Materialism and Mindfulness

Preliminary notes to a commentary on the psalms

13,000 words

This is the beginning of an open-ended work in progress. The first installment is long, but divided into sections of less than 2,000 words each. It will be followed at unspecified intervals by others on the same theme. The general intention is to examine the moment to moment working out of the relationship to the Sacred implicit in the premises of transcendent materialism.

In this case it will take the form of a commentary on the psalms, not because there is something superior about these ancient prayer-poems of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but simply because they were the ones in which most of us were formed. We are bound to them by age-old practice and their poetic content is not only grafted into our subconscious but has found its way into the culture as truisms no one disputes. They have formed the fundamental attitudes toward the Sacred for us and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The psalms, however, evoke an obsolete view of the world. They assume a humanoid definition of God” and the erroneous relationship that definition implies. They also bear the scars of an earlier updating made by men like Augustine of Hippo whose Roman Imperial Christian Platonism functions like a voice-over, distracting us from what the psalmist was actually saying and preventing our own attempts at appropriation. That’s the reason for this exercise. If our vision of reality has expanded beyond those confines, our relationship to the Sacred must change accordingly. Hence the psalms, which, as traditionally understood could actually hold us captive to a mindset we no longer want to live with, become the strategic heights that must be conquered in a struggle for liberation.

Ironically, what’s at stake is the continuity of our tradition. For, recognizing the serious disconnect between the psalms and our view of the world, we tend to aban­don them altogether, consigning the entire genre to the museum of obsolete artefacts. As I hope to show, this would be great loss, for the psalms also throb with pre-Christian, pre-Platonic longings that concur remarkably with our materialist view of reality.

We will also find that the materialism of the psalms synchronizes with a religious universalism that so far has eluded us. Eliminating the spiritist presuppositions of the Platonic paradigm interwoven so authoritatively by Christians over the centuries opens the psalms to use by non-western traditions. I think especially of the forms of Buddhism that are currently flourishing in the West. Adjusted for the discoveries of science, the psalms unexpectedly function to confirm the relevance of paths that are not our own.

*       *       *

For me, personally, this is not an academic exercise — the dry exchange of one set of words and categories for another. It is my attempt to wrestle with Jacob’s angel, all night long if need be, until he surrenders. I want to first pray the same psalms that sustained my commitments when I was young, but as I now understand them and believe they must be prayed if they are to open the sacred dimensions of our material universe and planetary family.  

Traditions hold a certain sacredness for us not for being old but because we share a deep humanity with the people that forged them. These ancient prayers have borne the weight of millennia of people seeking LIFE. We cherish the psalms despite the atavism that we are obligated to challenge.

Finding words that accurately communicate the way one prays, however, is not a straightforward project. Prayer is often wordless, and trying to verbalize what is a silent stance, commitment, surrender, or regret, can easily mislead. But my responsibilities in this regard go only so far. You, the reader, will be misled only if you fail to check what I offer against your own experience. This is not a lesson. I am not a teacher. I am simply sharing my experience. The authority you have to follow is yourself.

This re-emphasizes the point that that these reflections are not now, nor have ever been, my private project. It is a collective endeavor. We are bound to one another at levels that go far deeper than the paper memberships invented by officialist orthodoxy. As our understanding of the world has grown, our expanded experience of the Sacred adds to our collective growth and evolution. It continues the process, already well underway, of making the whole world a human family grappled together by the steel hoops of justice and love. I hope you will make your experience part of this enterprise.


1.

I am quite conscious of the fact that using the word “materialism” anywhere in a presentation on religion, and especially in the title, is likely to turn away the very people  I am trying to reach with my message. But I am willing to run that risk because I am confident that my point of view will ultimately prevail. Materialism is the truth, and the truth is more than important; it is the very quint­es­sence of the sacred. My position is very simple: everything is made of matter; there is nothing that is not made of matter; matter is all there is. “God,” the wellspring responsible for the existence of all things and the innate source of our sense of the sacred is a material force that enlivens matter as matter. This “God” is equally near to all, and is that in which we live and move and have our being.

Matter is sacred. Any religion claiming to be true has to embrace the reality of our material universe. The fact that there are phenomena that transcend the obsolete reductionist definition of matter imposed on it by Platonic-Cartesian dualist prejudice does not affect the thesis in the least: all those phenomena without losing anything of their transcendent character, are the products of matter, nothing else. Matter is simply capable of more than we were led to believe.

The reason for the traditional recoil against matter is also very simple. Historically, here in the West, religious people have come to equate the sacred with what is called “spirit.” Of course that word means different things to different people. But what they all have in common is the belief that there is another world, another level of reality where our lives and destinies as human beings really belong. By prioritizing this other place, ironically as physically distinct from this material world, belief in spirit questions the full reality of our universe. Fundamentally, it is an escape. It imagines an alternative universe that is not controlled by the mechanical causes and effects that rule the material world where we eke out our daily survival often with great difficulty.

Material forces and their outcomes are determined — that means they are locked in place. With matter there is no room for variation. If the myriad of links that connect your ignition key to the running of your car’s engine are properly in place, when you turn the key your car has to start. There is nothing magical or supernatural about it. No “God” can prevent the car from starting and correlatively, if they are not in place, no amount of prayer and fasting will ever induce it to start.

Many people have recourse to religion precisely because they do not like that. They feel they need to have another avenue to travel on, one that is not determined by material reality which is the cause of so much suffering. Life is hard, but I am not speaking of social problems — the miseries that we heap on one another — I am simply speaking of the fact that material reality is impervious to our desires. It eludes our control. We have to bend ourselves to its demands; matter does not accommodate us. We are not particularly happy with this world the way it is.

For many, religious belief in spirit offers a way out. It is focused on miracles — past, present and future. Miracles are physical events that bypass the laws of nature. And this bypass is possible because spirit is believed to be a force that is independent of and more powerful than matter.

They imagine spirit as “something” that is not bound by the laws of nature, and in fact, they think it can dominate and control matter, compelling it to conform to what spirit imposes on it. Spirit in this sense represents material power and that includes the ability to neutralize matter’s destructive potential. The irony here should not be overlooked: spirit is imagined to work physically on matter; it is thought of as a material force and therefore, by implication, something of a material “substance.” It’s a further indication of its origins in fantasy.

The ultimate source of this force is an invisible person called “God” who is conceived as pure spirit who, inexplicably, created matter and has infinite power over it. The entire significance of “God” for many people is that “he” is not constrained by matter as we are and can make matter do whatever “he” wants. So they feel that if only they can establish a connection with this all powerful material force, they can compel it, or cajole it, or manipulate it or in some other way harness it to do what they really want: submit matter to our will and whim — perform miracles.

The ability to perform miracles — to coerce matter — they call “power.” And this “God” is therefore all-powerful. “Power” means the ability to negate matter’s effects — implicitly by the application of a violent force. The fact that there is no evidence that this actually ever happens in response to any human communication does not seem to deflect spirit’s true believers from their convictions.

The greatest miracle of all, of course, would be to neutralize matter’s tendency to shift shape. Fragmented as it is, units of matter come together and then drift apart assuming one temporary form after another, always changing. This impermanence impacts us adversely because in our case our bodies are one of these temporary forms, and when their components dissolve and re-combine in another form we die. Hence our enthusiasm for the story we tell ourselves that under the veneer of the body we are actually spirits — immortal “souls” — that after the body disintegrates live on forever. Also “God” the pure spirit of infinite power is believed capable of reversing the disintegration of our bodies and bringing them back to life again after we die to live on as bodies in another world where supposedly only spirits reside.

So we cling to our belief in spirit. Notice that all the reasons have to do with dissatisfaction with our material world and ourselves as material organisms living immersed in and dependent upon matter for our own survival. We believe in spirit because we want to control and in some cases avoid or obliterate matter’s natural behavior. We are material organisms, despite our claim that we are something else, and our fixation on spirit is explained as a fantasy that provides an imaginary cure for the negative consequences of matter, principally its impermanence that means death for us. We are not interested in spirit in itself, it is actually quite foreign to our experience; it is conjured as a material weapon in our struggle to survive in a material world. Our interest all along has been in harnessing matter, and the elimination of death.

Notice that in the history of religion in the West, so-called “spiritual” realities were described as if they were material, i.e., as if spirit were a substance. Spirit was conceived as if it were simply a different kind of matter, a “thing” or “force” that was equally as determined in its func­tioning and results as matter, differing only in the plane or dimension of reality from which its operations originated. So, for example, “grace,” a spiritual force, was conceived by Christian theologians as if it were some kind of infusion like a magic potion or an energy which made miraculous things happen: it changed people’s minds, or more grossly, it was thought to actually rearrange the sequence of events, natural or man-made, like thunderstorms or baseball games, to effectuate certain outcomes “willed by God” usually because some people had asked for it and had been able to meet the requirements for securing “God’s” favor.

2.

All this stands in stark contrast with reality. And the religion that I propose embraces the material reality of our universe and ourselves as part of it, enthusiastically and without reservation. There is no other world … there are no miracles … and a “God” of power who coerces matter does not exist. That is not a belief or a theory, it is a fact.

The world, exactly as it is, is sacred. The material world is not an illusion that will disappear with death or an imagined Armageddon. It is not a curtain behind which real reality lies hidden. What you see out there is what is really there.

The spirituality I advance is derivative of this understanding and moves between two foci: (1) the individual material organism … and (2) the material environment in which this individual emerges including matter’s energy, the ground and matrix of all things. The sacred is engaged in this context and no other. There is no other world and no other existence, and therefore the sacred bears no reference to anything else.

This differs radically from the former spiritist-dualist conception of the sacred which imagined the human individual to be an immortal soul destined to live eternally without the body. In that discredited worldview the relationship also moved between two foci: (1) the individual soul whose eternal destiny was determined by its ethical behavior while in the body … and (2) an imagined world of spirits where it was believed the soul would spend eternity in relationship with its unknown destined community. In this view, one’s earthly community was irrelevant to one’s eternal destiny. No matter how deeply loved, unless these others as individuals lived in such a way as to earn membership in the community of reward after death, there was no way to expect that relationship to them here would continue later. Each “soul” was on its own. A saintly mother, effectively, had to learn to disown a sinful son or daughter because her primary relationship was to “God” and whatever future community would end up sharing eternity with her. This view of things fostered an individualism born of distrust of others. It tended to undermine local family and clan connections and encourage dependency on the overall moral authority.

God is the energy of matter

It has been traditional in the West, with some notable exceptions, to claim that “God,” which Paul identified as that “in which we live and move and have our being,” could not possibly be material based on the prejudicial denigration of matter’s characteristics. Aquinas’ argument that “God” is simple (a feature derived from the assumption that “God” is spirit) and could not enter into composition with anything other than himself without losing his simplicity, like all arguments for the existence of spirit, assumes what it claims to prove. The underlying problem is the universal assumption of the existence of spirit as a substance existing in a parallel world and yet fully operative in the world of matter, a phenomenon that is not explained.

This evokes another objection: how can a “God” that is pure spirit and diametrically opposed to matter, even have created matter? Specifically how can a mind that is supposedly not matter even have imagined such a thing — its complete antithesis? Where would it go for the paradigm? Even Gregory of Nyssa recognized the anomaly here and acknowledged that he had no answer for it.

Some theologians, like Meister Eckhart, argued that spirit is uncomposed and that “God,” as infinite pure spirit, in order to create a finite imitation of infinity conceived of the present moment in the flow of time as the finite counterpart of the “eternal now,” and created matter as a foundational solid that would sustain time’s sequential fragmentation.  Eckhart was a Thomist pan-entheist and his theories, expressed in spiritist dualist terms, dovetail in practice with the spirituality inherent in transcendent materialism.  I have no problem with Eckhart’s mysticism, what I disagree with are the physical /metaphysical assumptions that he uses to explain them. That his spiritist participation in God’s act of ESSE parallels our materialist co-possession of God’s material energy underscores the similarity of the experience. The experience is the same, how you explain it is what is different.

All arguments assume the existence and characteristics of a substance called spirit — something for which modern science can find no evidence whatsoever. To the contrary, when science proceeds on the premise that there is nothing but matter driven by its own internal energies, it is able to explain all the forms and features of our universe including the near infinite number of living things on earth.

Even human consciousness, traditionally adduced as proof of the independent existence of spirit, is now seen to be a product of the material configuration of the human organism. The activities of mind are clearly known to be completely dependent upon the human body for their existence and character. If the relevant components of the human body are damaged or destroyed, the corresponding mental operations cease or are altered beyond recognition. Diseases like Alzheimer’s that are known to physically damage the brain entail the extreme loss of cognitive function. The dementia that often accompanies old age in which the human individual no longer recognizes close friends and family, and possibly even his or her own identity, is clearly body-dependent. Mind, in other words, is a product of matter, not the other way around as we traditionally believed.

But matter has its own internal energy, and when that is included in the analysis, it becomes clear that the dynamism of matter has been responsible for the evolutionary elaboration of new forms of material organisms and even new levels of function. Complex molecules at a particular moment in geologic history began to display the characteristics of life — identity, self-preservation, nutrition, reproduction — where no such phenomena had previously existed. Later the emergence of human consciousness followed the same pattern, appearing where no self-reflec­tive perception had existed before. The ability to constantly transcend itself — go beyond its current forms and unveil capacities no one would have ever guessed were there — is the creative power of the energy innate in matter. Matter’s energy is transcendent. It goes beyond the platforms from which it launches new forms. It creates as if out of nothing. Hence I speak of transcendent materialism — matter with a creative dynamism. Evolutionary emergence actually happened. New things appeared as if “out of nothing.” These are facts, not beliefs or theories.

So we are slowly becoming aware that the universe is entirely different from what we supposed it was. And that means, of course, that the “God” responsible for it all, while maintaining the same essential relationship of loving-source, ground, model and creator as ever in our tradition, turns out to be entirely different from what we were led to believe.

“God,” whatever else that may mean, is the living energy of matter. And, since the energy of matter is first of all an energy to-be-here, “God” in our material universe also retains the traditional definition as esse in se subsistens — the act of existing itself. The fact that “God” is the existential energy that characterizes every particle and sub-particle of matter, is particularly consistent with and highly explanatory of how all things share, by participation, in the very existence that is proper to “God” alone. Once it is understood that what we share with “God” is not some concept — like the abstract “act of existence,” or “life” considered as a separate vital force injected into matter — but our very material substances, participation in being opens up for everyone a broad rich landscape that was heretofore the private meditation garden of a few philosophers and theologically trained religious.

A “God” who is the existential energy of matter redefines the concept of “power.” Power for this “God” is the ability, and we might even say, the proclivity to produce LIFE and more LIFE. Power is potentia — potential — not potes­tas, or imperium, the imposition of control. The goal, then, of human relationship to the Sacred will be to align one’s own potential with “God’s,” to become “powerful” in the transmission and enhancement of LIFE. And the “spirituality” of those pursuing that relationship — the bodily transformations that accomplish that alignment — will be directed to the conscious embrace of our potential as “God’s” potential … achieved incrementally in each succeeding present moment until the two become identical and the human organism is the perfect expression of matter’s sacred energy.

What was abstract becomes concrete and our unity with “God” is revealed as more intimate and organic than ever imagined. “God” is not a distant Spirit who voluntarily chooses to “draw near” to some human soul mysteriously elected for mystical experience. “God” is by nature near to all of us, as Paul insisted, because in “him” our bodies live and move and have their very being. “He” is the living matter of which we are constructed. Suddenly the esoteric texts of Johannes Eckhart and John of the Cross cease being the opaque expressions of ascetical virtuosi speaking from ethereal regions beyond this world. It now becomes clear that they were speaking of ordinary reality as we now know it, a reality the science of their times did not recognize but that they discerned through the faithful reading of their own inner experience. They experienced what they did because that’s the nature of this one real world. They were able to break through the obfuscations created by ancient Platonic dualist expressions by allowing the intimate touch of reality to inform their understanding and not the other way around. They were uniquely sensitive men who trusted what they felt rather than what they were told. They palpably experienced how intimately they and “God” were one. Unfortunately they had no other way to communicate it except through the convoluted dualist categories of mediaeval theology, which we have to decipher in the new terms provided by the science of our times.

The science of our times has quietly, over the course of 500 years, led us to see that organic LIFE is the core of reality, and we know LIFE because our bodies are alive with the same organic LIFE. The Platonic detour that took us in circles is no longer in force. We are not constrained by those categories. We see clearly what we are. And we know that what we are is what “God,” our living substrate, has to be: the material energy to be-hereesse.

What Eckhart had to go to the mountaintop to find, we can see every day on our way to work and back: we are alive with “God’s” LIFE because we are material organisms — bodies; we are made of “God’s” material energy. All it takes to be in touch with it, is noticing.

3.

Being-here is time related. Existence erupts in a seamless sequence of instantaneously vanishing “nows” that come out of nowhere and slip almost immediately into a past that is no longer here. If it’s important to notice anything, we must notice what is-here now. The past is not here anymore. The future is not here yet. Hence if we want to relate to the existential energy — the esse — we call “God,” we have to do it in the present moment. For a conscious organism, being present to the present moment means noticing.

Noticing is everything, but we spend most of our time distracted. We very often don’t attend to what passes through our minds. That means the feelings that our thoughts and images give rise to are generally beyond our oversight and control. It’s as if someone or something else is injecting them and causing the actions they inevitably suggest. Our minds are racing through the images of a changing stream of consciousness whose headwaters are so far back in memory that were they to be identified it would be difficult to trace the connections between the two. Distraction at a minimum robs us of efficiency and focus. But that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also mean so much suffering for ourselves and others. Because when we’re distracted the conatus takes over — our organic auto-pilot whose job is self-preser­vation — and begins scanning the horizon for any and all possible threats to the “self” which, in order for the conatus to do its job, must see itself as poor, vulnerable, defenseless and afraid. It spies enemies actual and potential everywhere. The default mode it runs in is paranoia. It would seem a conatus that perceived itself any other way could hardly qualify for the role. But, more rarely, some people do believe themselves to be superior and invulnerable. And when that happens, unfortunately, things are often even worse. It drives the ruthless pursuit of ego-enhancement at the expense of everything and everyone else.

The role of the family and neighborhood in the childhood formation of an individual’s ideas, attitudes and values provides much of the content that feeds the conatus’ voracious appetite. Invariably enemies are identified, criteria for judgment about others’ intentions are established, defensive or retaliatory rejoinders are suggested and often the very reactions of the offended victim, if perceived as inadequate, are subjected to humiliating condemnation by the survival community. The example of parents and older siblings in their response to life-situations are absorbed and internalized. What one is to cherish and how one is to respond to virtually every eventuality in life is pre-programmed by the local culture and becomes as intimately and unconsciously part of the individual’s mindset as language and preference in food, music and    mates. How one is to proceed in the accumulation of wealth and the choice of one’s work in life are also part of cultural formation, sometimes exercising a lifelong influence that can be both blinding and enslaving. Religion and the feelings of guilt or approval it generates for certain behavior are also in this category. By the time the individual moral consciousness is awake enough to even question behavior and motivation and imagine alternatives, habits of thought, attitude and action have already been ingrained and exercise a determinative control over the “self” protected by the conatus. One discovers a fully fleshed out “self” has been formed in the absence of any authentic input by conscious intention.

So our organic instincts, in the absence of an active self-awareness, can take our minds hostage churning out images derived from various authorities that militate against the trust that sustains harmony among us. Unless challenged these feelings will convict others (and even ourselves) of having betrayed and humiliated the “self” that the conatus feels obligated to protect. Self-aggrandizement, defensiveness and retaliation are its stock-in-trade, often aided and abetted by the culture.

Some people are able to check these negative feelings quite naturally. Perhaps having been fortunate enough to have secure and positive parents and family, they catch themselves thinking thoughts that are selfish, unreal, mean or paranoid, and refuse to give them purchase. Some grow up with such a sense of their own attractiveness, talent and rational competence that they cannot imagine anyone having a negative thought about them. Definitely lucky people. Others grow into self-confidence as they mature, establishing successful relationships with family, friends and work and faithfully carrying responsibilities for others. Dark brooding feelings also occur to them, but they are able to dismiss them and over time, like the first group, cease to find them even minimally credible.

Still others are not so lucky. The ordinary circumstances of their lives have not provided a resistance to the negativity that poisons peace of mind and undermines healthy and satisfying relationships. Those who, for whatever reason, have to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of negativity, must find artificial devices to help them avoid sliding into reactions and addictions that offer a temporary respite for the pain that their uncontrolled feelings generate. Of course I am speaking in extremes. The reality for most people is somewhere in between.

But there’s enough negativity generated by the culture or by the distracted defensiveness of a runaway conatus that almost everyone would benefit from some mechanism, or exercise, or practice that will help them identify and control the flow of imagery through their minds and the intense feelings they spawn. The blind-sided conatus that comes embedded in our material organisms can be harnessed to energize a different self, aware of its secure identity as matter’s sacred energy, liberated from cultural preferences and prejudices that undermine healthy relationships and determined to become compassionate and generous toward all things. But it requires noticing.

4.

Buddhist spiritual practitioners have addressed this distractedness and have identified it as one of the principal sources of the unsatisfactoriness that seems to dominate human life even when the more painful forms of anguish and suffering — which unfortunately also abound — are not present. Their response to the problem is what they call “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the fruit of meditative practices that promote attention to the present moment: noticing. Since so much random daydreaming has to do with what happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future, focus on the present moment is bound to find itself in short order face to face with a runaway mind dwelling obsessively anywhere but the present. Becoming aware of the default negativity of the conatus is the beginning of wisdom. Incrementally re-establishing conscious awareness and control of the conatus-driven mind is the path to personal transformation.

Even when negative thoughts are so intense that the conscious mind cannot stop them, the practitioners of mindfulness claim that the very act of observing them consciously and identifying them as both uncontrolled and unintended, immediately creates a distance that saps them of intensity. Over time, without the nourishment of ownership actual or assumed, mindfulness can weaken them to the point of elimination.

The conatus is a biological instinct that mines the existential energy of all the matter of the body and places it at the service of the living composite — the self. The conatus is not itself conscious but functions for an organism whose identity includes the imagining mind. In the absence of conscious self-awareness and control, the conatus generates the appearance of a self by producing feelings connected with mental imagery generated by fear and self-protection. It’s the job of the conatus to aggrandize the organism and to identify threats to its growth and success. When that instinct is allowed to function on its own without conscious control, consciousness at some point will awake to find its conatus-driven mind awash with a series of thoughts, feelings and reactions already in place which have projected a posture toward the outside world. The now-attentive consciousness evaluates what it sees going on, and finds itself pre-defined. It sees itself as others see it, based on the evidence of attitude and behavior. The difficulty it encounters changing things due to the strength of the habits formed further confirms the assessment. The uncontrolled ruminations of a distracted conatus have constructed a false self-comprised almost entirely of self-defensive negativity and self-aggrandizing illusion possibly reinforced by cultural beliefs some of which may bear the weight of sacred tradition. Getting control of this situation is not easy, especially because it is not immediately apparent that getting control is even possible.

5.

But the “self” formed by unconscious habits is not the last word. The very ability to observe one’s own behavior as if from the outside, and then assert that one’s intentions are different from what the established “self” is feeling and doing, indicates that there is a source of identity that transcends the sub-conscious mind habituated to negative thinking. That source of present-moment identity can be called the “true self,” or the transcendent self for it transcends its own habituation. The choices it makes represent the posture of the fully aware conscious organism, no longer distracted, but mindful of itself and its surroundings and increasingly attentive to the present moment as the fruit of its meditative practice.

This is the point when we come face to face with the mystery of our existence as human beings. For the ability to stand back and look at oneself feeling and acting seems to draw on a source of conscious identity that transcends the organism’s unconscious mental operations. If such a source of identity did not exist the work of the unconscious conatus would be entirely opaque: the mind would not be able to see past it; the only thing perceptible would be what the runaway conatus was presenting for consumption. Where does this other identity come from?

Some claim that there is an Absolute Self that exists underneath or alongside the relative self of our routine mindlessness. Each human individual, they say, is potentially energized by either self and chooses which of those selves they will activate to let dominate their attitudes and behavior — in effect that there are two selves that we have recourse to as we choose. I can understand how observation of distracted human behavior and the awareness of human potential might lead someone to say that. But I believe on metaphysical grounds that the human organism is only one thing and it is driven by only one conatus. And it is one and the same mind that either notices or doesn’t notice.

The ability of the mind to double back on itself and look at itself doing what it does as a mind is a feature of our reality that we have traditionally ascribed to “spirit.” But I say there is no separate spirit. What we are looking at is the ability of matter as configured in the neurological components of the human organism to focus or not focus on the content of its consciousness, to be mindful or to be forgetful, to attend to the present moment or let itself drift distractedly into imagery from the past or projected into the future or provided whole cloth by the local culture. The energy is the same whether distracted or attentive. The conatus is the same whether it is mindlessly pursuing self-aggrandizement, accusing others of hostility and betrayal, dwelling on prejudicial tribe-generated judgments or intentionally being activated by a mindful consciousness to generate conscientious alternatives to rancor and conflict.

The conatus is perfectly capable of being “tethered” and made to see that self-preser­va­tion is located in heeding the dictates of conscience and intentionally focusing its energies on the development of a self that becomes thoroughly compassionate and generous. There is nothing mutually exclusive here. I’m talking about engaging the enormous self-directed energies of the conatus sese conservandi — the body’s drive to survive — in the transformation of the self. We are each only one thing, ourselves, and the material energy that drives us is ours to direct and apply. The issue is to regain control of it, slowly and incrementally over a long time if necessary, and point it where we will. It’s not a question of eliminating it; it can’t be done anyway and the attempt would leave us dehumanized. That was the mistake of the Platonic delusion. It thought the self-directed urges of the body were depraved and needed to be obliterated. That was wrong. The solution is to teach the body’s conatus what “self-preserva­tion” really means.

6.

Synteresis (sometimes spelled synderesis) was a word the Greeks used to refer to the immediate and spontaneous natural grasp of right and wrong. They thought of it as an innate habit, the moral counterpart of the principle of contradiction. It’s not at first a conscientious judgment about moral action; it is prior to conscience. It is the inborn knowledge of the first moral principles. You don’t have to develop this habit. It comes with the human organism. The human individual cannot not know that there is right and wrong. The sense of justice is built into the organism because it comes with intelligence.

Synteresis was considered a sub-routine of the mental grasp of identity, hence injustice is its first wake-up call. Injustice offends the principle of contradiction — the principle of identity — that each is only oneself, has a right to be oneself, is owned only by oneself, and therefore owns what one needs to survive and remain oneself. The Greeks attributed it to the Platonic belief that the “soul” was spiritual and made in the image of a spiritual “God” who was defined as subsistent Goodness: one of the three principal derivatives of Being (unity, truth and goodness). “Goodness” as the moral corollary of unity and truth — the right desire to remain oneself — correlates to “justice.” It is first apprehended in the jarring unease felt at its violation, hence injustice is its most basic perceptible form.

Inevitably, due to its Platonic origins, synteresis was classified under the general category of “the domination of the flesh by the spirit,” since sensuality was believed to be an exclusively bodily feature inclined toward evil, and synteresis its spiritual antithesis rooted in the intellect (mind or spirit). In our material universe, however, we know that the phenomenon of the immediate sense of right and wrong, which virtually no one disputes as a phenomenon, is not to be attributed to a “soul,” an ethereal substance whose reality belongs to another world, but rather to the human organism made of matter always consciously in touch with material identity — the innate realization that each thing is only and always itself. Synteresis, like intelligence itself of which it is an expression, is a function of matter and is for the human observer a primary datum in the search for the nature and character of the material substrate — matter’s energy — from which all things are constructed. Synteresis, in other words, our embedded inclination to recoil at injustice, is a derivative of matter’s existential energy every bit as much as the conatus. It’s a primary source for our knowledge of what matter’s energy is.

It seems that there must be some intrinsic connection between conatus and synteresis. They are both the direct, non-mediated expressions of the same thing: the foundational substrate of our universe of matter. In practical, psychological terms it means that the revulsion at injustice and the drive for self-preservation must essentially be the same thing.

This seems paradoxical, because the inclination to moral rectitude characteristic of synteresis has generally been interpreted as a selfless dynamic, while the characterization of the conatus has generally been that it is mindlessly focused on selfish goals. But this is where our analysis of the role of mindfulness in the confirmation of the conatus’ malleability — its radical openness to be directed to what exactly constitutes “self-preservation” — dovetails with what we know of physical / metaphysical reality. It is a clear example of the unity of identity of the human organism. We are only one thing. We are not two selves, a relative self and Absolute Self vying for attention and control, nor are we a soul and a body, each contending for domination of the individual in a zero-sum war that will mean the extermination of the loser. We are always and only one same identical conscious material organism capable at all times of consciously and intentionally directing or not directing the spontaneous energies that come from our material infrastructure. The only thing that would render us incapable of such action would be a serious impairment of the material organism stemming from physical or hormonal damage or when something mind-altering like drugs or alcohol interferes with the body’s normal operation. Moral capability depends on the integrity of the physical organism.

This is also an important datum in our understanding of our source, matter’s energy. Physically and metaphysically speaking, we are what our source is. That means we are not different from “God,” the LIFE of matter. We are one and the same living “stuff.” The synteresis — the fundamental moral inclination that we are born with — every bit as much as the conatus itself, is the primary expression of the energy of LIFE. And the intuitive sense that the conatus’ drive for self-preser­va­tion is to be identified with the synteresis’ abhorrence at injustice now is seen to have a physical / metaphysical foundation. Matter is “God”-stuff … and the “stuff” that we are talking about is us, for we are made of it.   We are all and only matter. We and “God” are comprised of the same genetic material. That’s how we were “created:” we are “God’s” own existential material energy evolved.

All of the dualities that have kept us fragmented and self-imploding are now seen to be illusions. We no longer imagine that “God” is different from us or that we have to somehow travel some great distance to find “him,” or overcome some great obstacle to make contact. We do not have to buy our way into “God’s” favor in order to escape from the consequences of a body we drag around like prisoners in chains. We are not eternally at war with ourselves trying to have an imaginary soul deal a death blow to a body whose very vitality is a sign of moral depravity. And when we fail in our efforts to control the conatus we can start again because the “God” we have insulted and betrayed is not other than ourselves.

There is no need to climb some moral mountain or spend a lifetime in exploring the tunnels and caverns of our subconscious. Our task proceeds mundanely on a daily basis — on our way to work and back, as it were — to remember who and what we are. The practice of mindfulness is to return to the present moment as “God” stuff and insure that “the words of our mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, are acceptable in the sight of ‘God,’ our synteresis-illuminated conscience.”

We do not hesitate to identify ourselves with “God” because the “God “ of the “pantheism” that traditionally frightened us was defined by the discredited idea of a “God” with an anthropomorphic definition of “power.” We know we are not omnipotent, but we also know now that “God” is not omnipotent in that old discarded sense either. We have a different idea of what “power” means. “God’s” “power” is not manifest as control of matter but as its very LIFE. “Power” was our category, a display of coercive force, it did not define “God’s” power which is exhausted in the potential for generating LIFE.

“God’s” power is the potential to propagate LIFE, absolutely nothing else. The ability to destroy, stifle and control is what we humans mean by power. It is, in “God’s” terms, impossible. “God” cannot do that, for “God” is always and only creative LIFE. There are no miracles because “God” cannot suspend the laws of nature. “God” is nature. To suspend its laws would mean nullifying himself. The principle of identity rules. “God” cannot be anything but “God.” There is only one miracle: the invincible potential for LIFE that emerges at each present moment — each “now” — of matter’s existence in whatever forms it has, up to the moment, evolved..

And so we identify ourselves with “God” and unapologetically pursue allowing “God’s” LIFE to take over and completely supplant the false power-hungry “self” that our unbridled and undirected mindless conatus has been allowed to conjure into existence, like a blind sculptor. The result of its unconscious efforts, no matter how grotesque, in the case of human beings is not set in stone. Habits grooved into living flesh are open to change. They can be transformed through the power of mindfulness: welding synteresis to the conatus.

7.

Prayer. The pre-existing energy of the matter of our organisms — present since the moment of the “big bang” — congeals into the conatus-synteresis that is the foundation of our individual identity. It compels us to find “God” at the intimate center-point, the shared ground at the “intersection of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, … .” which “like a two edged sword, living and active, discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is the “place” where the existential energy of our source becomes our very own, bound over in service to our identity. The conatus-synteresis is the organism’s drive to survive as human — its thirst for life and its revulsion at injustice.

If we intend to relate to this “God,” therefore, this is the “place” we will find him, with a face and features indistinguishable from our own. And that, for us, erstwhile spiritists learning to pray all over again in a material universe, is the consummate challenge. For our tradition has not taught us to think of “God” as our matrix and therefore of ourselves and “God” as a compenetrated entity. To the contrary it has imagined “God” to be distant and inaccessible, “out there,” “other” than we are, separate and distinct, an individual person, Pure Spirit, who acts ad extram outside himself on matter and who requires a moral response to his revealed commands as the condition for contact. The fact that a theologian as officially acceptable as Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century that “God” does not work ad extram but rather accomplishes everything — from creation to redemption — internally, as a participation in the trinitarian processions themselves, has not put a dent in the anthropomorphic imagery universally held by the Christian tradition. Thomas’ immanentist theology, even if understood, was never applied. The ancient humanoid imagery stemming from the Hebrew Scriptures remains perennially unchallenged by the pastoral exhortations and catechetical education of the Christian clergy.

It’s only when we do away with the erroneous duality of matter and spirit that we can finally demolish the separation-illusion we have erected between us and our creator which was based on the alienating effect of our human bodies. “God” was thought to be pure spirit and that’s what drove the irretrievable wedge between us. Only now, knowing that we are the very “stuff” that our creator is made of can we fully embrace and be morally enlivened by the divine immanence that theologians spoke of but the ecclesiastical authorities never found conducive to their program of social control. The hierarchy needed “God” to be distant; how else could they justify their ministrations, guaranteed to bring a metaphysically distant “God” near, always with the hope that he will perform miracles for paying clients.

But “God” is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The LIFE that we share with “God” is only one LIFE, “God’s” LIFE — matter’s energy. That is the miracle — the energy of LIFE — the only miracle. There are no others.

If we are to re-imagine “God” as “God” really is, then, we have look at what “God” is actually doing: activating our existence in the present moment, enlivening the matter of our bodies, specifically that energy within us that reaches out for more existence and is outraged at injustice. If we are to touch “God,” our attention has to focus on the present moment when we know that our material existence is newly arising in time as pure fresh water from a mountain spring as yet uncompromised by the pollutants that enter downstream. It is the “still point of the turning world,” and our true self newly armed with the conatussynteresis emerges with it at every instant. This is a constantly renewed potential that is born of the non-contradiction — the truth — to which we are welded in steel by our diaphanous minds. That intelligence as yet uncontaminated is not selfish in the least, is fully liberated — we might even say “all-powerful” — and in no way beholden to the “knee-jerk” false self that it sits quietly observing. That doesn’t mean that it is immediately capable of seeing details clearly, much less taking charge of the organism, which unfortunately may be held captive by the illusions of a mindless conatus now hardened by years of habit into a caricature of itself. The true self displays its authenticity, first, in its inability to not see things for what they really are. This is the terrible “judge of the living and the dead” that we dread: our implacable conscience. It knows what we do and why we do it. It fears no shame. But it has no power to coerce; it invites us to surrender to its unlimited potential rooted in the infinite ground of esse — matter’s existential energy itself emer­ging afresh in every moment.

It reminds us wordlessly what frauds we have been and are still capable of being, but whose unsullied re-emergence with conscious intelligent existence at each moment invites us to identify with this true self, the true residence of the organismic energy of the conatus-synteresis, forget the fraudulence of the past false distracted selfish self, and embark now as if it were the beginning of time in the limitless embrace of its Source arising to the surface. This is the “creator” and “savior” on whose existence we ride “as if on eagles wings.” The Source and outflowing current of this living spring are indistinguishable. It is ourselves. This is the “God” to whom we pray.

8.

The psalms were a compilation of imprecations made available by Hebrew priests to their various paying clients, as well as the collected songs of praise and pleading that were used for official state functions after the return of the Jews from exile. They are many and varied, but they have one thing in common: they are directed to “God.” They are dialogic. As you would expect from the era in which they were redacted, around 600 bce, they assume “God” to be a separate individual humanoid “person” out there, all powerful in a coercive sense, who did once and even now still can perform miracles like those associated with the Exodus, and make good things happen for “his” people.

Hebrew legend has it that they were slaves in Egypt and that the god Yahweh identified himself with their plight and helped free them from bondage. It is not surprising, then, that this earliest recorded religious adventure in our tradition took the form of a business contract. The captive Hebrew People bound themselves to do what “God” wanted and in return he bound himself to do what they wanted. Of course that involved miracles that put matter at the service of their needs: locusts devoured crops of their Egyptian captors, the Nile turned to blood, and even the Red Sea parted to aid their escape from slavery.

The psalms assume the contractual relationship between Yahweh and the Jewish people that is known as “the Covenant.” The contract provides the context in which the psalms generate their characteristic content. It accounts for some of the boldness — sometimes quite demanding — that otherwise would seem impertinent coming from a poor suppliant directed to the all-powerful master of the universe.

We used to imagine that “God” was literally as the psalms depicted “him.” But we have since learned that “God” is not like the person in the psalms or the other writings of these ancient near eastern people struggling to salvage a modicum of sovereignty in a region contested by the great rival empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. To begin with, the series of miraculous occurrences said to have accompanied the exodus from Egypt never happened, or were natural events given a hieratic interpretation by people emboldened in their efforts at liberation because they believed that Yahweh’s power was being applied on their behalf. Recalling the exodus and the contract that emerged from it forms the core of the argument of the psalms just as it formed the centerpiece of Jewish self-identity. The Jews were a people because they had a powerful “God” to whom they were related and who once suspended the laws of nature to secure their freedom and could do so again.

That means that the miraculous, as far as the psalms are concerned, has an important foundational dimension: it created the identity of the Jewish community. In our times we can only take that as metaphor. The community we relate to is the whole human race surviving by the fertility of the earth’s environment. This triad of the power of “God,” communal identity and freedom is the leitmotif of the psalms and remains their central dynamic even after the literal physical / metaphysical context has been brought up to date. It’s the source of the psalms’ transhistorical significance both for the individuals and the global community that emerges from using them.

Christians from the earliest days were aware of this feature of Jewish identity, and they boldly arrogated it to themselves. They identified themselves as the new chosen people. Jesus was the new Moses … his death and resurrection were the new Exodus, the definitive liberation, the passage through the Red Sea of death to the promised land of risen life. And Jesus was the “David” predicted by the psalms, the king who would rule from one end of the earth to the other, the “first-born son” of God himself whose reign would have no end. None of this was in the mind of the psalmists who created these songs. “David” was the reigning king at the time. The hyperbolic projections of his longevity, political reach and domination of others were very straightforward: Yahweh’s people should expect no less. After all, it was the wonder-worker of the Exodus who guaranteed it.

All this reference to Jesus, it hardly needs to be said, was imposed later by believing Christians who were determined to find symbolic clues and hints of “God’s” universal purpose — designed for the entire human race — in the events recounted in the Jewish Scriptures which formed the basis of their daily prayer. The earliest Christians, after all, were all Jews. Where else would such expectations come from?

What is most salient to our perspective is that the early Christians believed they were upgrading Judaism from a local, sectarian, tribal belief, to the final universal design intended by God. The early Christians were Jewish universalists. But almost within their lifetime, Christianity itself, in order to protect its boundaries became a sect every bit as closed and exclusive as the Jews that they thought they were transcending. In this respect, Christians claimed the “contract” — the Covenant — was transferred to them. There was a “new contract,” a New Covenant, and it was with Christians. It is not at all surprising that, by using those categories and terminology, Christianity became as tribal and exclusive as anything they thought they were escaping.

How do we, in our time, despite the sectarian dynamics in operation both for the Jews and later for the Christians, deal with this? I contend “The contract” provides an especially apt analog for the relationship between the human organism, the human community in which the organism effectuates its survival, and the living material energy of which it is made, and which is the source of all its powers. While the Jewish Covenant imagines a God-person with a residence beyond this world, and the Christian appropriation of that Covenant crassly identified the Roman Empire as the new “tribe” to which all must belong, the claim that “God” is activating his considerable coercive power for the Jews (or the Roman Catholics) can only be a metaphor. Literally speaking there is no such “God” or power and there never was, neither for the Jews nor for the Catholics.

But what is relevant is the dynamic of the relationship. Yahweh, in the psalms is bound to the Jews. There is no question about his commitments, even were his preference to change. He is bound by contract. Yahweh belongs to the Jews, and the Jews belong to Yahweh, like it or not. They are “two in one flesh,” like a married couple however dysfunctional the relationship, and indeed the prophets use the marriage metaphor more than once to describe the bond between Yahweh and the Jews and to draw conclusions about the behavior that it implies.

In our terms, “God” is the living dynamism resident in matter. “God,” as Eckhart would say, is the ground in which I exist. “God” belongs to us and we to “God” in the most intimate manner possible for we are one and the same stuff. My “self,” however, that coalesces under the driving insistence of the conatus to survive in each present moment in time, is quite capable of erroneously imagining itself to be a solid stand-alone independent entity — groundless — existing in its own right. “God,” even understood as the energy of matter, is not spontaneously perceived as part of this picture. Therefore a significant correction is needed if the human organism is to imagine itself accurately.

An independently existing entity is what Aristotle called a “substance,” a term that Spinoza claimed could only be attributed to “God,” and since everything else existed in “God,” everything else was, for Spinoza, necessarily a “modality” of the one divine “substance.” Spinoza’s philosophy was an idealist version of pan-entheism, taken directly from the mediaeval focus on the central place of ESSE — “being” in the conceptualization of reality. For pan-entheists of any persuasion, you cannot conceptualize the subordinate entity without including its Source-ma­trix, “in which it lives and moves and has its being.” In the obsolete spiritist-dualist Platonic metaphysics that earlier constituted the “perennial philosophy” of the west, the Substantial Source that “modalized” the human individual was the concept of ESSE, always an abstraction even when imagined as a concrete force as in Aristotle’s “act.” But our science has more accurately revealed to us the concrete characteristics of our universe: ESSE is matter’s energy and everything that exists is constructed of it. It is easy to imagine because it is concrete.

In our terms “divine power” means the unlimited and irrepressible potential for LIFE and justice that is on display in the conatus-synteresis embedded in human organisms. LIFE’s power — i.e., “God’s” power — expresses itself in the identification of our own identity, the driven conatus, with the embrace of justice, synteresis, the moral corollary of the principle of non-contradic­tion. That identification is the source of unlimited human potential — it is the divine guarantee of personal and social identity and liberation and it necessarily involves the displacement of the imaginary independent “self” with another “self” fully aware of its roots in the ground of “God’s” LIFE. In that moment — always a present moment, of course — the organism is freed from captivity to the false self, the erroneous self that thinks it has its own existence, as if it were its own source. But the human organism is not self-originating. It is in the achievement of that liberating realization that both the true self and true human community are born.

*     *     *    *

All the factual elements that form the content of the psalms have changed for us. We are not Jews. We do not believe that “God” is an all-powerful entity who had a tribal contract with Jews and then later with Christians. We are convinced that there are no miracles and never were. We have come to understand that “God” is not a humanoid person “out there” with whom we can communicate but rather a living dynamism “in here,” in our flesh — the innate force of LIFE enlivening the material substrate of this evolving universe and our very bodies. “God” is LIFE, absolutely universal and “belongs” to everyone. What we experience as our own living identity, the conatus, the drive to survive characteristic of every living organism, is an existential energy that belongs primarily to the material substrate of our organisms and only secondarily gathered into an ephemeral human “self” by the conatus from the coalescence of trillions upon trillions of living cells that comprise our bodies, a “self” that we use as a tool to thread our way through our life with others on this earth. It is an organismic identity, and when the organism disintegrates, that identity, that “self” formed by the conatus, disappears.

Our relationship to this “God” is exhaustively mediated through our relationship to ourselves, our family and local community, and a global society increasingly interdependent for the survival of each and all. This “God” can only be contacted in one place: where the rubber meets the road — at the present moment where LIFE reveals its presence in the aggregations and configurations of evolved matter. LIFE exists nowhere else. “God” is only the living dynamism of matter — the force of LIFE — emerging into existence in each present moment.

As self-conscious organisms who are ourselves the primary examples of such configurations we have special access to that revelation. We perceive it from within. We have an inside view on our own existence, which is always simultaneously a social phenomenon, emerging in the ever present moment. It is not just a matter of knowledge, we experience it palpably, wordlessly, directly and intimately. It is there that we touch the wellspring of our power — where “God’s” LIFE becomes our potential for life and justice. And it is to that shared power — that divine potential that is us — that the psalms direct us to cry out for help against our enemies.

Our enemies are our own mindlessness that allows selfishness to cripple our potential: to become addicted to gross gratifications, to propagate injustice by our greed, to foment the prejudices and exclusions of our atavistic tribalism, to spread the errors of false self-worshipping religion, to let ourselves be intimidated by the blinded selfishness of others. We have recourse to only one source of power — the invincible divine potential that surges into existence at every new moment as ourselves (and as other humans). We pray to that “God” for there is nothing else to appeal to. There is no other “God,” and for human beings there is no other power that is relevant to our reality. Authentic power is the human potential of a synteresis’ charged conatus. Coercive power is now recognized as inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. For it is impotent to achieve the real goal of the conatus, the preservation and enhancement of the true self guided by synteresis.

In order to accomplish the purpose of prayer — which is the conscious attempt to align ourselves with the meaning of our existence in a universe of material LIFE — the “will” of “God” is made manifest as our moral conscience informing an energized conatus through the spontaneous promptings of our innate synteresis. Just as the “God” we call upon to rouse himself in our defense is our synteresis-directed conatus, the “God” we obey is our conscience.

9.

Work and survival. The conatus drives identity because the organism is driven to survive. This is not suppressible and we are lucky that it’s not. It’s what makes us human. We have to struggle — work — to stay alive, and we identify ourselves by how and how well we do it. It’s both our joy and our fulfillment as well as our constant preoccupation. It’s what we do under the sun. It is the essence of the human condition as it is of every material organism in the universe. It is the source of all community and conflict among us.

Surviving in our material universe has never been easy, and despite the security that the technological conquest of human survival should, in theory, provide for all, in practice for the majority of people across the globe, life is as hard as it has ever been. This is, obviously, a problem of our own making. The psalms, which in their original sense directed themselves to a “God” who is committed by contract to be our surrogate identity, are unrelenting in their insistence that he fulfill his promise. The incongruity here — demanding that “God” help us with a task that we now realize is clearly our own responsibility and well within our capacities as a global community — identifies the paradigm of adjustment as we approach making the psalms relevant for our time. It is the principal recurring inconsistency we encounter, and if left to thoughtless inattention, it is the issue most likely to derail our efforts. It is here that we have to apply our newfound awareness of the confluent identity of the divine potential with ours: that our potential and “God’s” are one and the same thing. What makes us human is that we carry divine power around with us like the hammer of Thor.

We have defined “God” as the force of LIFE driving the survival orientated activities of every living thing on earth. Calling upon “God” to help us with “our daily bread” can mean nothing other than galvanizing the productive and cooperative energies in the human community, personal, local and worldwide, to create and distribute the necessary resources so that we all may live. This may sound paradigmatic for our project, and it is. We could spell out the academic details in terms of economic and political systems, but really, aside from that academic exercise, what more is there to say?

*         *         *

If we are just talking about understanding, there is nothing more to say. Nothing. But that’s the difference between understanding (even poetic understanding) and prayer. It’s only after you have finished understanding the facts, that the struggle of prayer begins; for prayer is directed to the activation of divine potential. In this light it becomes clear why the presumptions and expectations awakened by the ancient Jewish Covenant — the contract, the fulcrum of the psalms’ leverage with Yahweh — provide an extremely apt metaphor for the modern confrontation with the human condition. Perhaps no other metaphor would work as well.

Prayer is engagement in the present moment — the real situation; it is the prelude to action. In the case we’re examining it’s the mindful confrontation with the dismal failure of the human community to devise a system of production and distribution that takes care of all the human beings in the world. Starvation, famine, generalized regional scarcity and national underdevelopment, political upheavals and genocidal wars generating massive displacement, homelessness, un- and under-employ­ment, racial and ethnic inequality, lack of educational and medical services … the list is long. To understand the scope of the reality is one thing, to conscientiously become engaged in reversing the failure is quite another. But in analyzing how exactly prayer — the psalms — fit into this picture, a number of things have to be clarified.

The first is to constantly remind ourselves that there are no miracles, and the cries of the psalmist for signs and wonders must be uncompromisingly nudged away from any such expectation. That means, furthermore, that the shameless engagement of the Church in the pursuit of miracles, even miracles of social justice, must be adamantly resisted if not openly denounced. The real “power” that is being called upon is our own potential for conscientious and effective response, my own first and that of other human beings. However, and here is the hub around which the whole effort turns: it still remains a divine potential albeit expressed only by human beings.

So this is the second fixed point: the psalmist is still in the position of suppliant. The one praying is needy. There is no temptation to an angry arrogance at “those who do not respond,” or haughty condemnation of those who begin but then fall by the wayside, including oneself. The wellspring that resides embedded in our organism suffusing LIFE’s moral power from present moment to present moment is still “God” and we are still in the condition of beggars — begging now for the moral strength that through mindlessness we allowed to go slack; nothing has changed there. Prayer reminds us that just as in calling on “God” we are really calling on ourselves, so also in calling on our own potential we are still really calling on “God,” the resident and transcendently creative source of that potential, material LIFE. Our very humanity is a marriage contract.

Prayer then immediately elevates my compassion for the people who are suffering … and for us whose consciences are prodding us to respond (in spite of failures) … into a commitment to effective engagement in a way that no amount of intellectualizing or exhortation can match. There is nothing inherent in just understanding that guarantees engagement. Prayer takes understanding to a different level — the level of effective action. You cannot ask Yahweh to “wake up” and apply “divine power” to remedy the situation without knowing what you are really asking for. You are asking yourself to “wake up.” By praying, now that we know that divine power only works seamlessly with secondary human causes, you are calling upon yourself to arise and take action … confident that your surrender to the divine potential which is indistinguishable from your own, will bear you up as if on eagles wings … will hide you protected from the negativity that prowls like a roaring lion seeking to destroy you and your efforts … and the efforts of your collaborators.

 10.

Death and the totality of matter’s energy. Many of the psalms appear to have been prayers provided to the sick or prayed in their name to call on divine power to heal them and keep them from dying. We are all familiar with the phenomenon: we reach for outside help when we feel helpless. It is absolutely universal. It was no more indulged in 600 bce than it is today.

So here’s our dilemma: How do we embrace our material universe with the natural cycle of birth and death that defines all life as we know it and still use the psalms … or indeed, still claim to pray when we know that the “God” we pray to is the very dynamism that has evolved things the way they are? The violently coercive “God” “out there” beyond us that the psalms appeal to for help does not exist.

Despite the triumphant claims of many of these psalms that Yahweh has in the past and once again can and will save the pleader from death, all have died. The only immortality that LIFE has been able to devise so far is focused on the preservation of species accomplished by the reproductive action of the individuals … who all die. Indeed, factually speaking, even if those who prayed these psalms were themselves cured at the time, it was only temporary.   Anyone using them even in the old way would have to be fully aware that they were only asking for a postponement, for death was inevitable. In a literal sense, even for traditional believers, none of those prayers were really answered.

But there is no making light of this situation. Many who have come to grips with death appear to have come out on the other end hardened and stoic. Death is inevitable, they say, whining for immortality is an indication that you have not left the fantasy castles of childhood.   All things change. Our family members die. Friends come and go. Youth and health are evanescent. Enjoy the days as they pass. You will live on in the memory of others.

Frankly in my own experience, I have entered into such stoic mindsets only when I was feeling robust and invulnerable. Strong, healthy relatively prosperous, in the warmth of my family, I was simply not in the mood for dwelling on what was not here yet and would occur only in the distant future. Desperate feelings were to be ridiculed. I think I imagined myself facing death in the same psychological state as I was in at the moment. But that’s not always what happens.

My sense now about that kind of attitude is that it was a stoic intellectualizing — a thinking about death that left the body out of the calculation. It was not an existential encounter, a somatic realization that generates an anguish or immobilization that is beyond rational explanation or voluntary control. The same person who today can “cast a cold eye on death” and pass it high on his horse, tomorrow, for whatever reason and however quiet it’s kept, finds himself unhorsed, broken, perplexed, terrified and whimpering — his once stony heart “melted like wax within his breast.”

As that last phrase indicates, the psalms are aware of the body and are not afraid or ashamed of its frailties. “God,” says the psalmist, “knows that we are dust. The wind comes and we wither and are blown away like chaff. We are gone and there is no sign that we were even there.” This is a sentiment that is clearly pre-Christian. It puts the psalms squarely in the human camp. The Christian Platonist is the one who can cast a cold eye on death because he sees this life as a veil that one is to pass by with indifference. The only reality is the after-life in the spirit world. By insisting that we live forever as our selves, Christianity has robbed us of the anguish and pathos of true loss. It has made us distant, hard, unfeeling, haughty, judgmental, unable to tremble except out of fear of hell and our own individual damnation. The wailing of the psalms at death and suffering was always an embarassment to Christians who prayed them; they secretly held those feelings in contempt. True Christians knew this world was an illusion.

The Jewish psalmists, in contrast, stand totally disarmed before death; they had no afterlife to deflect its blow. They yielded to what they felt, and we who use the psalms recognize that we are in fully human hands. They knew: death is abhorrent, nauseating. It ends our connections with the ones we love. Ordinarily when it is far enough away we can live without thinking about it. But when it approaches, when it comes close and we feel its cold breath on our necks, a terror arises that is like nothing else. Even the most battle hardened military frame of mind has some chink in its armor where the stiletto will enter. The sheer amount of PTSD generated by our endless wars should be proof enough for that. Many carry around the wound, open and suppurating, without ever having cried out in anguish and despair, until they find themselves lashing out at family, friends or strangers with a violence they did not know they were capable of. These matters cannot be dismissed. The psalmists knew.

The psalms face death with all the anguish and despair that the conatus can generate when its commitment to its assigned task of protecting the “self” has been shredded beyond repair by an invincible impotence that no amount of will power or intellectualizing can counter. Given the psalmists’ belief in the coercive power of Yahweh, the “God” of armies, “out there” in the heavens, he begs and pleads that “God” exercise his power to save him from death.

In our idiom, we know that “God” is LIFE, and that the power that “God” and I wield together is not a coercive control of matter but rather the potential for more LIFE. However, in my case the potential, as far as I can see, is limited to the lifetime of my organism and what it can accomplish with hard work and mindfulness. There are no immortal souls that live without bodies. Whatever “souls” there are, are the dynamism of living bodies and when there is no life in the body, there is no soul. My sense of who “God” is may have changed, but the fact of my death and the uncontrolled feeling of terror as my body sees it draw near has not.

“God” is LIFE, the source and matrix of matter’s existential energy. That means that the “God” that resides at the foundational center of my “self” providing the dynamism of my life, also resides at the center of the existence and life of everything else in the universe. “God,” therefore, is at the very heart of the totality of being. But I am part of that totality as an emergent product of LIFE and also as intimately identified with the matrix-producer of LIFE. My cries for life and endless life are made in the context of being carried along in the river of LIFE in both an active and passive sense. What more effective thing can I ask for than to be kept an integral part of this flowing enterprise evolving into new forms constantly capable of doing more astonishing things. To continue existing as matter’s energy can hardly be considered an “arm twisting” request since this is exactly what has been going on for 14 billion years and is responsible for the emergence of this organism whose conatus has knotted into a “self” I call “me.” Perhaps “superfluous” would be a better word for this prayer because there seems little worry that the sub-atomic components of the material-energy of my body, which the first law of thermodynamics says are neither created nor destroyed, won’t also be here for the next fourteen billion years, and really … why not … forever.

The only thing that probably won’t be here, it seems, is the “self” which appears to be a virtual reality concocted by the conatus to carry out its commands to protect and enhance the organism. However, it is precisely this “self” that I call “me” whose disappearance generates a dread and terror that I cannot control. Accurately identifying this “self” as virtual — i.e., a product of the imagination, a “symbol” of the material organism — I can begin to separate it in my mind from the actual material energy of my organism, and simultaneously accept the fact that it will not share the destiny of the material totality of the universe to which my body belongs.

In other words, by learning, incrementally if necessary, to identify my organism with the universal totality of matter’s energy, I come to realize that the fear of death is not a real existential fear. There is nothing substantial going out of existence at my death. The only thing that disappears is my “self.” My virtual reality and the valences that it has established with other “modalities” of the One Great Substance will vanish, leaving always the core components of my organism intact. My body, in other words, which the conatus was committed to protect, is always safe.

Let me acknowledge at this point that this is a mental exercise that bypasses the feelings  which have become habituated to think of the solitary self as real in the substantial sense. That is where the terror resides. The unconscious “self” thinks of itself as isolated from the totality of being.  Of course it’s going to feel terrified.

The unconscious self is the conatus’ avatar for the organism generated without conscious control. But the conscious self that becomes active in meditative mindfulness is an entirely new creation born of the constant injection of synteresis into the frenzied ruminations of the conatus. Through mindfulness, the conatus becomes habituated to seeing its quest for secure life satisfied by the identification of the organism with the totality of matter’s energy and its evolving project instead of the pyrrhic victories of the isolated ego.

Slowly and incrementally, the conatus sees its existence, now and into the future, made safe by its inclusion in Spinoza’s One Great Substance, and endless Evolving Project of which it is an integral part. This corresponds to the “true” or transcendent self that we saw in section 5. Fundamentally, under the aegis of a meditative mindfulness a new self emerges through the conditioning imposed by the conscious mind. And this new self knows itself to be a material organism whose components have existed for 14 billion years and are part of a Cosmic Adventure of Creative Evolution … and whose end we cannot see.

 

 

 

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Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.

Slavery

The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.

Money

Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.

Transition

The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.

Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

This blog is dedicated to elaborating the social implications of a new set of premises about the nature of reality that modern science has helped us establish.   After 500 years of careful observation and critical analysis we are now fairly certain that we live in an exclusively material universe.

That wasn’t always true. We used to believe that reality was dominated by and could only be understood as idea, an immaterial product generated by an immaterial substancespirit-mind — and that the entire universe was the result of a Spirit-Mind’s insertion of a multitude of self-reflective immaterial ideas into a formless plasma called matter.

That unchallenged assumption which molded our thinking for thousands of years, has been overturned in our times.  It is a radical inversion that has amounted to a complete reversal of our image of reality and our scheme of values. Trans­cen­dent phenomena like human consciousness, whose “obviously immaterial” characteristics were once taken as prima facie evidence for the existence of spirit-mind and an entire other world where spirits originated and to which they were destined to return, are now, without losing anything of their quality as phenomena, accepted as functions of this one material world. There is no other world.

Of all the implications of our new understanding, this is the one that is the most relevant to our lives: there is no other world.

Being and work

Science has discovered that all of reality — everything — whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy. To be, in other words, is to be matter. Based on that central fact, material energy is, in corollary fashion, also responsible for the by-products of its time-driven dynamism: (1) a conatus or drive for self-preservation observable in each and every living organism, and inferred to exist in some form in every particle of material energy, making survival (existence) an innate and insuppressible urge; (2) evolution, defined as an adaptive mechanism driven ultimately by the conatus that guarantees matter’s continuing existence despite the changing environmental conditions that impact its survival; (3) a sense of the sacred arising spontaneously in human beings whose innate self-con­scious desire to exist, springing also from the same conatus, reverberates in an insuperable appreciation for and desire for union with the projected source of existence, material energy, LIFE, as a guarantor of survival.

Because to be-here is the inner dynamism that constitutes its very reality, everything matter does and becomes is a reflection of its existential bearing. Every living organism of whatever kind and at whatever level of complexity or ability to act is driven to survive because and only because it is made of matter. Everything it pursues and everything it does, whether in action or at rest, is a question of continuing to exist. It ultimately defines work.

Life from LIFE

Living organisms openly display dynamic characteristics which may not be perceptible in inanimate matter before it has been drawn up onto the plateau of life — the most revealing of evolution’s stunning achievements. Matter’s energy even at the most primitive levels must possess in dormant form the potential for what it does at the level of life. Nothing comes from nothing. Hence we say that matter is a dynamism driven by LIFE whose potential is released through the aggregations and complexifications achieved in the process of evolutionary adaptation.

These evolutionary developments are observed occurring throughout pre-life as well, first in the construction of the elegant table of the elements and, later, in the emergence of ever more complex molecules. These innovations reveal matter’s communitarian nature: matter achieves survival by unifying and re-arranging its separate particles and forces.

The process of evolution by unification and complexification continues at the level of life. Very early in earth’s geologic history unicellular organisms invented sexual reproduction and discovered the survival power of multicellularity and the division of roles within the resulting organism. Both advances involved the enlistment of many individuals in the pursuit of a common benefit; both measures enhanced survivability exponentially. Multicellularity, in turn, seems to have been taken up as a paradigm for species’ societies at all levels. The congregation of individuals and the distribution of roles and functions within the survival community proved to be the most effective strategy for the continued existence of the individuals of a species. All individual organisms survive communally with other members of their own species and also, symbiotically with members of other species. Commonality is a function of the unity of material energy. Communal survival activity shared among individual organisms is work. Work’s communal, collaborative nature is aboriginal: it is both the source and the result of 14 billion years of material evolution.

This communal character stands in sharp contrast with the exaggerated individualism evoked by the Platonic paradigm.   The separate soul of Plato’s imagination was quintessentially solitary. If it was to liberate itself from the dungeon of the body and its corruptions, it had to do so alone. There was no communal “salvation” in the Platonic system. A mother could not save her thieving son, nor a village its drunken idiot. Family and clan lost whatever survival significance they may have had in a material universe, because in Plato’s universe the world where survival was really won was another world reached only by dying — a world of bodiless spirits, where the relationships spawned by bodily reproduction were meaningless. Entrance into that other world required the death of the body along with all its genetic connections to family and clan. The only saving connection was with the impersonal rituals of the Church. The Church took the place of all natural communities.

Work as a function of existence

In a material universe, however, collaborative work is the direct result of the insuppressible urgings of the conatus in the real world and therefore is part of the line-up of characteristics that are found wherever material energy is found. They are corollaries of existence. It is precisely because all matter is innately driven to survive, that all matter is also collectively active in the pursuit of its continuance. That activity is work. It is a universal expression of the dynamism of the conatus and I claim it is a feature of all of reality.

[A note: Since my interest in this reflection is work as a human activity, my terminology will reflect that. But I want to state clearly at the outset that there is no intention to exclude non-human reality from the analysis or the conclusions. Work is a dynamism for continued existence that is natural to all material reality. There is evidence that at the quantum level, matter is proactive in the genetic adjustments neces­sary for the adaptation of the living organism to its environment. If that is true, it means that evolution itself is the result of work.[1]]

Human Consciousness. Human self-awareness represents another astonishing plateau in evolutionary development, responsible for characteristics that seem not to have existed in any prior life-form, analogous to the way life did not appear to have been present in earlier material entities that were not alive. But following out the analogy, and faced with mounting evidence of the presence of complex consciousness in animals other than human, we are compelled to attribute some dormant potential for consciousness to the very quanta packets of energy that constitute the building blocks of everything material in our world. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “interiority” of matter.

Some modern philosophers, like Galen Strawson, have suggested this feature of reality be called panpsychism. The meaning of the term is contained in its etymology: “everything,” pan, is “mental,” psych-. In other words, similar to our judgment about the presence of LIFE dor­mant in inanimate objects, mind is present as a dormant potential existing in all material reality because all psychic phenomena of whatever kind are clearly the products of material activity coming from organisms that are all and only comprised of and nourished by exactly the same quanta of material energy that constitute everything else in the universe. The data of daily observation, in this regard, is so universally corroborative of this conclusion that we are confident of it even though we have not as yet determined what mechanisms are employed in the activation of that potential. The simple fact of the matter is that consciousness exists, and there is nowhere else it could have come from except this world’s matter.

Desire. The full flowering of mind, most evident in the human species, reveals the intense appetitive nature of the conatus. With the evolution of higher consciousness it becomes clear that the conatus was not just a mechanical drive, a blind and passive reflex, but rather a living thirst, a passionate self-conscious hunger to be here that when satisfied fills the organism with ecstatic joy, and when thwarted, with dejection and despair. This nuances our understanding of the nature of work. Work is not only a reaction to the animal instinct to stay alive, it is a response to the desire for existence.

The human species’ conscious awareness of the inevitability of death is an aspect of this mental phenomenon. It adds a special dimension to the human conatus. The human instinct for self-preserva­tion necessarily extends its preoccupations to the place where the ultimate threat to the organism is perceived to reside. Hence the human conatus is necessarily addressed to transcending death. LIFE is assumed to have a source. Given the imperiousness of the conatus, desire for union with that source is not avoidable for the human organism. That means religion or its equivalent is natural and spontaneous; it springs from the very instinct for self-preserva­tion.  Work is the active application of that instinct.

This passion to possess existence through union with its source is a response to the Sense of the Sacred. The reflexive awareness of this appetitive relationship to existence generates the peculiar communal response called religion. Religion is work like any other, only clearly focused on the pursuit of that aspect of the conatus’ goal that reaches beyond daily survival. Thus religion must be understood as a function of matter’s existential bearing, bound up with work and the very destiny of the human individual stemming unavoidably from its being a material organism facing death whose innate instinct is to be-here. That internal contradiction is elemental to humankind and explains its unique sense of disconnect with the natural world.

Religion or its equivalents are natural and unavoidable. Insofar as work is the emanation of the conatus, in the case of humankind that conatus and its genetically driven activity is necessarily suffused with the passionate desire to ensure that the organism continues existing endlessly, because at any other terminus, death would give the lie to the conatus. It is not surprising, then, that human work would extend its reach beyond securing shelter and the day’s food. We can say a priori, that virtually any human endeavor that goes beyond securing those basic survival needs, contemplates projects that in one sense or another appear to guarantee the conatus’ ultimate goals, whose most fundamental characteristic is endless existence. These activities are the equivalent of religion and can take almost any form.

Religion, in this scheme of things, then, is only the most formally labeled and socially acknowledged example of this uniquely human pursuit of immortality. It is not difficult to identify others; they are myriad: all achievements that are believed to linger in human memory offering a kind of life beyond death, monumental projects including the magnification and ascendancy of the nation, military and economic conquests, academic, artistic, literary and athletic achievements, the abasement and exploitation of others for the purposes of asserting one’s or one’s tribe’s superiority, fame derived from any source, competitive activities specifically designed for creating distinction and recognition, the superfluous accumulation of goods, power, influence, land, capital, money. Animals do none of these things, because none of them are necessary for survival. These all speak to the attempt to extenuate and amplify individual existence beyond one’s limited “size” and location in the time-line of social history. I would put the perennial drive toward empire on the part of nations in this category of ersatz religion. It is an attempt to achieve immortality, and individuals identify with empire as their own participation in immortality. Empire is not only a pursuit of the elite.

If religion in our day no longer fires the imagination with hopes of immortality, it’s not because humankind has lost the hunger for endless existence. It’s just that, having decided that religion’s narrative lacks credibility, people have turned to other endeavors as more realistic substitutes. Whatever else has changed, the innate insuppressible human passion for endless life has not, and work as the emanation of that passion, will always tend toward securing it. Hence work must also be understood — and judged — under the rubric of man’s sense of the sacred as the pursuit of transcendence.

The dangers here are real. The perennial tendency of nations to take conquest and domination of others as a sign of superiority, is one of the principal substitutes for transcendence. The unabashed admiration on the part of most readers of history for the great empires and their accumulation of wealth, power and territory, suggests that the futility of seeking that kind of ascendancy has yet to be appropriated and internalized. There seems little chance that a political dynamic built on any other purpose will be put in place anytime in the near future.

Work in a Material Universe

Given this background, work has to be seen as (1) a natural and necessary activity of material organisms in pursuit of survival, (2) necessarily having a community dimension not only stemming from the communal processes that characterize evolution but because human survival is not physically achievable by solitary individuals working alone and because the collaboration among individuals is itself constitutive of society giving work a defining importance for humankind. Work is also (3) necessarily a pursuit of transcendence: the individual is transcended through collaborative endeavors which identify the worker with the surviving community and the attempt to embrace the source of existence by mutual consent of the collaborators. It doesn’t matter what that source of existence is believed to be. Even if it is only “the memory of humankind.” These are all transcendent pursuits and should be assessed as such.

Work as survival. The primacy of survival activity — work — as the fundamental expression of the conatus means that the entire category of servile labor, necessarily the object of disdain and revulsion in our erstwhile dualist-spiritist universe, is revealed as completely baseless. There is no distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. There is no sub-human, bodily labor distinct and separate from reason and therefore there can be no sub-human “carnal” people consigned to the eternal repetition of mindless tasks. Survival work is not only the responsibility of each and every human organism for its own sustenance, it is the very expression of the organism’s roots in matter which grounds its existential bearing and the equality among human individuals that shapes the community that survives by it.

Work and existence. By survival work the material organism is manifesting openly its acknowledgement of belonging to the totality of matter’s living energy, the source of confidence in the endlessness of its being-here. Hence work is more than mere physical exertion; it is a dynamic declaration of self-aware­­ness and self-accep­tance. It is the conscious embrace of materiality. The organism embraces itself precisely and unapologetically as a material organism and takes a profound satisfaction in what work achieves: organismic life for another day — food, clothing, shelter and human community built by cooperative collaboration. Work is the expression of and commitment to belonging fully to the totality that endures. And belonging to the community of matter is the surest guarantee of individual endurance.

Work as ascesis. Work can no longer be thought of as a punitive discipline, the result of and punishment for some ancient transgression of our forebears, and a liberation of the spirit from the flesh. Work is rather a carnal joy and a privilege: the opportunity to express our intimate participation in the source of existence itself: material LIFE. The principal reward that work provides — survival — is immediately confirmed by ancillary benefits that enhance the organism: a strong healthy body full of energy and enthusiasm for life; a positive disposition and self-esteem that prevents the onset of depression or despair that the awareness of death might otherwise engender; the sense of security derived from the palpable comradery, companionship and mutual support generated by working cooperatively with others for the survival of each and all.

Far from being the whip that begins the process of liberating the spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, work in a material universe allows the material of the human organism to realize its full capacity to bring resident reason and spontaneous compassion born of material empathy to interface with the matter that work is transforming. Mirror neurons, the physical source of our empathy, are pure matter. We are all pure matter. The work worked and the working worker. The weight of matter borne is no longer a crushing burden that breaks my carnal will and forces compliance with my spiritual soul, but is rather a sibling’s touch that evokes in me a creativity not unlike that of an artist, who in elaborating what his vision reveals, may see a potential that no one knew was there. It’s like clay molding clay. The resulting mutually compenetrating engagement is explosive. Hesiod noticed certain workers got it right: “… they do their work as if work were a holiday.”

Manual labor in particular, which involves the intimate and continuous contact between my body and the matter under elaboration, becomes an occasion for the acknowledgement of the most important relationship of all: of the material energy which I am and the material energy that constitutes everything in the cosmos. It is one and the same. I AM THAT! This sense of intimate oneness with all that IS — LIFE — can serve to sustain a sense of one’s secure belonging to existence that has always been the great goal, the desideratum, of ascesis since before the advent of Christianity.

Of course all this assumes that work is guaranteed its primary and constitutive goal: survival.   Justice for the worker first and always means that work’s fundamental existential bearing is not frustrated.

Survival as a community effort

The significance of this new paradigm for the structuring of just and fulfilling work relationships hardly needs to be elaborated. First of all it reveals the class system that continues to divide work along servile physical lines to be baseless, demeaning and inherently destructive of the integrity of the human organism. Whatever needs to be done to secure survival is a responsibility that devolves upon everyone. If work is divided among the members of the community it is done for efficiency and convenience, not as a reflection of some putative quality difference among human beings, much less some illusory distinction between matter and spirit.

That some people are so wealthy that they never have to work is not a “blessing,” it is a travesty.   And those who intentionally pursue careers that will free them from the onus of physically providing themselves with food, clothing, shelter and community have entirely missed what it means to be human.

This has a primary application in the equality of men and women despite the obvious role differences established by their bodies. The female organism is not “more carnal,” more subject to emotional needs for being the place of gestation of offspring. All human organisms are equally capable of assuming all the roles in a complex society. Male-female role differences may be established by convention but they always remain conventional; there is nothing necessary about them. Reproduction is an instinct and function of all organisms. Indispensable genital equipment and efficacious function are features of every individual body, male and female. To heap burdensome and self-effacing tasks on one and not the other is a profound injustice, and may be the result of conscious exploitation. Platonic dualism lent itself to exactly such distortions of humanity.

In the case of children, the development of the rational function should no longer be given such priority as to entail the suppression or disregard for the wholeness of the human organism. Children’s emotional balance, ability to relate to others, predisposition to sense their unity as material organisms with other species of life and more primitive forms of matter’s energy, should be given as much emphasis as the development of their rational abilities to control the outside world by logical cerebration and emotional distance. The child should be educated to empathetically relate in organic material solidarity to whatever part of reality she/he will be later asked to manipulate and control with their work.

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

This topic — the division of labor in complex society — brings together all the contradictions that come from our tortured history.   I believe our materialist paradigm can offer new insights into how to resolve the problems that Platonic dualism bequeathed to us.   Having established the premises, future posts will begin reflecting on what this may mean for the future of work in a material universe.

 

[1] Cf McFadden and Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Random House, NY, 2014, pp. 219-221.

Obedience and the doctrine of “God”

 2000 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God” is the LIFE of matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017

 

 

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

Surrender

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roman Empire

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

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

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

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

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

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

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

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

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

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

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

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

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

Humility in a material universe

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, June 2017

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

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

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

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

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

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obedience and the ego

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

post script

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

800 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

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

 

Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.