“It is what it is” (II)

There is nothing more there than what is there; but what is there is more than it appears

3,900 words

The previous post titled, “It is what it is,” ended with these sentences:

“Things are ‘just what they are.’ In one sense they never change because ‘they are only what’s there, …’ But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the forces that go into our makeup, the relationship of gratitude that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not of some washed-up ancient war-god with an unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends ‘dependent arising.’ This is where metaphysics begins.”

The fundamental argument of these essays is that human relationship has a transforming power over the material universe because by changing the human valence it significantly changes the environment in which material processes work themselves out. That is certainly meant to include everything on earth right up to human evolution, and, given the significance of the human presence within the totality of matter’s energy, ultimately, even if only eventually, the whole cosmic process.

Relationship means bearing. It is basically a noetic phenomenon because it draws its primary significance from human thought and has its greatest impact through attitude, feelings and intentionality which are all the by-products of thought. How I think of myself in connection with any other thing is the ground of how I act and react with regard to it.

Thought as a psychological phenomenon is a key notion in the Buddha’s program. It is the fulcrum around which turn the “four truths” that are often used as a short summary of his teaching. The four truths are:

First: the fact of universal suffering among human beings attests to the dissatisfaction we experience even when our demands are met. Humans are endemically unsatisfied.

Second: this dissatisfaction is born of the uncontrolled cravings that emanate from the unconscious thought stream of the human organism: thought evokes desire, uncontrolled desire creates dissatisfaction.

Third: craving can be controlled and eventually terminated by controlling thought. When cravings are terminated suffering will cease.

Fourth: the consistent practice of basic moral behavior, what Buddha called the “eightfold path” or dharma, made possible by thought-control, will bring justice and harmony to the human community and inner peace and happiness to each individual.

The central factor in both the arising of suffering and its cessation is thought, a general word that refers to the stream of images that run through our minds and the feelings of desire or aversion that are associated with them. The opening words of the Dhammapada, which is said to be the one of the earliest collections of the Buddha’s preaching and a concise distillation of his vision and program, make this point emphatically:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.[1]

It is from this central focus on thought that the Buddha’s emphasis on meditation — and from there the practice of mindfulness which is the continuation of the meditative posture throughout the day — becomes clear.

The control of thought is the practical tool for changing behavior. When we speak of thought in this sense we realize we are speaking of an unconscious process not unlike the instinctive behavior of animals who are obeying algorithms “selected” by evolution and hard-wired into the DNA that controls the neurological and hormonal systems of their organisms. The fact that this thought process is mental has deceived us in the West into believing that in the case of human beings it was a “spiritual” pro­cess and not material. But the Buddha recognized the reflex nature of human behavior, and the paradoxical unconsciousness that characterizes human mental processes. He saw that as the key to transforma­tion: make the unconscious mental processes conscious and you can change them. Since you are what you do and you do what you think, by changing what you think, eventually you can transform yourself. If you want to become a just, generous and compassionate human being start thinking just, generous and compassionate thoughts. If you want to stop being judgmental, self-centered and disdainful of others, stop judging, catch yourself when selfish and disparaging thoughts enter your head even when you are just daydreaming. That’s what Buddha meant by meditation: become conscious of what you are thinking, and think the thoughts you want and they will lead you to the behavior you want.

Now this is extraordinary despite its simplicity. It means that at some point along the line the hard-wired biochemical algorithms that over eons of geologic time were developed to predispose the biological organism to behavior that worked for survival became malleable to human will and intention. Humans, somehow, had developed the capacity to transcend the evolutionary programming of their own organism and change it in accord with their vision of what they want to be. But how can this be? How can a biological organism bypass and even reverse its own programming — which is the very source and basis of its material survival in a material world.

It is even more extraordinary because the Buddha identified the process as completely natural.   There was no recourse to gods or superhuman powers emanating from another world. He insisted that there was no “self” outside the organism — i.e., a “soul” separate from the body that functioned outside of the chain of the organism’s material causes.

By one’s self alone the evil is done, by one’s self one suffers; by one’s self evil is left undone, by one’s self one is purified. The pure and the impure stand and fall by themselves, no one can purify another.[2]

It was the very same human organism that disappears at death that enters the chain of causes before or beyond behavior and modifies it as behavior. The physical habituation created by repeated patterns of behavior following the urgings of embedded algorithms was not eliminated but rather incrementally modified — nudged — over a long period of time and effort, with the effect that a new physical habituation was slowly introduced in place of the old, but at no point was physical habituation erased or superseded­. The will and intention to transform itself, in other words, functioned within the limits that determine the operation of biological algorithms; their finalities were not obliterated nor ignored, but modified from within — transformed.

What’s so pivotal about this insight is that it offers a compelling explanation of the “mind-body” problem that is a scientifically compatible alternative to the traditional, discredited but intractable western assumption that the human mind is an example of the presence of a different kind of entity in the universe: spirit. Buddhist practice is consistent with the position that, in the case of humankind, the very biological organism made only of matter, without any change in its make-up whatsoever, is capable of a level of activity that other configurations of the same material components are not. Humans are capable of intentionally modifying the algorithms that determine organismic behavior.

Please notice the paradox here: even after modification, algorithms still determine behavior; nothing there has changed, it is still a completely biochemical, material phenomenon. But the bearing, the direction, the inclination, the proclivity of the algorithm has been significantly re-aligned, sometimes by as much as 1800. It is possible to turn the human organism in the completely opposite direction with regard to an object of desire or aversion. Hatred can become love, revulsion can become attraction.

So it appears that in the case of humankind, matter exhibits a transcendence that belies the limitations said to characterize it.

Before we go further on this path I want to make clear what I mean by transcendence. Transcendence for me never means that something — an entity or force — goes beyond matter, because I believe that there is nothing but material energy in our cosmos. I will always use transcendence to mean either a material event that goes beyond expectations (but never goes beyond materiality) or to refer to an unknown factor responsible for known phenomena — a factor which is also presumed to be material but cannot currently be identified by our instruments of observation and inferential tools. Transcendence refers to material events and to our know­ledge of them.

Matter transcends itself in two senses. Evolution is the first. Evolution is responsible for matter’s continual incremental re-configurations of its own internal relationship of elements under the impulse of the need to survive that eventually produce emergent species of being. By emer­gence evolutionary biologists mean the appearance in the material world of entities capable of levels of behavior that the earlier organisms from which they evolved were not.[3] Life, for example, is emergent in the evolutionary process. Organisms that apparently were not alive evolved into organisms that exhibited the behavior characteristic of life. Human conscious intelligence is another example. Animals that appeared incapable of what we call conscious intelligence eventually evolved into organisms that were capable of thought. This ability to produce new organisms that transcend their ancestors in significant ways is why I say that matter is transcendent in itself. Matter has the capacity to transcend itself through incremental modifications. It’s why I call my picture of the world transcendent materialism.

Please notice in passing, the incremental material modifications characteristic of evolutionary change resemble the features of the Buddhist method of modifying feelings and transforming behavior by controlling thought.

The second use of the word transcendence has to do with human understanding, what we have systematized into the disciplines we call science. Our sciences assume that all phenomena are the effects of causes. When there are phenomena whose cause science cannot identify we say that they are transcendent. But, I want to emphasize that the word does not refer to anything that is immaterial. It’s another example that justifies the term transcendent materialism. There is nothing that transcends matter. All the human activities known as “mental,” which includes the very ability to recognize one’s own self, are dependent on the integrity of the material structures of the human organism, like the brain, or they disappear or are significantly distorted. Transcendence in this second sense simply means that matter does things that go beyond what our sciences thought it could do.

The immediate corollary is that these components — comprised of the same material energy released at the time of the big bang — have all along had the potential for such behavior, a potential that was apparently activated by the specific re-configuration achieved in the evolutionary emergence of the organism. This demands that we re-think how we understand matter. It suggests that what we have called matter and defined in a way that was diametrically opposed to “spirit” was an erroneous imposition created by our prejudice. We thought matter was an inert, lifeless, unconscious, inanimate “stuff” that could be acted upon but could not act. We thought matter needed “spirit” if was to live and be conscious … that there had to be two kinds of reality: matter and spirit. But we were wrong.

We now realize that there is only one kind of “stuff” in our universe: something that in the past we alternately called matter or spirit and that now appears to be neither, but some “other” thing entirely that is capable of manifesting both kinds of behavior depending on the degree of the internal integration and complexification of its components. When I use the word “matter,” this stuff is what I mean. These components when integrated at the levels studied by physics and chemistry display none of the characteristics that come to dominate matter’s behavior in its more evolved forms — animal life and then later, human consciousness. Evolution in every case has elaborated organisms whose configurations are beyond the capacity of physics and chemistry to explain using their limited observational and analytical tools, requiring the establishment of entirely new disciplines based on their own premises and axioms — biology, psychology, sociology — to understand them.

Immanence

It would seem there is little more to be said at this point since we know so little. But at least we have clarified that the answer lies within matter itself beneath the surface of the phenomena perceptible at primitive levels of evolution. At other, more developed levels, matter’s transcendent behavior is altogether without explanation if matter’s primitive form — studied by physics and chemistry — is all we assume is there. There has to be something more to matter or life and thought remain utterly incomprehensible. What is that “something” and how do we speak of it in a way that does not contradict our belief that there is no dualism? We know there are not two realities but only one, and it is the one that we experience with our eyes, ears, nose, hands and minds — material reality.

Clearly we cannot say what it is, or even that it is a “what.” Perhaps it is a mere modulation of the frequency of a wave, or an imperceptible dimension, or a relationship as we have suggested earlier in this essay none of which are “things.”

But to know that we not only observe and can measure material phenomena for which we have no explanation whatsoever, and that these indisputably material phenomena for all their mystery and impenetrability are some of the most familiar, universal and successfully utilized capacities of the untrained human organism, like human thought and moral transformation, is to deepen and intensify the sense of transcendence. It makes it clear beyond question that transcendence is an entirely immanent quality of our cosmos’ material energy of which we are made. This transcendence, in other words, whatever it will ultimately turn out to be, does not belong to another world or plane of existence; it is interiorly part and parcel of the very components that make up our human organisms. It resides deep within matter and is constitutive of what matter is. We, and apparently all things made of matter, are the ground of that transcendence. There is no duality here, no “other thing” or other place, for we are talking only about matter in this cosmos. The source of our ability to stand above and beyond our own material algorithms and re-configure them so they transform who we think we are, is part of the very material fabric of our being. In one sense it is not mysterious at all for we live and use it every day … but we have no idea what it is.

We are nothing more than what we are, but what we are is more than we thought.

Religion

It is this more that corresponds to what the various world religions have identified as a divine principle, the source of our sense of the sacred.  I call it LIFE.  And while the Buddha never appealed to this divine principle either theoretically or in practice for the implementation of his program of self-transformation, he never denied its existence and he utilized the mind’s power to transcend organismic programming as the primary tool for achieving individual liberation and social harmony.  The point I am making is that despite the fact that I reject any claim that this divine principle is a rational “God” entity, a person, not made of matter, who is responsible for the existence of the forms and features of all other entities in the universe and for all the events that occur during the passage of time, the indisputable transcendence manifest in our world supports but does not obligate the fundamental religious conclusion that there is a divine principle resident in the universe. Those who choose to relate to this transcen­dence in a way that validates our sense of the sacred cannot be dismissed as irrational. By the same token, the absence of any clear knowledge of what exactly creates this transcendence, also validates those who, without dismissing it or its primordial influence on the human condition, choose to attribute it to unknown causes. Their parallel claim that the spontaneous sense of the sacred that has given rise to the world’s religions can be understood as the affective side of the conatus sese conservandum, an unavoidable echo of matter’s existential energy, is no less legitimate. “Atheism,” like religion, is reasonable but it is not obligatory.

In either case, however, the Buddha’s discoveries are compelling. Whether or not you choose to utilize his methods for transformation, you are enjoined to embrace basic morality — the eightfold path, the dharma — as indispensable to the survival of human society and to transform yourself accordingly. Social immorality — greed, hatred, exploitation, injustice, sexual violence, murder, larceny, prejudice, disrespect for persons or groups — is not an option no matter how it is presented in the movies. Whether or not individuals choose to integrate these insights with what they have inherited from their ancient religious traditions, all are faced with finding ways to live with gratitude and loving-kindness, suppressing greed, rejecting hatred, eliminating injustice, forgiving and having compassion on others, respecting and defending one’s own rights, repudiating the claims to superiority that lie at the base of all inter-tribal rivalry and conflict, protecting species other than human, defending the earth’s life-support systems by which we all live.

Basic morality is the key to social harmony. And social harmony is indispensable for human survival. Basic morality, therefore, is not optional. All religions may be thought of as different ways of motivating basic morality. But the Buddha showed that motivations other than the desire for individual peace of mind and the survival of society were not indispensable. Clear insight into what creates harmony and disharmony among people is all that is required. Anything else meant destruction. The Buddha appealed to common sense.

Metaphysics

Social harmony and therefore basic morality are obligatory because we cannot survive without them. Other human pursuits, like the desire to understand, are not, despite the innate thirst that drives them. The search for understanding, admittedly an almost insuppressible desire of the human mind arising from the leadings of conscious intelligence, cannot be considered obligatory for we can survive without it. But the universal experience of understanding through causes is operational for every human being from a very early age and those who try to prevent it, or control it, or deny it, are doomed to frustration. The ability to understand cannot be exterminated; it is the ground of personal freedom. As much as any other feature of our organism, it defines who we are as human beings. The hunger to understand is an intrinsic drive of human nature.

The very fact that there is an undeniable transcendent feature of the human condition — the power of moral transformation — for which we have no explanation leaves the human mind uneasy. Human beings are not comfortable in the face of mystery. And the discomfort created by being confronted with an effect for which we cannot assign a cause can reach such a level of intensity that it is not unusual to hear it described as painful. It is significant that once the cause is known and understood, the pain and tension quickly dissipates.

There is no way to suppress the desire to understand the source of the transcendence that we encounter in human life. Because of our abstract and convoluted history, however, many will not engage in this pursuit. Those who join the effort are all “scientists,” for that is the meaning of the term: those who explain effects by identifying their causes.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would agree that much of what we have inherited as religion in the West was the ancient habit of imagining other-worldly causes for known effects. Thus ancient religion has been correctly criticized as an ersatz “science” that flourished in the vacuum created by the absence of true science. Ancient religion imagined invisible causes which supposedly belonged to another, imaginary, world.

The scientific continuation of that religious search took the form of metaphysics, a branch of inquiry developed by the Greeks. What made metaphysics different from physics was precisely the visibility. Physics looked for the visible causes of visible effects, even if those causes were only visible to highly sophisticated instruments of observation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, assuming the existence of “spirit,” looked for the invisible causes of visible effects, causes that were invisible precisely because they were believed to belong to another world … a world where invisible ideas that were considered immaterial — spirit — were the only reality and extended their causal power to the visible world of matter.

Metaphysics as constituted in that historical context is no longer valid because there is no other world of invisible causal immaterial ideas that explains this material world of visible effects. But the process of understanding observable effects by identifying their sufficient and necessary causes remains. The difficulty arises that such causes are not necessarily discoverable by physics, not because they are not material, but because they are not visible either to the naked eye or to any currently extant tool of human observation or measurement. We simply do not know what portion of the spectrum of matter’s energy is occupied by the causes of human evolutionary transcendence, transformation and our inability to explain either.

But we know there is something there, because we can see its effects and they are clearly transcendent. So, do we need metaphysics? Drop the name if you insist, but the search will go on.

 

[1] Dhammapada, ch 1, # 1, Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 60-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., ch XII, # 165, (Kindle Locations 279-280).
[3] Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. [Accessed January 11, 2018]. “emergence,” in evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. …
The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle.
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“It is what it is.”

“It is what it is … it is only what it is.  There is nothing more there than what is there.”

Before going any further I want to acknowledge the simple clarity and absolute ultimacy of those words. I totally agree with them. They are the sole basis and authority for the following discussion on how we relate to our material universe. These reflections limit themselves to the phenomenological dimension: they eschew metaphysics altogether.

 

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It’s because they are clear and ultimate that those words offer a challenge to our understanding of the material universe and the way we humans, who are its genetic offspring, relate to it. We are all and only matter. For over nine years in these essays, I have tried to be as clear and as ultimate about my understanding of reality and what that understanding means for religion. This particular articulation I’ve quoted advances my project significantly, and I am supremely grateful for its assistance. Why should I be so grateful?

Because most of the metaphysical ways of saying what I meant have run the risk of re-introduc­ing a fatal duality back into reality, a duality that I have struggled mightily to eradicate. Metaphysics is not our idiom, and we tend to take its abstractions and imagine them as “things.” I tried to address my apprehensions in two essays posted in August of 2016 titled “A Slippery Slope.”

That traditional duality is expressed in many ways: the “sacred and the profane,” “natural and supernatural,” mind and body, matter and spirit, “God” and creation. All are reducible to the notion that what we call “God” is an entity — a real separate independent stand-alone being, existing alongside of and opposed to other real individual “things” like the things in our material universe, including us. None of those dichotomies are real because the statement about a separate “God-entity” is not real. The differences and separations that they all assume — between “God” or a divine sphere and other things — do not exist. They are conceptual contraries that at one time, perhaps, were believed to be real ontological opposites, but are now recognized as chimeras. Trying to explain this in metaphysical terms is difficult to grasp.

Hence, I use the word “eradicate” intentionally because it evokes the image of “tearing up by the roots.” Using less surgically terminal language often will be taken to mean “the duality is officially deleted but we surreptitiously use it when no one is watching,” i.e., something we claim does not exist but we have recourse to in practice. The practice, of course is religion. Our western religions of the book have habituated us to a hopelessly anthropomorphic imagery about “God” and we tend to interpret any recognition of a divine principle to mean what our imagery has always evoked: a separate divine person. To insist that we are pursuing a meaningful synthesis of our understanding of reality and then refuse to integrate basic practice with the theoretical ground we claim to have established, is to fail at the very doorstep. For how true can our vision be if we can’t live with it? These reflections avoid that approach.

The way we have understood the presence of the Sacred in our lives is the source of the problem; it has created the difficulty we have in describing that presence in a way that sustains a consistency between vision and practice. It is difficult because, due to the conditioning of our religious heritage we do not seem to be able to conceptualize presence without evoking entity, and a rational humanoid entity besides.

Words betray us. They come to us already forged. In this case, the use of the word “presence” has already skewed the discussion. For the word implies that what we are talking about is a “thing.” So how do I both evoke the sense of a “presence that is really there” that goes beyond wishful thinking or the evocation of poetic symbols but that does not simultaneously imply the existence of a “thing,” an “entity,” a “substance” or a “person”?

 

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I am going to suggest the use of a word that I have used many times before that I believe speaks to the heart of matter — I believe it explains what I am talking about, and it is able to do that because, in fact, it is itself the real basis for the explanation. That word is “relationship.”

Now this word, like all our words has a charged history. The scholastics used it but gave it an ontological meaning. We still have a tendency to imagine relationship as a chemical valence, or an interaction of force fields between entities, suggesting an entity in its own right, invisible perhaps, but there, nonetheless … i.e., present.  So when we insist that a relationship is real we tend to slip into thinking of it as some thing that stands beside and alongside of other things, an example of the duality we are trying to eradicate. It is not. It is a bearing, an intentionality of the one thing toward another. (As a corollary it deserves mention that, in fact, relationship tends to reduce duality to unity because it generates a concurrence in the two things that are relating to one another that mimics a common identity.)

The mediaeval scholastic application of the category of relation to the persons of the Trinity was both the result of that ontologizing tendency and the cause of a Christian belief that took what were three different ways that human beings relate to the Source of their sense of the Sacred and imagined them to be metaphysical structures — real persons — that are internally constitutive of Deity itself. The absurdity here has been suppressed for so long that a rational discussion is virtually impossible today, not even in the closed door meetings where theologians talk to themselves. But I believe that relationship, correctly understood, is the best way to describe the entire realm of reality consigned to religion: the sphere of the Sacred. Let’s unpack all of this.

First, let’s consider how relationship is real. We’ll begin with an innocuous example: the relationship between me and my cat. I used to have a cat that I fed and took to the vet when she was sick. She was friendly to the point of appearing affectionate. I acknowledge it may only have been an evolutionary adaptation. Whatever my cat’s true feelings were, it worked with me. I “loved” my cat. She was not just a cat. She was my cat.

I may have seen a cat out on the street and couldn’t care less, but once I realized it was my cat my entire reaction changed. Before recognition and acknowledgement the animal was only what she was. After recognition she physically remained exactly what she was the second before but now she is transformed. Has anything changed? No! But then, Yes! because now she is the object of my loving-kindness. And these changes are real. Her entire significance in the human world where significance is significant has changed and following hard on that, so has her destiny in this vale of tears. The precarious life and possible violent death of a stray alley-cat is no longer her anticipated trajectory. And yet nothing has changed. She is what she is … she is only what she is and what’s there is the only thing that’s there.

But of course, what’s changed is my bearing as a member of the planet’s ruling species transforming the environment where she will eke out her survival. But even here, nothing’s changed except my attitude, or better, my acknowledgement of a relationship. That cat was my cat.

This kind of paradigm shift is even more pronounced in the case of human beings. The ability to observe and react to human beings differentially inside and outside of personal relationships actually characterizes much of human behavior and the complex history of clans and nations that has evolved from it. Our being … and our consequent destiny … is determined exclusively by relationship. The astonishing change in attitude that occurs when we accept people as known persons with whom we have a relationship is a prime example of the severely limited scope of the maxim that opened these reflections. “We are only what we are” until we are in a relationship. Then everything (metaphorically speaking) changes (it’s metaphorical precisely because, in fact, nothing changes). For the personal relationship transforms the individual not only in the eyes of the relator but in the individual’s own eyes as well. Relationships reduce discreteness and separation even as they preserve distinction and diversity. Such transformations can, and actually do change the course of human history. They do not affect the “thing,” but they do affect the process in which the thing works out its destiny.

Now this is really a no-brainer, but we don’t turn our attention to the fact that relational factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with “what is really and only there,” profoundly transform reality in the human sphere. And what, after all, are we talking about when we talk about religion, but the significance of the effects of relationship in the human sphere. Religion is not science. Religion is the activation of a bearing — a specific direction in the human process, an intentionality. Religion is what happens when we assume a certain relationship toward the material universe. The material universe includes us humans, who are a slightly more evolved version of biological organisms that share exactly the same matter as everything else there is.

 

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Well, what exactly is that relationship that is supposedly so transformative? It’s a relationship wherein human beings acknowledge that we are the product of a massive elaborative process going on within the super-abun­dant matter of which we are constructed and from whose more primitive forms we evolved. The very genetic modulations in form and function resulting from evolution already represent something of a challenge to the declaration that things are “only what they are.” For in the case of our own organism at one level we are “only” quarks and leptons, the sub-atomic quanta packets that are the building blocks of everything there is. And yet at another level here am I. At the level of my fully evolved organism I am something entirely and significantly different from the very elements of which I am constituted. The biological evolution occurring over eons and eons of deep geological time could not have taken place if the multiple sustained and consistent interactions evident in the availability of the material components and favorable environmental conditions were not there. No human being like myself, looking at this scenario rationally, could be anything but supremely grateful that the multiplicity of factors that comprised the conditions that allowed my humanity, which I enjoy so intensely, to exist— embodied in a material organism that is so much my own that it has given rise to my very self — were so stable, and that my ancestors had the ability to adapt to whatever instabilities continued to exist within that environment.

Gratitude. Now we are getting into the thick of it. I am grateful that I am here. Doesn’t gratitude imply that there is someone to whom I am grateful? And if there is someone to thank, aren’t we speaking about something other than what is “just there”? How can things be “just what they are” if as a matter of fact their presence is being provided (or has been provided) by someone or something else … which by implication must also be there if indeed it is the real provider of what is there?

Clearly this is what the author of the opening maxim was getting at: he was insisting there is no “God.” Please be advised, so do I. There is only the material universe doing what it has done on its own for the 14 billion years that we can verify its existence. Therefore a sentiment like gratitude that seems to imply something else, must be, in principle, an illusion.

Now this creates a problem, because the sense of gratitude is not only spontaneous and very intense, it is also sustained even after having been informed by modern science about the way evolution functions. As a matter of fact the sense of gratitude is as sustained, continuous and insuppressible as the sustained positive magnanimity that human beings perceive gives rise to it. Gratitude and magnanimity appear to be correlated, for we human beings, by being in an uninterrupted sense the product of a process like biological evolution, which we did not initiate and about which we have little knowledge and over which we have virtually no control, we have a profound sense of have been given, or provided … or to speak more impersonally: thrown, spawned, emanated, evolved … so the very interior feeling of “being only what I am” becomes difficult to maintain. I am constantly confronted with the evidence that I am not what I have chosen or made myself to be but rather I am the product of a multitude of contributing factors that are not me: the reproductive cells of my ancestors and theirs, the quality and availability of food in my now socially controlled environment, the accessibility of health care, police protection, infrastructure adequate to the prevailing climatic conditions, etc. These are the proximate causes of my existence. Even without referring to more remote cosmic conditions that made my existence possible I see that “what I am” depends in large measure on other things — on what I am not.

I really have no choice: like it or not, I have to be grateful, because the very thing that I cherish the most, my life, my self, is dependent upon a host of “other things.” Of course, in terms of strict logic, you may say you have no obligation to be grateful, because there is no one person or self-iden­ti­fied collectivity of persons who are responsible for all these things which make it possible to be here. My existence is not the result of any observable benevolence. But since when does obligation characterize gratitude, any more than the acts that gave it rise? The feeling of gratitude, I contend, does not come from the identification of a donor, it comes from the acknowledgement of dependency — the awareness of being a recipient. I love my life, hugely, and I am supremely grateful to whatever it is — no matter how many disparate and unconnected factors there are — that make my life possible. Gratitude is first and foremost the recognition of having received myself from elsewhere … of not having made myself. It is a spontaneous reaction that arises and is sustained in total ignorance of the source of such largesse.

If we are going to analyze this accurately I believe we have to keep this sequence of discovery in mind and acknowledge what is primary and what is secondary. Nothing “objective” except other conditioned material factors have been mentioned as the source of my precarious existence. What we know is what we are, and what we are is the end product of a multiplicity of agents, the majority of which we are ignorant of and, in fact, we may never know. This indisputable reality that conditions what we are, i.e., that we are radically dependent, is the starting point; it absolutely determines our self-embrace. To accept ourselves for what we really are is to accept ourselves as received from elsewhere, and so totally NOT in control of our own existence that we don’t even know all the things on which we are actually dependent to continue being here and being what we are.

Clearly, in this view, what we are is an item in a vast network of things and processes that transcend our organism in whatever direction we look.   So from this angle it seems that anyone who would claim that “what is there is the only thing that’s there” must recognize that the “what” is really an immense totality in motion in which I am borne along like a drop of water in a great river, about which we are all generally aware but which is unknown in all its depth and detail both in things and the forces operative in the process. Without knowing all of what goes into our being here as ourselves, we are not in a position to make any definitive statement about etiology: source and causation. We are utterly agnostic about everything except the one known and clear fact: that we are totally dependent on a vast collectivity that is not us for our being-here and being what we are. And the practical and unavoidable psychological counterpart of this perception is gratitude.

 

4

Now I am going to claim that this self-perception entails a correlative self-embrace that is a crucial step in the establishment of humankind’s moral posture. In other words, the recognition and acceptance of dependency — and its associated gratitude — is constitutive of the moral embrace of the human being functioning within a community of human beings who are necessarily affected as a community by this mutual common acknowledgement. The acceptance of dependency (which includes social inter-dependency) brings a particular moral bearing to the business of living together in community that is achieved by no other means. The community of people who are all personally aware of this fact about themselves and all the members of their community are predisposed to making collective decisions that are compassionate and cooperative: advantageous to each and all.

I believe that this is the primary and foundational level of human social/personal life. This is “ground zero,” the absolutely unavoidable constituent bedrock of human social cooperation. It is essential to human survival because the human individual cannot live outside of human community physically or psychologically. Everything else is secondary to this ground. The perception of dependency and the feeling of gratitude for life are critical to human well-being.

Religion is secondary. There is nothing primary or foundational about religion. Religion has no “facts” of its own. Religion is a tool that the human community has developed to assist in the establishment and the continued protection of the instinct to gratitude with all its sources, viz., the perception of dependency.  In this effort to preserve this personal bearing that society needs so desperately in order to maintain its cooperative character, in ancient times an entire sphere of causes was invented out of the poetic imagination of our earliest ancestors in order to fill the gap in our ignorance. Today we call it myth. This is religion.

The perception of dependency and the concomitant feeling of gratitude is indisputable fact. It is the only religious fact. The rest is projection. The sources and causes of the dependency and the sources and causes of the sustained magnanimity of available resources are fundamentally unknown even to this day. To eliminate this hiatus in our knowledge, which was much more pronounced before the discoveries of modern science, religion was invented and the unknown sources and causes of the desired attitudes imagined. This occurred wherever human community was found, accounting for the plethora of religious forms across the globe. In each case the result was the same: the unknown source and sustainer of existence was imagined and projected as real, generally in the form of a sphere of creative power, both benevolent and malevolent, that were entities humanoid in character — “gods.”

 

5

The gratitude founded on the awareness of dependency that I am now evoking as constitutive of human society and therefore religion, is fundamentally the same as what I have called in other contexts, a sense of the sacred. I spoke of the sense of the sacred as the spontaneous reaction of the individual human being, driven by the innate conatus to survive, aware of his own precarious possession of existence, and the consequent thirst and hunger for a secure source.   They are the same phenomenon seen in the first case from a social perspective, and an individual in the second. In each the phenomenon I am talking about is a human psychological bearing, an attitude, an intentionality that derives from the human perception of its own vulnerability … i.e., that human beings do not possess a stand-alone locked-down control over their having been born, or being this person or that, or how long their existence as human organisms will last or where it is going … but nevertheless love cherish and will do anything to preserve their life.

It is what the Buddhists call the awareness of “dependent arising” which is often conceptualized in later Buddhism as “emptiness.” Everything is “empty” because everything is characterized by the absence of independent existence. Please notice: there is no mention of, much less identification of a metaphysical source of existence, or an objective remedy for emptiness. The entire exercise has been on the subjective side. The analysis attempts to plumb the human source of the religious phenomenon and finds it in the common experience of humankind of its depen­dency which generates religion as its universal response. Essential to that response is gratitude.

Putting all this together with the transformative power of relationship that we explored in sections 2 and 3, we can see what religion has come to mean for the human species. The relationship to life that is characterized by gratitude sustains and justifies a cooperative spirit in the human community. A sense of gratitude deriving from an awareness of dependency transforms the perception of the material environment from being neutral or even hostile to patently familiar, magnanimous and profligate, if not benevolent.

I want to emphasize: the transformative factor in this view of things is not the identification of some “God” person, despite the fact that people will tend to imagine a sustained magnanimity as the gift of a benevolent source, and benevolence evokes personality, as does gratitude. In the view I am espousing, however, all things remain exactly and only what they are and always have been: the evolved versions of material energy released at the big bang. There is nothing else there. The only change is the relationship generated by the community of human individuals who — prodded by an insuppressible innate material instinct for self-preservation — love and cherish the human life they possess and everything that has gone into creating and sustaining it. The individual comes to realize that he or she isn’t just “what he is, or what she is.” They realize they are the point of coalescence of all their multiple causes and therefore bear within themselves each of those causes. They recognize themselves as the spawn and representative of a totality in process about which they know almost nothing.

Ultimately, then, it can be said that gratitude is reducible to the love of life, and the love of life to the embedded conatus. It must be acknowledged that we are to that extent utterly determined. We cannot help ourselves. “We cannot keep from singing,” as the old Baptist hymn proclaims, not because we have positively encountered some divine benevolent donor who has blessed us with the gift of human life, but simply because we cannot do otherwise. We love material life because WE ARE MATERIAL LIFE and we are programmed to love what we are. We can’t help it. If we try to suppress it we make ourselves sick. We are grateful because we have exactly what we are programmed to want; our only problem is we do not have it permanently. (The vain attempt to create this absent permanence by accumulating things and aggrandizing the “self” at the expense of others is the source of all self-inflicted human suffering, conflict, injustice and disharmony among us. Correlatively, the acceptance of impermanence accompanied by an unconditioned gratitude gives rise to an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness toward the entire cosmos of dependent entities which gave us birth and to which we belong.)

These minimalist conclusions may not satisfy those who have become dependent on their fantasies about “God” persons and other “spiritual” entities imagined to live in a parallel world invisible to us, but it helps make clear what exactly we are dealing with. These are the phenomena we are confronted with. As far as facts are concerned, it is all we know. It exhaustively describes our present condition; it is indisputable. How all this began and is able to sustain itself and what it will all become, is a matter of legitimate metaphysical conjecture, and in the context of our universally acknowledged ignorance, no reasonable possibility can be validly dismissed beforehand as untenable. Those who have decided to opt for the traditional western humanoid “God” person(s) have no greater claim to factuality than any other theory about the origins and destiny of our reality. It is all the work of the imagination — every bit of it.

But in addition I want to emphasize: it is all secondary. The primary event is the acceptance of the full depth of dependency that characterizes organic life and the whole hearted embrace of the spontaneous gratitude and loving-kindness that wells up in the human heart toward the multiple factors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, proximate and remote that have concurred so marvelously in producing and sustaining my existence. I embrace in an act of loving-kindness all the cosmic forces that produce my existence. This is the ultimate religious act. It transforms the cosmos itself from being “just what it is” to being my cosmos — the beloved ancestor that spawned me. This is not metaphor. It is raw fact. And the love I have for myself is transmitted to my cosmos, my environment, my community, making it cherished, the object of loving-kindness, compassion and concern. There may not have been any affect of love toward me functioning in any of the various “causes” of my existence, including my parents whose copulation may have been devoid of any focus outside of themselves and their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter. I don’t love them because they loved me but because they gave me existence. It is my existence that I love. The relationship is created unilaterally by my gratitude as recipient — by my love of my LIFE — and it transforms the universe by bathing it in the light and heat of loving-kindness. It turns the universe into my universe, and the earth into my earth, and gathers all the human beings around me into that embrace. All people become my people because I love LIFE.

Imagine, then, a community of people each individually grateful for his or her LIFE and mindful of the many sources of mutual conditioning among us by which each one affects each other. We each embrace all, in our gratitude and compassion, and we are each embraced by all in theirs. For we know what we are made of. We are well aware of our radical dependency. We are dust and fast disappearing. This I contend is the religious event. The one thing necessary. The act of cosmic gratitude is constitutive of the authentic human individual and the cooperative human community. Without it full humanity remains only a potential of the individual organism which continues being “just what it is” until energized by the transforming power of the community’s gratitude, evoking loving-kindness.

So it’s true. Things are “just what they are.” In one sense they never change because “they are only what’s there, and they are there the way they just happened to get there.” But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the cosmic forces that went into our makeup, the relationship of loving-kindness that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially. If you doubt that you have that power, try cosmic gratitude for just one day. You’ll see.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not some washed-up ancient war-god with a dubious and unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends “dependent arising.” This is where metaphysics begins.

 

 

Psalms 25, 26, 27, 28

These commentaries will be simultaneously added to the “Page” titled “Commentary on the Psalms” found in the list of “Pages” in the sidebar to the right under the books. Not all psalm commentaries are published as a NEW POST before being added to the text on the “Page.” Please note that all the psalms to 28 are currently included.

PSALM 25

Background. A lament. In Hebrew, alphabetical.   V. 22 is an addition beyond the alphabet and changes the subject of the plea from an individual to the nation. Wisdom content, “teaching the right path,” is evident in more than one place.

Reflection. The psalmist, conscious of his failures, recommits himself to serve LIFE, and the sign of his commitment is his plea to Yahweh to teach him the right path. This “wisdom” instruction is similar to what is found in the Book of Proverbs.   The prerequisite disposition, of course is humility: the willingness to be instructed in wisdom which includes obedience; for us that wisdom is LIFE’s creative moral energy mirrored in humankind’s commitment to justice, generosity, love and compassion.   It is the identification with LIFE, manifest in remorse for past failures and willingness to surrender to LIFE’s creative project, that is the guarantee of security. “Waiting for Yahweh” means trusting that LIFE’s project is the true guarantee of security. And that trust is put on open display in a robust justice, generosity and compassion. The “enemies” are one’s own selfish disregard for LIFE. The “enemies” are hostile to this whole effort, so the mindfulness necessary to quiet their clamor and redirect their energies becomes integral to the process. It’s our quiet mindfulness in the present moment that is the vehicle for the “instruction” coming from LIFE.

 

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

I am committed to serving LIFE’s project. I am not here to do my own will, for I am I not the source of LIFE. All too often I listened to my “enemies,” those inner voices that counsel me to take care of myself, to project, enhance and aggrandize myself … that LIFE cannot be trusted to fulfill the demands of the conatus. Now I know better. I don’t ever want to doubt LIFE again.

4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.

12 Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.

I need to learn from LIFE how I should live. I am all too conscious of my failure to trust LIFE.  LIFE’s project does not aggrandize the false self, and I often chose selfishly to serve my self and not wait for LIFE. But LIFE teaches me that selfishness doesn’t work. The joyless isolation that results from abandoning LIFE’s project, like a gifted teacher, opens my eyes to the right path. Pain makes one docile. In a state of present mindfulness LIFE’s quiet instructions can be heard.

13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.

14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.

Once I began to embrace LIFE and its ways, the second and irrefutable lesson occurred: the joy of human community. I finally understood what I was meant to be, and how I should live. I knew where I belonged. I knew I was bound to LIFE. LIFE was my true self.

15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

17 Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.

18 Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.

20 O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.

21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.

22 Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.

I have to trust LIFE but I am afraid. My betrayals haunt me. I know I am capable of abandoning LIFE; I have done it before and I can do it again. These voices refuse to acknow­ledge LIFE to be my true self: they know it means the demise of the false self and they are violent in the effort to keep it alive. But I know there is no “self” other than LIFE. I have no recourse but to trust LIFE, the very LIFE I have embraced and which I am — my real self. LIFE is my power — exactly that power that overcomes the self. LIFE, my LIFE, I trust you.

The well-being of the whole community depends on it.

 

PSALM 26

Background. Another individual lament by someone unjustly accused.

Reflection. The same metaphors apply here as in previous laments. The psalmist is ready to distance himself from all those who oppose LIFE. This can be threatening, especially if those people control one’s livelihood.

1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.

2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.

3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

I am committed to LIFE.

4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites;

5 I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.

6 I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O LORD,

I refuse to be complicit in the undermining of LIFE. I will not cooperate in negating LIFE under the pretext of “earning a living.” LIFE takes precedence over everything, even my position in society or my level of remuneration.

That earning means owning is one of the great fictions that drives human activity. Work is for survival, it owns nothing. Earning pretends to create the “self” and to own LIFE. It’s a fantasy we refuse to let go of.

7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.

8 O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.

LIFE, I am the house where you dwell. I have to begin by loving myself as the mirror and agent of LIFE. With Whitman “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself … For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Matter’s evolving LIFE is the same for all of us. Our whole human family is the house where LIFE dwells.

9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the bloodthirsty,

10 those in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.

11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me.

12 My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.

Violence, lies, treachery, disdain, exclusion, in the service of some individual’s or tribe’s self-advancement — this is what destroys the human family. I take my stand with the universal family of LIFE, humankind, not with myself or my tribe. There is no self. There are no tribes. And there are no tribal gods. There are no identities besides LIFE. The whole human family, all of LIFE’s “selves,” is where LIFE resides.

 

PSALM 27

Background. Another individual lament.

Reflection. The psalmist, aware of his own selfish inclinations, seeks the face of LIFE itself as if it were outside of himself, a source of integrity and commitment that transcends his own failures. But in his search he discovers that LIFE has his face; he is astonished and ultimately joyful as he learns to sit in the quiet presence of LIFE, which has not abandoned him despite his betrayals.

1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh — my adversaries and foes — they shall stumble and fall.

3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

LIFE is my protection and my defense. My enemies seek to undermine LIFE. They are terrifying because they come from within.   They arise from myself and others who think we have to sustain ourselves by our own acquisitions and ascendency over others. But I am not afraid. LIFE working in my own mindfulness will ultimately overcome my grasping self … and those of others … no matter how fiercely these “enemies” assail us.

4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

I not only have LIFE, I am LIFE. Being myself in this body, I am where I belong, I have all I need. I sit in the quiet presence of this astonishing reality. I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to get. LIFE is my own. My LIFE, I love you!

5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

This presence of LIFE in me, as me, is the source of my protection and security. As LIFE takes over my self more and more, I have less and less to fear from the false self that I let grow like a cancer all those years. My quiet astonishment turns into joy. How can I keep from singing?

8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.

9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

I seek the face of LIFE itself as if it were other than mine, I can’t help it. It’s dumbfounding to think that I myself am LIFE, I have done so little to make it a reality in my attitudes and behavior. I get angry at myself for this and I want to abandon the project as quixotic. But that’s the old, false, self-idolizing self talking, cleverly putting even the struggle for transformation at the service of the ego. But even when I have turned my back on LIFE or treach­erously used LIFE to enhance myself, it has never abandoned me.  LIFE is stronger than my betrayals, my worst enemies. Even if my parents abandoned me, I still have LIFE.

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

I sit like a beggar at the feet of LIFE. I am LIFE but I can betray it in order to give life to an imaginary self that doesn’t exist. Imaginary or not, that false self is fiercely tenacious and is quite capable of a suicidal attempt at becoming a god. But I trust LIFE. There are no gods. It was all a figment of the imagination, especially the fiction that by working hard and being clever I could make myself a god and live as my “self” forever. It was just another lie in the service of the ego. I trust LIFE. As my self recedes LIFE comes forward. Whatever LIFE has in store for me is what I want. I will not cave in to that feeling of isolation. Only an individual “self” could be isolated. But there is no such “self.” … I AM LIFE.

 

PSALM 28

Background. An individual lament, probably prayed by a priest in the temple for someone sick or being sued. The “anointed” in v. 8 is not a king, but refers to the all people of Israel and therefore to the supplicant.

Reflection. The community dimension is highlighted in this psalm. Try as you might, you cannot avoid being like the people you travel with. If your whole society somehow has come to the collective conclusion that deception, competition and destruction of the “losers” by those on the path to “the top” is the meaning of life and the measure of your humanity, you are in deep trouble indeed. Your only hope is to somehow get away from them. The psalmist knows that such separation — physically or psychologically — is a sine qua non condition for commitment to LIFE, and he doesn’t flinch. He knows that LIFE itself is in the balance. To continue on that false path is to court disaster — the pit of destruction — for yourself and the community, and he wants no part of it.

1 To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.

2 Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.

3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.

4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.

5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more.

To live without generosity and compassion, to be a “worker of evil,” to be charming but to harbor disdain, plan violence and be ready to abandon the “losers,” is to court disaster. And a sure sign of disaster is that the cycles of reflection, remorse and renewal no longer occur. Mindfulness has ceased and the ego rolls on mercilessly and painlessly … oblivious to the pain of others.

6 Blessed be the LORD, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.

7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.

8 The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.

9 O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.

We are the community of the agents and mirrors of LIFE. We were born for this, our organisms are designed for this. We are LIFE in human form. It’s not what everyone says we should want but rather what LIFE wants. We are LIFE’s anointed. It’s time we allowed it to guide our desires and our aspirations.

Surrender

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roman Empire

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

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

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

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

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

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

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

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

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

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

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

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

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

Humility in a material universe

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

 

Benedict’s Humility

3,300 words

One of the major distorting factors in the formation of Western Christianity was the unnatural focus on celibacy due to the Platonic denigration of matter and elevation of “spirit” to a separate metaphysical substance. Sometimes celebrated with allegorical erotic imagery from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” celibacy was often taken literally as a “marriage” with God. Those and associated distortions were borne forward by the monastic movement that became the principal residence of those ideals. But it would be shortsighted in the extreme to identify monasticism solely with its principal flaw and overlook the millennia of struggle it contributed in the pursuit of an earthly human happiness.

It might seem strange to characterize the monastic quest as “this worldly” when, here in the West at least, it comes attached to a Christian religion whose fixation on Plato’s other world built an extraordinary civilization powered by an inverted dynamism of fear and alienation. The fact is that monasticism antedated Christianity by many centuries and ascetics who were not yet caught in the trap of Plato’s imaginary world had already established the terms of the search, and those terms were happiness in the only world there was. Western monasticism inherited that movement, and offers an ultimate happiness whose achieve­ment, reversing the priorities of Christianity, is explicitly conditioned on abandoning any desire for possessions of any kind, and that includes after death.

Benedict of Nursia

The Benedictine Order has long been acknowledged as the beginning and epicenter of western monasticism. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, lived from 487 to 547. His order became a widespread, multi-community phenomenon and his ancient Rule was used in one form or another by later religious orders. The Rule was written by Benedict himself, and will be the subject of our inquiry.

Even though celibacy was an unconditional requirement of Benedict’s Rule, it seems its significance came more from Plato’s spiritualism than as a by-product of interpersonal relationship with “God.” Not only is nuptial imagery not found anywhere in the Rule, but the “love of God” or “love of Christ” are sparsely mentioned and then mainly as motivational formalities. There is no direct and explicit focus on a personal relationship with God or Christ as the driving force in the monastic pursuit as conceived by Benedict’s Rule.

But a thorough reading reveals much more. The Rule tells us about the way The Christian message was understood and transmitted in the west in Late Antiquity, and how monasticism conceived its role in that context.

For example, the Rule as written is not centered on Catholic sacramental ritual and the necessary role of the priest.  The word “eucharist” never appears in the Rule, and where “mass” occurs it is always a schedule reference, as in “such and such will be done after mass.” Sacramental “grace” seems not to even have been a theological category and “confession” was understood generically and not as a sacramental event made available by priestly absolution. The Rule seems to consider the entry of priests into the monastery as something of a problem; the Rule makes it quite explicit that they should not presume to perform any sacerdotal functions outside of the direct orders of the abbot. Clearly the monastery wasn’t just a parish for the spiritual elite.

The Benedictine rule has guided the Christian monastic search for wisdom and human fulfillment for 1500 years. It is a short, simple document, produced in the middle of the sixth century. Scholars agree that it is a milder redaction of one written some decades earlier anonymously known as The Rule of the Master. Benedict’s Rule reads more like a friendly letter designed to outline the general intent of the monastery than a systematic document laying out a detailed program and daily schedule.

Clues to the unsophisticated nature of its recommendations are found throughout. Chapter 7, which will be our principal focus in this essay, is a prime example. The Chapter is exclusively devoted to humility. It lists in total 12 “degrees” of humility, no one of which could ever be considered a greater degree than any other. The reader gets the impression that by making a cumulative list, Benedict was trying to emphasize what Elliott would say 1500 years later: “humility is endless.” The unique focus of the chapter and its central location in the rule suggest that humility might be considered the leitmotiv of the Rule.

Humility

But the importance of humility was not a personal insight of Benedict’s. John Cassian, who brought the experience of the Eastern desert hermits to the West, listed “10 rungs on the ladder of humility” in his Institutes written around 420. The Rule of the Master which was composed later by someone who clearly was influenced by Cassian’s text, expanded the list to the 12 “degrees” later repeated by Benedict.

In chapter 5 of Benedict’s 73 chapter Rule, he gives away the game and says that the first degree of humility is “obedience.” He says nothing more about it at that point. But by chapter 7 it sounds like he has decided to work from a different paradigm because there, without acknowledging that he had already declared himself on the issue, he says: the first degree of humility is the “fear of God.”

This is a key oversight and a clue to Benedict’s whole vision. By fear he’s not kidding. He’s talking about being terrified of “the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God.” As becomes clear by the end of the chapter, this first degree really means “first step;” it is one of the two brackets that frame the entire discussion. The Chapter opens by declaring that the monk is expected to begin out of fear of punishment and hope for reward. But after he has mastered the whole 12 degrees of humility, it is hoped he will be a changed man. The last paragraph of chapter 7 reads:

Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.

This clarifies the matter. The phrase “fear of God” was not a generic placeholder, an hyperbole for taking your moral responsibilities seriously. In Benedict’s view you come to his program because you’re scared. You can’t live a Christian life and you know what that will mean for you in the end. But he has no problem with that. In fact it seems quite natural, and the alert reader even gets the impression that this fear and the monastic program work in tandem.

But a young man in the sixth century, afraid for his “soul,” who read the Rule before he entered, would realize that the monastery’s goal is precisely to cast out the very fear that brought him there. He would know up front that the monk is someone in the process of having his motivation transformed from selfish to selfless, from fearful to fearless, from self-protective and acquisitive to abundantly generous, from a resistant and grudging compliance to a zest and pleasure in aligning oneself with LIFE itself. Benedict’s word for this transformation is “humility.” That one word, in Benedict’s Rule, I believe, contains the very essence of his view of human happiness as understood by a sixth century Christian in the Latin West.

Fear

It’s difficult for us not to question the source of that initial fear. Why should the Christian message ever have inspired fear? Obviously in the sixth century there was real fear of “God’s” punishment and the eternal damnation that would cap it off. And I believe it would also be fair to say that if “fear” could be identified by Benedict as the universal and necessary source of the monastic vocation, fear must have been the prevailing motivation proposed by the official Church — in its preaching, sacramental rituals and personal counselling — for all Christians.

I want to point out that most people throughout history and probably even today, would see nothing extraordinary in this. It is exactly what they think religion is all about: people doing what they are supposed to do (as commanded by “God”) and by that means establishing the rule of justice — peace and harmony among men. Failing to obey entails punishment. Religion, and in this case, Christianity, is envisioned primarily as a behavioral program, subordinate to the good of society and therefore something of an ancillary political ideology. In this case perfect obedience — universal moral compliance by all members of the community at all times — would usher in the millennium. It would correspond to the definition of the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often. God will reign over the earth when humankind obeys his commands.

Some, like myself, would challenge this interpretation. As I read it, Jesus’ message was not some kind of re-promulga­tion of the “law,” but rather the definitive announcement of the love of a “Father” whose irreversible benevolence translates into a forgiveness without limit. The keynote is mercy born of compassion. Our Father’s love for us then becomes the model and motivation for our behavior. It is no longer a matter of law, if it ever was. We are to imitate “God” not obey him. It was a message that was intended to cast out fear. If Jesus used the term “kingdom of God” he meant the community of people who had heard the message of God’s endless forbearance and lived compassionate joyous lives in the knowledge of their unbreakable bonds of fearless intimacy with the source of LIFE.

Was Benedict one of them? Is the Rule’s explicit declaration that the very purpose of “humility” was to cast out fear, an indication that Benedict recognized a seminal defect in the secular Church’s message? In other words, did he see monasticism as an evangelical corrective, healing the distorted souls of men who had been deformed by the Imperial Church’s flawed transmission of the gospel and thereby bringing it back to its proper bearing?

Wasn’t there another possibility? Wouldn’t an obedience habituated by years of repeated practice, reinforced by a rule, an abbot and a community of fellow participants, give confidence and peace of mind to the fearful monk, a confidence that would also appear to cast out fear? I believe this amounts to asking: in Benedict’s view, does fear remain an aspect of motivation throughout the monk’s life, or does it actually get cast out?

The Rule says (7:11)

The monk is always to turn over in his mind how all who despise God will fall into hell for their sins, as well as the everlasting life prepared for those who fear God.

So fear remains — in the background, for sure — but it’s always there. It seems that Benedict and the “secular” Church were on the same page, after all. Claims that monasticism was a reaction on the part of persecution-hardened Christians to the sudden wealth, ease and luxury that accompanied Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, did not correspond to the inversion of gospel values that turned Christianity into a quid pro quo moral enterprise. That inversion had to have preceded Constantine’s conversion and, in my opinion, in fact made the latter possible. With the class division of Christian society into elites and commoners, the investiture of the clergy with magical powers, the transformation of the sacraments into quasi-hydraulic suppliers of “grace,” and the fear of eternal damnation for failing to obey the law, Greco-Roman Christianity represented a significant reversal of the egalitarian structures, symbolic rituals and free forgiveness of the Christian communities founded in the apostolic age.

So it’s no surprise that the monastic reaction would also have occurred earlier. Antony and the first of the Eastern desert Fathers began their ascetic experiments in 270, an entire generation before the Diocletian persecution of 303 which was terminated by Constantine’s victory in 312. From Antony’s own writings and his authoritative biography by Athanasius of Alexandria it is more than clear that the essential structures of Greco-Roman Christianity had already displaced the formations evident in Paul’s epistles. Gone was what Luther would identify as Paul’s emphasis on “free forgiveness,” in favor of a quid pro quo system in which moral behavior — obedience to God’s law — was rewarded or punished according to your level of compliance. Gone also was any enthusiastic anticipation of an imminent return of Christ. Eschatological urgency had been transferred to the personal Judgment facing each individual “soul” at the time of death and was the new source of the “fear” that western religions offer as their “stock-in-trade,” proven effective in the running of the far flung and culturally diverse Roman Empire.

obedience

It’s important to elucidate the link between these issues. The “fear” and “hope for reward” that is generated is exclusively connected to compliance with law. “Obedience” is the subjective disposition that activates compliance. So the fear that serves as the motivation for entering the monastery is the antithesis of obedience: fear arises precisely from disobedience. Therefore it should come as no surprise to learn that humility, clearly identified by the founders of western monasticism as the apex of Christian perfection, should be primarily the work and result of obedience.

But the issue is more complex.

The means to humility, in Benedict’s strategy, was obedience. Not only the initial announcement in chapter 5, but then in chapter 7 the second degree of humility reverts to “doing the will of him who sent me.” The third follows hard on the second and counsels the monk to “submit to the Superior in all obedience.”

The fourth degree of humility is that the monk “hold fast to patience with a silent mind when in this obedience he meets with difficulties and contradictions and even, possibly, injustice, enduring all without growing weary and running away.” The unapologetic concatenation of humility with obedience in step after step as the driving force in spiritual development in Benedict’s mind is not disputable.

It’s hard to miss the point. These first four degrees of humility are simply different ways of restating that the most important tool for personal development, a tool the monastery is intent on utilizing, is obedience. This is more important than it may seem at first. For I contend that after Benedict’s establishment of humility as transformative of human motivation, his coupling of humility with obedience makes it unmistakably clear that not only is obedience a means and not an end in itself, but that the “kingdom of ‘God,’” for those who might have been erroneously deceived by the de facto preaching and pastoral program of the Church into thinking that it was essentially compliance with law, is to be identified as precisely this personal moral/affective transformation, and nothing else. The “kingdom of God” is the community of the humble: those who have gotten beyond frightened obedience.

This is a complex and somewhat convoluted point; but I hope I can make it clear: Regardless of the distortions of the gospel message that propelled compliant obedience into prominence in the Christian life of Late Antiquity, the monastic ideal as re-presented by Benedict is personal transformation — human healing and the creative energy it releases — not social harmony, distributive justice, or any other community goal, however noble, achieved by a dead, fearful, forced or self-interested compliance. The fact that the pastoral program of the “secular” Church served to provide a solid first step on the road to perfection would have fit perfectly into Benedict’s generally accepted scheme of things. But however valid that first step of fear was, Benedict was also very clear that it had to be transcended. It was not the fullness of Christian life; and it was the monastery’s job to start from there and carry it to fulfillment.

I believe Benedict’s Rule is indirectly stating that the purpose of the monastery is not to make men obedient … or to get a particular pattern of social behavior habituated, rooted in place and running smoothly. Obedience, in other words, was not an end in itself, necessary for social harmony. While the common good was clearly an indirect beneficiary, peace in the community was not the very purpose for demanding obedience. If it were, the motivation that the monk brought to the performance of this compliance would be irrelevant. The end would be the compliance itself, nothing else; the “12 degrees” and endless pursuit of humility would be superfluous. There would be no talk of “casting out fear,” for fear would continue be the most effective driver of compliance.

Benedict’s rule was not a program of social compliance. The Kingdom of God had to be established not in behavior but in the rectification of the emotions, the alignment of the human individual with the joy of LIFE and compassionate service toward the universal suffering LIFE entails. Moral behavior, thirst for justice, peacemaking, mutual aid, would necessarily follow; hence obedience was also a bell-whether: it was an indicator of who was humble. Only those who had gotten past having their own way were capable of obeying with a full heart and there would be no way to hide it. Where there was that kind of obedience, there had to be humility.

From the very first it is made abundantly clear that the most important tool for the achievement of humility is obedience. This immediately gives obedience a much higher purpose than the good order and efficient running of the monastery. By making obedience the servant of humility and not of good order, Benedict made obedience subordinate to personal growth and spiritual expansion, and not the suppressive submersion of the individual in a well-oiled machine. Did his successors all share that priority?

Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”

There is much to reflect on as we look at this important development in our religious history. It illustrates with great clarity the issues we have been confronting in our pursuit of a new understanding of the “nature” of God as revealed by modern science. It doesn’t take long to realize that the sixth century Roman Catholicism that began to push people into monasteries was not very different from the Tridentine Catholicism that many of us were formed in prior to the Second Vatican Council. I would also wager that in many places not much has changed.

The “fear” that drove Christians into monastic life could only have been provided by a personal, punishing “God.” That means that somewhere along the line those who were in charge of the Christian communities had to decide that the loving, forgiving “Father” they had received from the parables of Jesus had to be re-imagined and re-issued as a wrathful punitive authority whose primary concern was compliance with commandments, not compassion for the self-lacerating grasping generated by the harshness of life. The tradition that Benedict inherited understood Jesus’ message, and utilized its distorted application to reverse the intent of that application and its effects. By making obedience ancillary to humility, it placed the broken human heart and the abject poverty of humankind in a position of revelatory prominence. It was humility that told us what “God” was really like: a “God” that “divinized” the humble, not the compliant. What was that all about?

In the next post I will turn to another monk, Johannes Eckhart, a fourteenth century Dominican whose radical re-conceptualization of “God” — in terms I believe consistent with modern science — was elaborated together with an equally radical re-conceptualization of the significance of obedience. Eckhart’s vision will help us move toward an ascetical practice that is consistent with the best insights of our ancient tradition while functioning totally within the sphere of the transcendent materialism that explains the reality of our universe and our place in it.