Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

3,500 words

Those who are familiar with Buddhism are aware that Buddha taught that the “self” is an illusion. It has been called the core teaching of the Buddhist vision and forms the basis of its practice. The word for it in Sanskrit is anatman, and anatta in the Pali dialect.

While it is emphasized that Buddhist truths are not to be understood metaphysically but experientially, most observers believe that, whether intended or not, what we in the West call the human “soul,” conceived as a permanent, separately existing entity, the locus of thought and the individual human identity, intentionality and personality — a metaphysically real “thing,” — is exactly what the Buddhist teaching rejects. The position is that the Buddhist “No-Self,” which is claimed to be an undeniable fact of experience, would not be possible if there were a metaphysical “soul.”

Rather than debate potentially unsolvable metaphysical questions, Buddhists focus on what they believe really matters: the effectiveness of the No-Self teaching in directing and energizing the individual’s liberation from the cravings that create suffering.

The “soul,” the Fulcrum of Western culture

Western observers, however, are a different breed of cat. What No-Self means in the physical / metaphysical world may have been of no interest to Buddha’s followers, but we in the West come out of a tradition that has been centered for millennia on the doctrine of the spiritual soul, an “immaterial substance” (sic) that is capable of living without the body. The traditional western “soul” is immortal and its destiny is to exist for all eternity in another world where only spirits reside.  Naturally those who are still convinced of the ancient western tradition in this regard want to dispute the Buddha’s claims, for their view of the world depends on it.

The “soul” has been crucial in the West because it was the inner dynamic of all social construction.  If there is no soul during life, there also are no persons.  Persons are distinguishable in our tradition from other biological individuals because persons have souls and the others do not.  So the issue is relevant to our original question.  Is there actually a “soul” which really exists and bears the identity and eternal destiny of the human individual?  Everything social depends on recognition and respect for individual persons, from family patterns to legal systems, from business transactions to law enforcement and penitentiaries.

In addition, the “soul” is the basis of moral coercion.  If the soul does not survive as this individual person after death, there can be no judgment or punishment; and without fear of punishment there is no way to compel obedience to the moral law.  Of course, the down side is it tends to reduce human life to quid pro quo — a business transaction: moral behavior in exchange for an eternal life without suffering.

So the question: does the human being have an immortal soul?

You might be surprised to hear that Christianity has had a strange history in this regard. The earliest “theologians,” like Tatian and Athenagoras, known as “apologists,” who wrote in the second century, believed that the soul was the form of the body and when the body died its animating principle — the soul — disappeared with it. That the soul was naturally immortal and could live without the body they condemned as a pagan belief.[1] They argued that it would render the resurrection superfluous.  Immortality belonged only to the gods, not to humankind, and the overwhelming gift of God in Christ was that divine immortality was now shared with man, a completely undeserved supernatural donation, and that the recipient was not a disembodied soul, but the individual living human being.

But that changed.  By the third century Christian writers like Tertullian were declaring the soul to be naturally immortal.[2]  This change of perspective suggests there had been a “coup” in which educated upper-class converts to Christianity had taken over leadership in the Church and had begun to reshape doctrine to concur with their worldview.  The belief in the existence of the immortal soul was the centerpiece of the Platonism that was the accepted wisdom — the science — of the Greco-Roman educated classes in Late Antiquity.  It came to be considered an undeniable fact of nature.  That assumption lasted until the fourteenth century when William of Ockham showed it could not be proven by reason alone.  He relegated it to a matter of faith.  It was officially defined true as a matter of faith by the Catholic Church at the 5th Lateran Council in 1513.

That doesn’t prove there is a soul. But there’s also no way to disprove it. The Buddhists don’t even try. They claim that what is compelling for them is the way the doctrine of No-Self functions for the liberation of the individual and through that for the wellbeing of human society.  For the “self” asserts rights and makes demands that contribute to cravings to seek pleasure, avoid pain and aggrandize the ego that lead to entrapment in an unending cycle of demands and dissatisfactions that adversely impacts human society. And correlatively, when those cravings are starved they tend to shrivel and disappear, lending credence to the proposition that the “rights and demands” originally asserted by the “self” in their regard were fictional to begin with.  The individual survived and actually lived quite well without responding to them.  That, in turn, corroborates the Buddha’s insight that the “self,” the source of those demands, is itself an illusion.  The self has no rights and can make no demands because it is not really there.

So the Buddhists can always say to the westerner who demands proof of the teaching of No-Self that they have an indirect proof.  They can prove experientially that the human organism is malleable — changeable.  What appear to be its needs can be reduced to the point that they no longer assert themselves, calling into question the validity of those needs and the metaphysical ground claimed to be their origin.

The Metaphysical Question

But for us in the West, the question of the real existence of the soul deserves to be resolved — physically and metaphysically — in the same terms which have been used to support it for millennia.

First, by physical I refer to the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. Do these disciplines with their specific tools ever encounter evidence that would compel one to conclude that the “soul” as traditionally believed actually exists? Can it be observed and measured in some way? Theories that a body weighed right before death and again immediately after showed a difference, were made in pursuit of exactly that kind of proof.

By metaphysical I refer to the rational examination of the conditions that accompany existence. Metaphysics determines what the minimum requirements are for something to be-here, to exist. Are those conditions present in the case of the soul?

I think it’s safe to say that there is no compelling physical evidence that the soul exists without the body. Claims of weight loss at death have been disproven. But there are other claims. For example, phenomena emanating from the human organism, specifically the ability to think, identify itself, observe itself thinking, etc., suggest capacities that go beyond what material reality was traditionally thought capable of. But none of those pheno­mena seem grounded in anything but the human material organism; and when the organs that serve as platforms for those activities are damaged or destroyed, the behavioral phenomena disappear or are altered beyond recognition. What have been traditionally adduced as materially transcendent activities, therefore, on closer examination appear to be completely dependent upon the material organism for their existence and character.

Besides, the growing acknowledgement among philosophers of a possible “mental dimension” to material reality, represented by the term “neutral monism,” suggests that projecting a separate spiritual substance outside and independent of matter is no longer necessary to explain the phenomena.[3]  Matter may contain within itself the explanation of what it is obviously capable of evolving into.  Human thought is the product of the human brain, a completely material organ, not an other-worldly ”soul.”

But the Buddhists’ argument for the No-Self is also telling in this regard.  The apparently identifiable permanent “self” experienced during life is thoroughly changeable (albeit not without difficulty) exactly as they claimThis seems to be similarly dependent upon the body, for those practices designed to reduce craving involve the imposition of self-denial on organic urges resulting in their quiescence.  The “self” changes because the body changes.  This provides more evidence for the absence of any permanent and substantive “self” even before death.  The “self” is a mental construct — a result of organic urges, it is not the source of those urges.

Then, when the organism dies, all activity of whatever kind  ceases. There is no indication of the existence after death of something containing the essence and identity of the deceased human individual any more than in the case of any other species of biological organism.  Like all human functions that go beyond the ordinary behavior of other biological entities, the identity function is dependent upon the human organism for its existence and normal operation.  When the brain deteriorates, even before death, self-coherence is also affected, sometimes drastically.  So in answer to the question about the metaphysical conditions for anything to exist, it appears that the first requirement is that it be matter; and when the organism’s matter decomposes or becomes diseased, the “self” disappears or becomes unrecognizable.  Even if the self is a “soul” it needs a corresponding and healthy material base to exist.

The atomic composition of the human organism

But there is another side to this question, and that is the nature of matter itself.  This impacts the unity and integrity of all things made of matter including the human being.  All things are comprised of the same material energy coalesced into various kinds of sub-atomic, atomic and molecular particles and corresponding force fields.  There is nothing that is not made of the very same matter, and that includes all living organisms at all levels of complexity and in all aspects of their form and function, even the neurological.  It is all the same matter.

The human being is a biological organism — a highly complex fully integrated combination of atomic elements and the fields associated with them.  These elements, in turn, all come from the material environment where the organism resides.  Oxygen, the element needed to combine with nutritional fuel for the metabolic combustion that occurs in living cells, is drawn into the organism continuously from the outside through respiration with every breath.  The waste products of cell metabolism, carbon dioxide and water, are similarly borne by blood returning to the lungs to be expelled outside into earth’s atmosphere where it becomes available to other organisms that use it for their own lives.

The water that makes up 70% of the human body is a chemical combination of hydrogen with oxygen forming a liquid.  It is, like air, taken in continuously from outside the body and, as the bearer of the waste products of metabolism, expelled outside.

All things share these elements that comprise the human body.  Hydrogen is the simplest element: one proton and one electron field.  Every other element of the more than 120 that make up the periodic table, represents a complexification of hydrogen, as nuclei gathered more protons and their accompanying electron fields.  Everything made of matter is a result of the evolution of hydrogen, combining and integrating with itself over eons of time, first in the super-hot furnaces at the heart of stars forming elements that later evolved into the life forms we are familiar with.  So that scientist and author Curt Stager can validly say to his readers: “Hydrogen has become you after billions of years of stellar fusion and countless dances of atoms in air, earth, fire and water” and in turn, “you bequeath them” … “to the many lives yet to come.”[4]

What is true of air and water can be said equally of everything that makes up the human organism and all its metabolic and behavioral functions.  They are constructed of the temporary possession of elements and their composites that exist in sufficient quantity in the surrounding environment to provide the organism with an uninterrupted existence.  I say “temporary possession” because every single atom of every organ or function in the body is replaced on the average of every seven years with atoms from the environment.  The atoms of the elements in the human body are exactly the same as those residing in other life forms and in the rocks, soil and water of the accessible surroundings.  All this suggests a continuous exchange of material elements between the individual human organism and the rest of the material universe. The homogeneity and the sharing of the matter possessed by all the entities, living and non-living, evokes for some observers like atomic physicist David Bohm the image of a single flowing river within which there develop waves and eddies and vortices (whirlpools) which give the appearance of being separate individuals but are all and only the river.[5]

There is nothing unique about any biological organism; it is all made of the same matter, and if the “soul” is defined as the coherence of this human body, it would seem to partake of the same homogeneity. So it should be no surprise that we recognize the characteristic functioning of the conatus in all other life forms.  Self-preservation, on display in self-defense, the flight from enemies, the search for food, the desire to reproduce and the need to gather with others for collective survival, is com­mon across all the phyla of living things.  The signs of its functioning are unmistakable, especially among animal forms, and creates the basis for our sense of compassion and companionship with them.  The very fact that despite vast differences in our organisms — like insects — we are able to recognize similar behavior driven by the same needs, suggests a homogeneity of the source.  We all act the same because we are made of the same clay — matter’s energy, and in its living forms we can see that matter is driven to exist, so we suspect it was driven to exist even before it was incorporated into a living organism.

Life, we conclude, is not something separate from the matter we encounter in the living forms that inhabit our planet as if injected from outside.  It was an intrinsic property of matter all along that only became perceptible when it came together in just the right way.  Similarly, with consciousness. The individual recognition that occurs between and among all species of animals reveals that the phenomenon exists across the various phyla of animal life.  We also suspect that the potential for consciousness — Strawson’s thesis — is an intrinsic property of matter that necessarily functions at all levels of evolved integration albeit with the capacity of range and depth allowable by the extent of the complexification.  Those familiar with farm animals know that chickens, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats can differentiate between human individuals even though they all do so at very different levels of ability.  We observe that consciousness is present according to various levels of complexity in all species of animals and therefore we extrapolate this potential to the substrate itself of which all these species are made.

Relativity and quantum mechanics

The 20th century saw two major breakthroughs in physics that have completely undermined the security we once had about the nature of matter.  The theories of relativity and quantum me­chanics have revealed matter to be a fundamentally mysterious quantization of an essentially homogeneous flow of energy through time that fills the universe.  This energy sometimes manifests itself as particles and sometimes as force fields or waves.  It calls into question the fundamental imagery we have had that matter and what is made of matter are dense impenetrable “things” that are all outside of one another.

Rather it appears that at the quantum level matter compenetrates other matter, exists in more than one behavioral state simultaneously and that in its wave form each particle extends through­out the universe and its presence where it integrates with others to form organisms can only be accounted for statistically, i.e., with a certain degree of probability, not with precision.

This indeterminacy has made it impossible to simultaneously fix the location and behavior of particles.  The observations themselves are revealed to be part of the phenomenon observed adding credence to the suspicion that the imagery of impenetrable masses that we have inherited from our traditional science is false.  The observer is not outside of what is observed.

… relativity and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look at the world as an undivided whole in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality.  In this totality the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.[6]

The proposal for a new general form of insight is that all matter is of this nature: that is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can only be known implicitly … . In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement.[7]

The human organism, in this scenario, is thus comprised of trillions and trillions of these sub-atomic components whose physical reality is commensurate with the totality of matter’s universal energy of which its presence here and now is a statistically determined resolution.  Our particles are the distillations of a homogeneous energy that suffuses and pervades the entire universe.  In this context the heretofore unchallenged claim that the human organism is “only itself” and exists radically independent of other material entities, suddenly becomes a highly questionable proposition.  How much more so does the claim that the “self” — which arises from the merger of the passing urges of the individual organism — is permanent and is capable of existing independently, lack credibility.

As we can see in Bohm’s propositions quoted above, science is beginning to speak in terms that are remarkably consistent with the worldview implicit in the Buddha’s recommendations for practice.

Relativity and quantum theory, in fact, provide excellent illustrations of this strange world [of the Buddha] so contrary to common sense.  In the Buddha’s universe a permanent, separate self is an illusion, just as substance is an illusion to the atomic physicist.  Distinctions between an “outside world” and an “inner realm” of the mind are arbitrary.  Everything in human experience takes place in one field of forces which comprises both matter and mind.  Thought and physical events act and react upon each other as naturally and inescapably as do matter and energy.  … As Einstein described matter and energy solely in terms of the geometry of space-time, the Buddha describes matter, energy and mental events as the structure of a fabric we can call consciousness. His universe is a process in continuous change — a seething sea of primordial energy of which the mind and the physical world are only different aspects.[8]

How does the “self” change?

While I believe it has become abundantly clear that there is no separately existing “immortal soul” as the western tradition has projected since Plato, the Buddhists have to acknowledge that the changeability of the “self” which they adduce as proof of its impermanence, is only possible because there is an agent of change that is resident in the same organism.  That agent represents the activation of human intelligence with its undeniable moral clarity, and of the conatus with its irrepressible drive to live, to bring the “self” to heel, and eventually to transform it, drop by drop, into a generous and compassionate moral force in a world of perishing beings.  What exactly is it, then, that changes the “self.”

It is the very same self, whose intelligence allows it to compenetrate itself from within, render itself totally transparent, and activate a potential derived from the living self-emptying energy of creative transcendent matter, LIFE, coiled in the conatus at the very center of its own life that effects this change.  There is only one “self,” and it is capable of doubling back on itself, assessing itself with its own resident resources and applying its intentionality — drop by drop — to the reduction of the unconscious self to obedience.  There are not two selves.  The belief that what effects change is an Absolute Self that is metaphysically distinct from the human self and exists alongside it is a fallacy.  There is a transcendence to the human self that might allow that projection to gain purchase.  But it is precisely the total compenetration of LIFE’s creative material energy resident at the core of the material human organism that is activated in the process of personal transformation.

Aquinas would say that “the Primary Cause only works through secondary causes.” The collaboration is seamless, and therefore the agencies are indistinguishable.

 

[1] Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, U. of Chicago Pr., 1971, Vol. 1 p. 30

[2] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Translated by Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0310.htm&gt;.

 [3] I am referring to authors like Galen Strawson who explores “panpsychism” in Mental Reality, MIT press, 1994.

[4] Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2014, p.246

[5] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London & NY, 1980, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14. (emphasis in the original)

[7] Ibid., p. 14

[8] The Dhammapada, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, from the introduction, pp. 80-81

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A commentary on the Psalms (continued)

3, 900 words

This is a continuation of the introductory reflections of October 2 which should be read first. This addendum concludes with a commentary on Psalm 1.

 

11.

Relationship to “God.” The dilemma for us here in the West is that our tradition has imagined “God” as a humanoid person. We are all formed in this tradition and our relationship to the Sacred seems cast in concrete. It is not easy to tinker with. Those who will not abide it often end up feeling they have to drop the Sacred altogether, so welded is it to our psyche.

Our prayer life, beginning in ancient times with the psalms, reflects this fact. It is quintessentially dialogic. It extends to an imaginary Providential “God” the childhood relationship we had to our parents. It is a wonderful scenario, really, that we should always have a loving parent watching over us, to whom we can turn when we are helpless, and whom we can trust, when things are going bad, that all has been foreseen and is being permitted out of benevolence for us. So even bad things become good because they are all willed by a vigilant “God.”

The only problem is, none of it is true.

We have to face the facts of our experience. There are no miracles. Providence, except in the most bare-bones Aristotelian sense of God providing the Natural Order, is a fantasy. There is no separate entity called “God.” Thomas Aquinas thought of “God” as the Pure Act of being that energized all existing things. Less philosophically, the author of John’s first letter used the world LIFE for the source of all things.

This choice agrees with experience: there is a palpable LIFE of which we are not the originators, which constitutes our own identity and is the basis of our activity in the world, which also enlivens every living thing and we suspect is latently present in all material energy at whatever level of evolutionary emergence. This LIFE has generated in all things an irrepressible desire and corresponding fury to survive. It drives evolution. From this undeniable perception there arises in human beings, individually and collectively, a sense of the Sacred. This pheno­menon has appeared in every age and in every place, and shows no signs of disappearing.

Starting with these bedrock data we have to develop an explanation that concurs with the facts, not only the physical but all the facts … including our irrepressible thirst for LIFE, our spontaneous rejection of injustice and our innate sense of the Sacred. If we examine religious traditions across the globe we discover that, while all acknowledge the desire for endless life, a sense of the sacred and the primacy of conscience, some are better at harmonizing with the bare physical facts than others. Those like Buddhism / Hinduism that imagine LIFE as stemming from a non-humanoid force, an energy that pervades and suffuses all things, are better at explaining why things are what they are and why occurrences happen as they actually do. On the other hand, those that project a rational humanoid personality as the Source and matrix of this vast universe, like the “religions of the Book,” have great difficulty explaining reality as it is experienced, observed and measured, without imputing a callous indifference or even sadistic malevolence to this supposedly divine “person.”

However, attributing some inchoate non-specific benevolence to this Source, in the sense of an overabundance of LIFE expanding only in one direction: toward more LIFE, seems to me quite appropriate in explaining the facts. It also concurs with our experience of other material life forms.  But is that enough to justify the imagery of a loving Father or Mother, or calling it “Love,” etc.? In the absence of any way of specifying what is “behind” this force (if indeed there is anything behind it), I think appropriate metaphors concatenated into poetry can form the basis of a legitimate attempt to relate to that force. But this relationship is unique. What do I mean?

We are quite capable of having relationships with non-human entities, generally animals fairly near to us in evolutionary development who share many of our cognitive abilities though we have traditionally denied that they are persons. We recognize them as conscious entities, and they do the same with regard to us. I am not suggesting that relationship to our Source is to be equated to relationship to animals, I am simply pointing out that we are not confined to relating to human beings, and we have no moral expectations from the animals even while we truly know they have individual “personalities.” We recognize their gregariousness with us, and we love them, and they us.

Now, the relationship to our Source, I contend, is real and literal, but it is not necessarily personal in a human sense. By thinking LIFE is literally a rational person like us, you cannot avoid attributing a willfulness to the physical events, like the Haitian earthquake, or the Nazi Holocaust, that contradict any claims for a benevolent divine providence. I believe this is one clear source of the religious disconnect that is characteristic of our times.

I think it is a legitimate practice to imagine LIFE poetically, as a person, so long as we don’t attribute a literal significance to it. It helps sustain attitudes of gratitude, awe and desire for union — more LIFE. It’s similar to the way people use the word demons to refer to their anti-social urges and paranoid feelings. In ancient times people actually believed evil spirits were the cause of such things. We can see why. Demon is a metaphor that aptly describes the subconscious and unintended nature of our negativity: it feels like it’s coming from some outside malevolent source. But of course, we know better.

Calling LIFE a person is analogous. But when trying to determine what is literally real, the facts take precedence over the metaphor. If we use the metaphor we have to be clear: we really do not know what LIFE is. Even Aquinas insisted: we know only that “God” is, we don’t know what “he” is. LIFE is not a person as we understand the word. It does not act like a person: it is not an independent entity as far as we can see; it is only visible as the life of living things; it does not project an identity: it is the source of the identity of everything that exists; it is not perceptibly conscious except in its emergent forms; it does not respond to communication except through the human persons it enlivens; it does not interfere with nature on our behalf nor does it help us when we call on it … except through the personal human agents which it constitutes. But, in itself, it is not either identifiable or definable. If it is a person, there is no way for us to know it for its behavior doesn’t correspond to any of our criteria for personhood. Our prayers are dialogic, but if we’re honest we have to acknowledge they are all one way, for “God” never answers, except in the non-specific general benevolence of abundant LIFE.

If “God” were a person like us, we would have to hold him accountable for having the power and refusing to help people in need, just as we would hold any other person accountable under similar circumstances. And if he were ever put on trial for permitting the Holocaust, just to mention the most egregious of his failures to act on our behalf, the barrier to believing in his “benevolence” would be declared insuperable, and he would be condemned.

Is this blasphemy? It’s blasphemy only for those who are like the pagans of old who accused Christians of blasphemy because they called Zeus a demon’s phantasm. They cling to imagery instead of clinging to LIFE … in which we live and move and have our being.

I don’t know what LIFE is in itself; I only know what I see it doing. And really, what it is in itself is none of my business. Ultimately it has no effect on the undeniable facts of my relationship to it: that I am not self-originating and that I am metaphysically dependent on my Source and matrix, LIFE, which I can see, proximately, is an energy that is directed exclusively toward more LIFE. I know it is at least that. Is it more than that? If it is, it cannot be anything that would contradict that. And whatever that “other thing” might be (if indeed there is some “other” thing), I really don’t need to know it.

*

But that still doesn’t resolve the issue. Material LIFE, the source of my own identity, my sense of the Sacred and the object of my undying gratitude, is still elusive. How do I relate to it?

I believe that using poetic metaphor is not only legitimate but, it seems to me, inevitable. Human consciousness as it has evolved on this planet is a survival tool that was shaped and sharpened in the struggle to identify food, foes and mates so that the human community — the vehicle of survival — could continue. Our forebears had to differentiate between the species and the individuals within those species that would help them survive and those that would not. Given the conditions under which intelligence was formed, it is extremely difficult to consider a relationship to our existential Source — or indeed, to our own negative feelings — without imagining these things in a way that reflects the evolved categories of human thought. We are familiar with it in literature as a device called “personification.”

But our relationship to matter’s living energy, the very building blocks that constitute my “self,” is not just an opaque and impenetrable mystery, leaving us with no alternative but our poetic personifications. There is a way to understand this relationship precisely as a relationship. And I contend, it is this unique relationship that provides the basis for our new way of praying the psalms. Let me explain.

We do not easily recognize the reality of compenetrated structures, i.e., structures that are the locus of two levels of reality simultaneously, as in the case we are dealing with here: material energy and its evolved forms — the components and the composite. So we tend to talk about either the components or the composite (because they are things), but not the co-existent unity. The problem is, that when we do that, we omit the very valence — the interactive connection — that gives both the components and the composite their specificity. For the composite is what it is because of the specific components that comprise it, and vice versa: the nature of the components cannot be ascertained and appreciated without including what specific thing they are capable of becoming.

We might be inclined to say that the composite is a co-valent reality, for its very composition is the integration of a multitude of components. But the co-existence dimension — the relationship between them — is muted if not entirely unnoticed because our brains are organized to see things, not relationships.

In the case we are dealing with here, LIFE is not a thing, an entity, even though we find it hard to think of it as anything else. The word LIFE, like the word “God,” is the placeholder for a relationship. And what I am saying is that it is the relationship that is the reality that makes me as a composite to be real. It is the composite that reveals the presence and character of the components. I am nothing without the matrix in which I live and move and have my being. And the matrix remains unknown until what it does becomes visible. Those are raw physical / metaphysical facts. These two elements, my components (matter’s energy) and the composite (me), are one and the same “thing” … together, and only together do they become a “thing.” I am physically / metaphysically myself only because of the active and “willing” presence of my Source and Sustainer — material LIFE — the living dynamism of material energy that now exists in my form. And the components — matter’s energy — appear to be meaningless mechanical particles until they display their potential in the emergent forms produced by their evolving self-elaboration, in this case “me.” That’s when I discover that matter’s energy is LIFE, as John meant it.

I am, simultaneously, both myself and my source.

What the psalms do is to make my feelings and my voluntary moral, political activity align with my physical / metaphysical reality by focusing on the relationship that makes me be-here and therefore determines the dynamism — the drive for more LIFE — that defines me. The psalms are an instrument of personal integration for they insist that I turn my attention to the generous living presence and creative moral pressures coming from the material components — LIFE — that make me what I am.

The “false self” created by the untethered runaway conatus is focused exclusively on itself as if it were an independent stand-alone entity — as if it had no components, no source, no dependency — as if LIFE were its own creation. The conatus is physically / metaphysically blind. The self, it thinks, is only itself, alone in the world, able to define itself as it chooses. It is not aware of its own co-existent inner structure, living a material LIFE that is not its own, that preceded the existence of its organism, and was passed on to it in its entirety by a chain of others going back before the emergence of humankind.

The organism, now, identified as the “self,” owns and autonomously deploys LIFE as if it were exclusively its own … as if the organism were self-originating. This misperception is the source of the falseness, and the existential insecurity experienced by the blind conatus. Knowing quite well how vulnerable and powerless it is, it thinks it is totally alone, and that terrifies it. It feels alienated from its own life and it is that fear of isolation and sense of emptiness that propels the paranoia and the craving to accumulate — things, power, fame, relationships — that lie at the root of the miseries we heap on one another. Convinced we are empty inside, we reach outside ourselves to fill the vacuum.

Security can only come from the re-education of the conatus, so that it knows clearly that its organism is composed of pre-existing elements that belong to a living totality that has always been here and cannot ever be destroyed. The conatus needs to be taught that this is what self-preservation really means: identifying itself with material LIFE, the energy of that totality resident in every organism and that will live on after our “self” disappears. The conatus needs to learn it is not alone.

That is the work of the psalms. Like the practice of mindfulness, they are a program of re-edu­ca­­tion for the conatus. They bring the co-existent presence of the components of the living organism into sharp focus not only by evoking an imagery that reminds us of the dependency that we routinely ignore, but also by aiming desire in the right direction — the direction of the moral implications of that co-exis­tence — more LIFE. To be the offspring of LIFE means I am innately structured to generate LIFE. The lifelong reproductive urges of my material organism are a sign and undeniable proof of that. By morality we mean behavior that is orientated toward more LIFE. The psalms are the poetic instruments of desire for more LIFE … they implore, beg, cajole, ask, and demand; they are action oriented … they desperately want something to happen to preserve and enhance LIFE — they are the whip and tether of the “re-educated” conatus. Even at their most contemplative they are restless, yearning, calling for a deeper and more intimate union with their Source and Sustainer, with matter’s energy, LIFE, that John said was the wellspring of all things.

 

 

HYMN TO MATTER

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This hymn comes from an essay called “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” the third part of a collection of essays published posthumously as Hymn of the Universe in 1961.  It was written in 1919 after Teilhard’s service as a stretcher bearer in the French army during WWI.

‘Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat. ‘Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untamable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.

‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.

‘Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

‘Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.

‘Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.

‘Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.

‘I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured — a mass of brute forces and base appetites — but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.

‘You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation wherein the predestined substance germinates and grows.

‘I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the spirit.

‘I acclaim you as the melodious fountain of water whence spring the souls of men and as the limpid crystal whereof is fashioned the new Jerusalem.

‘I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.

‘Sometimes, thinking they are responding to your irresistible appeal, men will hurl themselves for love of you into the exterior abyss of selfish pleasure-seeking: they are deceived by a reflection or by an echo.

‘This I now understand.

‘If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all subsistencies and all unions.

‘If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow.

‘Your realm comprises those serene heights where saints think to avoid you — but where your flesh is so transparent and so agile as to be no longer distinguishable from spirit.

‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’

Jersey, October 8, 1919


THE PSALMS

 PSALM 1

Background: This psalm is not a prayer. It is called a “wisdom” psalm because it follows the patterns of the wisdom literature and offers advice and encouragement. It seems to have been appended to the corpus of the psalms after their collection on the return from Babylon, and perhaps as late as the Septuagint (third century BCE), as an introductory counsel and exhortation. Its later addition may have been a factor in the alternate numbering between the Septuagint and Hebrew Manuscripts.

It utilizes the usual parallelisms that characterize all Hebrew poetry. It focuses centrally on the law, the Torah, and establishes the paradigm that functions throughout the wisdom literature: the Torah translates into wisdom, and it is wisdom that will guarantee a long life, heath, security and happiness.

Clearly it was selected as introductory because of the simple stark choice that it offers. It sets the tone for all the psalms. Make a decision, it says. There are only two choices, life or death. Choose LIFE.

Reflection. Happiness is choosing LIFE, following the instructions of our conscience, the law embedded in our flesh that guides us.

But be careful. It’s not a dry quid pro quo business decision. Don’t be fooled. There is no reward for good behavior. When you choose LIFE, you get more than you bargained for. You will soon see that you have chosen your LIFE. It will become your delight, your fascination, your obsession. You will fall in love with it. You will think about it day and night … you will forget about other things.

It is your LIFE, and with it you and your people will grow and flourish. It becomes more LIFE.

It seems like a choice, but is it, really? What’s the alternative? Who would choose death? Who wants to be blown away with the wind and live isolated from people? That’s what’s at stake, nothing less.

What’s behind it all is the very Source of your own LIFE. That means it is your own LIFE — your real self with others — that hangs in the balance. It is yourself and your people you are choosing when you choose LIFE.

[Psalm 1] From the New RSV

1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Notes

“Happy.” For the psalmist there is no afterlife, so as always, he is thinking of earthly happiness. Living by the “law,” the Torah, (similar to the Tao, the “way” of the universe), doesn’t earn happiness as a reward, rather it is happiness itself, because it is the way of justice and love.

“Prosperity” is the achievement of social harmony, justice, peace, mutual assistance — the source of all human security and joy, physical and psychological.

“the wicked” end up being destroyed, isolated, rejected by the community not because “God” punishes them, but because LIFE’s happiness — a human community of justice and love — is to be found following the instructions of the Torah. The wicked “scoff” at this to their peril.

 

 

“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

2,600 words

This is a second commentary on Brian Moore’s 1972 novel, Catholics, made into a movie with Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard in the seventies entitled The Conflict.

A reminder of the story-line: an Irish monastic community has been offering mass in Latin with back to the people and hearing individual confessions in violation of the explicit prohibition by the official Church. This is the background to the entire novel — the rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. It’s what provided the initial tension, brought the Vatican envoy to the monastery, and turned out to be the horizon against which all the characters had to define themselves, especially the abbot who, unknown to all, had lost his faith. The novel ends with the monks’ capitulation to obedience and the abbot’s act of spiritual self-immolation: he kneels to pray with his monks.

My previous post, “Catholics,” published on July 28th, dealt with the abbot’s ordeal which I believe was the main point of the novel; in this reflection I want to address the theological anatomy of the background issue that gave rise to the conflict: the real presence.

The problem was elaborated thematically by Moore in the form of a dispute argued between the secretly unbelieving abbot, Tomás O’Malley, and the dozen or so monks who had gathered in the chapel on the night of the Vatican envoy’s arrival. The monks were determined to continue their current practice of making the sacraments available to people in the traditional ante-conciliar Tridentine form. Their passion came directly from their theology: they believed that the bread and wine literally — physically — became the body and blood of Christ. It was, they said, a miracle.

They believed it principally because it was what the Council of Trent taught and what they had accepted on faith since their childhood from the Church they considered “infallible.” It could not have been clearer:

If anyone denies that the sacrament of the holy eucharist really and substantially contains the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore the whole Christ, but says, rather that [Christ] is there as in sign, or figuratively, or potentially: anathema sit. (Ann. 1551, Cc. Trident.. Sess. XIII; Denzinger-Schönmetzer, #883, #1651, p.389)

The decree, issued in 1551, in an unusual departure from scriptural language, in the next paragraph actually used the word transubstantiation, a philosophical term, unmistakably Aristotelian in character, employed by Thomas Aquinas to explain scientifically the nature of the transformation. “Transubstantiation” meant, in the terms understood by Aristotelian mediaeval science, “literally, physically.” The material “thing” that was there looked like bread and wine, but was really the body and blood of Christ. When the monks, in their contentious dialog with the abbot, say that anything else is heresy, they were standing on solid ground. The Council of Trent was very clear: si quis negaverit … anathema sit. Roughly translated: if you say otherwise … may you burn in hell!

Vatican II made no change to the Tridentine formula, and even alluded to the significant disparity between Catholics and other Christians over the eucharist, citing specifically the crucial difference made by the sacrament of orders. I think that is very revealing. But the Council also said in various places that the eucharistic bread was to be taken as a symbol of the loving nature of the Christian community. If both the Council of Trent and Vatican II were not in conflict about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, why was there such a problem in Moore’s story for the monks and the many people who shared their point of view?

The problem, I claim, even beyond the deep habituation to the worship of the host for over 500 years prior to Vatican II, is one of common sense logic. It affected many people at the time of the conciliar changes, and I believe it explains why Moore put it in the mouth of the monks. Let me state it very simply: if the eucharistic bread and wine is really and literally “Christ himself,” then that overwhelming fact will necessarily eclipse any other religious significance you may try to give it. It’s common sense. To insist on another meaning is implicitly to detract from the “real presence.” The liturgical reforms intentionally ignored the overwhelming nature of the doctrine of the real presence.

Both symbolisms were inherited by mediaeval Christians from the ancient Church, but the insistence on the real presence took over to the detriment of the “family meal.” I claim that is a natural consequence of the absence of parity between those two aspects of the doctrine. It stands to reason: if it’s really “God,” what else is there to think about? It explains Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark quoted by Ellsberg in the introduction: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Vatican II encouraged a return to origins. According to early Christian documents the eucharist was originally a meal of fellowship. Its historical evolution from being a symbol of Christian community, to being literally, physically, the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of the risen Christ, is the key to this whole flap and is worth taking time to understand. Not surprisingly, the “problem” is rooted in the erstwhile Platonism that dominated Christian thinking for more than half its historical life.

There are few historical gaps in our knowledge of what was going on during the entire two thousand years of Christian experience. One of those gaps, however, occurred very early. We do not know how the current hierarchical structure of bishops, priests and laity actually evolved out of the more egalitarian formations recorded in the New Testament. All we know is that by the time Constantine chose Christianity as the Roman State Religion, it was all in place. The sacrament of orders conferred special powers on ordained priests that the merely baptized lay people did not possess.

Together with those changes the Church also began to announce its message in terms that revealed its approval of the categories of Platonic philosophy. That process culminated in the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices and direct control of the Roman Emperor where the divinity of Christ was definitively described as homoousios — “consubstantial” — a Greek philosophical word, not found anywhere in scripture, to explain how Christ was “God.”

In the century after the Council numerous Christian theologians, east and west, began the process of interpreting the tenets of the faith, and following the lead of Nicaea, continued to do so in Platonic terms. What does that mean?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two seminal ideas characteristic of Platonism that set it apart from other worldviews and that affected the Christian understanding of its beliefs. The first is that ideas are not just mental states but are substantive realities in their own right that reside in another world, a World of Ideas, which was identified as the Mind of God. So “justice” is not just an idea of ours, an “opinion,” it is a real reality with objective defining features that derive from its objective “scientific” literal reality as an archetype. Our idea of justice is a reflection (as in a mirror) of the “Justice” that dwells in God’s Mind.

The second notion that characterizes Platonism is that ideas are immaterial; they are able to compenetrate matter so that ideas (forms) suffuse and inform “matter” which is formless. That compenetration allows for a phenomenon they called participation.

Participation means that the reality of the material things that we see is derived from the reality of the ideas that inform them. “Matter” is devoid of reality. Only “ideas” have reality, and impart their reality to matter. The concrete thing, therefore, participates in reality through the real ideas that define it. The words of consecration over the bread and wine brought to mind the idea of the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the idea, which enjoyed archetypal reality, conferred that reality on the bread and wine — the symbols that evoked it. So it was said that Christ was really present in the bread and wine.

Since matter in the Platonic system is not real, what is happening is that the bread and wine are being allowed to participate in the reality of the idea — as an idea — of Christ’s body and blood. There is no thought of conferring on matter a reality that it is incapable of bearing. In this case the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine, make the idea of Christ present to the minds of the communicants through the symbolic words of the priest, and it’s the idea that is real for Platonists. Christ is really present because the bread and wine together with the words evoke the idea. Thus the symbol, by participating in the reality, is part of that reality.  But at no point did the Platonists imagine that the bread and wine themselves actually became the body and blood of Christ. They had too little respect for matter for that.

Enter Aristotle

The rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings in the 12th century produced an enthusiasm among theologians of all faiths, first the Arabs who discovered the manuscripts in the lands they had conquered, and then the Jews and Christians. The rush to incorporate Aristotle into their world­view became something of a competition, with each belief system vying to prove that the prestigious Greek scientist supported and confirmed their worldview.

Aristotle was a dualist like Plato, in that he believed that things were made up of matter and form (ideas), but he differed from Plato on the most basic point. He did not subscribe to the notion that ideas had their own substantive reality. His teaching was that material “things,” what he called “substances,” were comprised of matter and form which were principles of being. Matter and form did not exist on their own apart from one another. Only substances (material things) had existence. An idea was only a passing human mental state. By itself it was not real — it did not exist apart from the mind that was thinking it and while it was thinking it. It was what Aristotle called “an accident,” a phenomenon that existed as part of and dependent on a substance. What something looked like, its color, for example, or its size, were accidents. Bread was a substance, a human being was a substance. But an idea was an accident.

Under Aristotle’s influence reality was seen as a quality only of concrete existing things not ideas; therefore symbols could no longer get a derived reality from the idea. They had to have their own reality as “things.” So the symbol itself, the bread and wine, which was the only concrete thing there, had to become the risen Christ, there was no other way to conceive of the real presence in that system. Theologians imagined that the very “thing” (substance) that was bread, became the very “thing” (substance) that was Christi’s body. They called it transubstantiation, and claimed it could only be explained as a miracle. So the bread and wine went from being a symbol to being Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Both systems referred to it as the real presence. But they meant two totally different things.

Return to symbol?

The difficulty for believers now is that to return to a symbolic interpretation of the eucharist does not reinstate the level of reality that it once had under Platonism. We are no longer Platonists and we cannot return there. We are still in Aristotle’s camp with regard to the basics. Concepts and their words are not independently existing entities for us. We see the concrete thing as the only existing reality. We do not see the idea as real nor that its symbol participates in the divine reality. Many observers have identified the abandonment of Platonism in the 14th century as the beginning of the “disenchantment” of western culture — its turn toward an arid scientism. If we are going to insist on the real presence in terms of that worldview we have no choice but to claim the “thing” in front of us, the bread and wine, is Christ.

This is patently absurd. Take a step back and you realize that the exclusively “Aristotelian” perspective on reality represented by this absurd interpretation has consigned all reality to “things,” and leaves out the reality of the entire world of human social interaction and personal development. This is a truncated view. None of what is specifically human is about “things” or “substantial forms.”

Human reality

Religion is about human reality. Human reality is interpersonal relationships and the individual transformations that turn those relationships either into “hell” or something we can call “divine.” Religion would have us become like “God.” Religion is not about entities or places or “things” — gods, angels, devils, magic rituals, cowled robes, statues, candles, incense, churches, reward in heaven, punishment in hell. It’s about moral and spiritual transformation, the unfolding of individual personalities that sustain just and loving relationships that would turn this earth into a paradise.

The reality of the religious message is inner transformation, and for us from a Christian background, Jesus is the teacher, model and energizer of that transformation. Rituals that claim to provide his real presence, therefore, are real to the extent that they evoke and activate that transformation. The reality of the eucharist is to be found in its transformative power, not in its physical or metaphysical constitution.

In this view, everything remains what it is. There is no supernatural alchemy, there are no magic material transformations. The only thing that changes is the human being who, through the imagery evoked by the eucharistic symbols and using Jesus’ message and life as a blueprint and invitation, transforms himself by consciously re-evaluating the social conditioning that, in order to give him a place in an unjust society, inculcated an egoic defensiveness, a greedy self-projec­tion and a fear and rejection of others as competitors for scarce resources. As the communicant progresses over time in these transformations a new “self” begins to emerge — ironically, the self that preceded the distortions of the social conditioning to selfishness. This is really a return to the unvarnished coherence of the material organism that came to us with birth. It’s not surprising that some have called it a re-birth, and that what emerges is selfless, generous, compassionate and committed to LIFE.

As the conditioning to selfishness and domination of others is incrementally neutralized by the evocative power of the eucharistic ritual and other transformative practices, the “still small voice” of our fleshly organism can be heard clearer and clearer. We come to discover that we were perfect bodies all along, a perfect mirror of the material LIFE that enlivens the universe, now increasingly cleansed of the deformities … the insanities of our delusional, paranoid, egomaniacal culture. We no longer look on our companions in life with anything but compassion for the suffering and anxiety that we continue to heap on one another under the delusion of the need to acquire existence in competition with others. We assume the burden of assuring that no one suffers injustice or rejection. We come to recognize our material organism for the “divine” thing it really is and has been all along. We no longer make the mistake about where “God” is to be found, or what he looks like.  

We discover

that the face of God

we have been searching for

is our own.

Obedience and the doctrine of “God”

 2000 words

Religion in the West has come to us in the forms practiced by the powerful societies that ruled our part of the world eons ago. The enormous geographic extent and longevity of the Roman Empire accounts for its influence on what religion was able to survive into subsequent eras. The fact that Christianity predominates in the West, and through Christianity that the ancestral Judaic tradition has been preserved, is due exclusively to Rome. Rome outlawed and systematically exterminated not only any and all rivals to Christianity, but also all versions of Christianity that could not co-exist with the one embraced by the emperors. The Jews were a strange exception: simultaneously protected and persecuted, their existence and their torment alike were integral to the distorted Christian view of the world.

Christian supremacy existed throughout the Mediterranean well before the 7th century when the unexpected rise of the Arabs and their lightening conquest of the southern and far-eastern regions of the Roman Empire brought their own indigenous religious vision into the area once exclusively Christian and Jewish. By the 7th century Roman influence had already insured that “The Book,” the Jewish scriptures which Christianity had embraced as its own, was accepted as the only authentic source of the knowledge of sacred reality. The result was that the indigenous religion of the Arabs, what they called Islam, acknowledged the uncontested primordial truth of the Hebrew Scriptures to which they appended their Quran, prophecy and poetry written by Mohammed, as a theological addendum.

Thus the three religions that are native to the Western World — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all outgrowths of the same primitive doctrinal formulations of the Hebrew Scriptures. It should come as no surprise, then, that the central moral and theological themes of all three religions would be the same. They are all cults of obedience. The word Islam itself means submission. It all revolved around the Torah, “The Law,” the terms of the contract that Yahweh made with the Hebrews: “You obey my law and I will make you great.”

Essential to obedience is the assumption about the “nature of ‘God.’” This is also the same for all three. Stemming from the anthropomorphic imagery offered in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by the mythic tales in the cosmogonies of the ancient Mediterranean, “God” was imagined as a “person” who gave commandments that humans were expected to obey. Obedience was a function of an interpersonal relationship in which the “will” of “God” was directly focused on obtaining the acquiescence of human beings expressed in their behavior. The import of obedience, ultimately, was its personal context: you were being commanded by a person who would punish you for disobedience; when you obeyed you also showed respect for that person … continued habitual respect resulted in a confluence of wills that would eventually develop into love.

There are two things to note, in this scenario. The first is that initially the psychological aspect was not the object of interest; the commandments were focused on literal compliance and the social harmony they effected. It was only later that attention was drawn to the act of “willing” as an interior event separate from the behavior it contemplated. Writers like Augustine who were obsessed with the self and its motivations, opened up a whole new interior landscape where the relationship with God was seen as a function of one’s intimate feelings and dispositions. Obedience was recognized not only as external compliance affecting society and meriting reward or punishment, but functioned on a different plane altogether, the plane of relationship; it was seen as the internal meshing of wills, God’s and yours, leading to a greater union of persons. This prioritizing of the interior dimension may be considered a seminal moment in the moral and religious development of the West.

Of course it was all dependent on the original premise about “God” being a “person.” It was because of this anthropomorphism that an external social non-compliance became an interior and inter-personal disobedience. Disobedience was not only a mistake, or a social infraction, it was a sin, a personal affront to the lawgiver that incurred “his” wrath; “God” was understood to be necessarily insulted and infuriated by the disobedience. This was the sum and substance of Augustine’s rationale for Original Sin and Redemption.

It accounts for the existence of the fear factor associated with religious codes of conduct in the religions of the book. But it also helps explain the direction religion took in Late Antiquity under the influence of the highly interior, self-scrutinizing and individualistic ascetical practices of celibate anchorites (monks and nuns), whose extraordinary lives were considered the apex of Christian perfection. Monasticism saw obedience not as compliance but as a meshing of wills, and therefore as a direct path to “divinization.” It was confirmed by the poetry of the nuptial relationship celebrated by the Song of Songs promoted in the third century by Origen of Alexandria. As the human will became more and more aligned with the divine will through obedience to God’s commands, it necessarily became more and more “like God,” which was the ultimate goal of Greco-Roman Christianity, theosis. Jesus’ call to Jews to “be like your Father” was seen as the harbinger of this new philosophical understanding of human destiny.

But the Platonists of the Mediterranean expanded Jesus’ appeal beyond mercy and forgiveness, compassion and generosity, and included the entire moral code because it was the will of God, and therefore it provided more fuel for the fire of theosis. The more obedience, the more the two wills became one. Your goal was to shed your humanity and become divine.

Hence, Eckhart’s counsel of “total detachment” was not hyperbole; he was serious. It not only represented the negation of the false ego, unconscious of its origins in Being, it was the reflection of the theosis goal set in the context of the discoveries of the latest Mediaeval science: “God” was Being. And since “being” embraces everything it is literally no-thing: it is everything and needs nothing. That such a detachment for a human being was absurd and impossible has not deterred many from trying, and doing harm to themselves in the offing. Their failure should have been a clue to the misconception that lay at the root of it all: that “being” was spirit and not matter. The ancients, unfortunately, had it stone backwards. Matter’s energy is being. We cannot be detached from matter because we are matter.

“God” is the LIFE of matter

What is most salient for us now, however, is that under the impact of the discoveries of modern science our understanding of the nature of God has changed — radically. “God” is not spirit but the LIFE of matter, its source and energy. And that has to have a profound effect on what we think Christian perfection is, and therefore what have been traditionally considered the practices that lead to it.

The position assumed in this blog is that the source of the human sense of the sacred — the source of the conatus, the will to live is the material energy that lies at the foundation of all things, responsible for their existence, their anatomy as evolved entities and their corresponding behavior driven by innate instinct. Material energy performs the role of Creator and Matrix in our world. It is not only responsible for everything there is, including evolution and the entities that have resulted from it, it also is that “in which we live and move and have our being.”

Some call that living dynamism “God.” I won’t quibble, but I prefer to call it LIFE, a word that evokes its reality as pervasive, generalized energy and its common possession by all things, without implying a separate entity that stands apart from them all. In this regard Eckhart’s remarkable “definition” of “God” must be highlighted for its congruence with the material energy I call LIFE:

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

Eckhart didn’t say that because he was a materialist, but because he was a spiritual monist. He saw everything that exists as participating in the very same act of existence — esse — God, as understood in the concept of being. Eckhart was, as a result, a pan-entheist. Neutral (materialist) monists are also pan-entheists for the same reason: all things participate in the same existential energy, LIFE, the source of existence.

Eckhart was an idealist (spiritualist) like everyone else before the modern era. “Being” for Eckhart was “spirit.” All of the spiritual practices and goals of Christian perfection that we have inherited from 2000 years and more of the Judaeo-Christian-Platonic tradition are all premised on “God” being spirit — an idea/person who related to us rationally. This “God” had a vision for our behavior embedded in a moral code that represented his WILL for us. Since God was a person with a WILL, we had to relate to him by bending our will to his. That made us like him. And that is what it meant to be “holy.” But things have changed.

If God is not what we thought he was, then the ancient traditional practices and goals we set for ourselves will no longer work and may even be damaging, as we suggested in the case of Eckhart’s detachment.   If indeed, as I contend, “God” is matter’s LIFE and NOT some separate spirit-entity with a will of his own, then an entirely new set of goals and practices that are consistent with what God really is and what we, as his offspring, really are, has to be identified. This is where the rubber meets the road. What does it mean to be “like God” if God is not a rational humanoid person with a “will” but rather the LIFE of matter? And what does it mean if, as we are saying, we ourselves are all and only living matter, the very “stuff” of LIFE?

We have a new task: to discover how to align ourselves with LIFE now that obedience no longer functions as a reliable guarantee of theosis, not because we no longer know what “God” wants (we probably never really knew), but more radically, because as Eckhart says, we have come to understand that God wants nothing. It is not a question of meshing our will with “God’s,” the issue has nothing to do with a particular “will.” LIFE wills to live in us … as us. We have to redefine humility when we can no longer use our ego-negating obedience to accurately define and effectuate it. And what does detachment mean when we are no longer deceived into think­ing that God is “spirit” and to be like God is to suppress or ignore our bodies?

I am confident that these and other associated questions about the ascetic practices appropriate to our new appreciation of reality will be answered as time goes on. But we can already say there is one central characteristic that will have to be present and operative in anything validly proposed: that we are already in personal, unassailable possession of the source and wellspring of our own permanent existence, rendering egoic self-protection and the appropriation of the goods and energies of others meaningless. Our alignment with LIFE, if it is authentic, must generate an enthusiasm for the expansion and enhancement of LIFE outside ourselves.  

We need to “practice” what will help us become like LIFE itself: generous, self-emptying, magnanimous, forgiving and exalting of others. Since we are made of LIFE we are instinctively nudged in that direction. What should we do? As a start, perhaps a few unsolicited acts of sheer munificence where nothing redounds to our self interest in any way, not even gratitude or recognition. If nothing else, it will tell us how far we are from being like the LIFE “in which we live and move and have our being” … what we really are … how far we have to go to be ourselves. It’s time we listened to ourselves and obeyed LIFE.

Tony Equale, June 2017

 

 

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

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obedience and the ego

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post script

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

800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

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

 

Benedict’s Humility

3,300 words

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

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

Benedict of Nursia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear

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

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

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

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

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

The Rule says (7:11)

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

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

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

obedience

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

But the issue is more complex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humility, obedience and the nature of “God.”

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

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

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