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.




[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