Imagery is important

1,800 words

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

 

This famous passage in Matthew is part of the chapter that includes the Sermon on the Mount; it was meant to present Jesus’ fundamental message in compendium form. It is a summary collection, organized to help catechumens learn what it meant to be Christian in preparation for their upcoming baptism.

In broad terms, the passage illustrates, within the Jewish tradition of expression, a basic characteristic of all religion everywhere: the intimate mirroring that makes the believer an image of the divine principle, whatever it is thought to be. What’s most interesting for me in this particular case is that Jewish Jesus happens to select for an image an especially disturbing “fact” about his Father, Yahweh, which he then calls on his listeners to imitate. Matthew punctuates the importance of this invitation of Jesus by adding a note of ultimacy: this is not just a nice way to be; this is what it means to be perfect.

The image of Yahweh being the cause of the sun shining on everyone whether they are good or bad, and the rain falling on all people indiscriminately regardless of their morality, religion or life-style, however commonplace it might sound at first, is really quite shocking; for it stands in stark contrast with the Yahweh depicted throughout the Old Testament whose principal characteristic was fierce and discriminating judgment. The image totally upends the traditional picture of “God.” Did Jesus mean to do that? Or was the image, precisely because it was so commonplace, just an illustration, not a theological challenge to a millennial Jewish belief?

Yahweh, traditionally, was anything but indiscriminate. Early on in Jewish history, he was believed to distinguish sharply between the people with whom he had a contract ― the Hebrews ― and all others on the face of the earth. He was a tribal god. The Hebrews alone, because they were “believers,” were the object of Yahweh’s love and protection. He promised to reward them as a people with prosperity and longevity and to punish with dire calamities those “unbelievers” who opposed them. The first victims were the Egyptians who suffered devastating plagues leading up to the death of their oldest children for having enslaved the Hebrews; and then, after leaving Egypt, Yahweh’s wrath was visited upon the “nations” who served other gods in the Palestinian lands the Hebrews desired for their own. Yahweh’s discriminating judgment not only insured those tribes would be dispossessed of their land, but their refusal to submit to the Hebrews’ god entailed nothing less than their extermination. Genocide was justified as the will of a lethally discriminating Yahweh.

Later on, the remnants of the original 12 tribes that came out of Egypt, became the victims of the geopolitical ambitions of the powerful Mesopotamian empires within whose sphere of interest Israel lay. For refusal to submit to the Babylonians, the last of the Hebrew population was hauled off in slavery to Babylon and the nation ceased to exist in 587 bce. This catastrophic event provided evidence for Hebrews that the original contract with Yahweh had been shredded. Either the Hebrews had so totally betrayed the contract that Yahweh felt it necessary to pull out of it unilaterally, or maybe there was more involved than the contract had supposed. It occasioned a profound re-thinking of the very foundations of Hebrew belief and it resulted in the beginnings of a change in the imagery with which Yahweh was described.

Yahweh became a “God” of justice, more interested in honesty in relationships, equity in trade, truth in the courts, protection for the poor and defenseless, fairness from rulers, humility and love from those who professed to follow him. But in all these moral matters Yahweh remained as fiercely discriminating as ever, hating injustice “with a perfect hatred” and thundering against it through his prophets who minced no words, and vowing to bring the perpetrators of unfairness and exploitation to ruin. That included other nations. Yahweh stopped being just a tribal god and became a universal “God” of moral rightness, but he never displayed any tendency toward treating the bad and the good the same. He was not indiscriminate. No Jew before Jesus had ever used such a radical image to describe Yahweh and call for its imitation.

Jesus’ vision and ours

Jesus’ own view of the matter may have been less radical than what I am suggesting. Commentary in the Jerusalem Bible insists that “the sovereignty of God over the Chosen People and through them over the world is at the heart of Christ’s preaching as it was of the theocratic ideal of the O.T.” If this applies to Jesus’ use of the imagery of sun and rain, then clearly by evoking it Jesus did not intend to offer a new way of looking at “God” but rather very simply that the weather itself ought to remind us how we should act toward all people. It was a teaching tool, not a theological challenge.

But facts are facts, and the imagery of the indiscriminateness of the weather is itself evocative of the material source of our being-here for those like us who have been formed by the discoveries of modern science, whether Jesus was aware of it or not. We know that the imagery of a micro-managing rational “God”-person who controls what happens on earth down to the last detail is simply not true, even though Jesus may have believed it. We know that meteorological occurrences are due to the autonomous interactions of material elements affected entirely by natural forces like gravity, planetary spin, seasonal regional warming by the sun, etc., without any need for or evidence of any rational intervention. As a matter of fact, for those who have been following this blog, the suggestion that what we have been calling “God” ― meaning the source of our sense of the awe of being-here and our spontaneous gratitude for what has put us here as ourselves ― is made functionally comprehensible by using the imagery of living material energy itself as our source and sustainer. And the suggestion I am making is that what Jesus said, whether he intended it that way or not, dovetails perfectly with our modern understanding of how the world was created and mankind was formed. It was all the work of living material energy autonomously evolving new formations of itself in response to changing environments through eons of astral and geologic time. There was no hands-on divine Craftsman, no seven days of creation, no events as depicted in the Book of Genesis to explain how things got here and got to be what they are.

Clearly, whatever the physics / metaphysics behind the weather, it was, as a phenomenon, its absolute randomness and indiscriminateness that was tapped by Jesus as an apt image to explain how to be like our Father ― how to be perfect. So whether or not Jesus knew the full story scientifically is irrelevant. And whether Jesus intended to use the weather to characterize the absolute and unqualified universality of “God’s” relationship to all things, the connection that Jesus focused on is both true and an apt image applicable to “God” “in whom we live and move and have our being.”

Looking at it this way, regardless of the commentators’ probable opinions, there is nothing that absolutely prevents Jesus from having had exactly the point I am making in mind, and even if he didn’t there is nothing to prevent us from making it: perfection involves a love so intensely universal and uncompromisingly indiscriminate that it appears as the most profound detachment in a point for point imitation of the autonomous way material energy operates in our material universe; and we are justified in calling it perfection because, as Jesus suggested, that’s what “God” is like.

Imagery is important. It is not merely a mnemonic device, a visual aid that reminds us of some abstract thought or moral command. It expresses and embodies its significance for us in an undiluted concrete form. To love those whom we are not inclined to love, Jesus is effectively saying, or for whom we have a positive and incurable aversion, is not some “new commandment” that he was promulgating to transcend the law of Moses and impose another set of obligations. No. It is the way “God” is and therefore is really the way we humans are and have always been.

One of the reasons we are so unhappy is that no one ever pointed this out to us before. This is our nature, genetically innate, inherited directly from our Father, our Source, and if we don’t do what concurs with nature, we will be frustrated without ever knowing why. Understood this way the word teleios in Greek, “ended,” that has been translated “perfect,” really means finished, complete, suggesting something that “fulfilled its purpose” or achieved the end for which it was made (the word teleology is derived from the same Greek root, telos, “end”). It is the very nature of humankind, reproducing and recapitulating the structural elements of which we are made, to love without discrimination, even those who hate us and whom our paranoid conatus warns us to hate in return or be destroyed.

The circularity so characteristic of all religion comes into play at this point. As the source generated the image, the image in turn reveals the source. Now the image of the indiscriminate lover ― what one modern mystic called “the oldest trade in the world,” being available to the next comer ― proves its foundational authenticity by making us insanely happy and transforming our communities. It reveals what we are made of, what no one has ever seen. The circularity suggests that the concrete experience of converting our organic instincts for individual self-preservation and enhancement into energies for the self-preservation and enhancement of all others reveals the fundamental character of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like the sun and the rain, it is equally available and gratefully absorbed by all. The only knowledge of “God,” the Source of our bodies, that we will ever have is in the somatic experience of our own dynamism redirected outward in compassion and care for others.

Different or Distinct?

in search of a new imagery for “God”

3,500 words

1.

“No one has ever seen ‘God’.” John’s gospel and the first letter of John both considered that statement to be a fulcrum around which their argument turned. Because “God” was not available for observation, Jesus played an indispensable role in putting “God” on display in terms that ordinary human beings ― even little children ― could understand. Jesus was the image of “God,” so much like him that the gospel called him “God’s” only begotten son.

“Image” is what religion is all about. Religion provides imaginary depictions of what we know has to be there (because we are not self-originating or self-sustaining), but about which we know nothing at all: the ultimate source and sustenance of the universe. Unfortunately, religion is all we’ve got; and it has been forced, everywhere in the world, to imagine the unknown and unimaginable wellspring of life. When John said that Jesus was “God’s” only begotten son, what he had in mind was Jesus’ extraordinary humanity, so human that it communicated unerringly to human beings, and so extraordinary that what it depicted was nothing less than the creative dynamism of reality itself. He said “God,” the source, the principle of all things (archē) was love. We can see it in Jesus, and we can see it in ourselves. if “God” is “being,” then to be is to love.

Unfortunately, John’s attempt to explain how Jesus’ was an authentic image of “God” that updated anything the Jews had inherited from their tradition, was misunderstood three hundred years later, and interpreted to mean that Jesus was actually “God.” Even in the case of a perfect image in a mirror, the image and the object it is reflecting may look exactly the same, but one is real, and the other is only an image. If you think they are the same, it is a mistake.

The crude intrusion of the Roman emperor in the decisions at the Council of Nicaea where that mistake was set in institutional stone, adds to its discreditation as a valid religious development. The doctrine’s value for theocracy is too obvious. Constantine was determined that only the very highest of all the many gods worshipped in the Roman Empire would do as the Imperial protector. Jesus and his cross, emblazoned 12 years earlier on the shields of his victorious troops, would henceforth be that highest of all gods. Rome had spoken, and it was Rome, after all, whose divinity no one doubted. Rome made Jesus “God,” investing him with exactly the kind of divinity Rome needed to continue being Rome.

In becoming Rome’s “God,” Jesus stopped being the Jewish human being ― the mensch ― that he once was. But that meant, unfortunately, that he was no longer the human image of the sacred dynamism that activated reality. He was assumed into the “divinity” which other, older imagery had already described and which the ancient world had long ago internalized: Pantocrator, The All Ruler, the Judge of the living and the dead, the heavenly analog of the Emperor of Rome. Rome’s divinity was beyond dispute, and it was Rome’s divinity that clothed the Cosmic Christ in the robes of the gods. Jesus’ counter-intuitive human message of compassion and humble trust in a Father of love suddenly became easy to understand: it was a trick ― a public relations ploy to lure and lull the masses; and his death was, under the disguise of victimhood, a forensic mechanism for placing the whole human race in his debt. Once he became “God,” everybody knew what the real picture was; it was the same old story of power and control; and the movie-theater currently projecting it was owned by Rome. The very imagery that Jesus’ extraordinary humanity was claimed to replace, was with demonic irony applied to Jesus himself, harnessing both “God” and Jesus to the imperial machine. The gods of wealth and power were reinstalled with a vengeance.

2.

Clearly, imagery is not an insignificant aspect of religion, a mere catechetical tool to be used and discarded once the comprehension of the concepts has been achieved. The images concocted by the various religious traditions to mediate relationship with the source of life come to mesh so completely with their object that the two become indistinguishable. In this sense, it was inevitable that Jesus would be mis-taken for “God” just as Rama or Krishna would come to stand in the place of Brahman or the Atman in the Hindu tradition. The process seems universal. Even in Buddhism where the founder himself was quite explicit that any thought of “God” or “the gods” or even metaphysical theory was entirely irrelevant to his program of personal liberation and community transformation, was divinized by his followers centuries after his death. I don’t think the universal occurrence of this phenomenon is necessarily damaging or deforming for practitioners who, like John, were aware of the distinctions involved; they were, after all, describing the undeniable transcendent effect it had on their lives. It changed their image of “God” 1800.  They had come to know what “God” was really like; he was like the man Jesus. And once we, too, embraced the call to love, “God” was like us.

The “problem” in the case of Jesus is that because the imaging process was not understood, or was manipulated for theocratic purposes, the meshing that occurred got consigned to another earlier and undeveloped image. The symbolic nature of the connection disappears, and the “God” that Jesus is said to be, is no longer imaged by the man Jesus; he is imaged by something else entirely, something primitive, atavistic ― entirely different from his own compassionate, forgiving humanity. In this case the archaic image was that of a severe imperial judge and executioner. Imagery matters. If you worship the wrong image, no matter how “holy” it appears, instead of putting yourself at the service of LIFE, you end up sacrificing your children to demons.

3.

The legitimate meshing of symbol and reality that I’m talking about derives from the very essence of our reality ― from the nature of LIFE in our material universe. I use the word “LIFE” in an intentionally ambiguous way because I am convinced that our material reality itself is a scientifically ambiguous phenomenon. “Ambiguous” means “true of both,” and abstractly contemplates two “things” that the speaker might be referring to. We usually use the word pejoratively to describe statements that are not clear, but it can also have a positive sense. And it is because all of cosmic reality is quite undeniably always at least two things at once that I contend it is not only legitimate, but essential that we look for ways to include it in our statements about it. We must be appropriately ambiguous if we are to be true to reality. Let me explain what I mean.

Everything in the universe is “what it is” and, at the same time, it is “what it is made of”. And what all things are made of is some form of material energy which, in its most fundamental form, is the same everywhere. This homogeneous “stuff,” reduced artificially in particle colliders to its most structurally primitive and foundational elements, is what is studied by physics. A tree, a squirrel, a silver-back gorilla are all entities, “things,” each with their own peculiar capacities and limitations embedded in their organisms; but however different they are, they are all made exclusively and exhaustively of exactly the same “stuff”: those same particles studied by physics.

Physicists agree that all is ultimately energy:

. . . “all particles are made of the same substance: energy” (Heisenberg, 1958). On this view, concrete stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is distinct from energy and that has energy. Rather concrete physical stuff is energy.

So too, concrete physical stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is in some way distinct from process, in which processes go on or occur; it is process. So too, concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain natural, categorical, concretely instantiated intrinsic qualities while being in some manner irreducibly ontologically distinct from them; its existence is nothing ontologically over and above the instantiation of those qualities. It is, however, hard for us to hold this point steadily in mind given the deep object-property / subject-predicate structure of our thought and language.

and

we may allow that non-biological entities like leptons and quarks jointly constitute larger things that have properties that are essentially more and other than the properties of leptons and quarks. We may do this even if we continue to conceive of leptons and quarks in a crude ‘smallist’ way as genuine individuals of some sort. We do better, though, to conceive of them in a quantum-field-theoretic way, as features or aspects of the various ‘fields’ that jointly constitute the universe in a way that is profoundly mysterious to us, or (perhaps better still) as features or aspects of the single complex field that constitutes ― is ― the universe[1]

Given that common understanding of the “stuff” of the universe, unless you are prepared to deny the unitary reality of the composites of that “stuff,” ― what we call “things” ― you are faced with a mystery: what exactly is it that accounts for the unity and integrity of individual entities at these subsequent (macro) levels? Are things “many,” in other words, as they appear to be, or is there only one “thing” out there, since everything is constructed of the same “stuff”?

Rather than getting into the various solutions offered to this classic question, I think it is sufficient at this stage to point out the ambigüity at the very heart of matter. Reality, or as we have traditionally called it, “being” seems to reside in two “places” simultaneously: in the components and in the composite, making each somehow an echo and reflection of the other. Reality is ambiguous, and human terminology reflects that fact by “meshing” component and composite, reality and reflection, origin and emanate, wellspring and effluent, roots and branches. All symbols are grounded in the soil of meta-physical ambigüity.

In the case of Jesus’ humanity, the idea that a human being could be the image of God had preceded him by many centuries in Hebrew thought. The first chapters of Genesis, integrated into the Hebrew scriptures about 600 bce., speak of “God” consciously and intentionally making man “in his own image and likeness.” I do not cite Genesis as some sort of revelatory source of “truth” in this matter; I do it only to show that John was writing within a tradition of expression in which human nature was understood to be a reflection, an echo, an image of its creative source. I would only add that it does not surprise me that conceptual chain should be found in Genesis because it is a fundamental feature of reality. All things are expressions ― images ― of their source, insofar as all things are made of nothing else. Things are, simultaneously, themselves and their source; so one would expect they would look like one another.

Now, as we very consciously try to integrate the discoveries of science into our understanding of the universe which evolved us, we cannot ignore the implications of our human organisms being nothing but an evolved form of the material energy that constitutes all things. There is nothing else there than the highly complex elaborations, anatomical, neurological, hormonal, emotional, instinctive, that represent matter’s evolutionary adjustments to the needs of survival for the hominid line in which we developed. If we want to know what we are, our first datum is the components of our organism. Matter’s evolutionary processes, aggregating, integrating, complexifying the particles studied by physics made us what we are. It made us human beings. And the “person” whom we identify as our own “self” is nothing but the individual organism reflexively conscious of itself and instinctively driven to preserve and defend its life, just like every other living organism on the face of the earth. Just as “concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain qualities while being in some manner ontologically distinct from them” so too the human individual is not something other than its organism’s instincts, urges, capacities and limitations. It is that very identity of our “selves” with our organisms that makes us a mirror-like representation of the “stuff” that comprises them. Herein is imagery born. We are nothing but what makes us to be-here, and so seeing us ― seeing what we are like and what we do ― reveals in a unique and compelling way what that which makes us to be-here is.

This is the physical / metaphysical basis for the imaging that is the very essence of religion. Reality is not simple. It is complex and structured. One thing is not only the thing it appears to be; it is a multitude of things that have gone into its formation and it is also the multitude of things that it later goes on to be part of forming. Parents and children reflect each other. But they also reflect by anticipation grandchildren and extended progeny. Everything speaks of everything else. Everything reveals everything else. Everything, at the end of the day, is everything else. The many are one, and the one only exists as many.

While we have always understood the dynamics of symbol and imagery, it was not until modern science revealed the material depth of our being-here as humans that we became aware of the reflectivity ― the mirror-ness ― of our relationship with everything else. Imaging is not a voluntary, intentional activity. It is unavoidable because it springs from the very composite structure of material reality. We evolved from, but continue to be constituted by, the “particles” studied by physics. We are what we are, but what we are is constructed of those particles and so we are also what they are . . . and they in turn are what we are.

4.

It is from understanding reality from this point of view that I am encouraged to offer a suggestion about a new set of images that correspond to our new knowledge. We are as aware as any previous generation that “no one has ever seen God.” And certainly more than any other generation we are acutely conscious of the depths of moral commitment and of the undeniably authentic mystical experience had among the practitioners of other traditions across the globe. Hence we are less inclined than anyone before us to embrace a Christian supremacist view of the world. We know from experience that Jesus is not the only, and therefore cannot in any way be considered the definitive manifestation of the sacred source of our material world that we have traditionally called “God.” We also know from our science that whatever this “God” might be who has never been seen by anyone, it does not act like a rational, personal agent in any way recognizable as such to human beings. From this we suspect that the imagery of our own western traditions rooted in the Hebrew scriptures is pure projection, and reflects an earlier, obsolete, pre-scientific picture of the universe, life and human consciousness. I believe all these factors come together in validating the need for a new set of images that may more credibly provide the concrete anchor for our sense of the sacred depths of our lives.

Fundamentally, and to my mind, quite appropriately, the imagery I propose is generated by the picture that science has provided us of the actual state of things-in-process in our evolving universe of matter. Since we now know that “God” cannot refer to a humanoid, rational agent, “personal” and personally interactive as we understand the words, rather than attempt to conjecture about this unknown source, we are on safer ground just sticking with what we really know: we ourselves have an insuppressible sense of the sacredness of this universe of things and, even without knowing what our source is, we feel a profound gratitude and admiration toward it for what it has produced. Our gratitude is grounded in ourselves as undeniable gift; it is not grounded in knowing the giver. It occurs in the absence of knowledge. The only thing known is our non-origination.

In a second step, we experience our own being-here directly and as a “self” at every emerging moment of time. I cannot define “self” in any terms other than to evoke the experience. It cannot be “understood” in other terms and it cannot be “explained” because I have no idea where “I” came from. My parents who were instrumental in my coming to be here had no idea what kind of “self” I was going to be and certainly had no hand in its determination. I did not originate it myself, even though later I did participate in re-shaping it according to my chosen and changing values. I know nothing about the “self” except that it appeared along with my organism, and it disappears when my organism disintegrates. Without presuming to “know,” I can validly say that it seems completely commensurate with this complex, DNA shaped and driven packet of material energy formed by the interaction of multiple composites, that is my biological organism. My “self” is my body reflectively conscious of itself.

In a third step, I am well informed by science about the evolutionary processes driven by the instinct to survive, integrating, complexifying and re-arranging the wave-fields/particles constituent of matter and the creative effect they have had on the production of living species. As a human being I am personally identified with this organism which I know was produced by evolution and is enjoyed by every other human being on the planet. In my search for a source, I cannot ignore the obvious and fully explanatory role of biological evolution in the elaboration of my “self.” Clearly it is the energy of these material particles that have driven the evolutionary process. In an undeniably factual way then, I have to say that phenomenally speaking ― as far as human observation and verification is concerned ― my source is this energy embedded in the wave-fields/particles of the fundamental elements of matter, for “I” am nothing else.

The nature of this constructive hierarchy of wave-field/particles and their undeniable innate energy to continue to be-here are sufficient and necessary to explain my being-here in every aspect of my existence and at every moment of time without exception. There is no observable fact or feature of my organism ― physical, mental or emotional ― that remains unexplained requiring the search for any other source. If the cause and explanation for my being-here is also called “God,” then, logically speaking I have no reason to look any further. I am perfectly justified in identifying this material energy as “God.”

Even if someone were to object and insist that there must some “source” beyond the wave-fields / particles of material energy that constitute everything in our universe that is responsible for the existence, nature and character of these particles, it would have to be said that whatever else that hypothetical “source” might be, it would have to itself be a material energy of a type and character necessary and sufficient to explain what it produced in every aspect and at every moment in time. Conceptually speaking, therefore, material energy and its putative “source” can be considered one and the same thing. In fact, however many “sources of sources” there might be going back beyond our universe’s material energy, there will never be something other than material energy as we know it to account for it or it would never exist.

So for the purposes of the imagery that I am suggesting, the material energy we can observe and measure represents anything that its hypothetical “source” could ever be as source, and therefore can be validly embraced as our source.

This “God,” then, that we have identified as material energy “transcends” being any one “thing” by being pervasively and suffusively the structural and dynamic components of all. It is “that in which we live and move and have our being.” That means phenomenologically (scientifically, observably and measurably) we as individual “things” are not distinguishable from our constituent components, the wave-fields/particles that comprise our organisms. If material energy is “God” then we are distinguishable from “God” only metaphysically, which means conceptually ― only in human minds ― as “source” and “product.”  We are a completely unified structured reality whose surface appearance is individual and finite but whose roots are universal and reach into the infinite ground, the reservoir where homogeneous material energy is neither created nor destroyed and totally unformed and uncomposed.

So I propose: between us and “God” there is no difference, but from the point of view of originating energy, we are conceptually distinct. “God” is the originating, indestructible, self-possessed endless energy of the constituent components, and we are the composite product arising constructed and de-constructible, subject to the entropy that characterizes the descent back into an equilibrium from which we had been wrenched by the energy of LIFE. The “distinction” is in the metaphysical structure: Are the roots different from the tree with its leaves and branches?  No but they are distinct for human thought, in role and function. Is the “underground source” different from the pool of spring water emerging on the surface? No but they are categorically distinct as “source” of movement and the resulting motion. Is the light with which we see things on earth different from the sun’s light?  No it is not different. It is one and the same light, there is only one light, and it illumines us all. It’s how we see one another. It’s how we know we are all here and in this together. Only thus are we “distinct” from “God” and from one another.

[1] Galen Strawson, What does “physical” mean? [a version of the chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Pan­psychism (2020), forthcoming in Mind and Being uploaded separately by the author to Academia.edu] pp.5&7

Buddha and the Absolute

1,300 words

Efforts to correlate western theism with Buddhism always run into the same difficulty: theists try to introduce the concept of a non-material changeless Absolute into a Buddhist world of empty ephemeral “things” that exist in a roiling process of constant composition and decomposition. “Absolute” is a concept that is necessarily non-material and changeless. It is because it is so totally different that it immediately evokes a “world” or a dimension of reality that is other than ours. If you conceive “God” as an “absolute” as Christian theology has always done, his relationship to the world requires a complicated explanation that is not always convincing even when it’s coherent.

Besides, to claim access to another world that is not empty, shows a fatal misunderstanding of why the Buddha refused to talk about such things. For once you introduce the “Absolute”, you have introduced permanence and non-materiality. That means the material human “self” seeks to connect with the Absolute and must think of itself as becoming (if not already) permanent and non-material. Transformative practice becomes a pursuit (or protection) of permanence and a rejection of the body. One seeks absorption into the Absolute here and/or hereafter by changing oneself and being filled with the Absolute’s non-material, non-temporal reality.

Anatman, “no-self,” would then become only a “skillful means,” a technique, a mental manipulation, a kind of self-deprecation you use to help you “act” right and fill yourself with a permanence that you do not have; it no longer characterizes reality-as-it-is. That may serve as a synthesis of Hinduism and Abrahamic theism, but however abstract and non-anthropomor­phic, it is still radically dual. If the Absolute is an entity, it is transcendently Other. It is non-material and changeless in a universe of matter, change and process. It sets up a necessary relational dynamic of imitation and infusion, whereby “salvation” consists in matching human behavior to a standard “out there” set by the Absolute Other, and those who do not conform become sinners or failures who require “forgiveness” from the Other and a metamorphosis accomplished by an infusion that changes the organism from what it is into what the Other is: from matter to non-matter; from process to permanence. Anatman disappears because the emptiness from which it is derived becomes a source of repugnance and recoil.

To do that is to abandon what I believe is Buddha’s radical religious insight and challenge: we cannot “achieve” Nirvana. Nirvana emerges from embracing our emptiness. And nirvana emerges because it is already there. We are constituted of it, like an oak tree emerges from an acorn. Our “salvation” is to embrace ourselves; “I” and my body are “two” in one flesh, one thing. The “I,” in fact, stops insisting on being acknowledged, because now it knows it was never anything separate from the body to begin with. What was there was only the human organism ― the body ― material energy-in-process. What we thought was a separate non-material permanent “self” was the organism’s own material reflex for self-preservation.

Only in a system of total immanence, where the practitioner is already fully and completely what s/he transforms into, i.e., where what becomes is what seminally is fully there, can the material universe be what it is: material energy-in-process ― what we see unfolding itself before our astonished eyes: hydrogen atoms becoming stars, suns imploding and spewing out earths, sea and soil generating living organisms, acorns developing into oaks, species evolving species endlessly. Everything is in process; and nothing comes from nothing.

This is not some esoteric insight, the solution of an exquisitely complex equation. It is simply the result of taking the evolving universe out there to be exactly and only what it appears to be, with no remainder whatsoever. What is there is exactly and only what you see. There is no other world, plane or dimension of existence. You are looking at it all, every bit of it: cause and effect, source and outflow, seed and organism, origin and emanation, Creator and Creatures. A universe in process. It’s all right there.

There is nothing more. WE ARE THAT! We belong here. We are in the only home we will ever have, and we already are all we could ever hope to be, an emanate constructed of our very source: material energy-in-process.

metaphysics and practice

I am attempting to make a point about the nature of reality for those who are trying to philosophically synthesize theism with Buddhism. I am not comparing practices, or trying to counsel a new way to practice Buddhism. This is strictly a metaphysical exercise.

Is there a cosmic “Absolute” or is there not? That is the question. Can traditional theists be Buddhists? Buddhist practice, I am saying, cannot conflate with an Absolute without abandoning its unique focus on the pre-existence of that reality which makes nirvana possible: emptiness understood as radical metaphysical contingency.

(Many people erroneously think of “emptiness” in psychological terms, as a “realization,” a subjective appropriation of the objective metaphysical fact which translates into a kind of self-deprecation. I do not mean that. I am using the word as Nagárjuna originally meant it: metaphysically. Nothing has its own “stand alone” being. “Emptiness,” sunyata, is a phenomenological description of the nature of reality.)

Nirvana pre-exists as dharmakaya because the organic matter of our bodies, when undistorted and unencumbered, exists naturally in a state of serene self-embrace: inner peace and abiding joy. For me it corresponds to the definition of material energy as existential ― i.e., matter is the very energy to exist, hence it is pure “act,” esse, necessarily one with itself, utterly undivided.

This, I am claiming, has nothing to do with reward or metamorphosis or imitation, implying an absent “reality” outside the living human organism that needs to be inserted or infused or in some other way added to the human organism to give it meaning and a reason for self-accep­tance. The organism needs nothing outside itself . . .   and therefore that fact creates a presumption that there is nothing outside the matter’s energy-in-process that constitutes the human individual, i.e., there is no non-material “soul” with an eternal destiny. The empirical “self” is the material reflex for self-preservation, a derivative of matter’s existential nature as self-embrace. Following Spinoza I call it conatus. It is a reflex of this organism. When this organism dissolves, its reflexive “self” disappears.

Embracing (realizing) that reality constitutes “enlightenment.”

This is a metaphysical discussion. I’m trying to say that the psychology of enlightenment in the Buddhist system requires a particular way of understanding reality metaphys­i­cally; and I believe that taking reality as material energy-in-process fulfills that requirement. It explains why Buddhism is not compatible with a non-material, non-changing “Absolute.”

Buddhism has no explicit metaphysics. Nagárjuna’s analysis of “emptiness” in the 2nd century c.e. was an attempt to elucidate the meaninglessness of metaphysics. His book, The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, is not itself a metaphysics. It simply takes possibility after possibility and, in repetitive fashion, shows that nothing you can bring up has its own being.

Buddhism is exclusively a practical program. Buddhism works; even though it does not evoke an Absolute. That fact alone says that a non-material, non-tem­poral Absolute, even if it existed, is irrelevant to human aspirations; but it also suggests that there is no such entity.

Theists generally insist on conceptualizing “God” as an entity that is Absolute. But those who have chosen to practice Buddhism authentically, will have to stop doing that. In fact they will have to stop imagining “God” altogether and simply acknowledge that the contingency of the universe ― the emptiness of all things, including ourselves ― is the only metaphysical “fact” that we can say we “know.”

The rest is beyond our knowledge, but not beyond our loving embrace.

Raindrops

A reflection and a parable

2,650 words

1.

Source

I usually use the word LIFE in place of “God,” but here I use the word “Source.” I believe it is more appropriate. It is less religiously allusive, and I think that compassionate atheists belong in this conversation because of the new universal consensus provided by science. We all know what we are made of and how we got here. And we all have to respond to what we know we are. This is not a “religion” issue. Theists belong in this discussion, but they have no privileged place.

The departure point for this reflection is my main proposition ― what this blog has been trying to say for over ten years. The distinction between us and our “Source” is exclusively in the relationship of existential causality.

Our “Source” makes us to be-here, we do not make our Source to be-here, but in all other respects, we are indistinguishable from our Source which is present and active in the presence of our living material organism. We are-here together. Since the effects are matter, the cause has to be material, i.e., physically capable of making my living matter to be-here as my matter, in the present moment. Whatever else my living matter’s source may be, it must be matter, and it must be alive; it must be the same matter that I am. The distinction between my Source and my organism is only the metaphysical structure of cause and effect.

Here’s an image that illustrates that relationship. Think of your on-going “self” ― your living human organism ― as a pool of water actively welling up from an underground spring. The “source” of that visible, active spring of water is not itself visible but it has to be producing the pressure necessary to keep the water flowing up to the surface. It is truly “source,” for it not only provides the action, it provides the very water itself. The pool on the surface is nothing more (and nothing less) than the emergent flow of its source: it IS its source at a further point in a space-time process. The only distinction between the spring and its underground source comes from the structured nature of the process. To express this, we use a category of thought we call “causality,” which is shorthand for antecedent and consequent phenomena in a process. I do not mean unconnected phenomena that just happen to appear in a temporal sequence. The antecedent phenomenon, in this case, is not only prior to but really makes the consequent phenomenon to appear, while the contents and forces operating in each are exactly the same, in reality and not just in appearance.

Now, applying this imagery to the human organism, we can see scientifically what comprises this “self” that emerges from moment to moment as a living presence in the world: it is material energy ― the quarks and electrons, gluons and neutrinos that congealed out of the amorphous energy plasma released at the big bang. These elements evolved through many forms over eons of astrological/geological time into the living organism that we all enjoy. The DNA-guided human organism is nothing but a form of material energy-in-process. Material energy is our source, and like the spring, we and our source are one and the same thing, undivided, indistinguishable, inseparable, a single process structured as cause and effect. The quarks and muons of living matter are the source of the motor and emotive activity we call “life” but they also comprise the content ― every last bit of “stuff” ― that our organisms are made of, blood and bones, hair and hormones.  Everything is matter’s energy.

But doesn’t there have to be something else? If material energy ― my source ― is the same in everything, even the stones, how do I come to be “me,” and where does the force of life come from except through some factor other than matter’s energy?

In a Platonic universe, everything sharing the same word also shared the same idea, and, therefore was thought to share the same reality. That’s why, in a spiritual universe, the idea of humanity made us all “one thing.” Platonists needed to posit an individual spiritual soul uniquely created by “God” to account for personal human spiritual individuality.

In a material universe, in contrast, particles of matter are not all the same, therefore the cluster of particles that comprise my organism is different from yours. Individuality comes from a multitude of coalescing particles and forces, all of which have a uniqueness of their own that derives from a prior similar coalescence from other more remote sources. What you call them does not affect their particularity. I am “me” because a huge multiplicity of unique particles and forces came together at the same time to construct “me.” There is no need to posit a “spiritual soul” to account for individuality. Individuality is a material phenomenon.

Similarly, as regards life, matter, in the pre-scientific Platonic universe, was considered dead and inert. Platonists thought it required that a living spiritual idea be intentionally inserted into matter by a rational divine “Craftsman” for matter to be alive. But in the material universe that science has discovered in our times, if matter is itself a living energy, as many claim it is, life is present as a potential in all particles and forces from the very beginning, ready to become perceptible as life when the complexity sufficient and necessary for its appearance is achieved.

2.

a parable

How can a collection of sub-atomic particles become “me”?

I offer a parable. It starts with our image of the human organism as an emerging spring of water. Let’s imagine this particular organism has been visited by the coronavirus which uses living human DNA to replicate itself. In my reverie there are two little coronaviruses, brother Covidone and sister Covidella. (I give them names to evoke familiarity, because they are living organisms just like we are, trying to survive by using whatever they find around them. Francis of Assisi would understand.) They are living on the banks of the spring, which is the human organism, reproducing because of the life-giving power of the upwelling water: living human DNA.

They are relaxing and basking in the sun after replicating, and they are chatting. Covidone says, “Della, I wonder where all this wonderful water that keeps us alive and reproducing comes from? We’re good swimmers; why don’t we go down into the wellspring and locate the original source of the water. It’s gotta be down there somewhere.” Covidella said, “great idea, Vido, let’s do it.”

With that the two little adventurers start down into the spring, swimming against the upwelling current. They find themselves in a kind of shaft, a long vertical tunnel; the water is being forced up from below and they keep going down. Finally, at a great depth the shaft opens into a large cavern filled with water. It was clear that pressure from the cavern’s water was making it rise to the surface. “This is it,” said Vido, “this is the Source of the Spring. Both the water and the pressure come from here. I think we should just pitch our tent and stay here. It’s the source of the life we live on. Maybe, here, we can live forever, d’ya think”?

Della was skeptical. “There are two things I still don’t understand,” she said. “The first is the water itself. Was it always here? And the second is the pressure. Why is this water under pressure”?

Vido had to admit she was right. Where did this water come from, and what was the reason for the pressure? The two began to take another look around.

They saw that water was coming into the cavern on all sides from stratified layers of earth and rock. “Well, now,” Della says, “it looks like the water really comes from multiple sources and they all feed into this one place. Let’s pick one of these strata and follow it wherever it leads and see where its water comes from. That may take us to the original source.” Off they go, following a very thin sheet of water in one of the strata. They immediately notice that they are no longer going down, but they are now swimming uphill against a current that is flowing downhill.

It’s not long before they emerge back out onto the surface of the earth. But something was still making them wet. “Where is the water coming from now”? They look up and they realize: it’s raining!

The water all along had been coming from millions and millions of raindrops. The rain was falling on the ground, seeped into the earth until it encountered some formation ― like the stone cavern ― that forced the water to collect. With no place to go, the pressure from gravity built up. Eventually, when some outlet, lower than the level of the water sources, allowed it to escape, it emerged in the form of a spring. The “Source” was raindrops all along.

3.

Raindrops

The story takes on meaning with the change in perspective that occurs when we accept the fact that all of reality, even its living forms, like the virus, and us, are all and only matter. It helps explain how our living “selves” emerge from matter.

We are all made of the same clay. That means that all things, living and non-living, are subject to the same conditions for being-here, everywhere. Living organisms have the added burden of trying to stay alive in the midst of the maelstrom of roiling forces that constitute matter’s energy launched as our universe 14 billion years ago. This realization, occurring to someone who has not been totally consumed and blinded by belief that the “self” does not belong to this world, is enough to awaken a sense of compassion not only for other human beings, but for all things, for we are all made of the same “stuff” driven by the same forces. We belong only to this world, but we are not just ourselves. Everything is a temporary composite of that same “stuff.” And everything will decompose. Even the stones will perish. We, including the viruses, are one family. We didn’t ask for things to be this way, but it is the condition for our being-here. We are matter in a material universe.

Is this some kind of nightmare? No one I know would say so. We can’t explain it, but despite the suffering it entails and our final dissolution, to be-here is to die for. We love it. We can’t help ourselves. It’s hard-wired into our bones.  We want to be-here forever.

It is relevant to ask, “why”?

In the parable, the living spring was really raindrops. In the metaphysics of the Mahayana Buddhist system, the multiple threads that weave my “self” ― not unlike the raindrops ― are virtually infinite in number and type. It effectively amounts to the whole universe-in-process. That is what Buddha meant by “no-self.” Anatman ― the doctrine of “no-self” ― doesn’t mean there is nothing there, or that there is no “me.” Just the opposite. It means that “I” am the emanation of a vast multiplicity of sources, throughout geological time as well as in the present moment, all of which had to function together in order for my living organism to be-here now with the form and features that it has.

The spring was raindrops; our “selves” are particles of matter’s living energy.

The doctrine of “no-self” expands “I” into “all things.” It says we are not separate selves; rather we are the product of a totality that transcends the self and includes everything. No identifiable, eternal, independent, self-subsistent self, apart from its causes whose synchronicity is subject to eventual termination by entropy, can be said to exist. When that amazing confluence ceases to coalesce, the self, which is only the reflexive consciousness of the resulting composite, disappears. Nothing else disappears. All the components ― matter’s living energy ― continue on. Nothing is created; nothing is destroyed.

4.

A new imagery for “God”

So if “God” is really the Source of our being-here we are confronted with a huge challenge to the traditional imagery we have inherited from our pre-scientific forebears about what “God” is like. In ancient times, based on our experience of potters and carpenters, artists and sculptors we imagined a Craftsman of great power and intelligence who designed and shaped each and every kind of thing that we could see on earth. But, as we know now, that story was a product of our imagination; it was the best we could do in the absence of any real knowledge. Now we know better. We have learned that the earth itself, this planet, evolved all the life forms that live on it, including humankind, out of its own substance. We know what we are made of, and how we got here the way we are. The Genesis story was plausible guesswork for a long time; but it was wrong.

John said, “No one has ever seen God,” but going by our experience of brutal tyrants, we generated the picture of a grasping, controlling, cruel, thin-skinned, punitive and self-involved narcissist, that ran counter to everything that our human flesh cried out for. Why did we do that? When finally someone came along who challenged that imagery and said that “God” corresponded to our instinctive longing for justice and cooperation, love and compassion, the ruling “authorities” killed him to shut him up, and proceeded to appropriate his name to sustain their own slave-driven enterprises. “No one has ever seen ‘God’,” said John, but that didn’t stop us in our blindness from creating all manner of distorted imagery that, even today, continues to turn human beings into frightened grasping creatures who hate themselves and everyone else.

What do we do now? The blinders have come off and we can see clearly how this entire universe evolved and operates. We know our “Source” and how its creative energy functions. We have a new imagery to integrate. The word “God” has to take on a new meaning. We can’t claim ignorance any longer. We cannot continue to excuse our willful clinging to imagery inherited from ancient fairy tales. We have to face squarely how we have mis-taken and misunderstood our “Source” . . . and therefore how we have misinterpreted ourselves, what we are. We are our Source poured out and made available for all things to be-here, each in their own way, together. WE ARE THAT! Like the rain ― generous, abundant, self-emptying, undiscriminating ― life-generating energy is what we are made of. It is what we are!

What “providence” means has to be radically reimagined. There is no invisible rational “person” who chose to let 150,000 children die in the Haitian earthquake, or who “permitted” the Nazis to seek the “ultimate solution” for two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred in the Holocaust. There is no “person” who refuses to perform a miracle to cure your child’s cancer, or who wills rich and powerful men to enslave and exploit the masses of humankind, manipulate the minds of the frightened and despoil the earth of its ability to sustain life. There is no “person” who puts thoughts in your head, or who will “marry” you on the condition that you stay celibate.

Our “Source” is like the rain. Wherever it falls it brings life. It is always being used by others. In itself it is nothing, but it becomes all things. It has become us. We humans, like springs, are that same rainwater pouring itself out on the earth, now as persons, intentionally.

When we finally appropriate that reality and become rain for others, we will need no more proof.  All our questions will be answered.  It is at that moment that we will experience in our blood and bones why being-here is to die for.

 

What you see is what you get

2400 words

Of all the cultural phenomena we share as a species across divisions of land and language, religion stands out as perhaps the most common. Its characteristics are similar everywhere. It is the expression and the enjoyment of a bi-valent relationship that has many of the characteristics of a family. Like a family, religion binds together a number of individuals on one level, who, on another level, claim to be related to the same source of their organic life ― as the offspring of the same parents are brothers and sisters to one another. This two-directional characteristic is common to all religions. Even though some may emphasize one or the other of the two components, religion, as suggested by its Latin root re-ligere, “to bind,” celebrates the mutual binding of those who are all bound to the same source of life.

The claims of Religion, like the family, are based on objective, physical reality: the generation and survival of the living human organism. The expressions that religion creates ― creeds, rituals, moral behavior ― are all, in theory, designed to support and enhance those relationships that bind those bound to LIFE.

What sets religion apart from other families, however, is that the relationship to the source of life is disputed, not only with regard to its character, but also to its very existence. The foundational source of the religious relationship ― the “parent” ― is not visible. There is no known cause of human life beyond the reproducing human individuals. As far as human knowledge is concerned, no one directly knows who or what the ultimate, originating source of our life is.

Despite that, the great majority of humankind seems to have always had a conviction that such an ultimate source not only accounts for our abilities and dispositions as humans, but is responsible for our continued existence as a family in the here and now, and plays a determinative role in the direction of human social affairs, especially the macro-political. (Political power has been believed since ancient times to be a direct result of divine selection and conferral; and the chosen ruler has been taken to act in the place of the absent “god.” That means that religion and politics are intimately linked. Indeed, in the history of humankind most governments have been theocracies, and even our supposedly “secular” American system is grounded on tacit religious assumptions which many feel should be made explicit.) A implication is that the state is a religious entity. This is not an insignificant aspect of our history as a species.

This conviction of a common organic source has led religion to claim that its common destiny as a family is not gratuitous, but has arisen naturally and inevitably from its origins which continue to sustain human social existence here and now. In other words Religion, as a global phenomenon (disregarding local exceptions), is not a self-defense mechanism, a “circling the wagons” by terrified human beings who find themselves naked and alone in an alien and hostile universe. In the aggregate it has assumed just the opposite. Religion is the attempt to extenuate into adulthood the sense of family that naturally arises for every individual during the long period of nurturing that follows birth. Psychologically speaking, religion is simply the expected continuation ― the unsurprising furtherance ― of a lived reality in which the individual is loved, cared for and directed by the people who gave it life. As the individual continues its identity, it continues to expect that a protective, familial context will enwrap it.

An illusion?

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, identifies the child’s fantasy of always having a hovering, protective parent providentially overseeing every event of its life ― a source of psychological security and optimism ― as the ultimate source of (western) religion’s projection of an imaginary Father-God. This dove-tails with the family view suggested above. But, basing itself on science, it denies the perennial claims of western religion that it is grounded on the creation and continuation of life. Western religion has always made a quasi-scientific claim about the origin and nature of the universe. It has always assumed the Biblical book of Genesis to be a literal rendering ― a kind of science ― which said that “God” made this universe of matter. It is precisely religion’s physical, material claim that was denied by Freud that makes religion an illusion.

The fact of the matter is we now know that the Genesis account is not literal; it’s an imaginary reconstruction. But at the same time, logically speaking, it seems Freud overreached, because modern science hardly has much more to offer. All science can verify is that there is no rational teleology ― no discernible purpose ― functioning in our universe, and as far back as its origins in the “big bang,” there is no evidence that there ever was. The universe and its evolution are a function of the autonomous evolution of material energy, not the work of a rational craftsman no matter how omnipotent and omniscient it is said to be. But as to the source of life, science admits that it does not know.

The conflict here between Freud and the traditional view is representative of the way we have generally approached religion: as a question of knowledge. Traditional religion claims it knows “God” created the world, and Freud claims that science knows that there is no cosmos-con­struc­ting “God.” But, in fact, no one knows. Western religion did not know that “God” created the world, it believed someone’s imagined narrative; and Freud did not know the origins of LIFE; he simply believed science would “someday” discover it. But regardless of the collapse of his premise, Freud’s decision to explore the psychological origins of religion as a semi-patholo­gi­cal clinging to childhood ― a refusal to grow up ― is now generally acknowledged to have revealed a distortion of religion’s family sense: he correctly saw that western religion involved the projection of “God” as a micro-mana­ging parent. I do not consider religion an illusion, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

Knowledge

This conflict has divided humankind’s self-perception, and sense of family, in profound ways. But it turns on our reliance on knowledge, and knowledge cannot solve this conflict. But if we approach the question from a different angle altogether ― from human experience ― a way opens that bypasses knowledge and apprehends reality affectively.   By “affective,” I am referring to sensory features of the human organism that have emerged precisely to provide a direct and consistently reliable contact with the entire material environment for the purposes of securing survival. What makes this type of contact objectively valid is that it works. Affectivity is a term that I am using to acknowledge the multiple pathways to the apprehension and embrace of reality other than the conscious thinking associated with the use of words, the symbols of human mental images. A large and complex observational apparatus is available to the human organism that provides individuals with a much wider and richer “picture” of the reality around them ― a picture that cannot always be put into words ― but that is not based on fantasy and projection. The information these less acknowledged pathways supply to the organism is often absorbed subliminally, which the conscious mind is unaware of but the organism as a whole “sees” and reacts to in ways that we call “instinctive.”[1]

By “instinct” I do not mean guesswork, a parallel pathway to knowledge that avoids the hard work of research and testing. I mean the unrecorded somatic reactions that direct a quarterback, for instance, to anticipate with amazing accuracy exactly where his moving receiver will be when his pass arrives; or the unthinking but infallible gyrations changing the center of gravity that occur when someone slips on a banana peel and keeps themselves from falling. In introducing these instinctive pathways, I do not mean either to exclude the more conscious conceptual connections or to trivialize them. I am merely trying to broaden our usual imagery about ourselves to include what science now knows to be an array of unconscious and semi-conscious receptors that enhance our survivability within our environment by giving us a more complete objective picture of reality. The organism as a totality “sees” more than the mind; and what it “sees” is absolutely factual: it helps it to survive.

The fact that these many tentacles to the things around us are not all conscious draws attention to our seamless unity with the world. We are not bodiless “minds,” alien spirits wandering on a planet of hostile matter; we are multifaceted biological organisms immersed in our earth matrix like a sponge in the sea. We are the spawns of this planet, its offspring. We remain connected to it umbilically for life-support; if you separate us from it we will die. We belong here and nowhere else.

When we allow ourselves the affective contact with reality that the entire sensory apparatus of the human organism is designed for ― transcending the narrow, myopic, truncated, word-based mental operations traditionally considered “knowledge” ― suddenly “reality” takes on a new and unexpected dimension. We “see” things as perhaps never before. For the material human organism finds itself in a state of a deep and quiet joy simply being embedded in and connected to the life support systems for which it evolved its particular forms and features. When the human being is allowed to be what it really is: a biological organism fully enjoying its perfect adaptation to the earth’s environment from which it emerged, the disequilibrium that is said to uniquely undermine and sicken human existence, instantly evaporates.

This experience gives rise to the suspicion that, all along, there was an erroneous identification of the human being with an imaginary separate entity called “mind,” together with an idolatrous exaltation of abstract thought ― knowledge ― as somehow divine, that contributed to our malaise. We are bodies, but we told ourselves we were disembodied spirits. We tried to live that way and it made us sick. When, finally, we allow ourselves to be what we are, and our survival community shares, supports, promotes and defends that biological reality, we live in a state of inner peace individually, and in harmony with one another socially.

Growing up

In addition, with the disappearance of the alienation generated in us by our tragic belief that we are disembodied spirits, we find we no longer need to maintain the infantile fantasy of a hovering, controlling “Father-God” whom we imagine to be a “spirit” who wants us to be good. “Being good” in our tradition has always meant to become a “spirit” like him: to identify with our rational minds and to disassociate ourselves from our bodies and everything material as alien to our “spiritual” destiny. And to that end “God” was said to send us impulses (grace) that would generate guilt and aversion for what our bodies incline us to do, and entice us away from “this carnal world” with offers of immortality as spirits in the world of no-bodies to which we have been taught we really belong.

But once we no longer need a “God” to help us to be what we are not, we find ourselves secure in what we are. We discover that we have all the equipment and instincts we need to nestle safely in our earth home with our family, ruled by systems of justice and works of compassion that WE have devised for ourselves after millennia of living together. We put what we learned into the mouth of “God” to make it easier for our children to follow our advice.

We become increasingly awestruck at the child-like qualities of the powerless invisible SOURCE OF LIFE, whose effusive and selfless material energy constitutes our bodies. It is that fertile living energy that has driven evolution and produced these marvelous organisms that we cherish and enjoy. We can acclaim that SOURCE OF LIFE for what it is and what it has done, without even knowing it directly. We don’t need to project onto it our regressive needs to have a parent who tells us what to do and reads us bed-time stories that death is not real. We know what to do. And we know we will die. Our multi-valent, instinctive bodies tell us what to do and they know how to let go when death comes. And we can love our SOURCE OF LIFE for the gentle, fragile and defenseless thing it really is, and what it has made of us, and stop fantasizing tyrants taken from our own worst examples of people who need to dominate others to engorge and deify themselves. We have often imagined “God” that way.

When we finally grow up, we no longer project a “God” of our imagination that is not there. We begin to cherish and try to imitate the real SOURCE OF LIFE that comprises and suffuses our bodies, an invisible living energy at the very core of our being that we are in touch with every moment of every day, that is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, the ground of our being-here, whom our ancestors called by many names: “LIFE,” “Fire,” “Wellspring,” “Ground,” “Source,” “Breath,” “Love,” “Being,” and, the name that is the most cherished of all: “mySELF,” whom I love as a man worships the woman he loves, as a woman adores the man she loves, SELF-EMPTYING LIFE ITSELF, masked with my face.

I am that very same living material energy gathered, evolved and nested on this planet with my family ― all of us are the masks and offspring of the same divine fire that burns in every living thing. My body “sees” and is embraced by this reality, perhaps without ever translating it into words or pretending to call it know­ledge.

 

[1] Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, Pantheon, NY, 2012, passim; but see especially chapter 2, pp. 30-52

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?

a confession

2,000 words

In response to comments from readers, and despite the risk of accusations of duplicity, I would like to confess that I am really operating on two levels simultaneously and never refer to it. On one level, I try to elaborate a plausible physical/metaphysical worldview that is consistent with all the relevant data: modern scientific thinking, the core features of the religious legacy of our ancestors and the common consensus of the global community. The result of that work is a world­view that I call Transcendent Materialism. Its details can be found described and defended throughout these blogs and in my books. I work hard at assembling that conceptual system and try to cover all the bases, fill in the corners and tie up loose ends as much as I can. My goal is to construct a synthetic worldview that is consistent within itself and synchronizes with all aspects of reality as we understand it today.

I am convinced that there is an underlying concurrence among those sources which I try to uncover and bring to light. I am convinced it accurately represents reality. But I am quite conscious of the fact that it is a theory. I am only concocting something that is plausible. It is conjecture, well founded, perhaps and sincerely held, but still guesswork. I do it because I feel it offers a better explanation for our cosmos than all others that I have encountered. But at the end of the day I am well aware that I don’t know. The value of such a worldview, in my own mind and intention, is that it will be recognized as indisputably more plausible than the medieval world­view offered by Christianity since the 13th century to insulate the absolutist dogmas which are central to its theocratic pretensions. I want to make clear now, if it has not been obvious before this, that my primary purpose is to challenge arrogant Christian claims to absolute truth ― claims that have been used to justify the western domination of the globe.

Undermining the Catholic/Christian pretense to supremacy is the whole point of the exercise. At the end of the day I am hoping that people will come to the realization that Christianity’s absolutist declarations are self-serving and of dubious credibility. I am not saying its teachings are lies; the motivations are sincere. But I would like everyone to understand that, like the rest of us, the Christian Churches simply do not know. Christianity, like all other religions, offers symbols for the unknown source of our material universe and ourselves as its progeny. The best we can say is that some of that symbolic imagery evokes an attitude of awe and trust ― what I believe is an authentic human response to being-here.

 

Having said that, on another level altogether (the level where I personally live) my view on the unknowability of “God” implies a very simple response. I know that everything I write and most of what I read is speculation. I know that I know nothing. Beneath the sophisticated guesswork there is a very simple bedrock, and what can be said definitively about it is limited to very few words, for it is not knowledge about absent or invisible things, it is the description of the terms of a surrender.

For me not knowing is more than just the way things happen to be. Rather, it’s because things happen to be that way that there needs to be religion. Religion is not necessary in any absolute sense. Religion is necessary only because we do not know. Religion is the symbolic interface with a reality that is beyond the reach of our knowledge. Theology begins here. Far from being an obstacle or a liability, not knowing is the indispensable condition for the existence, authenticity and vitality of the religious quest. Religion is the poetic representation of a living presence that we experience in our material organisms but do not know.

We do not know the answers to the most fundamental questions of the source and ground of reality (which includes us), that have engaged enquiry for as long as humankind has been-here. But rather than a problem and source of contention and conflict, I maintain not-knowing defines and directs religion: it guides it. It’s a corrective that eliminates the wrong directions and false turns that have historically resulted in competing claims among traditions that have caused such violent conflict among us. In strictly methodological terms, The theology of unknowing that I am proposing is not a speculative system, it is a guide for making practical choices in the absence of knowledge. It is a religious pragmatism based on the solid conclusions of experience recognized by everyone, everywhere and at all times since the emergence of humankind on this planet. The authentic human response to LIFE is not knowledge and control but gratitude and trust. Growth in human authenticity (holiness) is growth in those attitudes and corresponding behavior.

Theology should be focused on clarifying and specifying what the terms of surrender are. Not-knowing, unlike “dogma,” is not a symbol or a conjecture or a plausible guess. Not knowing is a raw naked fact, perhaps the most significant and undeniable fact bearing upon our relationship to our source. Theology, insofar as it is committed to discovering and submitting to the truth, is built on this first and indisputable fact: we do not know. Religious universalism derives directly and unconditionally from that. No one knows . . . no one has ever known.

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

The word “apophatic” is of Greek origin and is usually reserved for the mysticism of “unknowing” associated with the writings of an anonymous sixth-century Christian Syriac monk known as Pseudo-Diony­sius. The monastic tradition it comes from is actually much older and pre-Christian.  It is a neo-platonic pan-entheist vision focused on relationship to “God” as the transcendent source and matrix of our existence. While I personally disagree with the metaphysics, I propose returning to the fundamental contours of that theology ― its dynamic import and intention ― and assigning it the principal role for guiding our religious lives.

The word “apo­phatic” means “speechless” and immediately redirects the one seeking the face of “God” from the intellect to the will. The quest is not about knowing. It is about a surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life.

“God” cannot be known. The word “God” itself is only a placeholder for the unknown source and sustainer of the cosmos. The conceptual, propositional, ritual and disciplinary edifice that we call “religion” should be constructed firmly on that basis: we do not know, and not-knowing is a desideratum, a gift to be embraced, the fertile ground in which our religion takes root and grows. Not-knowing is intrinsic to the authentic religious quest; it makes quite clear that the ascent is a growth in trust fed by an ever deeper gratitude for life and appreciation of one’s own material organism. To embrace oneself is to embrace that “in which one lives and moves and has one’s being.” It is to embrace whatever the word “God” might ultimately refer to.

Trust also corresponds to an ever wider circle of letting-go. Letting-go means accepting ourselves as material organisms subject to the unavoidable conditions of our materiality in a material universe. We have to let go of attempts to escape that fundamental reality. We have virtually no control over (1) our biological inheritance, (2) the material and social conditions required for our continued survival, and (3) that we will all certainly die. The “escape” we must let go of includes such fruitless reactions as self-aggrandizing selfishness, individual or tribal; the refusal to collaborate with others for mutual survival and the search for justice in society; and I personally would include as an escape the projection of a future life in another imaginary world as an excuse for exalting oneself over others and not cooperating with the universal human community. Learning to live within the parameters possible to us ― which includes the necessary self-regulation and communal collaboration that are necessary to survival ― is the human quest. There is no other, for there is no way out of being material organisms in this material cosmos. It is the human condition.

The correlate to not-knowing is trusting, just as its opposite, knowledge, seems to promise control. I am focused on building a theology on the foundation of an unknowing trust that besides setting us reliably on the paths that all our great teachers, east and west, have laid out for us, simultaneously generates two important by-products for the human community:

(1) it undermines any claims to absolute truth and the corresponding “supremacy” of any religious tradition and its ethnic-tribal adherents over others.

And (2) it establishes an unambiguous parity with those who, avoiding verbalized “beliefs” altogether, have been denigrated by self-exalting religious prejudice as atheists, agnostics, apostates, materialists, non-belie­vers, pagans, etc.

Everyone must trust. The material conditions of our lives is the great leveler. The most convinced atheists spend their days in trusting reliance on the common source of our living organic inheritance whatever that might turn out to be just like the rest of us; and they face death with the same apprehension and the same frustrated expectation to live on that comes from our biological organisms. We all have the same desire to live forever. Some think, despite every indication to the contrary, that we will live again after we die, and others, accepting the evidence of the universal experience of all organic life, don’t. The common denominator is that in each case we are dealing with opinion; no one knows.

The fact that religious people choose symbols to stand in the place of their ignorance and non-religious people refuse to use any symbols at all, doesn’t change the common condition that affects us all: none of us know; all of us live in a state of utter existential vulnerability; we all go reluctantly into that dark night; all of us have to reach out to one another if we are going to survive; and at the end of the day we all have to learn to let go because ultimately we have no idea of what is going to happen to us. “Religions” that exploit human insecurity and offer a quid pro quo of one kind or another that supposedly guarantees a control over our destiny after death, are in fact, working in direct opposition to the objective of authentic religion which is to trust despite the darkness. At best, such guarantees may be acceptable as symbols for the trust that our awe of life evokes in us.

At the same time it must be said that those who take the absence of knowledge as justification for a nihilistic disdain for life and contempt for the struggle of people to survive in a just society, have to suppress their own bodies’ natural joy in living, instinct for self-preservation and empathy for others. Not knowing is just that. A nihilistic response is an unwarranted claim to know.

 

That is the theology I pursue and propose. The rest, which includes physical/metaphysical theories of reality and the polemics they generate is optional, conjectural, somewhat arbitrary and at all times secondary to what I consider authentic religion. That doesn’t mean such “scientific” pursuits are invalid, just that they are not religion. Religion is surrender in darkness driven by the awe and appreciation of being-here. It does not depend on what we think we know or don’t know about the ultimate source and destiny of it all. Once that premise is clearly stated and understood, the wider discussion can proceed. Otherwise, the elaboration of a compelling worldview that correlates to our real condition will necessarily become distorted in the vain attempt to assign it absolute value and turn it into religion. For, without a clear and universal acceptance of the supreme value of not-knowing, conjecture will be conscripted by our insecurity to play the role of “the answer” ― knowledge ― skewing everything that follows and re-instal­ling the conflict of warring absolutes (built on fictional securities) that now characterizes religion.

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 (VII)

the just society

9.

Human community is a derivative of universal natural faith. The emptiness that conditions life for all human individuals causes them to reach out to one another for interpretation and support. Biological survival is certainly a primary motivating factor, created by a longer childhood dependency than any other animal species; but family and clan interdependence entailed the evolutionary development of brains that can “read” others. A great deal of the operating time of the human mind is spent imagining what others (who are significant to one’s survival in society) think, feel, desire, intend, and can do for them or against them; and most of human conversation is dedicated to sharing it. We may trivialize it by calling it gossip, but it is what we do.

The ability to sense what others are feeling when something happens, or what they “mean” when they say or do something, is called empathy.   Empathy is the ability to feel the similarity between others and myself ― it implies a high degree of self-awareness. Intelligence evolved, apparently, driven by the need to navigate relationships in a complex society. Its unavoidable by-product was self-awareness ― the know­ledge of one’s own emptiness, and the equally unavoidable expectation of endless life, for despite how inexplicable and improbable it all is, here we are, and we love being-here.

Given the biological reality of the drive to survive, the ability to empathize can go in any direction. There is no guarantee that this extraordinary emotional clairvoyance will not be put to selfish purposes. Knowing that I am “needy” and therefore what “neediness” looks and feels like, I have a window that opens onto a vulnerability in others. What may have served as a tool to alleviate another’s anxiety, can always lose its “other”-directedness; when neediness no longer evokes sympathy, it is reduced in my field of perception to something I can exploit.

Similarly the implicit awareness that there is a warm sustaining wind that bears us all aloft can also evoke a selfish reaction. I trust life and those around me; that means I know that others spontaneously trust me and are not initially wary and self-protective, in fact they are predisposed to support and protect me. I can exploit this spontaneous reaching out ― the very need that is creative of human community ― and turn it to my own advantage. That such a turn poisons the wellsprings of life together is disregarded. Our ability to empathize is not ultimate or absolute: it is subordinate to other forces in the human organism ― like the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement ― that are easily mis-taken as its contrary. At some point the conatus must consciously be directed to serve empathy or it will distractedly pursue selfish interests.

The spontaneous trust in life with which we come into this world, continues to penetrate and pervade all of our endeavors. An expression of this is the feeling of indestructibility that arises from the unchecked natural expectation of endless life. It is a biological disposition we are all familiar with, especially when young. It is generally held in low regard by adults who call it “adolescent.” It displays a naïve trust in life that can be dangerous. It is associated with having an aversion to the work that society deems necessary for survival. It is also seen as a source of recklessness that can result in fatal or crippling accidents. (That doesn’t prevent society’s managers from exploiting youthful naïveté to build armies of self-doubting teen-age boys “trained” to risk their lives and kill on orders. Young males are redundant for society’s reproductive needs and are treated as expendable.) But we have to recognize that this “frivolous” youthful attitude arises from a natural proclivity of the organic matter of our biological organisms to simply enjoy being-here free of care. Until the work of providing survival has been made so unachiev­able as to require total dedication to nothing else, thus disabusing the individual of dreams of a care-free life, it is the normal condition. We are all naturally care-free; we are spontaneously optimistic because we are made of matter; matter “knows” it belongs here and instinctively expects that all will be well. We must learn that is not the case.

The instinct to be care-free does not necessarily imply irresponsibility. In a random universe the urge to spend our days in play is quickly modified by the realities of survival. I contend that the effort to irresponsibly secure a care-free life for oneself ― selfishly seeking to avoid work at the expense of others ― is the root of social injustice. It is my opinion that the class divisions in society arose in the distant past, when some who had gained control of the survival process, in order to make life secure and care-free for themselves, coerced and extorted the labor of those who could not resist them. They became masters and made the others their slaves. Everyone acquiesced either actively or passively and the pattern became a system. Some claim the original model was the subjugation of women by men.

Master/slave systems provided a concentration of wealth and an organization of labor that was used to build all the great empires on the planet. All of us that are alive today came from one of the civilizations in which those empires flourished, and our current global civilization is in a process of concentration and once control is unified it will be an empire. There are very few human communities, even now, whose work life is not part of the global economy and its class divisions of labor. We have all internalized its principal features and transactional dynamics. We have all been formed by the master/slave system.

Work patterns in a master/slave system share certain distortions. For example, it is to the advantage of masters to eradicate care-free attitudes from their slave-laborers in order to get more work out of them. Instilling fear, and making any kind of satisfactory accumulation extremely difficult, the “masters” hone and sharpen their “slave” tools for their service, robbing them of the joy of life and a sense of security. The aim is to eliminate “frivolity” and make work’s survival achievements the only satisfaction available to the worker. This is done precisely so the masters can avoid having to live under such burdens themselves. They justify this by telling themselves (and their slaves) that there is a difference between them, a difference in their humanity ― that human nature is not universal ― that the masters are superior human beings and the slaves are inferior; that “nature” designed the division of labor.

The reasons adduced in the West for the class divide have been amazingly adaptable through the millennia: first it was claimed that the slaves were more “carnal and unthinking” and the masters more “spiritual and rational” ― slaves were like children who needed the masters to organize life for them; then later it was held that the masters were war lords and paladins who defended the people, and the people worked for them to maintain them in their warrior life-style and insure their protection; then, when new lands were discovered, it was said that the dark-skinned people who were made slaves were not Christian, had never been baptized and therefore were under the dominion of Satan and needed to work for their Christian masters as a discipline of exorcism; and finally in our time that the masters are wealthy owners because they are intelligent and disciplined and the laborers are not. Hence the almost unchallenged agreement is for working people to “go to college” so they can become members of the educated elite and ultimately become owners themselves. The “story,” regardless of how it has changed, remarkably always comes to the same conclusion.

These efforts have resulted in normalizing an unnecessarily hard and sustained work-effort for those who must sell their labor. The business of working to stay alive has been made more onerous than it needs to be precisely because the economic life of society has been organized so the masters can live “care-free” lives, and habituating the slaves against any hope of procuring the same for themselves is an essential part of it. Economic life has been structured along class lines for so long that we cannot imagine anything else. Everyone has internalized these myths. Any hopes the slaves still harbor for living care-free become exclusively focused on the day they themselves can become masters over others. Yes indeed, go to college.

I do not believe in the “supreme value of hard work.” I see that particular “belief” as another dogmatic mystification created by the masters to keep the slaves disinclined to expect that the system will ever allow them to be autonomous and care-free responsible collaborators as workers. Their only hope is to become masters/owners themselves. They are driven to “succeed.”

I contend that in a just society ― one that has made the pursuit of distributive justice its constant priority ― personal insecurity is eliminated or reduced to a minimum and shared by all. Everyone knows that their work will guarantee them survival and a standard of living on a par with everyone else. Resentment at inequality, and the exhausting over-exertion expended by those who are not paid a living wage for a normal day’s work, simply does not exist. Most of us have never lived in such a society, even growing up in our families which often mimic the pressures of larger society in order to “train” their children. I submit that economic life has been so distorted in the societies we are familiar with ― societies that function on wage slavery and the normalization of insecurity that is intrinsic to the master/slave paradigm ― that the unnecessary impoverishment and insecurity of the working classes (and the unnecessary anxiety of the ruling classes) would be totally eliminated if it weren’t for this internalized expectation. Like everything else in human life that exacerbates the insecurity of existential dependency, it is a product of our minds. Our minds create the structures that enslave us. Life is hard; but we have made it harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Humans have evolved the ability to imagine what’s not there. One of the “things” that’s not there, says the Buddha, is the imagining mind itself. We imagine that our imagination is an entity, separate and independent, that we identify as our “self” in opposition to the body and all other “selves,” when in fact it is actually a function of the body, a tool of the self-conscious organism that survives only in its social network. The imagination gives the organism the ability to anticipate, “under”stand, and empathize (relate). The real self is the full human organism and the mind is its instrument of survival-in-society. The greatest of human tragedies is that we take the image-maker and the images it concocts to reify and aggrandize itself as if it were a separate self, not the complete human being, ― and then re-imagine society to be made up of similar selfish avatars in competition with one another for ascendancy. It’s like a masked melee of the WWE.

The Buddhist project includes using mind-control techniques ― principally, meditation ― to reduce and eventually eliminate the false images that our arrogant minds generate about who we think we are. The widespread suffering that comes from the frustrated attempts to secure ultimate happiness through selfish accumulation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others is the primary damage that comes through a runaway imagination. “Living in the present moment” is a mantra that proposes to get us out of the fantasy that we are disembodied independent “selves” and that something will fill our emptiness and make us, as separate individuals, secure and care-free. It calls us to let go of selfish delusions and to focus on our reality as biological organisms who have need of one another here-and-now.

Accepting our emptiness, our insuperable vulnerability and complete reliance on the forces of community life-support, leads to a simple acknowledgement: some version of the golden rule must override all other considerations. We must treat others as we want to be treated. It is the foundation stone of a just society. It is natural, intuitive and universal. We don’t need “God” to reveal it to us. It is the totality of our moral obligation and the whole purpose of our political designs. Any nation, political party or religious sect, regardless of its venerable antiquity and claims to sacred origins, that has not discerned the primacy of that moral imperative, is exposed as false and dangerous to the human project. By their fruits WE know them. The gods we need are the ones who remind us that we are all we’ve got.

The just society is our tool of survival. I wonder if we fully appreciate what such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s clearer in the obverse: without it we will not survive.

The just society, unimaginable only to those who have imagined it out of existence, begins with a simple transformation of who we think we are.

 

 

 

Christian universalism (III)

the mystery of being-here: emptiness and faith

3,500 words

1.

The turn to non-biblical sources in an early attempt to establish Christian universalism was, ironically, a scriptural event. Paul of Tarsus, in looking to justify the transition beyond a sectarian Judaism did not limit himself to the resurrection of the Jewish messiah; he turned to ancient Greek creation poetry of an immanent sustaining energy as if it were a scriptural authority. It’s significant that he did not cite Genesis. The “Fatherhood” experienced by Jesus evoked for Paul, not Moses’ Yahweh, but the universal existential experience of humankind: The “Unknown God,” said Paul, is familiar to all of us. “God” is where “we live and move and have our being.” Paul’s “God,” near though “unknown,” was the same as Jesus’ “Father.” We have known “God” all along through our very own being-here.

What name Moses had once given “Yahweh” based on what he expected from him ― a violent liberation from Egyptian slavery and later the spoils of conquest: wealth and power ― was now superseded because Paul could see that Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted “God” as his “Father” and it had nothing to do with wealth and power. Paul was unambiguous: “God’s” Fatherhood is bound up with sustaining our being-here. And our being-here was no mere extrinsic relationship to gift and giver. It was an organic immersion in the source itself. We were embedded in “God’s” reality like a sponge in the sea; we were an intrinsic part of “God.” And there was nothing supernatural about it; the relationship to “God” was not conditioned on being a Jew, and it preceded any membership in the Christian community and access to the sacraments. Where we “live, move and have our being” ò theos for Epiménides, a poet of the 6th century b.c.e. ― was Paul’s Greek translation of the “Fatherhood of God.”

[Please note: I am using the term being-here and not “being” because I want to emphasize the concrete nature of existence and our ordinary human perception of it. We all know exactly what that means.

The term “being” by itself, however, has traditionally been used to refer to all kinds of things, and probably most often an abstract philosophical idea. The “idea of being” or the “concept of being” is not a “thing” out there somewhere. We have to be reminded of that because all the characteristics of “God” that are listed with such definitive authority by the practitioners of mediaeval philosophical theology, come exclusively from an analysis of the concept of being. That is an exercise in abstract logic applied to a concept ― a human mental product with no empirical connection to reality whatsoever. But because it is logically impossible to deny the comprehensive all-inclusive character of the concept of “being,” it has been taken to be “God” in our tradition. It was this logical lock on the human mind ― equating “being” with “all possible perfections” ― that has called forth, over and over again in the history of western thought, the claim that being able to think the concept of “being” was itself a proof of the existence of that to which it referred, “God.” These have been called “ontological proofs” because they are based on necessity as an intrinsic quality of “being” (but note: as a concept). “Being” had to be there because it is absolute and universal and includes the “perfection” of actual existence, and what was “absolutely perfect” was what we call “God” and so “God” had to be there.

So, I repeat, I do not mean that. What I mean by being-here refers to something else.

Being-here refers precisely to the real presence of things ― what makes them actually here, now, and not just an idea, a future possibility or a past memory. There is nothing absolute or transcendent about being-here. The concept of being-here is the generalization of a present experience; it does not pretend to refer to something that is not experienced in real time. That is the difference. The Platonic idea of “being” was believed to be more than what gave it rise; it was thought to have its own separate, independent existence. Being for the Greeks was an entity, a “thing” called “God.”

The phenomenon which is the human experience of being-here has certain common, universal and undeniable characteristics that derive exclusively from generalizing on those experiences.  First, it is a sensory perception and therefore whatever mental features it generates are bound to the human body as a bank of sensory receptors . . . the human organism is the absolute inescapable place where the perception of being-here occurs. Even were the experience to happen during a reverie of the imagination ― a kind of Cartesian “meditation” ― it is a bodily experience and cannot occur without its material foundation. Hence, being-here is a material experience; whatever “mental” dimensions it may have, they are tightly bound to the sensory apparatus of the body.

Being-here, I contend, is the empirical counterpart of the traditional notion of “creation.” It constitutes the most important single element grounding agreement among all religious traditions, regardless of where they may situate it in their particular hierarchy of “beliefs.” That we are-here in this world that is-here and how that all came about is one item of primordial significance common to all. Today, we recognize that the question corresponds to a universal desire to know ― a curiosity not entirely alien to awe, but not bound to it ― and thus is legitimately considered separate from religion. Before the age of science, however, no such separation was even thinkable.

For the Genesis thinkers there was no distinction between science and religion. When they said “God made the world” they were responding to their “scientific” need to explain how this spectacular world got here and at the same time they were following their own religious sense of existential dependency and need to connect with their source of existential support. Imagining that there was “someone” who could put together the incredible world they saw before them, a world which included their own body-persons, inspired a profound and insuperable wonderment. The world ― “creation” ― was the revelation of a transcendent existential power and engineering ability that spawned us; it was our “Father” in whom we all ― the entire cosmos ― live and move and have our being. It became the ground of religious universalism.

The starting point and constant guide for the religious journey is being-here. At some point we wake up to the fact that we are-here, and didn’t have to be. It is the beginning of the experience of faith.

 

2.

The keystone in the study of religion is the full understanding of the universal phenomenon of faith ― a word that in this essay does not refer to religious beliefs. Here, faith means the acquiescence to a relationship of trusting existential dependency that entails moral responsibility.

The content of the experience of faith, as I conceive it, is existence: being-here, what we call life.  Briefly my intention is to show that the principal elements of natural religion flow directly from a trusting existential dependency. Faith, like morality itself, is a natural, spontaneous and irrepressible reaction to life. It comes with being human; it may take unexpected and unfamiliar forms some of which may appear to be quite irreligious, paranoid and immoral, but it cannot be avoided or eliminated.

Religion, in a second step, is the organized social expression of faith. It is an inevitable development; for wherever there is a common set of significant experiences among human individuals, it will always find social interpretation and expression. As time goes on and social context changes, any particular religion may or may not maintain its expressiveness for the faith of the group using it. Religions change for the same reason they emerged to begin with: the spontaneous faith generated by existential dependency will always seek confirmation, interpretation and a symbolic expression agreed on by the community. Because faith is, as I claim, natural, spontaneous, irrepressible and universal, it will always force religion to emerge where it doesn’t exist, or evolve where it does. All religions maintain their authenticity by evolving; for it is only by evolving that they continue to be a credible expression of spontaneous faith. And faith without religion ― without an anchor in the consensus of the community ― can go in any direction.

Faith and emptiness

‘Faith is a relationship of trusting existential dependency that generates moral responsibility.’ There is more to that definition than meets the eye. As the first step in unpacking it I want to clarify the term existential dependency. What it means is what the Buddhists of the Middle Way meant by sunyata, “emptiness.” That word was the fulcrum of a metaphysical analysis ― a theory of being ― that they elaborated to understand and explain Gautama Buddha’s much earlier teaching on enlightenment (which he did not explain in metaphysical terms).

Emptiness was not a subjective feeling, or a phase in ascetical progress like a “dark night of the soul.” It referred to a permanent objective metaphysical condition. It meant that characteristic in things that made them incapable of being-here on their own. To be “empty” meant to not have the wherewithal to make oneself be-here; it meant to be existentially dependent on some­thing(s) other than one’s self for one’s own being-here.

Now the Buddhists elaborated the concept of emptiness in a way that coincided with the universal interconnection of causes that are operative in the production of any phenomenon. They called it “co-dependent co-arising.” Everything that is-here, every phenomenon of whatever kind, regardless of whether it appears to be a stand-alone “thing” or just a quality of a thing, is dependent upon a multitude of factors other-than-the-phenomenon in question that must also be present and operative for that phenomenon to be-here. For example, in order for the rose to be-here, other things that are not the rose must also be-here and functioning. There must be soil, water, warmth, sunlight, pollinating insects, etc., etc. And for there to be those proximate causes there also need to be an array of more remote geological and atmospheric conditions producing and sustaining them. All these factors are co-depen­dent and they must all arise and be-here at the same time or there will be no rose. The idea dovetails with the Buddhist idea of “no-self” (anatta, or anatman) because the co-depen­dent co-arising of any phenomenon from and with its causative factors proves that the phenomenon under examination is, in reality, not itself.   Its very self is being actively produced and sustained by a multitude of things that are not itself.

Keeping this dimension of existential dependency in mind shines a spotlight immediately on its universal character. For it means that emptiness is a characteristic of absolutely everything that exists; all things are empty of their own existence, and the very fact that they are-here indicates that everything else on which they all depend also has to be-here. This clearly involves the whole of the material universe. Everything, including every human being, exists in and, more significantly, is dependent upon a vast matrix ― a network that embraces the totality of things that are-here.

Now I claim this sophisticated “philosophical” analysis is performed spontaneously and wordlessly in real time by every conscious human being on the planet and at a relatively early age. Everyone is aware at some level of conscious articulation that they are empty of their own being: they are not self-originating and they are not self-sustaining; they did not put themselves here, they rely on a multitude of other things to keep them being-here, and they cannot prevent their ultimate disappearance.

In the case of the human individual, the “thing” in question is its very own self. This realization of existential vulnerability occurs in an organism that is impelled by its inner constituents to always preserve itself above all things and continue to be-here. This drive, traditionally called the conatus, is so intense that it programs the organism to do virtually anything that is required to stay alive. This “instinct for self-preservation” can be overcome but only with extreme difficulty. It amounts to a “catch-22” from nature: you MUST ALWAYS stay alive, but you DO NOT HAVE the wherewithal to do it. The Buddhists identified the illusory attempt to create that wherewithal as the root of all dissatisfaction: samsara, “chasing the wind.” And we all recognize the instinct to stay alive is what lurks behind all injustice, exploitation, political oppression, tyranny and enslavement. The oppressor threatens death or its equivalent and no one can resist it.

Community and Morality

The combination of the compulsive drive of the conatus in tandem with the awareness of emptiness existential non-independence ― accounts for the intense valences created from the earliest infancy between the individual human organism and the human community into which it is born. The vulnerability of being human generates a dependence on other human beings; and its inversion in exploitative oppression, particularly demonic. Human community is set in stone from the start. Survival for the infant is a gift received from others who provide what it cannot provide for itself. The content ― the “what”― of the social transaction is human existence, life. Human community is bathed in the warmth of family love, but the stock-in-trade is not just a warm feeling, it is life itself, survival ― being-here.

The individual’s experience of emptiness immediately elicits human community; and human community immediately brings a demand for equity to reign in the transactions by which all humans survive; for the vulnerability is universal. This is the origin and the significance of morality: morality is the identification of the attitudes and behavior necessary for peace, harmony and equity in human society united in the common pursuit of an elusive survival. Its corruption is our principal enemy. It has nothing to do with “obedience” to a god-person. Such a deflection was a fiction: a poetic way of bringing a sacred intensity to bear on social interaction. Morality is a natural corollary of emptiness; it is the social dimension of being-here for human beings.

Faith includes the recognition of the organic connection between universal emptiness and human compassion, mutual assistance and the protections of larger society ― justice ― which is our only defense against existential vulnerability. Faith is primordially expressed in the ac­know­ledgement and embrace of emptiness and a reaching out to others for understanding, help and stability.

Ancient primitive religion imagined that the vulnerability that remained after society had done all it could to protect itself and its members, was in the hands of some supra-human agency that wielded a controlling power over the events in the world of humans.   In most cases this power was imagined to be held by one or more invisible divine “persons” who were related to humankind rather like older siblings. The inquiry into universal religion identifies the energy driving this primitive imagery to be the same existential dependency that humankind faces today but, informed by science, no longer projects onto personal deities. Today, even religious people of all traditions have adjusted to the fact that there are no “divine persons” who control the factors by which humankind survives. The erstwhile claims of “Christian Science” have been muted if not totally silenced. Recourse to medical intervention for illness and the pursuit of political remedies for social problems are universal among all religious people. And those who are informed know quite well that it was the evolution of living matter that produced the intricate interconnections that keep our vast cosmos in balance.

This highlights the foundational role of faith. As used here, faith is the experience of metaphysical emptiness. It is not the experience of an invisible divine presence or entity. Faith is the interior perception of one’s own existential vulnerability coupled with the recognition that other human beings have the same experience, generating the same feelings that produce the same questions and preoccupations, needs, fears and hopes. Morality is born of that empathic insight. It gives rise to compassion and is at the root of the universally recognized moral obligation: “treat others as you want them to treat you.”

Internal moral insistence, called synderesis, is the basic sense of right and wrong. It impacts everyone connaturally. It is not unconscious, but at the same time it is not the conclusion of an explicit reasoning process. It is not suppressible. It is a corollary of existential dependency and as such it is universal.  Its primary mandate is justice and its empirical awaken­ing is in the spontaneous, irrepressible reaction to injustice.  Moral responsibility and existential dependency are corollaries. You can’t have one without the other.  Moral responsibility implies the shared experience of existential dependency as much as it is implied by it.

The origin of this correlation between existential dependency and the moral sense arises in the same ground as religion ― faith ― the spontaneous and connatural recognition that we are all existentially dependent. It is the universality of emptiness that generates compassion and the immediate awareness that I must treat others as I want to be treated. Those who dismiss this primordial insight always do so by denying their essential emptiness and live in a fantasy of their indestructibility.   We tend to associate it with the insufferable immaturity characteristic of adolescence, but a deeper look reveals that there are ideological fantasies that can provide the same assurances for the deluded at any stage of life. Some religions play that role either alone or in conjunction with an ethnic tribalism lost in the illusions of its own superiority.

Trust

Faith, we said, was a trusting existential dependency. Now why include trust in this foundational phenomenon of humankind’s presence in the world? Because in the first instance the recognition of existential dependency involves no fear whatsoever. No infant is born afraid or suspicious. The very idea is absurd. The newborn awakening to consciousness implicitly trusts what it is and where it has awakened. It has no worries at all. The human organism spontaneously trusts being-here and being human. The child doesn’t have to learn to trust; it is born with it. It is the very nature of the material energy of the components of the human body. Living matter is at home in the universe. It must learn to mistrust. Faith holds both its emptiness and its boundless trusting optimism in one undivided embrace. It is no more surprised or distressed by its emptiness than its hunger pangs, as it expects both will be answered and satisfied. It is natural and spontaneous. Trust is embedded in the very matter that our organisms are made of.

Trust should not be confused with an oblivious ignorance or reckless disregard of vulnerability. Without an awareness of vulnerability there is no trust. Trust is precisely the sense that vulnerability belongs here which implies that it trusts that its counterpart of support also is here.

Trust is not confined to infancy or childhood. Trust is the air we breathe always. We have not appreciated the extent to which our lives are dominated by it. It is so common, so necessary and so taken for granted that we have to make an effort to recall and remind ourselves how universal it is.

Consider: we trust the infallible process of fetal formation in the womb from zygote to birth; we trust the perfectly proportioned development of our organisms from infancy to adulthood; we trust all the internal functions of the body having to do with the processing of nourishment, waste, respiration, circulation of the blood, sleep. We never question them until they malfunction, and even then our medical interventions are generally dedicated to the elimination of obstacles to the body healing itself which we trust most of all.

Of course, we also trust the network of cosmic forces that sustains our solar system and we trust that our planet will be able to continue to supply the oxygen, weather, warmth and water we need to sustain ourselves. We trust the human community we live in. We trust our families and friends. And we trust strangers: co-workers, teachers, doctors, technicians, security personnel, public officials . . . the list is endless. All these fine-tuned interconnections, environmental and social, were created by eons of patient evolution.

After all this, to say we trust being-here seems like the most unoriginal and commonplace of statements. But of course we do. We are made of trust. It is a corollary of being empty. For, being empty as we are, if we did not trust, we would disintegrate.