Reflections on Emptiness

3,000 words

  • Emptiness, one of the foundational notions of Mahayana Buddhism, is a strictly metaphysical term. It is not primarily psychological or spiritual nor is it merely phenomenological. It refers quite specifically to the fact that all phenomena of whatever kind are not themselves the source and explanation of their existence. They are causally dependent on other phenomena; they are empty of their own being.
  • The concept of metaphysical Emptiness did not originate with Buddha. Buddha’s teaching was experiential; it was about the perception of impermanence ― that things compose and decompose. He deduced no-self (anatman) from the universality of impermanence. All things compose and then pass away with their decomposition. The human self is no exception. He saw it as part of a phenomenon affecting all things. I personally ascribe it to the fact that whatever exists is all and only matter. Emptiness was a later Mahayana metaphysical conjecture articulated to explain impermanence and anatman, but it was not specifically materialist.
  • Emptiness of own-being characterizes the self. It is the basis and reason for the Buddhist claim of “no-self,” anatman, which means that a permanent self separate from the coherence of the body is an illusion. The phenomenological, temporary self, however, is not an illusion, it is quite real. But it is not permanent. In physical, material terms, it is the efflorescence of the integrated energy of the matter of the body.   When the organism disintegrates, ― the self ― the integrated energy of all the various particles, disappears. The self is a reverberation of the complex coherent interrelationship of a vast amount of material energy under the (temporary) control and guidance of a living DNA (which is also all and only matter). What the Buddha decried was the delusional attempt to create a permanent self by amassing wealth, control over others (including God), social status and recognition, etc. No such self can be created. The self dissolves with the body.
  • Living in the present moment is a corollary of emptiness for it accepts as ultimate the fact that there is nothing permanent that can result from any interaction of the self with any other dependently arisen phenomenon (which is everything in our material universe). To “do” anything or to “get” anything, is simply to add more dependently arisen phenomena to the totality. Temporary phenomena do occur and are real but nothing permanent can come from them. No event can ever be anything other than a composing or decomposing of material components. Therefore, enjoying the experience of the event itself in the moment when and as it occurs is a direct and valid derivative of emptiness, for, vanishing as it may be, there is nothing more here than what is occurring now, generated by whatever confluence of factors happen to be operating, and will disappear when that confluence ceases.
  • Pointlessness refers to the same phenomenon as emptiness but from a psychological point of view; it is a teleological corollary of impermanence, i.e., it is impermanence seen from the point of view of purpose. All things are empty: they have no purpose beyond just being-here, and are unaware that their being-here is dependent on evanescent factors whose disappearance will “cause” their own disappearance.
  • Emptiness is metaphysical. Nagārjuna (the principal Buddhist philosopher of emptiness, who wrote in the second century ce) uses the word “essence” the way western philosophy used the word “being.” Emptiness means “things do not have (they are “empty” of) their own “essence” or “being.” They have the power to cause other phenomena to appear, but they do not have the power to prevent them from disappearing or to prevent their own decomposition and disappearance.

The West: idea and spirit

  • In the WEST, on the other hand, where idealism prevailed, philosophers, dominated by Plato’s theory of reality, ascribed real being to ideas alone. Ideas were considered the anti­thesis of matter and were made of a different kind of “stuff” that did not compose and decompose as matter did, and were not limited by space and time as matter was. They were believed to be one of a large category called “spirit” which included the permanent human self, the “soul” (which existed before birth, during life and after death), and the “selves” of other “spirits” believed to exist outside time without bodies, like devils and angels (and for a while, gods, who were a little of both). When the idea of one all powerful, all knowing Creator “God” emerged, it was naturally assumed that it was one of those spirit-persons outside time and without a body.
  • In a universe dominated by spirit, a “thing” was believed to be first and foremost an idea (the definition of whatever that thing was) that gave “being” to a meaningless undefined matter. In that form, the idea was called the “essence” of something, also the “form.” Plato believed all these ideas of things actually existed as real substances in a world of Ideas, which was later identified as the “Mind of God.”
  • Since reality was basically ideas, it had to be permanent; the impermanence that we all experience, therefore, was an anomaly and had to be explained. Plato surmised that ideas were yoked to matter, and that it was the disparate elements of matter that had been organized and connected by the idea lost coherence when the idea departed. Without its principle of coherence matter decomposed. In the case of the human being, decomposition occurred with the departure of the “soul” which, like all spirits, had substantial existence and could continue on without the body.
  • Widespread rejection of belief in the substantial existence of ideas began with William of Ockham who wrote in the 1320’s. Today that rejection is almost universal, but its residual effects are still with us, primarily in the form of belief in the existence and natural immortality of the human soul separated from the body.
  • Aristotle defined “things” as composed of matter and form (matter and a particular idea), but that neither could exist without the other. He called existing things “substances” because they stood on their own while they were-here as opposed to other phenomena that were clearly only variant qualities of things, like their color or their size, which he called “accidents.” Aristotle isolated and identified esse, existence, as an energy that underlay all existing reality. He called it act and contrasted it with unactivated potential. He surmised that the “first mover” in the universe had itself to be pure act without any admixture of potential, or it would have needed to be activated by another, and therefore would not have been the “first mover.” Pure Act, then, became the working definition of existence and therefore, “God.” This was still consistent with the assumption that all act had to be “spirit” and that an isolated “matter” without the energizing of spirit had to be pure potential, utterly incapable of energizing anything. They called it “prime matter.”
  • Thomas Aquinas said that things received “substantial being” from God who “gave” them an inferior kind of existence (that Thomas called esse commune) that was different from God’s own (which he called esse in se subsistens). Thomas’ esse began to lose the quality of an energy and took on the coloration of a “thing.” Meister Eckhart, his successor, demurred. He held (with more Ockham-like simplicity) that esse was act. There is only one esse as Aristotle said, and that esse is God. Therefore if there is any esse anywhere in the universe it has to be an emanation from God’s own esse. This brought Eckhart’s terminology closer to pantheism than Thomas’ and helps explain his problems with the Inquisition.
  • Spinoza’s thinking was similar to Eckhart’s in saying that there was only one esse. He followed Aristotle’s definition of “substance” as “that which exists by itself and on its own” and concluded that the only “stand alone” thing in the universe was “God.” Everything else existed by reason of participating in God’s existence, and therefore could not be called substances. He couldn’t call them “accidents” because that category was already linked the qualities of things, so he called them “modalities” that had emanated from the one substance which was God. His intention was the same as Eckhart’s who said that all things were “nothing” because all their being came from God; they had no being of their own. Nothing outside of God had its own being. Spinoza said that the organic drive for self-preservation, the conatus, was a finite version of God’s self-subsistent esse. All things imitate the “God” from whom they emanate.
  • This development is noteworthy because the very term “own-being” became the Mahayana Buddhist word that identified emptiness. There was no semantic link; it was a purely fortuitous choice of words. Everything was empty because everything lacked its own-being. The Buddhists, for their part said that the phenomenal being that things actuated came from their “causes” which were other things. Everything was dependently arisen because everything owed its existence to causes other than themselves. Nothing was the source of its own being-here and when the causes responsible for its existence disappeared or became inoperative, the phenomenon necessarily disappeared.

Materialism and non-duality

  • The absolute identity (oneness, what the buddhists call non-duality) that I share with my source (the multiple “causes” of my dependent arising, including the components of my organism) is only conceiveable in a scenario like our material universe where the very source of being-here for all the “causes” are the very same components. We are ― causes and effects ― all and only one homogeneous matter’s energy. Our identity with all things (and our source) is metaphysically absolute because in the most profound sense we are the same reality, even though from the point of view of phenomena we experience ourselves and all things as stand-alone substances as Aristotle said. Aristotle’s problem was that he thought “things” were metaphysically substantive because he attributed existential bearing to the idea, whereas Buddhism saw through the illusion of permanence to the true temporariness of the composites and continued to call them all phenomena including their idea.  
  • Now if the source of my existence were other than a material component, as in the case of the West where we believed a “spiritual” person (“God”) was the real cause of everything and that the ideas in the Mind of God actually carried existence and conferred it on the things they defined, there would always be a duality because, no matter how close they come, the one ― the source, “God,” ― is simply not the other ― me ― and never will be. There will always be an identity difference because there are always two “beings,” two “wills” which in a universe with real stand-alone spirits represents two separate and distinct entities. But in the case of exclusively material components, that in and of themselves as sub-atomic particles have no identity at all and no pre-composite “will” of their own, the only identity is the identity of the organic composite: me. There are not two things, only one, but the existential energy comes exclusively from the components whose collective conatus also provide an inchoate pre-composite intentionality to the organism ― toward endlessly continual (permanent) existence. All organisms of whatever kind, no matter how primitive or complex do not anticipate dying.
  • Many claim this is difficult to grasp. I contend it is not, and the only reason why people struggle with it is because they are still dominated by the imagery of a substantial “self” ingrained in their minds. It is this residual imagery that is blocking the understanding of a very simple fact: we and our components are one and the same thing. We are nothing but material energy with a specific configuration that allows us to interact with the rest of the material universe as humans rather than as some other form of organism. But the hardened delusion that we are other than the universal matter that all things share, comes from our spontaneous sense of self-identity reinforced by millennia of conditioning under the tutelage of Plato’s idealist theory of the “soul.”

The Eternal Now ― the present moment

  • Both Mahayana mindfulness and the Eckhartian living in the eternal now are the same in practice. They both encourage focusing exclusively on the present moment. The only difference between the two is the difference in belief about the ultimate nature of the Source. I should say “possible difference” because in some forms of Hindu-Buddhism ― I am thinking of those that hold to the existence of Atman or Brahman ― they may fundamentally be the same as the Eckhartian “God.” But for forms of Buddhism that resemble the more primitive Theravada, where there is no talk of Atman, the source is an undetermined multiplicity of “causes” forming an infinite regress. This infinity of impermanence provides the motivational dynamic for mindfulness, living in the present moment. There is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to get. The present moment, the evanescent product of everything in space and time that has gone before, is the only thing that is here ever and it is always fast disappearing.
  • Eckhart, on the other hand, remarkably focused on exactly the same present moment, and without tinkering with its phenomenal character as evanescent and dependent in the least, embraces it as the point of contact with the eternal Now of a serene and impassive spirit-God emanting the universe of time from his existence ― his esse. Eckhart’s “Godhead” (Spinoza’s “God”) in virtually every respect is indistinguishable from the Hindu Atman. So for Eckhart the very pinnacle, the leading edge, of the infinity of impermanence in flowing time ― the present moment ― is paradoxically the doorway to the permanent “God” who exists in an eternal stillness of self-em­brace. Note that “self-embrace” is also the same phenomenon in both the Hindu-Buddhist and the Eckhartian views. I would also argue that “self-em­brace” and being-here are one and the same thing; they are also the present moment and the Eternal Now. All refer to the same phenomenon, seen through different perspectives.
  • Along these same lines, Eckhart would also agree with the Mahayanists that there were not two worlds. But for a different reason. Eckhart’s experience-based vision sounds like it reduces everything to “God.” But Eckhart would insist that it’s only the temporal nature of ours that prevents us from seeing the one single and undivided esse that is the totality of each. Metaphysical duality at the level of emanation is non-existent, swallowed up in the monism of esse. Multiplicity is only in our heads. Everything that exists in time and space derives its being only and always from the very same esse of the Eternal Now.
  • Now this kind of talk for orthodox Catholics has always been considered pantheistic. Even though under a disciplined philosophical-theological analysis it is not, less educated pastoral personnel, priests, catechists, etc., tended to shy away from it. However, that its conceptualization was beyond the people’s ability to grasp, I believe, was an excuse that functioned right up until our own time. Even Thomistic immanence, a far more domesticated version than Eckhart’s, was labeled “too philosophical” and seminary students were told to disregard it in favor of the anthropomorphic imagery of the Bible. This was the mindset of the Inquisition that drove Eckhart, along with the Beguines who shared his vision, into extinction. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the only vestiges of Eckhart’s spirituality that were still active, as in the case of the Theologia Germanica, had already lost the sense of emanant participation in the metaphysical oneness of God.
  • A serious incorporation of the insights of Hindu-Buddhism could help western Christianity to recover some of its own tradition ― like Eckhart’s vision ― lost to the demands of the theocratic quid pro quo imperative that was imposed on Christianity by Rome and subsequent religious monarchies. Christianity was re-shaped to function as a motivation for harmony in society, an objective that even the sixteenth century reformers ― despite rejecting the dogmatic quid pro quo ― were unable to shed. Correlatively, the incorporation of the metaphysical scope of Eckhart’s philosophy (updated by modern science into a transcendent materialism) could serve to provide Hindu-Buddhism with a cosmic worldview that it now lacks. But in all cases the concurrence between the two traditions confirms the embrace of the present moment as the unique place where, in Buddhist terms, suffering will end and nirvana is found, and in Eckhart’s terms where the breakthrough takes place and the “soul” experiences the stillness and joy of its origins in the common esse that it shares with the “Godhead” and all things that have emanated from it.
  • The experience of the present moment that all seek, however, is to touch reality deeply ― as it really is ― in all its wealth and profundity. This is not a desperate counsel to a cynical and superficial hedonism, a mindless return to the prison of a selfish and shallow samsara. Living in the present moment includes penetrating into the depths not only of the savory and comforting, but also the painful and empty ― the loss, impermanence, pain, decomposition that is equally characteristic of life in our material universe. It means coming to terms with the strange nature of the abundant generosity that has poured out our human organisms into this weird world of entropic time. It is a generosity that is embedded as an innate dynamism in our own material energy. We are born of LIFE, and we are driven to reproduce and protect LIFE. If we fail to understand that, we shrivel and die. Universal love, justice, compassion, generosity, that is what living in the present moment means.
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The Mahayana Buddhist ideal: The Bodhisattva

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The historical evolution of Buddhism around the beginning of the common era had much in common with the developments that occurred in Western Christianity at the end of the middle ages. Buddhism, which started about 500 bce as something of a demystification and democratization of elitist Hindu Brahmanism, over the next four hundred years became an almost exclusively monastic pursuit, requiring celibacy and the abandonment of home and family, supported by the wealthy and ruling classes. It was as exclusive, if not as elitist as what it had replaced. The failure of Buddhism to achieve one of its principal goals — the universalism implied in the Buddha’s personal commitment to unlimited compassion for all sentient beings — occasioned a major rethinking of Buddhist practice and led to a great reformation known as Mahayana around the beginning of the common era.

The word Mahayana connotes a “great boat,” large enough to accommodate everyone, in contrast to Hinayana — a small craft that could only carry a few, a pejorative term used of monastic Theravada Buddhism. The keynote of the Mahayana reform was the insistence that the heights of Buddhist spiritual achievement were not restricted to those who left home and family and lived in a monastic community, but was open and accessible to ordinary householders, women as well as men, living and working in the world.

This transformation bears an historical resemblance to the Protestant revolt of the early 16th century which occurred at the beginning of the modern era in Western Europe. Like the Mahayana in India, the Pro­tes­tant Reformation represented the widespread rejection of the eremitic celibate religiosity that had come to dominate Western Catholic Christianity in the middle ages. The limitation of the highest aspirations of Christian perfection to the monasteries from which the general clergy drew their ideals and their personnel, was an accepted wisdom that dovetailed conveniently with the two-tier, clergy-laity structure of Church authority and ritual practice. Laypeople’s contribution was relegated to the support of the religious elites.

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, however, a new restive population began demanding participation in authentic Christianity. Lay movements like the Beguines, supported by outstanding theologians, created their own network of residences outside of the control of Church authorities. These groups adapted the principles of monastic spirituality which they used as personal preparation for a life of loving service to others in the world.

Interest in spirituality was in evidence everywhere in Western Europe, and the participants were not persuaded that obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was a necessary element in that pursuit. Resistance to this movement on the part of the bishops, predictably, was strong and repressive. The Inquisition, originally created to counteract the spread of heretical ideas came increasingly to be employed in the control of these groups whose call for greater participation inevitably turned into a demand for reform of the venal and authoritarian hierarchy itself. The issue was never heresy. A Conciliar Movement that would have taken Church governance out of the hands of an Imperial Papacy and given it to representative Ecumenical Councils was stalled and finally crushed in the fifteenth century by the monarchs organized and led by the pope. With the elimination of any institutional path to reform it’s not surprising that by early in the following century reformers were ready to disregard the authorities altogether. Central to that reform was the invalidation of the monastic way of life and the promotion of the ordinary Christian values of love and compassion applied to life in the world, lived in family households. The concurrence with what happened in south India in the first centuries of the common era is remarkable and illuminating. For it speaks to the very heart of religion and how easily it is detoured.

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It is said that the Buddha, after having discovered the secret of overcoming suffering in life, chose to forego nirvana — a life of contemplative bliss — in order to remain in the world teaching his method of personal liberation until all had been freed from the delusions of samsara. (Samsara is the suffering created by the attempt to satisfy selfish desire.) In a famous passage at the end of the Dhammapada, one translator rendered the Buddha’s compassion this way:

The sun shines in the day; the moon shines in the night. The warrior shines in battle. The Brahmin shines in meditation. But day and night the Buddha shines in the radiance of love for all. (Dhammapada, 26 # 387 tr. Eknath Easwaran)

The verse places the Buddha’s universal love at the apex of that short poetic list of human achieve­ments. It conspicuously declares compassion to be more important than either the controlled anger of the warrior who has conquered his fear of death, or of the accomplished ascetic who has embraced his true Self in the depths of mindfulness and contemplative practice. Universal love, it is saying, embodied in the Buddha’s compassion, transcends it all. It is the unsurpassable goal of human fulfillment.

This ultimate Buddhist vision, a product of the Mahayana reform, contrasts with Siddhartha Gautama’s original program. His teaching could be characterized as the elimination of suffering obtained through self-abnegation and a life of moral uprightness. Compassion stands out as a Mahayana development because the Buddha, even while he practiced it, never emphasized it in his message to others or to the monks; it was always there but often implicit, or stated simply without development. Whatever Buddha’s intentions, once Mahayana clearly articulated the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice as compassion, it was never lost to view. Compassion, universal love, characterized all subsequent Buddhist evolution.

One of the developments that reflected that insight was the elevation to primary status of a new Buddhist ideal: the faithful Buddhist practitioner known as the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva meant someone who was becoming a Buddha. The significance of this new image was based on taking “Buddha,” which means fully awakened, as the symbol of the totally perfected end of the entire process. In this sense “Buddha” stopped being an historical person who lived and died, taught and trained, and became an eschatological ideal: the essence of liberation, nature transformed and returned to its primitive innocence and perfection. The image of the ordinary human being, submitting himself to the Buddhist program and striving to serve all sentient beings, evoked someone on the path to Buddhahood. That meant that Siddhartha Gautama himself, by rejecting nirvana, chose to be a bodhisattva rather than Buddha: he would not allow himself to enjoy the full fruits of liberation until all were liberated.

I believe that this turn toward the universal, so evident in the Mahayana inclusion of everyone in the quest for liberation, and the similar democratization of spirituality represented by the salvation by faith of the Christian reformers of the 16th century, is not just a coincidence. It speaks to the very nature of the material reality in which we live and move and have our being, and religion has been its perennial expression everywhere.

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In a background awareness that is always present but not always in the forefront of consciousness, there is, I contend, a universal astonishment among humankind of the utterly improbable developments of biological evolution, culminating in the emergence of the intelligent human organism. If the word that characterizes this perception is not astonishment, then it is awe. Regardless of the absence of any obvious personal author of that development, and despite the compelling scientific argument that there is none, it is difficult to suppress the impression that the developments of biological evolution result from some unknown form of affective abundant generosity ― a benevolence as immense as it is unfathomable. It is one of the sources of our sense of the sacred.

The feeling that there is, in nature, an uncontrolled compulsion to share, to multiply, expand, with a selfless abandon that is so automatic and unrestricted as to appear to be reflex, almost mechanical and totally unlike anything resembling “personal intention,” is recognized as a common background across the planet. I believe it is the source of a sense of the sacred that grounds religion, and a factor in the evolution of morality toward universal love.   The pre-scientific assumption that there was a “God”-per­son responsible for creation sustained the belief that nature’s generosity was indeed “love” and not something else.

However, that this source of the LIFE that abounds everywhere on earth, and that we increasingly suspect functions uncontrollably everywhere in our vast material cosmos, is not a “person,” is becoming acceptable simply because the evidence for it is overwhelming. Anyone can see that this unquestionably “abundant generosity” is not the product of someone’s free choice in any sense that we can recognize. Hence, in describing the source of the living cosmic phenomenon by which and into which we have been spawned, we find ourselves embracing the unresolved paradox that LIFE is an “abundant generosity” functioning as non-personal reflex mechanism. We are becoming comfortable with that, for no other reason than that is exactly the way things always and everywhere present themselves. Prior assumptions about a rational “God-person” no longer obviate that equation. But as a consequence, the assumption that nature’s abundance is really “love” loses coherence if not credibility. Those who are committed to “love” because of its human resonance with the natural order, tend also to cling to the “God” theory of cosmic origins despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

The “over-abundance” evident in the explosion of LIFE evokes a sense of redundancy, of unnecessary excess. It’s the first hint that there is something strange here, something that does not quite compute. For it doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that LIFE has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. 99% of all living species produced by evolution on planet earth during three and a half billion years at least, have ceded their place in the sun to other species that survived better. No achievement of biological evolution accomplishes the apparent goal of secure and permanent existence ― the invincible possession of being-here. Any successes are quickly swallowed up in new developments that are more successful and capture the food niche of their predecessors … only themselves to be superseded by still others.

Among humankind, energy expenditures are equally pointless. Every achievement of intense human striving, individual or communal, eventually disintegrates and vanishes. Even huge stone monuments, erected in an attempt to triumph over this galling disintegration, also eventually crumble to dust. Nothing is permanent. All human organisms die, leaving behind only the members of their own species that they may have reproduced and protected at great cost, but who in turn also die, giving rise to the suspicion that our sense of being substantial “persons,” souls apart from our bodies, is an illusion. We are our bodies, and when our bodies disappear, “we” disappear with them. And there is no guarantee that homo sapiens, which emerged about 300,000 years ago, will not also go extinct as have all other earlier sub-species of homo. The very pointlessness of life adds to our sense that we are on the right track in this conflation between benevolence and impersonal force. There is something astonishingly generous here, but it is not rational.

But “pointless” is not only a negative. “Pointless” in the sense of “purposeless” is the basis and justification for some of the most cherished experiences in life: the infinite human capacity for play, our desire to “hang out” with the people and things we love, our ability to “waste time” doing the things that just give us pleasure but are of no benefit to anyone, or doing nothing at all. What is the “point” of a vacation, a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, a friendship? Looked at in themselves and taken out of any pecuniary or competitive context what is the “point” of art, music, poetry, story-telling, dance, theater, sports? The most precious and enjoyable things in life are “pointless.” They lead nowhere, they earn nothing, they achieve nothing, they help no one, and like everything else, they do not endure. And love, most of all, is utterly gratuitous and evanescent. There is nothing that coerces or justifies its inception nor any universal necessary benefit that results from its practice. Love, like most of the things we treasure in life, like LIFE itself, is its own reward, and eventually disappears.

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These multiple indications that there is no purpose to LIFE besides living itself, I contend, completely dominate the subliminal awareness of all intelligently perceptive human beings. It is this universal and undeniable pointlessness that ultimately provides the background of our cultural choices. But not always in the same direction. There is a huge backlash. For it quickly becomes clear that, however enjoyable the present moment, organic survival in a material universe characterized by random interactions will not tolerate dallying in aimless triviality for long. Even if we are not taught, we soon learn that we have to organize our activities into work that is planned, directed and purposeful. We have to find and gather what we need to live: food, clothing, shelter, mates, and a cooperative community of human collaborators dedicated to mutual protection. Without a plan and sense of purpose we will die. However temporary, we must build the structures that protect us from the randomness of reality. The grasshopper lives for one season only, but the ants know they cannot fiddle around if they want to endure the winter to see another spring. A common human reaction to the pointlessness of LIFE is to deny it, and create narratives intended to disprove it. Human culture conjures an imaginary world in which the constant application of human planning and purpose supplants nature’s profligate tendency to live in the moment. That imaginary world has to be sustained by a massive lie; and the lie is that ultimately there is a purpose to it all. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the proponents of the “purpose” scenario tend to make common cause with the proponents of the “God” theory, since each is invested in the demolition of the view that the cosmos as far as we can tell, is pointless and unintended.

Here in the West, that alliance is identified with a hardened belief that the purpose of life is a permanent happiness after death earned by an immortal “soul” through the faithful compliance with a spiritual “God”-person’s moral program, a major part of which is work. After an avalanche of scientific challenge, that narrative appears more and more to be simply a pathetic attempt to introduce purpose and immortal (permanent) “spirit” into a universe where there is neither; left to themselves our material organisms vibrate with the rest of nature on a dynamic of dalliance and play, the appropriate response to pointlessness.

The scenario of eternal reward and punishment, we should also notice, is self-refuting: the happiness that the “doctrine” claims to offer is still, at the end of the day, only life. Why will a perishing “life” that now leaves us frustrated, miserable and unfulfilled, suddenly become a source of unmitigated happiness? The argument that it will stop being life as we know it and become something else is futile. We don’t want anything else. Or that we will be changed into “spirits” and so enjoy life in another form. But we don’t want to be changed. We want to be what we are, with these bodies, families and friends that make us, us. It can’t be life as we know it, because life includes death as intrinsic to its processes. If we get what we want, permanent human life, we will get permanent suffering, frustration, loss, isolation … and with nothing to put an end to the misery, the best that can occur is that we get more of the same. Eternal Life translates to endless suffering, separation, and the slow deteriorations ― the entropy ― that characterize matter’s energy wherever it is found.

So, besides confirming the Buddhist insight into samsara (that desire is ultimately insatiable and re-begets itself in its fulfillment) it evokes the imagery of endless recurrence that in Indian tradition has crystallized in the belief in rebirth after death. When Buddha speaks about ending the cycle of rebirth, what he says applies to this foundational frustration of our organic condition: that an eternal life would simply prolong suffering endlessly. What we want is for that suffering to end. The Buddha claims he discovered how to end suffering.

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I believe Siddhartha Gautama came to see the fundamental features of human life on earth in the terms laid out above. He saw that we are quite alone. He did not believe there was a “loving person” behind it all, explaining life’s depth and diversity, nor did he believe that we ourselves were permanent “persons,” “souls” that are not subject to the vanishing that affects all other biological life. He saw that we were fooled by the ever-recur­ring delusion that our desires and instincts could be trusted to lead us to the end of suffering. It seemed clear to him that all sentient beings, not only humans, were the victims of a massive scam: that by following the urges of our organisms we will find happiness and closure. It is simply not true. The animals are unaware that they are being scammed. We are, and we rebel.

Know all things to be like this: a mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. [1]

Later, Mahayana would call it emptiness.  I believe that his celebrated compassion was born of that assessment.

With a cold decisiveness that betrayed the hidden fury behind his quest and discoveries the Buddha dismissed the promptings of nature as fraudulent and devised a way to replace them with others that were guaranteed to end suffering. The uncontrolled stream of images that passed for thought, he said, was the source of reflex behavior that could hardly be called conscious. He determined that by re-introducing conscious awareness back into a mind that was at the mercy of its urges, we could gain control over the process of living and feeling and not be its passive victims. How to re-introduce this conscious awareness? By incrementally changing thought through meditation.

Meditation for the Buddha was not a head-trip in search of enlightenment, much less the dreamy delights of a nuptial relationship with a transcendent Bridegroom. Meditation was a warrior’s daily workout designed to control thought, discipline the mind, re-estab­lish conscious control over our attitudes, opinions, feelings and their subsequent actions. Stop obeying a blind conatus, and start obeying the dharma ― the moral responsibilities revealed to us by our innate and honest intelligence. Think the right thoughts, and you will do the right thing. Start living according to your conscience and you will end suffering for yourself and all others whom you touch.

The Buddha’s program exudes the sweaty energy of military exertion and control. “You got yourself into this pickle, you have the resources to get yourself out.” “Be master of yourself. Once you are in control you will be the best master you will ever have.” “Do it yourself. Be beholden to nobody.” In the entire Dhammapada there is no mention of any help from the outside, divine, human or the forces of nature. Even the sangha, the community of practitioners, is barely mentioned. You are on your own.

It was the absence of any appeal to outside help and no acknowledgement of a “revealed” standard of behavior that has impelled the nearly universal judgment that the Buddha was atheist ― at least in our western terms. The motivation for transformation was what the individuals decided was the right thing to do. There was no “god’s will” being served by any of this, nor was there any prodding or help coming from the practitioner’s “higher power.” What motivated the Buddha was love of his LIFE and the LIFE he shared with others. He wanted to end human suffering. That was the source of his compassion.

The program of obedience he proposed was to one’s own conscience. He called it the dharma. The term captured the essence of a what is universally considered right and wrong: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not become intoxicated, do not transgress sexual norms. Commentators have remarked on the similarity of the concept of the dharma with the Chinese notion of the Tao and the original Hebrew idea of the Torah not as written law but as “the way of heaven.” Some have tried to equate it with the “natural law” of later Greek philosophy, but the dharma does not share the rigidity, divinization of logic and legal simulation that characterizes the western system.

6

Mahayana went beyond the Buddha in a number of ways. To understand how, let’s recap. I believe there are two bedrock ultimates at play in life. In the first there are intense cravings that arise spontaneously in the human organism compelling it to pursue things that are necessary for the survival of the individual and of the species. These are algorithms implanted by evolution. We are all familiar with them. They impel us incessantly to nourish ourselves, reproduce, accumulate, compete with and defend ourselves against others, and in the pursuit of those objectives, to plan and apply disciplined purposeful effort. Second, and with a completely opposite dynamic, there is also a universal sense of purposelessness about reality that comes from the superfluous profligacy of LIFE coupled with its utter randomness, and the spontaneous, virtually irrepressible attraction of the human organism to play and enjoyment. These two force-fields are in direct competition with one another for the attention of the human beings trying to navigate the current that carries them from the cradle to the grave.

I believe the ancient Indians saw the intrinsic connection between the impermanence and frustration that attends the planned attempt to satisfy spontaneous desire, and the purposelessness of all reality. They are one and the same thing.  They called it emptiness.  Because reality has no purpose beyond just being-here, no version of it, no matter how elaborated or evolved, is ever enough, finished, complete. The hunger for more life emerges insatiably from the very material cells of our organism. I believe it is a clear evidence of the existential bearing of matter’s energy.

Then, in a tour de force of vertical reflection, Hindu-Buddhists realized that if being-here is all that LIFE is really concerned about, then being-here is the elusive “purpose” that we have always been searching for. If being-here is the goal of LIFE then, zounds! we already have it, and we have had it from the very beginning. The last place we looked was under our feet. Things are, in a profound but hidden sense, already perfect, enough, fulfilled, complete, finished.

Therefore, the rest ― the craving, the fear of dying, the need to reproduce, the amassing of wealth and power, the annihilation of competitors ― are residual reflex urges which, if mistakenly pursued beyond their temporary evolutionary purpose, degrade into a vain attempt to achieve permanence. In this form they are pure delusion, for none of it accomplishes its imagined purpose: none of it gets us one step closer to permanence. LIFE always remains vulnerable and evanescent. There is no closure.

But LIFE itself, in its perishable form, is the closure. The craving for more is delusion because it is not possible to have more, and the attempt to satisfy a delusion is what is responsible for socially generated suffering, the human condition. The answer to LIFE is not to continue trying to get what we think we want but cannot have, but to retrain our minds to want what we’ve got.

The Buddhist practical organizers zeroed in on the answer: to embrace what is, as it is, and forget about what our “desires” claim they need, and what our rational intelligence, following the clues of our desires, thinks is the purpose of LIFE. We need neither. Embracing what we are, as we are, is to put being-here-now at the center of our striving. Embracing ourselves in the present moment is the ultimate answer to LIFE. And it is not only the answer now, it is the answer at every now. It is always the answer, the only answer; there will never be a time when it is not the answer or when there is any other answer.

The discovery that not only is there a reason why things seem pointless, but that’s the way they are supposed to be, is mind-blowing. Far from being a problem, it is revealed as the solution. And our “job” is not to try to disprove it, or undermine it, or transcend it; it’s rather to endlessly enjoy its utter and glorious emptiness as we would an infinite spring of clear mountain water. We find that our thirst for being is slaked from the very first moment … and every subsequent present moment thereafter. All that remains is to retrain our frightened and paranoid conatus to see things for what they are. It’s not really a matter of faith, but rather trust. We can trust LIFE, the way things are … and we can trust what our human teachers ― Buddha, Jesus and their authentic imitators ― accomplished with their lives and the steps they took to get there. If they could do it, they told us in very clear terms, we can do it. We have to trust that they were ordinary human beings just like us, something that both of them insisted on. And we have to trust that since our humanity is the same, we also carry that power with us. The ability to transcend suffering and sorrow is ours to activate.

7

This opposes the fundamental direction of our Western Christian worldview which is focused on moral compliance in the pursuit of eternal reward, permanent immortality, and ― according to Roman Augustinian Christianity ― relies exclusively on the intervention of a spiritual “God” who both issues the moral law as the command of his will, and elects those who will receive and benefit from his miraculous “grace.” In this view, in complete opposition to the Buddha’s original teaching, the entire drama of personal transformation and the achievement of immortality in a state of eternal bliss, is the work of “God.” For a Christian to become a Buddhist, as the Buddha conceived his program, would involve a radical shift in perspective.

But the West is not totally closed to the Hindu-Buddhist view. There is a “minority report” from western culture that is diametrically opposed to the mainstream quid pro quo scenario outlined above and is categorically in agreement with the “pointlessness” that Indian spirituality adumbrates at the core of reality. The most articulate proponents of this opposing point of view are Johannes “Meister” Eckhart, a mediaeval Dominican theologian who died in 1328, and those who were inspired by his mystical vision in the centuries that followed : Tauler, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Angelus Silesius.

The last named author in the list of the Meister’s followers was Angelus Silesius. He was German, a mystical poet who wrote about the middle of the 17th century, more than 300 years after Eckhart’s death but his writings are full of the Meister’s thought. Here is a sampling of his poetry from different translations that reveals the similarity with the Buddhist view. Keep in mind that he is projecting these ideas in the midst of a Christian cultural contradiction. These individual and separated verses come from a much larger series of poems called The Cherubinic Wanderer, composed about 1658. His lines are in italics and indented: [3]

On the absence of “purpose” in life he says:

The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.

On the “will” of “God”:

We pray: Thy Will be done! But God has no Will: in His changelessness God is eternally still.

On divine Providence and predestination:

God foresees nothing — it’s our dull and blundering sense that imagines God with the attribute of Providence.

On the “rationality” of the abundant source of LIFE:

God does not think. Otherwise He would change, and that is impossible.

On “God” as the “being” of all things:

Eternal Spirit, God, becomes All that He wills to be — but still remains ever as He is, without form, or aim, or will.

For Eckhart and his followers, their experience conformed to and in many cases was the formative factor in their theology. Following the mediaeval focus on God as ESSE in se subsistens ― self-subsistent Being ― they conceived of God, the designer and exemplar that all things resembled and the absolute good that all things desired to possess, as pure impassive stillness. They imagined God living in a blissful serenity totally absorbed in an eternal act of self-embrace silently pouring out a single changeless energy (Aristotle called it Pure Act) that because there was nothing in ESSE that was not fully actuated, could not become something more in any way. It remained exactly the same for all eternity. They called it The Eternal Now.

Eckhart laid great emphasis on the eternal now:

The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now. [2]

Time in their view stood at the other end of the spectrum from the eternal now. Time was the record of change, of becoming, the activation of dormant potential ― of what could be but was not yet ― and on the downslope of new being, the entropic dissipation of energy in the inevitable direction of equilibrium, inaction, non-becoming, complete stasis, death. Time is the vapor trail of becoming ― i.e., the tracks left by potential being activated, by things coming into being-here out of nothing, which occurs always and only at one point in time: the present moment. They saw the present moment as the “stargate,” the “wormhole,” the permanent, ever accessible bridge and indelible link between the Eternal Now and the world of time and change. It was the one, solid, ever present and infallible connection between God and humankind, the place of contact, the kiss of existence that sustains the universe.

This is where the contemplative experience of both East and West, Buddhism and the Mystical traditions of the religions of The Book, not only confirmed what the other had stumbled upon, but reached for a rational way to explain why. For contemplative experience universally rests upon the present moment, and is described as absorption in the here and now ― the reality of being-here-now ― to the complete exclusion of any competitor or rival. It includes the sense that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to get, nothing to want, nothing more precious or valuable than the simple uncomplicated act of being-here-now-together which is the simultaneous activation of energy by the living material organisms and the material energy of their common source-matter, the substrate of which all things are made, LIFE.

The awareness that this realization ends suffering, both the suffering that comes from fear of personal annihilation and the suffering that comes from competing violently with others for possession of what neither of us needs and really wants, is the ultimate source of the universal love, expressed as compassion, gratitude, generosity, respect, forgiveness, characteristic of both traditions. In India, it was crystalized in the image of the bodhisattva and his mind-blowing recognition that nirvana and samsara were only different ways of looking at one and the same pointless material cosmos, the same purposeless LIFE. Nirvana itself stopped being a thing to be achieved. Nirvana became present in the instant of embracing the present moment, the kiss of LIFE. Zen practitioners called it satori ― enlightenment.

It works coming and going. Coming to us as the joy of being-here-together and going out from us as the joy of sharing the good news of our liberation to fellow slaves and victims of mindlessness.

 

 

[1] The Buddha, quoted by Andrew Harvey, Mystics, Castle Books, 1996, p.72

[2] Johannes Eckhart, quoted in DT Suzuki, Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, Macmillan, 1957, p. 84

[3] Selections from The Cherubinic Wanderer, by Angelus Silesius, translated with an introduction by J. E. Crawford Flitch, [London, 1932]   http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/sil/scw/scw004.htm

 

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

 

Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

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. Therefor God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

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

 

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest.   We can think of LIFE similarly.   All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?

The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/