Knowing and not-knowing

2,000 words

The ancient Platonists proclaimed the unknowability of the “One” based on an analysis of the concept of Being.  The concept was absolutely universal and included everything that existed.  Since it included everything, Being was not different from anything and therefore could not be the object of human know­ledge which functioned by distinguishing one predicate from another.  The human mind knew realities by genus and specific difference, and “Being” had neither. Hence “God” could not be known by the human mind.  The concept of Being justified not only the characteristics of “God’s” nature that were derived from an analysis of the concept, but it also explained why no one knew “God”: he was unknowable.

If, now, I have decided that I cannot use “Being” as the ultimate definition of “God” anymore because, in contrast to Plato, I do not believe that concepts represent independent entities, where does that leave me? I not only have no basis for listing the properties of the divine nature, but I cannot explain why no one knows “God.” The characteristics of “God” that were associated with an analysis of the concept of Being are pure conjecture with no basis in fact. Not only do I not know “God,” I now realize that I don’t even know what “God” is supposed to look like. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for.

What am I left with? Experience. Relationship to the source of my existence ― Religion ― is not grounded in an intellectual premise, an “eternal conceptual truth,” it is just a emergent fact, the result of millennia of human living. My contention is that after all this time we know that we don’t know. We trust what we don’t know. The claims of “divine revelation” made by the various traditions across the globe all shows signs of fabrication or projection. They may legitimately be said to broker trust, but as know­ledge, none are reliable. Of course it is undeniable that we are related to the source of our existence which we have no choice but to trust, but what it is no one has ever known.

I also know that we have elaborated all the tools that one might need in finding what I am seeking. There is no new telescope, no “God” particle, no future re-arrange­ment of concepts, that will get us any closer to knowing what the truth is. That means we know that we will never know. At some point after ages upon ages of repeated confirmation, these facts become uncontestable, undebatable, indisputable ― not in some absolute sense of “principle” that would only be true in a Platonic universe where “ideas” had their own independent eternal reality, but in the real sense of a living organism having learned through experience what it can and can’t do on this earth, what is real and what is not real in real time. The human organism knows it will never see “God.”

There are many similar things we know beyond the shadow of a doubt. That we will all die, for example. It’s absurd for logic to insist that such a claim is “limited” because all we have to go on is past experience. It is said that no past experience no matter how universal and invariable can preclude the possibility that somebody alive today will not die. I’m sorry. After all this time anyone who would seriously make that statement is either a very young child, insane or acting with the sophistry that only abstract logic allows. (I leave out intentional fraud or pathological sub-conscious self-deception, which includes mass religious hysteria). It confirms the ordinary people’s mistrust of abstract thought. Similarly, I contend that it is as solid a conclusion as can be drawn about anything in life that “God” (a word I use reluctantly to refer to the origin, explanation and ultimate destiny of our material cosmos, including us) is simply and conclusively not knowable. The experience is so universal and so invariable that it effectively exonerates those who believe there is no “God.” There is nothing unreasonable about being an atheist. “God” is simply not there to be known.

Someone might object: then why talk about “God” at all? If your argument from experience is so compelling, why doesn’t the experience of never seeing “God” constitute a proof of “his” non-existence and therefore that the entire religion-project is just fantasy?

I would answer that I am very intentionally avoiding the word and concept “God” because I do not believe that the source of our being-here is credibly revealed by either mediaeval conceptual analyses or ancient tribal myths, which have been the source of the idea of “God.” I believe the existence (and character) of our existential source is revealed by the experience of being-here. Religion, in my view, is a collective human project of gratitude and appreciation at the fact of our existence as a family of human beings. That includes a trusting relationship to our source ― which is objectively established by the mere fact that we exist as we are ― even though we do not know what that source is.  We trust what we do not know because we are in awe at what we are and that we are-here.

There is an appropriateness in beginning with the results of human experience and not with somebody’s abstract philosophical “principle” or some ancient tribe’s imaginary “revelation” from another world, because the subsequent elaboration of the religious project continues to be the ongoing development of an empirical relationship occurring in this world ― further experience. Religion is our embrace of ourselves here and now ― our joy in being-here alive, our love and compassion for one another ― that is inseparable from our trusting relationship to our source, for it is all one and the same thing. Let me explain.

If I know that I am not the source of my being-here (because I didn’t put myself here, design my body or mind, and I can’t prevent myself from not being-here) and yet I am-here now, that means my source also has to be-here now because I am dependent on my source even though I do not know what it is. I have to trust it with my very existence. The source of my being-here must necessarily be contemporaneously co-extensive and commensurate with my being-here.

We are the human individuals we are because we are biological organisms. We are made of the living matter that enlivens and delights us. That living organic matter, whatever else might exist in the chain of causes responsible for us being-here, is the most proximate and it is taxative — i.e., it is exhaustive, there is no other evident source. Even if there were some unseen immaterial mind, some invisible rational designer-reality behind and beneath the matter that forms the parameters of our organism and the horizon of our lives, that source has chosen matter ― our matter, evolving autonomously in real time on this earth ― as the exclusive and impenetrable interface between us. From our side of the divide, matter is all we see, it is all we have ever seen. There is nothing else visible. Living matter is clearly the most proximate source of our being-here, but we also have to be prepared: it may very well be the only one. Are we willing to concede that our source may be exactly what it appears to be? Whatever it happens to be, we have no choice but to trust it with our material survival.

Whatever else might constitute our reality, we are matter in a world of matter and our survival is a material achievement. Matter is the reality we must live with. There is no way out. That is a truth we have learned from experience, and a truth that leads to more experience. Living matter is either our source or it is the exclusive instrumental extension of our source, its unique agent.

Religion, then, following this empirical path, shows itself to be the continuing evolution of human experience; it starts from experience and goes from experience to experience. There is no line of division between ongoing human experience and some fixed eternal “truths,” or some unchanging immaterial lawmaker residing in another world. So-called “eternal truths” are idealist fictions, the results of reifying our ideas, of believing our “thinking” somehow belonged to the world of the gods and was not an emergent property of matter. And the “revealed commands,” similarly, are in fact the result of millennia of human experiments in social living ― the wisdom of humankind ― imputed to “God” because they were “sacred.” (Yes, they are sacred. They are sacred to us because they are precious lessons learned from experience that allow us to survive and thrive as a family of human beings, not because they are the “will” of some non-human “person” who is telling us something we could not discover on our own.)

One of the great lessons we have learned is that we have virtually no control over the conditions of our lives. We are totally dependent on the near-perfect interlock between the matter of our organisms and the material in our surroundings on this planet: food, air, water, temperature, materials for shelter, etc. We emerged step by step from the very same earth and never lost our umbilical connection to it. Our destiny is inescapably tied to the material matrix that spawned and sustains us. As we are continuing to learn that the life-support systems on earth are fragile and vulnerable to our ever more demanding presence, our impact as matter on matter becomes undeniable. We can no longer afford fairy tales of belonging to another world. The very fact that our stories tell us that we need to die in order to get to that other world, should be enough of a clue of their origin in fantasy. It’s not hard to understand these imaginings or to have compassion on those who cherish them; they are the daydreams of people who feel trapped. But there is no way out.

 

So it begins to dawn on us that, in fact, we know all we need to know, because what we know about our source is all there is to know. There is nothing else to know. What we complain about not knowing are the imaginary projections of belonging to other worlds that do not exist and not belonging to this one as biological organisms that live and die. What we don’t know is not something that can be known, because it’s not there, and all we need to know is right here in plain sight.  We are-here together, with these incredible, astonishing bodies and the minds they evolved, having arisen from and remaining nested in an earth-matrix teeming with so many life-forms that we have still not been able to name and count them   . . .   and all of it spinning through an expanse of space so vast that we cannot translate the numbers that measure it into images that fit in our heads  . . . filled with spectacular galactic structures made of the exactly the same matter that constitutes our bodies which we are just beginning to explore and understand. That our human organisms emerged from all that tells us all we need to know about our source. If it could do that, it can do anything.

Those who see religion as an escape to another world are unwilling to look at the height and depth, the breadth and intensity of what we are and where we live. They refuse to acknow­ledge that this world is transcendently sacred, in itself, as it is, with us in it as we are, without reference to some other world or some other life, or even some source other than the living matter which constitutes us all.

Religion should be our shout of joy at being-here now, being together, and being free. We are the evolved product of living matter’s total autonomy. Living matter put us here. It can be trusted. Living matter continues to constitute us exclusively, sharing with us its own dynamism for more life, its own trial-and-error autonomy, leaving us free to love, to create, to sit quietly weeping in astonishment at what we are. We are living, autonomous, self-transcending material organisms because we are made of living, autonomous, self-transcending matter.

We know all this. It’s all in plain sight. None of it is hidden, esoteric or arcane. Unless what we’re really looking for is a way out, what more do we need to know?

Ignorance and Bliss

a theology of unKnowing

Theology, following the common consensus of the ancient Mediterranean world, begins with the premise that “God” is unknowable.

The unknowability of God came directly from Plato’s theory of the utterly inaccessible transcendence of the “One.” The One was pure spirit with no admixture of matter. That absolute immateriality meant that “he” was totally beyond human comprehension, unchanging, impassable, simple, motionless, without even a ripple of a divided thought. Without division and multiplicity, the human intellect cannot function, hence cannot know “God.” The “One” dwelt alone in a self-contem­pla­­ting serenity that was so remote and unreachable that, in Plato’s fertile imagination, it required the emanation of a secondary divinity called “The Crafts­man,” which later Platonists would identify as the Nous, the Mind of God, to interface with the world of matter and insert the divinely conceived “ideas” of the things that inhabit the earth so that “God” may be known.

Philo of Alexandria, a first century diaspora Jew who was pursuing the intriguing parallels between the Septuagint Bible and Greek philosophy, said Plato’s Demiourgos-Craftsman matched the Bible’s image of “God’s” word which had creative power; so he called it Logos. The development of the Trinity in Christian thought ultimately came from Philo’s assimilation of the Hebrew Bible to Plato. “Theology,” for Christians, was simply the attempt to braid together the story of Jesus’ mission and message with Plato’s  narrative of the origin of the material cosmos guided by Philo’s Bible-based interpretations. It was all a derivative of the unknowability of an immaterial “God.”

What is remarkable Is that later, in the middle ages, dogmatic theology would operate on the opposite assumption; for it proposed to make “God” known in clear, comprehensible propositions. This apparent anomaly is not hard to understand once you realize that it arose in response to a different need.

Starting In the early middle ages the task of making the propositions of belief clear and unambiguous became a necessary part of the social/political cohesion that accompanied the rise of papal power. Submission to the “truths” of Catholic belief effectively equated to submission to the social/political authorities. Making those propositions intelligible and logically irrefutable was an integral part of the dream of Christian unity (and the earthly paradise it promised) that captivated the European imagination as a feudal, Germanic society melted and molted in the forge of Mediterranean Catholicism.

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury called the theological enterprise “faith seeking understanding.” In his era, “creeds” which had originated in ancient times, were gathered along with the subsequent pronounce­ments of councils and popes into collections of “decretals.” Those propositions were variously labeled as more or less necessary to be believed. It turned them into verbal formulae demanding acquiescence ― effectively, commands to be obeyed. They functioned for the cohesion of a Church-run society. The study of the decretals by Canon lawyers was the origin of dogmatic theology.[1]

The great summae of the 13th century were its direct extensions. They nested the propositions of belief in a such a wrapping of unassailable rationality and logic, that acquiescence was assumed automatically to follow; dissidents would find disagreement almost impossible to sustain, and infidels and heretics would be converted. Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles was written specifically to assist Christians in their debates with Arabic interpretations of Aristotle at the university of Salamanca in Spain where, in 1250, “Moors” still controlled a third of the peninsula. Mediaeval theology served to solidify the social and political hegemony of Christendom. Dogmatic theology was never intended as a vademecum for the Christian faithful. It was not focused on faith, but beliefs, control, obedience. Dogmatic theology was a user’s manual for theocracy.

 

Traditionally ― since the end of the middle ages ― theology (as an ecclesiastical discipline separate from the study of law and ritual) has been divided three ways: dogmatic theology, moral theology and mystical theology. Of the three, dogmatic and moral theology were considered fundamental because they dealt with the essential elements of salvation. If you failed to comply with either the requirements of orthodox belief or the commands of Christian morality, you risked eternal punishment.

Mystical theology, on the other hand, was considered somewhat superfluous. Since it dealt with the progress of the “soul” that had already achieved a basic compliance with faith and morals and wished to advance in holiness, it was treated like a playbook of the saved. Those occupied with such matters were well beyond the danger of losing their souls. Since most people were struggling to simply keep the commandments, what mystical theology had to offer was, so to speak, none of their business, and they were explicitly counselled to stay away from it. The result was that mystical theology got sidelined to the monasteries and along with it the tradition of the unknowability of “God.” Theology, to all extents and purposes, meant dogmatic theology.

Hence, in the pursuit of what was demanded for clear and unambiguous acquiescence of the “faithful,” dogmatic theology made every effort to make “God” and the things of God clear and articulate if not totally comprehensible. The orthodox Christian had to be able to say the officially designated truth in words that were recognizable to the authorities. Whether the people understood the truth in question or knew how it applied to their lives was not the principal concern.

In such a context, the unknowability of “God” was not conducive to the theologians’ agenda; and while the ancient traditions demanded that it be acknow­ledged, it was always something of an embarrassment. Its pursuit was quarantined to the monasteries. This was not only because it invalidated the inquisition’s main probe, but because it had profound repercussions on Church control. For consider: (1) if “God” is unknowable then it is reasonable to doubt that we know what “he” wants. (2) That doubt, in turn, challenges the inerrancy of the biblical documents used to establish “God’s will” and the authority of the Church. Also, (3) if I have no idea what “God” wants, I cannot rely on my obedient compliance to guarantee “salvation.” All quid pro quo is vitiated. (4) My relationship to an unknowable “God” is reduced to sheer trust. (5) Morality then, without a divine lawmaker, is an earthly matter, the consensus of the community about living in harmony here on earth. Church teaching (and control) loses its weight, and the quid pro quo adjudicated after death in another world ceases being the sole determinant of human behavior.

At the end of the day, for the authorities who believed themselves divinely mandated to control the social order, an entire society for whom life was an unmoored adventure in community cooperation sustained by a trust in the creative benevolence of an unknown loving Source, was a nightmare. It certified a radical freedom that was unheard of, and considered subversive. The last person who spoke in those terms was crucified for it, and the inquisitors knew why.

2

Mystical Theology, grounded in the unknowability of “God,” is really “theology” ― the inheritor of the earliest traditions ― displaced and disenfranchised by dogmatic theology and the theocratic imperatives of mediaeval Christendom. What Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century would call theology was, in mediaeval Europe, relegated to “house arrest” in the monasteries.

Christian monasticism, which became the guardian of ancient theology, since its inception in the Egyptian desert, has represented something of an alternative current to mainstream Christianity. It is not insignificant that Antony, considered the founder of Christian monasticism, chose to withdraw from the world in the era of Constantine’s ascendancy. By then the Christian Church had become a respectable institution that had spread throughout the Roman Empire. The belief that a “church-of-the-catacombs” was selected to be the state religion of the Rome is complete fiction; the Church that Constantine knew was prominent, prosperous and propertied.

It was in this context that, according to Athanasius’ biography, Antony understood that the call of Jesus to sell all you had, was no longer a poetic exaggeration. It was literally applicable to Christians like himself who had become comfortable in an empire that the scriptures had once condemned as “the Whore of Babylon.” Antony gave away his entire inheritance including hundreds of acres of farmland, moved into the desert and sustained himself by the work of his hands. It was a rejection of the Church-as-Imperial-enterprise. Over time others joined him, traditions were established and passed on. Kindred spirits from the West like John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia came to Egypt and took back with them the core of the monastic vision, including its theology. A communal way of life developed that was a distinctly Christian vision of personal transformation and an implicit repudiation of the Church as it had become.

The fact that the monks’ vision was grounded in that version of theology that we now call mystical suggests that, had the ancient traditions prevailed over the demands of the mediaeval Church to provide a hieratic underpinning to the imperial autocracy that ran civil society, the western “Church” might have remained more like the Christian Community that many dream about in our times. Ancient theology was not primarily focused on another world. It saw the material universe as the emanation of “God’s” own reality and therefore concluded that contact with “God” in this universe was not only possible but was the very reason why “God” created the world of time and matter. “God” wanted to be known and loved in this life.

Hence, mystical theology, unlike dogmatic theology, was not concerned about burning in hell. It imagined Christian life, rather, as a daring ascent to reach the peak of a forbidding mountain where a reward beyond words awaited the victor in this life. The reward was the consummation of a relationship which was conceived in psycho-erotic terms: a conjugal relationship with Esse ― the existence at the core of one’s being that sustained all things. One did not become Christian for safety and security, but rather to engage in a perilous journey of self-conquest and self-realization as the necessary path to absorption into the very heart of reality. The goal was bliss, here and now; you didn’t defend and preserve yourself, you lost yourself in the abandon of combat and let yourself be embraced by the “Other” in Whom all things, including you, lived and moved and had their being. It was not a business transaction, a quid pro quo, it was an adventure of discovery and delight: a love affair beyond all others, to find and feel the contours of the face of God.

And the unknowability of “God” established the essential conditions of the ascent. For without the clarity and control of knowledge, you had to fly blind. You had nothing to go on but the scent of the beloved that arose from the longings of your own flesh which in fact was where “he” resided. You had an ultimate trust that your way up the mountain would be sustained by a guiding wind that would not fail you. It was the activation in your own lifetime of the reditus ― the return of all things to their source ― that was the ultimate destiny of the universe. You were a microcosm of the cosmic narrative.

So ignorance was the condition for bliss. Happiness was not in the control and possession that knowledge appears to offer; it lies rather in unknowing, letting go, self-abandon, stepping into the void, embracing the emptiness that is yourself. The ancients like Dionysius were quite explicit: you met “God” in a cloud of unknowing.

Not-knowing implies trust. There is no way out of our entrapment; there is no exit for us. We are part of a universe of perishing matter strewn out by “God” to delight us and draw us to himself. There is no place to go, nothing to accomplish; there is no security to be gained. We stand at the still point of our turning world ― given ― and the only thing worth striving for is to learn to trust the unknown current ― the giver ― in which we ride.

[1] Brian Tierney, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, Cambridge, 1955.

 

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.

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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

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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

 

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

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

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

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

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

 

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

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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