Psalms 138 to 142

PSALM 138

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 139

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 140

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 141

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PSALM 142

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesus and Buddha (2)

As the last post (Aug 22, Reflections on Jesus and Buddha) indicated, I believe the principal difference between Jesus and Buddha is not in their moral vision but in the relational and motivational context that gave a their recommended behavior a special character. Jesus lived in a hieratic, religious context where the world was believed to have been created and micro-man­aged by a personal “God.” For the Jews, the real reality ― what gave substance and direction to human life ― was the “contract,” the relationship to “God.” The moral law may have been updated by Jesus’ insights, but the relationship was the same.

The Buddha, on the other hand, had an unmistakably skeptical attitude toward the gods and anything that smacked of forces originating in another world that were believed to neutralize or reverse awareness of our impermanent condition. While he never denied the existence of the gods, he considered all such beliefs to be distractions that militated against the detachment required to end selfish craving and the suffering it entailed. It was the realization that all things were empty of permanent existence that spurred the necessary detachment.

Buddha denied the possibility of achieving permanence through any activity whatsoever and saw its pursuit as a myth. Mindless striving after the impossible not only created frustration and suffering, but also generated an untold amount of injustice as individuals stampeded over one another in the effort to acquire the symbols of the permanent possession of life: wealth, status, power, pleasure.

Basing myself on modern science, I attribute Buddhism’s perception of radical impermanence to the fact that existence is material. Matter is subject to the second law of thermodynamics as expressed in entropy. The discrete quanta of energy that constitute matter come together in an evolving process of integration and complexification and then come apart in the dissipation and dissolution that accompanies the return to equilibrium. We experience it on the biological level as birth and death.

That proposition, however, goes a step beyond Buddha’s message. Buddha avoided all physical/metaphy­si­cal speculation about the nature of reality and confined himself to a description of how it behaved. Reality ― all of it, including the human organism ― displayed a radical impermanence. No formation of whatever kind, no matter how well constructed and protected against change, was self-subsistent, and none endured. All things were in a constant state of flux ― coming together and coming apart dependent on a myriad of factors other than themselves ― and given the craving of the human organism for permanent existence, this impermanence was the source of all our suffering and the wellspring of our competitive injustice and self-destructive addictions.

Eschewing any reference to the gods or other forces not of this world, Buddha could confront the problem directly and undistracted. On the one hand there was the human conatus that is an instinctive irrepressible organic drive to continue to be-here bred into every biological organism by evolution, and on the other, there was a universal process whereby all composites dissolved back into their components in the inevitable return to equilibrium. This process included the human body and stood in direct contradiction to its own innate desires, hard-wired by evolution. Every last bit of it came and went like the morning mist.

This made reality, for humankind, an intrinsic dilemma … and insuperable. The human organism could not deny or disregard its desire for permanent life without becoming suicidal or at least self-destructive in some way. And the material universe ― which paradoxically included the human organism itself with all its drives ― did not have the wherewithal to provide what that desire wanted. It was a total impasse.

That meant life, for the Buddha, was absurd. He had no trouble saying that. He said existence was “empty” and called it a “mirage.” Life was a scam, a delusion. He called for endless compassion for all the biological organisms (“sentient beings”) who were caught in this trap. If you are to end suffering, you have to first acknowledge and confront the delusion. Then you must transcend it. Your motivation is to end your suffering. You begin by loving yourself and your people. Then you can look clear-eyed at what has to be done. If you have any relationship in all this, it is to yourself.

Jesus, it must be said at this point, had no such liberty. Like the Buddha, Jesus saw what had to be done if people were to live in peace and with justice, but he was locked into a world­view inherited from his Jewish forebears. For Jesus, this same material universe that the Buddha looked at with a cold and cynical eye, was the gift of a loving father. Given Jesus’ belief system, you could not look at reality with the same detachment and disdain as the Buddha. For Jesus, all things were good. They were not an empty mirage. Life was not a scam. This life was supposed to be a paradise. It was our sins ― our lack of trust in God and the selfishness that resulted from it ― that cast us out of paradise, nothing else; that was the meaning of the Genesis myth. The cravings that the Buddha saw as the enemies of personal control and inner peace, for Jesus were the generous gift of a benevolent creator, who also created the object of that craving. The discipline required was for their proper use, not for their disposal as trash.

The relationship to God determined everything. Notice how this changes the picture. For the Jews both the craving and its object are good. The only condition was that they were to be pursued in accordance with the will of the “person” who made them, who established their “purpose,” and who gave them to humankind as gifts. The Jewish universe was centered on “God.” Things were not as they appeared. Their appearances ― the impermanent phenomena of experience ― which seemed random, meaningless and uncaring for humankind, were in fact something entirely different. They were gifts from God. But their real permanent and loving reality could only be known by revelation ― know­ledge that came from another world.

For Jesus, the modification in behavior that this implied had to be understood as a command from “God” ― necessarily from another world ― no matter how gently and invitingly that command was issued. It made human behavior a matter for the God of that other world to decide and the import of human behavior was the effect it had on the relationship to “God” who lived in the other world.  Whereas with the Buddha, correct human behavior was determined by the Dharma ― our conscience reading the “law of nature” ― it was our guide to happiness because we were part of nature. But to comply with it was a free choice. We were encouraged by the Buddha to make that decision on one basis only: what is good for us … what will end our suffering … what will take us beyond sorrow … what will give us joy and guarantee peace in our communities. Living by the Dharma will make us happy; it is the relationship to ourselves and our communities that motivates our choice.

Polar opposites

I want to draw attention to the huge difference in these two dynamics. Even though both Buddha and Jesus are calling for the same moral responses, and in many cases, moral responses (like non-violence) that are similarly counter-intuitive to the customs of their times, they did not agree on the real significance of their teachings ― what those behavioral modifications meant for the relationships in which people found their primary identity and ultimate destiny. For Jesus your identity was grounded in God’s creative act and fatherly love, hence, morality was your loving obedience to God’s “law;” for the Buddha your identity was your self-possession and personal detachment: your hard-won emotional freedom grounded in your control over your mind and its imaginings sustained by your insight into the emptiness of all things, hence, morality was the practice of meditation and submission to the Dharma.

The difficulty that people encounter in trying to integrate these two religious perspectives does not have to do with moral response or ascetical practice. What appears on the surface as a “slam dunk” in terms of agreement on program, reveals itself to be a profound difference that I believe recapitulates the original human dilemma ― the desire for permanence in an impermanent universe. Each tradition has impaled itself on one of the two opposing horns of the dilemma. Let me explain what I mean.

Jesus’ Jewish perspective opts for a permanence that I consider imaginary. To him, the world was not the welter of ephemeral phenomena we see unfolding before our eyes, it is really the rock-solid unchanging eternal love of a creating “Father” that is invisible to unaided human sight. The traditional theist view of the world, mis-interpreting the exquisite interconnectedness of the physical world and attributing that order to a rational benevolent Creator “God”-person, projects a permanent ground that belies the impermanence and randomness obvious to experience and confirmed by modern science. That view collapses on the issue of divine providence.

Divine Providence means “God” has control over every detail of cosmic and human history. But a moment’s reflection reveals that catastrophes like the Nazi Holocaust and the Haitian earthquake that were responsible for an untold number of deaths of innocent people, in the latter case mostly children, could never have occurred if a rational benevolent “God”-person with the capacity to prevent these horrendous effects were actually watching over and guiding the affairs of humankind. No provident “Father” would ever have permitted such things to occur to his children. So either “God” doesn’t have the power to stop these events, or if “he” could but chooses not to for whatever reason, “he” is not rational and benevolent. Jesus’ loving all-powerful Father is not consistent with the world of human experience.

The Buddha, on the other hand, opted for an exclusive randomness and impermanence. His worldview, adjusted 400 years later by the Mahayana Reform at the turn of the common era, provided no objective grounds for the universal compassion he enjoined on his followers which became the Buddhist ideal. There was no loving father to imitate. There was no infinite eternal generosity that established the paradigm of the bodhisattva ― the ideal Buddhist who renounced the bliss of nirvana in order to struggle for the liberation of all. Compassion for the Buddha was completely self-grounded, an entirely subjective phenomenon. It was the product of his own personal outrage evoked by insight into the delusional nature of human suffering. Its only identified source was the trap created by the mirage of reality and his own personal sensibilities. That instinctive compassion of the Buddha was then transformed by the Mahayana Reform into an ontological ground for the future bodhisattvas who followed him. They imitated and were inspired by HIS compassion which was given divine status. But there was no basis for compassion in nature. The Buddha’s compassion sprang full blown and totally original from his person. The world was a fortuitous network of unrelated emptiness and impermanence; human empathy was a unique phenomenon.

The human being and the community of humankind were the only forces in the universe capable of compassion … and compassion stemmed from empathy: i.e., the ability to see that others’ sufferings are the same as one’s own. The result of this emphasis of the Buddha is the ironic focus on the self as the exclusive source and ground of all morality, social justice, liberation and growth in generosity. The paradox is that the supposed linchpin of the Buddha’s spiritual program is anatman ― his claim that the self is an illusion ― a mirage, like everything else that we experience. Empathy itself is impermanent. This is an anomaly of the Buddha’s vision as glaring and inexplicable as Jesus’ insistence on the hovering protection of a loving “Father” who did nothing to prevent his torture and assassination by the Roman thugs. How can the “self” that supposedly does not exist, the “self” whose insane cravings for a non-existent permanence are the source of all human suffering, now be called upon to ground, pursue and sustain the entire Buddhist program of personal transformation into selfless generosity?

Coming at it from the opposite (objective) side of the question: how can the abundance and compulsive expansiveness of life, resulting in this vast intricate, complex and interconnected network we know as our world, arise in a universe of discrete, radically unconnected particles and forces? And why has the conatus ― the instinct for permanence ― evolved as the principal innate drive in all animal life, not just human?   The Buddha does not address these issues.  His interest was not speculative; it was stone practical. He wanted to end human suffering. Having discovered the causes of suffering and how to conquer them in himself, he felt driven to share his discoveries with all who would listen. But the lacunae left by his disregard for physics/metaphysics leaves the rest of us frustrated. We might know “how,” but we are left wondering “why?” Buddhists may answer, “we don’t need to know why.” But it’s a question that springs from the very core of what we are, and we ‘suffer’ until we have an answer.

This line of questioning can also be put to Jesus from the point of view of his principal insight: the permanence and solidity of the love of a Father “God.” How can belief in such a “God” correlate with the utter mayhem in natural events and human social affairs that causes so much human suffering and destruction? The belief in divine providence and the miraculous interventions that such a belief implies, are patently incredible. How can you square your “faith” with reality? There are, in fact, no miracles. There is no intervention of “God” in human history or in the processes of the natural world. Belief in providence is an illusion that ends up baptizing whatever actually happens as the “will of God.” In this form it confers divine approbation on the status quo and glorifies the rich and powerful.

The Christian religion, whose ritual program can be characterized as begging this provident miracle-working “God” for divine interventions ― to win wars, to punish enemies, to be restored to health, to achieve success, to have adequate rainfall and good harvests ― is being abandoned by myriads of people who have become aware of its incredibility. There are no miracles, and to ask for them borders on insanity.

The turn to Buddhism on the part of many people in the west represents the recognition that, whatever its failures in identifying the ultimate constituents of reality, Buddha’s vision faithfully describes the real world and our interactions with it; it is preferable to the Christian fantasy of a humanoid “God” whose providence is a joke. Buddhism brackets “God,” and provides a practical program of self-develop­ment that is completely consistent with both experience and modern science. And, while Buddhism may not offer a scientific or metaphysical ground for the compassion and generosity it promotes, it acknowledges that these aspirations are universally human and offers a concrete path for achieving them.

The “Religions of the Book,” Judaism, Islam and Christianity, however, will continue to claim that the source of the spontaneous compassion that wells up in the human heart is a loving and protective Father, the compassionate heart of the universe. That means they will always have the anomaly that theodicy was created to resolve: how can a provident all-powerful and “compassionate” God design and sustain a universe where an innate human conatus that seeks eternal permanence must search for it among random events where no permanence of any kind is possible … resulting in universal personal suffering and widespread social injustice?

My answer is: it can’t. Unless you are willing to ignore your own rationality altogether, there is no way to reconcile the traditional Western image of “God” with the reality of the world as we know it. They simply do not compute. So either “God” is something so different from our traditional imaginings that the word “provident” no longer applies, or there simply is no “God” at all.

LIFE

I opt for a different “God.” I believe there is a way to resolve the anomalies of the messages of both Jesus and Buddha and simultaneously reconcile them to one another. And that is to understand that the material energy ― the being-here ― of which our universe is constructed is a non-personal, non-rational LIFE that is characterized by an effusive expansiveness which through the transcendent creativity of evolution has emerged in the form of the generous, compassionate human biological organism that is totally identified with being-here. In concrete terms, that means my “self.” My conatus, like the conatus of all biological organisms, is the primal expression of that identity for me. All things are simply evolved forms of material LIFE and are the expressions of its existential self-embrace; they cannot even imagine not being-here. The “desire for immortality” is a secondary, rationally elaborated proposition derived from the subsequent realization that life ends in death. It is specifically human. Animals do not have such a wish because it never occurs to them that life will ever end, and until we are reminded of it, neither do we. The conatus is pure drive, not thought; but it can be reconfigured by thought.  

Understanding “God” as LIFE ― matter’s living, existential energy ― brings together the visions of Jesus and Buddha. The relationship to “God” and the relationship to my “self” are now no longer two different things. They are seen to be one and the same thing.

This material LIFE, of which we are an emergent form, is what Jesus’ tradition had been calling “God” whose will was the Torah, and what the Buddha saw expressed in the Dharma. It is not a person; it is not rational; it has no purposes or intentions in our sense of those words; it does not design or manage the forms and events of the universe. It is not an entity apart from the material entities it composes and enlivens. It is the living super-abundant and self-sharing ENERGY that constitutes everything in our universe, making it a process with an unmistakable direction: toward more LIFE. This LIFE is on display in an infinity of forms corresponding to the level of complexification achieved by evolution. And one of its forms ― the one most accessible to my observation ― is my own biological organism, my “self.” If I want to discover what LIFE is, I have to plumb my own depths.

This “solution” provides Buddha with the solid ground that supports his program of compassion and compliance with the Dharma, and it provides Jesus with the reason why “God” lets the sun shine and the rain fall equally on the just and the unjust. It gives the Buddha the reason for the “permanent” features of his vision, like compassion and embrace of the Dharma, and it explains why Jesus mistakenly thought that an uncaring “God” had forsaken him on the cross.

 

 

 

Some reflections on Jesus and Buddha

To try to compare Buddhism and Christianity as religions is hardly possible at this point in time. Each has become a categorical label for a multitude of sectarian subsets that differ so widely that they are barely recognizable to one another. Rather than even attempt to relate to the myriad of institutional versions of these two ancient traditions, I propose a much simpler exercise. How do Jesus and Buddha compare to one another in what they personally taught?

This is feasible because in each case we have what we believe are their original teachings or at least what their earliest chroniclers heard them say. Jesus’ words and actions are narrated in the gospels and the Buddha’s preaching and doctrine are documented in the Pali Canon. Granted that in each case there is really no absolute guarantee of accuracy and completeness, If we accept those documents and the consensus on what they mean, I believe we can get a pretty good idea of what these two extraordinary people were saying.

Historical context

The first thing is the historical context into which they were born; in each case I believe it is determinative. It explains what they were reacting to, and what choices they decided to make given the options that were available to them.

In Jesus’ case it was a nationalist Judaism, besieged in the first century of the common era by the Roman empire, perceived as just one more of the oppressive regimes the Jews suffered under throughout their history. Jesus, following Job and the prophets, interpreted Israel’s “kingdom” promised by Yahweh as spiritual and moral, not political and physical. His view ran counter to his contemporaries’ expectations. Hopes for an eventual Jewish ascendancy motivated the collaboration of the Jewish leadership with the Roman occupation authority. Jesus’ demurral from the mainstream view eventually revealed the latent subversive import of his message: to follow Jesus meant to reject the pursuit of wealth and power — therefore, by implication, collaboration with Roman domination. Once the Romans got the idea that Jesus posed a threat to their power, they wasted no time in eliminating him. The central place of Jesus’ assassination ― the cross ― in the Christian program was a direct result of that historical context.

In the case of Buddha, the background was an elite Brahmin Hinduism that had created a draconian caste system protecting the status of a nobility that ruled a myriad of kingdoms in northern India. Siddhartha himself was born a member of that ruling elite, in line to be king of a small domain at the foothills of the Himalayas. He rejected the entire worldview represented by that social structure much as Jesus did. But, unlike Jesus, he invited his followers to withdraw from it and form separate communities that were dedicated to meditation and personal transformation. These monasteries did not threaten the ruling class; to the contrary the powerful found it was in their interests to support the movement. While many elites may have withdrawn from conventional life to follow the Buddha, his teaching did not openly challenge the status quo.

Despite these differences, what is immediately common to both these teachers is their focus on the present world and human behavior here and now. Jesus’ may have contemplated the possibility of life after death, but by no means embraced it as an established fact, much less as the principal motivation for his counsels. Regardless of what may have come later, Jesus’ own vision was riveted on this world. It must be clearly acknowledged: in Jesus’ message any mention that one’s moral behavior might be significant for life after death in another world was anecdotal, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man.[1] Gehenna was a kind of an overstated background myth that served to illustrate his moral teaching. That someone would burn in hell for not having compassion on the poor was hardly your conventional morality. This was poetic hyperbole intended to communicate how important the issue was in Jesus’ view of life. Many passages in the Dhammapada show a similar use of traditional myth.

This same communication style is also evident in the gospel of Matthew. The way Jesus is reported speaking indicates that he was well aware of the extraordinary nature of what he was saying.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’   But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.[2]

This teaching of Jesus is gathered by the author of “Matthew” with other sayings that are considered to be upgrades to the commandments and are pictured as part of the “Sermon on the Mount” ― a deliberate evocation of Mount Sinai. The reference back to the original Decalogue is quite explicit and expressed repeatedly in the segments that follow in that same chapter 5. Also the final symbolism of hellfire corroborates this clear intention; it was a threat used either by Jesus himself or inserted by the community of his earliest followers. As written it seems clearly a poetic image designed to make the demand emphatic much like the story of Lazarus and the rich man and similar allusions found in Buddha’s teaching; it was not presented as the reason for not calling your brother a fool. This was a new law, a new commandment meant to evoke the same awe and unquestioning surrender as the original decrees of Sinai with the same punitive consequences for failure to comply. Hellfire was simply part of that picture.

But, Armageddon was not: there is no suggestion of an imminent “end of the world,” which some have suggested explains Jesus’ radical ethics. If that were central to Jesus worldview and determined his morality, it would have emerged clearly here. But what is unmistakable is that Jesus is portrayed as so conscious of the category of commandment as the principal act of God’s rulership of “the kingdom” and obedience as the principal response to God’s will, that he presented his teaching in precisely those terms along with its punishment. This highlights the background of Jesus’ message and illustrates the unmistakable direction of his teaching.

Jesus was a Jew, speaking to Jews. The very structure of cosmic reality was conceived by these people to be the result of a personal choice by “God” to create the universe and then to elect the Jewish people as his own special family ― the agents of his will and the mirrors of his moral character. The intimate dimension here ― personal and paternal ― dominates the entire picture. There is no way to imagine a call to a serious change in behavior and attitude for Jews without characterizing it as a surrender to the will of Yahweh. This is precisely what Jesus was portrayed by Matthew as doing, and he did it because for his context there was no other option. Jesus was not preaching to the world. He was a Jew talking to Jews.

Now the Buddha also made a similar appeal which we can assume came from an insight into the human condition that he shared with Jesus. These are the very first words of the Dhammapada:

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

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

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love — this is an old rule.[3]

Both Jesus and Buddha are calling for their followers not only to avoid killing other people, but to refuse even to think negatively about them. And each is explicit about the connection between hateful thoughts and what they may lead to. But notice a key difference: Jesus presents his teaching as a commandment. The Buddha offers it as advice. Jesus’ focus is on obeying the will of “God,” now newly understood in terms of love and forgiveness not an eye for an eye, but nevertheless a commandment. Buddha also calls for forgiveness and compassion, but not because some outside divine force, person or obligation demands it, but because it is good for you and your people. It puts you in sync with the Dharma, the natural order. To forego vengeance is to end hatred; hatred causes suffering for you and your people. The Buddha explicitly declared that the purpose of his teaching was to end human suffering. There is no reference to “God.”

While both appear to be calling for exactly the same thing in terms of a counter-intuitive change in attitude and behavior, the personal dynamics required for compliance are contrary to one another. Buddha makes no reference to anything outside the human beings and the natural order to which they belong. What motivates you to change is yourself ― your well-being, your happiness, and that of the people you live with ― which comes from synchronizing with the natural order. This transformation is so important, as a matter of fact, that it is worth working at even if it takes a long time to achieve. The Buddha offers meditation and continual mindfulness as a way of incrementally changing the habitual thinking that lies at the base of negative living. It’s not a command. He recognizes you are not immediately capable of compliance. You have to slowly build the ability to reach your goal. Jesus’ is a command that is to be obeyed immediately.

In Jesus’ case, it is “God’s” will, his perfections, that are being served by the obedience of the human being. The admonition, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect …” is also found in that same chapter 5.   The focus is “God.” “If you call your brother Racca, you will be liable to hellfire.” The only human benefit mentioned is the avoidance of eternal torment.

Notice also, Jesus’ “law” like all law is absolute and self-contained. It is not relative to some other “good.” You are not to call your brother Racca, period. His mention of murder is not explicitly connected with negative thoughts except to set up the parallelism in the commandments. “Just as the fifth commandment is a commandment, this new requirement is equally a commandment.” Buddha’s injunction, however, set as it is as an illustration of the opening of the Dhammapada which identifies thinking as the target of Buddhist meditative practice, negative thoughts about your brother are recognized as the initiation of a chain of thinking that leads to other more violent things. Thus in order to change violent behavior you first have to change your thinking. The two are not just equally mandated, they are organically linked as cause and effect. Despite the evocation of the commandment not to kill, Jesus does not explicitate the causative connection between calling your brother a fool and being prepared to kill him. Once again, in the way Jesus is portrayed by Matthew, what is omitted is that this advice is meant for your happiness, and as an invitation to begin a process; it is presented rather as the will of “God” requiring immediate compliance.

Yahweh vs Brahma

The contrast here is due directly to the divergent worldviews of each of these teachers. Jesus worldview was dominated by a Jewish paternal monotheism that derives ultimately from the patriarchal Semitic culture to which the Hebrews owed their origins.

While India was invaded by Aryan tribes that were of the same hunting origins as the Semites, the settled matriarchal/fertility culture of the Indus valley that preceded their arrival seems to have exerted a moderating influence on the male-dom­i­n­ant and warlike character of the resulting culture.   Buddha was born into that culture as a member of the warrior class. The gods of the Hindu amalgam were not unlike the Jewish Yahweh who was a humanoid warrior-god; but an underlying cosmological vision that seems to have originated in the earlier matriarchal times continued alongside it. In that vision the ground of all things was a universal, non-personal, sub-conscious force known as Brahma, called Atman, which means Self, whose suffusive consciousness was recapitulated in the individual conscious human being who was also called atman ― a microcosm of the Great Force that pervades the world. To synchronize with it was to live by the Dharma, the natural order. This was similar to the “divine fire” of the pre-Platonic Greeks ― LIFE ― which seems to have been what the author of the NT letters of John had in mind when attempting to describe the divine spark alive in Jesus.

Buddha conspicuously refused to acknowledge any personhood to the natural order, and like­wise rejected claims for permanent personhood for the human individual. The insistence on the evanescence of the human being was not a culture shock for his time and place. For at no point was Buddha confronted with a contradiction between the impersonal, and transitory nature of experienced phenomena, which was the heart of his practical vision, and a personal, choosing, miracle-working “God”-Self. The very foundations of the Indian worldview were consistent with the ephemeral nature of lived experience. In such a context it was no great innovation on the part of Buddha to have rejected the belief that humans were permanent separate persons ― souls ― who would live forever. Buddha simply emphasized what was clearly evident everywhere: that nothing is permanent, a view that has been corroborated by modern science. Belief in one’s permanence was a delusional projection that spilled over into the way human beings attempted to create permanent satisfactions in this world that were impossible. Buddha’s insights did not involve swimming against the current of his culture; whereas, in Jesus’ case, to insist that the contract with Yahweh did not really include national wealth and dominion ― not now or ever ― was considered a repudiation of Israel’s identity and Yahweh’s reality. As portrayed by the gospels, the Jewish leaders were as threatened by Jesus’ message as the Romans.

Providence

Jesus and the Jews were predisposed by their belief in Yahweh as a personal creator-Self, and national savior-Self, to see things as selected, rational and personally planned. Hence they were inclined to interpret random events and fortuitous composites as “God’s” will, personally and even eternally chosen as elements of a universal Divine “providence.” This also explains why Matthew’s Jesus would couch the most innovative, untraditional and humanizing elements of his message in terms of an alienating obedience sanctioned by a quid pro quo reward-or-pun­ish­ment. It kept the ancient Jewish relationship to Yahweh intact. The transposition of quid pro quo from this world to the next, a defining feature of later Christian doctrine, was a natural and perhaps even inevitable consequence.

There was so much suffering in life, and so much political abasement for the Jews, that it rendered the “promises” of Yahweh little more than a verbal formality ― a mirage limited to the words on a page of ancient poetry, but never actually occurring in reality. One can easily understand the lamentations of the psalmists that Yahweh was “asleep.” But it also created a sense of national failure and desperation among believing Jews. For according to the traditional view of the “contract,” if Yahweh was faithful, the only explanation for the Jews’ subjugation had to be their sins. That supposedly inescapable logic is what convinced Augustine, 400 years later, that there had to have been an original universal “sin” inherited by all of humankind that left us permanently alienated from “God.” What else could explain such suffering and death even after the redemptive victory of Christ.

The Jews, as was evident, were certainly not the beneficiaries of Yahweh’s promises of prosperity and universal dominion. If any people were, it was the Romans. Augustine was deluded by that as well. He believed in a literal micro-manag­ed “providence” and claimed that Roman supremacy had to be the will of “God.” If you accept that as a premise, all manifestations of wealth and power come to be accepted as a proof of “blessings” and divine favor. Those are the inevitable fruits of such a delusional belief. That alone should be enough to undermine, once and for all, the credibility of the entire worldview that the universe is created and micro-man­aged by a personal humanoid “God.”

For the Jews or for anyone else, there never were any miracles. The human penchant for taking the ups and downs of a changing, impermanent reality modulating through time, and mis-interpreting them as the will of “God,” punishing and rewarding, keeps us forever enslaved to our nightmarish projections about reality. We are addicted to having a hovering parent to guarantee that “all’s right with the world” and in order to keep that fiction alive, we are willing to believe that “God” also chooses to impose on us all the evils we suffer. Therefore, in our mythic view, “God” must despise us. But since he’s “God” that means we must deserve it; it’s our own fault. Hence we hate ourselves. The nightmare is endless. The liberation of humankind from self-loathing and the self-inflicted violence that inevitably follows in its train depends on our withdrawal from these delusions. We are composite biological organisms whose material coherence dissipates over time and we decompose. It’s called entropy. That’s the way matter behaves; it’s also why it evolves. Those are the conditions of existence for material composites. We die because we are made of matter, not because we are being punished.

Matthew’s Jesus is no more to blame for this state of affairs than Paul, the Pharisee. They were all Jews, and the imagery of a humanoid, consciously choosing “God,” who actively enters into human history, was their common legacy. We have to have compassion on our forebears and understand the horizons of their view of the universe, even as, with the help of Buddha and the minority strains of our own Christian mystical tradition, we move toward an appreciation of the sacred that concurs with the discoveries of modern science.

[1] Lk 16: 19-31

[2] Mt 5: 21-22, New RSV

[3] Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 62-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

 

Hylophobia

Substance dualism and the failure of philosophical theology

Posted originally Aug 13, 2015. This is an introductory essay promoting a metaphysics of matter — a cosmo-ontology built on the findings of science. It maintains that the persistence of assigning “spiritual” grounds to our thoroughly material existence is an indication of a stubborn atavism that has been engrained in our culture by more than two millennia of substance dualism. The continued assumption of the priority and independent existence of “spirit,” despite proof that the concept is cosmologically non-func­tional, haunts theology and continues to place an impenetrable barrier between the universe as it really is and our understanding of its connection with the Sacred. Matter — the only thing there is — is granted only marginal existence in our minds, and because of this hylophobic recidivism, is forever consigned to the realms of the profane … and we, who are matter, remain forever alienated from the divine.

I want to coin a word — hylophobia [1] — constructed from the Greek words for “matter” and “fear.” My intention is, following the custom of the medical octors, to call attention to an everyday phenomenon by giving it a pretentious Greek label; in this case, one designed to insinuate pathology for what might otherwise pass as normal.

Hylophobia means “the fear of matter,” but for me it represents more than fear: it is the residue of a world-view, allegedly obsolete, called “substance dualism” which says there are two physically / metaphysically distinct “substances” in the universe: matter and spirit. Reductionism — reducing matter to what it does at the level of physics and chemistry — is one of its principal symptoms, but there are others and they all betray the same attitude: a disdain for matter reflected in the denial of its transcendent properties. Hylophobia lies at the root of the autogenic disease of western culture — a collective delusion where individuals believe their own material organism is their enemy, and try to destroy it.

It is also the basis for the reluctance of western Christian theologians to embrace immanence as the fundamental concept that defines the relationship between “God” and the material universe.

I contend that hylophobia, like all true cultural pre-sets, is pervasive throughout the affected population. Its universality makes it virtually unnoticeable. It is not associated with any particular social ideology or political preference, and while it affects religion catastrophically, one of the signs that it is embedded deep within the western subconscious is that it is as virulent among religious progres­sives as conservatives. It is simply part of the horizon.

The case of “progressive” theologians is particularly revealing. I am speaking about those who have publicly declared their rejection of the traditional concept of a transcendent “God,” a concept that leaves room only for a thin and threadbare immanence, if any. Transcendence means “otherness” and it makes “God” distant and inaccessible. They are on the right track in rejecting it, in my opinion, for a heightened sense of “God’s” intimate co-existence with the universe brings welcome support to a theology trying to prove the relevance of Christianity to the modern world by facilitating: an accurate and mutually satisfying rapprochement with science, a primarily communitarian religious response and therefore a deeper, other-focused individual spirituality. It also means that religious exclusivism can not be justified and should no longer be tolerated..

This is significant for our discussion because Transcendence and Immanence ultimately correspond to the metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter. You cannot favor an immanent “God” without once and for all demolishing the prejudices and distortions of substance dualism. Specifically that means overcoming our traditional western denigration of “mortal” matter and our age-old belief in the existence and natural immortality of “spirit.” It is a liberation from the illusions of the past that we seem unable to accomplish.

1

Western Christianity has been characterized since ancient times by a belief in extreme divine transcendence — a transcendence that left virtually no room for immanence — because it said that “God” was pure spirit and shared nothing with the universe of matter.

Transcendence was originally inherited from the Judaism of the Septuagint well before being philosophically justified by “spirit.” According to Genesis “God” created the world from nothing and that means that “God” and humans have nothing in common except the fact that “God” loves us, made us for his own purposes and we are bound to those purposes whether we like it or not. “God” is like a potter who shapes his products to function as he intended. The relationship is entirely exhausted in the category of ownership; we are “God’s” property, intellectually and materially. But we are no more like “God” than the potter is like his clay. Aside from love and proprietary connections we are total stran­gers.

Then, toward the end of the second century c.e., Christian theologians embraced Platonism. Plato said that “God” was pure spirit and on that basis claimed that he shared nothing with anything composed of matter. The Christian use of Plato to explain the structure of reality thus reinforced Jewish transcendence and gave it a Greek philosophical foundation in the distinction between spirit and matter which it did not originally have.

Immanence, on the other hand, means that “God” and the universe “dwell” in one another — they share what they are by nature long before any consideration of how they may be bound by contractual obligations stemming from ownership or love. Immanence implies that “God” and man are genetically related — constituted of the same “stuff.” It seems indisputable that the founders of Greek Christianity like Paul and John, well before the dominance of Platonism, held conceptions of “God” that were immanentist. It is precisely this immanence that Paul alludes to in his speech at the Areopagus in Athens when he said, speaking of “God:”

Yet [God] is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [From Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” [2] (Acts 17:28).

Being “‘God’s’ offspring” evokes a genetic sharing as between parent and children.

These New Testament allusions suggest a deep physical / metaphysical ground in nature, but they do not spell it out. The inescapable point is that a real immanence implies a real natural sharing of some kind between “God” and man — a sharing that comes with birth, necessarily based on the existential relationship between source and emanation, not earned by the efforts of the human being nor conditioned on human reciprocation to “God’s” creative initiative. What exactly is this real thing that both “God” and a universe made of matter have in common?

There have been various answers to that question, depending on the philosophical system that was being employed in the explanation.

The Platonic version which came to dominate Christianity from late in the second century, had a complicated, three-step explanation. In step one it was declared that “in the beginning” God dwelled alone in solitary bliss; Plato called him “the One.” The “One” was utterly unique and genetically unrelated to anything besides itself. “God” was inaccessible to all but his own “mind” (nous or logos). In step two, then, this Logos, personified (reified) as is customary in the Platonic system, “reads the mind” of the “One” and translates what he sees into a World of analogous Ideas. In step three, finally, like a Craftsman working from blueprints, the Logos infuses those ideas into an amorphous “matter” as into a “receptacle” and the material universe is born, a distant reflection of the divine essence.

Those “ideas” are the “essences” or “natures” of created things. Hence a mediated, genetic relationship is established between “God” and the cosmos that is based on the remote similarity between the “idea-essences” of the material world and the incomprehensible spiritual essence (ousía) of the “One.” Notice, matter has no place in this scheme. So, to the question, Exactly what is it that “God” and the universe have in common, in Plato’s version the answer is: “the creative ideas in the mind of the Logos.” “Ideas” for Plato, remember, are spiritual entities, the products of “spirit.” “God” is present to his creation as the model they imitate.

Later, Aristotle’s metaphysics did not fundamentally alter the “ideal” relationship between the divine essence and the essences of created things. In the middle ages Thomas Aquinas added “being” to the list of “ideas” involved. “Being” was an idea, but in Platonic fashion it was reified and identified as a real thing. It was “God.” But since “being” was an idea that included all other ideas in its embrace, the entire theory of a sharing between “God” and the universe was called “participation in being.” Thomism was an expanded version of the Platonic vision and therefore the sharing was in the realm of ideas. We shared in the essence of “God” by remotely imitating the divine perfections, all of which were captured under the umbrella of “being.”

What about matter? Since in the Platonic system “spirit” and its “ideas” were the only real reality in the universe and “matter” was the equivalent of non-being — a kind of empty receptacle — material things were what they were only by participating in the reality of the spiritual ideas (forms), which remotely resembled the divine perfections. Being came through the form, the essence. Matter did not count.

2

Plato’s conception of “remote similarity” between “God” and the universe grounded in the Craftsman’s creative “ideas” was not sufficient, however, to establish a “salvific” relationship with “God” — one that won back our lost immortality — for between anything made of matter and the “God” who is pure spirit, no contact is possible. We “fell” into matter, remember, from the World of Ideas and so contracted mortality. Embodied humans could not share in divine immortality. The weak “remote imitation” basis for divine immanence in Plato’s system could hardly explain the kind of robust statements that John and Paul were making about “God” as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” and the guarantor of immortality.

Augustine. It is at this point that the Christian philosophical theology of Late Antiquity picks up the thread and adds to the narrative. It claims that the Logos became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to bridge the infinite gap between the immortal God and mortal man. Jesus’ resurrection was the first manifestation of the new immortality given to man as a share in Christ’s double “nature” (ousía) one of which Nicaea declared to be the same as “God’s.” One appropriates that shared immortality by incorporation into “the Body of Christ,” i.e., being baptized as a member of the Christian Church. In this vision of things “immanence” was not natural, it was supernatural — the result of the Christ event. It occurred principally in the human soul, its effects on the rest of creation derived from there. With Christianity “immanence” meant the indwelling of the Triune “God” in the soul of the baptized Christian.

The Christian Platonism of Late Antiquity differed from the pagan versions in that its Jewish origins prevented it from explicitly identifying the divine-human gap with the matter-spirit divide. Christian Platonists were frustrated. They were constrained by Genesis to say that matter was “good” because it was created by “God,” but they were also convinced by Plato that matter was evil and anti-human. How to reconcile the two. The solution was definitively articulated by Augustine: Adam’s sin caused the “fall” and corruption of a matter that had originally been created good (and immortal) by “God.” In the beginning, they said, matter was good but became bad. In practice, therefore, Christian “matter” was indistinguishable from the classic Platonic version; despite its divine origins it was now as Plato described it: the locus of all limitation and seduction, all pain, suffering and death. Matter, because of its corruption by Adam’s sin, came to be associated with the devil.

This situation continued through the middle ages, even though Aristotle came to displace Plato as the preferred philosopher of universal reality. Aristotle was a student of Plato who made significant modifications to his teacher’s system. He developed a theory called hylomorphism. It said that everything, whether natural or man-made, is constituted of matter and form. A statue, for example, is what it is because of the material of which it is made, let’s say bronze, and the form or shape that makes it recognizable, like the god, Zeus. Living things were similar. They were made of organic matter and the specific “form” or “essence” that made them an oak tree or a squirrel or a human being. Matter and form were intrinsic to the thing itself, which he called substance; they were part of its constitution.[3]

“Form” for Aristotle played the role that Plato had assigned to “essence.” It guaranteed genetic development and was the source of intelligibility.   It bore within itself the “purpose” for which the “thing” (substance) existed. “Form” is what made this matter a horse instead of a hippopotamus. It was responsible for what the thing was and therefore what it could and should do. Form made the thing recognizable to human minds and therefore belonged to the category of “idea.” In living organisms it was called “soul” and was also considered the source of vitality.

What made Aristotle’s hylomorphism radically different from Plato’s theory was that “form,” which in living things is “soul,” has no existence independent of the substance it enlivens.   Both matter and form, for Aristotle, were only “principles” of being that did not exist on their own; they were components of the concrete existing thing — labels that identified what was conceptually distinct for human experience, not what was independent in itself. That means that one should no more expect that a “soul” would continue to exist on its own after its body decomposes than that the form of Zeus would still exist after the bronze in the statue has been melted down for other uses. Matter and form are not things in themselves but only different ways that humans look at the same existing thing. All that really exists is the concrete composite, what Aristotle called the substance.

In theory at least, therefore, Aristotle rejected “substance dualism” (i.e., that matter and form were each separate substances) and that rejection implied a monism — that reality was comprised of only one thing which is capable of being looked at as either matter or spirit. Aristotle called that one thing substance comprised of matter and form. His was a metaphysics of substance. In theory, therefore, disdain for matter in this system should have lost its justification, for “matter” is not something separate and distinct from “spirit” and therefore spirit cannot be superior to matter. Each is only a different aspect of the same thing

Aristotle’s position was that the soul disappeared when the union dissolved. But predictably in Christian hands it was disregarded. The entire Christian narrative revolved around reward and punishment of the individual after death. The separate and independent existence of the human soul had to be maintained at all costs even if it meant an internal contradiction. Hence Aristotelian Schoolmen claimed the human soul was the one “form” in the entire material universe that lived on after being separated from the matter it “informed.”

Thomas Aquinas was one of them. While agreeing with Aristotle that the soul was the form of the body and therefore that neither matter nor form was a “substance,” he was also convinced that the human soul was immortal and lived on separated from the body after death. This spelled death for Aristotle’s system, for it meant the monism of substance collapsed like a house of cards.

Aquinas’ “solution” disintegrated on launch. What was arguably possible as an academic exercise became unthinkable when floated in the real world. For, whatever your argumentation, if the soul lives on after death, even if unique among “forms,” then in practice spirit instantly and irrevocably retrieves its substantial status — hylomorphism evaporates, substance dualism is re-installed. Matter is relegated to being a separate and alien encumbrance, the “enemy” of the “soul” which alone is the person. For if the soul alone without the body is the subject of judgment and the recipient of eternal reward or punishment, then the soul is a “thing,” as independent as anything needs to be to be called “substance;” its independent existence renders an opposed “soulless” matter equally substantive.

Any chance that Aristotle would move western thought beyond Plato’s substance dualism was demolished by the unquestioned priority of the separated soul in the achievement of salvation in the Christian system. People are not stupid. It was their destiny that was being deliberated in these esoteric discussions; they understood quite well the difference between a body that dies and a soul that doesn’t. Aristotle’s theory was simply ignored. Even William of Ockham, the consummate Aristotelian, the “bad boy” of mediaeval theology who denied any independent reality to “ideas” that were not representations of concrete reality, never challenged the existence and separate reality of the “soul” now supposedly known through other means, like faith. That meant, in fact, that Plato’s view continued unabated. Aristotle never made a dent in Christian substance dualism, because the overwhelming need to have an individual judgment made Platonism impregnable.

This left Aristotle’s system an empty exoskeleton whose inner rationality had been gutted. Philosophical theology revealed itself to be nothing but a montage of disparate and unconnected rationalizations lacking internal coherence. By the fourteenth century It was becoming increasingly clear that the entire enterprise was an abysmal failure. Any attempt at rationality was immediately undermined by the requirements of the Christian cult that had achieved social and political hegemony. It is no wonder that the ruse of “scientific” objectivity was soon abandoned. The Reformation’s reversion to Augustine to replace a sterile scholasticism represented the return to pure cultic thinking without scientific pretensions that simply accepted biblical categories — the abject sinfulness of humankind and the wrathful vengeance of an omnipotent “God” — as the unquestioned starting point for understanding reality. And keep in mind this was occurring as we entered modern times with the birth of science, the use of firearms, the nation-state and the conquest of the Americas.

3

Substance dualism was so entrenched that when Descartes came along a hundred years after Luther and declared quite unambiguously that there were two separate and distinct metaphysical substances, matter and spirit, it didn’t raise an eyebrow. He was simply stating the accepted wisdom. For western Christians Aristotle’s hylomorphism had never functioned as anything more than window dressing that gave a rational veneer to an unrepentant Platonism. Descartes’ clear definition of spirit as a separate “second substance,” the source of all vitality and intelligibility, relegated matter to the realm of the inert. Matter was not a principle but some kind of “stuff” — utterly lifeless by definition: “a substance that could be acted upon but could not act,” a potential for composition completely supine before the power of spirit.

With Descartes substance dualism entered the scientific world as an axiom. It was no longer the subject of philosophical dispute; it granted science the freedom to explore and manipulate anything other than man without concern for its “value,” for matter had been made completely valueless in a world where all value was attributed to rational spirit — mind. Even the “souls” of living things other than man lost the original “spiritual” meaning given them in the Platonic system. Because of the absolute domination of the category of “spirit” by the “immortal soul of man” in the western Christian imagination, plant and animal “souls” were relegated to secondary status — in effect consigned to the sub-category of “matter.” Under the Platonic-Cartesian substance dualism paradigm, “immortal soul” was taken as completely separate from anything material, and even human beings who displayed a little too much “body” in the form of emotion or desire or stupidity or need were treated on a sliding scale proportionate to their perceived rationality. Primitives, menials, illiterate peasants, the retarded, children, women, were all considered sub-human to one degree or another, unable to care for themselves and treated as slaves or worse“for their own good.”

Matter by itself became a lifeless desert. But I want to emphasize: precisely because it was the companion to spirit. All vitality, intelligibility, design, purpose, direction, that characterized material things was claimed to be imparted to them by “spirit,” either in the form of their own material “soul” given to them by a rational “God,” or through the control exercised over them by the rational mind of man. No one in Descartes’ universe ever denied the presence of those “spiritual” characteristics, but they attributed them, exclusively and universally, to “spirit.” “Matter” by itself had none of them, but then, matter was never found by itself.

Exit: spirit

As science progressed, the control that human rationality was learning it could exercise over material things, even over its own organism, increasingly called into doubt the belief that a “divine spirit” had any influence in the real world. The last vestiges of the claim that “God” was a cosmological factor lay in the incredibly intricate adaptation of living organisms to their environment. Nothing could explain how dumb animals and unconscious plants could have come to possess exactly those rationally sophisticated abilities that made them capable of surviving in their complex environments except the infinitely intelligent mind of a Creator “God.” The “essences” of living organisms were thought to be rationally complex energies — “rational ideas” — that resided in non-rational entities; they had to be the result of infusion from without by a super-intelligent, rational “Mind.”

All that changed overnight with evolution. After 1859 it became clear that in fact every sophisticated interlocking feature that meshed organisms with their environments was the result of incremental changes incorporated into the various species’ DNA over long periods of time. What Darwin did was to take the well-known process of selecting the characteristics of domestic animals and plants through breeding, and apply it analogously to the origins of species themselves.   Instead of people, he said, it was nature itself that did the “selective breeding” by the inevitable survival of those organisms whose randomly acquired changes happened to be better suited for surviving. Those without them, of course, died out. The process “selected” among random changes. But “selection” was a metaphor; the organism simply survived. No one was doing any selecting. These changes produced a near-infinite number of living species, and shaped organisms of amazing complexity and relational power. “Mind” itself, rather than its cause, was now seen to be one of its effects.

With Darwin, the belief in the intelligent design of the universe and its species lost all rational justification. Without rational spiritual “essences” — rational ideas as blueprints — needed to explain what things were and how they were structured and behaved, the last reasons for believing in the independent existence of entities like “God” that were spirit, disappeared. Determining the place of the human mind in all this was put off ‘til later. But there seemed little doubt that the material world contained the explanation for what it was within itself. There were no phenomena that could not be explained by the processes indigenous to this world. The existence of “spirit” as a separate and independent kind of being, not only had no proof, it had also lost any explanatory value since every phenomenon imaginable, from massive geological events like earthquakes to intimate human psychological experiences, could be (or were thought to be shortly) explained by material causes. “Spirit” had lost its raison d’être.

But please notice: “Spirit” disappeared from a world that had been believed constituted of spirit and matter. That left only “matter.” But it was a “matter” that had been consigned for millennia to the dark side of the moon — the realm of the purely inert — a “matter” that could be acted upon but could not act, found itself locked into its ancient characterization. “Matter,” whose very definition had been constructed on the presumption of its partnership with “spirit,” now stood naked and alone. It was expected to fill a dual role: not only explain reality’s material functions but also the phenomena once attributed to spirit … but it was expected to do so qua matter … Cartesian matter. There was no new definition of matter to accompany the demise of “spirit.” It was “spirit’s” inert partner … now a widow.

“Spirit’s partner” is Descartes’ eviscerated “matter:” inert, passive, enlivened only by something totally other than itself. Matter remained the same inert substance that it always was as part of an erstwhile binary system, but the vitality in the cosmos, and “things’ ” ability to evolve transcendent versions of themselves, now had no explanation. The phenomena once assigned to spirit were now assumed to be the expressions of this inert, lifeless product of the western imagination. In the absence of a “material” (again, Cartesian) explanation, people tended to deny the evidence that was right before their eyes. An inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore life must be an illusion. The prejudice here is glaring. For it is just as logical and compelling to say that an inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore matter must not be inert.

4

If we were able to purge our minds of the prejudices and subconscious assumptions about “matter” that we have inherited from our Cartesian past which are the source of our hylophobia, we could begin to look at “matter” in a new light. A purified scientifically informed analysis of matter would reveal characteristics that are both self-evident and explanatory of universal phenomena; and the depth of the disparity between these scientifically verified features of matter and our reflex prejudices also explains the virulence of hylophobia … and why it is aptly labeled a pathology.

Inertia. The first is that “matter” is energy. This flies in the face of the most fundamental assumption of Cartesian matter: that matter is inert. The convertibility of matter and energy which may be adduced as proof for this characteristic is actually a misnomer. All existence is material energy. Sometimes it takes the form of visible, impenetrable, solid particles that we have traditionally called “matter,” and sometimes it takes the form of invisible fields, waves, valences, forces for attraction and repulsion that are involved in the manifold relationships that comprise the material universe. At the sub-atomic level powerful forces that account for the very coherence among the particles that comprise the protons and neutrons of atoms, are themselves also expressible as particles. Gluons are a case in point. The force that holds the quarks together to form protons is known as “the strong force.” But the “strong force” is also expressible as a particle called a gluon. Well, is it a force or is it a particle? It has the properties of both and is analogous to the exchange of photons in the electromagnetic force between two charged particles. Photons are familiar as the “particles” that carry light. But we all know that light sometimes acts like a wave and at others like a particle.

At the base of it all is energy. There seems to be no solidity in the universe that is not more fundamentally expressible and measurable as energy. Matter, therefore, is not properly said to be convertible into energy, for there is no “matter” that is different from energy. Matter is energy. And since energy has been falsely associated with spirit in our philosophical past, to distinguish our new understanding of what energy is, I call it material energy or matter’s energy. “Energy” is matter. It should never be thought of as reintroducing binary structure back into reality. Energy is not the equivalent of “spirit,” it is simply another form and word for “matter.”

Vitality. “Matter’s energy” is the bearer of life. This also contradicts our traditional imagery which assumed that matter was dead and required the presence of something that “transcended” the material to be infused and enliven it. But we know there is no such separate, “transcendent” thing in the universe. There is only matter’s energy out there, therefore if we find that there is life in the universe it can only be because material energy in some way bears the capacity for life within itself. Does that mean that “life” occurs when a certain combination of particles and forces are apportioned, arranged and sequenced in some particular way that we so far are unaware of? Or does it mean that there is some kind of seminal vitality present below the threshold of observability in all matter of whatever kind … analogous to other properties that are unobservable except under certain specific conditions, properties like electromagnetism, or even mass itself? The physical details are not for philosophy to decide. But what philosophy must assert is that LIFE is borne by matter’s energy not something else.

Consciousness. The property least associated with matter in our tradition is thought. In fact the very theory of substance dualism was born in the attempt to explain the presence of ideas that seemed utterly beyond the capacities of matter. We know now that virtually every mental state as well as every image producible by the human mind is matter-dependent. That means that, even if you insist on maintaining that these mental phenomena are not caused by the organic material in the human brain, you have to at least acknow­ledge that if there is any damage or disease affecting the part of the brain associated with these various phenomena, that the phenomena in question will be seriously distorted, defective or even disappear altogether. So that even if there were some unknown unobservable causation here that is immaterial, it is still subordinate to the control of matter; “ideas” are matter-dependent.   Such dependence rather suggests that the phenomena are themselves material products.

I believe that matter must be defined by what it is seen doing at all levels of its complex interrelationships, not just at the level of physics and chemistry. There is no justification for limiting matter by some abstract criterion generated by speculation that is not empirically verifiable. Matter is as much matter when it produces thought and ideas, as when it displays the properties like mass and electrical charge that we associate with its more primitive states. You can’t use a crippled definition of “matter” derived from the presumptive immateriality of “ideas” to concoct a concept of an imaginary “spirit” which is then said to account for the reality of what you see “matter” doing right before our eyes. It is a vicious circle suspended in midair. We see that matter is not inert; it is alive and it produces “spiritual” products like thought and ideas. Every phenomenon that had been attributed to the agency of spirit, is now seen to be the work of material energy.

When confronted with these facts, the American philosopher William James introduced the notion of “neutral monism.” Monism meant there was only one substance in the universe, and he added the important qualifier: it was neutral — neither spirit nor matter — but obviously capable of all the phenomena that up to now had been falsely attributed to two separate substances. James lived in an era when monist idealism was considered a viable option and I believe the term was chosen to allow it to function. In our time, in contrast, since matter has been the subject of such spectacular discoveries — cosmological, bio-chemical, sub-atomic — I prefer the term material energy in order to avoid any confusion that “matter” is only an “idea.”

It’s important to emphasize: there is no intention on my part to deny the existence and human significance of the empirical phenomena that have been traditionally assigned to the agency of “spirit.” Consciousness, thought, poetry, mysticism function as they always have. My entire effort is simply to show that there is no justification for inferring the existence of something other than material energy to explain them. Substance dualism was exactly the result of such an unjustified procedure. Material energy is entirely sufficient for the explanation of all phenomena in our universe; no recourse to a putative “immaterial” source is necessary.

5

Now all this put Christian theologians in a conundrum. In the absence of “spirit” they had no philosophical basis for saying the traditional things about both man and “God.” Christian doctrine seemed inextricably wed to metaphysical dualism. For if, as science was saying, there were no such thing as “spirit” opposed to “matter,” then neither the transcendence of “God” nor the immortality of the individual human soul has any ground in reality. Claims for their existence are not only gratuitous, but also meaningless, for what does “transcendence” mean if there is nothing that goes beyond the possibilities of material energy? What grounds transcendence now? Religion found itself completely cut off from the real world — forced to reject all the proven sources of knowledge on whose unquestioned authority everyone, religious people included, depend unreservedly for everyday living.

This “schizoid” existence — believing one thing in the world of work and daily life and another in Church — has accompanied the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Christian churches by the educated classes, especially those versed in science. Religion without roots in the real world appears to be nothing but fairy tales, and indeed, the ever more common orthodox concession that our doctrinal inheritance may now be taken metaphorically and not literally has left many with the impression that the theologians have capitulated and have settled on a strategy of employing religious narrative only for its familiarity while ignoring its claims to factual truth. Under these circumstances “living a Christian life” means allowing oneself to be motivated by nostalgia: to live the way traditional Christians who once believed these dogmas and associated narratives used to live. It self-consciously accepts religion as the exclusive repetition of ancient patterns and eschews all moral and intellectual creativity. It is life in imitation of honored ancestors.   Christianity is as dead for those who stay as for those who leave.

Concerned theologians have attempted to overcome this necrosis by distancing themselves from the wrathful and punitive character of the transcendent “God” of Augustine’s imagination. In that effort they emphasize the immanence of “God.” While pastorally speaking it is the logical step, the inveterate western hylophobia that pervades their imagery about “God” has made their efforts little more than pious rhetoric. They have nothing to ground immanence in, and so “immanence” in their hands becomes rooted in words, “ideas,” — imaginary spirit — and dismissed as just another fairy tale.

They will not acknowledge that the source of immanence has to be the material energy of which we are made. What we share with “God” has to be what we are and that is matter. This follows from our new metaphysics — the cosmo-ontology of neutral monism. Since material energy is all there is, there is nothing else we can share. They also cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that “God” must be material energy itself. Immanence can no longer be grounded in “ideas.” For while these theologians claim to reject the derivatives of dualism — like divine transcendence — if they do not accept the transcendently creative properties of matter, the principal one of which is the energy of LIFE, they have no real ground in which to root their claims of immanence, and they end up re-installing dualism by default.

Divine transcendence is a projection derived from substance dualism. You cannot reject “transcendence” without rejecting the reason why transcendence was accepted as an unavoidable conclusion about “God” in the first place. Correlatively, the “immanence” that is offered to take the place of transcendence cannot be installed without installing the transcendently creative properties of the material energy that is the only possible ground for a genetically shared life between “God” and the material universe. In other words, “God” cannot be “immanent” in a material universe without acknowledging the LIFE creating and sustaining capacities of matter and identify that material energy quite unambiguously as the LIFE that we share, and the origin, source, principle of LIFE is what we mean by “God.” You can’t make a more traditional statement than that.

On a similar note, you can’t continue to generate hope in the immortality of the human individual after death without grounding that hope in something other than substance dualism.   In other words, if it is not “spirit,” what could that be … and can it effectively (affectively) replace the traditional paradigm? Or must “religion,” considered as a program that claims to validly encourage trust in organic LIFE-as-it-is precisely because it is based in fact, be abandoned?   Is religion so tied to the existence of an imaginary spirit that any other format will immediately decertify it? In other words, can “religion” based solely on matter and material processes provide the basis for human hope?

These tensions continue at the level of physical / metaphysical ground precisely because of hylophobia — the residual fear of matter based on the unexpurgated prejudice of its Platonic-Cartesian assumptions. It is the source of the reluctance of theologians to subordinate their thinking to the results of science. This is an obstacle to the pursuit of a viable alternative for religion; hylophobia constantly undermines wholehearted commitment to the neutral monism that is necessarily at the basis of a new paradigm.

I want to emphasize: substance dualism is rationally, scientifically untenable. Any religion based on it can do little more than repeat ancient narratives whose claims to factuality have been completely discredited. But the central place of reward and punishment for the individual immortal soul has rendered any alternative to substance dualism unthinkable in practice. Christianity is locked solid into hylophobia.

The absurd anomaly of a theology that pursues immanence because of its fertility for prayer and a sincere universalism but refuses to acknowledge the need to root that immanence in some physical / metaphysical ground, conjures the specter of a substance dualism that just will not go away. For in the absence of a ground in material energy these theologians posit immanence in circular fashion — hanging it on a sky hook. What can that hook be but rhetoric — “ideas.” They like the idea of immanence but they can only justify it by its posterior benefits, not because of any basis in objective reality. It becomes a completely subjective projection: they opt for divine immanence because it works for the spirituality and ecumenism that they espouse, not because it represents reality. It is the use of these affective circularities, so characteristic of religious thinking that has eroded any confidence in the validity of philosophical theology — theology as a science.

6

Part of what feeds hylophobia is the inveterate aversion to pantheism. Why fear of pantheism should be so intense in official Christian circles comes back to the ecclesiastical narrative. The Church needs a transcendent “God” — a “God” that is “other” than humankind — or it cannot run a program based on obedience. Any hint of a shared life between “God” and humankind prior to the Christ-event runs the risk of justifying individual autonomy and vitiating the mediation of the Church. For a being that shares “God’s” life ab initio also shares divine freedom and creativity, moral and custodial authority and the permanence in being that has been labeled “immortality.” Immanence implies that the norm of morality resides within oneself, implanted there by nature, inalienable and demanding recognition. This runs counter to the role the Church has assumed in a theocratic society.

But even granting that the Church admits some measure of immanence because, historically, the doctrine has always existed as a “minority report” among mystics, no adequate distinctions have been drawn between pantheism and pan-en-theism. This is critically important. For the former states that we are collectively “God,” which is absurd, and the latter that we “participate” in “God’s” life by nature. The concepts are very different metaphysically but the accusation that pan-entheism is really “pantheism” does not acknowledge that difference. Fourteenth century mystics Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porrete were both pan-entheists who were condemned as pantheists, and Marguerite was burned at the stake for it. Irish mystical theologian John Scotus Eriúgena was a pan-entheist who was condemned posthumously as a pantheist. And even Baruch Spinoza, universally considered a pantheist, in the eyes of Karl Jaspers was a pan-enthe­ist. Clearly the tendency has been to see any natural, genetic, pre-redemption sharing between “God” and man as “pantheism” and the rich and fertile path of pan-entheism, based necessarily on the acknowledgement of divine immanence, has been closed to western religion.

Hylophobia is functioning here, for even those that are willing to move in a pan-entheist direction fail to identify the structure of material reality as the evidentiary source of divine immanence. They try to ground divine immanence in some “idea,” or in a “feeling” of being united with “God,” a “feeling” that is given no basis in nature. They wax poetic over oneness with all creation and creation’s “God,” but they don’t seem to see that it is their responsibility to clarify exactly what that oneness consists of. It’s not sufficient to say it makes me feel good. What is the reason? Because “God” chooses to dwell with us? That’s the Christian narrative of redemption, which justifies Christian claims to exclusive validity … it is not the pre-Christian reality identified by Paul in Acts 17 as the common inheritance and destiny of all peoples, the ground of the universal validity of all religions.

The roots of immanence are genetic and inalienable. We are inextricably bound to “God” because we are all made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, the LIFE we share. That’s where theology begins: with reality … the facts … with the way things are. Theology doesn’t control the facts … the facts are given to us by science. Theology tells us what the facts mean.

But no, theology could not allow itself any such simple straightforward solution because, I contend, the solution acknowledges the primacy of matter and theologians consider the subject of religion to be “ideas” or “feelings” or “texts” out of some book — sources that justify theology’s claim for autonomy. Theology tries to confirm its independence of science by coming up with its own esoteric premises that continue to evoke a “spirit” that we know has been proven cosmologically non-functional. The whole procedure is an exercise in circularity. Theology cannot concede what is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes: we are all matter … and we are only matter. There is nothing else but matter. Matter’s energy is “being” … it is all there is. The universe is wall-to-wall matter whose source must itself be the very same matter. That means that “God” is matter. How exactly does that work? The details are for later elaboration. But the point of departure is that whatever is the source of all this universal matter cannot be “other than” matter. Theology will never acknowledge that, and therefore its efforts will always fail, especially its efforts to establish a religiosity based on divine immanence. It refuses to start with reality. If it is ever to break out of the vicious circle it has created for itself theology must begin with the firm and indisputable conclusions of science about the real universe that “God” created … not the universe our ancient ancestors thought “God” created. The vicious circle is broken by theology taking its rightful place as part of the chain of human knowledge. And it is science that provides the facts that are to be interpreted. What we ask of theology is to tell us: what does it mean that everything that exists is made of matter?

Matter is energy, and everything made of matter is a bearer of that energy, embedded in the very interstices of its sub-atomic connections. As matter evolves more and more complex versions of itself, those forms display exactly the same energies across the board — the energy to live and to survive, to interact and relate, to put the whole before its parts, to treat itself as part of a totality. It’s time we took the admonition of Paul in the opening chapter of Romans seriously:

For what can be known about God is plain because God has shown it to us. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1: 19-20)

Even the “text” points us toward science.

[1] I am aware that clinical psychology has already pre-empted that word for a pathology characterized by a fear of forests, but it is a rare condition and few people are familiar with the term. The parallel with hylomorphism makes it likely it will have more traffic in the philosophical sense I am suggesting.
[2] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Location 225077). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.]
[3] Matter and form were actually only two of four causes, the other two being the efficient cause (the maker) and the final cause (the end or purpose for which it was made). But these two are extrinsic to the object in question ( and final cause is really a restatement of the formal cause) and not really relevant to the issue of the constitutive elements of the universe. Including them would have been an unnecessary distraction.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Psalms 85 to 89

PSALM 85

Background. A community lament, possibly post-exilic but historically undetermined. Murphy thinks that if the restoration mentioned in v.1 is the return from the exile, then this new plea may have messianic allusions. The anticipated salvation is personified as a “kiss” between earth and heaven: a symbol of the contract. The messiah was still an earthly messiah.

Reflection. This psalm has been given a “prophetic” messianic interpretation, probably originally from the Jewish community after the exile nostalgic for the Davidic kingship and then by Christians who applied it to Jesus. From a general Buddhist point of view, however, “salvation” can only mean enlightenment ― that through fidelity to meditative mindfulness we see clearly the structural impermanence that characterizes the human condition, stop looking for an escape for a fictional “self,” stop calling on help from an outside source that does not exist, and re-train ourselves out of mutual compassion to bind with our fellow humans in a community of justice and loving-kind­ness. Later Mahayana Buddhists would claim that the very possibility of conquest over samsara implies the existence of a True Self, a Buddha-nature, that ante-dates the false self-created by our delusional dreams. What emerges from the stripping away of the layers of meaningless habits of self-indulgence, self-aggrandize­ment and self-protective isolation, is something that was there all along: a Real Self, the resonance of living in accord with the Dharma, LIFE’s path, something we share together with all things. That Real Self the Hindus call Atman, Brahman, and I call LIFE’s energy ― a notion that corresponds to Meister Eckhart’s idea of the “Godhead” and the Sufis’ concept of Allah. We are THAT, every bit as much as the material energy of which we are constructed. They are the same thing.

1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

That is a gross deflection. LIFE is never angry. We are the angry ones, unreconciled to our condition. We rebel at what we are, biological organisms in a world of living matter, and the severe limitations that places on us ― the greatest of which is death. Will we stay angry forever? When will we accept what we are, impermanent, perishing creatures, and start having compassion on one another. We are all in the same boat. Grabbing food from a starving companion only infuriates everyone, including yourself; it intensifies everyone’s suffering.

4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

It means learning to love ourselves, forgive one another for we are all driven by the same conatus to live forever in an entropic universe where all things decompose and die. Reconciling ourselves to our condition brings peace. We are the offspring of LIFE. We can let go. Rest in the flow of LIFE that carries us. There is nothing to do. There is no place to go.

7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

We can dodge death for only so long. Everyone will eventually lose friends, family, and the accomplishments of a lifetime. Building a “legacy” that will live in the memory of others is a pallid alternative to immortality. It only fools us while there are those that even care to remember. But they also disappear in the general emptiness, and the colorless shadows that their pale light had once cast on the wall of history disappear with them. Earth and heaven will finally meet when we accept what we are. That moment will be, for us, like a Cosmic kiss: what we are, and what made us what we are, will finally be one thing.  And living in the present moment — the eternal Now — is a foretaste of that ultimate event.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

 

PSALM 86

Background. A personal lament of generic focus. It appears to have borrowed a great deal from other psalms and so gives the impression of being a “boiler plate” offering used perhaps as stock prayers for sale by the temple priests and paid for by suppliants in court cases. Murphey says “LORD” in this psalm is Adonai, not Yahweh.

Reflection. Regardless of its origins, this poem expresses the same sentiments as others of this genre. The same metaphors apply. The “enemies” are the enemies of LIFE, the Dharma-path of justice and compassion that turns the earth into a community of loving-kindness.

1 Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;

3 be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.

4 Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.

6 Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.

7 In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.

9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

LIFE is our LORD. The world is the work of LIFE. It is everyone’s undisputed LORD and we bow down before it. The Dharma-path is the “truth” of LIFE. To love LIFE is to walk the truth of the Dharma-path with undivided heart.

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.

13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Our enemies are our false selves; those fictional creations of ours meant to conjure up a reality that does not exist and which, at any rate, we do not need.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.

17 Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

 

PSALM 87

Background. A Hymn of praise on the occasion of an undetermined feast. Mt Zion, the place of the Temple, is central to the worship of Yahweh who rules all peoples. As the universal ruler, Yahweh is assumed to have a register of his citizens … and they are from everywhere. Diaspora Jews also live in all these nations mentioned, and many were born there. The image of the presence of Jews in these lands meshes with the universal rule of Yahweh which also paradoxically means that all peoples are also citizens of Mt Zion.

Reflection. LIFE is comfortably metaphorized by the imagery in this poem. The residence of LIFE is in all things composed of living matter, the energy of existence everywhere, but most especially in humankind who are LIFE’s mirror and agent. LIFE’s living matter is the Source from which all things arise. We are all the offspring of LIFE. We are all the mirrors and agents of the Way of Dharma, fundamental morality: justice and compassion. This establishes a reciprocal relationship of all people to one another. We are all born of LIFE, we are all pilgrims on the Way of the Dharma, I belong as much to any one of my brothers and sisters in LIFE as they belong to me. We are one family.

1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

3 Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.

4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia — “This one was born there,” they say.

5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it”; for the Most High himself will establish it.

6 The LORD records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”

7 Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”

 

PSALM 88

Background. An individual lament, conspicuous for the absence of any belief that divine help was forthcoming. It has been described as the only psalm where there is no victory, no redemption, no release … no sense of hope. And yet the psalmist insists on voicing his complaints to “God.” He may not expect help but he expects to be heard.

The poet is “lying in his grave” from some relentless misfortune, and feels utterly forgotten by Yahweh whose “wrath,” he thinks, lies heavy upon him. He sinks beneath Yahweh’s waves, high water being a frequent symbol of death and chaos in the Hebrew scriptures. Not only can he not count on Yahweh’s help, but Yahweh somehow has insured that even his human companions, friends and family, shun him. They look on him with horror. He is utterly isolated.

It is remarkable that this psalm was even included in a collection of what are very often pious formalities built on the common belief of miraculous divine intervention held in common by the tribes of the ancient near east. It stands as a credit to the poetic and religious integrity of the psalmists and redactors. This poet has the courage and candor to “tell it like it is,” a rare virtue.

Reflection. This psalmist speaks to the human condition like no other. His imagery is peppered with allusions to “the Pit,” Sheol, the place of death and lifeless shadows. There is not the slightest hint that there is any way to escape his destiny. This psalm holds our feet to the fire. We are all deniers. We find it very difficult to admit the truth, that, sometimes for everyone, and for some individuals virtually all the time, life can be intolerable. I am reminded of my friend, Tim, an outdoorsman who at 48 years old fell and hit his head. He severed his spinal cord at the base of the cranium and became paralyzed from the neck down. Lack of blood flow to his legs meant that an earlier wound would could not heal and one leg had to be amputated at the hip. He had to breathe with a respirator and he could only speak by having air diverted from the respirator to an artificial sound box. Doing so was dangerous, however, and on one occasion he went into respiratory arrest when the diversion was attempted and failed. I would pray this psalm in his stead for he was indeed a man who was already “lying in his grave” unable to move arms and legs, unable to speak and communicate, left for days on end to the ministrations of a paid staff of caregivers who were all too inclined to use opioids to relieve his anxiety and save themselves from his constant demand for company and communication.   Like Jesus on the cross who could not move either arms or legs, I thought I could hear him crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? Was such suffering pointless, or was it redemptive? Jesus himself, I believe, was not sure. We have no idea to what depths suffering can reach … it seems there is no limit. Our clinging to LIFE and our dedication to the Torah, the Dharma­path, has to include these possibilities, for they are all too real. The Disneyland mirage is a myth of the worst kind. It is a massive cultural collusion designed to encourage confidence that technology’s consumer products, including modern health care, is actually a way out of the human condition.  There is no way out.  The only way is in.  Embracing LIFE as it is, is the only way.

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,

5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.

Suffering that entails isolation is the most awful of all. How do prisoners survive months and years in solitary confinement? At this very moment there are human individuals all over the world who are suffering more than we could ever imagine. Nothing says it couldn’t be me. Nothing says it has to be someone else. It’s almost like LIFE is angry and is punishing me. I feel like a leper. People shun me; they smell the residue of burnt flesh and want no part of it. I am trapped and alone.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.

So I turn to LIFE, but LIFE will not extract me from my sufferings. LIFE is not a god who works miracles. LIFE is not in need of worship and praise so there is no sense cajoling. LIFE needs only a place to live … live, then, in me, but save me!

10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?

11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

But I am what I am. I do not know how to die. I cannot ignore this overwhelming desire to live. LIFE, I bear your face, your features, your character, your conatus, your DNA. I am your offspring. I see my face but I don’t see yours. Does the suffering and isolation have to include blindness as well? Why do you hide your face? Of all my sufferings, this is the worst. Why do you hide your face?

13 But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?

15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.

LIFE, I do not apologize for complaining.  What I need now is a god of miracles: someone out there with power. I am dying. I need help, not insight. Until I can let go of my need to live ― a need I got from you ― I will rail against my fate. I don’t know what else to do. You’ve left me to deal with it alone; my one companion is darkness.

17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.

18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my one companion is darkness.

 

 

PSALM 89

Background. This psalm is divided into two sections: a long first section of formalities of praise and repetition of the standard truisms of Yahweh’s power and fidelity to his promises. The object of the promises, however, is not the Hebrew people, but, in a glaring departure from traditional expression, that of the king alone, and he is emphatic in reminding Yahweh of the promises he made to David. Then the poet turns to the second and last part: a lament and open chiding of Yahweh for not upholding his side of the bargain. Suddenly it becomes clear: part one was flattery. Yahweh was getting an ego-massage to set him up for what the psalmist apparently thought would be an irrefutable argument that Yahweh could not ignore ― that you have not only abandoned your contract with the king, but you have allowed your own honor to be trampled in the dust. What power-soaked near eastern autocrat could allow such sentiments to be expressed without reacting?

Roland Murphy (Jerome Biblical Commentary, OT, p. 592) bizarrely misses the dynamic of this psalm and with astonishing naïveté suggests that there were two authors or two totally different psalms inexplicably redacted together. In my opinion, this unaccustomed obtuseness on his part can only be due to an unwarranted attribution of “divine inspiration” that imagines the psalms as devoid of negative sentiments ― pique, ill-will, deviousness, cynicism, even sarcasm ― toward “God” that a more secular critic would be quick to notice.

It confirms for me that the psalmist is working out of a very primitive and simplistic theological framework. For this poet what makes Yahweh “God,” is power. The poet lives in a world where all human action is a response to and an expression of one person’s power over another, in the family, in the fields and workshops, in business and trade, in politics local and international. Not much has changed in practice since then, and so we can easily be sucked into maintaining these familiar attitudes by allowing them to guide our prayer. But we must honestly acknow­ledge: they are obsolete. They have been superseded. We use them as prayer only out of deference to our tradition. They must be purged of what disqualifies them. If they cannot be reasonably updated without breaking bones they must be discarded.

The psalm is also conspicuous for its almost exclusive focus on Yahweh’s promises to the king, not as usually presented, as part of his contract with the nation. That makes the theology erroneous, even for that time. This is another hint that we are dealing with a self-serving religious manipulation that had the audacity to use some liturgical occasion to shore up autocratic power and avoid “regime change” by appealing to Yahweh. The intention was to utilize whatever resource was available: in this case divine help. It used a prayer format but there was little of sincere religious devotion there.

The later Christian use of this psalm as a prophetic announcement of the universal political power of a future messiah they identified as Jesus the Christ adds to its unacceptability. That distortion derives directly from the psalm’s original exclusive focus on the Hebrew king.   By linking together the exaggerated theocratic intentions of the psalmist and an unwarranted identification of that king with Jesus, it was all by itself as impactful as any other factor in the total gutting of the gospel teaching on power as service. It was used to justify the mediaeval Papacy’s claim to universal secular power. This linkage is a complete fantasy and it must be broken. One way to begin doing that is to strip the psalm from its place in the canonical hours. It should no longer be prayed by Christians.

Reflection. This psalm is another object-lesson in how we have to approach scripture in general, and ancient prayer in particular. Just because the psalms are found in the “Bible” doesn’t mean that they express authentic religious sentiments that we can allow to guide our relationship to LIFE. Our first and most basic reaction to the psalms has to be to read them as literature and history. We have to understand the level of religious and scientific development that the poets of that time reflect. We then have to judge whether these sentiments are appropriate for our relationship to LIFE and the moral path we are enjoined to follow, or can reasonably be understood in our terms. Even ignoring gross literalisms, many of the psalms express a dynamic ― a relational attitude ― that is simply unaccep­t­­able. Giving some “things” mentioned in the psalms (nations, enemies, even Yahweh) a symbolic function may work in some cases, but changing the relational dynamics is another thing altogether. It will often simply distort the poet’s meaning beyond acceptability. I believe this psalm, like others that we have encountered in this study, is in that category. I think we are better off just reading it as an historical religious artifact. An obsolete museum piece.  A primitive religious phase that we are well rid of.

1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:

4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'”

5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.

6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

7 a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?

8 O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD Your faithfulness surrounds you.

9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

11 The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it — you have founded them.

12 The north and the south — you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;

16 they exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness.

17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.

There is no mention made of Yahweh’s power on display at the exodus from Egypt. At times in the OT, “Rahab” is used a symbol of Egypt, but it seems not to be meant that way here, and is simply a symbol of chaos and of Yahweh’s universal power established by creation. It should be noted that “universal power” is what gives Yahweh power over the other gods that represent other nations. This in my opinion is what is driving the poet: getting Yahweh to assert his dominance in the council of the gods to prevent some impending international catastrophe from occurring to the Israelite king.

18 For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.

20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him;

21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.

22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.

23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.

24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.

25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.

26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’

27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.

29 I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure.

The exclusive reference to the king, his line, his special relationship to Yahweh, the range of his power and the complete absence of any mention of the nation, is a clue to the theological eccentricity here. This is not orthodox Yahwism; it is the king arrogating to himself the prerogatives of the whole nation. The people are mentioned as potential transgressors, but even granting the total failure of the people, the psalmist demands that Yahweh’s fidelity to ”his king” should not be shaken.

30 If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances,

31 if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,

32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges;

33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness.

34 I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.

35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.

36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.

37 It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.”

Here begins the lament, and once again it is exclusively centered on Yahweh’s abandonment of the king. The people do not figure in this picture except as failures. Damage done to fortifications and city walls is described as being done to the king. Those that do these things are his enemies. The losses on the battlefield are his losses. Yahweh has abandoned his anointed who is only the king.

38 But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.

39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.

40 You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.

41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not supported him in battle.

44 You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.

46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?

47 Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!

48 Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?

49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

51 with which your enemies taunt, O LORD, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

The traditional Christian application of this psalm to Christ is another reason to reject its use as prayer: the original Hebrew distortion which ignored the community dimension gave rise to the Christian extrapolation, applying it theocratically to Christ. Christians have taken it from the Jews as a prophecy of a messiah who will be given autocratic power over all the peoples of the earth, subverting Jesus’ specific call for leadership as loving service and reverting to the paradigm of coercive power: a subversion that the Catholic Church ratified and arrogated to itself. It provided the theoretical basis for the Church’s claims of universal political dominion over the entire planet and justified harnessing Jesus’ message to serve the theocratic interests of every state self-identified as Christian. It’s time we repudiate these sentiments.

52 Blessed be the LORD forever. Amen and Amen.

This ends Book III of the Psalms

Self-embrace

Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.

1

In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

2

I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

3

The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

4

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

5

We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

Emptiness also means that the realities that we see directly, throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have perennially claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

(Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda