a confession

2,000 words

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ignorance and Bliss

a theology of unKnowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christian Universalism (V)

Jesus and Buddha; the embrace of emptiness

3,350 words

6.

Despite superficial differences, I contend there is a profound concurrence between the religious visions of Buddha and Jesus . . . and, in my opinion, it stems from their experience of being-here. The agreement consists in the fact that both of their core symbols ― the “fatherhood” of “God” for Jesus and “no self” for Buddha ― are really conceptual derivatives of the same experience, and the two apparently divergent images are simply due to the different cultural matrices in which the experience occurred. I claim that both Jesus and Buddha experienced the same thing: their radical trusting existential dependency. Neither one had any experience of the other side of the equation: where their being-here came from, i.e., what was the source and sustaining factor that accounted for their being-here and for why they spontaneously trusted it.

This is salient, particularly, in the case of Jesus where it has been assumed by a naïve literal take on the gospel narrative and mediaeval theological retrospection, that Jesus had direct, person-to-person knowledge of “God” the “Father” because he was “God” the “Son.” I deny that, and I am supported in that opinion by scripture scholars of all denominations. There was no “trinitarian” reference in Jesus’ awareness of the “Fatherhood” of “God.” His reaction was that of a believing Jew who, upon emerging from the Jordan after a life-changing act of personal surrender, fully embraced what his Judaic tradition told him was his “creature-hood” launched and sustained by Yahweh his “Creator.” Furthermore, his reading of the prophets and the psalms had subsequently defined and refined the personal bearing of Yahweh as one of total personal benevolence, and the word “father” was the most apt image for that reality.

But I want to emphasize: Jesus did not “see” anything. What he saw was his own existential dependency along with the spontaneous sense of trust in life that he had experienced since infancy which his family and religion had reinforced. He was as blind to the source that sustained him as the most hardened atheist. His innate trust had been interpreted by the consensus of the community to mean the benevolence of Yahweh, his Creator.

In the case of Buddha the “quest for enlightenment,” was a culturally encouraged religious pursuit which had a long and revered tradition behind it. It was a quest in which many people in Buddha’s time were already intensely engaged and to which Buddha himself had dedicated many years of personal effort at great cost to his standing in the world. It predisposed him to find what he did. That the “liberation” he experienced took the form of ending the cycles of samsara ― “chasing the wind” ― that enervated daily life and poisoned human community, is no great surprise. Samsara had long been identified as the cause of human sorrow in the Hindu tradition. Buddha’s discovery was not a new religion. It was a simple advance on the elusive Hindu asceticism that had preceded him. He found that mortifying insatiable desire ― no matter how long and how intensely ― was not sufficient to end samsara. What was missing was denying the “self” that lay behind it. It was a unique insight that allowed for a “middle way” between an impossible and fruitless asceticism and a life of self-gratifying illusion.

Once the illusory “self” was identified as the real culprit ― the hidden demon that kept trying to dig, or build its way out of a trusting emptiness ― denying the pretensions of the self proved to be the key to personal liberation and community harmony. Buddha did it by saying there was “no self.” There was nothing to build, and nothing to protect, because there was nothing there. It allowed for the pursuit of a middle path in ascetical practice that led directly to the goal of Buddhist meditation: letting go.

The key point for this reflection is that by eliminating the “self,” what was being held in a trusting embrace was emptiness. For to say there was “no self” was precisely to affirm a transcendent confidence in the totality of all things in which we are sustained like the knots in a cosmic net. There is nothing to us. We are the product of other things. We are “caused,” in Buddhist terminology, by a multitude of causes, proximate and remote, which are themselves similarly caused. The entire network is also empty; it is somehow sustained and he never asked how or why. It was sufficient to understand that certain attitudes and behavior follow from the fact. We are not a stand-alone, independent self and the desires that assume and nourish that illusion must be challenged by unmasking the fallacy ― the “self” ― that gives them their energy. Mortification had to be directed at reducing and eventually eliminating the fallacy of the “self.” The entire exercise is in function of embracing emptiness.

I am claiming that neither the Buddha nor Jesus saw anything. They had insight. Just like you and me, they saw themselves for exactly what they were: existentially dependent items in a vast universe to which they belonged, spawned by forces that impacted the totality, and which they trusted totally. For the Buddha those forces ― whatever they were ― were not him “self.” They were part of a totality that could be trusted. For Jesus, it was a personal force, Yahweh, whom he was taught had brought the whole cosmos into being, and him as part of it, that could be trusted. The Buddha’s lack of concern for identifying any ultimate source, turned out to be ironically identical to Jesus’ belief that it was Yahweh’s craftsmanship ― for we now know that Jesus was dead wrong. That means that, in fact, he also knew nothing. The only factual experience that they had ― and they both had the same ― was their experience of their own existential dependency, or emptiness, in conjunction with a spontaneous trust in being-here interpreted by their religious traditions. It should go without saying, that all of us, believer, agnostic or atheist, live in the same universe with the same human organism as they. We all have the same experience. Trusting that experience and the biological organisms that share it, is what I call faith.

*       *       *       *       *

This discussion of the concurrence of Buddha and Jesus is recapitulated in every human being. The human organism spontaneously infers what is missing in the picture of its dependent existence. The fact is, there is no personal, rational, planning, purposeful, hovering providential “God”-Creator-of-the-Universe that anyone knows, no matter how intensely they claim to believe it. No one has ever met “God” nor related concretely and directly to the source of its being-here. Those who claim such a “person” exists are projecting an inference, often transferred to an image or a religious belief, not an experience. If we are honest we have to say we have no direct evidence ― only indirect clues left by the existent structures in our world ― of the ultimate source of being-here. We have to admit that all we know directly and empirically is our emptiness and that of everything we know in the universe considered alone or as a totality. The rest is projection.

However, not all projection is unfounded; some is the result of valid inference. First, the metaphysics is undeniable. Being-here has to be accounted for either in itself or in its cause(s). The very fact of emptiness immediately implies a correlate that explains how some­thing that cannot account for its own existence can be-here. In the case of human beings dependency is evident in a myriad of ways that affect virtually every aspect of the human organism’s presence in the world throughout life and in a most dramatic and undeniable way at death. Making the inference implied in all this conditioned existence results in a “concept,” an idea called “ultimate and necessary source.” An emptiness of the character exhibited by a human organism requires a corresponding “filling” source to account for all of it ― and from the number of manifestations of dependency there is clearly a need for a multitude of sources which must finally include the source of the being-here itself of the entire network.

But that’s all we ever have: the flip-side of our emptiness. “Source” is gallingly abstract: it is an intellectual image that receives every bit of its concrete character from the nature of the emptiness it is filling. Let me emphasize: the projected image ― the idea ― of the unknown source is exactly as empty as the effect that elicits it. All the effect can tell us is that the source must some­how possess what the effect lacks. We never encounter any “thing” we can call “ultimate source.” We only generate an idea required by our intellect looking with great perplexity at one side of an obviously multisided relationship and where the principal source of being-here itself ― the “other side” ― never appears or takes any identifiable shape of its own. Whatever shape it has is generated only by the inferring intellect and it is entirely determined by the shape of the emptiness from which it is epistemically derived. At the end of the inferential exercise there is not one wit more direct concrete visibility of the source than there was at the outset. The concept, “source,” is entirely exhausted in the character of the dynamic, the inference; there is no concrete image whatsoever outside of the image of the empty receptacle. Like a mirror, the only thing visible is the image it is reflecting. But there is “no-one” there.

I claim that that is what people are experiencing when they say they have had an experience of “God,” and that, in essence, it is the same as the experience of the atheist. The only concrete experience anyone has is of their own emptiness; the imagery they generate about their source is a self-projection generated by their own minds out of the elements of the dependency-experience they have of themselves as interpreted and given imagery by their community.  In other words, what they are looking at is their own foundationless self and they are picturing an inverse function that is necessarily inferred from that. The “God” they see is themselves “inside out,” as it were ― themselves with their inferred cause ― themselves, in other words, without the limitations of their perceived dependency.

This “unlimited self” comes close to what the Hindus call the Atman. In this case a local religion has elaborated symbolic imagery and corresponding rituals that are understood to refer to what always remains beyond visibility. All that is ever concretely seen is one’s empty self. The “apophatic” tradition shared by the religions of the book ― Judaism, Islam and Christianity ― is similar. Apophatic means “speechless” and refers to the absolute unknowability of “God” in those traditions ― a claim, by the way, that is most often honored in the breach, as these religions insist on giving us detailed knowledge of “God” and telling us exactly what they imagine he wants. If “God” cannot be known, as these traditions claim, then that should explain why the fears and apprehensions that derive from emptiness do not go away with mere declaration of “belief” in “God.” Belief is projection based on inference; it is not the same as know­ledge. An unknowable “God” is, psychologically speaking, the same as no “God” at all. Hence many “believers” who project such a “God” define faith as a mental struggle. “Faith” for them is not simply accepting your emptiness with trust and leaving the unknowable unknown; it is forcing yourself to imagine something that is not there; it is an exercise doomed to frustration. This is another form of samara, “chasing the wind,” and Buddha counseled against enquiring into it. Hence he never tried to explain how the entire universe could be empty.

Now in my view, no human being can avoid this experience of the empty self. Nor can anyone deny the spontaneous trust and joy of being-here, which is innate. This joy of being-here is a positive connection with the totality of things that can be clouded over, suppressed, betrayed, ignored, denied and dismissed (not to mention poisoned, tortured and punished) but never eliminated. It is an organic function of matter’s existential energy. In other words, just to be-here is to know with absolute certitude that you belong here, it is to love and desire being-here, and to rejoice at the possession of life. It is to trust your emptiness. It is not a “free” choice. It cannot be avoided. We can’t help it. It’s time we stopped second-guessing it and let it be there.

 

7.

The spontaneous joy in being-here which is characteristic of all matter, continues to generate its characteristics in whatever form it assumes through the developments of evolution. Once we step back from our anthropocentric perspective ― stop putting humankind at the center of the universe ― and start looking at things from the point of view of the myriad of living species all around us, we can see that the sorrow that humans experience is exclusive to us. Every other species of living thing lives in a state of constant joy, marred only by and strictly limited to the moments of danger and hunger that are unavoidable for living organisms in a world of random occurrences. The generalized dissatisfaction that enervates humankind even in the absence of any hostile circumstances, is a suffering exclusive to us. It derives from the samsara that we alone generate because we alone can think; we can imagine what does not exist. That very often means yearning after what we don’t have and what we are convinced will make us permanently happy. But nothing can make us permanently happy. We can never overcome our emptiness; it is what we are. Meditation proposes to end thinking that is nothing but chasing the wind and to surrender to what we are by looking at it and embracing it.

Humankind is aware of its emptiness. Its conditionality is in evidence in a multitude of ways and the general daily activity of the human species ― our work ― is dedicated to responding to the need for food, clothing, shelter and protection from dangers. These are the primary objectives necessary for the procurement of survival. The sense of emptiness, however, that humans alone are aware of, doesn’t end with the achievement of daily survival. The existential dependency that underlies superficial conditionality, unlike other needs that can be satisfied, is insatiable. Its principal source is the awareness of death, but the threat of death for humans is not limited to the moments of mortal danger as in the case of other animals who do not think. For humankind the awareness lingers and devitalizes all accomplishments that otherwise might seem to hold out a modicum of satisfaction. Death pervades the human consciousness often subliminally, and death’s ultimate finality robs temporary achievements of the rest they promise. This generalized sense of dissatisfaction, by not ever finding a proper object that will put it to rest (since there is none), remains diffuse and unfocused. It is an unspecific energy that can be directed toward the pursuit of virtually anything the individuals imagine will be a source of ultimate satisfaction. It is an energy that has been used to amass fortunes and create empires, but it is all chasing the wind.

*       *       *       *       *

We think in imagery. And what we think about engages our affect toward acquisition or aversion depending on how we think it will impact our happiness. The entire enterprise is a work of the imagination. The unavoidable human awareness of emptiness guarantees that the unrestrained imagination under the blind impulse of the conatus will try to imagine a way out. What will fill the emptiness and make me happy? No amount of repeated frustration will ever convince us that there isn’t something that will work. And so we try one thing after another, sometimes even after they have proven to be failures. The society in which we live has its own ideas about what will make us happy ― usually wealth, power, fame, status, pleasure ― and it encourages people to pursue them. Much of the economy is built on selling you what you need to acquire them. We tend to internalize that message and buy what they tell us we should ― until it becomes clear that it, too, is samsara.

If we’re lucky we will run out of options before we destroy ourselves and others, trying to gather the wind. To “run out of options” means to wake up. What we awake to is the realization that we are irremediably empty across the board and that the answer is not trying to fill the emptiness (or escape from it), but to embrace it with trust. We see, at first perhaps only for a moment, that we have been chasing the wind. Of course there’s nothing to stop us from returning to those empty pursuits in despair. In most cases a sustained awakening is achieved only after a number of such episodes.

This is what Buddha means by enlightenment and Jesus means by the kingdom within us. And it’s a vision that in its practical applications is remarkably similar to religious and therapeutic programs from all over the world and from all epochs of human history. It is not simply an ascetical discipline ― a gaining control over unruly desires and aversions. It is, more importantly, a contemplative awareness grounded in an increasingly confident trust in what I am, expressed in a grateful embrace of what put me here ― whatever it may be, proximate and remote ― and a compassionate embrace of other people who are all in the same boat. The discipline is to direct behavior, seriously and consistently, toward the goals of compassion and gratitude where an expanding, ever-more confident trust calls. In the case of Jesus’ vision, the ground of trust is the love of a Father-“God” whom, he insisted, knew every sparrow that fell from the sky, and could be trusted through death.

That trust was tested in his case when his simple message was deemed so threatening to the exploiting powers that ruled his world, that he was tortured and executed for it. His followers have always revered his death as an event of universal significance for humankind. To understand it was to know the answer to the human dilemma, and to embrace it was “salvation.”  Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted his “Father.” A community of such people threatens the powers that be, because it elicits a compassion and mutual support for one another that no empire can smother or replace. It threatens the fear-of-death / master-slave system with resurrection.

But notice: this way of looking at Jesus’ crucifixion sees its significance derived from the universal condition of human emptiness and the accuracy of trust as the human response: it is a dramatic and moving example of trust in a context of utter despair. It does not claim to be doing any more than what is within the reach of any human individual trying to respond authentically to life. In other words, it draws its sacred liberating power from being the right response to the human condition, not from some storehouse of “grace” in another worldIt does not create and confer a unique meaning of its own, introjecting an exogenous “divine” into human life.  The power it transmits is a human moral energy, entirely natural, made available by Jesus’ example and grasped by the empathy of the human individuals who hear, recognize and are moved by his story. Jesus’ “obedience unto death” earned him “a name above every name” among us because he exemplified in a most graphic way the correct universal response to human emptiness.  It is its human universality that makes the cross a transcendent event for humankind.

It is the human condition that gives the cross its meaning, not the other way around.

 

 

To love “God,” love yourself as you would a spouse

3,700 words

1.

The Song of Songs

Nuptial imagery has been the gold standard for western mysticism from before the middle ages. Its origins can be traced to Christian antiquity when the Platonic mindset of Origen of Alexandria, who died in 254 c.e., reconceived the Biblical Book known as the “Song of Songs” as applicable to the individual Christian “soul” and its relationship to “God.”

The Song of Songs is a book of ancient Hebrew poetry celebrating the erotic love between a man and his lover incorporated into the Jewish Bible. It was originally used by the priests of the Temple to poetically characterize the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel. It was an intentional theological application in which an individual relationship was taken as poetic metaphor for what was considered a literal collective reality.

The shift back to an individual understanding of those poems seems natural enough, especially for a Christianity that had embraced Platonism as the ultimate truth. The principal Platonic category dominating the Christian worldview was that the human person was a “soul,” ― individual, immaterial and immortal ― a “spirit” that was substantially distinct from the body which it inhabited as a temporary tenant. It had the ultimate effect of extracting the human person from the world of material things and situating it in another world where only “spiritual” entities resided. It eliminated the community as the primary locus of human reality and substituted the spiritual individual. For Platonists, the family, clan or nation were not “essential” ideas and therefore not “humanity.” Humanity resided in the human individual alone. The theory worked well for the Roman Empire and its state religion whose investiture with divine favor was claimed to supersede tribal prerogatives. The one imperial power, a theocracy chosen and protected by God, ruled a whole world of isolated individuals.

The other entities that inhabited Plato’s “real world” of ideas included, first and foremost, “God,” the One, Pure Spirit, uncontaminated with even the slightest hint of matter, and his Nous, Mind, Logos, a divine emanation who took the “One’s” creative ideas that constituted his own reality and “poured” them into amorphous matter as into an “empty receptacle” (Timaeus). Those ideas were spiritual realities which humans could access because they too were immaterial spirit.

“Spirit” for Plato was naturally immortal because it was not composed of parts as matter was. Not being composed meant it could not decompose, i.e., it could not die. But because, in the case of humankind, spirit was “married” to matter, the “soul” suffered the weaknesses and limitations of the body, the principal one of which was its inevitable decomposition. But being spirit, the human individual could transcend its material side, and in anticipation of the final liberation from the body at death, relate with increasing exclusivity to the spiritual world to which it alone among earthly entities belonged; that included not only “ideas” but also the One and its Mind. The “spiritual life” was conceived of as the “soul’s” systematic disengagement from the world of matter including its own body, and engagement with “spiritual” realities and entities, the highest of which was “God.”

But “God” was pure spirit and no shadow of matter existed in “God.” His Mind, Nous, Logos, was believed to play the role of mediator and interface with the world of matter, and that would of course include the human individual wedded to matter. Christian Platonists assimilated Jesus as Jewish messiah to the Nous or Logos, and generated a narrative in which “God” united humankind with “Him”self and His immortality through the incorporation of the human individual into the saving events of Jesus’ (Nous, Logos) death and resurrection in Christian baptism.

Thus, the achievement of immortality was imagined as the by-product of new relationship in which the original ties to the body and its communitarian relations ― the family and tribe ― were replaced by a “marriage” between “God” and the individual human soul, mediated by the Logos. This created a new universal community: the Catholic Church, identical to the Roman Empire when Constantine made it Rome’s state religion.

Hence, the nuptial imagery on display in the Bible’s Song of Songs became an aspirational symbol for Christian mystics. It was used to represent this union between “God” (mediated by Christ) and the human “soul.” Following Origen’s commentary, Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa accepted it as part of the truths received from the Jewish tradition and even used it, to the degree that the poetics allowed, to draw theological conclusions. For Ambrose of Milan it revealed virginity to be more than a personal preference, it became a transcendent goal of Christian perfection. Because the Platonic theory said that both “God” and the “soul” were exactly alike insofar as they were “spirit-persons,” the nuptial imagery was increasingly taken literally. The patristic practice of commenting on the Song of Songs continued on through the Middle Ages. The commentaries and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux composed about 1136 were probably the most famous and widely read; they were cited by Martin Luther as a principal influence on his own spiritual development, and may explain his insistence on maintaining the doctrine of the real presence in glaring contrast to most of his fellow reformers. As late as 1584, Spanish Carmelite John of the Cross wrote Spiritual Canticle, an exposition applying classic Thomistic theology to an understanding of The Song of Songs.

Despite its revered tradition, it’s my contention that the Christian importance accorded to the literal interpretation of the imagery established by the Song of Songs is intimately connected to the Platonic world­view, and for that reason false and misleading. Even if the LIFE that has extruded and enlivened the material universe could in some philosophical sense be called a “person,” it is not as we are persons, and LIFE does not interact with us as we interact with one another which is what the nuptial imagery projects. Most specifically, the erotic dimension so prominent in the Song is entirely inappropriate. Relationship to LIFE does not demand sexual fidelity which has been the common application since Origen. The celibacy it enjoined reinforced Plato’s denigration of sexuality as hostile to the human “spirit” and justified Augustine’s outrageous claim that sexual desire was a corruption of the human body and that sexual intercourse performed under its influence transmitted Adam’s sin from parent to offspring.

Not only does nuptial imagery falsify relationship to “God” but it reinforces a radical individualism that detaches the human being from family and its extensions in the local community, and through the fiction of a “marriage to God” leaves the individual psychologically isolated and vulnerable to the control of impersonal forces like despotic empires, exploitive masters and bosses, and totalitarian religious hierarchies. This individualism cultivated by Platonic Christianity impels the believer to reject natural solidarity and transfer loyalty to “God” and his Church-State agent. The power of religion to galvanize new artificially created conglomerates has been recognized and exploited by empire builders since before recorded history. Traditional Christianity is not alone in lending itself to these efforts.

Moreover, the dualist Platonism implied in the literal take on the traditional imagery is a primary obstacle preventing understanding between spiritual aspirants of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. But I emphasize literal. As with all religious imagery, the nuptial analogy is metaphor, and simply acknowledging that fact will go a long way in opening closed doors and beginning the journey to the universalism that I believe is the final result of sincere and authentic religious dialog.

 

2.

Spiritual growth: growing up

The similarity of the imagery in the Song of Songs to an erotic fantasy is obvious. The appeal it could have for isolated, sexually frustrated individuals creates the suspicion that the claims of mystics like John of the Cross might be pathological projection. Along with the paternal imagery about “God” cited by Freud, it seems to be an added example of how religion can be used to maintain the childhood dependencies that result from (and contribute to) the failure to achieve adulthood. That such consequences correlate with the political effects of individualism makes the traditional imagery even more questionable.

This anomaly of traditional mysticism needs to be rectified. I would like to approach the issue by first bracketing all religious belief about the nature of “God” and the “soul,” and look at things strictly from the point of view of human experience. I want to start with what I think is the true state of affairs, i.e., that the first step in spiritual growth is growing up. Maturation is the response to what we call “the human condition,” something that is true for all people everywhere and does not depend on religious belief of any kind. By “human condition” I mean the endemic, universal, inescapable “problem” of human dissatisfaction with the parameters of life available to human organisms on the planet. It is an immaturity identified with childhood; in is grossest form it displays itself as selfishness ― a refusal to accept the responsibilities of the collective struggle for survival.

Humankind seems to be the only species on earth that is capable of not being happy with itself. We are restive and feel trapped by the limited capabilities of our organisms, the unavoidable material and social/psychological demands of survival (i.e., work and family), and the nature of the human life-cycle which is vulnerable to trauma and disease, and necessarily includes old-age and death. This general dissatisfaction with being human defines us as different from all other forms of organic life, plant and animal, who seem to embrace their evolutionary inheritances ― which have virtually the same limitations as ours ― without question, and live out their organic destinies which include the struggle for collective survival with unmitigated enthusiasm.

I contend that the overarching pursuit for human beings is the thorough understanding and appreciation of exactly what we are and the decision to accept it. This is admittedly an intellectual quest, but it is undertaken as the necessary precondition for emotional self-acceptance. It is unavoidable. For it is the uniquely human feature of being reflexively self-conscious­ that lies at the root of the very possibility of imagining ourselves to be other than what and where we are, and therefore dissatisfied. Unlike all other animals who, as far as we can see, cannot imagine themselves differently from what they experience at any given moment, we humans must consciously choose to embrace what we are, and what we are doing, and the necessary prerequisite for that choice is understanding.

Laying out this premise in this way identifies the contours of the “human problem.” There is no solution that does not entail an accurate understanding of the boundaries and the possibilities of our situation ― what doors are closed and what doors are open ― and denying neither. No transcendent experience, no interpersonal relationship, no guarantee of survival or security here or hereafter, no accumulation of resources or of pleasurable, satisfying events, no accolade or recognition by others can substitute for knowing what we are as human organisms, acknowledging our limitations and responding to the demand of our potentials. The solution to the “human dilemma” is self-embrace; and it follows that unless we understand thoroughly, accurately, and without self-deception what we really are, what we can and can’t do, the possibility of choosing to-be something else, or wanting to be somewhere else ― some imaginary concoction ― is always there and bodes a continuance of the frustration. It is to fall right back into the problem, for that is exactly the nature of it. The human problem is that we are trying to be something that we are not and cannot be, in order to please and aggrandize ourselves at the expense of reality. Adulthood is the realistic acceptance of what we are ― and that includes both positive and negative ― bowing to what we cannot be or do, and obeying what our humanity demands of us.

The mystical quest

Being an adult is a basic condition of survival. But the total “end of sorrow” (words of the Bhagavad Gita) is the goal of the mystical quest and goes much further. It is not, as some believe, some kind of “end run” into an imaginary never-never land, an escape-fantasy chosen to avoid responsibility and struggle. The mystic begins with having achieved full responsible adulthood but goes far beyond simply tolerating our condition and reluctantly coping with the frustrations of life. The aim of mysticism is joy. There is no greater human achievement than to understand the full burden of our humanity and embrace it enthusiastically without disappointment, reserve, fear, reluctance or hesitation. All religious belief, all spiritual programs can be seen as attempts to reach such a state based on some set of beliefs thought to make it possible, and even mandatory.

In our case the beliefs begin with the discoveries of science. Science reverses ancient Platonic metaphysics which identified humanity with the individual relationship to “God” and “God’s” political agent, the state. Science identifies us as belonging to a universal community. Being human is a biological fact. Self-embrace, therefore, involves first of all, acknowledging that to be fully human is to have a human body, the result of the reproductive activity of male and female human beings. This applies to everyone. No one has to worry about becoming human through proper behavior, or “joining” the human family by some choice or another, like baptism. The human organism at birth is fully integrated into the evolving human community as it currently interacts with the material conditions of biological life on earth. Human Identity is biological in origin: clear, unambiguous and unchallengeable. This affects all of humankind. There are no distinctions, racial, ethnic, national, class, that make some more human and others less.

The second step, of course, is the details; it is the full elaboration of what being in a human community with this organism, evolved to this point of development from these people with this formation and on this earth, means. Unearthing the details is the work of meditation and mindfulness because it is a comprehensive self-conscious picture that must reflect reality. We are talking about understanding. If the end of sorrow is self-embrace ― accepting ourselves with the unmitigated enthusiasm that we see in all other forms of organic life ― it begins and ends with right thinking. We have to understand fully, without illusion, regret or rejection, exactly what we are where we belong and who belongs to us. The human community is universal. The responsibilities of mutually assisted survival bear on all of humankind. Those who do not see the egalitarian and universalist implications of this need to do some more meditating.

An integral part of this second step is the honest perception of the deformative influences on our “thinking who we are” made by parents, siblings, family and the local social environment; these are all time and place dependent and their self-aggrandizing inclinations must be acknowledged and corrected. We are born into the current of human history and we bear the marks (scars?) of our location in that flow. It determines, among other things, exactly how much knowledge about our evolutionary biological origins is available to us, and how aware we are of the universality of humankind. If knowing what we are is crucial to an effective self-embrace, when and where we were born and what deformities our local community has passed on to us enters decisively into the possibilities of accurate understanding. The discoveries of modern science are particularly relevant to this question, for the narrative that paints the picture of what we are has radically changed under its tutelage. We now know we are a universal family.

This leads into the third step in the process of growth ― if indeed it can be called a “step” because it is the point of it all ― the unreserved acquiescence to what we have come to understand ourselves to be in both our limitations and our potentials, talents and responsibilities. This step acknowledges that merely understanding what we are is no guarantee of success. There is always the possibility of resisting, rejecting, ignoring, avoiding, disdaining and even destroying ourselves. The social dimension, the global extent of our community of mutual support, is always the most vulnerable to selfishness ― individual or group. There is always the possibility of a regression back into childhood or pre-scientific myth; it is a prime example of the suppression of reality. Even after painting an accurate picture of what it means to belong to the global human community, the ultimate challenge remains: to embrace it lovingly, without disappointment, doubt, ambiguity or reserve. There are many who feel this is simply not possible. We are, they say, irremediably unreconciled to what we are; we would simply rather not be human the way humanness currently exists. Besides national, ethnic and religious conditioning accomplished so early in life that the individual cannot avoid being misshapen, they adduce the fact of universal death as proof of their claim. It’s difficult to undo childhood formation, and no one can accept death. An examination of this claim and the consequences of abandoning the quest for self-embrace because of it will be discussed in a later reflection.

I am using the word “embrace” in an effort to incorporate as much affectivity as possible into this final step. This is the defining mark of the mystical quest which is not satisfied with merely accepting life; it wants to love it. I am aware that the word can be taken in less than the sense of intense self-abandon and enthusiasm that I mean it to include. I want the word “embrace” to bear the emotional weight of the word “love” plus the sense of active personal engagement that makes love more than a passive self-pleasing experience and converts it into passionate commitment. Self-embrace is really intended to mean “falling in love with your life.”

Hence, the nuptial imagery of western mysticism. As a poetic metaphor for the loving self-embrace of the mystics, it is quite appropriate. Betrothal and marriage evoke the affective dimension that is the proper component of authentic self-embrace. But notice, it is metaphorical. I am not talking about being “married to God” but rather loving myself and the humankind into which I was born and through which I survive. But I not only love myself as I am programmed to do by the conatus of my organism, for if I am to achieve anything like the enthusiastic self-accep­tance that I see in the in the myriads of organisms ― plant, animal, insect, fish ― that surround me on this planet, who all live in a state of total joy, I have to do more than just passively “accept” myself or tolerate my life. I must fall in love with myself as I have been made and, as is so poignantly expressed in the marriage vow, “abandon all other” imaginary ways of being. I have to fall madly in love with being human as I am with all the moral and social burden that comes with it. This is the goal of mysticism: not a mental escape but a total joy that puts me in sync with all the other forms of living organism evolved by matter’s energy.

This “fidelity” which requires “forsaking” anything other than what I really am, means “letting go” of any and all imaginary constructs ― selfish fantasies of escape ― that do not correspond to what is possible to and demanded by my humanity. My body bears forward in me the direction and intensity of the extroverted existential energy released at the birth of our universe. Matter’s energy comes to me in a highly evolved form. Material energy that comprises my organism is not a tabula rasa. It is already spoken for. It is an unquenchable energy focused on being-here that, in the pursuit of ever greater expansion has molted first into living and then into reflexive self-con­scious form. That is not a revealed truth but an undeniable fact drawn from 14 billion years of observed behavior and demonstrated direction. Material energy is committed to universal availability ― the work of limitless abundance. My body is composed of this existentially committed energy.

This introduces another perspective that reinforces the validity of the nuptial imagery. This existential commitment to an ever-expanding abundance on the part of matter gives me a sense of the “otherness” of the living energy that resides in the components of my organism. My self-embrace is ultimately grounded in the prior presence of this energy that is undeniably independent of me and present in everything else in the material universe. It suggests that I am not only myself; LIFE transcends me. The LIFE that I enjoy and that energizes my every thought and desire is 14 billion years old and was not my creation either in design or production. This “outside” source of my “inside” energy puts me in the presence of a mysterious wellspring that I call LIFE. It suggests a unique immanent relationship between myself and that source that I did not initially suspect was there, and it reboots my relationship to all other things constituted of this selfsame living material energy: it makes all other things made of this universal matter, in some sense, “me.” This train has been running for 14 billion years and shows no sign of changing course or slowing down. We’re already on board when we awaken to its reality. Once we understand that WE ARE THAT, everything falls into place. We are at home in the universe.

I and my source are one and the same thing. My ancient pre-scientific tradition may not have completely anticipated that my unity with my source and creator had such a concrete ground and was so total, but it seems to have at least suspected that it was more than met the eye because since ancient times it characterized the relationship as “nuptial.” The implication was that the two were one flesh.

Being “married to God” is a poetic symbol that can be used to evoke our relationship to that in which we live and move and have our being. Like all poetry it becomes grotesque and meaningless if it is taken literally. Alongside of other poetic symbols that come down to us from our pre-scientific ancestors, it can remind us who we are, and what we are doing here. These are things, for some reason, we all find easy to forget.

 

 

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.

Trust

By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12