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/

 

The Limits of Knowledge (2)

the human being — time and death

Existence is time.[1] It’s not coincidental that time caused us to look at being-here separately from abstract “being” and ask what it otherwise would not have occurred to us to ask, why do I die, or “Why does being-here seem to end?”

My life is both temporal and temporary.  There’s a connection between the two.  It seems the very nature of the modulations of existence is to find better ways to be-here, to survive and extend survival.  The vitality displayed by matter’s energy is not a leisured aesthetic creativity, an unhurried pastime.  There is an urgency here that derives from a conatus, a drive to survive, that is integral to a developing universal entropy that results from the energy expenditure of any “thing,” whether it be the hydrogen fusing into helium in stars or the respiratory activity of the cells of the human brain.  Entropy is the exhaust from combustion — the smoke that is the sign of fire — the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move toward a state of uniform inertia through the expenditure of energy for the performance of work.  Work is energy applied in the endeavor to survive. The aggregation and integration forged by matter’s energy is part and parcel of the “downhill” flow of the existential cataract initiated at the big-bang that drives the Universe to produce its effects — like the eddies and vortices that spin off in a raging current.  These pyramidal vortices (one vortex cumulatively building on another and another) are an anti-en­tro­pic phenomenon — they struggle against dissolution, to survive — even though they add to universal entropy as a result.

My life is the inner force of existence because it is matter’s energy.  It is driven in the direction of perdurance in an obsession to continue the dance of presence.  Time is the effluence of my own presence.  As my existence perdures from moment to moment — as each “now” molts into the next — it emanates time as the sweat of its creative labors; the vapor trail of its endless explorations.  I embrace my being-here, and so I embrace time.

The transcendence over death, not only through evolutionary integration but also with other communitarian strategies like daily alimentation and organismic reproduction, harnesses even as it recapitulates the patterns and primordial energies let loose within the first second of the big bang.  The energy that drives my hunger for existence, is the energy of matter itself.

We live in a banquet of existence.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are dependent on the entire material matrix within which we evolved.  In our lifetime, each human organism consumes in sustenance probably 40 or 50 tons of the matter’s energy — in the form of carbon — of other living things who must die in order that we might live.  Add to that another 50 tons of oxygen continuously drawn in from the atmosphere and utilized together with carbon in the cellular combustion we call metabolism.  At death we return our “stuff” to be used as food by others as part of an endless cycle of interchange within the one organism produced and energized by the cascade of existence.  Matter’s energy is a totality.

At a certain magical moment, also, the very cells of my body, by utilizing another communitarian tactic, combine with another’s to create a new identity — my daughter, my son — which is automatically granted a full allotment of time, slipping under the entropic radar of death.  How was this miracle accomplished?  The living cells are mine, but their age and accumulated karma are erased.  Death is cheated, fooled, outwitted.  The new individual with my cells, my DNA, eludes the death they were otherwise destined to endure.  Do we share this adventure in survival with love and gratitude? … Only if we understand!

But if we mis-under­stand — if we originally mis-interpreted that moment of crisis, the perception of death, as the cessation of what’s really there, we are quite capable of turning this banquet of sharing into a selfish grab-bag where the desperate “eat drink and make merry” in a display of bitter disillusionment against a morrow of imagined nothingness.  It is precisely the fact that “I” am metaphysically insignificant except as an integra­ted function of matter’s energy that opens me to a new dimension.   I realize that what is really there and really important is the matrix, the universal “stuff” of which I am made, the homogeneous substrate of which all things are made, the single organism of which we are all the leaves and branches, and which will go on in other forms endlessly.  It was with those micro-threads of existence that I was woven.  The primacy here, as always, belongs to the stuff of existence, the matter-energy of the universe.  It is material energy “congealed” in me.  And in short order, the same existence will use “me” to do something else in a constant search for survival — existence.

So time is the expression of process; it is the measure of groping and the tracks of creativity.  It marks the work in progress of evolutionary development.

endless or “eternal”

The re-cycling is endless.  Isn’t that the same as “eternal,” and doesn’t it imply transcendent, necessary, absolute etc., all those abstract, essentialist characteristics derived from the “concept of being” that we rejected in chapter 1?

No.  Endless is not “eternal” because endless is open and empty.  “Eternal” is closed, fixed and finished, full and complete; “eternal” is the absence of time.  Endless, on the other hand, is time … time without end; it contemplates development without term, a presence that is forever thirsty.  “Eternal,” is synonymous with unchanging, impassible and immutable, Pure Act, pure stasis, without a shred of unfulfilled potential — perfect.  It’s a completely foreign concept to us, pure conceptual projection.  We’ve never experienced anything the least bit like it.  For us, being-here as we know it is an endless phenomenon that throbs always with unrealized potential, with an ever perceived emptiness seeking to be filled and asking for nothing but more time.  We have never encountered existence in any other form.  Its current modality is always in the process of becoming, apparently without limit, itself — existence.

Being-here in our world, is endless becoming.  It’s all we know.  Where, then, do we get the notion of a fixed and finished “eternal”?  I believe it’s another of our fantasies based on the requirements of the imaginary ancient “concept of being.”  Existence, matter’s energy, as found in the real world, however, is a function of power — potentia as Spinoza discerned insightfully — potential; it is focused on survival and constantly ready to change tactics in order to achieve it.  Matter’s creative power is the drive to exist (survive) by extruding new forms out of itself creating time.

“Eternal” is unthinkable.  Endless is not.  We can understand endless perfectly because it’s no different from time itself.  To conceptualize “endless” requires no more insight than imagining present moments, “nows” in an open-ended flow into the future.  In our very own awareness of ourselves-exist­ing, which is the unfolding of our personal presence in time, we actually experience this pheno­menon most intimately as our own sentient selves.  We experience ourselves in a temporal flow into a potentially endless future.  To experience temporal flow is to experience that part of “endless” which will always be here — the present moment, “now,” the only part of “endless” that ever … and always, exists.  To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.

We are reminded that for the 14th century mystic Johannes Eckhart, “now” was the most sacred of all locations, the center of the universe.  It was precisely where “God,” he said, who exists in an Eternal “Now,” was actively sharing “being” with creation in an effluence of love and self-donation.  If you want to touch “God,” he said, you can only do it “now.” The fact that “now” — the present moment — is the only moment that really exists and that, at the same time, it goes almost universally unattended, may be a measure of exactly how alienated from existence we are.

Can we say that our conception corresponds to the emphasis on living in the present moment promoted by the Buddhist, Thich Nat Hanh?  The Bud­dhists insist their counsel is a discipline not a doctrine.  They don’t speak about metaphysics, “being” or existence, so we can’t say for sure.  But for the Buddhists, as for Meister Eckhart, the present moment is all there is.  We are-here only in the present moment.  To live in the present moment is to embrace the impermanence, the “emptiness” that drives reality always to the next moment, creating time.

[1] The similarity of this proposition to Heidegger’s thesis expounded in his Being and Time is only semantic. For H. time is the pulse and measure of Da-sein’s anguish of being-toward-death, which alone brings Da-sein’s authentic care to bear on the beings-in-the-world. In my conception, on the other hand, I make every effort to exclude the subjective factors. Time for me is foundationally a physical property exuded by the physical perdurance in existence of a physical entity — matter’s energy.

Eckhart’s mystical program

Meister Eckhart was a mystic. He integrated his spirituality and his science — a project that we would emulate in our times and with our “science” — but he did it in an extraordinary way: he transcended religion. In Eckhart’s view, as we “become,” by choice after choice one with God … as we withdraw from attachment to anything but pure absolute being, we eventually “break through” all separations, divisions, oppositions and individualities and we become one with and within the “One” in which all things subsist— the “Godhead beyond God.” This wasn’t just a religious moment; it was a cosmological event.

The “One” in Eckhart’s picture can easily be substituted by matter’s energy and the mystical relationships remain the same except for the emotionality associated with a personal “God.” But “withdrawing all attachment” should have already eliminated that as an obstacle. As the following citations shows, Eckhart explicitly denied that the “Godhead beyond God” was a “person.”

Eckhart’s sense of the Divine Unity is the bedrock feature of his theology. His own terminology about the “Godhead” is even more challenging than our descriptions of it. He says the “Godhead” is

“… a non-God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a non-image, rather … He is a pure, sheer, limpid One, detached from all duality.

… If the soul sees God as He is God, or as He is an image, or as He is three, it is an imperfection. But when all images are detached from the soul and she sees nothing but the One alone, then the naked essence of the soul finds the naked formless essence of divine unity, which is superessential being …”[1]

Eckhart scholar Robert Forman comments:

Eckhart stressed the absolute desert-like silence of the Godhead … beyond even the bare threeness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   … beyond all distinctions, those between creatures and God, … and even the subtle distinctions between the Trinity and the Godhead. Most importantly, all creatures come to be cognized as non-distinguished from the divine expanse which has been (since the Birth) encountered within myself. The peculiar oceanic feeling is hence encountered not only internally but externally … . It is to find oneself amidst the ontological core of the cosmos.[2]

Forman continues: “When Eckhart speaks of the ‘Breakthrough’ in the first person he suggests that it involves perceiving the unmoved mover which stands at the source of both “myself” and the world. This entails the perception that self and other are One. He quotes Eckhart:

When I flowed forth from God, all creatures declared: “There is a God”; but this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge myself as a creature. But in my breaking through, where I stand free of my own will, of God’s will, of all His works and of God Himself, then I am above all creatures and I am neither God nor creature, but I am that which I was and shall remain forevermore … this breaking through guarantees to me that I and God are one. Then I am what I was, then I neither wax nor wane, for then I am the unmoved cause that moves all things.”[3]

This is truly extraordinary language for a mediaeval scholastic. But it is even more remarkable when we see its resemblance to the projections of cosmo-ontology which sees a “living matter” — an equally singular source — at the basis of all cosmic development.

Beyond “God” to the Godhead       

The famous sermon of the Meister given on the text “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” from Matthew’s gospel, is especially strong in its insistence that the God of religion and of religious spirituality must be transcended and effectively shed before the authentic connection with the ultimate Source of the Sacred can occur.

Other mystics say virtually the same thing. The detachment of the “dark night” of John of the Cross in which blind, empty trust alone, beyond all knowledge or clarity, beyond all consolation or assurance, is similar in that it insists that all concepts and images are transcended when authentic mystical contact takes place. In this same regard, the Buddha was particularly trenchant against “religion” and the gods. This reinforces the traditional scholastic rejection of anthropomorphism. The very nature of reality precludes any imagery of an “Intelligent Designer.”

Here is more from Eckhart on the issue from the same sermon. It should be easy to discern when Eckhart uses the word “God” to mean the object of our religious understanding, which is to be transcended, and when he intends the “Godhead” which is the true goal of the individual’s quest.

… If you want to be truly poor, you must be as free from your creature-will as when you had not yet been born. For by the everlasting truth, as long as you will to do God’s will and yearn for eternity and God, you are not really poor; for (s)he is poor who wills nothing, knows nothing and wants nothing.

Back in the Womb from which I came, I had no God and merely was myself. I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. And what I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I existed untrammeled by God or anything else. But when I parted from my free will and received my created being, then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not God, but rather, he was what he was. When creatures came to be and took on creaturely being, then God was no longer God as he is in himself, but God as he is with creatures.

Now, we say that God, in so far as he is only God, is not the highest goal of creation, nor is his fullness of being as great as that of the least of creatures, themselves in God. … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, and taking the truth, break through into eternity, where the highest angels and souls too, are like what I was in my primal existence, when I wanted what I was and I was what I wanted. Accordingly, a person ought to be poor, willing as little and wanting as little as when he did not exist.

. . .       

The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything. But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that. God is free of everything and therefore he is everything. He then who is to be poor in spirit … knows nothing of God, or creatures, or himself. …

Thus far I have said that he is poor who does not want to fulfill the will of God but who so lives that he is empty of his own will and the will of God, as much so as when he did not exist. Next we said that he is poor who knows nothing of the action of God in himself. … But the third poverty is the most inward and real … it consists in that a man has nothing.

… If it is the case that a man is emptied of things, creatures, himself and God, and if still God could find a place in him to act, then we say: as long as that exists, this man is not poor with the most intimate poverty … since true poverty of spirit requires that man shall be emptied of God and all his works, so that if God wants to act in the soul, he himself must be the place in which he acts … he would himself be the scene of action, for God is the one who acts within himself. It is here in this poverty, that man regains the eternal being that once he was, now is, and evermore shall be.

Therefore I pray God that he may quit me of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions. It was here that I was myself, wanted myself, and knew myself to be this person, and therefore I am my own first cause, both of my eternal being and of my temporal being. To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever.

For what I am as a temporal creature is to die and come to nothingness, for it came with time and with time it will pass away. In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten, I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be. If I had not been, there would have been no God. …

The similarity of Eckhart’s “Godhead” to Spinoza’s “God/Being” is striking. Each eschew humanoid imagery in describing our relationship to our Source and Sustainer. It’s not my intention to promote Eckhart’s neo-Platonism or Platonic theories of the pre-existence of the soul. But his sermons are not only theoretical doctrine; they are the records of his mystical experience, just as Spinoza’s doctrine of “God” in his Ethics is really the metaphysical translation of his mystical experience of himself in the world. This means to me we should examine the expositions of these extraordinary people as their experience of being human — mystically human.

What I hear from Eckhart is that his experience of connectedness with the Sacred deepened progressively over the course of his life and eventuated in an awareness that goes beyond religion and religion’s “God, and meshes with the reality at the core of all things. He senses himself to be one with everything, and one with the source of all, which he defines in the terms used by the science of his times: being. He calls it “Godhead” and distinguishes it from religion’s “God.” His neo-Platonism is an interpretative tool of his experience. His experience is what interests us; and his experience took him beyond religion’s “God.”

I contend that the imagery Eckhart used to describe his experience concurs too neatly with the perspectives evoked by a universe made of matter’s living and existential energy to be a mere coincidence. I believe he experienced his organism’s unity with the material cosmos and “being” was the word he used to represent it.   What we have in Eckhart’s writing — despite its neo-Platonic assumptions — is a reliable guide to a mysticism based on an encounter with the substrate-object of the individual human organism’s self-embrace: matter’s energy.

Whether or not Eckhart perceived the full significance of what he was experiencing I claim you cannot fully embrace what you are as a human being without loving the living substance of which you are made. It was matter’s energy and matter’s energy alone, whose survival mechanisms were passed on through reproduction over eons of geologic time, that put you here and made you what you are.

YOU ARE THAT!

 

 

[1] Walshe, M. Meister Eckhart, German Sermons and Treatises, London, Watkins, 1979 vol 2: p. 331

[2] Robert Forman, Meister Eckhart, The Mystic as Theologian, 1994 Element Books, Rockport MA, pp.178-180

[3] Walshe, op.cit. vol.2: p.275