the mystery of being-here: emptiness and faith
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from him ― a violent liberation from Egyptian slavery and later the spoils of conquest: wealth and power ― was now superseded because Paul could see that Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted “God” as his “Father” and it had nothing to do with wealth and power.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.
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.
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.