the stone

The feeling of gratitude underpins optimism and the love of LIFE.

But it’s hard to feel grateful when your life-situation gets really, really bad, as it does for many people, especially toward the end.

Was Jesus feeling grateful when he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me”?

I don’t think so.

Feeling can be a trap. Much of what we call “spirituality” is generating feelings induced by assuming imagined postures ― part of our endless pursuit of self-construction.

Of course, gratitude is the point of it all, so really feeling grateful should be embraced with joy. But feelings come and go; and pursuing them is chasing the wind.

I may find myself at the last moment without a sense of gratitude. Who’s to say it won’t happen? The feeling of abandonment may be insuperable as it was for Jesus. What then?

Then, with Jesus I say, “Enough!

All attempts to establish the “self” I have built with my thoughts and feelings collapse, and I become, finally, what I really am in this vast universe of things:

zero.

I plummet like a stone.

The plummeting is what I do.

The rest is not my business.

 

Tony Equale

Different or Distinct?

in search of a new imagery for “God”

3,500 words

1.

“No one has ever seen ‘God’.” John’s gospel and the first letter of John both considered that statement to be a fulcrum around which their argument turned. Because “God” was not available for observation, Jesus played an indispensable role in putting “God” on display in terms that ordinary human beings ― even little children ― could understand. Jesus was the image of “God,” so much like him that the gospel called him “God’s” only begotten son.

“Image” is what religion is all about. Religion provides imaginary depictions of what we know has to be there (because we are not self-originating or self-sustaining), but about which we know nothing at all: the ultimate source and sustenance of the universe. Unfortunately, religion is all we’ve got; and it has been forced, everywhere in the world, to imagine the unknown and unimaginable wellspring of life. When John said that Jesus was “God’s” only begotten son, what he had in mind was Jesus’ extraordinary humanity, so human that it communicated unerringly to human beings, and so extraordinary that what it depicted was nothing less than the creative dynamism of reality itself. He said “God,” the source, the principle of all things (archē) was love. We can see it in Jesus, and we can see it in ourselves. if “God” is “being,” then to be is to love.

Unfortunately, John’s attempt to explain how Jesus’ was an authentic image of “God” that updated anything the Jews had inherited from their tradition, was misunderstood three hundred years later, and interpreted to mean that Jesus was actually “God.” Even in the case of a perfect image in a mirror, the image and the object it is reflecting may look exactly the same, but one is real, and the other is only an image. If you think they are the same, it is a mistake.

The crude intrusion of the Roman emperor in the decisions at the Council of Nicaea where that mistake was set in institutional stone, adds to its discreditation as a valid religious development. The doctrine’s value for theocracy is too obvious. Constantine was determined that only the very highest of all the many gods worshipped in the Roman Empire would do as the Imperial protector. Jesus and his cross, emblazoned 12 years earlier on the shields of his victorious troops, would henceforth be that highest of all gods. Rome had spoken, and it was Rome, after all, whose divinity no one doubted. Rome made Jesus “God,” investing him with exactly the kind of divinity Rome needed to continue being Rome.

In becoming Rome’s “God,” Jesus stopped being the Jewish human being ― the mensch ― that he once was. But that meant, unfortunately, that he was no longer the human image of the sacred dynamism that activated reality. He was assumed into the “divinity” which other, older imagery had already described and which the ancient world had long ago internalized: Pantocrator, The All Ruler, the Judge of the living and the dead, the heavenly analog of the Emperor of Rome. Rome’s divinity was beyond dispute, and it was Rome’s divinity that clothed the Cosmic Christ in the robes of the gods. Jesus’ counter-intuitive human message of compassion and humble trust in a Father of love suddenly became easy to understand: it was a trick ― a public relations ploy to lure and lull the masses; and his death was, under the disguise of victimhood, a forensic mechanism for placing the whole human race in his debt. Once he became “God,” everybody knew what the real picture was; it was the same old story of power and control; and the movie-theater currently projecting it was owned by Rome. The very imagery that Jesus’ extraordinary humanity was claimed to replace, was with demonic irony applied to Jesus himself, harnessing both “God” and Jesus to the imperial machine. The gods of wealth and power were reinstalled with a vengeance.

2.

Clearly, imagery is not an insignificant aspect of religion, a mere catechetical tool to be used and discarded once the comprehension of the concepts has been achieved. The images concocted by the various religious traditions to mediate relationship with the source of life come to mesh so completely with their object that the two become indistinguishable. In this sense, it was inevitable that Jesus would be mis-taken for “God” just as Rama or Krishna would come to stand in the place of Brahman or the Atman in the Hindu tradition. The process seems universal. Even in Buddhism where the founder himself was quite explicit that any thought of “God” or “the gods” or even metaphysical theory was entirely irrelevant to his program of personal liberation and community transformation, was divinized by his followers centuries after his death. I don’t think the universal occurrence of this phenomenon is necessarily damaging or deforming for practitioners who, like John, were aware of the distinctions involved; they were, after all, describing the undeniable transcendent effect it had on their lives. It changed their image of “God” 1800.  They had come to know what “God” was really like; he was like the man Jesus. And once we, too, embraced the call to love, “God” was like us.

The “problem” in the case of Jesus is that because the imaging process was not understood, or was manipulated for theocratic purposes, the meshing that occurred got consigned to another earlier and undeveloped image. The symbolic nature of the connection disappears, and the “God” that Jesus is said to be, is no longer imaged by the man Jesus; he is imaged by something else entirely, something primitive, atavistic ― entirely different from his own compassionate, forgiving humanity. In this case the archaic image was that of a severe imperial judge and executioner. Imagery matters. If you worship the wrong image, no matter how “holy” it appears, instead of putting yourself at the service of LIFE, you end up sacrificing your children to demons.

3.

The legitimate meshing of symbol and reality that I’m talking about derives from the very essence of our reality ― from the nature of LIFE in our material universe. I use the word “LIFE” in an intentionally ambiguous way because I am convinced that our material reality itself is a scientifically ambiguous phenomenon. “Ambiguous” means “true of both,” and abstractly contemplates two “things” that the speaker might be referring to. We usually use the word pejoratively to describe statements that are not clear, but it can also have a positive sense. And it is because all of cosmic reality is quite undeniably always at least two things at once that I contend it is not only legitimate, but essential that we look for ways to include it in our statements about it. We must be appropriately ambiguous if we are to be true to reality. Let me explain what I mean.

Everything in the universe is “what it is” and, at the same time, it is “what it is made of”. And what all things are made of is some form of material energy which, in its most fundamental form, is the same everywhere. This homogeneous “stuff,” reduced artificially in particle colliders to its most structurally primitive and foundational elements, is what is studied by physics. A tree, a squirrel, a silver-back gorilla are all entities, “things,” each with their own peculiar capacities and limitations embedded in their organisms; but however different they are, they are all made exclusively and exhaustively of exactly the same “stuff”: those same particles studied by physics.

Physicists agree that all is ultimately energy:

. . . “all particles are made of the same substance: energy” (Heisenberg, 1958). On this view, concrete stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is distinct from energy and that has energy. Rather concrete physical stuff is energy.

So too, concrete physical stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is in some way distinct from process, in which processes go on or occur; it is process. So too, concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain natural, categorical, concretely instantiated intrinsic qualities while being in some manner irreducibly ontologically distinct from them; its existence is nothing ontologically over and above the instantiation of those qualities. It is, however, hard for us to hold this point steadily in mind given the deep object-property / subject-predicate structure of our thought and language.

and

we may allow that non-biological entities like leptons and quarks jointly constitute larger things that have properties that are essentially more and other than the properties of leptons and quarks. We may do this even if we continue to conceive of leptons and quarks in a crude ‘smallist’ way as genuine individuals of some sort. We do better, though, to conceive of them in a quantum-field-theoretic way, as features or aspects of the various ‘fields’ that jointly constitute the universe in a way that is profoundly mysterious to us, or (perhaps better still) as features or aspects of the single complex field that constitutes ― is ― the universe[1]

Given that common understanding of the “stuff” of the universe, unless you are prepared to deny the unitary reality of the composites of that “stuff,” ― what we call “things” ― you are faced with a mystery: what exactly is it that accounts for the unity and integrity of individual entities at these subsequent (macro) levels? Are things “many,” in other words, as they appear to be, or is there only one “thing” out there, since everything is constructed of the same “stuff”?

Rather than getting into the various solutions offered to this classic question, I think it is sufficient at this stage to point out the ambigüity at the very heart of matter. Reality, or as we have traditionally called it, “being” seems to reside in two “places” simultaneously: in the components and in the composite, making each somehow an echo and reflection of the other. Reality is ambiguous, and human terminology reflects that fact by “meshing” component and composite, reality and reflection, origin and emanate, wellspring and effluent, roots and branches. All symbols are grounded in the soil of meta-physical ambigüity.

In the case of Jesus’ humanity, the idea that a human being could be the image of God had preceded him by many centuries in Hebrew thought. The first chapters of Genesis, integrated into the Hebrew scriptures about 600 bce., speak of “God” consciously and intentionally making man “in his own image and likeness.” I do not cite Genesis as some sort of revelatory source of “truth” in this matter; I do it only to show that John was writing within a tradition of expression in which human nature was understood to be a reflection, an echo, an image of its creative source. I would only add that it does not surprise me that conceptual chain should be found in Genesis because it is a fundamental feature of reality. All things are expressions ― images ― of their source, insofar as all things are made of nothing else. Things are, simultaneously, themselves and their source; so one would expect they would look like one another.

Now, as we very consciously try to integrate the discoveries of science into our understanding of the universe which evolved us, we cannot ignore the implications of our human organisms being nothing but an evolved form of the material energy that constitutes all things. There is nothing else there than the highly complex elaborations, anatomical, neurological, hormonal, emotional, instinctive, that represent matter’s evolutionary adjustments to the needs of survival for the hominid line in which we developed. If we want to know what we are, our first datum is the components of our organism. Matter’s evolutionary processes, aggregating, integrating, complexifying the particles studied by physics made us what we are. It made us human beings. And the “person” whom we identify as our own “self” is nothing but the individual organism reflexively conscious of itself and instinctively driven to preserve and defend its life, just like every other living organism on the face of the earth. Just as “concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain qualities while being in some manner ontologically distinct from them” so too the human individual is not something other than its organism’s instincts, urges, capacities and limitations. It is that very identity of our “selves” with our organisms that makes us a mirror-like representation of the “stuff” that comprises them. Herein is imagery born. We are nothing but what makes us to be-here, and so seeing us ― seeing what we are like and what we do ― reveals in a unique and compelling way what that which makes us to be-here is.

This is the physical / metaphysical basis for the imaging that is the very essence of religion. Reality is not simple. It is complex and structured. One thing is not only the thing it appears to be; it is a multitude of things that have gone into its formation and it is also the multitude of things that it later goes on to be part of forming. Parents and children reflect each other. But they also reflect by anticipation grandchildren and extended progeny. Everything speaks of everything else. Everything reveals everything else. Everything, at the end of the day, is everything else. The many are one, and the one only exists as many.

While we have always understood the dynamics of symbol and imagery, it was not until modern science revealed the material depth of our being-here as humans that we became aware of the reflectivity ― the mirror-ness ― of our relationship with everything else. Imaging is not a voluntary, intentional activity. It is unavoidable because it springs from the very composite structure of material reality. We evolved from, but continue to be constituted by, the “particles” studied by physics. We are what we are, but what we are is constructed of those particles and so we are also what they are . . . and they in turn are what we are.

4.

It is from understanding reality from this point of view that I am encouraged to offer a suggestion about a new set of images that correspond to our new knowledge. We are as aware as any previous generation that “no one has ever seen God.” And certainly more than any other generation we are acutely conscious of the depths of moral commitment and of the undeniably authentic mystical experience had among the practitioners of other traditions across the globe. Hence we are less inclined than anyone before us to embrace a Christian supremacist view of the world. We know from experience that Jesus is not the only, and therefore cannot in any way be considered the definitive manifestation of the sacred source of our material world that we have traditionally called “God.” We also know from our science that whatever this “God” might be who has never been seen by anyone, it does not act like a rational, personal agent in any way recognizable as such to human beings. From this we suspect that the imagery of our own western traditions rooted in the Hebrew scriptures is pure projection, and reflects an earlier, obsolete, pre-scientific picture of the universe, life and human consciousness. I believe all these factors come together in validating the need for a new set of images that may more credibly provide the concrete anchor for our sense of the sacred depths of our lives.

Fundamentally, and to my mind, quite appropriately, the imagery I propose is generated by the picture that science has provided us of the actual state of things-in-process in our evolving universe of matter. Since we now know that “God” cannot refer to a humanoid, rational agent, “personal” and personally interactive as we understand the words, rather than attempt to conjecture about this unknown source, we are on safer ground just sticking with what we really know: we ourselves have an insuppressible sense of the sacredness of this universe of things and, even without knowing what our source is, we feel a profound gratitude and admiration toward it for what it has produced. Our gratitude is grounded in ourselves as undeniable gift; it is not grounded in knowing the giver. It occurs in the absence of knowledge. The only thing known is our non-origination.

In a second step, we experience our own being-here directly and as a “self” at every emerging moment of time. I cannot define “self” in any terms other than to evoke the experience. It cannot be “understood” in other terms and it cannot be “explained” because I have no idea where “I” came from. My parents who were instrumental in my coming to be here had no idea what kind of “self” I was going to be and certainly had no hand in its determination. I did not originate it myself, even though later I did participate in re-shaping it according to my chosen and changing values. I know nothing about the “self” except that it appeared along with my organism, and it disappears when my organism disintegrates. Without presuming to “know,” I can validly say that it seems completely commensurate with this complex, DNA shaped and driven packet of material energy formed by the interaction of multiple composites, that is my biological organism. My “self” is my body reflectively conscious of itself.

In a third step, I am well informed by science about the evolutionary processes driven by the instinct to survive, integrating, complexifying and re-arranging the wave-fields/particles constituent of matter and the creative effect they have had on the production of living species. As a human being I am personally identified with this organism which I know was produced by evolution and is enjoyed by every other human being on the planet. In my search for a source, I cannot ignore the obvious and fully explanatory role of biological evolution in the elaboration of my “self.” Clearly it is the energy of these material particles that have driven the evolutionary process. In an undeniably factual way then, I have to say that phenomenally speaking ― as far as human observation and verification is concerned ― my source is this energy embedded in the wave-fields/particles of the fundamental elements of matter, for “I” am nothing else.

The nature of this constructive hierarchy of wave-field/particles and their undeniable innate energy to continue to be-here are sufficient and necessary to explain my being-here in every aspect of my existence and at every moment of time without exception. There is no observable fact or feature of my organism ― physical, mental or emotional ― that remains unexplained requiring the search for any other source. If the cause and explanation for my being-here is also called “God,” then, logically speaking I have no reason to look any further. I am perfectly justified in identifying this material energy as “God.”

Even if someone were to object and insist that there must some “source” beyond the wave-fields / particles of material energy that constitute everything in our universe that is responsible for the existence, nature and character of these particles, it would have to be said that whatever else that hypothetical “source” might be, it would have to itself be a material energy of a type and character necessary and sufficient to explain what it produced in every aspect and at every moment in time. Conceptually speaking, therefore, material energy and its putative “source” can be considered one and the same thing. In fact, however many “sources of sources” there might be going back beyond our universe’s material energy, there will never be something other than material energy as we know it to account for it or it would never exist.

So for the purposes of the imagery that I am suggesting, the material energy we can observe and measure represents anything that its hypothetical “source” could ever be as source, and therefore can be validly embraced as our source.

This “God,” then, that we have identified as material energy “transcends” being any one “thing” by being pervasively and suffusively the structural and dynamic components of all. It is “that in which we live and move and have our being.” That means phenomenologically (scientifically, observably and measurably) we as individual “things” are not distinguishable from our constituent components, the wave-fields/particles that comprise our organisms. If material energy is “God” then we are distinguishable from “God” only metaphysically, which means conceptually ― only in human minds ― as “source” and “product.”  We are a completely unified structured reality whose surface appearance is individual and finite but whose roots are universal and reach into the infinite ground, the reservoir where homogeneous material energy is neither created nor destroyed and totally unformed and uncomposed.

So I propose: between us and “God” there is no difference, but from the point of view of originating energy, we are conceptually distinct. “God” is the originating, indestructible, self-possessed endless energy of the constituent components, and we are the composite product arising constructed and de-constructible, subject to the entropy that characterizes the descent back into an equilibrium from which we had been wrenched by the energy of LIFE. The “distinction” is in the metaphysical structure: Are the roots different from the tree with its leaves and branches?  No but they are distinct for human thought, in role and function. Is the “underground source” different from the pool of spring water emerging on the surface? No but they are categorically distinct as “source” of movement and the resulting motion. Is the light with which we see things on earth different from the sun’s light?  No it is not different. It is one and the same light, there is only one light, and it illumines us all. It’s how we see one another. It’s how we know we are all here and in this together. Only thus are we “distinct” from “God” and from one another.

[1] Galen Strawson, What does “physical” mean? [a version of the chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Pan­psychism (2020), forthcoming in Mind and Being uploaded separately by the author to Academia.edu] pp.5&7

The Begging Bowl

The “Prayer of St Francis” has become for many people, not only Christians, a quintessential expression of universal spirituality. It is a terse and unadorned statement of the intention to dedicate one’s energies to the service and well-being of others and not to oneself. It has two parts that correspond to each of those desires. The first part of the prayer identifies what the well-being of others means: peace ― achieved by overcoming hatred, injury, error, doubt, despair and darkness wherever they are found.

The second part of the prayer tacitly acknowledges that the stated intention of the first part cannot be accomplished without a radical selflessness ― a 1800 turn on the ordinary pursuit:

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.

Wonderful as the sentiments of the second part of the prayer are, anyone who has attempted to live them out realizes the impasse that they represent. For none of us can live without the love of others, their consolation and their understanding. These needs are not optional; it is not selfish to have them. They come from the nature of the human organism which can only survive in human society. Without the emotional and physical support of other people we shrivel and die.

How do I reconcile an absolute requirement of my human organism with the intention of the prayer? The prayer states clearly that my responsibility lies in loving others, not in getting others to love me. My job and duty is to understand and console others, not to find and insure ways to get others to understand and console me. How can both those things occur?

It means I forego any attempt to pursue, possess or control what comes to me from others.

Like the mendicants ― some Buddhists even today ― who go out every day with their begging bowls and eat only the food that people decide to give them, as a practitioner of the prayer of St Francis I accept my condition as an emotional beggar. I voluntarily embrace it as the endemic condition of all widows and orphans ― the Hebrew scriptures’ symbols for the poor and vulnerable. That means I renounce all ownership or direct pursuit of this most precious commodity. Like those who beg for their food, I choose to live everyday on the love, understanding and consolation that people ― any people, not the ones I have chosen, and yes, even the ones I do not like ― decide to give me, freely. And I will eat that “food,” and if that’s all that comes, I will live on it.

I trust that it will be provided, for I trust people.

I abandon any attempt to pursue, possess or control it. I acknowledge that my insuppressible need for love is dependent on the free and uncoerced generosity of others, and it’s not my place to decide who it comes from or in what form they give it, what it looks like in my bowl or how it tastes.

And I will do it as “practice” ― i.e., as a constant reminder of my real work in life: to be an instrument of peace.

Buddha and the Absolute

1,300 words

Efforts to correlate western theism with Buddhism always run into the same difficulty: theists try to introduce the concept of a non-material changeless Absolute into a Buddhist world of empty ephemeral “things” that exist in a roiling process of constant composition and decomposition. “Absolute” is a concept that is necessarily non-material and changeless. It is because it is so totally different that it immediately evokes a “world” or a dimension of reality that is other than ours. If you conceive “God” as an “absolute” as Christian theology has always done, his relationship to the world requires a complicated explanation that is not always convincing even when it’s coherent.

Besides, to claim access to another world that is not empty, shows a fatal misunderstanding of why the Buddha refused to talk about such things. For once you introduce the “Absolute”, you have introduced permanence and non-materiality. That means the material human “self” seeks to connect with the Absolute and must think of itself as becoming (if not already) permanent and non-material. Transformative practice becomes a pursuit (or protection) of permanence and a rejection of the body. One seeks absorption into the Absolute here and/or hereafter by changing oneself and being filled with the Absolute’s non-material, non-temporal reality.

Anatman, “no-self,” would then become only a “skillful means,” a technique, a mental manipulation, a kind of self-deprecation you use to help you “act” right and fill yourself with a permanence that you do not have; it no longer characterizes reality-as-it-is. That may serve as a synthesis of Hinduism and Abrahamic theism, but however abstract and non-anthropomor­phic, it is still radically dual. If the Absolute is an entity, it is transcendently Other. It is non-material and changeless in a universe of matter, change and process. It sets up a necessary relational dynamic of imitation and infusion, whereby “salvation” consists in matching human behavior to a standard “out there” set by the Absolute Other, and those who do not conform become sinners or failures who require “forgiveness” from the Other and a metamorphosis accomplished by an infusion that changes the organism from what it is into what the Other is: from matter to non-matter; from process to permanence. Anatman disappears because the emptiness from which it is derived becomes a source of repugnance and recoil.

To do that is to abandon what I believe is Buddha’s radical religious insight and challenge: we cannot “achieve” Nirvana. Nirvana emerges from embracing our emptiness. And nirvana emerges because it is already there. We are constituted of it, like an oak tree emerges from an acorn. Our “salvation” is to embrace ourselves; “I” and my body are “two” in one flesh, one thing. The “I,” in fact, stops insisting on being acknowledged, because now it knows it was never anything separate from the body to begin with. What was there was only the human organism ― the body ― material energy-in-process. What we thought was a separate non-material permanent “self” was the organism’s own material reflex for self-preservation.

Only in a system of total immanence, where the practitioner is already fully and completely what s/he transforms into, i.e., where what becomes is what seminally is fully there, can the material universe be what it is: material energy-in-process ― what we see unfolding itself before our astonished eyes: hydrogen atoms becoming stars, suns imploding and spewing out earths, sea and soil generating living organisms, acorns developing into oaks, species evolving species endlessly. Everything is in process; and nothing comes from nothing.

This is not some esoteric insight, the solution of an exquisitely complex equation. It is simply the result of taking the evolving universe out there to be exactly and only what it appears to be, with no remainder whatsoever. What is there is exactly and only what you see. There is no other world, plane or dimension of existence. You are looking at it all, every bit of it: cause and effect, source and outflow, seed and organism, origin and emanation, Creator and Creatures. A universe in process. It’s all right there.

There is nothing more. WE ARE THAT! We belong here. We are in the only home we will ever have, and we already are all we could ever hope to be, an emanate constructed of our very source: material energy-in-process.

metaphysics and practice

I am attempting to make a point about the nature of reality for those who are trying to philosophically synthesize theism with Buddhism. I am not comparing practices, or trying to counsel a new way to practice Buddhism. This is strictly a metaphysical exercise.

Is there a cosmic “Absolute” or is there not? That is the question. Can traditional theists be Buddhists? Buddhist practice, I am saying, cannot conflate with an Absolute without abandoning its unique focus on the pre-existence of that reality which makes nirvana possible: emptiness understood as radical metaphysical contingency.

(Many people erroneously think of “emptiness” in psychological terms, as a “realization,” a subjective appropriation of the objective metaphysical fact which translates into a kind of self-deprecation. I do not mean that. I am using the word as Nagárjuna originally meant it: metaphysically. Nothing has its own “stand alone” being. “Emptiness,” sunyata, is a phenomenological description of the nature of reality.)

Nirvana pre-exists as dharmakaya because the organic matter of our bodies, when undistorted and unencumbered, exists naturally in a state of serene self-embrace: inner peace and abiding joy. For me it corresponds to the definition of material energy as existential ― i.e., matter is the very energy to exist, hence it is pure “act,” esse, necessarily one with itself, utterly undivided.

This, I am claiming, has nothing to do with reward or metamorphosis or imitation, implying an absent “reality” outside the living human organism that needs to be inserted or infused or in some other way added to the human organism to give it meaning and a reason for self-accep­tance. The organism needs nothing outside itself . . .   and therefore that fact creates a presumption that there is nothing outside the matter’s energy-in-process that constitutes the human individual, i.e., there is no non-material “soul” with an eternal destiny. The empirical “self” is the material reflex for self-preservation, a derivative of matter’s existential nature as self-embrace. Following Spinoza I call it conatus. It is a reflex of this organism. When this organism dissolves, its reflexive “self” disappears.

Embracing (realizing) that reality constitutes “enlightenment.”

This is a metaphysical discussion. I’m trying to say that the psychology of enlightenment in the Buddhist system requires a particular way of understanding reality metaphys­i­cally; and I believe that taking reality as material energy-in-process fulfills that requirement. It explains why Buddhism is not compatible with a non-material, non-changing “Absolute.”

Buddhism has no explicit metaphysics. Nagárjuna’s analysis of “emptiness” in the 2nd century c.e. was an attempt to elucidate the meaninglessness of metaphysics. His book, The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, is not itself a metaphysics. It simply takes possibility after possibility and, in repetitive fashion, shows that nothing you can bring up has its own being.

Buddhism is exclusively a practical program. Buddhism works; even though it does not evoke an Absolute. That fact alone says that a non-material, non-tem­poral Absolute, even if it existed, is irrelevant to human aspirations; but it also suggests that there is no such entity.

Theists generally insist on conceptualizing “God” as an entity that is Absolute. But those who have chosen to practice Buddhism authentically, will have to stop doing that. In fact they will have to stop imagining “God” altogether and simply acknowledge that the contingency of the universe ― the emptiness of all things, including ourselves ― is the only metaphysical “fact” that we can say we “know.”

The rest is beyond our knowledge, but not beyond our loving embrace.

Buddha and the Body

1,000 words

The Buddha is notorious for refusing to discuss metaphysical questions. He is a source of great frustration for western thinkers who are trying to correlate Buddhism with other theories of the destiny of humankind, especially the Abrahamic tradition ― Judaism, Christianity and Islam ― “religions of the Book”. His silence not only covered any attempt to explain the origin and nature of the universe, but it included the question of life after death for the human individual.

The written records indicate that when directly confronted, he simply would not respond; but some of his teachings carried an embedded implication that many have interpreted as answers to those questions. One such teaching is the doctrine of “no-self” often labeled with its Sanskrit name: anatman. The doctrine states that there is no permanent, independent “entity,” identified as a human person, in existence. Buddha didn’t deny the existence of the human organism, with all its urges, feelings, fears and aversions or its mind-filled plans and reactions, but he simply said that apart from all the multiple factors contributing to the phenomenon, there was no independent thinking, willing, core that was responsible for this individual’s stance in the world. What we call the “self” is merely the sum of its inputs; and when the inputs are no longer functioning, in whole or in part, the “self” disappears to a corresponding degree. The claim that there is no permanent “self” underlying human active presence seems to be, in traditional western terms, the denial of the existence of a “soul”.

As a religion, Buddhism has always been something of a mystery to westerners because it does not seem to offer any concrete motivation for its rather wide-ranging and intense austerities that run counter to human inclinations. Buddhism counsels the avoidance of selfish gratification in all areas: food and drink, sex, possessions, relationships, status in the world, control over others, even “spiritual” experience. The question emerges “why”? Why should the human individual stop pursuing the desired goals that have driven all human activity as far back as records go? The Buddha, unlike the various versions of the Abrahamic tradition, spoke of no “God” who watched over and cared for us or commanded a “justice” that might require self-sacrifice; he offered no “eternal reward” after death, and feared no “eternal punishment” except that of continuing to live as we do now, suffering the frustrations of “chasing the wind” of our insatiable cravings for what is just not there.

The Buddha offered nothing but the end of the suffering. But notice: even here, it was not the end of all suffering. He said his program would end the suffering caused by craving for things that do not satisfy. He did not say he would eliminate sickness, accidents, poverty or death. He simply said he would eliminate the extra suffering that we heap on ourselves because of our bitter dissatisfaction with the way things are.

The Buddha also said that when all selfish craving was ended through the faithful pursuit of the “eightfold path,” the practitioner would arrive at “the other shore” ― a metaphor for what he called Nirvana. Nirvana was described as a psychological state in which all craving, and therefore all dissatisfaction, ceased. At that point the “self,” always a delusion anyhow, ceased having any affective and therefore any effective presence and was “extinguished” as far as the practitioner was concerned. The practitioner embraced, or maybe better, “sank into,” realized somatically, the human organism’s true reality as anatman ― as empty ― in western philosophical terms: conditioned, dependent, contingent, determined ― with no independent “stand alone” existence of its own. It knew it was “not there.”

It is necessary to point out that Buddha never evoked any other reality than the world as it actually was, right in front of our eyes. Nirvana, like its opposite, the insatiable senseless craving called Samsara, was a state of mind. Each of them was focused on exactly the same things and events: this world in its real-time process. Even the “other shore” was not “other” than real life as it was. It was simply a metaphor for having substituted nirvana for samsara ― seeing the very same realities through different lenses. What had happened in nirvana was that the mental operation of the human organism changed through a transformation of perception that usually occurred only after a long, hard, incremental labor on the part of the practitioner, modifying mindset, attitudes and behavior. But there was nothing to prevent such a conversion from taking place instantaneously. Nirvana was not a place or some Absolute person into which you were absorbed. It was yourself without the “self.”

The result, the Buddha said, was the natural emergence of a way of being human that was characterized by inner peace, self-acceptance, compassion for others, and a deep abiding joy in life. But while the practitioner had been focused all through his/her practice on developing precisely these attitudes and corresponding behavior, nirvana was not to be thought of as the creation, or construction of such a human “personality configuration” as an actor would do it. Nirvana is not an “act” or a mindless reflex or even a mental habit. It was rather something that emerged from the human organism along with a release of creative energy of which the practitioner was totally unaware and did not expect. This occurred on its own once the delusional cravings generated by the imagined “self” were put to rest.

Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as the emergence of the practitioner’s “Buddha nature,” in later Buddhism called dharmakaya. The term means that every human organism in undistorted form spontaneously loves itself and everything else in the world, and lives in a state of unalloyed and endless joy. The process accomplished by Buddhist practice, then, is to eliminate all those distorting factors that have channeled human organic energies into selfish directions, creating cravings that lead to insatiable desires and the inevitable frustration of trying to make permanent a “self” that is not really there.

To repeat: at no point does the Buddha suggest that there is “another world,” with forces or entities other than this one. It is the individual material human organism, spawned and nested in this world of matter, exactly the way it is, that bears the potential for Nirvana.

Raindrops

A reflection and a parable

2,650 words

1.

Source

I usually use the word LIFE in place of “God,” but here I use the word “Source.” I believe it is more appropriate. It is less religiously allusive, and I think that compassionate atheists belong in this conversation because of the new universal consensus provided by science. We all know what we are made of and how we got here. And we all have to respond to what we know we are. This is not a “religion” issue. Theists belong in this discussion, but they have no privileged place.

The departure point for this reflection is my main proposition ― what this blog has been trying to say for over ten years. The distinction between us and our “Source” is exclusively in the relationship of existential causality.

Our “Source” makes us to be-here, we do not make our Source to be-here, but in all other respects, we are indistinguishable from our Source which is present and active in the presence of our living material organism. We are-here together. Since the effects are matter, the cause has to be material, i.e., physically capable of making my living matter to be-here as my matter, in the present moment. Whatever else my living matter’s source may be, it must be matter, and it must be alive; it must be the same matter that I am. The distinction between my Source and my organism is only the metaphysical structure of cause and effect.

Here’s an image that illustrates that relationship. Think of your on-going “self” ― your living human organism ― as a pool of water actively welling up from an underground spring. The “source” of that visible, active spring of water is not itself visible but it has to be producing the pressure necessary to keep the water flowing up to the surface. It is truly “source,” for it not only provides the action, it provides the very water itself. The pool on the surface is nothing more (and nothing less) than the emergent flow of its source: it IS its source at a further point in a space-time process. The only distinction between the spring and its underground source comes from the structured nature of the process. To express this, we use a category of thought we call “causality,” which is shorthand for antecedent and consequent phenomena in a process. I do not mean unconnected phenomena that just happen to appear in a temporal sequence. The antecedent phenomenon, in this case, is not only prior to but really makes the consequent phenomenon to appear, while the contents and forces operating in each are exactly the same, in reality and not just in appearance.

Now, applying this imagery to the human organism, we can see scientifically what comprises this “self” that emerges from moment to moment as a living presence in the world: it is material energy ― the quarks and electrons, gluons and neutrinos that congealed out of the amorphous energy plasma released at the big bang. These elements evolved through many forms over eons of astrological/geological time into the living organism that we all enjoy. The DNA-guided human organism is nothing but a form of material energy-in-process. Material energy is our source, and like the spring, we and our source are one and the same thing, undivided, indistinguishable, inseparable, a single process structured as cause and effect. The quarks and muons of living matter are the source of the motor and emotive activity we call “life” but they also comprise the content ― every last bit of “stuff” ― that our organisms are made of, blood and bones, hair and hormones.  Everything is matter’s energy.

But doesn’t there have to be something else? If material energy ― my source ― is the same in everything, even the stones, how do I come to be “me,” and where does the force of life come from except through some factor other than matter’s energy?

In a Platonic universe, everything sharing the same word also shared the same idea, and, therefore was thought to share the same reality. That’s why, in a spiritual universe, the idea of humanity made us all “one thing.” Platonists needed to posit an individual spiritual soul uniquely created by “God” to account for personal human spiritual individuality.

In a material universe, in contrast, particles of matter are not all the same, therefore the cluster of particles that comprise my organism is different from yours. Individuality comes from a multitude of coalescing particles and forces, all of which have a uniqueness of their own that derives from a prior similar coalescence from other more remote sources. What you call them does not affect their particularity. I am “me” because a huge multiplicity of unique particles and forces came together at the same time to construct “me.” There is no need to posit a “spiritual soul” to account for individuality. Individuality is a material phenomenon.

Similarly, as regards life, matter, in the pre-scientific Platonic universe, was considered dead and inert. Platonists thought it required that a living spiritual idea be intentionally inserted into matter by a rational divine “Craftsman” for matter to be alive. But in the material universe that science has discovered in our times, if matter is itself a living energy, as many claim it is, life is present as a potential in all particles and forces from the very beginning, ready to become perceptible as life when the complexity sufficient and necessary for its appearance is achieved.

2.

a parable

How can a collection of sub-atomic particles become “me”?

I offer a parable. It starts with our image of the human organism as an emerging spring of water. Let’s imagine this particular organism has been visited by the coronavirus which uses living human DNA to replicate itself. In my reverie there are two little coronaviruses, brother Covidone and sister Covidella. (I give them names to evoke familiarity, because they are living organisms just like we are, trying to survive by using whatever they find around them. Francis of Assisi would understand.) They are living on the banks of the spring, which is the human organism, reproducing because of the life-giving power of the upwelling water: living human DNA.

They are relaxing and basking in the sun after replicating, and they are chatting. Covidone says, “Della, I wonder where all this wonderful water that keeps us alive and reproducing comes from? We’re good swimmers; why don’t we go down into the wellspring and locate the original source of the water. It’s gotta be down there somewhere.” Covidella said, “great idea, Vido, let’s do it.”

With that the two little adventurers start down into the spring, swimming against the upwelling current. They find themselves in a kind of shaft, a long vertical tunnel; the water is being forced up from below and they keep going down. Finally, at a great depth the shaft opens into a large cavern filled with water. It was clear that pressure from the cavern’s water was making it rise to the surface. “This is it,” said Vido, “this is the Source of the Spring. Both the water and the pressure come from here. I think we should just pitch our tent and stay here. It’s the source of the life we live on. Maybe, here, we can live forever, d’ya think”?

Della was skeptical. “There are two things I still don’t understand,” she said. “The first is the water itself. Was it always here? And the second is the pressure. Why is this water under pressure”?

Vido had to admit she was right. Where did this water come from, and what was the reason for the pressure? The two began to take another look around.

They saw that water was coming into the cavern on all sides from stratified layers of earth and rock. “Well, now,” Della says, “it looks like the water really comes from multiple sources and they all feed into this one place. Let’s pick one of these strata and follow it wherever it leads and see where its water comes from. That may take us to the original source.” Off they go, following a very thin sheet of water in one of the strata. They immediately notice that they are no longer going down, but they are now swimming uphill against a current that is flowing downhill.

It’s not long before they emerge back out onto the surface of the earth. But something was still making them wet. “Where is the water coming from now”? They look up and they realize: it’s raining!

The water all along had been coming from millions and millions of raindrops. The rain was falling on the ground, seeped into the earth until it encountered some formation ― like the stone cavern ― that forced the water to collect. With no place to go, the pressure from gravity built up. Eventually, when some outlet, lower than the level of the water sources, allowed it to escape, it emerged in the form of a spring. The “Source” was raindrops all along.

3.

Raindrops

The story takes on meaning with the change in perspective that occurs when we accept the fact that all of reality, even its living forms, like the virus, and us, are all and only matter. It helps explain how our living “selves” emerge from matter.

We are all made of the same clay. That means that all things, living and non-living, are subject to the same conditions for being-here, everywhere. Living organisms have the added burden of trying to stay alive in the midst of the maelstrom of roiling forces that constitute matter’s energy launched as our universe 14 billion years ago. This realization, occurring to someone who has not been totally consumed and blinded by belief that the “self” does not belong to this world, is enough to awaken a sense of compassion not only for other human beings, but for all things, for we are all made of the same “stuff” driven by the same forces. We belong only to this world, but we are not just ourselves. Everything is a temporary composite of that same “stuff.” And everything will decompose. Even the stones will perish. We, including the viruses, are one family. We didn’t ask for things to be this way, but it is the condition for our being-here. We are matter in a material universe.

Is this some kind of nightmare? No one I know would say so. We can’t explain it, but despite the suffering it entails and our final dissolution, to be-here is to die for. We love it. We can’t help ourselves. It’s hard-wired into our bones.  We want to be-here forever.

It is relevant to ask, “why”?

In the parable, the living spring was really raindrops. In the metaphysics of the Mahayana Buddhist system, the multiple threads that weave my “self” ― not unlike the raindrops ― are virtually infinite in number and type. It effectively amounts to the whole universe-in-process. That is what Buddha meant by “no-self.” Anatman ― the doctrine of “no-self” ― doesn’t mean there is nothing there, or that there is no “me.” Just the opposite. It means that “I” am the emanation of a vast multiplicity of sources, throughout geological time as well as in the present moment, all of which had to function together in order for my living organism to be-here now with the form and features that it has.

The spring was raindrops; our “selves” are particles of matter’s living energy.

The doctrine of “no-self” expands “I” into “all things.” It says we are not separate selves; rather we are the product of a totality that transcends the self and includes everything. No identifiable, eternal, independent, self-subsistent self, apart from its causes whose synchronicity is subject to eventual termination by entropy, can be said to exist. When that amazing confluence ceases to coalesce, the self, which is only the reflexive consciousness of the resulting composite, disappears. Nothing else disappears. All the components ― matter’s living energy ― continue on. Nothing is created; nothing is destroyed.

4.

A new imagery for “God”

So if “God” is really the Source of our being-here we are confronted with a huge challenge to the traditional imagery we have inherited from our pre-scientific forebears about what “God” is like. In ancient times, based on our experience of potters and carpenters, artists and sculptors we imagined a Craftsman of great power and intelligence who designed and shaped each and every kind of thing that we could see on earth. But, as we know now, that story was a product of our imagination; it was the best we could do in the absence of any real knowledge. Now we know better. We have learned that the earth itself, this planet, evolved all the life forms that live on it, including humankind, out of its own substance. We know what we are made of, and how we got here the way we are. The Genesis story was plausible guesswork for a long time; but it was wrong.

John said, “No one has ever seen God,” but going by our experience of brutal tyrants, we generated the picture of a grasping, controlling, cruel, thin-skinned, punitive and self-involved narcissist, that ran counter to everything that our human flesh cried out for. Why did we do that? When finally someone came along who challenged that imagery and said that “God” corresponded to our instinctive longing for justice and cooperation, love and compassion, the ruling “authorities” killed him to shut him up, and proceeded to appropriate his name to sustain their own slave-driven enterprises. “No one has ever seen ‘God’,” said John, but that didn’t stop us in our blindness from creating all manner of distorted imagery that, even today, continues to turn human beings into frightened grasping creatures who hate themselves and everyone else.

What do we do now? The blinders have come off and we can see clearly how this entire universe evolved and operates. We know our “Source” and how its creative energy functions. We have a new imagery to integrate. The word “God” has to take on a new meaning. We can’t claim ignorance any longer. We cannot continue to excuse our willful clinging to imagery inherited from ancient fairy tales. We have to face squarely how we have mis-taken and misunderstood our “Source” . . . and therefore how we have misinterpreted ourselves, what we are. We are our Source poured out and made available for all things to be-here, each in their own way, together. WE ARE THAT! Like the rain ― generous, abundant, self-emptying, undiscriminating ― life-generating energy is what we are made of. It is what we are!

What “providence” means has to be radically reimagined. There is no invisible rational “person” who chose to let 150,000 children die in the Haitian earthquake, or who “permitted” the Nazis to seek the “ultimate solution” for two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred in the Holocaust. There is no “person” who refuses to perform a miracle to cure your child’s cancer, or who wills rich and powerful men to enslave and exploit the masses of humankind, manipulate the minds of the frightened and despoil the earth of its ability to sustain life. There is no “person” who puts thoughts in your head, or who will “marry” you on the condition that you stay celibate.

Our “Source” is like the rain. Wherever it falls it brings life. It is always being used by others. In itself it is nothing, but it becomes all things. It has become us. We humans, like springs, are that same rainwater pouring itself out on the earth, now as persons, intentionally.

When we finally appropriate that reality and become rain for others, we will need no more proof.  All our questions will be answered.  It is at that moment that we will experience in our blood and bones why being-here is to die for.

 

What you see is what you get

2400 words

Of all the cultural phenomena we share as a species across divisions of land and language, religion stands out as perhaps the most common. Its characteristics are similar everywhere. It is the expression and the enjoyment of a bi-valent relationship that has many of the characteristics of a family. Like a family, religion binds together a number of individuals on one level, who, on another level, claim to be related to the same source of their organic life ― as the offspring of the same parents are brothers and sisters to one another. This two-directional characteristic is common to all religions. Even though some may emphasize one or the other of the two components, religion, as suggested by its Latin root re-ligere, “to bind,” celebrates the mutual binding of those who are all bound to the same source of life.

The claims of Religion, like the family, are based on objective, physical reality: the generation and survival of the living human organism. The expressions that religion creates ― creeds, rituals, moral behavior ― are all, in theory, designed to support and enhance those relationships that bind those bound to LIFE.

What sets religion apart from other families, however, is that the relationship to the source of life is disputed, not only with regard to its character, but also to its very existence. The foundational source of the religious relationship ― the “parent” ― is not visible. There is no known cause of human life beyond the reproducing human individuals. As far as human knowledge is concerned, no one directly knows who or what the ultimate, originating source of our life is.

Despite that, the great majority of humankind seems to have always had a conviction that such an ultimate source not only accounts for our abilities and dispositions as humans, but is responsible for our continued existence as a family in the here and now, and plays a determinative role in the direction of human social affairs, especially the macro-political. (Political power has been believed since ancient times to be a direct result of divine selection and conferral; and the chosen ruler has been taken to act in the place of the absent “god.” That means that religion and politics are intimately linked. Indeed, in the history of humankind most governments have been theocracies, and even our supposedly “secular” American system is grounded on tacit religious assumptions which many feel should be made explicit.) A implication is that the state is a religious entity. This is not an insignificant aspect of our history as a species.

This conviction of a common organic source has led religion to claim that its common destiny as a family is not gratuitous, but has arisen naturally and inevitably from its origins which continue to sustain human social existence here and now. In other words Religion, as a global phenomenon (disregarding local exceptions), is not a self-defense mechanism, a “circling the wagons” by terrified human beings who find themselves naked and alone in an alien and hostile universe. In the aggregate it has assumed just the opposite. Religion is the attempt to extenuate into adulthood the sense of family that naturally arises for every individual during the long period of nurturing that follows birth. Psychologically speaking, religion is simply the expected continuation ― the unsurprising furtherance ― of a lived reality in which the individual is loved, cared for and directed by the people who gave it life. As the individual continues its identity, it continues to expect that a protective, familial context will enwrap it.

An illusion?

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, identifies the child’s fantasy of always having a hovering, protective parent providentially overseeing every event of its life ― a source of psychological security and optimism ― as the ultimate source of (western) religion’s projection of an imaginary Father-God. This dove-tails with the family view suggested above. But, basing itself on science, it denies the perennial claims of western religion that it is grounded on the creation and continuation of life. Western religion has always made a quasi-scientific claim about the origin and nature of the universe. It has always assumed the Biblical book of Genesis to be a literal rendering ― a kind of science ― which said that “God” made this universe of matter. It is precisely religion’s physical, material claim that was denied by Freud that makes religion an illusion.

The fact of the matter is we now know that the Genesis account is not literal; it’s an imaginary reconstruction. But at the same time, logically speaking, it seems Freud overreached, because modern science hardly has much more to offer. All science can verify is that there is no rational teleology ― no discernible purpose ― functioning in our universe, and as far back as its origins in the “big bang,” there is no evidence that there ever was. The universe and its evolution are a function of the autonomous evolution of material energy, not the work of a rational craftsman no matter how omnipotent and omniscient it is said to be. But as to the source of life, science admits that it does not know.

The conflict here between Freud and the traditional view is representative of the way we have generally approached religion: as a question of knowledge. Traditional religion claims it knows “God” created the world, and Freud claims that science knows that there is no cosmos-con­struc­ting “God.” But, in fact, no one knows. Western religion did not know that “God” created the world, it believed someone’s imagined narrative; and Freud did not know the origins of LIFE; he simply believed science would “someday” discover it. But regardless of the collapse of his premise, Freud’s decision to explore the psychological origins of religion as a semi-patholo­gi­cal clinging to childhood ― a refusal to grow up ― is now generally acknowledged to have revealed a distortion of religion’s family sense: he correctly saw that western religion involved the projection of “God” as a micro-mana­ging parent. I do not consider religion an illusion, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

Knowledge

This conflict has divided humankind’s self-perception, and sense of family, in profound ways. But it turns on our reliance on knowledge, and knowledge cannot solve this conflict. But if we approach the question from a different angle altogether ― from human experience ― a way opens that bypasses knowledge and apprehends reality affectively.   By “affective,” I am referring to sensory features of the human organism that have emerged precisely to provide a direct and consistently reliable contact with the entire material environment for the purposes of securing survival. What makes this type of contact objectively valid is that it works. Affectivity is a term that I am using to acknowledge the multiple pathways to the apprehension and embrace of reality other than the conscious thinking associated with the use of words, the symbols of human mental images. A large and complex observational apparatus is available to the human organism that provides individuals with a much wider and richer “picture” of the reality around them ― a picture that cannot always be put into words ― but that is not based on fantasy and projection. The information these less acknowledged pathways supply to the organism is often absorbed subliminally, which the conscious mind is unaware of but the organism as a whole “sees” and reacts to in ways that we call “instinctive.”[1]

By “instinct” I do not mean guesswork, a parallel pathway to knowledge that avoids the hard work of research and testing. I mean the unrecorded somatic reactions that direct a quarterback, for instance, to anticipate with amazing accuracy exactly where his moving receiver will be when his pass arrives; or the unthinking but infallible gyrations changing the center of gravity that occur when someone slips on a banana peel and keeps themselves from falling. In introducing these instinctive pathways, I do not mean either to exclude the more conscious conceptual connections or to trivialize them. I am merely trying to broaden our usual imagery about ourselves to include what science now knows to be an array of unconscious and semi-conscious receptors that enhance our survivability within our environment by giving us a more complete objective picture of reality. The organism as a totality “sees” more than the mind; and what it “sees” is absolutely factual: it helps it to survive.

The fact that these many tentacles to the things around us are not all conscious draws attention to our seamless unity with the world. We are not bodiless “minds,” alien spirits wandering on a planet of hostile matter; we are multifaceted biological organisms immersed in our earth matrix like a sponge in the sea. We are the spawns of this planet, its offspring. We remain connected to it umbilically for life-support; if you separate us from it we will die. We belong here and nowhere else.

When we allow ourselves the affective contact with reality that the entire sensory apparatus of the human organism is designed for ― transcending the narrow, myopic, truncated, word-based mental operations traditionally considered “knowledge” ― suddenly “reality” takes on a new and unexpected dimension. We “see” things as perhaps never before. For the material human organism finds itself in a state of a deep and quiet joy simply being embedded in and connected to the life support systems for which it evolved its particular forms and features. When the human being is allowed to be what it really is: a biological organism fully enjoying its perfect adaptation to the earth’s environment from which it emerged, the disequilibrium that is said to uniquely undermine and sicken human existence, instantly evaporates.

This experience gives rise to the suspicion that, all along, there was an erroneous identification of the human being with an imaginary separate entity called “mind,” together with an idolatrous exaltation of abstract thought ― knowledge ― as somehow divine, that contributed to our malaise. We are bodies, but we told ourselves we were disembodied spirits. We tried to live that way and it made us sick. When, finally, we allow ourselves to be what we are, and our survival community shares, supports, promotes and defends that biological reality, we live in a state of inner peace individually, and in harmony with one another socially.

Growing up

In addition, with the disappearance of the alienation generated in us by our tragic belief that we are disembodied spirits, we find we no longer need to maintain the infantile fantasy of a hovering, controlling “Father-God” whom we imagine to be a “spirit” who wants us to be good. “Being good” in our tradition has always meant to become a “spirit” like him: to identify with our rational minds and to disassociate ourselves from our bodies and everything material as alien to our “spiritual” destiny. And to that end “God” was said to send us impulses (grace) that would generate guilt and aversion for what our bodies incline us to do, and entice us away from “this carnal world” with offers of immortality as spirits in the world of no-bodies to which we have been taught we really belong.

But once we no longer need a “God” to help us to be what we are not, we find ourselves secure in what we are. We discover that we have all the equipment and instincts we need to nestle safely in our earth home with our family, ruled by systems of justice and works of compassion that WE have devised for ourselves after millennia of living together. We put what we learned into the mouth of “God” to make it easier for our children to follow our advice.

We become increasingly awestruck at the child-like qualities of the powerless invisible SOURCE OF LIFE, whose effusive and selfless material energy constitutes our bodies. It is that fertile living energy that has driven evolution and produced these marvelous organisms that we cherish and enjoy. We can acclaim that SOURCE OF LIFE for what it is and what it has done, without even knowing it directly. We don’t need to project onto it our regressive needs to have a parent who tells us what to do and reads us bed-time stories that death is not real. We know what to do. And we know we will die. Our multi-valent, instinctive bodies tell us what to do and they know how to let go when death comes. And we can love our SOURCE OF LIFE for the gentle, fragile and defenseless thing it really is, and what it has made of us, and stop fantasizing tyrants taken from our own worst examples of people who need to dominate others to engorge and deify themselves. We have often imagined “God” that way.

When we finally grow up, we no longer project a “God” of our imagination that is not there. We begin to cherish and try to imitate the real SOURCE OF LIFE that comprises and suffuses our bodies, an invisible living energy at the very core of our being that we are in touch with every moment of every day, that is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, the ground of our being-here, whom our ancestors called by many names: “LIFE,” “Fire,” “Wellspring,” “Ground,” “Source,” “Breath,” “Love,” “Being,” and, the name that is the most cherished of all: “mySELF,” whom I love as a man worships the woman he loves, as a woman adores the man she loves, SELF-EMPTYING LIFE ITSELF, masked with my face.

I am that very same living material energy gathered, evolved and nested on this planet with my family ― all of us are the masks and offspring of the same divine fire that burns in every living thing. My body “sees” and is embraced by this reality, perhaps without ever translating it into words or pretending to call it know­ledge.

 

[1] Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, Pantheon, NY, 2012, passim; but see especially chapter 2, pp. 30-52

Christian Universalism (VII)

the just society

9.

Human community is a derivative of universal natural faith. The emptiness that conditions life for all human individuals causes them to reach out to one another for interpretation and support. Biological survival is certainly a primary motivating factor, created by a longer childhood dependency than any other animal species; but family and clan interdependence entailed the evolutionary development of brains that can “read” others. A great deal of the operating time of the human mind is spent imagining what others (who are significant to one’s survival in society) think, feel, desire, intend, and can do for them or against them; and most of human conversation is dedicated to sharing it. We may trivialize it by calling it gossip, but it is what we do.

The ability to sense what others are feeling when something happens, or what they “mean” when they say or do something, is called empathy.   Empathy is the ability to feel the similarity between others and myself ― it implies a high degree of self-awareness. Intelligence evolved, apparently, driven by the need to navigate relationships in a complex society. Its unavoidable by-product was self-awareness ― the know­ledge of one’s own emptiness, and the equally unavoidable expectation of endless life, for despite how inexplicable and improbable it all is, here we are, and we love being-here.

Given the biological reality of the drive to survive, the ability to empathize can go in any direction. There is no guarantee that this extraordinary emotional clairvoyance will not be put to selfish purposes. Knowing that I am “needy” and therefore what “neediness” looks and feels like, I have a window that opens onto a vulnerability in others. What may have served as a tool to alleviate another’s anxiety, can always lose its “other”-directedness; when neediness no longer evokes sympathy, it is reduced in my field of perception to something I can exploit.

Similarly the implicit awareness that there is a warm sustaining wind that bears us all aloft can also evoke a selfish reaction. I trust life and those around me; that means I know that others spontaneously trust me and are not initially wary and self-protective, in fact they are predisposed to support and protect me. I can exploit this spontaneous reaching out ― the very need that is creative of human community ― and turn it to my own advantage. That such a turn poisons the wellsprings of life together is disregarded. Our ability to empathize is not ultimate or absolute: it is subordinate to other forces in the human organism ― like the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement ― that are easily mis-taken as its contrary. At some point the conatus must consciously be directed to serve empathy or it will distractedly pursue selfish interests.

The spontaneous trust in life with which we come into this world, continues to penetrate and pervade all of our endeavors. An expression of this is the feeling of indestructibility that arises from the unchecked natural expectation of endless life. It is a biological disposition we are all familiar with, especially when young. It is generally held in low regard by adults who call it “adolescent.” It displays a naïve trust in life that can be dangerous. It is associated with having an aversion to the work that society deems necessary for survival. It is also seen as a source of recklessness that can result in fatal or crippling accidents. (That doesn’t prevent society’s managers from exploiting youthful naïveté to build armies of self-doubting teen-age boys “trained” to risk their lives and kill on orders. Young males are redundant for society’s reproductive needs and are treated as expendable.) But we have to recognize that this “frivolous” youthful attitude arises from a natural proclivity of the organic matter of our biological organisms to simply enjoy being-here free of care. Until the work of providing survival has been made so unachiev­able as to require total dedication to nothing else, thus disabusing the individual of dreams of a care-free life, it is the normal condition. We are all naturally care-free; we are spontaneously optimistic because we are made of matter; matter “knows” it belongs here and instinctively expects that all will be well. We must learn that is not the case.

The instinct to be care-free does not necessarily imply irresponsibility. In a random universe the urge to spend our days in play is quickly modified by the realities of survival. I contend that the effort to irresponsibly secure a care-free life for oneself ― selfishly seeking to avoid work at the expense of others ― is the root of social injustice. It is my opinion that the class divisions in society arose in the distant past, when some who had gained control of the survival process, in order to make life secure and care-free for themselves, coerced and extorted the labor of those who could not resist them. They became masters and made the others their slaves. Everyone acquiesced either actively or passively and the pattern became a system. Some claim the original model was the subjugation of women by men.

Master/slave systems provided a concentration of wealth and an organization of labor that was used to build all the great empires on the planet. All of us that are alive today came from one of the civilizations in which those empires flourished, and our current global civilization is in a process of concentration and once control is unified it will be an empire. There are very few human communities, even now, whose work life is not part of the global economy and its class divisions of labor. We have all internalized its principal features and transactional dynamics. We have all been formed by the master/slave system.

Work patterns in a master/slave system share certain distortions. For example, it is to the advantage of masters to eradicate care-free attitudes from their slave-laborers in order to get more work out of them. Instilling fear, and making any kind of satisfactory accumulation extremely difficult, the “masters” hone and sharpen their “slave” tools for their service, robbing them of the joy of life and a sense of security. The aim is to eliminate “frivolity” and make work’s survival achievements the only satisfaction available to the worker. This is done precisely so the masters can avoid having to live under such burdens themselves. They justify this by telling themselves (and their slaves) that there is a difference between them, a difference in their humanity ― that human nature is not universal ― that the masters are superior human beings and the slaves are inferior; that “nature” designed the division of labor.

The reasons adduced in the West for the class divide have been amazingly adaptable through the millennia: first it was claimed that the slaves were more “carnal and unthinking” and the masters more “spiritual and rational” ― slaves were like children who needed the masters to organize life for them; then later it was held that the masters were war lords and paladins who defended the people, and the people worked for them to maintain them in their warrior life-style and insure their protection; then, when new lands were discovered, it was said that the dark-skinned people who were made slaves were not Christian, had never been baptized and therefore were under the dominion of Satan and needed to work for their Christian masters as a discipline of exorcism; and finally in our time that the masters are wealthy owners because they are intelligent and disciplined and the laborers are not. Hence the almost unchallenged agreement is for working people to “go to college” so they can become members of the educated elite and ultimately become owners themselves. The “story,” regardless of how it has changed, remarkably always comes to the same conclusion.

These efforts have resulted in normalizing an unnecessarily hard and sustained work-effort for those who must sell their labor. The business of working to stay alive has been made more onerous than it needs to be precisely because the economic life of society has been organized so the masters can live “care-free” lives, and habituating the slaves against any hope of procuring the same for themselves is an essential part of it. Economic life has been structured along class lines for so long that we cannot imagine anything else. Everyone has internalized these myths. Any hopes the slaves still harbor for living care-free become exclusively focused on the day they themselves can become masters over others. Yes indeed, go to college.

I do not believe in the “supreme value of hard work.” I see that particular “belief” as another dogmatic mystification created by the masters to keep the slaves disinclined to expect that the system will ever allow them to be autonomous and care-free responsible collaborators as workers. Their only hope is to become masters/owners themselves. They are driven to “succeed.”

I contend that in a just society ― one that has made the pursuit of distributive justice its constant priority ― personal insecurity is eliminated or reduced to a minimum and shared by all. Everyone knows that their work will guarantee them survival and a standard of living on a par with everyone else. Resentment at inequality, and the exhausting over-exertion expended by those who are not paid a living wage for a normal day’s work, simply does not exist. Most of us have never lived in such a society, even growing up in our families which often mimic the pressures of larger society in order to “train” their children. I submit that economic life has been so distorted in the societies we are familiar with ― societies that function on wage slavery and the normalization of insecurity that is intrinsic to the master/slave paradigm ― that the unnecessary impoverishment and insecurity of the working classes (and the unnecessary anxiety of the ruling classes) would be totally eliminated if it weren’t for this internalized expectation. Like everything else in human life that exacerbates the insecurity of existential dependency, it is a product of our minds. Our minds create the structures that enslave us. Life is hard; but we have made it harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Humans have evolved the ability to imagine what’s not there. One of the “things” that’s not there, says the Buddha, is the imagining mind itself. We imagine that our imagination is an entity, separate and independent, that we identify as our “self” in opposition to the body and all other “selves,” when in fact it is actually a function of the body, a tool of the self-conscious organism that survives only in its social network. The imagination gives the organism the ability to anticipate, “under”stand, and empathize (relate). The real self is the full human organism and the mind is its instrument of survival-in-society. The greatest of human tragedies is that we take the image-maker and the images it concocts to reify and aggrandize itself as if it were a separate self, not the complete human being, ― and then re-imagine society to be made up of similar selfish avatars in competition with one another for ascendancy. It’s like a masked melee of the WWE.

The Buddhist project includes using mind-control techniques ― principally, meditation ― to reduce and eventually eliminate the false images that our arrogant minds generate about who we think we are. The widespread suffering that comes from the frustrated attempts to secure ultimate happiness through selfish accumulation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others is the primary damage that comes through a runaway imagination. “Living in the present moment” is a mantra that proposes to get us out of the fantasy that we are disembodied independent “selves” and that something will fill our emptiness and make us, as separate individuals, secure and care-free. It calls us to let go of selfish delusions and to focus on our reality as biological organisms who have need of one another here-and-now.

Accepting our emptiness, our insuperable vulnerability and complete reliance on the forces of community life-support, leads to a simple acknowledgement: some version of the golden rule must override all other considerations. We must treat others as we want to be treated. It is the foundation stone of a just society. It is natural, intuitive and universal. We don’t need “God” to reveal it to us. It is the totality of our moral obligation and the whole purpose of our political designs. Any nation, political party or religious sect, regardless of its venerable antiquity and claims to sacred origins, that has not discerned the primacy of that moral imperative, is exposed as false and dangerous to the human project. By their fruits WE know them. The gods we need are the ones who remind us that we are all we’ve got.

The just society is our tool of survival. I wonder if we fully appreciate what such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s clearer in the obverse: without it we will not survive.

The just society, unimaginable only to those who have imagined it out of existence, begins with a simple transformation of who we think we are.

 

 

 

Christian universalism (IV)

the mystery of being-here: creation or emergence; spirit

3,450 words

3.

Understanding what it’s like to have faith is an entirely interior event. Religion is about relationship and as with all relationships, no one can speak authentically about it who has not experienced it. The very nature of relationship, except for its observable and measurable “exterior effects,” is its interior content: the shared reality ― whatever it might be ― between the parties. In the case of the existential relationship, the shared reality is the empty being-here of the recipient ― its conditioned human life. Its dependent “self” is the content of the transaction. Its “self” belongs as much to the donor as the recipient and it doesn’t cease belonging to the donor upon being received. That is the source of its emptiness. The recipient doesn’t entirely own itself.

The content is what the parties related to one another “carry back and forth,” which is the transactional sense evoked by the underlying Latin verb “re-ferre, re-latus.” In the faith relationship the content “traded” and shared is existence itself, what I am calling being-here. What is being given and received is being-here, life. And while this unique and precious commodity is quite deeply appreciated and intimately cherished by the individual recipient, the donating source ― the provider(s), the co-owner(s) ― remains unknown. What provides being-here is not apparent, and the faith that is its recognition has relied on socially available confirmation, imagery and symbols for its expression: hence it is clothed in the language, ritual and story of the local community ― its religion ― and differs from culture to culture. But the general dynamics ― the operating forces, the “carrying back and forth,” the giving and receiving, the recognition of common ownership, the faith ― are the same for all regardless of locality or culture; faith is universal.

Inter-personal

In the human domain those dynamics are what we call “inter-personal.” Faith is the acknowledgement of an existential relationship seen from the side of the recipient whose very person ― one’s very self ― in perceiving itself as being received, simultaneously adumbrates itself in that same act as having been given. The experience triggers a spontaneous evocation of awe, gratitude and a sense of being embraced by the unknown donating source(s). It is absolutely unavoidable and undeniable. All human beings aware of their dependency know this experience. It is universal.

But what does personal mean when there is no humanoid “person” on which the existential dependency is known to rest? To answer that question is one of the principal goals of these reflections. It is the source of the most common confusion in this area: since the operating dynamic from the side of the receiver is necessarily “personal” (for it makes the human person to be-here and to be supremely grateful), it has been assumed that the existential source was also “personal” and “benevolent.” The fact that there is no consensus among the world’s religions in that regard has not been appreciated, and in the West, especially, rejected categorically. In our times science seems to concur with the view that the only “persons” involved in providing existence were the human ones from whom one is descended.

The West insists the source of being here must be a god-“person.” Well, of course, all the western religions derive from “the Book” and are built on an ancient pre-scientific narrative that imagined a personal god who created the world with a purposeful plan like any craftsman, freed the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians, accompanied them in their conquest of Palestine, gives moral commands, expects to be obeyed and answers prayers in anticipation of rewarding or punishing people for their conduct. Such pre-scientific guesswork ― com­mon sense as it may have been at one time ― is completely inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. No one in ancient times saw “God” creating the world. We now know we live in an evolving universe constructed entirely of material energy whose organic elaborations (all the known species of living things) are driven solely by the compulsion to be-here, an energy intrinsic to matter. The “common-sense” conjecture of our ancestors that a super-human architect and craftsman was responsible for all this amounted to a primitive “science,” meaning a concrete physical explanation of how the construction actually took place, not a metaphysics. (By metaphysics I mean a theory of abstract [conceptually structured] causation).   They cannot be faulted for making a plausible guess under the circumstances. But, as science, it is no longer valid; we now know that it never happened like that. Construction took place in another way altogether: evolution.

Creation or emergence?

It must be acknowledged, moreover, that the very idea of creation ― the conceptual structure that corresponded to what the ancients thought creation meant ― was derived from and remains wedded to that that mistaken science. “Craftsman” and “creation” are correlative notions that refer to concretely imagined events. You cannot suddenly admit that the “ancient science” was faulty but continue to assert that the belief in “creation,” as a concept, was not. The very idea of creation ― and I mean to include in this idea the thought, planning, and intended purpose for the thing created ― came from the imagery. If you change the image of a rational craftsman who does things for a purpose, the idea of what creation is ― the conceptual and epistemic structure ― changes in tandem. With evolution, the word and concept “creation” no longer embody the reality of the way being-here is known to be shared between source and recipient, because the features derived from rationally applied construction are no longer there.

The new imagery is provided by what is now known to be the actual process ― the “transaction” ― that made all the structures, forces, features and species of living organisms of the known universe to be-here as they are: the evolution of living matter. The action is not one of “creation,” it is one of autonomous self-emer­gence. It is the spontaneous expansive activity of a living matter whose non-personal, non-intentional, non-purposeful dynamism is locked into an unchanging energy of growth and intensification. Life moves in only one direction: more life.

With the transmission of being-here by the evolution of living matter and not by a craftsman’s planned, purposeful creation, the new emergent “thing” transmitted remains as much a part of what did the transmitting (the evolving) as what emerged. In this conception immanence takes on a concrete imagery: the emergent species always remains nested and embraced (like a sponge in the sea) by what gave it rise: living matter. The “new thing” emerges incrementally; it never stops being the “old thing” even as, little by little, it becomes unmistakably what it now is and is not what it came from. And in the case of humankind the perception of emptiness includes all the co-dependent co-arising factors ― human and non-human “causes” ― that are active in the emergence of the human organism. The human being knows that it is, undeniably, a biological organism, the direct offspring not only of its human ancestors, but also of a multitude of other things in this cosmos. The human organism always remains comprised exclusively of the sub-atomic particles, valences, forces and fields from which it emerged and whose continued functioning is necessary for its own continued existence. Its “self” always remains what it was made of, even as it launches itself as autonomous.

4.

The Philosophical Inversion

The conceptual change implied by the change in the scientific description also affects our traditional philosophical assumptions. And in one key respect it actually inverts them. This is significant, so let me digress briefly and try to explain.

The assumptions of Greek philosophy made since the days of Plato are that “things” are what they are by dint of their “essence.” Essence was believed to be the idea of the “thing” that was implanted in it by its creator. Since the Creator was believed to be rational and functioned like a craftsman, the idea of a thing was itself derived from the purpose the craftsman had in mind when s/he created that thing. The idea and the purpose were the same; they were the “essence” of that thing.

That “essence” was spiritual because it was an idea. An idea was the product of a “mind” and since the mind was believed to be a spirit, the ideas it produced were also said to be spiritual items ― which is the way we think we experience them, i.e., as immaterial.. An idea does not occupy space, it is able to co-penetrate matter co-existing in the same “place” without contact or displacement. It is absolutely universal and denotes every instance of its essence without exception: the idea of horse includes every horse that ever was, is or will be. It is also uncomposed; it is not made of parts and so cannot decompose (implicitly it is therefore immortal). Matter, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same space, is limited to the one and only concrete thing that it is, is composed of parts which disintegrate ending the “identity” of the thing.

This “world-view” promoted first by Plato and continued in slightly modified form by Aristotle, defined western thinking from about 350 bce until the modern era. It is really only since Darwin’s proposals about evolution in the 19th century that it has become generally accepted that all of the foundational priorities assumed by “essentialism” are completely wrong. As it has become increasingly irrefutable that matter is self-elabora­ting, the need to have “idea-essences” in order to explain why things do what they do is superfluous. Matter does what it does because it is driven to be-here by its own internal material energy and the forms that it assumes and the abilities it produces are in response to what works ― what allowed it to be-here.

Under the Platonic philosophía perennis, reality was made of two separate and completely dissimilar substances, matter and spirit, and was described in a series of conceptual dyads: act and potency, prime matter and essential form, body and soul, essence and existence. In each of these pairs one side corresponded to immaterial ideas and the other to its material partner.   Notice that it dovetailed with the “rational craftsman” theory of universal construction. They were all different ways of imagining how the ideal immaterial “reality” in the universe interacted with matter. In all cases, spirit was the guiding element ― the immaterial idea coming from the craftsman’s immaterial mind; and the trailing, dead and inert “empty receptacle” which received the enlivening directions coming from the immaterial idea, was matter.   Matter in itself, without form, was dead, inert, lifeless, shapeless, not unlike soft and pliable clay in the hands of the potter. Matter could be acted upon but could not act. Matter was pure empty potential that brought nothing whatsoever to the composite except the ability to be molded, shaped, directed and activated by the idea-form-essence / source of life.

There was a scholastic maxim: existence comes through the form. What comes first in an essentialist world is the idea ― the “whatness” of a thing: that which makes a thing to be what it is, gives it life and therefore explains what it does. And in all cases “what” something was, was determined by the purpose for which it was made by its maker, the idea in the mind of the artisan.   Aristotle called it the “final cause” because it determined the end to which the “thing” was designated. The contribution of the material receptacle into which the essential form was “poured” was precisely its emptiness: its shapelessness and its malleability: its non-determinateness and its readiness to being shaped by form; its inertness and need to be enlivened by spirit. Form worked on matter as a potter’s mental plan on soft, wet clay. But although matter had to ultimately yield to the shaping power of form, the resistance it offered engaged and intensified form’s activity, giving a focus and creativity to the resulting composite that drove the evolving history of the cosmos. (The last image was the contribution of Henri Bergson to the philosophía perennis early in the 20th century, in a book called Creative Evolution. Despite its title, it was a reaffirmation of traditional creationist dualism.)

Essentia-lism was an IDEA-lism. It was dominated by the primary and guiding reality of ideas, and by the spirit-minds that generated and understood them. Ideas and spirit-minds were real. They carried and transmitted being. Matter gave an edge and creativity to being only by its resistance to it; it was a kind of non-being. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries imagined Being like pure brilliant light shining from its source (the “One”) into an infinite darkness of non-being and enlightening whatever it touched in proportion to its distance from the source of light. Hence the cosmos was populated with a hierarchy of “things,” combinations of darkness and light, that differed from one another in brilliance to the degree that they more closely or more remotely reflected the brilliance of the “One.”

The philosophical inversion I speak of occurred when the world realized that ideas are not things, and minds are not entities separate from the bodies they inhabit. There are no “essences.” Ideas are the mental states of the brains of human organisms, and minds are the self-perceived identity behind that activity. Evolution is not the creative result of “spirit” overcoming a resistant “matter” and there are no “idea-plans” or purposes implanted in things by a some celestial Potter. It is living matter itself obeying its own inner dynamism to be-here whose incremental micro-adjustments of its own inner components result in combinations that survive when they match the support potential in the surrounding environment. That is what is occurring in evolution. If I were to use the traditional scholastic terminology, the conceptual relationships are turned on their heads. The “form” or shape that something has does not determine how it will survive, it is in stumbling upon the combinations that survive that gives to things the form and characteristics that they have. That means, in scholastic terms, being does not come through the form, form is the result of the struggle to be-here, form comes through being; essence does not precede existence, it is the other way around: existence precedes essence. In other words, it was in discovering how to be-here that things developed the shape, abilities and characteristics that they have. This turns the philoso­phía perennis on its head.

5.

These developments in our common understanding have resulted in the realization that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is superfluous, scientifically speaking. If once upon a time, the idea of spirit was necessary to explain both what things are and how they got here, that is no longer the case. And the simple application of Ockham’s razor ― eliminating unnecessary factors in our explanations ― calls for a re-thinking of exactly what reality is made of.

This creates a dilemma. If spirit was a “theory” that was once the best explanation of the cosmic process, but now is no longer needed, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really exist at all and may never have been the object of our experience as we once believed. We also once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but no longer. We can be deluded.

But the issue is complex and far from resolved. Spirit’s role in emergence, is one thing. But there are other areas where “spirit” cannot be so easily dismissed. How do we explain our unique human abilities: self-consciousness and self-identity, thinking, imagination, appreciation of beauty, morality, the pursuit of truth, the desire for immortality and the love that forms the steel hoops that grapple us to our friends and families? There are those who would call such things illusion. I do not. There is no way to deny what we experience, and no amount of sophistry a la Daniel Dennett,[1] can eliminate the reality of a dimension of this cosmos, internally observable to humans, that we have traditionally attributed to a separate spirit. To say that the existence of spirit as a separate kind of reality opposed to matter is no longer needed to explain the cosmos does not necessarily prove either (1) that such a thing does not exist (with another function) or (2) that spirit may not bear a relationship to matter that is different from the “substance”-definition and the associated total separation and opposition imagined by our Platonic forebears.

It is this latter alternative that appears to me to be the most compatible with both the discoveries of science and our own undeniable experience. I believe there is no such separate “thing” or immaterial “substance” called spirit; truly spiritual phenomena exist, but they are the emanations of a property of matter that we had ignored, fatally distracted by the prejudices of our Platonic, Cartesian dualist tradition which denigrated matter as dead, inert and passive.

Transcendent Materialism

Stone reductionists, like Daniel Dennett who are willing to call us “robots” or “zombies” and claim our interior experience of consciousness is an illusion rather than question the mechanistic materialism that he subscribes to, are one group. Unfortunately, the word materialism without qualification, has been identified with that position alone. Many believe that it is impossible to salvage that word for other applications and suggest the use a different term altogether for a reality that is, in fact, comprised of the potential for both kinds of phenomena: spiritual and material. They propose we call this alternative view “neutral monism,” in order to emphasize that (1) it is not a dualism because there is only one kind of substance in the universe, and that (2) that one substance is neither what we used to call “spirit” nor what we used to call “matter.” It is neutral. It is some other thing with the properties of both.

Currently we do not have a word for this view.  I call it Transcendent Materialism: “materialism” because whatever “spiritual” phenomena are-here, are exclusively the emanations of a property of matter; “transcendent” because this potential is responsible for matter evolving — transcending one form and bringing forth other, unique, autonomous and definitive forms. “Transcendent Materialism” explains emergence.

Frankly, I am impatient with those who continue to use the word “materialism” simplistically without qualification to mean physicalist reductionism. There has been enough discussion in academic forums on neutral monism in our times to warrant acknowledge­ment of multiple meanings to “materialism.”

Transcendent materialists look on the spiritual not as a “thing” or substance but as a phenomenon ― an undebatable reality of experience. We are materialists, but for us matter itself even in its simplest most primitive forms has the potential for what it eventually displays after eons of evolutionary complexification: life and consciousness. We adduce the ancient principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” which means “nothing comes from nothing” to explain the etiology.  In other words, if “B” truly emerges from “A” and from “A” alone, then the full explanation for “B” must exist in “A.”[2] Whatever it is that is responsible for what we once attributed to a separate spirit, is actually a property of matter. Hence matter, in total contrast to what Plato and Descartes were saying, is far from inert, lifeless and passive. Matter is the bearer of LIFE and thought.

Now we understand the reason why being-here is only and always a perception of the sensory apparatus of the conscious organism: “Spirit” is a material reality. Spinoza said it in his own way in 1665: “Extension is an attribute of God; God is an extended thing.” (Ethics, Part II, proposition II).

 

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim.

[2] Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism” in Strawson et al., Consciousness and its place in Nature, Imprint-Academic, Charlottesville VA, 2006, pp 3 – 31. The entire essay is an elaboration of ex nihilo, nihil fit.

Christian universalism (III)

the mystery of being-here: emptiness and faith

3,500 words

1.

The turn to non-biblical sources in an early attempt to establish Christian universalism was, ironically, a scriptural event. Paul of Tarsus, in looking to justify the transition beyond a sectarian Judaism did not limit himself to the resurrection of the Jewish messiah; he turned to ancient Greek creation poetry of an immanent sustaining energy as if it were a scriptural authority. It’s significant that he did not cite Genesis. The “Fatherhood” experienced by Jesus evoked for Paul, not Moses’ Yahweh, but the universal existential experience of humankind: The “Unknown God,” said Paul, is familiar to all of us. “God” is where “we live and move and have our being.” Paul’s “God,” near though “unknown,” was the same as Jesus’ “Father.” We have known “God” all along through our very own being-here.

What name Moses had once given “Yahweh” based on what he expected from him ― a violent liberation from Egyptian slavery and later the spoils of conquest: wealth and power ― was now superseded because Paul could see that Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted “God” as his “Father” and it had nothing to do with wealth and power. Paul was unambiguous: “God’s” Fatherhood is bound up with sustaining our being-here. And our being-here was no mere extrinsic relationship to gift and giver. It was an organic immersion in the source itself. We were embedded in “God’s” reality like a sponge in the sea; we were an intrinsic part of “God.” And there was nothing supernatural about it; the relationship to “God” was not conditioned on being a Jew, and it preceded any membership in the Christian community and access to the sacraments. Where we “live, move and have our being” ò theos for Epiménides, a poet of the 6th century b.c.e. ― was Paul’s Greek translation of the “Fatherhood of God.”

[Please note: I am using the term being-here and not “being” because I want to emphasize the concrete nature of existence and our ordinary human perception of it. We all know exactly what that means.

The term “being” by itself, however, has traditionally been used to refer to all kinds of things, and probably most often an abstract philosophical idea. The “idea of being” or the “concept of being” is not a “thing” out there somewhere. We have to be reminded of that because all the characteristics of “God” that are listed with such definitive authority by the practitioners of mediaeval philosophical theology, come exclusively from an analysis of the concept of being. That is an exercise in abstract logic applied to a concept ― a human mental product with no empirical connection to reality whatsoever. But because it is logically impossible to deny the comprehensive all-inclusive character of the concept of “being,” it has been taken to be “God” in our tradition. It was this logical lock on the human mind ― equating “being” with “all possible perfections” ― that has called forth, over and over again in the history of western thought, the claim that being able to think the concept of “being” was itself a proof of the existence of that to which it referred, “God.” These have been called “ontological proofs” because they are based on necessity as an intrinsic quality of “being” (but note: as a concept). “Being” had to be there because it is absolute and universal and includes the “perfection” of actual existence, and what was “absolutely perfect” was what we call “God” and so “God” had to be there.

So, I repeat, I do not mean that. What I mean by being-here refers to something else.

Being-here refers precisely to the real presence of things ― what makes them actually here, now, and not just an idea, a future possibility or a past memory. There is nothing absolute or transcendent about being-here. The concept of being-here is the generalization of a present experience; it does not pretend to refer to something that is not experienced in real time. That is the difference. The Platonic idea of “being” was believed to be more than what gave it rise; it was thought to have its own separate, independent existence. Being for the Greeks was an entity, a “thing” called “God.”

The phenomenon which is the human experience of being-here has certain common, universal and undeniable characteristics that derive exclusively from generalizing on those experiences.  First, it is a sensory perception and therefore whatever mental features it generates are bound to the human body as a bank of sensory receptors . . . the human organism is the absolute inescapable place where the perception of being-here occurs. Even were the experience to happen during a reverie of the imagination ― a kind of Cartesian “meditation” ― it is a bodily experience and cannot occur without its material foundation. Hence, being-here is a material experience; whatever “mental” dimensions it may have, they are tightly bound to the sensory apparatus of the body.

Being-here, I contend, is the empirical counterpart of the traditional notion of “creation.” It constitutes the most important single element grounding agreement among all religious traditions, regardless of where they may situate it in their particular hierarchy of “beliefs.” That we are-here in this world that is-here and how that all came about is one item of primordial significance common to all. Today, we recognize that the question corresponds to a universal desire to know ― a curiosity not entirely alien to awe, but not bound to it ― and thus is legitimately considered separate from religion. Before the age of science, however, no such separation was even thinkable.

For the Genesis thinkers there was no distinction between science and religion. When they said “God made the world” they were responding to their “scientific” need to explain how this spectacular world got here and at the same time they were following their own religious sense of existential dependency and need to connect with their source of existential support. Imagining that there was “someone” who could put together the incredible world they saw before them, a world which included their own body-persons, inspired a profound and insuperable wonderment. The world ― “creation” ― was the revelation of a transcendent existential power and engineering ability that spawned us; it was our “Father” in whom we all ― the entire cosmos ― live and move and have our being. It became the ground of religious universalism.

The starting point and constant guide for the religious journey is being-here. At some point we wake up to the fact that we are-here, and didn’t have to be. It is the beginning of the experience of faith.

 

2.

The keystone in the study of religion is the full understanding of the universal phenomenon of faith ― a word that in this essay does not refer to religious beliefs. Here, faith means the acquiescence to a relationship of trusting existential dependency that entails moral responsibility.

The content of the experience of faith, as I conceive it, is existence: being-here, what we call life.  Briefly my intention is to show that the principal elements of natural religion flow directly from a trusting existential dependency. Faith, like morality itself, is a natural, spontaneous and irrepressible reaction to life. It comes with being human; it may take unexpected and unfamiliar forms some of which may appear to be quite irreligious, paranoid and immoral, but it cannot be avoided or eliminated.

Religion, in a second step, is the organized social expression of faith. It is an inevitable development; for wherever there is a common set of significant experiences among human individuals, it will always find social interpretation and expression. As time goes on and social context changes, any particular religion may or may not maintain its expressiveness for the faith of the group using it. Religions change for the same reason they emerged to begin with: the spontaneous faith generated by existential dependency will always seek confirmation, interpretation and a symbolic expression agreed on by the community. Because faith is, as I claim, natural, spontaneous, irrepressible and universal, it will always force religion to emerge where it doesn’t exist, or evolve where it does. All religions maintain their authenticity by evolving; for it is only by evolving that they continue to be a credible expression of spontaneous faith. And faith without religion ― without an anchor in the consensus of the community ― can go in any direction.

Faith and emptiness

‘Faith is a relationship of trusting existential dependency that generates moral responsibility.’ There is more to that definition than meets the eye. As the first step in unpacking it I want to clarify the term existential dependency. What it means is what the Buddhists of the Middle Way meant by sunyata, “emptiness.” That word was the fulcrum of a metaphysical analysis ― a theory of being ― that they elaborated to understand and explain Gautama Buddha’s much earlier teaching on enlightenment (which he did not explain in metaphysical terms).

Emptiness was not a subjective feeling, or a phase in ascetical progress like a “dark night of the soul.” It referred to a permanent objective metaphysical condition. It meant that characteristic in things that made them incapable of being-here on their own. To be “empty” meant to not have the wherewithal to make oneself be-here; it meant to be existentially dependent on some­thing(s) other than one’s self for one’s own being-here.

Now the Buddhists elaborated the concept of emptiness in a way that coincided with the universal interconnection of causes that are operative in the production of any phenomenon. They called it “co-dependent co-arising.” Everything that is-here, every phenomenon of whatever kind, regardless of whether it appears to be a stand-alone “thing” or just a quality of a thing, is dependent upon a multitude of factors other-than-the-phenomenon in question that must also be present and operative for that phenomenon to be-here. For example, in order for the rose to be-here, other things that are not the rose must also be-here and functioning. There must be soil, water, warmth, sunlight, pollinating insects, etc., etc. And for there to be those proximate causes there also need to be an array of more remote geological and atmospheric conditions producing and sustaining them. All these factors are co-depen­dent and they must all arise and be-here at the same time or there will be no rose. The idea dovetails with the Buddhist idea of “no-self” (anatta, or anatman) because the co-depen­dent co-arising of any phenomenon from and with its causative factors proves that the phenomenon under examination is, in reality, not itself.   Its very self is being actively produced and sustained by a multitude of things that are not itself.

Keeping this dimension of existential dependency in mind shines a spotlight immediately on its universal character. For it means that emptiness is a characteristic of absolutely everything that exists; all things are empty of their own existence, and the very fact that they are-here indicates that everything else on which they all depend also has to be-here. This clearly involves the whole of the material universe. Everything, including every human being, exists in and, more significantly, is dependent upon a vast matrix ― a network that embraces the totality of things that are-here.

Now I claim this sophisticated “philosophical” analysis is performed spontaneously and wordlessly in real time by every conscious human being on the planet and at a relatively early age. Everyone is aware at some level of conscious articulation that they are empty of their own being: they are not self-originating and they are not self-sustaining; they did not put themselves here, they rely on a multitude of other things to keep them being-here, and they cannot prevent their ultimate disappearance.

In the case of the human individual, the “thing” in question is its very own self. This realization of existential vulnerability occurs in an organism that is impelled by its inner constituents to always preserve itself above all things and continue to be-here. This drive, traditionally called the conatus, is so intense that it programs the organism to do virtually anything that is required to stay alive. This “instinct for self-preservation” can be overcome but only with extreme difficulty. It amounts to a “catch-22” from nature: you MUST ALWAYS stay alive, but you DO NOT HAVE the wherewithal to do it. The Buddhists identified the illusory attempt to create that wherewithal as the root of all dissatisfaction: samsara, “chasing the wind.” And we all recognize the instinct to stay alive is what lurks behind all injustice, exploitation, political oppression, tyranny and enslavement. The oppressor threatens death or its equivalent and no one can resist it.

Community and Morality

The combination of the compulsive drive of the conatus in tandem with the awareness of emptiness existential non-independence ― accounts for the intense valences created from the earliest infancy between the individual human organism and the human community into which it is born. The vulnerability of being human generates a dependence on other human beings; and its inversion in exploitative oppression, particularly demonic. Human community is set in stone from the start. Survival for the infant is a gift received from others who provide what it cannot provide for itself. The content ― the “what”― of the social transaction is human existence, life. Human community is bathed in the warmth of family love, but the stock-in-trade is not just a warm feeling, it is life itself, survival ― being-here.

The individual’s experience of emptiness immediately elicits human community; and human community immediately brings a demand for equity to reign in the transactions by which all humans survive; for the vulnerability is universal. This is the origin and the significance of morality: morality is the identification of the attitudes and behavior necessary for peace, harmony and equity in human society united in the common pursuit of an elusive survival. Its corruption is our principal enemy. It has nothing to do with “obedience” to a god-person. Such a deflection was a fiction: a poetic way of bringing a sacred intensity to bear on social interaction. Morality is a natural corollary of emptiness; it is the social dimension of being-here for human beings.

Faith includes the recognition of the organic connection between universal emptiness and human compassion, mutual assistance and the protections of larger society ― justice ― which is our only defense against existential vulnerability. Faith is primordially expressed in the ac­know­ledgement and embrace of emptiness and a reaching out to others for understanding, help and stability.

Ancient primitive religion imagined that the vulnerability that remained after society had done all it could to protect itself and its members, was in the hands of some supra-human agency that wielded a controlling power over the events in the world of humans.   In most cases this power was imagined to be held by one or more invisible divine “persons” who were related to humankind rather like older siblings. The inquiry into universal religion identifies the energy driving this primitive imagery to be the same existential dependency that humankind faces today but, informed by science, no longer projects onto personal deities. Today, even religious people of all traditions have adjusted to the fact that there are no “divine persons” who control the factors by which humankind survives. The erstwhile claims of “Christian Science” have been muted if not totally silenced. Recourse to medical intervention for illness and the pursuit of political remedies for social problems are universal among all religious people. And those who are informed know quite well that it was the evolution of living matter that produced the intricate interconnections that keep our vast cosmos in balance.

This highlights the foundational role of faith. As used here, faith is the experience of metaphysical emptiness. It is not the experience of an invisible divine presence or entity. Faith is the interior perception of one’s own existential vulnerability coupled with the recognition that other human beings have the same experience, generating the same feelings that produce the same questions and preoccupations, needs, fears and hopes. Morality is born of that empathic insight. It gives rise to compassion and is at the root of the universally recognized moral obligation: “treat others as you want them to treat you.”

Internal moral insistence, called synderesis, is the basic sense of right and wrong. It impacts everyone connaturally. It is not unconscious, but at the same time it is not the conclusion of an explicit reasoning process. It is not suppressible. It is a corollary of existential dependency and as such it is universal.  Its primary mandate is justice and its empirical awaken­ing is in the spontaneous, irrepressible reaction to injustice.  Moral responsibility and existential dependency are corollaries. You can’t have one without the other.  Moral responsibility implies the shared experience of existential dependency as much as it is implied by it.

The origin of this correlation between existential dependency and the moral sense arises in the same ground as religion ― faith ― the spontaneous and connatural recognition that we are all existentially dependent. It is the universality of emptiness that generates compassion and the immediate awareness that I must treat others as I want to be treated. Those who dismiss this primordial insight always do so by denying their essential emptiness and live in a fantasy of their indestructibility.   We tend to associate it with the insufferable immaturity characteristic of adolescence, but a deeper look reveals that there are ideological fantasies that can provide the same assurances for the deluded at any stage of life. Some religions play that role either alone or in conjunction with an ethnic tribalism lost in the illusions of its own superiority.

Trust

Faith, we said, was a trusting existential dependency. Now why include trust in this foundational phenomenon of humankind’s presence in the world? Because in the first instance the recognition of existential dependency involves no fear whatsoever. No infant is born afraid or suspicious. The very idea is absurd. The newborn awakening to consciousness implicitly trusts what it is and where it has awakened. It has no worries at all. The human organism spontaneously trusts being-here and being human. The child doesn’t have to learn to trust; it is born with it. It is the very nature of the material energy of the components of the human body. Living matter is at home in the universe. It must learn to mistrust. Faith holds both its emptiness and its boundless trusting optimism in one undivided embrace. It is no more surprised or distressed by its emptiness than its hunger pangs, as it expects both will be answered and satisfied. It is natural and spontaneous. Trust is embedded in the very matter that our organisms are made of.

Trust should not be confused with an oblivious ignorance or reckless disregard of vulnerability. Without an awareness of vulnerability there is no trust. Trust is precisely the sense that vulnerability belongs here which implies that it trusts that its counterpart of support also is here.

Trust is not confined to infancy or childhood. Trust is the air we breathe always. We have not appreciated the extent to which our lives are dominated by it. It is so common, so necessary and so taken for granted that we have to make an effort to recall and remind ourselves how universal it is.

Consider: we trust the infallible process of fetal formation in the womb from zygote to birth; we trust the perfectly proportioned development of our organisms from infancy to adulthood; we trust all the internal functions of the body having to do with the processing of nourishment, waste, respiration, circulation of the blood, sleep. We never question them until they malfunction, and even then our medical interventions are generally dedicated to the elimination of obstacles to the body healing itself which we trust most of all.

Of course, we also trust the network of cosmic forces that sustains our solar system and we trust that our planet will be able to continue to supply the oxygen, weather, warmth and water we need to sustain ourselves. We trust the human community we live in. We trust our families and friends. And we trust strangers: co-workers, teachers, doctors, technicians, security personnel, public officials . . . the list is endless. All these fine-tuned interconnections, environmental and social, were created by eons of patient evolution.

After all this, to say we trust being-here seems like the most unoriginal and commonplace of statements. But of course we do. We are made of trust. It is a corollary of being empty. For, being empty as we are, if we did not trust, we would disintegrate.