a confession

2,000 words

In response to comments from readers, and despite the risk of accusations of duplicity, I would like to confess that I am really operating on two levels simultaneously and never refer to it. On one level, I try to elaborate a plausible physical/metaphysical worldview that is consistent with all the relevant data: modern scientific thinking, the core features of the religious legacy of our ancestors and the common consensus of the global community. The result of that work is a world­view that I call Transcendent Materialism. Its details can be found described and defended throughout these blogs and in my books. I work hard at assembling that conceptual system and try to cover all the bases, fill in the corners and tie up loose ends as much as I can. My goal is to construct a synthetic worldview that is consistent within itself and synchronizes with all aspects of reality as we understand it today.

I am convinced that there is an underlying concurrence among those sources which I try to uncover and bring to light. I am convinced it accurately represents reality. But I am quite conscious of the fact that it is a theory. I am only concocting something that is plausible. It is conjecture, well founded, perhaps and sincerely held, but still guesswork. I do it because I feel it offers a better explanation for our cosmos than all others that I have encountered. But at the end of the day I am well aware that I don’t know. The value of such a worldview, in my own mind and intention, is that it will be recognized as indisputably more plausible than the medieval world­view offered by Christianity since the 13th century to insulate the absolutist dogmas which are central to its theocratic pretensions. I want to make clear now, if it has not been obvious before this, that my primary purpose is to challenge arrogant Christian claims to absolute truth ― claims that have been used to justify the western domination of the globe.

Undermining the Catholic/Christian pretense to supremacy is the whole point of the exercise. At the end of the day I am hoping that people will come to the realization that Christianity’s absolutist declarations are self-serving and of dubious credibility. I am not saying its teachings are lies; the motivations are sincere. But I would like everyone to understand that, like the rest of us, the Christian Churches simply do not know. Christianity, like all other religions, offers symbols for the unknown source of our material universe and ourselves as its progeny. The best we can say is that some of that symbolic imagery evokes an attitude of awe and trust ― what I believe is an authentic human response to being-here.

 

Having said that, on another level altogether (the level where I personally live) my view on the unknowability of “God” implies a very simple response. I know that everything I write and most of what I read is speculation. I know that I know nothing. Beneath the sophisticated guesswork there is a very simple bedrock, and what can be said definitively about it is limited to very few words, for it is not knowledge about absent or invisible things, it is the description of the terms of a surrender.

For me not knowing is more than just the way things happen to be. Rather, it’s because things happen to be that way that there needs to be religion. Religion is not necessary in any absolute sense. Religion is necessary only because we do not know. Religion is the symbolic interface with a reality that is beyond the reach of our knowledge. Theology begins here. Far from being an obstacle or a liability, not knowing is the indispensable condition for the existence, authenticity and vitality of the religious quest. Religion is the poetic representation of a living presence that we experience in our material organisms but do not know.

We do not know the answers to the most fundamental questions of the source and ground of reality (which includes us), that have engaged enquiry for as long as humankind has been-here. But rather than a problem and source of contention and conflict, I maintain not-knowing defines and directs religion: it guides it. It’s a corrective that eliminates the wrong directions and false turns that have historically resulted in competing claims among traditions that have caused such violent conflict among us. In strictly methodological terms, The theology of unknowing that I am proposing is not a speculative system, it is a guide for making practical choices in the absence of knowledge. It is a religious pragmatism based on the solid conclusions of experience recognized by everyone, everywhere and at all times since the emergence of humankind on this planet. The authentic human response to LIFE is not knowledge and control but gratitude and trust. Growth in human authenticity (holiness) is growth in those attitudes and corresponding behavior.

Theology should be focused on clarifying and specifying what the terms of surrender are. Not-knowing, unlike “dogma,” is not a symbol or a conjecture or a plausible guess. Not knowing is a raw naked fact, perhaps the most significant and undeniable fact bearing upon our relationship to our source. Theology, insofar as it is committed to discovering and submitting to the truth, is built on this first and indisputable fact: we do not know. Religious universalism derives directly and unconditionally from that. No one knows . . . no one has ever known.

APOPHATIC THEOLOGY

The word “apophatic” is of Greek origin and is usually reserved for the mysticism of “unknowing” associated with the writings of an anonymous sixth-century Christian Syriac monk known as Pseudo-Diony­sius. The monastic tradition it comes from is actually much older and pre-Christian.  It is a neo-platonic pan-entheist vision focused on relationship to “God” as the transcendent source and matrix of our existence. While I personally disagree with the metaphysics, I propose returning to the fundamental contours of that theology ― its dynamic import and intention ― and assigning it the principal role for guiding our religious lives.

The word “apo­phatic” means “speechless” and immediately redirects the one seeking the face of “God” from the intellect to the will. The quest is not about knowing. It is about a surrender in trust impelled by an intuitive grasp of the abundant generosity of life.

“God” cannot be known. The word “God” itself is only a placeholder for the unknown source and sustainer of the cosmos. The conceptual, propositional, ritual and disciplinary edifice that we call “religion” should be constructed firmly on that basis: we do not know, and not-knowing is a desideratum, a gift to be embraced, the fertile ground in which our religion takes root and grows. Not-knowing is intrinsic to the authentic religious quest; it makes quite clear that the ascent is a growth in trust fed by an ever deeper gratitude for life and appreciation of one’s own material organism. To embrace oneself is to embrace that “in which one lives and moves and has one’s being.” It is to embrace whatever the word “God” might ultimately refer to.

Trust also corresponds to an ever wider circle of letting-go. Letting-go means accepting ourselves as material organisms subject to the unavoidable conditions of our materiality in a material universe. We have to let go of attempts to escape that fundamental reality. We have virtually no control over (1) our biological inheritance, (2) the material and social conditions required for our continued survival, and (3) that we will all certainly die. The “escape” we must let go of includes such fruitless reactions as self-aggrandizing selfishness, individual or tribal; the refusal to collaborate with others for mutual survival and the search for justice in society; and I personally would include as an escape the projection of a future life in another imaginary world as an excuse for exalting oneself over others and not cooperating with the universal human community. Learning to live within the parameters possible to us ― which includes the necessary self-regulation and communal collaboration that are necessary to survival ― is the human quest. There is no other, for there is no way out of being material organisms in this material cosmos. It is the human condition.

The correlate to not-knowing is trusting, just as its opposite, knowledge, seems to promise control. I am focused on building a theology on the foundation of an unknowing trust that besides setting us reliably on the paths that all our great teachers, east and west, have laid out for us, simultaneously generates two important by-products for the human community:

(1) it undermines any claims to absolute truth and the corresponding “supremacy” of any religious tradition and its ethnic-tribal adherents over others.

And (2) it establishes an unambiguous parity with those who, avoiding verbalized “beliefs” altogether, have been denigrated by self-exalting religious prejudice as atheists, agnostics, apostates, materialists, non-belie­vers, pagans, etc.

Everyone must trust. The material conditions of our lives is the great leveler. The most convinced atheists spend their days in trusting reliance on the common source of our living organic inheritance whatever that might turn out to be just like the rest of us; and they face death with the same apprehension and the same frustrated expectation to live on that comes from our biological organisms. We all have the same desire to live forever. Some think, despite every indication to the contrary, that we will live again after we die, and others, accepting the evidence of the universal experience of all organic life, don’t. The common denominator is that in each case we are dealing with opinion; no one knows.

The fact that religious people choose symbols to stand in the place of their ignorance and non-religious people refuse to use any symbols at all, doesn’t change the common condition that affects us all: none of us know; all of us live in a state of utter existential vulnerability; we all go reluctantly into that dark night; all of us have to reach out to one another if we are going to survive; and at the end of the day we all have to learn to let go because ultimately we have no idea of what is going to happen to us. “Religions” that exploit human insecurity and offer a quid pro quo of one kind or another that supposedly guarantees a control over our destiny after death, are in fact, working in direct opposition to the objective of authentic religion which is to trust despite the darkness. At best, such guarantees may be acceptable as symbols for the trust that our awe of life evokes in us.

At the same time it must be said that those who take the absence of knowledge as justification for a nihilistic disdain for life and contempt for the struggle of people to survive in a just society, have to suppress their own bodies’ natural joy in living, instinct for self-preservation and empathy for others. Not knowing is just that. A nihilistic response is an unwarranted claim to know.

 

That is the theology I pursue and propose. The rest, which includes physical/metaphysical theories of reality and the polemics they generate is optional, conjectural, somewhat arbitrary and at all times secondary to what I consider authentic religion. That doesn’t mean such “scientific” pursuits are invalid, just that they are not religion. Religion is surrender in darkness driven by the awe and appreciation of being-here. It does not depend on what we think we know or don’t know about the ultimate source and destiny of it all. Once that premise is clearly stated and understood, the wider discussion can proceed. Otherwise, the elaboration of a compelling worldview that correlates to our real condition will necessarily become distorted in the vain attempt to assign it absolute value and turn it into religion. For, without a clear and universal acceptance of the supreme value of not-knowing, conjecture will be conscripted by our insecurity to play the role of “the answer” ― knowledge ― skewing everything that follows and re-instal­ling the conflict of warring absolutes (built on fictional securities) that now characterizes religion.

Immanence and the “divinity” of Jesus

1,300 words

This is a reflection on the contemporary search among traditional Catholic theologians for language about Jesus’ “divinity” that is consistent with the implications of material evolution.

I put the word “divinity” in quotes because I believe that when “God” is understood as immanent it gives the word a new meaning with an imagery that is very different from what we are used to.  There is the old meaning of an all-powerful entity/person ― human-like but unlimited in reach and power, transcendent, spiritual and set apart from the rest of the material universe to which “he” is nevertheless present.  The new meaning based on immanence suggests the sustaining energy of universal existence, what some call a divine “Presence” that creatively suffuses everything that exists, a metaphysical cause that is materially indistinguishable from its finite effects.  Calling it LIFE projects an image that, to my mind, comes closest to the concept and evokes the dynamism responsible for the panoply of evolutionary effects that have filled the universe. I believe the key to a new way of expressing Jesus’ divinity is in a “new” way of expressing divinity itself ― as immanent. Once you take divine immanence seriously, things begin to fall into place.

[“Immanence” is the term traditionally used to describe “God’s” presence in the universe. Its usual expression has been to say that “God is everywhere.” We tend to think of that presence as if “God” were an entity like any other, separate but present to us like a tenant who rents a room in your house. But the deeper meaning of immanence as found in the work of Thomas Aquinas, is that “God” is present as the moment-to-moment sustaining source of the very existence of everything that exists. Aquinas’ theology of divine immanence has effectively been ignored in pastoral practice. For Thomas, the immanent “God” is present by “his” existential activation of all things here and now making them to be-here. “God” is being itself; Pure Act. All things exist by “borrowing” “God’s” very own existential dynamism and activating it as their own. It is not something that happened once in the past. It is a continuous operation that results in panentheism ― a condition where all things exist in God.]

Consider. In Thomistic terms, if “God” is the “act of existence” (the primary cause) that sustains, suffuses and is materially indistinguishable from all things as they are and have come to be (“things” = secondary causes which are both the agents and the products of evolution), then it’s a simple fact that “God” and the individual human being enjoy a “composite” relationship whose only discernible dissimilarity is that it is metaphysically structured, i.e., that it is only distinguishable conceptually as cause and effect. “God” and “creation” are not observably distinct either in composition or in activity. They are distinct only through our unique human ability to perceive and understand metaphysical cause and effect. (We unerringly perceive absolute metaphysical conditionality in ourselves, and infer an unconditioned metaphysical underpinning.)

The moral embrace of that metaphysical dependence, faith ― my conscious acquiescence to the co-presence of my source … my awareness that being-here is an exhaustive effect of “God’s” immanent primary causality (“exhaustive” = there is no other source) ― is reflected in my compassionate attitudes and behavior, which may be said to be more “godlike” the more completely each and every moment of my existence unfolds as a function of that relationship.

With such a way of looking at things ― a derivative of immanence ― not only is Jesus’ “divinity” intelligible, but so is all “divinity” among humankind, wherever faith is found, and however it was evoked in whatever community and at whatever time in the history of humankind. Gone is the problem of trying to account for the transmission of holiness/wholeness from Jesus to others, or from Christianity to other traditions, or back in time to include Judaism. We are all, Jesus no more or less than the rest of us human beings, all the immediate metaphysical effect of the suffusive presence of our immanent Primary Cause, and our “divinization” is all of the same type: moral appropriation and assimilation. It is by our moral surrender in faith causing a transformation in behavior and attitudes that we become more like “God.”

Metaphysical divinity is the same for all; we all have the same primary cause which is existentially activating us all as human beings (and only as human beings). If the immanent primary presence were “different,” we would be “different,” i.e., we would not be human. But the moral appropriation of that divinity in the surrender of faith and its diffusion through­out every aspect and every moment of our conscious communitarian lives, accounts for the different levels of the discernibility of divinity ― holiness/wholeness ― among us. Jesus, in our tradition, embodied the most complete fidelity to that “image of God” and the superlative quality of his trusting surrender is observable in his “obedience unto death,” even the dehumanizing death inflicted by the Roman thugs who ruled by torture and mutilation.

But please note: Jesus himself said that we would do even greater things than he did (Jn 14:12). How could he say that If he were indeed a “different kind of being” than we are? In the moral sphere everything is wide open to everybody. The depth, clarity and intensity of faith is as available to each of us as it was to Jesus, and the result of our fidelity to our reality as metaphysical effect is a closer likeness to the “divinity” that is our primary cause. The word for that is “divinization.” The Greeks called it theosis. I contend that that was the “divinity” that people experienced in Jesus. It was theosis divinization ― the human moral, attitudinal and behavioral expression of “divinity.”

 

Christians have never been shy about using the word “divinization.” Athanasius’ principal argument at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for acceptance of the term homoousios (which “defined” Jesus as the same kind of “God” as the Father) was that without it there was no way of guaranteeing divinization/theosis for us, and theosis was what it was all about. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had his own reasons for promoting the homoousios, but the Greek bishops resonated with Athanasius’ rationale.

Fast forward to John of the Cross, a late mediaeval Spanish Carmelite mystic who wrote around 1580. For him, the language of divinization is the same, even though his metaphors are characteristic of his time. He imagined the “soul” to be the “bride” of “God.” His argument ― that people who love one another tend to become like one another ― was used to account for both the personality distortions that result from loving the wrong things, as well as the “transformation into God” of the soul who becomes his “bride.” Today, we might squirm at the imagery, but it was clearly his way of describing his experience of the surrender of faith. Faith divinizes by bringing light and mirror into sync with one another. Why should we think that Jesus was not as adept as any of us at the surrender of faith?

The entire Christian tradition, by falsely characterizing Jesus’ “divinity” as different from ours, also made Jesus’ humanity different from ours. If he was a “God-entity,” as we have falsely imagined him, faith would not have been demanded of him. How could he be a model for us? How could his message be relevant “for the nations?

Jesus was a human being. It was by embracing his humanity unreservedly ― by trusting “God” through death, even death on the cross of infamy ― surrendering without reserve to the immanent Presence that was his primary cause, that he “earned a name above every name,” and why “every knee bends” at the sound of that name . . . why even today, hearing what he said and did, people everywhere know what he was.

 

The Face of “God” is Your Face

You are not only constructed of “God-stuff” ― the living material energy that created the universe and determined the direction of its evolutionary process ― but with only the potential and resources supplied by that energy you actively appropriate and pursue matter’s principal objective, being-here.

Matter’s intrinsic and exclusive relationship to being-here recapitulates the traditional definition of “God” as esse in se subsistens, self-subsistent being. Being-here is esse in process. You yourself are the closest thing to “God” that you will ever see, and the generation of any other image will only falsify the significance of your existence, and leave you very far from understanding “God.”

You are-here, not as an independent “self” with a unique and personal destiny, as your misguided individualist culture has been telling you, but as a conatus of universal matter; you are a concrescence ― a knot ― of the universe’s material energy in pursuit of being-here. The fact that you are autonomous, self-aware, purposeful, has been misinterpreted to mean independent. Those features don’t come from another world, they are rather functions of the same universal matter, and were evolved as tools in the pursuit of matter’s one goal: being-here in time. The human species and you in it are a tiny part of an immense material totality whose energy and constitutive structures account for everything you are, everything you have and everything you can do, without remainder. There is nothing else there but the universal matter of your body driven to be-here endlessly. You are necessarily and inescapably an expression of the totality’s goal, even when you attempt to distort or destroy it.

Of all the worldviews generated to explain your reality, it’s hard to find one that evokes its moral and mystical implications so directly. It says, quite simply, you are made of your source; you are made of what made you; you and “God,” in other words, are one and the same thing. It is the image that most closely corresponds to Paul’s evocation of “God” in Acts 17, as that “in which you live and move and have your being.” How is this way of picturing “God” different from the older obsolete ones: Ahura Mazda, Aten, Zeus, Thor, Yahweh?

 

First of all, there is nothing “infinite” here. “God” is not all powerful even though it may turn out that there is no limit on what can emerge from its creative evolutionary process.  This “God” is not eternal, even though its explorations in the pursuit of being-here in time may prove to be endless. You are faced with learning to love a very simple, powerless creator that recycles its own substance into a myriad of forms because of its obsessive, compulsive hunger for being-here in time. You are one of those forms. “God” can’t help it, just as you can’t help it. You know exactly what that’s like. Being-here is what you want and what you do all the time. You only reach full maturity when you become capable of reproducing another human organism pre-programmed, like you, for only one thing: being-here.

You have to accept “God” for what “God” really is, and does … and forgive “God” for what “God” is not, and cannot do. And since you are part of this “God,” you also have to accept and forgive yourself for what you are, and for what you are programmed to do, not what you have been taught to think you are and force yourself to do. Just like “God,” you are-here for the sole purpose of being-here. Nothing else.

A moment’s reflection will reveal how liberating that is.  A career or a relationship or an accumulation will not change that destiny.  Don’t let them put you on a treadmill. You already are everything you could ever hope to be.  You already have more than you could ever hope to acquire.

As a corollary to this immanent “God,” there are no miracles.  If this “God” were omnipotent, rational, personal and providential, as your benighted culture tells you, there would be miracles.  But there are none. Living matter evolves marvels, but does not perform miracles. “God” is what “God” is, not what you want “God” to be.  You have to grow up and let go of your infantile fantasies of an omnipotent, omniscient parent that made you feel loved, secure and carefree.  Life for all material organisms in this universe is hard and precarious.  Secure and carefree evaporate with childhood.  Growing up means learning that hard and precarious are the conditions for being-here. “God” is universal matter in existential struggle; that’s how new forms are created, and that’s how you live out your life from the cradle to the grave.  It’s what makes you flesh and bone with “God.”

 

Therefore, be like the “God” whose face you bear and join the struggle for our collective survival.  You are the expression of a totality.  It is the totality that survives, not you alone.  Everyone is scared.  It’s the human condition.  Join the totality and make everyone as loved, secure and carefree as you can.  Be like a father and mother, brother and sister, to others … to all others.

You are the face of “God,” so listen to yourself and act like “God.” You know how happy it makes you to have something ― someone ― to serve; it allows you to forget yourself.  Listen to what your body ― your material energy ― is telling you.  That’s what “God” is like.

You are-here because you have a body, you are matter’s energy.  That amazing feat has already been accomplished.  You do not have to do that again, and the idea that some puny project of yours ― a career, a relationship, an achievement, a possession, a purchase ― is anything like the achievement of being-here as you are with that body, a part of universal matter, is the classic delusion, the tragic flaw that enervates the human condition.  Your selfish cravings for ego-enhancement are an effort to substitute a fabricated isolated “self” in place of the real self that is-here securely as a part of the totality.  Matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed; being-here is guaranteed for every part of the totality.  You are part of the whole.  Stop trying to tell yourself you’re not.  Stop trying to create yourself, save yourself, deify yourself.  Listen to your body made of universal matter.

Listen to your body.  Forget yourself.  You know how happy that makes you.  Put others first.  You know how happy it makes them.  What more do you need to know?

Care for the earth? Care for others? These are not the revealed commands of a far off “God,” they are the spontaneous inclinations of your body of flesh, to love and protect your earth-home and the family of living organisms where you emerged.  Listen to your body, earth’s body.  Once you know who you are, where you came from, where you belong and what you will be forever, the entire spectrum of creative human behavior rises clearly into view and beckons.  These are not conclusions of syllogisms wrenched reluctantly from abstract premises by rigid logic, as our culture has falsely taught you, they are the natural movements of your human body towards those most intimately related to you.  What was missing was knowing who you are, and where you belong.  You are the offspring of universal matter.  This earth teeming with living things is your mother and your family.

Your culture was wrong.  It made a guess, but it was wrong.  It told you you were a solitary spirit, unique, isolated, self-directed, self-involved, and fundamentally and unalterably selfish.  It said you were hard-wired for “gain” in another world, your real home, as reward for making believe you were selflessly serving others in this one where you don’t belong.  Look how that contradiction glares.  Don’t let yourself be sold a bill of goods.  Once you taste what it’s like to belong, to serve others, you will never want to go back to living for yourself, not even in “heaven.” Listen to your body.  Stifle yourself!  You are made to serve others for they are you, flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone; that’s what makes your body happy and your heart awaken.  Listen to your body.  What you hear is the whispered voice of universal matter in which you live and move and have your being.

 

Third, you say you want to love “God”? Then love yourself with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and all the strength you can muster.  You are yourself, mind and body, composed of the living creator of all things.  When you see your face it is primordial reality that you are looking at, 14 billion years old and counting; and even before it extruded you, it was already focused obsessively on what it wants.  It’s not yours to decide, as if it were something dead and drifting that needed you to infuse it with life and direction.  It’s goals were already settled, its destiny already determined; you sit quietly at its feet to hear what they are, and once you hear you don’t have to be told twice what to do.  You know what to do; for YOU ARE THAT!

Matter’s living energy had evolved into countless forms before you came along, so of course you revere it as you would a transcendent parent.  But regardless of your awareness of its transcendence and primordiality . . . regardless of how clearly you perceive that it was-here before you, is greater than you in time and form, and will continue on creating new forms long after your time and planet home have disappeared, you can never forget that YOU ARE THAT!  When you look at your face, there is only one thing there: YOU, constructed of the very “stuff” that made you ― “God.” You can never, never allow yourself to imagine that “God” is something else ― something other than you ― “out there.” Nuptial imagery was a misplaced metaphor.  If you want to embrace “God,” embrace yourself.  You want to see “God,” look at yourself.  You don’t like what you see?  Transform yourself.  Be the “God” you are.

You and your creator, the two are one thing. Please don’t complain that you do not have the “categories” to grasp, explain and articulate this. It doesn’t excuse you that your myopic culture in its know-it-all arrogance never even made an effort to develop a word to describe what was staring it in the face. For, with or without a traditional category you are looking at an objective fact: you and your creator are one and the same thing.  You can never succumb to the primitive imagery you inherited from an archaic, self-idolizing, tribal fairy-tale about a big policeman in the sky, ready to punish you if you’re bad and love you if you’re good  . . .  who displays his will for humankind by creating empires: making one tribe rich and powerful with permission to enslave others.  GET OVER IT!  These are fairy tales, myths from the past before history.  Yahweh, the Warrior or the Bridegroom, is no more accurate an image of “God” than Thor the Thunderer or the mighty Aphrodite.  These were the “categories” your brilliant culture came up with, and it’s time to put them in the museums where they belong.  They do not correspond to reality.

You don’t have the words? Find new ones. You don’t have the categories? You are saddled with ancient rituals and symbols that reproduce false and misleading narratives? Dump them. Change them. Sublimate them. Ask yourself: is it really “God” you’re after as you claim, or are you really only trying to create yourself out of nothing by erecting your tribe, or something else like it, into a “god”? Have you so lost touch with yourself that you no longer believe your body is-here? Do you need to fabricate a false self to put yourself here? Is it your tribe and its narratives, or some other “achievement” that gives you reality? Please be advised: this is all idolatry.

“God” put you here.

There is only one “God.” And when you look in the mirror that’s who should be looking back at you. It’s time to acknowledge the one whose face you bear, in whom you live and move and have your being.

Hylophobia

Substance dualism and the failure of philosophical theology

Posted originally Aug 13, 2015. This is an introductory essay promoting a metaphysics of matter — a cosmo-ontology built on the findings of science. It maintains that the persistence of assigning “spiritual” grounds to our thoroughly material existence is an indication of a stubborn atavism that has been engrained in our culture by more than two millennia of substance dualism. The continued assumption of the priority and independent existence of “spirit,” despite proof that the concept is cosmologically non-func­tional, haunts theology and continues to place an impenetrable barrier between the universe as it really is and our understanding of its connection with the Sacred. Matter — the only thing there is — is granted only marginal existence in our minds, and because of this hylophobic recidivism, is forever consigned to the realms of the profane … and we, who are matter, remain forever alienated from the divine.

I want to coin a word — hylophobia [1] — constructed from the Greek words for “matter” and “fear.” My intention is, following the custom of the medical octors, to call attention to an everyday phenomenon by giving it a pretentious Greek label; in this case, one designed to insinuate pathology for what might otherwise pass as normal.

Hylophobia means “the fear of matter,” but for me it represents more than fear: it is the residue of a world-view, allegedly obsolete, called “substance dualism” which says there are two physically / metaphysically distinct “substances” in the universe: matter and spirit. Reductionism — reducing matter to what it does at the level of physics and chemistry — is one of its principal symptoms, but there are others and they all betray the same attitude: a disdain for matter reflected in the denial of its transcendent properties. Hylophobia lies at the root of the autogenic disease of western culture — a collective delusion where individuals believe their own material organism is their enemy, and try to destroy it.

It is also the basis for the reluctance of western Christian theologians to embrace immanence as the fundamental concept that defines the relationship between “God” and the material universe.

I contend that hylophobia, like all true cultural pre-sets, is pervasive throughout the affected population. Its universality makes it virtually unnoticeable. It is not associated with any particular social ideology or political preference, and while it affects religion catastrophically, one of the signs that it is embedded deep within the western subconscious is that it is as virulent among religious progres­sives as conservatives. It is simply part of the horizon.

The case of “progressive” theologians is particularly revealing. I am speaking about those who have publicly declared their rejection of the traditional concept of a transcendent “God,” a concept that leaves room only for a thin and threadbare immanence, if any. Transcendence means “otherness” and it makes “God” distant and inaccessible. They are on the right track in rejecting it, in my opinion, for a heightened sense of “God’s” intimate co-existence with the universe brings welcome support to a theology trying to prove the relevance of Christianity to the modern world by facilitating: an accurate and mutually satisfying rapprochement with science, a primarily communitarian religious response and therefore a deeper, other-focused individual spirituality. It also means that religious exclusivism can not be justified and should no longer be tolerated..

This is significant for our discussion because Transcendence and Immanence ultimately correspond to the metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter. You cannot favor an immanent “God” without once and for all demolishing the prejudices and distortions of substance dualism. Specifically that means overcoming our traditional western denigration of “mortal” matter and our age-old belief in the existence and natural immortality of “spirit.” It is a liberation from the illusions of the past that we seem unable to accomplish.

1

Western Christianity has been characterized since ancient times by a belief in extreme divine transcendence — a transcendence that left virtually no room for immanence — because it said that “God” was pure spirit and shared nothing with the universe of matter.

Transcendence was originally inherited from the Judaism of the Septuagint well before being philosophically justified by “spirit.” According to Genesis “God” created the world from nothing and that means that “God” and humans have nothing in common except the fact that “God” loves us, made us for his own purposes and we are bound to those purposes whether we like it or not. “God” is like a potter who shapes his products to function as he intended. The relationship is entirely exhausted in the category of ownership; we are “God’s” property, intellectually and materially. But we are no more like “God” than the potter is like his clay. Aside from love and proprietary connections we are total stran­gers.

Then, toward the end of the second century c.e., Christian theologians embraced Platonism. Plato said that “God” was pure spirit and on that basis claimed that he shared nothing with anything composed of matter. The Christian use of Plato to explain the structure of reality thus reinforced Jewish transcendence and gave it a Greek philosophical foundation in the distinction between spirit and matter which it did not originally have.

Immanence, on the other hand, means that “God” and the universe “dwell” in one another — they share what they are by nature long before any consideration of how they may be bound by contractual obligations stemming from ownership or love. Immanence implies that “God” and man are genetically related — constituted of the same “stuff.” It seems indisputable that the founders of Greek Christianity like Paul and John, well before the dominance of Platonism, held conceptions of “God” that were immanentist. It is precisely this immanence that Paul alludes to in his speech at the Areopagus in Athens when he said, speaking of “God:”

Yet [God] is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [From Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” [2] (Acts 17:28).

Being “‘God’s’ offspring” evokes a genetic sharing as between parent and children.

These New Testament allusions suggest a deep physical / metaphysical ground in nature, but they do not spell it out. The inescapable point is that a real immanence implies a real natural sharing of some kind between “God” and man — a sharing that comes with birth, necessarily based on the existential relationship between source and emanation, not earned by the efforts of the human being nor conditioned on human reciprocation to “God’s” creative initiative. What exactly is this real thing that both “God” and a universe made of matter have in common?

There have been various answers to that question, depending on the philosophical system that was being employed in the explanation.

The Platonic version which came to dominate Christianity from late in the second century, had a complicated, three-step explanation. In step one it was declared that “in the beginning” God dwelled alone in solitary bliss; Plato called him “the One.” The “One” was utterly unique and genetically unrelated to anything besides itself. “God” was inaccessible to all but his own “mind” (nous or logos). In step two, then, this Logos, personified (reified) as is customary in the Platonic system, “reads the mind” of the “One” and translates what he sees into a World of analogous Ideas. In step three, finally, like a Craftsman working from blueprints, the Logos infuses those ideas into an amorphous “matter” as into a “receptacle” and the material universe is born, a distant reflection of the divine essence.

Those “ideas” are the “essences” or “natures” of created things. Hence a mediated, genetic relationship is established between “God” and the cosmos that is based on the remote similarity between the “idea-essences” of the material world and the incomprehensible spiritual essence (ousía) of the “One.” Notice, matter has no place in this scheme. So, to the question, Exactly what is it that “God” and the universe have in common, in Plato’s version the answer is: “the creative ideas in the mind of the Logos.” “Ideas” for Plato, remember, are spiritual entities, the products of “spirit.” “God” is present to his creation as the model they imitate.

Later, Aristotle’s metaphysics did not fundamentally alter the “ideal” relationship between the divine essence and the essences of created things. In the middle ages Thomas Aquinas added “being” to the list of “ideas” involved. “Being” was an idea, but in Platonic fashion it was reified and identified as a real thing. It was “God.” But since “being” was an idea that included all other ideas in its embrace, the entire theory of a sharing between “God” and the universe was called “participation in being.” Thomism was an expanded version of the Platonic vision and therefore the sharing was in the realm of ideas. We shared in the essence of “God” by remotely imitating the divine perfections, all of which were captured under the umbrella of “being.”

What about matter? Since in the Platonic system “spirit” and its “ideas” were the only real reality in the universe and “matter” was the equivalent of non-being — a kind of empty receptacle — material things were what they were only by participating in the reality of the spiritual ideas (forms), which remotely resembled the divine perfections. Being came through the form, the essence. Matter did not count.

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Plato’s conception of “remote similarity” between “God” and the universe grounded in the Craftsman’s creative “ideas” was not sufficient, however, to establish a “salvific” relationship with “God” — one that won back our lost immortality — for between anything made of matter and the “God” who is pure spirit, no contact is possible. We “fell” into matter, remember, from the World of Ideas and so contracted mortality. Embodied humans could not share in divine immortality. The weak “remote imitation” basis for divine immanence in Plato’s system could hardly explain the kind of robust statements that John and Paul were making about “God” as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” and the guarantor of immortality.

Augustine. It is at this point that the Christian philosophical theology of Late Antiquity picks up the thread and adds to the narrative. It claims that the Logos became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to bridge the infinite gap between the immortal God and mortal man. Jesus’ resurrection was the first manifestation of the new immortality given to man as a share in Christ’s double “nature” (ousía) one of which Nicaea declared to be the same as “God’s.” One appropriates that shared immortality by incorporation into “the Body of Christ,” i.e., being baptized as a member of the Christian Church. In this vision of things “immanence” was not natural, it was supernatural — the result of the Christ event. It occurred principally in the human soul, its effects on the rest of creation derived from there. With Christianity “immanence” meant the indwelling of the Triune “God” in the soul of the baptized Christian.

The Christian Platonism of Late Antiquity differed from the pagan versions in that its Jewish origins prevented it from explicitly identifying the divine-human gap with the matter-spirit divide. Christian Platonists were frustrated. They were constrained by Genesis to say that matter was “good” because it was created by “God,” but they were also convinced by Plato that matter was evil and anti-human. How to reconcile the two. The solution was definitively articulated by Augustine: Adam’s sin caused the “fall” and corruption of a matter that had originally been created good (and immortal) by “God.” In the beginning, they said, matter was good but became bad. In practice, therefore, Christian “matter” was indistinguishable from the classic Platonic version; despite its divine origins it was now as Plato described it: the locus of all limitation and seduction, all pain, suffering and death. Matter, because of its corruption by Adam’s sin, came to be associated with the devil.

This situation continued through the middle ages, even though Aristotle came to displace Plato as the preferred philosopher of universal reality. Aristotle was a student of Plato who made significant modifications to his teacher’s system. He developed a theory called hylomorphism. It said that everything, whether natural or man-made, is constituted of matter and form. A statue, for example, is what it is because of the material of which it is made, let’s say bronze, and the form or shape that makes it recognizable, like the god, Zeus. Living things were similar. They were made of organic matter and the specific “form” or “essence” that made them an oak tree or a squirrel or a human being. Matter and form were intrinsic to the thing itself, which he called substance; they were part of its constitution.[3]

“Form” for Aristotle played the role that Plato had assigned to “essence.” It guaranteed genetic development and was the source of intelligibility.   It bore within itself the “purpose” for which the “thing” (substance) existed. “Form” is what made this matter a horse instead of a hippopotamus. It was responsible for what the thing was and therefore what it could and should do. Form made the thing recognizable to human minds and therefore belonged to the category of “idea.” In living organisms it was called “soul” and was also considered the source of vitality.

What made Aristotle’s hylomorphism radically different from Plato’s theory was that “form,” which in living things is “soul,” has no existence independent of the substance it enlivens.   Both matter and form, for Aristotle, were only “principles” of being that did not exist on their own; they were components of the concrete existing thing — labels that identified what was conceptually distinct for human experience, not what was independent in itself. That means that one should no more expect that a “soul” would continue to exist on its own after its body decomposes than that the form of Zeus would still exist after the bronze in the statue has been melted down for other uses. Matter and form are not things in themselves but only different ways that humans look at the same existing thing. All that really exists is the concrete composite, what Aristotle called the substance.

In theory at least, therefore, Aristotle rejected “substance dualism” (i.e., that matter and form were each separate substances) and that rejection implied a monism — that reality was comprised of only one thing which is capable of being looked at as either matter or spirit. Aristotle called that one thing substance comprised of matter and form. His was a metaphysics of substance. In theory, therefore, disdain for matter in this system should have lost its justification, for “matter” is not something separate and distinct from “spirit” and therefore spirit cannot be superior to matter. Each is only a different aspect of the same thing

Aristotle’s position was that the soul disappeared when the union dissolved. But predictably in Christian hands it was disregarded. The entire Christian narrative revolved around reward and punishment of the individual after death. The separate and independent existence of the human soul had to be maintained at all costs even if it meant an internal contradiction. Hence Aristotelian Schoolmen claimed the human soul was the one “form” in the entire material universe that lived on after being separated from the matter it “informed.”

Thomas Aquinas was one of them. While agreeing with Aristotle that the soul was the form of the body and therefore that neither matter nor form was a “substance,” he was also convinced that the human soul was immortal and lived on separated from the body after death. This spelled death for Aristotle’s system, for it meant the monism of substance collapsed like a house of cards.

Aquinas’ “solution” disintegrated on launch. What was arguably possible as an academic exercise became unthinkable when floated in the real world. For, whatever your argumentation, if the soul lives on after death, even if unique among “forms,” then in practice spirit instantly and irrevocably retrieves its substantial status — hylomorphism evaporates, substance dualism is re-installed. Matter is relegated to being a separate and alien encumbrance, the “enemy” of the “soul” which alone is the person. For if the soul alone without the body is the subject of judgment and the recipient of eternal reward or punishment, then the soul is a “thing,” as independent as anything needs to be to be called “substance;” its independent existence renders an opposed “soulless” matter equally substantive.

Any chance that Aristotle would move western thought beyond Plato’s substance dualism was demolished by the unquestioned priority of the separated soul in the achievement of salvation in the Christian system. People are not stupid. It was their destiny that was being deliberated in these esoteric discussions; they understood quite well the difference between a body that dies and a soul that doesn’t. Aristotle’s theory was simply ignored. Even William of Ockham, the consummate Aristotelian, the “bad boy” of mediaeval theology who denied any independent reality to “ideas” that were not representations of concrete reality, never challenged the existence and separate reality of the “soul” now supposedly known through other means, like faith. That meant, in fact, that Plato’s view continued unabated. Aristotle never made a dent in Christian substance dualism, because the overwhelming need to have an individual judgment made Platonism impregnable.

This left Aristotle’s system an empty exoskeleton whose inner rationality had been gutted. Philosophical theology revealed itself to be nothing but a montage of disparate and unconnected rationalizations lacking internal coherence. By the fourteenth century It was becoming increasingly clear that the entire enterprise was an abysmal failure. Any attempt at rationality was immediately undermined by the requirements of the Christian cult that had achieved social and political hegemony. It is no wonder that the ruse of “scientific” objectivity was soon abandoned. The Reformation’s reversion to Augustine to replace a sterile scholasticism represented the return to pure cultic thinking without scientific pretensions that simply accepted biblical categories — the abject sinfulness of humankind and the wrathful vengeance of an omnipotent “God” — as the unquestioned starting point for understanding reality. And keep in mind this was occurring as we entered modern times with the birth of science, the use of firearms, the nation-state and the conquest of the Americas.

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Substance dualism was so entrenched that when Descartes came along a hundred years after Luther and declared quite unambiguously that there were two separate and distinct metaphysical substances, matter and spirit, it didn’t raise an eyebrow. He was simply stating the accepted wisdom. For western Christians Aristotle’s hylomorphism had never functioned as anything more than window dressing that gave a rational veneer to an unrepentant Platonism. Descartes’ clear definition of spirit as a separate “second substance,” the source of all vitality and intelligibility, relegated matter to the realm of the inert. Matter was not a principle but some kind of “stuff” — utterly lifeless by definition: “a substance that could be acted upon but could not act,” a potential for composition completely supine before the power of spirit.

With Descartes substance dualism entered the scientific world as an axiom. It was no longer the subject of philosophical dispute; it granted science the freedom to explore and manipulate anything other than man without concern for its “value,” for matter had been made completely valueless in a world where all value was attributed to rational spirit — mind. Even the “souls” of living things other than man lost the original “spiritual” meaning given them in the Platonic system. Because of the absolute domination of the category of “spirit” by the “immortal soul of man” in the western Christian imagination, plant and animal “souls” were relegated to secondary status — in effect consigned to the sub-category of “matter.” Under the Platonic-Cartesian substance dualism paradigm, “immortal soul” was taken as completely separate from anything material, and even human beings who displayed a little too much “body” in the form of emotion or desire or stupidity or need were treated on a sliding scale proportionate to their perceived rationality. Primitives, menials, illiterate peasants, the retarded, children, women, were all considered sub-human to one degree or another, unable to care for themselves and treated as slaves or worse“for their own good.”

Matter by itself became a lifeless desert. But I want to emphasize: precisely because it was the companion to spirit. All vitality, intelligibility, design, purpose, direction, that characterized material things was claimed to be imparted to them by “spirit,” either in the form of their own material “soul” given to them by a rational “God,” or through the control exercised over them by the rational mind of man. No one in Descartes’ universe ever denied the presence of those “spiritual” characteristics, but they attributed them, exclusively and universally, to “spirit.” “Matter” by itself had none of them, but then, matter was never found by itself.

Exit: spirit

As science progressed, the control that human rationality was learning it could exercise over material things, even over its own organism, increasingly called into doubt the belief that a “divine spirit” had any influence in the real world. The last vestiges of the claim that “God” was a cosmological factor lay in the incredibly intricate adaptation of living organisms to their environment. Nothing could explain how dumb animals and unconscious plants could have come to possess exactly those rationally sophisticated abilities that made them capable of surviving in their complex environments except the infinitely intelligent mind of a Creator “God.” The “essences” of living organisms were thought to be rationally complex energies — “rational ideas” — that resided in non-rational entities; they had to be the result of infusion from without by a super-intelligent, rational “Mind.”

All that changed overnight with evolution. After 1859 it became clear that in fact every sophisticated interlocking feature that meshed organisms with their environments was the result of incremental changes incorporated into the various species’ DNA over long periods of time. What Darwin did was to take the well-known process of selecting the characteristics of domestic animals and plants through breeding, and apply it analogously to the origins of species themselves.   Instead of people, he said, it was nature itself that did the “selective breeding” by the inevitable survival of those organisms whose randomly acquired changes happened to be better suited for surviving. Those without them, of course, died out. The process “selected” among random changes. But “selection” was a metaphor; the organism simply survived. No one was doing any selecting. These changes produced a near-infinite number of living species, and shaped organisms of amazing complexity and relational power. “Mind” itself, rather than its cause, was now seen to be one of its effects.

With Darwin, the belief in the intelligent design of the universe and its species lost all rational justification. Without rational spiritual “essences” — rational ideas as blueprints — needed to explain what things were and how they were structured and behaved, the last reasons for believing in the independent existence of entities like “God” that were spirit, disappeared. Determining the place of the human mind in all this was put off ‘til later. But there seemed little doubt that the material world contained the explanation for what it was within itself. There were no phenomena that could not be explained by the processes indigenous to this world. The existence of “spirit” as a separate and independent kind of being, not only had no proof, it had also lost any explanatory value since every phenomenon imaginable, from massive geological events like earthquakes to intimate human psychological experiences, could be (or were thought to be shortly) explained by material causes. “Spirit” had lost its raison d’être.

But please notice: “Spirit” disappeared from a world that had been believed constituted of spirit and matter. That left only “matter.” But it was a “matter” that had been consigned for millennia to the dark side of the moon — the realm of the purely inert — a “matter” that could be acted upon but could not act, found itself locked into its ancient characterization. “Matter,” whose very definition had been constructed on the presumption of its partnership with “spirit,” now stood naked and alone. It was expected to fill a dual role: not only explain reality’s material functions but also the phenomena once attributed to spirit … but it was expected to do so qua matter … Cartesian matter. There was no new definition of matter to accompany the demise of “spirit.” It was “spirit’s” inert partner … now a widow.

“Spirit’s partner” is Descartes’ eviscerated “matter:” inert, passive, enlivened only by something totally other than itself. Matter remained the same inert substance that it always was as part of an erstwhile binary system, but the vitality in the cosmos, and “things’ ” ability to evolve transcendent versions of themselves, now had no explanation. The phenomena once assigned to spirit were now assumed to be the expressions of this inert, lifeless product of the western imagination. In the absence of a “material” (again, Cartesian) explanation, people tended to deny the evidence that was right before their eyes. An inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore life must be an illusion. The prejudice here is glaring. For it is just as logical and compelling to say that an inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore matter must not be inert.

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If we were able to purge our minds of the prejudices and subconscious assumptions about “matter” that we have inherited from our Cartesian past which are the source of our hylophobia, we could begin to look at “matter” in a new light. A purified scientifically informed analysis of matter would reveal characteristics that are both self-evident and explanatory of universal phenomena; and the depth of the disparity between these scientifically verified features of matter and our reflex prejudices also explains the virulence of hylophobia … and why it is aptly labeled a pathology.

Inertia. The first is that “matter” is energy. This flies in the face of the most fundamental assumption of Cartesian matter: that matter is inert. The convertibility of matter and energy which may be adduced as proof for this characteristic is actually a misnomer. All existence is material energy. Sometimes it takes the form of visible, impenetrable, solid particles that we have traditionally called “matter,” and sometimes it takes the form of invisible fields, waves, valences, forces for attraction and repulsion that are involved in the manifold relationships that comprise the material universe. At the sub-atomic level powerful forces that account for the very coherence among the particles that comprise the protons and neutrons of atoms, are themselves also expressible as particles. Gluons are a case in point. The force that holds the quarks together to form protons is known as “the strong force.” But the “strong force” is also expressible as a particle called a gluon. Well, is it a force or is it a particle? It has the properties of both and is analogous to the exchange of photons in the electromagnetic force between two charged particles. Photons are familiar as the “particles” that carry light. But we all know that light sometimes acts like a wave and at others like a particle.

At the base of it all is energy. There seems to be no solidity in the universe that is not more fundamentally expressible and measurable as energy. Matter, therefore, is not properly said to be convertible into energy, for there is no “matter” that is different from energy. Matter is energy. And since energy has been falsely associated with spirit in our philosophical past, to distinguish our new understanding of what energy is, I call it material energy or matter’s energy. “Energy” is matter. It should never be thought of as reintroducing binary structure back into reality. Energy is not the equivalent of “spirit,” it is simply another form and word for “matter.”

Vitality. “Matter’s energy” is the bearer of life. This also contradicts our traditional imagery which assumed that matter was dead and required the presence of something that “transcended” the material to be infused and enliven it. But we know there is no such separate, “transcendent” thing in the universe. There is only matter’s energy out there, therefore if we find that there is life in the universe it can only be because material energy in some way bears the capacity for life within itself. Does that mean that “life” occurs when a certain combination of particles and forces are apportioned, arranged and sequenced in some particular way that we so far are unaware of? Or does it mean that there is some kind of seminal vitality present below the threshold of observability in all matter of whatever kind … analogous to other properties that are unobservable except under certain specific conditions, properties like electromagnetism, or even mass itself? The physical details are not for philosophy to decide. But what philosophy must assert is that LIFE is borne by matter’s energy not something else.

Consciousness. The property least associated with matter in our tradition is thought. In fact the very theory of substance dualism was born in the attempt to explain the presence of ideas that seemed utterly beyond the capacities of matter. We know now that virtually every mental state as well as every image producible by the human mind is matter-dependent. That means that, even if you insist on maintaining that these mental phenomena are not caused by the organic material in the human brain, you have to at least acknow­ledge that if there is any damage or disease affecting the part of the brain associated with these various phenomena, that the phenomena in question will be seriously distorted, defective or even disappear altogether. So that even if there were some unknown unobservable causation here that is immaterial, it is still subordinate to the control of matter; “ideas” are matter-dependent.   Such dependence rather suggests that the phenomena are themselves material products.

I believe that matter must be defined by what it is seen doing at all levels of its complex interrelationships, not just at the level of physics and chemistry. There is no justification for limiting matter by some abstract criterion generated by speculation that is not empirically verifiable. Matter is as much matter when it produces thought and ideas, as when it displays the properties like mass and electrical charge that we associate with its more primitive states. You can’t use a crippled definition of “matter” derived from the presumptive immateriality of “ideas” to concoct a concept of an imaginary “spirit” which is then said to account for the reality of what you see “matter” doing right before our eyes. It is a vicious circle suspended in midair. We see that matter is not inert; it is alive and it produces “spiritual” products like thought and ideas. Every phenomenon that had been attributed to the agency of spirit, is now seen to be the work of material energy.

When confronted with these facts, the American philosopher William James introduced the notion of “neutral monism.” Monism meant there was only one substance in the universe, and he added the important qualifier: it was neutral — neither spirit nor matter — but obviously capable of all the phenomena that up to now had been falsely attributed to two separate substances. James lived in an era when monist idealism was considered a viable option and I believe the term was chosen to allow it to function. In our time, in contrast, since matter has been the subject of such spectacular discoveries — cosmological, bio-chemical, sub-atomic — I prefer the term material energy in order to avoid any confusion that “matter” is only an “idea.”

It’s important to emphasize: there is no intention on my part to deny the existence and human significance of the empirical phenomena that have been traditionally assigned to the agency of “spirit.” Consciousness, thought, poetry, mysticism function as they always have. My entire effort is simply to show that there is no justification for inferring the existence of something other than material energy to explain them. Substance dualism was exactly the result of such an unjustified procedure. Material energy is entirely sufficient for the explanation of all phenomena in our universe; no recourse to a putative “immaterial” source is necessary.

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Now all this put Christian theologians in a conundrum. In the absence of “spirit” they had no philosophical basis for saying the traditional things about both man and “God.” Christian doctrine seemed inextricably wed to metaphysical dualism. For if, as science was saying, there were no such thing as “spirit” opposed to “matter,” then neither the transcendence of “God” nor the immortality of the individual human soul has any ground in reality. Claims for their existence are not only gratuitous, but also meaningless, for what does “transcendence” mean if there is nothing that goes beyond the possibilities of material energy? What grounds transcendence now? Religion found itself completely cut off from the real world — forced to reject all the proven sources of knowledge on whose unquestioned authority everyone, religious people included, depend unreservedly for everyday living.

This “schizoid” existence — believing one thing in the world of work and daily life and another in Church — has accompanied the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Christian churches by the educated classes, especially those versed in science. Religion without roots in the real world appears to be nothing but fairy tales, and indeed, the ever more common orthodox concession that our doctrinal inheritance may now be taken metaphorically and not literally has left many with the impression that the theologians have capitulated and have settled on a strategy of employing religious narrative only for its familiarity while ignoring its claims to factual truth. Under these circumstances “living a Christian life” means allowing oneself to be motivated by nostalgia: to live the way traditional Christians who once believed these dogmas and associated narratives used to live. It self-consciously accepts religion as the exclusive repetition of ancient patterns and eschews all moral and intellectual creativity. It is life in imitation of honored ancestors.   Christianity is as dead for those who stay as for those who leave.

Concerned theologians have attempted to overcome this necrosis by distancing themselves from the wrathful and punitive character of the transcendent “God” of Augustine’s imagination. In that effort they emphasize the immanence of “God.” While pastorally speaking it is the logical step, the inveterate western hylophobia that pervades their imagery about “God” has made their efforts little more than pious rhetoric. They have nothing to ground immanence in, and so “immanence” in their hands becomes rooted in words, “ideas,” — imaginary spirit — and dismissed as just another fairy tale.

They will not acknowledge that the source of immanence has to be the material energy of which we are made. What we share with “God” has to be what we are and that is matter. This follows from our new metaphysics — the cosmo-ontology of neutral monism. Since material energy is all there is, there is nothing else we can share. They also cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that “God” must be material energy itself. Immanence can no longer be grounded in “ideas.” For while these theologians claim to reject the derivatives of dualism — like divine transcendence — if they do not accept the transcendently creative properties of matter, the principal one of which is the energy of LIFE, they have no real ground in which to root their claims of immanence, and they end up re-installing dualism by default.

Divine transcendence is a projection derived from substance dualism. You cannot reject “transcendence” without rejecting the reason why transcendence was accepted as an unavoidable conclusion about “God” in the first place. Correlatively, the “immanence” that is offered to take the place of transcendence cannot be installed without installing the transcendently creative properties of the material energy that is the only possible ground for a genetically shared life between “God” and the material universe. In other words, “God” cannot be “immanent” in a material universe without acknowledging the LIFE creating and sustaining capacities of matter and identify that material energy quite unambiguously as the LIFE that we share, and the origin, source, principle of LIFE is what we mean by “God.” You can’t make a more traditional statement than that.

On a similar note, you can’t continue to generate hope in the immortality of the human individual after death without grounding that hope in something other than substance dualism.   In other words, if it is not “spirit,” what could that be … and can it effectively (affectively) replace the traditional paradigm? Or must “religion,” considered as a program that claims to validly encourage trust in organic LIFE-as-it-is precisely because it is based in fact, be abandoned?   Is religion so tied to the existence of an imaginary spirit that any other format will immediately decertify it? In other words, can “religion” based solely on matter and material processes provide the basis for human hope?

These tensions continue at the level of physical / metaphysical ground precisely because of hylophobia — the residual fear of matter based on the unexpurgated prejudice of its Platonic-Cartesian assumptions. It is the source of the reluctance of theologians to subordinate their thinking to the results of science. This is an obstacle to the pursuit of a viable alternative for religion; hylophobia constantly undermines wholehearted commitment to the neutral monism that is necessarily at the basis of a new paradigm.

I want to emphasize: substance dualism is rationally, scientifically untenable. Any religion based on it can do little more than repeat ancient narratives whose claims to factuality have been completely discredited. But the central place of reward and punishment for the individual immortal soul has rendered any alternative to substance dualism unthinkable in practice. Christianity is locked solid into hylophobia.

The absurd anomaly of a theology that pursues immanence because of its fertility for prayer and a sincere universalism but refuses to acknowledge the need to root that immanence in some physical / metaphysical ground, conjures the specter of a substance dualism that just will not go away. For in the absence of a ground in material energy these theologians posit immanence in circular fashion — hanging it on a sky hook. What can that hook be but rhetoric — “ideas.” They like the idea of immanence but they can only justify it by its posterior benefits, not because of any basis in objective reality. It becomes a completely subjective projection: they opt for divine immanence because it works for the spirituality and ecumenism that they espouse, not because it represents reality. It is the use of these affective circularities, so characteristic of religious thinking that has eroded any confidence in the validity of philosophical theology — theology as a science.

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Part of what feeds hylophobia is the inveterate aversion to pantheism. Why fear of pantheism should be so intense in official Christian circles comes back to the ecclesiastical narrative. The Church needs a transcendent “God” — a “God” that is “other” than humankind — or it cannot run a program based on obedience. Any hint of a shared life between “God” and humankind prior to the Christ-event runs the risk of justifying individual autonomy and vitiating the mediation of the Church. For a being that shares “God’s” life ab initio also shares divine freedom and creativity, moral and custodial authority and the permanence in being that has been labeled “immortality.” Immanence implies that the norm of morality resides within oneself, implanted there by nature, inalienable and demanding recognition. This runs counter to the role the Church has assumed in a theocratic society.

But even granting that the Church admits some measure of immanence because, historically, the doctrine has always existed as a “minority report” among mystics, no adequate distinctions have been drawn between pantheism and pan-en-theism. This is critically important. For the former states that we are collectively “God,” which is absurd, and the latter that we “participate” in “God’s” life by nature. The concepts are very different metaphysically but the accusation that pan-entheism is really “pantheism” does not acknowledge that difference. Fourteenth century mystics Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porrete were both pan-entheists who were condemned as pantheists, and Marguerite was burned at the stake for it. Irish mystical theologian John Scotus Eriúgena was a pan-entheist who was condemned posthumously as a pantheist. And even Baruch Spinoza, universally considered a pantheist, in the eyes of Karl Jaspers was a pan-enthe­ist. Clearly the tendency has been to see any natural, genetic, pre-redemption sharing between “God” and man as “pantheism” and the rich and fertile path of pan-entheism, based necessarily on the acknowledgement of divine immanence, has been closed to western religion.

Hylophobia is functioning here, for even those that are willing to move in a pan-entheist direction fail to identify the structure of material reality as the evidentiary source of divine immanence. They try to ground divine immanence in some “idea,” or in a “feeling” of being united with “God,” a “feeling” that is given no basis in nature. They wax poetic over oneness with all creation and creation’s “God,” but they don’t seem to see that it is their responsibility to clarify exactly what that oneness consists of. It’s not sufficient to say it makes me feel good. What is the reason? Because “God” chooses to dwell with us? That’s the Christian narrative of redemption, which justifies Christian claims to exclusive validity … it is not the pre-Christian reality identified by Paul in Acts 17 as the common inheritance and destiny of all peoples, the ground of the universal validity of all religions.

The roots of immanence are genetic and inalienable. We are inextricably bound to “God” because we are all made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, the LIFE we share. That’s where theology begins: with reality … the facts … with the way things are. Theology doesn’t control the facts … the facts are given to us by science. Theology tells us what the facts mean.

But no, theology could not allow itself any such simple straightforward solution because, I contend, the solution acknowledges the primacy of matter and theologians consider the subject of religion to be “ideas” or “feelings” or “texts” out of some book — sources that justify theology’s claim for autonomy. Theology tries to confirm its independence of science by coming up with its own esoteric premises that continue to evoke a “spirit” that we know has been proven cosmologically non-functional. The whole procedure is an exercise in circularity. Theology cannot concede what is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes: we are all matter … and we are only matter. There is nothing else but matter. Matter’s energy is “being” … it is all there is. The universe is wall-to-wall matter whose source must itself be the very same matter. That means that “God” is matter. How exactly does that work? The details are for later elaboration. But the point of departure is that whatever is the source of all this universal matter cannot be “other than” matter. Theology will never acknowledge that, and therefore its efforts will always fail, especially its efforts to establish a religiosity based on divine immanence. It refuses to start with reality. If it is ever to break out of the vicious circle it has created for itself theology must begin with the firm and indisputable conclusions of science about the real universe that “God” created … not the universe our ancient ancestors thought “God” created. The vicious circle is broken by theology taking its rightful place as part of the chain of human knowledge. And it is science that provides the facts that are to be interpreted. What we ask of theology is to tell us: what does it mean that everything that exists is made of matter?

Matter is energy, and everything made of matter is a bearer of that energy, embedded in the very interstices of its sub-atomic connections. As matter evolves more and more complex versions of itself, those forms display exactly the same energies across the board — the energy to live and to survive, to interact and relate, to put the whole before its parts, to treat itself as part of a totality. It’s time we took the admonition of Paul in the opening chapter of Romans seriously:

For what can be known about God is plain because God has shown it to us. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1: 19-20)

Even the “text” points us toward science.

[1] I am aware that clinical psychology has already pre-empted that word for a pathology characterized by a fear of forests, but it is a rare condition and few people are familiar with the term. The parallel with hylomorphism makes it likely it will have more traffic in the philosophical sense I am suggesting.
[2] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Location 225077). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.]
[3] Matter and form were actually only two of four causes, the other two being the efficient cause (the maker) and the final cause (the end or purpose for which it was made). But these two are extrinsic to the object in question ( and final cause is really a restatement of the formal cause) and not really relevant to the issue of the constitutive elements of the universe. Including them would have been an unnecessary distraction.

“Catholics”

A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

2,500 words

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.

Anachronism

The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction to the latest re-issue of the book, blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely.  While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue.  The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930.  Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.

critique

I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed.  Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed.  You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks disingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

 

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017

Obedience and the doctrine of “God”

 2000 words

Religion in the West has come to us in the forms practiced by the powerful societies that ruled our part of the world eons ago. The enormous geographic extent and longevity of the Roman Empire accounts for its influence on what religion was able to survive into subsequent eras. The fact that Christianity predominates in the West, and through Christianity that the ancestral Judaic tradition has been preserved, is due exclusively to Rome. Rome outlawed and systematically exterminated not only any and all rivals to Christianity, but also all versions of Christianity that could not co-exist with the one embraced by the emperors. The Jews were a strange exception: simultaneously protected and persecuted, their existence and their torment alike were integral to the distorted Christian view of the world.

Christian supremacy existed throughout the Mediterranean well before the 7th century when the unexpected rise of the Arabs and their lightening conquest of the southern and far-eastern regions of the Roman Empire brought their own indigenous religious vision into the area once exclusively Christian and Jewish. By the 7th century Roman influence had already insured that “The Book,” the Jewish scriptures which Christianity had embraced as its own, was accepted as the only authentic source of the knowledge of sacred reality. The result was that the indigenous religion of the Arabs, what they called Islam, acknowledged the uncontested primordial truth of the Hebrew Scriptures to which they appended their Quran, prophecy and poetry written by Mohammed, as a theological addendum.

Thus the three religions that are native to the Western World — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all outgrowths of the same primitive doctrinal formulations of the Hebrew Scriptures. It should come as no surprise, then, that the central moral and theological themes of all three religions would be the same. They are all cults of obedience. The word Islam itself means submission. It all revolved around the Torah, “The Law,” the terms of the contract that Yahweh made with the Hebrews: “You obey my law and I will make you great.”

Essential to obedience is the assumption about the “nature of ‘God.’” This is also the same for all three. Stemming from the anthropomorphic imagery offered in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by the mythic tales in the cosmogonies of the ancient Mediterranean, “God” was imagined as a “person” who gave commandments that humans were expected to obey. Obedience was a function of an interpersonal relationship in which the “will” of “God” was directly focused on obtaining the acquiescence of human beings expressed in their behavior. The import of obedience, ultimately, was its personal context: you were being commanded by a person who would punish you for disobedience; when you obeyed you also showed respect for that person … continued habitual respect resulted in a confluence of wills that would eventually develop into love.

There are two things to note, in this scenario. The first is that initially the psychological aspect was not the object of interest; the commandments were focused on literal compliance and the social harmony they effected. It was only later that attention was drawn to the act of “willing” as an interior event separate from the behavior it contemplated. Writers like Augustine who were obsessed with the self and its motivations, opened up a whole new interior landscape where the relationship with God was seen as a function of one’s intimate feelings and dispositions. Obedience was recognized not only as external compliance affecting society and meriting reward or punishment, but functioned on a different plane altogether, the plane of relationship; it was seen as the internal meshing of wills, God’s and yours, leading to a greater union of persons. This prioritizing of the interior dimension may be considered a seminal moment in the moral and religious development of the West.

Of course it was all dependent on the original premise about “God” being a “person.” It was because of this anthropomorphism that an external social non-compliance became an interior and inter-personal disobedience. Disobedience was not only a mistake, or a social infraction, it was a sin, a personal affront to the lawgiver that incurred “his” wrath; “God” was understood to be necessarily insulted and infuriated by the disobedience. This was the sum and substance of Augustine’s rationale for Original Sin and Redemption.

It accounts for the existence of the fear factor associated with religious codes of conduct in the religions of the book. But it also helps explain the direction religion took in Late Antiquity under the influence of the highly interior, self-scrutinizing and individualistic ascetical practices of celibate anchorites (monks and nuns), whose extraordinary lives were considered the apex of Christian perfection. Monasticism saw obedience not as compliance but as a meshing of wills, and therefore as a direct path to “divinization.” It was confirmed by the poetry of the nuptial relationship celebrated by the Song of Songs promoted in the third century by Origen of Alexandria. As the human will became more and more aligned with the divine will through obedience to God’s commands, it necessarily became more and more “like God,” which was the ultimate goal of Greco-Roman Christianity, theosis. Jesus’ call to Jews to “be like your Father” was seen as the harbinger of this new philosophical understanding of human destiny.

But the Platonists of the Mediterranean expanded Jesus’ appeal beyond mercy and forgiveness, compassion and generosity, and included the entire moral code because it was the will of God, and therefore it provided more fuel for the fire of theosis. The more obedience, the more the two wills became one. Your goal was to shed your humanity and become divine.

Hence, Eckhart’s counsel of “total detachment” was not hyperbole; he was serious. It not only represented the negation of the false ego, unconscious of its origins in Being, it was the reflection of the theosis goal set in the context of the discoveries of the latest Mediaeval science: “God” was Being. And since “being” embraces everything it is literally no-thing: it is everything and needs nothing. That such a detachment for a human being was absurd and impossible has not deterred many from trying, and doing harm to themselves in the offing. Their failure should have been a clue to the misconception that lay at the root of it all: that “being” was spirit and not matter. The ancients, unfortunately, had it stone backwards. Matter’s energy is being. We cannot be detached from matter because we are matter.

“God” is the LIFE of matter

What is most salient for us now, however, is that under the impact of the discoveries of modern science our understanding of the nature of God has changed — radically. “God” is not spirit but the LIFE of matter, its source and energy. And that has to have a profound effect on what we think Christian perfection is, and therefore what have been traditionally considered the practices that lead to it.

The position assumed in this blog is that the source of the human sense of the sacred — the source of the conatus, the will to live is the material energy that lies at the foundation of all things, responsible for their existence, their anatomy as evolved entities and their corresponding behavior driven by innate instinct. Material energy performs the role of Creator and Matrix in our world. It is not only responsible for everything there is, including evolution and the entities that have resulted from it, it also is that “in which we live and move and have our being.”

Some call that living dynamism “God.” I won’t quibble, but I prefer to call it LIFE, a word that evokes its reality as pervasive, generalized energy and its common possession by all things, without implying a separate entity that stands apart from them all. In this regard Eckhart’s remarkable “definition” of “God” must be highlighted for its congruence with the material energy I call LIFE:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

Eckhart didn’t say that because he was a materialist, but because he was a spiritual monist. He saw everything that exists as participating in the very same act of existence — esse — God, as understood in the concept of being. Eckhart was, as a result, a pan-entheist. Neutral (materialist) monists are also pan-entheists for the same reason: all things participate in the same existential energy, LIFE, the source of existence.

Eckhart was an idealist (spiritualist) like everyone else before the modern era. “Being” for Eckhart was “spirit.” All of the spiritual practices and goals of Christian perfection that we have inherited from 2000 years and more of the Judaeo-Christian-Platonic tradition are all premised on “God” being spirit — an idea/person who related to us rationally. This “God” had a vision for our behavior embedded in a moral code that represented his WILL for us. Since God was a person with a WILL, we had to relate to him by bending our will to his. That made us like him. And that is what it meant to be “holy.” But things have changed.

If God is not what we thought he was, then the ancient traditional practices and goals we set for ourselves will no longer work and may even be damaging, as we suggested in the case of Eckhart’s detachment.   If indeed, as I contend, “God” is matter’s LIFE and NOT some separate spirit-entity with a will of his own, then an entirely new set of goals and practices that are consistent with what God really is and what we, as his offspring, really are, has to be identified. This is where the rubber meets the road. What does it mean to be “like God” if God is not a rational humanoid person with a “will” but rather the LIFE of matter? And what does it mean if, as we are saying, we ourselves are all and only living matter, the very “stuff” of LIFE?

We have a new task: to discover how to align ourselves with LIFE now that obedience no longer functions as a reliable guarantee of theosis, not because we no longer know what “God” wants (we probably never really knew), but more radically, because as Eckhart says, we have come to understand that God wants nothing. It is not a question of meshing our will with “God’s,” the issue has nothing to do with a particular “will.” LIFE wills to live in us … as us. We have to redefine humility when we can no longer use our ego-negating obedience to accurately define and effectuate it. And what does detachment mean when we are no longer deceived into think­ing that God is “spirit” and to be like God is to suppress or ignore our bodies?

I am confident that these and other associated questions about the ascetic practices appropriate to our new appreciation of reality will be answered as time goes on. But we can already say there is one central characteristic that will have to be present and operative in anything validly proposed: that we are already in personal, unassailable possession of the source and wellspring of our own permanent existence, rendering egoic self-protection and the appropriation of the goods and energies of others meaningless. Our alignment with LIFE, if it is authentic, must generate an enthusiasm for the expansion and enhancement of LIFE outside ourselves.  

We need to “practice” what will help us become like LIFE itself: generous, self-emptying, magnanimous, forgiving and exalting of others. Since we are made of LIFE we are instinctively nudged in that direction. What should we do? As a start, perhaps a few unsolicited acts of sheer munificence where nothing redounds to our self interest in any way, not even gratitude or recognition. If nothing else, it will tell us how far we are from being like the LIFE “in which we live and move and have our being” … what we really are … how far we have to go to be ourselves. It’s time we listened to ourselves and obeyed LIFE.

Tony Equale, June 2017

 

 

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

Surrender

2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017