Ignorance and Bliss

a theology of unKnowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Immanence and the “divinity” of Jesus

1,300 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Face of “God” is Your Face

You are not only constructed of “God-stuff” ― the living material energy that created the universe and determined the direction of its evolutionary process ― but with only the potential and resources supplied by that energy you actively appropriate and pursue matter’s principal objective, being-here.

Matter’s intrinsic and exclusive relationship to being-here recapitulates the traditional definition of “God” as esse in se subsistens, self-subsistent being. Being-here is esse in process. You yourself are the closest thing to “God” that you will ever see, and the generation of any other image will only falsify the significance of your existence, and leave you very far from understanding “God.”

You are-here, not as an independent “self” with a unique and personal destiny, as your misguided individualist culture has been telling you, but as a conatus of universal matter; you are a concrescence ― a knot ― of the universe’s material energy in pursuit of being-here. The fact that you are autonomous, self-aware, purposeful, has been misinterpreted to mean independent. Those features don’t come from another world, they are rather functions of the same universal matter, and were evolved as tools in the pursuit of matter’s one goal: being-here in time. The human species and you in it are a tiny part of an immense material totality whose energy and constitutive structures account for everything you are, everything you have and everything you can do, without remainder. There is nothing else there but the universal matter of your body driven to be-here endlessly. You are necessarily and inescapably an expression of the totality’s goal, even when you attempt to distort or destroy it.

Of all the worldviews generated to explain your reality, it’s hard to find one that evokes its moral and mystical implications so directly. It says, quite simply, you are made of your source; you are made of what made you; you and “God,” in other words, are one and the same thing. It is the image that most closely corresponds to Paul’s evocation of “God” in Acts 17, as that “in which you live and move and have your being.” How is this way of picturing “God” different from the older obsolete ones: Ahura Mazda, Aten, Zeus, Thor, Yahweh?

 

First of all, there is nothing “infinite” here. “God” is not all powerful even though it may turn out that there is no limit on what can emerge from its creative evolutionary process.  This “God” is not eternal, even though its explorations in the pursuit of being-here in time may prove to be endless. You are faced with learning to love a very simple, powerless creator that recycles its own substance into a myriad of forms because of its obsessive, compulsive hunger for being-here in time. You are one of those forms. “God” can’t help it, just as you can’t help it. You know exactly what that’s like. Being-here is what you want and what you do all the time. You only reach full maturity when you become capable of reproducing another human organism pre-programmed, like you, for only one thing: being-here.

You have to accept “God” for what “God” really is, and does … and forgive “God” for what “God” is not, and cannot do. And since you are part of this “God,” you also have to accept and forgive yourself for what you are, and for what you are programmed to do, not what you have been taught to think you are and force yourself to do. Just like “God,” you are-here for the sole purpose of being-here. Nothing else.

A moment’s reflection will reveal how liberating that is.  A career or a relationship or an accumulation will not change that destiny.  Don’t let them put you on a treadmill. You already are everything you could ever hope to be.  You already have more than you could ever hope to acquire.

As a corollary to this immanent “God,” there are no miracles.  If this “God” were omnipotent, rational, personal and providential, as your benighted culture tells you, there would be miracles.  But there are none. Living matter evolves marvels, but does not perform miracles. “God” is what “God” is, not what you want “God” to be.  You have to grow up and let go of your infantile fantasies of an omnipotent, omniscient parent that made you feel loved, secure and carefree.  Life for all material organisms in this universe is hard and precarious.  Secure and carefree evaporate with childhood.  Growing up means learning that hard and precarious are the conditions for being-here. “God” is universal matter in existential struggle; that’s how new forms are created, and that’s how you live out your life from the cradle to the grave.  It’s what makes you flesh and bone with “God.”

 

Therefore, be like the “God” whose face you bear and join the struggle for our collective survival.  You are the expression of a totality.  It is the totality that survives, not you alone.  Everyone is scared.  It’s the human condition.  Join the totality and make everyone as loved, secure and carefree as you can.  Be like a father and mother, brother and sister, to others … to all others.

You are the face of “God,” so listen to yourself and act like “God.” You know how happy it makes you to have something ― someone ― to serve; it allows you to forget yourself.  Listen to what your body ― your material energy ― is telling you.  That’s what “God” is like.

You are-here because you have a body, you are matter’s energy.  That amazing feat has already been accomplished.  You do not have to do that again, and the idea that some puny project of yours ― a career, a relationship, an achievement, a possession, a purchase ― is anything like the achievement of being-here as you are with that body, a part of universal matter, is the classic delusion, the tragic flaw that enervates the human condition.  Your selfish cravings for ego-enhancement are an effort to substitute a fabricated isolated “self” in place of the real self that is-here securely as a part of the totality.  Matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed; being-here is guaranteed for every part of the totality.  You are part of the whole.  Stop trying to tell yourself you’re not.  Stop trying to create yourself, save yourself, deify yourself.  Listen to your body made of universal matter.

Listen to your body.  Forget yourself.  You know how happy that makes you.  Put others first.  You know how happy it makes them.  What more do you need to know?

Care for the earth? Care for others? These are not the revealed commands of a far off “God,” they are the spontaneous inclinations of your body of flesh, to love and protect your earth-home and the family of living organisms where you emerged.  Listen to your body, earth’s body.  Once you know who you are, where you came from, where you belong and what you will be forever, the entire spectrum of creative human behavior rises clearly into view and beckons.  These are not conclusions of syllogisms wrenched reluctantly from abstract premises by rigid logic, as our culture has falsely taught you, they are the natural movements of your human body towards those most intimately related to you.  What was missing was knowing who you are, and where you belong.  You are the offspring of universal matter.  This earth teeming with living things is your mother and your family.

Your culture was wrong.  It made a guess, but it was wrong.  It told you you were a solitary spirit, unique, isolated, self-directed, self-involved, and fundamentally and unalterably selfish.  It said you were hard-wired for “gain” in another world, your real home, as reward for making believe you were selflessly serving others in this one where you don’t belong.  Look how that contradiction glares.  Don’t let yourself be sold a bill of goods.  Once you taste what it’s like to belong, to serve others, you will never want to go back to living for yourself, not even in “heaven.” Listen to your body.  Stifle yourself!  You are made to serve others for they are you, flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone; that’s what makes your body happy and your heart awaken.  Listen to your body.  What you hear is the whispered voice of universal matter in which you live and move and have your being.

 

Third, you say you want to love “God”? Then love yourself with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and all the strength you can muster.  You are yourself, mind and body, composed of the living creator of all things.  When you see your face it is primordial reality that you are looking at, 14 billion years old and counting; and even before it extruded you, it was already focused obsessively on what it wants.  It’s not yours to decide, as if it were something dead and drifting that needed you to infuse it with life and direction.  It’s goals were already settled, its destiny already determined; you sit quietly at its feet to hear what they are, and once you hear you don’t have to be told twice what to do.  You know what to do; for YOU ARE THAT!

Matter’s living energy had evolved into countless forms before you came along, so of course you revere it as you would a transcendent parent.  But regardless of your awareness of its transcendence and primordiality . . . regardless of how clearly you perceive that it was-here before you, is greater than you in time and form, and will continue on creating new forms long after your time and planet home have disappeared, you can never forget that YOU ARE THAT!  When you look at your face, there is only one thing there: YOU, constructed of the very “stuff” that made you ― “God.” You can never, never allow yourself to imagine that “God” is something else ― something other than you ― “out there.” Nuptial imagery was a misplaced metaphor.  If you want to embrace “God,” embrace yourself.  You want to see “God,” look at yourself.  You don’t like what you see?  Transform yourself.  Be the “God” you are.

You and your creator, the two are one thing. Please don’t complain that you do not have the “categories” to grasp, explain and articulate this. It doesn’t excuse you that your myopic culture in its know-it-all arrogance never even made an effort to develop a word to describe what was staring it in the face. For, with or without a traditional category you are looking at an objective fact: you and your creator are one and the same thing.  You can never succumb to the primitive imagery you inherited from an archaic, self-idolizing, tribal fairy-tale about a big policeman in the sky, ready to punish you if you’re bad and love you if you’re good  . . .  who displays his will for humankind by creating empires: making one tribe rich and powerful with permission to enslave others.  GET OVER IT!  These are fairy tales, myths from the past before history.  Yahweh, the Warrior or the Bridegroom, is no more accurate an image of “God” than Thor the Thunderer or the mighty Aphrodite.  These were the “categories” your brilliant culture came up with, and it’s time to put them in the museums where they belong.  They do not correspond to reality.

You don’t have the words? Find new ones. You don’t have the categories? You are saddled with ancient rituals and symbols that reproduce false and misleading narratives? Dump them. Change them. Sublimate them. Ask yourself: is it really “God” you’re after as you claim, or are you really only trying to create yourself out of nothing by erecting your tribe, or something else like it, into a “god”? Have you so lost touch with yourself that you no longer believe your body is-here? Do you need to fabricate a false self to put yourself here? Is it your tribe and its narratives, or some other “achievement” that gives you reality? Please be advised: this is all idolatry.

“God” put you here.

There is only one “God.” And when you look in the mirror that’s who should be looking back at you. It’s time to acknowledge the one whose face you bear, in whom you live and move and have your being.

Psalms 138 to 142

PSALM 138

Background. A Thanksgiving psalm from the days when Yahweh was believed to be one of many gods, the greatest, to be sure, but not the only one. Yahweh’s supremacy entails a universalism: all the kings of the earth shall praise him. In verse 6 the subject abruptly changes to the first person singular. Is it the king? Humility characterizes the psalmist’s attitude before Yahweh whose virtues are precisely that he regards the lowly and defenseless. But the poet makes acknowledgement of an official mandate or mission of some kind, a “purpose” imposed by Yahweh which the supplicant seeks support to fulfill.

Reflection. LIFE has only one purpose, more LIFE. It would seem difficult NOT to fulfill one’s purpose in LIFE since we are biologically programmed to reproduce and care for our offspring. But our emptiness of self means that we are simultaneously the effect of a myriad of causes. We are each a microcosm of the totality of matter’s living energy. Our conatus and its ancillary drives is also an expression of the totality’s self-embrace as an inter-dependent network of mutuality and sharing. We recognize how all things strive to stay alive. LIFE is exalted above everything. To be-here is to die for. We are conscious of bearing the burden of LIFE to expand LIFE, protect it, nurture it. We are part of a whole and cannot live for ourselves.

1 I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;

2 I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.

3 On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.

4 All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth.

5 They shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD.

This overwhelming privilege ― to be an emergent expression of LIFE’S living energy ― imposes a heavy responsibility: each of us has to learn how to live for the whole, and not for ourselves alone. Living for others is not something we can sustain spontaneously. We need to train ourselves, discipline ourselves, habituate ourselves to the service of others. LIFE depends on our transformation into being the mirrors and agents of its generosity, and if we call on LIFE to fulfill its purpose in us, it is ourselves we are calling on ― for we are LIFE.

6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.

8 The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.

 

PSALM 139

Background. Murphy says “the ‘I-Thou’ character of this psalm makes it one of the most personal and beautiful expressions in the OT.” (JBC, OT, p.600) The psalmist is enraptured with the intimate presence of Yahweh. With an interpersonal mysticism that is rarely found expressed in ancient times, this poem seems either to have anticipated future developments or actually been a later wisdom product, like the Song of Solomon, that was captured for inclusion in the Temple’s liturgical collection. The abrupt change in the last five verses to protestations of “hatred” for Yahweh’s enemies suggests the former. This is not the spirituality of the Upanishads which had already adumbrated the desirability of non-violence; it is classic Yahwism ― still a warrior religion.

Reflection. LIFE is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves. This echoes Augustine’s perceptive insight: Tu autem eras interior intimo meo … (Conf., 3.6.11). This is so because there really is no duality, no separation, no difference, no distinction, between what we are and LIFE. We are LIFE ― matter’s living existential energy ― in one of its emerged forms. We are not different from it even though we are not all of it. LIFE transcends any of us … and all of us … for it is the inexhaustible source that enlivens all things and will continue to enliven things as they emerge into perceptible existence throughout the immeasurable future of our material cosmos. This strange paradox ― that LIFE is more than us even though we are all and only LIFE ― accounts for our persistent instinctive urge to call out to it, to communicate with it, to ask it for help as if it were something other than us. And for that same reason, when we awake from our distracted mindlessness and come face to face with our reality as an evolved emergent form of LIFE, it feels as if we are suddenly in the presence of someone else. That surprise is simply an indication of how alienated we had become from ourselves.

Once it becomes clear that the presence of LIFE is more intimate than even the closeness of a lover or parent, the corollary images explode like fireworks in the poet’s mind: LIFE is with me everywhere that I am or could ever be … in whatever condition or state of mind. Even in hell … yes, even in hell.  The psalmist’s consciousness of the creative biological activity that “knit” and “wove” her body in preparation for birth, anticipates the clarifications of modern science to a remarkable degree. The poetry provides its own rich and evocative metaphors. It can be embraced as it is. It needs no commentary.

1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.

5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

Even when I have been living distractedly; even when I have been acting selfishly, mindlessly, LIFE is there activating my organism with undeterred generosity and tireless energy.  Even when I forget who I am, even in the dregs of dissolution and despair LIFE sustains me.  There is no escape. LIFE’s way is always open to me.  There is no space or time for guilt; even when I have abandoned and betrayed the way of transformation, LIFE is fully present and I am alive with it.  I waste no time in seeking forgiveness; the only one I have hurt is myself.  Get back on your horse!

9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

I ride on LIFE’S energy to be-here. I am constructed of living matter ― LIFE ― it is who and what I am. I live so that LIFE may abound.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18 I try to count them — they are more than the sand; I come to the end — I am still with you.

The following verses is where the poet reveals his primitive Yahwism. He still worships a warrior god. He has yet to realize that LIFE has no enemies and hates no one. Those that contend against LIFE are themselves, like all of us, emerged forms of LIFE. We cannot separate ourselves from them, nor does LIFE need to be protected from them. LIFE can take care of itself.

And since we are LIFE, we don’t really need to protect ourselves either. We may do so to establish the boundaries of justice and to educate our assailant, but not out of need. What we should hate is that inclination in us always ready “to speak maliciously of LIFE, and lift ourselves up against it for evil.”

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me

20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil!

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?   And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

PSALM 140

Background. An individual lament. The psalmist in traditional Yahwist style thinks of “God” as a powerful knight errant ready to defend the weak and those under his protection. The poet wants his enemies punished with exactly those torments they had devised for him. Thus the justice of vengeance is not transcended, merely updated and assigned to Yahweh.

Reflection. LIFE has no enemies and cannot be called up to punish those who operate out of synch with its patterns. Vengeance is obsolete. Punishment occurs, however, but it is the result of a cause that has been introduced into the chain of natural events that will produce a negative effect. No one is carrying out this sentence, it is a simple case of cause and effect. One could call it a mechanism except for the fact that we are capable of choosing otherwise. Once chosen, however, the effect is inevitable. The Buddhists call it karma. It is a simple corollary to understanding human morality to be not the “will” of a “God,” but the nature of the human organism-in-community.

In using this psalm, therefore, it is preferable to transpose the entire scenario as imagined to the level of metaphor. The only real “enemy” is my selfish illusory attempt to aggrandize myself and deny the existence of my place in the totality … in this family, in this clan, in this village, in this human species, on this earth, in this universe … and fail to activate the justice and generosity my membership in all these concentric circles entails. I recognize that it is self-aggrandize­ment, either of the individual or of some group, that “stir up wars continually,” and in that pursuit “make their tongue sharp as a snake’s.” These are the products of human selfishness and, at the end of the day, human selfishness is responsible for all our troubles. We want the consequences of our actions to stand clearly before our eyes so that the torments we plan for others in our quest for supremacy we will feel as if our own. It is our empathy leading to compassion that will deter us from ever taking the downward path toward an ever more insane self-destructive selfishness.

1 Deliver me, O LORD, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent,

2 who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually.

3 They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers.

4 Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall.

5 The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net, along the road they have set snares for me.

6 I say to the LORD, “You are my God; give ear, O LORD, to the voice of my supplications.”

7 O LORD, my Lord, my strong deliverer, you have covered my head in the day of battle.

8 Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot.

9 Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!

10 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!

This vengeful and retaliatory sentiment is an indication of the age of this ancient poetry. The mindset was already obsolete by the time of the writing of the Book of Proverbs where we read:

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you. (Proverbs, ch 25: 21-22; cf. Romans, 12: 20)

This attitude cited by Paul, which has been falsely ascribed to Jesus and Christianity, is thoroughly Jewish and antedated Jesus by many centuries. It highlights the fact that Jesus’ message was simply a renewed call to Jews to live the way “God” wanted Jews to live. It has been part of Buddhist practice in the doctrine of karma from the beginning. As you sow, so shall you reap.

11 Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!

12 I know that the LORD maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor.

13 Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall live in your presence.

 

PSALM 141

Background. An individual lament. This poet is acutely conscious of his moral connection to Yahweh and is aware of his own proclivities to selfishness; he believes. Like the psalmist of 139, that Yahweh presides over his conscience and his behavior and enlists his help to avoid abandoning the right path. He clearly conflates the work of evildoers with seduction. Evil is not only what is done against him, but is also the trap designed to lure him into living selfishly.

Reflection. The ardent commitment to following LIFE’s way is the mark of someone on the path to transformation. Those who have truly made that choice know exactly how precarious it is, as the pressures coming from the conatus are at times overwhelming. Not only does our “self” urge us to “get whatever we can for ourselves,” but it suspects all others are doing the same thing and convinces us to mistrust them. But the reverse is also true: treat others with trust and generosity and the conatus, ours and theirs together, will get confused, begin to doubt its clarity, waiver and weaken. Ardent commitment alone will support the sustained practices necessary to undermine the reign of selfishness. It is no surprise that we may feel weak in the knees when confronted with this “Goliath” of a conatus. No wonder we are inclined to look for help. But it is LIFE itself that burns with the desire for more LIFE. LIFE, the LIFE that enlivens us and that we ourselves mange and direct, will not allow a mindless conatus to take its energies and harness them to the empty demands of an evanescent “ego” seeking to make itself a “god.” Once caught in the trap ― individual or collective ― LIFE seeks liberation. Once liberated, LIFE seeks to liberate all. LIFE is all there is. The rest is all mirage.

1 I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.

2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

3 Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

4 Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

5 Let the righteous strike me; let the faithful correct me. Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head, for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.

6 When they are given over to those who shall condemn them, then they shall learn that my words were pleasant.

7 Like a rock that one breaks apart and shatters on the land, so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.

LIFE has the power to shatter the chains that bind us to a selfish and wasted existence. The false ego, generated by the mindless conatus’ imaginary goals for achieving immortality, is really no match for the self that is enlivened and empowered by LIFE itself.

8 But my eyes are turned toward you, O GOD, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless.

9 Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me, and from the snares of evildoers.

10 Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape.

 

PSALM 142

Background. Another individual lament. The poet calls on Yahweh for help against enemies for he has “no one who cares.” Yahweh is his “portion;” as in psalm 15, Yahweh is his inheritance, he has nothing else. What seems to make him poor actually is the source of great bounty.

Reflection. This psalm is easily transposed into a metaphor. The enemies, as always, are the enemies of LIFE. It is LIFE, whose ways are the poet’s guarantee of health, strength and prosperity, that he clings to. Of course, the selfishness that is the enemy of LIFE is not only my selfishness. Others also can succumb to the false enticements of the self-aggrandizing ego, and when they do, that array is daunting. Hedged in by enemies, you can feel like you’re in prison. LIFE liberates, first by calling on the oppressed to assert their own embrace of LIFE, then by calling on the LIFE that enlivens the enemies themselves to awaken.

1 With my voice I cry to the LORD; with my voice I make supplication to the LORD.

2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. When my spirit is faint, you know my way. In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.

4 Look on my right hand and see — there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.

5 I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

“My portion” ― a deeply moving image. It applies with literal ferocity to the emergent forms pf living matter, which we are. We are nothing else than living matter. LIFE is our portion. There is nothing else to “get.” LIFE, matter’s living, existential energy, is all there is. It is our portion, our inheritance, because we are the direct offspring, the legitimate descendants of LIFE.

6 Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low. Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.

7 Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name. The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

“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.

Psalms 22, 23, 24

These three 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 from 1 to 24 are currently included.

2,800 words

PSALM 22

Background. Roland Murphy ( Jerome Biblical Commentary ) says the subject of this well-known lament is not a king but an individual Israelite. The suffering cited seems to be both physical and from the attacks of enemies.

Reflection. The beginning of this psalm in Aramaic, “eli, eli, lama sabachthani” is put into the mouth of Jesus on the cross (Mt 27:46) indicating that the psalm was probably already part of an identified pool of messianic expectations to which Jews had recourse at the time of Jesus. It has been associated with Jesus’ crucifixion for the entire history of Christianity so it’s almost impossible to pray it without evoking that imagery.

But the psalm obviously antedated Jesus’ ordeal. It was composed by a poet who either suffered through similar torments himself or was intimately empathetic with others who had. The imagery of attack is stark, violent and the attackers brutal, cynical and merciless. The pleading is desperate and abandoned. The psalmist’s cry for help, as usual, cites the past miraculous intervention of Yahweh on behalf of the Israelites. This can only be taken metaphorically, for none of it happened as written and, at any rate, cannot be seriously adduced. LIFE does not perform miracles. What LIFE provides is the marvel of having shared itself with us all.

So trust remains. As our ancestors trusted, so do we continue to trust. We trust LIFE that once we have been made participants in its energy we will always be part of it. We are LIFE’s progeny — its offspring. We are bound to LIFE by our genetic inheritance; we cannot help ourselves: we are living matter and we have to live as matter. This is an attachment that is not subject to ascetical transcendence. It is embedded in our blood and bones; it is not ours to dismiss or discard. The psalmist’s anguish makes no effort to repress or mitigate that reality.

But we know that LIFE will not abandon us. We can rely on LIFE because we share its obsessions: it cannot stop living; we know that from the evidence of our own organism. How that will spell itself out in the future as LIFE finds one way after another to survive through evolution driven by reproduction, we cannot predict. But just as our birth as humans revealed to us that, as matter, we have been part of the pool of matter’s living energy since the beginning of time, so too we have learned that there seems to be no way that will ever end: for the pool of matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed, just recycled.

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

The psalmist uses his very disillusionment about “God’s” concern for him, to “shame” God into responding. “See what you have made me go through.” But he immediately realizes what he has been calling “God” is LIFE itself, and assumes a posture of grateful worship.

3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Trust is the key. There is only trust. It’s all we’ve got. It was all Jesus had, that’s why it was appropriate for Matthew to put this psalm in his mouth. There are no miracles and the very plight of the psalmist is already proof of that. Why pray for something to be reversed that, if Yahweh had the power, would never have occurred to begin with? We trust. The point of prayer is not miracles, it’s to dispose ourselves to trust. And the basis of our trust is not some past miracle, but the marvel of material LIFE and this universe of living matter which we experience consciously in each present moment as it arrives.

6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock at me; they make faces at me, they shake their heads;

8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver — let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

The psalmist’s enemies taunt him with LIFE’s inaction on his behalf, the implication being that LIFE has abandoned him. Other translations emphasis the “if” factor. It is the argument of the taunters of Jesus: “if” you speak for Yahweh as you claim, and “if” he loves you, let him take you down from the cross. What they are saying, of course, is that the psalmist’s very suffering justifies their cruelty and disregard for LIFE’s rule of justice. It’s an argument that cannot be refuted by facts and logic. It is only overcome by an interpersonal insight: LIFE is power and can be trusted. I know LIFE interiorly, beyond facts and logic. Absence of miracles is no proof of the absence of LIFE, for LIFE does not perform miracles. LIFE shared is the marvel that engenders trust.

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Their argument has no merit, for I have another source of information: me. LIFE has been with me from the start and never left me. LIFE has taken up residence in me. I know LIFE’s potential.  LIFE, come alive in me!

12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;

17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;

18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Enemies are trying to destroy my integrity as a human individual and the community as a society of justice. These forces hostile to LIFE, forces of the selfish human “self,” are much stronger than anything I have seen before. They have immobilized me. I am terrified. I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can’t defend myself. I feel like I’m already dead. These enemies of LIFE are already dividing up the spoils from my certain defeat.

19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

My LIFE, you are alive in me. I can feel your power in my body in each present moment. This is not my power, it’s yours, stronger than the forces arrayed against LIFE. I am here … and I am alive now! This is LIFE as me. What more can I ask? What more do I need? I can do what LIFE does for LIFE’s power lives in me with my face. I am part of that and cannot ever be excluded.

LIFE uses death itself to promote and expand LIFE. Victory is assured. It makes me want to shout for joy and invite everyone to join me.

23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Together with the universal family of humankind my song of gratitude to LIFE is endless. LIFE dominates the universe. It rules both the powerful conquerors and the lowly ones they conquer. In the end, all people will shout with gratitude and joy for the gifts of LIFE. What marvels LIFE will evolve in the future are still unknown. But we can trust … because LIFE is in charge.

 

PSALM 23

Background. Perhaps the most famous psalm of all, certainly the most familiar. The theme is trust and thanksgiving. Yahweh is imagined first as a shepherd, a constant metaphor for kings in ancient Mesopotamia, and then as the host at a banquet.

Reflection. This psalm points to the ultimate basis for internal peace and great joy. Matter’s LIFE itself directs our destiny through the innate guidance systems of ontogeny and evolution, and the energies of the conatus and intelligent synteresis embedded in our living matter. We have no other way of knowing how we should live. Our bodies direct us. There is no “revelation” apart from LIFE to which we have privileged access in the interior depths of our own conscious organism.

With such a divine guide intimately united to our own selves, all of us, we have nothing to fear. We are not isolated and defenseless before our enemies. We do not need parents because we are no longer children.  But what we have is what LIFE has made us — fearless, adult, intelligent and collaborative — repositories and agents of LIFE. LIFE guides us in us and as us. It is we — the mirrors and agents of LIFE — that do this in collaboration with LIFE. We trust what LIFE can do in us.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

LIFE has provided me with itself. I am wealthy beyond measure. I am content wherever I am and whatever I have. Fears and worries evaporate. LIFE’s project determines what I do. Dangers and sufferings will not derail me. I am fearless; I carry the power of LIFE. I am LIFE with this face.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

This is LIFE’s house, not mine. I was invited here and treated royally. LIFE opened its home to me. I have been given a gift beyond measure: LIFE itself, as if it were my own. I am overwhelmed. From cradle to grave my journey is assured. I am where I belong.

 

PSALM 24

Background. A processional psalm of entrance to sacred precincts. It uses some of the terminology of enthronement ceremonies. It seems it is the king and his battle companion, Yahweh the warrior, who seek entrance to the temple.

The “seas” are ancient chaos, the enemy of creative order. Yahweh’s conquest of the waters created the world and established his universal power. Questions and instructive answers (torahs) occur three times. In the first, we are taught that entrance is restricted to those who do right, do not worship idols and who are just and honest with others. To enter means to seek Yahweh’s face, therefore Yahweh’s power is equated to moral uprightness.

The last two torahs emphatically acclaim Yahweh’s power and protection. The gates of the temple open to this overwhelming power: Yahweh, mighty as an army in battle array.

Reflection. Matter’s LIFE evolved us all, the earth and everything that has emerged from its rich pool of elements. LIFE conquered obstacles beyond anything we can imagine and here we are, humankind, the mirror and agents of LIFE. We recognize LIFE as our creator and we want to embrace it in itself. Where can we find it? Where does it live?

It is in us. We are LIFE; LIFE’s power and character are on display in our moral lives: if we don’t glut ourselves with gross gratifications; if we don’t worship ourselves and take ourselves as our own source of life and energy; and if we don’t cheat or exploit others. This is the face of LIFE — our just and moral behavior. The face of LIFE is our face … doing what’s right.

If LIFE resides in a temple, then we are the temple. Open the doors to this temple and let more LIFE in to reign and to rule … to transform us into itself until we lose ourselves in its self-empty­ing generosity. What is this LIFE that we want to enter and take over our life? It is an overwhelming power, like an army deployed for combat, the power to give LIFE.

 

1 The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;

2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.

LIFE’s creative power is on display in evolution. Evolution is a totally non-violent process that creates by finding ways to harmonize with what already exists and utilize the resources made freely available. It never coerces. It never forces anything. And yet it has totally transformed the face of the earth. What used to be an inert pool of elements is now teeming with life that has filled every nook and cranny on the planet. LIFE now rules the earth.

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?

4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

We see LIFE at work in evolutionary creation, but can we ever touch it where it resides — directly, personally, face to face? Yes we can. We touch LIFE directly and personally in ourselves … LIFE resides in us. When we live as LIFE, with clean hands and pure heart, obedient to LIFE alone and not to a false “self,” and honest and just with the people around us, LIFE lives in us. The face of LIFE is our face. When you find LIFE you will find yourself.

7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.

9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.

10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Open the rusty, creaking doors of your closed involuted “temple” to LIFE. Open to light and fresh air. Let LIFE in, to rule, to display its awesome power, to vanquish the enemies that have erected a dead, false and rotting “self” in the place of LIFE. There is no self but LIFE alone, for we are LIFE. Open up to LIFE, LIFE is what we’re after. LIFE is like a mighty army set in battle array.

“Catholics”

A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

2,500 words

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.

Anachronism

The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction to the latest re-issue of the book, blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely.  While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue.  The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930.  Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.

critique

I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed.  Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed.  You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks disingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

 

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017