bride” of “God.” His argument ― that people who love one another tend to become like one another ― was used to account for both the personality distortions that result from loving the wrong things, as well as the “transformation into God” of the soul who becomes his “bride.” Today, we might squirm at the imagery, but it was clearly his way of describing his experience of the surrender of faith. Faith divinizes by bringing light and mirror into sync with one another. Why should we think that Jesus was not as adept as any of us at the surrender of faith?

The entire Christian tradition, by falsely characterizing Jesus’ “divinity” as different from ours, also made Jesus’ humanity different from ours. If he was a “God-entity,” as we have falsely imagined him, faith would not have been demanded of him. How could he be a model for us? How could his message be relevant “for the nations?

Jesus was a human being. It was by embracing his humanity unreservedly ― by trusting “God” through death, even death on the cross of infamy ― surrendering without reserve to the immanent Presence that was his primary cause, that he “earned a name above every name,” and why “every knee bends” at the sound of that name . . . why even today, hearing what he said and did, people everywhere know what he was.

 

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (III):

Tribal Identity, Political Humiliation and Nietzsche’s Rejection of Christianity

 

1

Nietzsche had a unique take on Christianity. He accused it of being the last recourse of “losers.” He claimed it was the concoction of people who could not achieve a sense of self-worth in the harsh world of reality. Despairing of achieving a human existence in life, they generated a pathetic belief in an imaginary world where all their aspirations would be realized after they died.

The flip-side of Nietzsche’s rant was his belief that the human individual’s appropriation of his humanity in the face of all the obstacles against it would result in the emergence of a superior kind of human being: a “superman” who owed his self-worth to no one but himself, loved the earth, rejected any thought of the after-life and necessarily shunned all those who lived by some other standard. Even though Nietzsche himself was opposed to anti-Semitism and the ethnic German nationalism of his day, the Nazis used his thinking to support their vision of Aryan superiority.

Abstracting from the horrific purposes to which others applied his thought, It seems that there might be some historical support to Nietzsche’s claim. Christianity was a development of later Judaism, and Judaism, we have to remember, was a religion that evolved in a most dramatic and intriguing way. It went through an inner transformation that turned it 180o from a religion of tribal superiority into a religion of salvation for the oppressed.

It began as a contract (“covenant”) with a warrior god, Yahweh, who freed the Hebrews from their enslavement to the Egyptians and conquered an extensive territory in Palestine along with the tribes that lived there for their possession. He was a god of armies, more powerful than all other gods.

But it was Israel’s destiny to return to servitude. In 587 bce, Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and the people carted off to work for their conquerors. The evidence was clear. Yahweh was no longer providing military victory. This struck at the very core of national identity for the Jewish people. Either Yahweh was impotent or he was uncaring; both were considered impossible. The fault had to lay with the Jewish people. They were not upholding their side of the contract, hence Yahweh’s abandonment.

The Jews were about to disappear as a nation. When they were “miraculously” allowed to return and rebuild their city and their Temple 50 years later, they took it as a sign of Yahweh’s compassion. But because their exile was surely the result of their failure, this miraculous act on Yahweh’s part had to be in the form of forgiveness. Thus Yahweh evolved from a war god into a God of forgiveness and compassion, ready to help the failures who begged him for help.

This is extraordinary. Suddenly, with the post exilic prophets, strength and power are no longer the instruments of life and prosperity. What draws down divine help is precisely the opposite: neediness, failure, poverty, vulnerability and sin … . For the Jews’ return from Exile there was an added factor: the new Persian conquerors gave the permissions and provided the protections for the return. They had to be acting as the agents of Yahweh’s will. The logic was undebatable: Yahweh wasn’t only the god of the Jews, he ruled all of Mesopotamia as well. Political impotence translated to a new universalist concept of “God.” If “God” is indeed all powerful, he must be guiding those who rule the world. How else could Israel have come back to life?

Of course, the earlier imagery of a god of tribal military triumph still remained. But it was braided into the new vision, became muted and went underground. It took the form of hope: that Yahweh would, at some future time “awake from sleep” and keep his “promises” to Israel of tribal supremacy. This meant that the collaboration with the current empire was a “holy” albeit temporary strategy. It established a paradigm that was in place when Jesus appeared at the start of the common era.

Enter Christianity

Jesus’ life coincided with that point in history when Rome changed from a powerful city-state that grew by making alliances, to a plundering despotic world empire. Rome’s oppressive control, which involved enslavement and heavy tribute extorted from its vassals, awakened the aspirations for national independence among the Jews, and these two “Yahwehs,” the conquering, liberating warrior of the Exodus and the compassionate, forgiving father of the Exile who was grooming the Romans for Israel’s ultimate glory, vied for control of the Jewish imagination. Jesus, some say, following the Essenes, melded the two images by declaring the coming “kingdom,” which many believed to be imminent, to be both Yahweh’s long expected military assertion of Israel’s world domination and the installation of a completely new way of organizing society run by justice and compassion. There would be a final battle ― an Armageddon ― between the forces of good and the forces of evil and after Yahweh’s victory, justice, compassion and forgiveness would rule the relationships among men, not force, greed, lies and larceny.

Others say Jesus opted for the forgiving father and used kingdom terminology only because of its universal currency among the Jews. It’s hard to dismiss the first theory entirely, however, because after his death his followers took up a stance of awaiting Jesus’ return in power which they claimed would usher in Yahweh’s kingdom. The imagery was clearly political; the condemnation of Roman oppression was implicit in this expectation. They called themselves Christians and demanded a transformation of life into the ideals promoted by the compassionate Yahweh in anticipation of the coming kingdom of justice.

As time went by two things happened that radically changed the Christian version of post exilic Yahwism. The first was that Jesus never returned. This was more disrupting than we may realize. For it resulted in the dismissal of Jesus’ radical morality of non-violence and compassion as poetic exaggeration.

The second was that ethnic Jews no longer dominated the Christian community either in numbers or influence. Most new Christians were Greco-Roman converts who had been brought up in the polytheism of the Mediterranean basin and did not see Rome as an alien conquering power or Israel as “God’s” favored nation. Their political acquiescence and the categories of their ancestral religion re-shaped Christianity. These factors conspired to bring Christians to disregard any thought of a revolutionary Jewish “kingdom” installed by a conquering Yahweh, and to transfer any hopes they may have had for a better life to an imagined existence after death. These developments occurred during the three centuries prior to the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, and, in fact, made that decision possible.

When that history-changing event occurred in 312, the new “Greco-Roman” Christian world­view got set in stone. Christians, almost universally, interpreted Constantine’s windfall as the establishment of the promised kingdom.  But the kingdom was not Israel, it was Rome, which is apparently what “God” had in mind all along.  For them, the struggle was over. The laws and statutes of Rome were to be accepted as the rules and regulations of the kingdom. The warrior god had come back to life, and both conquest and obedience to law were re-installed as the fundamental dynamics that ruled the kingdom.

This development was explicitly sanctioned earlier by Paul the apostle himself who had referred to the Roman Empire as having been instituted by “God:” “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Letter to the Romans 13: 1). Augustine’s City of God, written a century after Constantine’s choice, picked up the thread and claimed the Roman Empire had been prepared for its role in the spread of Christianity by God himself. That meant that conquest, plunder, enslavement and cultural extermination were officially acknowledged as appropriate tools for a providential “God” who micro-manages human history. This served as a paradigm for Christian thought throughout subsequent millennia. Power and wealth were “blessings” from “God,” no matter how they were gotten. That’s what “providence” meant.

Evolution

Don’t be fooled by the smooth transitions occurring here. The evolution of the Christian view of political power ended up co-opting Jesus’ message and harnessing it to the goals of empire for external conquest and the internal control of the conquered. Slaves accounted for about 25% of the population of the Empire, mostly obtained through conquest. The economy of the empire was totally dependent on slave-labor. The compassionate, post-exilic Yahweh was actually made subordinate to the warrior king (whom Constantine’s Council at Nicaea identified as Jesus himself) who led the Roman legions to victory, his cross emblazoned on their shields. Jesus and the conquering emperor Constantine were assimilated to one another and Jesus was apotheosized as the Roman Pantocrator: the all ruler who sat in judgment on humankind ― specifically condemning disobedience to the laws of the kingdom and its authorities. Correlatively, the emperor ruled, and conquered, and plundered, and enslaved, in the name of Christ.

Rome took Christianity in stride; the hum of daily life never skipped a beat. Emperor and Church were one entity, a theocracy exactly as it was under Jupiter and Venus. The “secular arm” legislated and imposed sanctions, punishing those who disobeyed, and the Church provided the narrative that divinized Rome as the “kingdom.” No one challenged slavery. And whatever justice was missing in “God’s” kingdom on earth was dismissed by the Church as of no consequence when compared to the pleasures of heaven. All the bases were covered.

It was not in the interest of the Empire to encourage any aspirations toward an end-of-time “kingdom of Justice” that challenged empire’s slave-based economy. Therefore it was extremely convenient that the new state religion wanted people to think of themselves as moral cripples ― losers ― deserving of punishment and thoroughly dependent on the forgiveness of “God,” a promissory note that was brokered exclusively by the Empire’s Church and cashed in only after death. Judaism’s inheritance from the post-exile experience served the Empire well.

2

Thus it would seem that there are historical reasons that would support Nietzsche’s characterization. Subsequently, the states in the West reproduced the patterns established by Rome: that “God” worked alongside (Christian) government to insure peace and harmony. The fact that peace and harmony were necessary for the smooth operation of the Imperial machine made the Christian religion something of a windfall for the Empire.

Please note the dynamics operating in this paradigm which has become our common legacy in the West. The “God of compassion” works in the service of the “God of political supremacy,” not the other way around. The ultimate definition of “God” identifies “him” as “all powerful,” the ally and guarantor of power. All other functions of divine intervention were ordered to it as means to an end. Any other belief would be inconsistent with “providence.”

This “theocratic imperative” ― the marriage of religion and political power ― is true everywhere in the West. For many, even “liberation theology” follows this paradigm; they think of it as a reprise of the “Armageddon” theology of the Essenes in modern, progressive garb. In this view “God’s” kingdom is not a spiritual metaphor, but rather a real social/political entity with laws and sanctions and the ability to defend itself. These new structures will guarantee justice for everyone. The “God” who reigns over this kingdom is still the “God of power” and armies; that’s the way “he” has always worked as illustrated by the supremacy of Rome. The only thing that has changed is the identification of the social class that legitimately wields power, makes laws and imposes sanctions.  There are many who are persuaded that “God” has chosen the United States to be the latest version of the “kingdom.”

My reaction is to say that people have a right to decide the social and political structures they want to live by, and to do what is necessary to install them. But they do not have a right to claim that it is “God” who is doing it.

National underdogs and “their” religion

The political character of our concept of “God” in the West is also on display in the national character of western religious denominations. By “national character” I mean that being from a particular local tribe (nation or clan) is invariably linked to a particular religion. When we think of the Irish or the Polish, for example, especially in the United States, we are accustomed to them being Catholic, while we anticipate that Brits and Germans, despite being from neighboring countries in each case, will be Protestant.

I singled out those nationalities not just as examples, but as particularly supportive of my thesis: that religion follows politics. The thesis, however, is double-edged. For the political choices also in turn shape the religion, sometimes in ways that are not anticipated. Who would have expec­ted, for example, that Jesus, who taught that those in authority in his community should be “like children” inviting compliance from their flock and never “lording it over them as the gentiles do,” would eventually be crowned as Pantocrator of the slave-based Roman Empire and be used as divine justification for its brutal and larcenous projects?

In the case of the Irish and the Polish, the national humiliation suffered at the hands of their dominating neighbors impelled them in each case to cling fiercely to a Catholicism that represented opposition to their oppressors. But look how the second “edge” comes into play. The autocratic infallibility claimed by the Catholic Church served as a welcome psychological prop for the humiliated nations against the debasement being dealt out by their enemies. The Irish and Polish people became invested in Catholic ideology. Catholicism made them superior to their antagonists. Certainly for these people, any suggestion that the doctrines of Catholic superiority ― like doctrinal and moral infallibility ― that they found so supportive in their humiliation were actually contrary to the spirit and even explicit counsel of Jesus, or that the “Reformation” embraced by their hated neighbors was actually closer to the mind of Christ, would be rejected at the doorstep. One might reasonably claim that dogmas that otherwise might have evolved into more mollified form if left alone were actively kept in the strictest construction by these ethnic minorities for the purposes of their national/ethnic interests. What they may have bequeathed to the world by their tribal Catholicism is the most potent tool for the dismantling of the democratic experiment that exists to date: a reactionary obdurate Roman Catholic Church ― whose dogmas are the ideological blueprint for the re-establish­ment of Roman Imperialism, and the last bastion of the Ancien Régime in the modern world.

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Everything that this version of events describes can have occurred for only one reason: that people believed that “God” was a supernatural humanoid person. “He” has a will, thinks and chooses, intervenes in history in order to ensure the accomplishment of his intentions, and rewards and punishes humans for compliance or non-compliance with his “commands.” “Providence” means God controls everything.

It seems that the theist humanoid “God” of the traditional western imagination not only was used in place of science to explain phenomena that mystified the human mind, but also functioned to justify the conquests that enslaved the conquered. And just as science has eroded confidence in any personal divine agency in the operations of the physical world, so too, modern political self-deter­mination has challenged the theocratic premise that all power forma­tions, no matter how oppressive, were the will and work of God.

But if, as I have been proposing in this blog since 2009, we were to consider “God” not to be an acting, willing person, but rather the source of our spontaneous sense of the sacred, which I identify as the living material energy ― LIFE ― of which we and everything else in our cosmos is constructed, then much of our historical narrative is exposed as just so much myth. It is all a mirage, a projection, the fantasies of primitive ignorance. They are a major source of the suffering that we have inflicted on one another, for they have been used to justify the exploitation of man by man.

A personal “God” who has a specific will narrows the options open to humankind and, in the hands of a multitude of tribes, necessarily pits them against one another. The level of the resulting slaughter and enslavement is proportionate to the divine approval imagined. The more “religious” the people, the more convinced they are that “God” wills their success and rejects that of others, and the less inhibited they will feel about unleashing unspeakable atrocities on people they identify as their “enemies.”

One could legitimately elaborate a theological argument along the lines of the “ex convenientia” logic of the scholastics and say, if all this follows inevitably or even most probably from the premise of belief in a personal “God,” then it suggests the premise is false, for it makes “God” either an unwitting dupe, if he does not really “will” these things, or a moral cretin if he does. It forces us to re-think our assumptions. Minimally it means the theist “God” of traditional western faith does not exist.

In contrast: “God” as LIFE

LIFE, on the other hand, does not narrow the options open to humankind, it expands them. LIFE supports the autonomous management of our way of life. Our political/economic structures are ours to decide. LIFE has no enemies because it has no “will,” and it has no will because it is not an entity, and certainly not a “person” as we understand the word.

We all know what LIFE is because we are alive and surrounded by living things; we experience it directly and first hand. We may have a hard time defining it in terms other than itself, for we have nothing to compare it to, but we know what it is intimately and interiorly for we are alive. It is responsible for the developments of evolution that have filled our teeming earth with a near infinitude of life forms culminating (from our point of view) in the human species. LIFE does not think except in us; it does not choose except in us; it does not have preferences or a “will” except in us; it does not command or cajole or persuade or punish. It is only in us that it is “personal.”

It is this LIFE that impels us to live and do all those things, positive and negative, necessary for life to continue, that gives rise in us to a sense of the sacred. Existence, being-here, is the grail ― the great quest. We know LIFE in living things because we know LIFE in ourselves; and what we all want is to be-here.

To be-here, ESSE, is to die for. We “live move and have our being” in the living material energy of this cosmos. Matter’s energy is all we are … there is nothing more to us. The living material energy of this cosmos is ESSE, and we are THAT.

So where does that leave us? All of the functions, from the elaboration of the universe to the configurations of our social/political structures, that we have heretofore claimed were the work and will of “God,” are the work of living material energy ― LIFE. But that means they are ours … for we are living matter in its most evolved form on our planet. LIFE enters into those functions as ourselves. What we do is what living matter is capable of. We are the expressions of its potential, the outward manifestation of its inner dimensions and dormant properties. LIFE does not intervene in these issues “personally” for it is not an entity; it is a universal energy. It acts as the forms into which it has evolved. There is a sacredness to these things, but the sacredness does not come from an outside “God” … it comes from within, from energy ― creative, abundant, generous and utterly disinterested ― the characteristics of LIFE that impel our work, our morality, our social constructions, and our environmental responsibilities. This what being-here looks like.

We are the mirrors and agents of the living matter ― the LIFE ― of which we are made. There is a reason why we resonate with all the living things around us, from the smallest one-celled organisms to the great animals in our zoos. We all flee from enemies; we all defend ourselves; we all spend our days hunting for food and shelter; we all seek partners for company and to reproduce our kind; and we all want passionately to be-here. We are all made of the same clay. And that clay is alive and has a bearing that elicits a similar response in us all.

Against this background our theist history is revealed as pure projection ― the creation of a primitive imagination that could not cope with being alone. Did that make us all “losers”? Our modern technological prowess has given us confidence that perhaps we are not. We may be, after all, capable of taking care of ourselves, especially if we don’t delude ourselves with expectations that go beyond the possibilities of material energy. Belief in eternal life, is one of those, as is the thought that we are not biological organisms evolved from and living on this earth with all the needs and limitations that entails. But the business of organizing our communities on this earth so that we can be what we are ― the just and generous, empathetic and sharing, exemplars of the living material energy that we bear as our own ― belongs to us alone.

Tony Equale, October 2018

Buddhist Enlightenment

a function of matter’s living energy

 

1

Enlightenment ― satori in Zen-speak ― like everything else in the Buddhist universe, is empty. That means it is transitory, temporary, co-dependent on the multiple causes that make it arise. It is not a “thing in itself” which could guarantee that once arisen that it would always be there. Enlightenment is impermanent.

That view of things is characteristically Buddhist and stems directly and inescapably from the metaphysical premises implied by the Buddha’s teaching: there is no designer or substrate to the universe. There is no single source, no solid ground that generates or underpins everything. Everything is dependent upon a multiplicity of constantly changing causes that are only the same in rare coincidental instances and those few instances are themselves never repeated.

I believe that both everyday human experience and the findings of modern science belie the Buddhist metaphysical vision, without necessarily challenging the Buddha’s description of experience. There is a homogeneous physical substrate to the universe that underpins all things and that provides a continuity that we all take for granted. It is material energy. It is responsible for all phenomena of whatever kind, including what are traditionally called “spiritual.” But, that one substrate is also an energy that is in a state of constant internal flux that explains the Buddhist experience of impermanence.

The pre-history of material energy

The identification in our western culture of the foundational function of material energy came at the end of a long historical development. In our pre-scientific tradition which reached its high point of synthesis and consensus in the Middle Ages, “being” was the term that all had agreed on for that role. In that dualist worldview all things exercised, to one degree or another, a specific, shared actuation of existence that was paradoxically exactly the same for all: they were-here. God and a speck of dust had something in common: they both existed. But please note: because both shared an idea: existence.

In true Platonic fashion, “being,” though admittedly an abstract idea, was considered a real “thing,” because in that worldview ideas were real things that existed in a world apart and were constructed of a quasi-substance that mimicked matter even while it was totally other than matter. That “idea-stuff” they called “spirit” and it underlay everything. This was the core of the dualism. Between matter and spirit, however, there was no parity; ideas ― spirit ― dominated reality. The dualism was actually a thinly veiled idealism.

The primary spirit was “God” from whom all spirit derived. “God” was the “thing” that was “being itself,” pure spiritual existence, totally actualized with no undeveloped potential whatsoever. The category of spirit included the ideas which existed in the mind of “God” as a kind of blueprint for every other thing in the universe. These ideas ― easily copied and multiplied ― were “poured” into formless matter as into a “receptacle” (cf., The Timaeus of Plato) to create things, whose being came through the idea, the essence of what they were.

Matter’s energy has inherited all the characteristics that were once assigned to spirit. It is now generally accepted in the West that whatever of “spirit” there is, is not a separate substance or force but rather a dimension or property of matter’s energy. And regardless of how science will finally describe its functioning, material energy is the one homogeneous substrate responsible for all forms, features and functions in the known universe. Dualism has become monism, and idealism ― the belief that all reality is ideas and matter is a mirage ― is clearly on its way out.

2

Material energy dissipates. It is subject to the law of entropy which presides over the need of all things to seek equilibrium. This dissipation of energy in the service of returning to stasis is responsible for all movement of whatever kind in our cosmos. It is the universal law that governs the fluctuations of material energy and accounts for the impermanence that is so evident to human experience, and identified by the Buddha as the characteristic of reality most instrumental in human suffering.

Dissipation does not occur all at once. It takes place serially at a point in time we call the present moment. Dissipation of energy takes the form of the release of heat that accompanies work. That only happens at one point, and it is not reversible. The heat lost in the performance of work does not reconstitute. Like gravity, it only goes “downhill,” from a hotter body to a colder one. The present moment is identified as that point in the flux and swirl of reality when this irreversible transfer of heat occurs, changing forever the interrelationships of the inner constituents of the reality in question.

The present moment is not imaginary, nor is it merely a human macro-abstraction for quantum processes that occur below the radar of human observation. It is marked by (but not created by) the observable, non-reversible effects of heat transfer. Thus the best interpretations of science corroborate common experience: there is only one “now,” everything else is past or future. Being-here, the continuity in observable presence of a certain configuration of material energy, occurs only here and now. I can guarantee by observation that certain things are-here, and their presence here and now provides incontrovertible evidence that they were-here at a prior moment. But such is the ultimacy and passing impermanence of the present moment for existence, that no present moment can guarantee that the “thing” in question will be-here at any moment in the future.

I see no point in spending time trying to prove there is a “now.” Some highly credentialed academics, in correctly pointing out that there is no way of knowing what is actually occurring now in any location in our universe that is far away from us (since even the light from those places is eons old), have absurdly stated that because we cannot know what is happening now everywhere, that there is no “now” anywhere. That is entirely misleading as stated. Some irreversible heat transfer is occurring at this exact moment in the Andromeda galaxy which is more than 2 million light years away even though I don’t and can never know what it is. That moment occurs now and will never be repeated. How do I know that? Because the 2 million year old light that reaches me from that galaxy exhibits a series of observed irreversible changes from that time that correspond to the flow of time that I am familiar with in our corner of the sky. Novas and supernovas flare-up and recede, binary stars’ rotation can be observed and measured, pulsating quasars periodicity actually provides scientists with a way of calculating distances and elapsed time and those observations and their time-frames are not questioned. There are “nows” occurring everywhere and, regardless of their relative correlation with one another, they are all similar.

It is precisely the accumulation of those moments over unimaginable eons of time that accounts for whatever formations and forces exist in this vast universe in which our planet, nested in its family of planets circling our sun, exists.

But please note: the fact that the existence of the present moment cannot be denied, does not in any way eliminate or alter the evanescent, ephemeral nature of the events in our universe presided over by entropy all of which occur in the present moment.   Mediaeval “spiritual” ideologies like that of Meister Eckhart, which apotheosize the present moment, calling it “the Eternal Now” and claiming that it is a window in time that opens into the eternal changeless “being” ― a pure spirit-God ― which is the ground of our cosmos, is an inference of the dualist worldview; it is pure projection. It is based on the assumption that there are two worlds and that the “other” world exists outside the flow of time.

But there is no indication that there is any permanence anywhere, and the very basis for such putative changelessness, “spirit,” receives no support from science. All evidence points to there being one world. Whatever present moments there are, and however relative the “nows” of different spatial realms might be to one another, they are all the place where irreversible effects occur, never to reverse themselves. All present moments are equally impermanent.

Living organisms constitute a temporary oasis in the Saharan sand-storm of entropic events. By gathering together a large number of interrelated entropic processes occurring in the present moment, LIFE utilizes the energy generated by matter’s endemic fall toward equilibrium to produce a recognizable continuity that, even though it never achieves permanence, transcends the entropic dissipation potential of the present moment. That transcendence is acknowledged as an identity regardless of how ephemeral its perdurance, precisely because it is not limited to the present moment. Time is calculated as the number of present moments achieved by some particular configuration of processes known as an identity.

What is this LIFE that it should work in a way that appears to forestall if not reverse the process of entropic descent into equilibrium? No one knows. Also, because the two processes are so intertwined and mutually dependent that there really is no way to know which is the most basic. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is material energy fundamentally an inert and lifeless entity subject to entropy which LIFE, as an outside force, exploits for the purposes of generating “things” with trans-entropic identity, or is LIFE the very originating energy of matter itself which proceeds by necessarily recycling itself, achieving a newness through the entropic return to its primitive state as pure energy? In this second option, LIFE and entropy are two sides of the same process which sustains itself through self-purification ― a quantum rebooting. For living organisms this translates to the experience of birth and death, but it immediately suggests they are not opposed to one another but rather the correlative aspects of a single process.

 

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Relationship refers to an intentional valence that is established by conscious living organisms between and among themselves. Because organisms are material things that ultimately succumb to entropy and dissolve, the valences they establish are also passing. But putting the time aspect aside for a moment, it is worth noting that by establishing a valence ― a connection ― relationships create a different kind of transcendence: they transcend the duality that necessarily defines two spatially separate and distinct organisms. The relationship may involve mutually dependent activity, not necessarily always benevolent, as hostility is also a co-depen­dent interactive behavior, but it may also consist of an interchange of cognitive or affective states we call communication, and in the case of humans it can exist as a simple wordless mutual recognition of the identity that each enjoys. The key word is recognition. Relationship is a cognitive phenomenon and presupposes the existence of mind in some form.

In the case of human beings who have reflex consciousness to a degree that allows for self-recognition, there exists the possibility of a relationship with oneself that is not true of other cognitive organisms. Human beings can actually look at themselves thinking, distinguish between successive thoughts or mental images, identify and classify mental events in a time line of past and present, and thus achieve a distance from their own mental processes that is unique, and for all its familiarity utterly incomprehensible.  It is because the cognition occurring in the present moment is able to identify cognitive events that occurred in the past (even the instantaneously immediate past) precisely as not-present, that the human individual can treat its own mental processes ― itself as an object of observation. The human being is able to look at its own mental processes as if they were another’s. It’s the reason why moral transformation is possible. The human organism is capable not only of looking at its own subjective state objectively, but it can also imagine itself in a different mental state. It can control and shape its thoughts and the behavior that proceeds from those thoughts. This is the Buddhist paradigm.

Human thoughts are not opaque. They do not present a solid interface with reality that would prevent other thoughts from occupying the same space and time frame. Human thought is transparent to itself so that the identity that is the self can use its current mental action to set a distance from any other mental action, no matter how instantaneously contiguous, and relate to it as no longer representative of its identity. This is what occurs in the process of moral/spiritual transformation. The individual imagines a self that currently does not exist, and through the incremental self-habitua­tion of its thinking to what it imagines, becomes that other self.

In this way it is entirely legitimate to say that one can have a relationship with oneself. Of course, the alert Buddhist will see that this analysis supports and even describes the value-guided reflexive observation and thought-control we call meditation― the foundational practice of Buddhism.

Enlightenment, satori

Enlightenment is a present moment in which a multitude of mental and physical phenomena, internal and external to the subject, come together to produce a complete quiescence of cognitive affectivity. The human organism has a noetic-somatic experience in which the conatus’ accustomed drive for whatever survival demands are next, ceases. It is a moment of stillness. There is no striving, no thought, no desire, no need, no lack, no disquiet of any kind. It’s not without content, however, as it is filled with awareness of the plethora of factors that congealed in that satori. But those remnants of thoughts, desires, anxieties, aspirations, regrets, whatever and however many they may be, are observable as past, like the wake of a ship that is visible only because the vessel has already moved on; they are utterly without affect, even the intellectual desire to understand sleeps.

Even though enlightenment is the unstated goal of all meditative practice, if it is pursued as a goal it eternally eludes the grasp of the practitioner. It is a necessarily passive event whose very essence is that it is the experience of the end of striving. To strive after the end of striving, of all mis-steps, is the most disingenuous and self-defeating. The corollary assumption that the moment of enlightenment only occurs in and is produced by meditation is also misguided. Enlightenment can take place at any point, in any present moment. It happens when a confluence of factors bring the human mind to the point of a concrete, body-included conviction of its time-transcen­ding existence, thus momentarily suspending the needy clamor of the conatus’ incessant quest for acquiring the means to be-here. The conatus is silenced because in that moment the organism is thunderstruck by an experience of its own existential security ― an experience that evokes a sense of permanence.

The paradox here is that this experience of permanence is momentary ― it occurs in some present moment, and is the product of a multitude of unknown and unrepeatable factors, all of which make it impermanent. The enlightenment passes, and with it the state of conviction. But the memory of it lingers. And just as one can intellectually remember the moment when one fell in love but emotionally does not experience the same feelings, enlightenment, which is a similar phenomenon in many ways, is remembered without reproducing the experience.

Mystics of theist religions (Christian, Islamic, Jewish) who try to describe this experience insist on their own passivity by attributing the event to the initiative of the personal “God” of their belief system who guarantees “eternal” life. Thus they explain their own lifelong striving to have or repeat the experience by saying they are placing themselves in a state of disposition ― making themselves available, as it were, for the divine initiative. Hindu practitioners, who do not believe in an interacting “God” claim that enlightenment is the passive realization of their own spirit’s oneness with the spirit that sustains the universe revealing their own participation in that permanence.

Buddhist enlightenment differs from these because, while it does not actively repudiate the existence of a “God” or even the Hindu Atman, it brackets them as irrelevant to the issue of human suffering stemming from craving. Buddhism insists that its practices and experiences stand on their own and owe their effectiveness to union with the Dharma, or the Way of Nature. Human beings who are part of nature, flourish when they mesh with its processes. This is completely consistent with a universe of living matter. Enlightenment is an experience of an individual’s synchronicity with the Dharma. Once the practitioner has advanced sufficiently in the eradication of craving, the conatus’ insistence is undermined and at some unpredictable moment stunned into stillness before the irrefutable logic of detachment. The claim to be needy ― which is the conatus’ stock-in-trade, the source of craving and the justification for selfishness ― is utterly demolished by the indisputable evidence: the organism survives and even thrives in the absence of the objects of its craving, and the cessation of the craving itself. All this is the work of the practitioner, not of “God” or the Atman. The “passivity” experienced comes from the unpredictability of the moment of confluence, and its rapid disappearance in the flow of time.

Enlightenment is a function of matter’s living energy whose conatus anxiously drives the organism to continue to be-here. That drive, the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement, which expresses itself in a myriad of urges, fears, desires and pursuits is involuntary and not suppressible. It is the conatus itself, the innate coherence of the network of material processes that constitute the “self” of the human organism, that is temporarily stilled when at a given moment it is overwhelmed with evidence that all its anxieties are the result of delusion. For all its impermanence, being-here as a concrescence of living matter is a given. No amount of striving can create it or change its impermanent character; no amount of resistance can prevent its dissolution. Like the drive of the conatus itself, to which it corresponds, the enlightenment experience is involuntary and not suppressible.

 

Tony Equale

October 8, 2018

Self-embrace

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

1

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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

 

 

The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

1

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

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

On the “will” of “God”:

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

On divine Providence and predestination:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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